Thursday, March 29, 2007

Support Staff of the Magi

A treat for D&D fans, today: I worked this up as part of a book I did for a game company, but the line it was written for crashed and burned, so I've got two sourcebooks on my hard drive. (If anyone wants to publish them, I do own the rights free and clear, and the books are designed to be stand-alone. And they're, y'know, already done.) In any event, this was one of the magical items in the book, designed to be an artifact for a slightly tongue-in-cheek game...

Support Staff of the Magi: One of the strangest, yet most sought-after items in the Gardener, the support staff of the magi resembles its near-namesake physically. However, in terms of its power, it is very different. Once a character capable of using magic items grasps an inert support staff of the magi (“inert” meaning one whose wielder is dead), the five people with spellcasting abilities nearest to him must immediately make a Willpower saving throw with a DC of 20 or be placed under the thrall of the holder of the staff. If any of these five people succeed at their saving throw, the effect continues to radiate outward until it has ensnared five magic-users.

Once the staff has been activated, the holder can command the mages to cast any spell they are capable of casting. Each spell uses up a number of charges in the staff equal to the level of the spell cast. (Hence, a ninth-level spell uses up nine charges.) The holder commands the mage mentally, meaning that they can use the staff even if they cannot speak. They must maintain a hold on the staff, however, in order to cast spells. (If the wielder lets go of the staff, the mages are not freed—they instead enter a default state, remaining motionless until the staff’s wielder picks it back up.) The staff’s wielder cannot command the mages to do anything other than cast spells; however, they will perform any tasks they are capable of that can help the wielder of the staff, so long as it does not endanger them. This function does not use any charges on the staff.

Wielding the support staff of the magi gives characters a spell resistance of 20; they can, however, voluntarily lower the spell resistance of the staff in order to have it absorb spell levels as per a rod of absorption. This is the only way to recharge the staff. If, however, the number of charges exceeds the maximum the staff can hold (50), the enslaved mages go on a retributive strike, awakening from their trance with a compulsion to kill the person who has held them in thrall. Recharging the staff can be risky, since there’s no way of knowing how many charges it already has or how many levels a spell being cast at the holder will be, but since it is the only way to build charges in the staff, it can sometimes be necessary.

If the staff ever runs out of charges, it loses all its abilities save the ability to absorb spell levels. Any mages held under its thrall return to normal, without any memory of their entrancement or any sort of enmity against the wielder of the staff. As soon as the staff absorbs any spell levels, it will enslave new mages as though it had just been grasped.

If someone tries to take a support staff of the magi away from its holder, they must make a Willpower check with a DC of 25 in addition to their Strength check. Success means that they are now considered to be the wielder of the staff, and the original wielder joins the enslaved mages. Failure means that the would-be thief falls under the spell of the staff, and is subject to its effects. (This is the only way that a holder of a support staff of the magi can increase their following—by hostile takeover.)

Nobody knows who created the few support staffs of the magi in existence, but it’s suspected that a wizard with a fondness for very bad puns is responsible.

Caster Level: 20th; Prerequisites: minor artifact, cannot be duplicated; Weight: 5 lbs.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Tomb of Dracula

(or "Good, Bad...I'm The Guy With The Fangs")

Let's start this out with a little mental exercise, a little game of "Let's Pretend." Let's pretend you're Marv Wolfman, and you've just been handed the writing assignment to 'Tomb of Dracula'. The series has only been around for six issues, and it's already had three different writing teams; Gerry Conway has set up a team of Fearless Vampire Hunters (descendants of the principals from the novel 'Dracula', primarily), but you've already spotted the problem with centering the book around Fearless Vampire Hunters that hunt Dracula. Namely, it's doomed; they can't win, because as soon as they do, the book ends. (You're probably also figuring out how the book's gone through three writers in six issues.) So what do you do?

You do what Marv Wolfman did; you make the book about Dracula, not about the vampire hunters.

The idea of an ongoing series centered on a villain isn't a crazy one; the public has always had a fascination with the bad guy. Scarface, Dillinger, Jesse James...even Charles Mackay, back in 1841, devoted a chapter of his book 'Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds' to the phenomenon of idolizing criminals. Almost as soon as Wolfman takes over the book with issue #7, you can see a distinct foregrounding of Dracula; the Fearless Vampire Hunters never leave the book, but their relationship with Dracula becomes more complex as the series explores Dracula himself.

And what an exploration it is. Traditionally, storytelling engines involving villains try to make them sympathetic, even charming (witness Garth Ennis' 'Hitman' series, where Tommy Monaghan is a loveable rogue who doesn't even kill unless his target is another crook.) But Wolfman goes a harder route, opting for a genuine character analysis of a troubled, deeply flawed individual. Wolfman's Dracula has lost everything over the centuries--his bedrocks of family, faith, joy, and love have all eroded away, leaving him with nothing but the desire to survive...and the knowledge that he was once something more than what he is now. These twin demons drive him to rail against the world like a prison, and yet he fears to escape it; this 'debased nobility' makes for a character so complex and rich that he easily sustains any number of stories told about him (in any number of eras--the companion series 'Dracula Lives!', collected in Volume Four, show flashback stories set in different times and places.)

