Monday, April 23, 2007

Storytelling Engines: House of Mystery

(or "Perfect Pitch")

When looking at an anthology series like 'The House of Mystery', we can strip away a lot of the things we've been discussing in this series. Aside from the framing sequences, there are few if any recurring characters or settings, there's no real "central concept", and really, all that's important in the stories themselves is the tone of horror mixed with gallows humor.

Which makes the tone all the more vital. In fact, in any anthology series, keeping a consistent tone is the most important difference between a series that keeps going and one that gets cancelled. After all, when a reader picks up a Spider-Man or Batman series, they have a general idea of what to expect. A Spider-Man comic that's "off-beat" will still feature Spider-Man, and he stays consistent even when the story is out of his usual tone. (This is why Spider-Man gets into so many crossovers--he can be counted on to provide the reaction of a normal guy, even in weird cosmic situations.) But with an anthology series, there's nothing for the reader to expect. Creative teams vary from issue to issue and indeed story to story, protagonists don't always stick around for long (especially in a horror anthology, where "don't always" can be replaced by "rarely"), and settings vary widely. That consistent tone is all that readers can really expect to get when they pick up a new issue.

The framing sequences help a lot to set this tone, which is why "apart from the framing sequence" is a bit of a cheat. By establishing a narrator with a strong personality that fits the tone of the series (Cain, the narrator of 'House of Mystery', is a wonderfully cynical heel with a world-weary eye for human nature), the series has a stronger narrative "spine" that connects together the stories in a shared "world". The House itself provides a convenient narrative hook for writers, which isn't necessary but can certainly come in handy. And a few recurring features, such as the "Page 13" gags and some wonderfully black comedy pieces by Sergio Aragones, can help create a sense of familiarity that helps readers plunge into stories that have to establish their characters and settings from scratch each time.

Every comic tries to establish a sensibility that helps both readers and writers know what to expect when the next issue comes along; when dealing with the blank slate that each issue of an anthology provides, this isn't a straitjacket, it's a life-vest.


Tyson said...

I love the "storytelling engines" approach, but I think that this may be a misapplication of it. It seems like this is a confusion of the medium of comics with the idea of open-ended, episodic fiction built around specific characters or situations.

The concept really makes sense for those kinds of stories, but there's nothing medium-centric to it at all. So, it can be effectively applied to mediums other than comics, but doesn't makes sense for comics that don't fit that narrative mold.

So, it would apply to:
--novel series (like Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe books)
--ongoing movie series (like the James Bond movies)
--most ongoing fictional TV shows
--collections of short stories featuring the same character (Sherlock Holmes, for instance)

But it would not apply to:
--serial novels (like most of Charles Dickens works, or the Foundation books by Isaac Asimov - these were not open-ended, so the author could 'break' the engine if needed)
--movie series that have an overall story arc like Star Wars
--anthologies of unconnected but thematically-related short stories
--TV shows without ongoing characters (like Twilight Zone)

So, while this critical tool may not apply to all comics, I believe that you could profitably use it for analyzing many things other than comics. And I'd like to encourage you to think about that - it would be really interesting to see how you would analyze Bond in the light of 'storytelling engines', for instance. (Although I am really enjoying the analysis of classic comics, too!)

John Seavey said...

True enough, but:

A) I've been looking so far specifically at the Essentials series, published by Marvel, and Showcase Presents, published by DC, so I feel like I need to find something to say about each of them. (The hardest one is going to be 'Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe'. I'm racking my brains every week on that one.)

B) I do think that there's something to say about the way that consistency of tone can make an anthology series flow as though it were a unified whole, and also about the way framing sequences can change the way an anthology series works. I think there's a big difference between an anthology that has a narrator, like 'House of Mystery' or 'Tales from the Crypt', and one that doesn't. (The fact that I can't think of one that doesn't off the top of my head is probably significant, too.) The addition of Cain, Gregory, and the recurring features transforms it from being just an anthology into a storytelling engine, albeit one looser and different from the other ones I've looked at.

I'm not ruling out, BTW, the idea of extending this to other media or other series beyond the Essentials/Showcase Presents series; those just make a danged convenient platform because you can get so much material for so cheap. But James Bond, Buffy, and Angel would all be reasonable, since I've got all of those on's a thought for later, certainly.