Monday, October 29, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Avengers

(or "Change Is The New Status Quo")

When the Avengers started, it was as one of those ideas so simple that it's practically automatic. If you have X number of stars of X number of comic books that each sell Y copies, you put them all together in one comic and get X times Y sales. Sound business sense, from the Justice Society to the Justice League, and the Avengers didn't look to be any exception. The Hulk, Ant-Man, the Wasp, Thor and Iron Man all teamed up together to fight crime out of a big mansion in New York City, and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby said It Was Good.

But Marvel, in the heady days of the early 1960s, was never afraid to experiment with the storytelling engine of their comics. Unlike DC, Marvel wasn't working with a stable of established characters that needed "protecting". By issue #4, the Hulk had already been ditched in favor of Captain America, firmly establishing the Avengers as a series about a specific type of superhero. The anti-social, amoral Hulk simply couldn't cut it with Earth's Mightiest Heroes, no matter how powerful he was. It set a precedent, but not one completely out of place in team comics--new members joined the Justice League from time to time, after all. Team line-ups were bound to shift a little.

Then along came issue #16, and the Avengers became well and truly established as a comic. Paradoxically, they made their mark by having the entire rest of the founding members of the team quit, all at once. The team now consisted of Cap, Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, and Hawkeye...three barely-reformed super-villains and the new guy. (Which just goes to show, as Craig Shutt pointed out, that you should never go to the bathroom during an Avengers team meeting.)

This radical change, so early in the series, really paved the way for the Avengers to become a team book unlike any other. Because the Avengers no longer meant any particular character, or even group of characters (although you do see a lot of the same faces over the years, and some fans will insist it's not a "real" Avengers series without Cap, Thor, and/or Iron Man.) The Avengers suddenly became about the sort of person who would be an Avenger. It became a series about the ethos that would apply to being (I'll say it again) Earth's Mightiest Heroes, and about living up to that ethos. Every character that joins the Avengers feels like they're suddenly playing in a different league, from Quasar to Justice, and "card-carrying Avenger" became, in the Marvel Universe, the cachet for "true hero". That's the engine of the Avengers, and it's what sustains it no matter what the line-up is, no matter who the writer or artist is. In theory, it's the best the Marvel Universe has to offer, fighting its biggest threats...or, at the very least, finding out if they really are the best the Marvel Universe has to offer.

And while I hesitate to end with a simple "it's not as good as it was" statement, this is why neither one of the two Avengers titles currently on the market work as Avengers titles. They might be perfectly good pieces of writing, but Brian Michael Bendis is not writing Avengers comics, no matter what the titles say, because the comics are not about people trying to live up to the standards of the Avengers charter. They're simply random assemblages of super-heroes, no different than any team book on the market. In short, they don't use the Avengers storytelling engine. They simply appropriate its trappings.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Entertainment News #2


In an announcement today that sharply divided the six Batman fans on the Internet not already sharply divided about one thing or another, the venerable DragonCon, held yearly in Atlanta, GA, had its bid accepted to host the first official debate between angry Batman fans over who's the better Joker, Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson. Both Ledger and Nicholson will attend in person to hear people talk angrily about their lack of acting talent, disrespect for the comic book character, and hatred for the fans who've given so much to the franchise over the years.

Many fans are already up in arms about the announcement. Some feel that the timing will make it difficult. "DragonCon occurs over Labor Day weekend," longtime Batman fan Jake Keigel said. "The movie opens July 18th. By the time I get into my first argument over how bad Ledger's performance is, I'll actually be basing it on one, perhaps even several viewings of the movie instead of merely watching the teaser trailer and picturing that guy from 'Brokeback Mountain' playing my favorite villain. How am I supposed to have an uninformed opinion with that kind of lead time?"

Still others are concerned with DragonCon's ability to host such a debate. "When the Olympics were held in Atlanta," says Janine 'Batgirl' Lee, "they had to make all sorts of upgrades to the city's infrastructure in order to accomodate the increased traffic and the venues for the games. And yet, DragonCon has shown no signs of finding places to put all of the venom, bile, and sheer unmitigated gall that this discussion is going to generate. By the third day of the con, people are just going to be wading through knee-deep BS, mark my words."

A spokesperson for DragonCon has pointed out that their facilities for dealing with knee-deep BS have already been tested and shown to be at "Dan DiDio capacity".

Still other fans have concerns somewhat more difficult to articulate. "WTF THIS IS SOOOO LAME," says 'Batdude69'. "DC SUX THEY HAV NO IDEA WHAT MAKES JOKR COOL. DRAGONCON IS A BUNCH OF GAYWADS WHO WILL PROBLY SCREW UP TEH ARGUMENT." Harsh, incoherent words, but the sentiment is clear.

