Monday, May 14, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Spider-Man, Part Three

(or "Is It Just Me, Or Does My Life Seem Twice As Hectic Lately?")

So as we discussed last time, the Amazing Spider-Man (and indeed, comics in general) took on a major change with the death of Gwen Stacy--there'd always been an element of soap-opera to them, particularly the Marvel books, but from then on, that element became more pronounced. Changes to the status quo bound readers to the books more tightly, even as they made writers' jobs more difficult. With changes in status quo, it became more important to remember the "position" of the main character, his/her supporting cast, the major villains, et cetera...because this new breed of comic brought with it a new, more engaged reader who paid extremely close attention to the continuing changes, sometimes (heck, often) moreso than the writer, and they made their displeasure known when someone screwed up.

All of which makes 'Spectacular Spider-Man' a different sort of spin-off than the old 'Superman' or 'Batman' comics. After all, when 'Detective' and 'Action' begat 'Superman' and 'Batman', there wasn't a whole lot to keep track of. Superman worked at the Daily Planet, Batman was millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, and everything else changed once in a blue moon. But Peter? He worked at the Bugle one day, the Globe the next. His romantic interests changed from year to year, his college career moved on towards graduation and post-degree work, and his villains...sometimes died. Suddenly, writers needed to co-ordinate all this stuff. (They also had to work in 'Marvel Team-Up' as well, but we've discussed that in a previous column.)

So how do they handle this? For starters, they create a new supporting cast and setting. Peter's graduate studies give Gerry Conway the chance to center the "other" Spider-Man title on campus, and we get a set of "co-workers", fellow teaching assistants that Conway can use in storylines without having to pull characters out of the main series. (After all, every Harry Osborn-based story you do in Spectacular is one less you can do in Amazing.) There's a downside to this, though; when you introduce a new setting and supporting cast, invariably some of the fans of the old setting and supporting cast lose interest. Which is why we continue to get glimpses of Flash, JJJ, Aunt May, MJ, and the rest frequently enough to keep readers involved. It's really not a full storytelling engine--just half of one. A delicate balancing act is required to keep it all working.

Another change is in the rogues' gallery. Whether by accident or design, there are very few of Spider-Man's "classic" villains on display in the first seventy-four issues of Spectacular Spider-Man. More often, they either use obscure Spidey villains like the Gibbon or the Beetle, bring in villains from other books like Moonstone or Boomerang, or create new villains (to varying degrees of success...Belladonna works, the Hypno-Hustler doesn't.) Again, the writers have to spread plotlines between two books, and since villains are the originators of plotlines, that means spreading the villains around as well.

Or does it? Beyond the scope of the volumes currently in print in the Essentials series, someone hits on the bright idea to end all bright ideas--if people are reading the series to see the changes in the status quo, and if we're co-ordinating these changes between the two series, then why not start doing multi-part stories that cross between the two books? And once you've started doing it that way, why ever stop? It's great marketing. Anyone who enjoys one book has to buy the other book as well to follow the story, whether they like it or not. And once you've done it with two books, why not three? Or four? There is an upper limit to this economic logic, of course. Even the X-Men don't seem able to sustain more than five or six interconnected titles a month(Spider-Man topped out at four in the mid-90s, with a quarterly title added in.) But it's a very seductive reasoning for the people who sell comics, and for the people who write them too. After all, one storytelling engine is easier to come up with than two...

...and much easier than one-and-a-half.


Tyson said...

I tend to think that multi-title characters get stuck - the writer(s) are now trying to juggle too many balls to really keep the character developing.

I also think it's disrespectful of the fans - it's an attempt to force them to buy more titles just to keep track of the character they care about.

This is the same kind of thinking that lead to crossover "events" - hey, we'll make fans of this one book buy other books that they probably wouldn't care about otherwise. We'll get rich!

Next, they started decompressing the stories - so the fans have to buy five issues to ever get a complete story.

But the reality is that this pursuit of short-term profits is one of the main reasons that the overall comics readership has declined so drastically in the last 20 years. Some people will go buy all the books they need to get a complete story, but that story better be AWESOME in all caps, or they'll start spending that money on something other than comics. And recent history suggests that decompressed multi-title characters and big event crossovers have not always resulted in awesome stories. In fact, more often it seems like they result in fairly weak stories.

John Seavey said...

I totally agree--but in the short term, it's a very seductive sales strategy. Sure, on some level you have to be aware that you're trading on the good will of your fanbase, but when the sales of title A shoot up by B copies, and the sales of title B shoot up by A copies, so that both A and B are selling A+B numbers,'s hard not to do it just one more time. And then one more. And then one more...

Decompression's a whole different phenomenon, I think. I'm very much not fond of it, but I think it's more a creative thing than a sales thing, a realization that you can in fact tell longer stories than just 32 pages' worth (and a corresponding over-indulgence in doing so.) It's sort of like the way a writer will hit upon the idea of second-person or present-tense stories, and then overuse it in the next six or seven things they write until they get it under control. I'm hoping it's a trend that won't last forever, because there's a thin line between "decompressed" and "padded", and too many writers these days cross it.

Tyson said...

I think decompression can be an artistic choice, and can actually work sometimes. (My solution is to buy those series in TPB instead of single issues.)

But it's not always an artistic choice. There's a fascinating 35-part (really!) analysis of the Clone Saga here. They point out a couple of times when stories that were planned as two-parters were forced to 4-parters (or more) by demand of the Marvel marketing department. That is more what I was talking about.

The problem with all of the these strategies is that the company may get a little bit more money out of the fans each time they pull one of these tricks, but a certain number of fans are going to abandon comics each time, too. At the same time, these kinds of things make it extremely difficult for new fans to come in - so there are no replacements for the attrition.

I hope the day doesn't come when Marvel and/or DC quit publishing comics, and just use their properties in movies, TV, and games, but I honestly think that this probably will happen. Most of the comics I read now are not from the big two, but I will still mourn that day.

This kind of thing doesn't necessarily wait until the comics are unprofitable, either. The parent companies will look at the opportunity costs - even if the comics are making money, if they can make more by investing that into something else, the comics will be dropped. So, the potential end of the long downward slide for these two companies could be closer than we think.

Man, I really hope I'm wrong about all that.

Eric Teall said...

I tend to believe that multi-title characters are just diluted, period. Far better, IMHO, to go the Ultimate Spider-Man route and just put out more issues of the main title. I'm not sure the A+B theory works for the main title. Did Amazing's numbers ever go up by a number equal to Spectacular's numbers? Was there ever a significant number of Spectacular readers who didn't read Amazing?

BTW, I have to say that your blog is very interesting, John. I just discovered it today, but I will be returning soon. Thanks for the insight. I hope you don't mind being quoted (with credit, of course) over on my blog, where I'm actually examining Spider-Man history from the beginning. Your story-engine series has put several important concepts into words for me, and I'd like to discuss it in the context of my reviews. LMK if that's a problem, and please keep the interesting posts coming.