Monday, April 02, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Marvel Horror

(or "Guest Starring: The Pet Rock!")

The first thing to note, when we discuss the 'Essential Marvel Horror', is that it's not just a random collection of Marvel comics that told horror stories. It is, in fact, a collection of the appearances of the Son of Satan, who had his own comic book for several issues, and of his sister Satana, who made several appearances in a variety of different comics (but never got her own series, sad to say.) The climate of comics has changed to the point where putting out the 'Essential Son of Satan' just doesn't fly.

Which is, in fact, the point of today's storytelling engine: The pop-culture comic. Because 'Son of Satan' was, in fact, an attempt by Marvel to cash in on a popular trend. At the time it was released, the film 'The Exorcist' had just made supernatural horror, specifically stories about Satanism and demonic possession, not just acceptable but downright popular in all sorts of media. 'Ghost Rider', which we've examined already and in which Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, made his first appearance, was another attempt to cash in on the Satanism trend, combining it with the fad for stunt-riding as well. (Daimon's name is a none-too-subtle nod to another popular Satan-flick of the day.)

The idea of a pop-culture comic is simple enough; take a current popular trend, combine it with the traditional storytelling engine of "person gets super-powers, becomes super-hero, and tries to help people", and sell it until the trend dies off and the comic's sales plummet. Then cancel. Find new trend, and repeat. Marvel's 70s comics seemed particularly vulnerable to the pop-culture comic, although this wasn't so much because of anything at Marvel as it was that the 70s were a great decade for fads. (The 70s at Marvel gave us Ghost Rider, the Rocket Racer, the Son of Satan, the Disco Dazzler, and 'Howard the Duck for President' buttons, just to name a few. Sadly, we never got a streaking superhero.) Certainly, if you look back to the 60s, you can find similar trend-based comics; 'Brother Power, the Geek' is fondly remembered as a bizarre hippie-themed series, albeit one that didn't last long. It gets harder to spot faddish comics as you approach the present, just because it's harder to tell what's going to have staying power and what isn't, but Night Thrasher, the extreme skate-boarding vigilante, looks to have been a fad in action.

So are these storytelling engines doomed to the junkpile of pop-culture ephemera? Can a storytelling engine based on a momentary trend gain more staying power? In general, I'm inclined to say no. Occasionally, the writer can "decouple" the character from the trend, reworking the storytelling engine into one that doesn't depend on the fad for its popularity. (Ghost Rider counts as a success, Dazzler has to be considered a failure in that regard.) The Son of Satan obviously has a few fans; he's had a mini-series or two over the years, and the very release of the Essential collection shows that he's not totally without legs. (Then again, supernatural horror isn't as overtly 70s as disco or C.B. radio...anyone remember "U.S. 1"?) But as a character so linked to a particular trend, he's probably got to bide his time between appearances, waiting for the audience to be in the mood for him.


Paul O'Brien said...

"(Daimon's name is a none-too-subtle nod to another popular Satan-flick of the day.)"

You'd think so, but oddly enough, it's just a coincidence. Daimon Hellstrom was created in 1973, three years before The Omen was released. It seems more likely that both writers just seized on the phonetic similarity between "Damian" and "Demon."

John Seavey said...

Damn. I hate being wrong. :) Especially on something so easy to check, too...and it's not like I don't have 'The Omen' on DVD. (Great movie; the scene with the baboons is just absolutely white-knuckle brilliant, and all done with real baboons actually banging on the car with the real actors inside. Cinema verite terror.)

(Oh, and for some reason, I deem it worth mentioning that the word verification this time gave me "Zpppuhfu", which sounds like the name of a caveman in a Douglas Adams book.)

Mike said...

"C.B. radio...anyone remember "U.S. 1"?

Not just mention CB and Marvel, and the first thing that springs to my mind is the amazing Arkansian action ace, Buford Hollis, aka Razorback!

--Mike Blake

Anonymous said...

Based on your own previous blog posts, I would amend your comments about decoupling: I would suggest that such decoupling can be successful but only if the character is transferred from the trendoid specifics of the moment to the broader archetype which underlies the original pop culture trend.

The Ghost-Rider transitioned from the occult horror specifics of the 1970s to the more archetypal supernatural horror that has been around for centuries. Luke Cage transitioned from the blaxsploitation specifics of the 1970s to the urban working class badass that has been around in the U.S. since Prohibition but can be traced back to 1700s England. Iron Fist transitioned from the Kung Fu Kraze specifics to the general mystical martials arts that has been enjoyed from the ancient Journey to the West tales to the modern sentai rangers.

For a brief period, they successfully transitioned Dazzler from her disco dance queen trendiness to a more archetypal musical celebrity, but before that transition had any time to put in some roots, they added in the tag of "publicly known mutant", a gimmicked celebrity which completely overshadowed her more archetypal musical celebrity, and that pretty much destroyed her as a long-lasting character. I don't know how many people even remember her any more.

What do you think of the efforts to transition Brother Voodoo into Doctor Voodoo?