Still, whatever the end result, DragonCon's angry bickering session promises to be only the first of many. Perhaps we will all look back fondly on this as the beginning of a long, irritating and pointless argument, much as we fondly remember the first "Kirk vs. Picard" debate, held in 1986 at GenCon. However, it's unlikely. Because Mark Hamill is way better than either one of those two jerks.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Werewolf By Night

(or "The Perfect Villain")

Half of the fun of reading Marvel's "Essentials" series is getting the big picture as to comics trends in different eras. 'Werewolf By Night' was just one of many horror comics that Marvel put out in that era, as the rules for publishing horror comics had relaxed a little by the 1970s. It was interesting, to see this sudden secret part of the Marvel Universe pop up where werewolves, vampires, zombies (or, in the parlance of the time, "zuvembies"--not all of the rules had been relaxed), and even Frankenstein's Monster could rub shoulders with Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four. A world where the good guys didn't always win, and even when they did, the monsters were still out there, waiting for another chance.

Which is, really, what Jack Russell's story is all about in 'Werewolf By Night'. He's a Nice Young Man (with a bit of a sarcastic streak, but he's had a tough life) who's inherited a family curse to get all mean and hairy on the three nights of the full moon (and anyone who's read the series can never forget those immortal captions that introduced the werewolf sequences. "First Night:" And you knew things were about to get interesting.) Naturally, he's not excited about the idea of turning into a monster, and is constantly trying to find ways to cure or contain his curse.

To some extent, this is just another "false status quo" series. Jack is always trying to find a cure, but the second he does, the series ends, so that's a dead end plotline (although they did some clever things over the course of the series with his gaining more control over his wolfish side.) But the werewolf isn't just a mindless ravening monster, he's a character in his own right. He's as much a protagonist as an antagonist, as much a part of the series as Jack is himself. That, in turn, opens up several options for the enterprising writer. Obviously, Jack Russell isn't the first guy to have a split personality. It's a favorite device of cult fiction, from the Hulk to Mister Hyde to...well, Mister Hyde, in the excellent BBC series 'Jekyll'. But it's worth looking at for what it gives to the writer's storytelling engine.

For starters, it gives the writer a villain that always has a legitimate reason for turning up. One of the toughest parts of any open-ended series is finding new ways to create conflict, getting good antagonists to show up and stick around. With a dual-personality engine, the two personas can always find different ways to conflict with each other, because neither one of them likes sharing the body. The simple logistics of living a life when you're not always in control of your own actions can generate virtually endless stories, as Jack Russell always wakes up three mornings a month trying to figure out where he's been and what he's been up to.

In addition, it also means you can add more supporting cast members and villains, and play them off against each other. You can have a villain who wants the werewolf as a pet or an ally, but doesn't care about Jack. You can add new relationships, complicate existing ones, bring in characters who only know one side of the duo, and still be able to tell standard "superhero saves the day" storylines. (It's always an important element of stories like this that the "evil" side of the hero is just noble enough, deep down, that they're disgusted by villains worse than they are, and find reasons to save the day after all. They're antagonists, but they're leashed by their other half just like the hero is.)

Really, the only frustrating restriction in 'Werewolf By Night' (apart from the fact that it puts the 'Moonlighting' theme in my head every time I read the title) is the fact that they chose to stick to the purely lunar changes. It's a restriction that makes it difficult to tell stories the other 27 days of the month--although they do find ways around even that over the course of the series. But being able to play your two protagonists against each other, with neither one able to score a decisive victory, makes the series perfect for an open-ended storytelling engine. Jack Russell might be a monster, but he's in good company.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hey, It Amused Me

Wrote this in the comments section of another blog (referring to the "Who Will Die?" cover solicitation for Green Arrow/Black Canary), thought it was kind of funny...

This month from DC, we're offering:

Green Arrow, death, Black Canary, death, death and death,


The Brave, death, death and the Bold,

and Showcase Presents death, death, death, death, death, death, bacon, sausage and death.

Death, death, death, death, glorious death, wonderful death...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Storytelling Engines: The Haunted Tank

(or "New Word Of The Day: Receptaic")

For all the talk I've put in on what a storytelling engine is (forty-three columns and counting), I really haven't talked so much about what a storytelling engine isn't. Which isn't too surprising, I suppose, given that it's a topic with a practically unlimited number of options (it's not, for example, a sort of bicycle, a piece of fruit, or the sensation of having sand still in your bathing suit three hours after you've left the beach)...but 'Showcase Presents: The Haunted Tank' does provide an interesting case study in the difference between a storytelling engine and a storytelling formula.

