Monday, February 26, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Howard the Duck

(or "It's Not For You")

When looking at Steve Gerber's 70s opus 'Howard the Duck', it seems in many ways to be a perfect example of what not to do when creating a storytelling engine. The reason for this is very simple: It is a perfect example of what not to do when creating a storytelling engine. Gerber freely admits (most notably in issue #16, the "album issue") that he has no overarching plan, no grand direction in which he plans to take the series. "In fact," he says, "the 'next issue blurb at the end of each story is always the most difficult line for me to write. I change my mind like some people change underwear. Ideas go stale for me as quickly as...well, you get the gist. I'm easily bored."

This is, as followers of this column might note, a poor way to go about building a book into a long-term series of self-generating stories. With Gerber's constant changes of setting, inconsistent supporting cast, and free-flowing stream-of-consciousness storylines, he puts himself in a position where he has to rely on inspiration striking him each month instead of letting established characters and settings do his work for him.

Which is the point of today's column: That doesn't mean he's doing things "wrong." He might be doing things in a way that makes it more difficult for himself in the long term, and it definitely might make things difficult for future writers on the series. (Which, in fact, it did; 'Howard' never recovered from Gerber's departure, and the series and character essentially vanished from the scene until the 21st century.) But Gerber isn't required to make the job easy for himself or others, and he's not required to make plans for the long haul. Sometimes, one story is all you ever want to tell.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Post-Civil War Predictions

So, the dust has settled, the smoke has cleared, and the Civil War is over. Captain America is in prison, Iron Man is in charge of SHIELD (and by extension, every super-human in the United States), and Registration is the law of the land! Huzzah...wait a second, doesn't that kind of seem like a depressing ending? And doesn't it kind of mean that the entire seven issues were a complete waste of time? Oh, well. It sold, right?

So now the obvious question is, "What happens next?" Here it is, my absolute infallible predictions on the future of the Marvel Universe post-Civil War.

Within five issues, Captain America will either break out or be broken out of the Negative Zone prison. Probably, he'll be the "new Ronin" they're talking about in the pages of 'New Avengers', since the "take up a temporary identity" gimmick is one they've done before for Cap, and it makes a certain amount of sense; he doesn't want to restart the big war, and Cap's a big, tangible symbol of the Resistance. But he's obviously not going to stay in prison for long, because he's got his own series.

Within two years, it will be revealed that Iron Man is either mind controlled, an impostor, or just plain went insane. It will be further revealed that he orchestrated the explosion at Stamford, CT (by maneuvering either the heroes, the villains, or both into that spot) to create the furor that pushed the SHRA into law, all to consolidate super-heroes under his personal control. There'll be another big crossover, Iron Man will be defeated, and the SHRA will be repealed now that everyone sees how dangerous it is to give so much power to one man.

Within five years, there will be a tremendously unconvincing storyline in which Peter Parker pulls a scam to make everyone think that the revelation of Spider-Man's identity was, in turn, a scam; everyone will believe this new scam hook, line, and sinker, allowing Peter to return to his old job at the Daily Bugle.

Within seven years, if Tony Stark was revealed to have just plain gone insane, it will at this time be revealed that he was either mind controlled or an impostor all along, and the real/normal Tony Stark will come back as Iron Man.

Within ten years, Aunt May will be back from the dead, if she was in fact fatally wounded and not just wounded at the end of the latest issue of Spider-Man.

In other words, my prediction for 'Civil War'? In ten years, it'll be as if none of it ever happened. Because there's either two options here. Either one, this is Act One of a grander story that will end with a return to the status quo, or two, Marvel's editorial staff has just made a colossal mistake that they will spend the next decade burying.

You decide!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Ghost Rider

(or "Field Exercise")

Since the 'Ghost Rider' movie came out three days ago, it seems useful to examine the flame-headed vengeance demon's storytelling engine now. Not only is it topical, but it gives us a chance to look at the modifications to a storytelling engine "in action", as it were; in a regular comics series, writers generally have to work around things they've established in previous issues instead of throw them out, but in an adaptation, you can take the engine apart, put it back together, and see what parts wind up lying on the floor afterwards. (This, by the way, is being presented as my entry for Metaphor Of The Year at the 2007 Literary Devices Awards.)

