Monday, March 05, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Godzilla

(or "The One-Armed Lizard")

When Marvel acquired the rights to produce a comic book based on legendary Japanese monster Godzilla (or, for purists, Gojira), they made a very unusual decision in their development of the comic. Or, at least, it was unusual by the standards of most publishers. Only in the world of comics is it generally assumed that all publications from the same publisher exist in the same fictional world; Marvel made no exception for Godzilla, firmly establishing him in the same comics continuity inhabited by Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, and SHIELD.

SHIELD, the international super-spy agency, also provided writer Doug Moench with a solution to one of his biggest problems when coming up with a storytelling engine for Godzilla--how, exactly, do you write about the continuing adventures of a mindless, rampaging monster with no motives, friends, or overall goals? Moench decided to focus the series as much on SHIELD as on Godzilla, using them as a perpetual nemesis whose hunt for Godzilla kept him moving, seeking refuge and escape as much as destruction and battle. This status quo is familiar from such legendary novels as Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, but modern audiences probably recognize it best from "The Fugitive". (Which brings to mind odd pictures of Tommy Lee Jones in the next Godzilla movie--"I want a hard-target search of every skyscraper, power plant, nuclear testing site, and monster-infested island in the area!")

The problem with this status quo, and the reason why Godzilla seems oddly "complete" after the end of its twenty-four issue run, is that it's a rare example of a "false status quo." False stati quo arise when the default setting of a series resolves around something the protagonist needs to do, be it recover their memory, clear their name from a crime they didn't commit, or make that one last leap home. A false status quo relies on the anticipation, every story, that this story might be the one where the protagonist actually manages to do whatever it is they're trying to do. And since they can't, frustration eventually sets in for the audience.

Writers generally handle this in one of two ways. First, they can resolve the false status quo and end the story. 'Godzilla' takes this option, ending the series with a big set-piece battle in New York involving Godzilla, SHIELD, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers. (No, I won't tell you how it ends. Go buy the book.) Alternatively, the false status quo can be resolved in a way that sets up a new status quo; the hero could, for example, decide never to get back home, instead using his time-travel powers altruistically. (Hypothetically speaking, of course.) And there's no guarantee that the new status quo can't be a false one as well--Transformers, to use a non-Essential example, went from resolving the false status quo in 'Beast Wars' (can Optimus Primal and the Maximals defeat Megatron and get home?) to a new false status quo in 'Beast Machines' (they get home, but find that Megatron got there first and established a dictatorship they must overthrow.)

Ultimately, a false status quo can be an interesting diversion, but it can't last forever. (You may now draw your own parallels to current events in Spider-Man's comics. Maybe he and Godzilla could team up.)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Ultimately, a false status quo can be an interesting diversion, but it can't last forever"

Has "Lost" come to anybody's mind when they read this, or is it just me

John Seavey said...

I dunno, are they even _trying_ to get off the island anymore? :)