Monday, November 26, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Dazzler

(or "A New Lens To View An Old Idea")

If the storytelling engine for 'Dazzler' doesn't automatically seem familiar to most comics fans in the 1980s (when the series came out) or in the present day, that's probably forgivable. After all, super-hero comics pretty much dominated the market from the 1960s onwards, and they still dominate it today, at least in financial terms. Looking at 'Dazzler' through the lens of super-hero comics, it stands out as something quite new and different...arguably so much so that the writers of the series weren't quite sure what to do with it.

Alison Blaire, the Dazzler (she dropped the 'Disco' part of the name after a very short while) was a mutant with the power to absorb sound and convert it to light. But unlike every other person in the Marvel Universe, gaining super-powers didn't make Alison decide that she needed to save humanity, or conquer the world. All Dazzler wants is to make it big in the challenging world of rock music, and to her, having super-powers is more of a hindrance than a help. It's hard to make gigs if you're getting kidnapped by Galactus, fighting the Hulk, or foiling the plans of the evil Enchantress, but despite her best efforts to be an ordinary rock star, she keeps bumping into the Doctor Dooms of the world and has to do her best to stop them. It's an idea pretty thoroughly unlike any other Marvel or DC were publishing at the time...

And yet, when you take away the whole "super-hero" aspect, it's a pretty normal idea for a series. In fact, 'American Idol' re-enacts it every season with a new cast. "Talented unknown struggles to make it big" is a classic concept, one that borders on hackneyed...but by taking the smaller storytelling engine of Alison Blaire and her quest for fame and acceptance (would it really surprise you to know that her father doesn't approve of "show business" and wants her to become a lawyer?), and placing it within the larger storytelling engine of the Marvel universe, the storytelling engine suddenly finds new directions for exploration it never had before.

In retrospect, it seems like nobody was sure quite whether or not the traditional super-hero audience wanted to explore any of those new directions; after a while, 'Dazzler' turned into a "Fugitive" type series, and after its cancellation, Alison became a bog-standard super-hero and X-Woman, albeit one that spent lots of her thought balloons whining about how she'd rather be singing. But don't underestimate the impact that 'Dazzler' had. Over the next two decades or so, as the idea gained currency, lots of comic books started taking storytelling engines from other genres, implanting them in a super-hero universe, and watching the resultant interaction between the two sets of ideas. You could make a case that 'Powers', 'Top 10', 'District X', 'She-Hulk', 'The Initiative', and 'The Power Company' all owe some inspiration to 'Dazzler'. (Detectives, cops, detectives, lawyers, soldiers, and lawyers, respectively.)

The comic-book universes DC and Marvel operate are vast and strange, and operate under a set of rules that we're rarely shown in any detail. Stories like Dazzler's operate in parts of those universes that we don't usually see, but that's as much to their advantage as it is to their detriment. By exploring an old idea in a new way, they make a whole new set of options available to an old storytelling engine, making those stories fresh for the telling for a whole new generation. Not bad for someone who started off as a novelty disco act, huh?


Anonymous said...

I liked your article, except that the Power Company wasn't about lawyers with superpowers, it was a team of superheroes that was organized like an american law firm. They were "Heroes for Hire" and had a their own kind of "pro bono" work.
The founder of the team used to be lawyer, though.

John Seavey said...

Yes, but it was another case of "looking at super-heroes differently by bringing in other genres". Instead of, "What if lawyers had super-powers?", it was "What if a super-team was organized like a law firm?"...but still using the same principle. 'Astro City', also by Busiek, uses a lot of the same themes. So does 'Marvels', which is probably the most directly influential of the "super-powers through other eyes" series.