With that in mind, let's start at the same place the screenwriters almost certainly did--the basic concept. As we can see, the movie uses the "Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the devil" concept, rather than the "Dan Ketch is the host of the spirit of his ancestor, Noble Kale, who is also the Angel of Death, and he and Johnny Blaze are long-lost brothers, and Johnny was supposed to be the Ghost Rider but his long-lost mother made a deal with the devil to keep him from being the host of Noble Kale, but instead he...sold his soul to the devil". Blaze's origin is simpler, clearer, and most importantly, it's more dramatic. This isn't to say they kept it wholesale; rather than have it involve two families of stunt-bikers, the Blazes and the Simpsons, and the incestuous interplay between the two, they streamlined it down to the most basic, clearest, most dramatic premise of all. Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the devil to save his father from cancer, but Dad dies anyway in a motorcycle crash and Johnny has to live with the consequences.

The movie takes that from Johnny Blaze's 'Ghost Rider' series, but leaves most of the rest behind. The obsession with stunt biking (a legacy of the Evel Knievel craze of the 1970s) is reduced to a mere trapping, the obsession with Satanism (a legacy of the 'Exorcist' craze of the 1970s) is toned down, the look of Ghost Rider and his bike are jettisoned (again, think Evel Knievel), the rogue's gallery is junked (the most notable villain Johnny Blaze had, apart from the Devil, was the Orb, an evil stunt biker with laser beams in his helmet) and most importantly, Blaze's modus operandi changes. In the comics, Roxy's pure love for him stopped Satan from collecting his soul, and he spent his days as a stunt biker and his nights trying to find a way out of the deal. This is a false status quo (more on these in a later column), because it carries with it the implied promise that he will resolve this storyline--but once he does, you have to find something else to do with the character. (Sure enough, once Blaze saved his soul, he wound up with two more status quos--one, where he was a Hollywood stuntman/superhero, and a second, where he wandered the Southwest and fought evil.) The movie just skips straight to the "wandering and fighting evil" phase, because it's (again) simpler, clearer, and more dramatic.

Most of the rest of the movie comes from the 1990s Ghost Rider. The look ("tough biker" rather than "stunt biker"), the powers (the "penance stare"), the gravedigger as confidant (although the substance was entirely different in the comics), and best of all, the enemies come from the later series. All these storytelling elements were viewed, by the screenwriters, as being the better of the two versions (and really, it's hard to argue. Blackheart, son of the Devil, or the Orb? Tough choice.)

Of course, there will be fans who see the new film and insist it's not "faithful" to the original, but sometimes, that's exactly what a good concept needs; Johnny Blaze's story is, at its heart, about a good man who makes a bad decision for the right reasons, and has to live with the consequences (which involve becoming a flaming-skull-headed demon biker). That works, and is always going to work; the "faith" comes in keeping that, not in sticking with every decision made afterwards, good or bad.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Big Mistake

I've been thinking about the latest generation of console wars lately, ever since Penny Arcade talked about it on Monday. (Penny Arcade is this little webcomic, kinda deals with videogame-related humor. You might have heard of it.) They basically discussed how Sony's Playstation 3 isn't selling well, and how Sony seems to be dealing with the problem by lying about it.

But all that, I think deals with the situation from the perspective Penny Arcade has, which is the "hardcore gamer" perspective--that is to say, the people who think of videogames as one of their primary interests, and who are willing to shell out the vast majority of their free time and discretional income on videogames. To them, the problem is "Sony's lying." This is like finding out Mommy and Daddy lied to you about giving that puppy to a nice farm where it's much happier.

But I, like many others, am a "casual gamer". For me, videogames are an interest, but they don't consume a lot of my free time (no, I will not tell you how much time I spend playing 'City of Heroes'. It's not much, and I can stop anytime I want.) And they certainly don't consume a lot of my free money--I buy perhaps one video game every couple of months, and I'm not likely to buy more than one video game system. To me (and the people like me), the problem is, "Sony's charging WHAT for a video game system? What does it do, clean the house while I'm asleep?"

This is Son'y big mistake. They simply do not understand their own industry very well. To them, the target market is the "hardcore gamer", the person for whom the lure of newer, faster, better technology is in and of itself enough of a lure to get them to spend a near-unlimited amount of money on a new system. They think all they need to do is say, "It's the Playstation 3. It's better than the Playstation 2, and newer. What are you waiting for?"

But the facts argue against this. When you look at the jump from the Super Nintendo to the Playstation, or the Playstation to the Playstation 2, you see an immediate, shocking, dazzling improvement in the quality of the games and the gaming experience. You see something that immediately convinced you, "This is a much better system." That's not out there with the new generation of systems. The PS3 is better than the PS2, the XBox 360 is better than the XBox, the Wii is better than the GameCube, but not eye-poppingly so.

But the price differences are (for two of the above three.) A Playstation 2 is $130 right out of the box. A Playstation 3 is $600. That means that the Playstation 3 has to be almost five times as good as a Playstation 2 in order to justify buying one. And it's clearly not.