For those unfamiliar with 'The Haunted Tank', the idea is pretty simple. A tank crew fighting in World War II is piloting a tank that's haunted. (I know that's a lot to take in, but stay with me here.) Specifically, it's haunted by a the ghost of a Confederate general, who gives cryptic yet helpful advice that the tank commander (the only one who can actually see and hear the ghost) deciphers, usually just in time to save his life and the life of his men.

Now, notice what the storytelling engine does here. It doesn't provide a setting with a wide variety of stories; the story is limited in time and space to "tank combat in World War II". The cast is the same four men (and one ghost), and although there's a cast change at one point, there's really no supporting cast to speak of. The goals and methods of the group remain static, the personalities of the men really don't create a team dynamic that generates stories, and in short, the storytelling engine really limits itself to the point where there's only one basic story to tell: While fighting German armies in their tank, the crew gets a cryptic warning from the ghost, which they decipher just in time to stave off defeat and kill a few more Nazis. A few details change, but it's a very limited engine.

That, in short, is a storytelling formula. It's a storytelling engine that only has one story. Instead of being a set of tools to help the writer think of new ideas, it's a set of limits that prevents the writer from coming up with new ideas. A "formulaic" series is one that has such a tightly restrictive engine that when you've read one story, you've more or less read them all. This isn't automatically a bad thing; certain audiences are looking for "slight variations on the same story" sometimes, and come to a book like 'The Haunted Tank' not looking for a challenging story, but a comforting one. The danger is to the writer, really; it's hard to keep up your enthusiasm for a series when it has a tightly formulaic storytelling engine.

Obviously, any storytelling engine has limits to how many stories it can tell (except possibly 'Doctor Who'.) Every series has been labeled "formulaic" at some time or another, by people whose tolerance for limits on their storytelling engine vary from those of the writer, editor or publisher of the series in question. But a truly open-ended storytelling engine is more like a recipe than a formula, a set of guidelines to be experimented with rather than a set of rules to be followed. (If something that follows a formula is "formulaic", then something that follows a recipe is "receptaic". Or so someone with a grounding in Latin told me.) Recipes beg for experimentation--just look at all the different ways to make "chocolate cake" out there, each one finding new ways to present a classic dish. But any reader has to recognize the need for some limit on a storytelling engine, or otherwise, you're not really making use of it. Nobody wants to order chocolate cake, and get an omelet.

And 'The Haunted Tank'? That's a Hostess Cup Cake. Whether you like them or not, you'll always know what you're going to get before you even take the wrapping off.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Irony Officially Dead

In a quick report from the state of Texas, I thought I'd mention that I saw a bumper sticker here that said, "PROUD CATHOLIC". Almost immediately upon seeing it, I wondered if the people manufacturing it, the store selling it, or the person who put it on their car was really paying attention to what it said. Because generally speaking, "pride" is something the Bible doesn't actually recommend for Christians.

Then again, perhaps that's the point. Maybe the bumper sticker is a form of mortification, something the car's owner put on there to remind themselves and inform others that they still suffer from the sin of pride. Perhaps there's a whole line of them--you can get an "ENVIOUS CATHOLIC", a "WRATHFUL CATHOLIC", or a "GLUTTONOUS CATHOLIC" sticker to put on your car, just to let everyone know that you still have a ways to go before you can call yourself a saint.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Ant-Man

(or "The Sacrificial Character")

The somewhat contradictorily-named "Essential Ant-Man", our topic for this week, is almost as interesting for what you won't find as well as what you will find. What you will find is an interesting little early Silver Age collection, with a storytelling engine that's still trying to find its way from the horror anthology it once was--in the initial story, Henry Pym is a typical horror-story scientist, creating his shrinking serum, freaking out at its effects, and destroying it "once and for all". Later, as the series becomes more super-hero oriented, they still include the occasional one-off tale, pitching it as a story the Wasp tells to sick kids at a local hospital.

What you won't find is the element that's come to dominate Henry Pym's character over the last several decades, whether it be in the form of Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, or Yellowjacket; namely, his mental instability which has manifested itself in domestic violence. (In the "classic" Marvel Universe, this has been confined to a single incident, but Ultimate Hank Pym is a more habitual abuser.) There's not a hint of this in the low-key, slightly goofy romance between the bookish Pym and the flirty Janet van Dyne shown in 'Tales to Astonish' (and, via the magic of reprinting, in the Essential Ant-Man.) So where did this element of the character come from, and why wasn't it there from the beginning?

One obvious answer is simply that the "maturation" of comics--the desire to tell stories skewed to an older reader, with more ambiguity in its moral development--produced an atmosphere in which it was possible to talk about spousal abuse. Pym was allowed to become a less sympathetic character, according to this theory, because writers were willing to be more honest about their protagonists.