Nintendo understands this logic. They've been paying attention to video game history, and know that what's killed systems isn't quality or lack of same, it's price. The 3DO died at seven hundred dollars, the CD-i died at seven hundred dollars, and the Sega Saturn lost out to the Playstation despite only a one-hundred dollar difference in price. Why? Because to the casual gamer, a hundred bucks is a lot of money to spend on a video game system, and...

(Wait for it, this is my point...)

The casual gamer, not the hardcore gamer, determines the success or failure of a system. Nintendo gets this, Sony doesn't, which is why the Wii is punishing the PS3 in sales right now. Because the average person looking to buy a new video game system sees "System A, $600" and "System B, $250", and says, "I think I'll buy the $250 one, thanks. $600 is a lot of money to spend on a video game system." (This also applies in the hand-held realm, where the Sony PSP is $200 and the Nintendo DS is $130. Sure, the PSP is no doubt better...but seventy dollars is a lot of money to the casual gamer.) And while the hardcore gamer spends a lot more of his or her disposable income on videogames, the numbers of casual gamers so overwhelm those of hardcore gamers that it's a better marketing strategy to aim at the casual gamer than the hardcore one. You can make more money by selling a cheap product to every household in America than you can by selling an expensive one to one out of every 100.

Of course, in an ideal world, Sony would be able to use its initial sales to drop prices, and eventually bring the PS3 down to what a casual gamer would pay. But when you start with a $300 handicap, that's going to be very difficult. Most casual gamers wouldn't even pay $300 for a new system, preferring to wait until the price gets closer to the $200 mark (or even less); this means that the Wii treads close to the casual gamer's price point at launch, while the PS3 has to cut their prices to a third of what they're charging now to catch up. (I've not mentioned the XBox 360 much, because the PS3 charges more and therefore makes a better example of the economics involved; but since it's $400, assume it's somewhere between the Wii and the PS3 in terms of its situation. If the history of the console wars is ever written, though, it'll be very important--Microsoft's charge at "hardcore gamers" with the XBox made Sony get into the "hardware wars" instead of "price wars" to begin with.)

Does this mean that Sony is doomed? Probably not. Everyone predicted disaster for them with the PS2 launch, after all, and they weathered that storm fine. (Although note that the PS2 launched at $300.) But they could be unpleasantly surprised at the speed at which the Playstation's dominance in the video-game industry gets overturned; Nintendo lost its hold in a single generation, when the Playstation overthrew the N64, and history could be reversing itself.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Jonah Hex

(or "All The Old Familiar Places")

The main thing to keep in mind when reading Jonah Hex, DC's classic Western comic, is that it came out in an era where Westerns were generally more popular than they are today. (Not to say that the Western has disappeared, but it's certainly not as common as the early 1970s, when Hollywood was still churning out Westerns relatively frequently, and when TV was syndicating re-runs of old Western series and old Western movies.) These films and TV shows (and books and comics) didn't just create a genre, they created an entire set of shared conventions, ideas that were so comfortable and familiar that they didn't need explaining to the average reader.

In Jonah Hex, this is a major element of the storytelling engine. The Old West isn't just a setting, it's an entire cast of characters in and of itself. You don't need a recurring cast when you can just bring in a Grizzled Prospector, a Noble But Savage Indian, or a Hellcat Widow With a Young Son and a Heart of Gold. Even Jonah himself, one of DC's finest creations, is something of a stock character (Grim Bounty Hunter Who's Secretly A Good Man).

This firmly-grounded setting and cast serves as a boon to a writer who's familiar with the tropes of the Old West, allowing them to generate stories quickly and easily. Jonah's profession always gives him a motivation to get into gunfights and trouble, and with so many characters, settings, and events to pull from, just finding new ways to combine them can lead to years of stories, even without introducing recurring characters or delving into the hero's backstory (although it should be noted that Hex did both.)

Interestingly enough, some years later Jonah Hex got another series, this one transporting him into a dystopian future. The setting was completely different (and some might claim a little too different, alienating some of his long-time fans who enjoyed the Western setting) but to the 1980s, a post-apocalyptic future with mutants and radiation was just as well-grounded and familiar as the Old West was a decade or so previous. In either case, the intent was the same--an intimately familiar setting took the place of a familiar cast, allowing the writer to use a rotating cast with all the benefits that a regular supporting crew gives to other characters.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Question of the Day

If Green Arrow had named his sidekick "Junkie", would he have become addicted to amphetamines?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Storytelling Engines: She-Hulk

(or "Bring On The Bad Guys...Please?")

She-Hulk started her life as one of many female "spin-off" versions of an established male character; in general, these are almost inevitable developments from any popular figure in comics. Once you've got a Superman, why not a Supergirl? As much as anything else, these comics serve notice to other companies that the only person to be cashing in on the fame of the character with a cheap rip-off will be the owners, thanks all the same. (We've already examined the hasty origins of Spider-Woman in a previous column.)

She-Hulk fared better than most in her initial series, with Stan Lee writing her origin issue. She got a career that served her storytelling engine well--as a lawyer, she'd be working intimately with police and criminals alike, which would serve her well. She got a family and friends--other crusading lawyers, her father the chief of police (which had nice potential for conflict there, another good story generator), a family friend who carried a torch for her...and, of course, her cousin Bruce Banner, who'd always be good for a guest appearance now and again. Her personality was a little inconsistent at the start, but hey, so was the Hulk's. And at least she didn't just act like a female dumb, green monster. She even got her own city, Los Angeles, to call her home turf. So with all that, why is it that She-Hulk's publication history has been spotty, at best? (Apart, of course, from the usual problem comics have with female characters not selling as well as male characters.)

Let's look for a moment at the She-Hulk Rogues Gallery. Her first enemy was a...mob boss named Trask. Ordinary guy vs. female Hulk. Not much of a challenge there, despite the writers' attempts to spin it out a bit. Then an Iron Man guest appearance, a Man-Thing guest appearance, a cult, Spidey's old bad guy Morbius--but he didn't have his super-powers at the time, and was called in more as a specialist in blood diseases than an actual super-villain (the blood transfusion that gave Jen her powers was causing her health problems), a Man-Wolf guest appearance, a couple of ordinary people...really, her first original super-villain wasn't until issue #17, and it was the Man-Elephant. No, seriously.

She-Hulk is a living example of the need for a strong group of enemies to complement a good hero. Her bad guys are conspicuous by their absence--she has no Doctor Doom, no Joker, no Luthor; heck, she doesn't even have a Vulture or a Captain Cold. Without an enemy to fight, she's destined to have adventures that, you'll pardon the expression, lack punch (and Byrne's subsequent series in the late 80s, for all its entertainment value, didn't remedy that. He focused his energies on "rehabilitating" old and obscure super-villains by bringing them into the book, instead of creating new opponents for Jen. The new series did better than the old, but still didn't make it to the 100-issue mark.)

So, a lesson for Dan Slott's new She-Hulk series...start thinking up some villains. Legal drama might be interesting for a while, but sooner or later, She-Hulk needs someone to, um...smash.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Cult Fiction

I seem to be finding myself in a never-ending hall of mirrors when it comes to talking about pop culture; I've now written six columns talking about "storytelling engines", which was at least six more columns than I expected to be, and my discussion of golden ages in pop culture threw up the "archive factor", and while I was talking about that, I wound up coming up with the term "cult fiction." God help me if I come up with some new weird term this time; I already feel like I'm babbling self-indulgently as it is when I talk about this stuff, and this paragraph isn't helping one little bit.

But I do think I'm onto something with this "cult fiction" idea, because I think there is a certain common thread that links movies, TV shows, books, et cetera, beyond just "it's science fiction", or "it's fantasy", or "it's action-adventure." There's a certain ethos to them that seems to attract a certain sort of person; sit a person down who likes science fiction in front of a TV set showing 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', for example, and odds are it will be exactly the sort of thing they're into, even if they didn't necessarily know it before they watched it. There's a common thread that links 'Firefly', 'Doctor Who', 'Alias', 'Heroes', 'Mr. Show', 'Shaun of the Dead', 'Rumble in the Bronx', 'Casino Royale', Harry Potter, the X-Men, and 'Better Off Dead' in such a way that geeks like me will give them a look, even if they turn out not to like them. But what is it?

Ultimately, I think the only thing they have in common is that they all present the world, in some way, as stranger than real life. This is most overt in science-fiction, which is why I think that it all tends to get lumped in as sci-fi, but even the non-science-fiction series like '24' or 'Alias' show a world which is bigger, more dangerous, more exciting, and more vivid than the one we live in every day. (And sketch comedy shows, almost by definition, explore a "stranger than life" idea to its logical conclusion--like the Lumberjack sketch, for example.) I think this is what we're attracted to, the idea that we live in a super-interesting universe, and that these are looks around the corner to the bits that we don't usually see. Bits where kids can build a working space shuttle out of stuff they send away from on cereal boxes, bits where hidden wizard academies teach the sorcerers of tomorrow; bits, in short, that we can always imagine ourselves just about to stumble into.

"Stranger than life." It's as good a definition for "cult fiction" as anything.