But this doesn't explain everything. After all, Ant-Man isn't the only character who "grew up", but we don't see an honest exploration of Batman as a child endangerer. When Spider-Man hit Mary Jane (during the "Clone Saga"), it wasn't the taking-off point for decades of discussion of Spider-Man as wife-beater. What separates Hank Pym from other super-heroes is very simple: He didn't have his own series by then.

It genuinely is that simple. The demands for a protagonist in a solo series are very different from those of one of many protagonists in a team series. The dynamics of an ensemble cast makes any given character more...well, more disposable, to put it bluntly, and while the team of Ant-Man and the Wasp requires you to want to keep reading about Ant-Man and caring about him, the Avengers can and did continue without Henry Pym. In fact, Henry Pym as unstable personality becomes a much more important element of the storytelling engine of the Avengers than he ever was as a boringly sane super-hero. The question of "Can he be trusted?" provides a lot of storytelling options, while his previous role (as just another of the many science experts on the team) could be filled by any one of a dozen other super-heroes.

Ultimately, in order to serve the larger interests of Avengers fans, Henry Pym was forced into an antagonistic role. Ant-Man fans might have been upset, but importantly for our purposes, there simply weren't enough of them to count.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A Quick Review Before I Go

Just a quick note to say that I'm going to be out of town next week, so entries will be unlikely at best. In the meanwhile, I'll just mention that 'Making Money' is another very nice Terry Pratchett book; I'm sure some people have gotten bored with his long-view, historical approach to the books (he's essentially become more interested in showing the development of Ankh-Morpork as a city, using the books as a vehicle.) Me, I think it's great. I love reading pop history books, and getting a pop history book that's also a Terry Pratchett novel is the best of both worlds.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Flash

(or "How Does He Get The Costume Back In The Ring, Then?")

When looking at the classic era of the Flash represented in 'Showcase Presents The Flash', you really are looking at one of the best cases of intentional storytelling engine design of the Silver Age. Julius Schwartz really did try his best, given the way comics were being written at the time, to actually think of an entire status quo for Barry Allen that would lend itself to numerous stories (which makes sense, given that changes to the status quo were few and far between in that era.) He gave Barry a romantic interest, a locale, and a job that lent itself to being a super-hero.

It's that last one that's worth another look, particularly in light of the modern era of comics. Right now, it's getting difficult to find a superhero that actually has a "secret identity"; over on the Marvel end, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and Captain America are all publicly known to be super-heroes (or at least, their corpses are publicly remembered to be super-corpses.) Many people in the industry are claiming that secret identities are a vestigial concept from an earlier time, like kid sidekicks and the Comics Code. So, is it true? Why would a hero have a secret identity?

Obviously, it's to protect their loved ones. (No, it's really not. That might be why they don't blab it to your average man on the street, but I'm pretty sure my mom could keep a secret if I asked.) That's always the reason they give, but the real reason is that a secret identity can be very helpful to a writer. Look at Barry Allen. He's not just a super-hero, he's also a police scientist. That means that not only can he get involved in a story the way any superhero can get involved in a story ("What's that? A cry of distress?"), he can also get involved in a story the way any police officer can get involved in a story. Given cops are expected to find out about crimes, it provides any number of angles for a writer to help start off a Flash comic without seeming contrived. (The She-Hulk, a lawyer, and Superman, as a reporter, also have similar secret identities that help them get involved in criminal situations. Batman, as a millionaire playboy, always has to have society friends casually mention a crime to him, though.)

But more than that, the secret identity becomes a separate sub-genre of stories in and of itself; like any secret, it takes work to protect a hero's true identity from discovery, both from the public and from friends and enemies. Barry Allen has to keep reporter Iris West off the trail of his dual identity (and notice, by the way, that Iris has a job that doubles as an additional entry point into stories for the writer; she frequently mentions to her boyfriend a story that he decides to follow up on as the Flash.) In this regard, Iris is just one link in a long chain of nosy friends, family and well-wishers; from Lois Lane to J. Jonah Jameson, people are always trying to find out the hero's biggest secret. (Ironically, the current Star-Spangled Kid got her start by being the nosy kid snooping on the super-hero.) It's always good for a story, and that's an advantage to any storytelling engine.

So is the secret identity "outdated"? Doubtful. Certainly, as modern surveillance technology improves, it gets increasingly implausible that someone could hide their identity that easily (although Barry Allen always had the advantage of super-speed.) But it's a useful storytelling technique, which means it'll probably never go away. In fact, Barry Allen had his secret identity magically re-concealed a few years back, after publicly revealing it. In a universe of comics, "implausible" gets stretched a bit further than it does in the real world.