Wolfman does use one classic trick that every single storytelling engine involving a villain-centered series uses, though. Dracula's enemies are (with the exception of the Fearless Vampire Hunters) worse than he is. Even his arch-enemies agree that it's worth resurrecting Dracula if he'll help out against the sinister Doctor Sun; Blade the Vampire Hunter and Hannibal King, vampire detective set aside their pursuit of Dracula to go after the vampire Deacon Frost; and, of course, when Satan himself is after Drac, it's pretty clear which is the lesser of two evils.

On the whole, it's not surprising that you still see more open-ended series centering on heroes than on villains. It's always easy to root for the good guy, and a lot of publishers feel more comfortable telling stories that teach you to be upright, good, and nice than ones that teach you to seduce women in dark alleys and drink their blood. But as 'Tomb' shows, if you can't be good, you can at least be bad in a cool way.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Iron Man Vs. Dracula

I've been saturating my brain with 'Tomb of Dracula' lately (guess what next week's 'Storytelling Engines' entry is going to be about?) and it occurred to me that it'd be a lot of fun to see Dracula's reaction to the SHRA madness currently running its course in the Marvel Universe. Then it occurred to me that no, really, it would be a lot of fun...and my brain sort of worked out how it would go as a one-shot special. Namely:

The series opens at an abandoned mansion in Boston at dusk, with Iron Man descending on boot-jets outside. He is greeted by a servant, who ushers him into the presence of a slightly gaunt, but very much alive Dracula, Prince of Evil, Ruler of Vampires. "Up until recently," Iron Man says, "I was under the impression you were truly dead. Blade blew up the SHIELD helicarrier where your body was stored, but--"

"Blade did not have time to finish the job," Dracula sneers, "and the cemeteries are filled with men who have thought Dracula truly dead. How did you find me here? The eyes of technology cannot see the vampire."

We cut to the view through Iron Man's eyes, as Dracula appears as a silhouette in his viewscreen. "We tracked reports of vampire activity to this vicinity, and our psy-ops division pinpointed this house as a site of paranormal activity. As to how I'm perceiving you now, my armor is mapping disturbances in the air currents and using them to extrapolate your mass. I'm here to inform you that you, Vlad Dracula, also known as Vlad Tepes, Vlad Tepesch, and Vladimir Drake, that you are in violation of the Super-Human Registration Act, which requires all beings of post-human capabilities to register said abilities with the appropriate governmental body and--"

He's cut off by a hard backhand that sends him sprawling. "You dare make demands of Dracula? I, who have stalked the earth at my pleasure for more than five hundred years? I, who have buried all those who came to slay me?" As he talks, he's slapping a surprised Iron Man around. "I am Dracula. You are mere cattle in my eyes, meat for the slaughter. Do not seek to presume upon me."

After a moment of this, Iron Man recovers and starts fighting back. He's more than Dracula's equal in physical strength, but Dracula is fast, has centuries of battle-savvy, and has shape-shifting abilities. Finally, just when Iron Man seems to be gaining the upper hand, Dracula vanishes altogether. He hears the vampire's voice around him, though. "You see where I am through the movement of the air, my modern-day knight. But how shall you see Dracula...when he becomes insubstantial mist?"

Drac seeps in through Iron Man's atmospheric filters, gathering in his mouth and nose, choking him with the stench of death and worse than death. Barely able to breathe, Iron Man smashes his way out of the mansion and flies west at top speed. Blinded, out of control, he nonetheless chases the embers of the fading sun to the point where they are too bright for Dracula's taste, and the Lord of Vampires retreats. Nonetheless, his mocking laughter resounds in Tony Stark's ears...

Cut to the SHIELD helicarrier, where Iron Man is addressing a team of agents--and Blade, who is a registered super-hero and thus a logical guest-star. "This is who we're dealing with," Iron Man says, delivering a potted history of Dracula for the benefit of people who haven't read 'Essential Tomb of Dracula'. "He's no horror movie--this is the real thing, an honest-to-God vampire with everything that comes with it. Both in terms of strengths...and in terms of weaknesses."

We pan out to a long shot of the helicarrier, which is floating over Dracula's mansion. Dracula comes out to look at the commotion, and even the lord of the undead is shocked at the sheer mass of the floating fortress...and more shocked to see dozens of SHIELD agents, Iron Man, and Blade descend from the skies. He moves to run, but the helicarrier projects a spotlight onto him with a cross dead in its center. The holy symbol saps his strength, forces him to stay in his human shape, and as SHIELD agents surround him armed with stake-guns, he spits impotent curses at them all.

"Last chance," Iron Man says. "You can either register, sign up as a deputized SHIELD agent, and work with us to root out and destroy the vampires you've helped create...or I can give you to Blade here, who's really hoping you choose Option B."

"Never!" shouts Dracula. "Never shall I bow and scrape to a mortal who is nothing more to me than a walking feast!" He looks up to the night skies, using one of the lesser-known vampiric powers...the ability to control the weather. A strong gust shifts the helicarrier just a few feet before its pilot compensates, but that few feet is enough to move the spotlight off of him. Shifting his form into a bat, he flies away, dodging stakes and silver bullets.

Later, in a dark cave, he nurses his wounds and rails at the injustice of having to flee the field of battle. But, he swears, he will not flee again! For he is Dracula, and he has prepared many snares and traps for his enemies over the years...some overt, but some most subtle indeed...

Cut to a few nights later, and a young woman walks through the darkened streets of Boston. She hears a noise, and her footsteps quicken. Then quicken more in dread, as she feels a dread presence behind her. She looks around, sees nothing, but her instincts tell her to run ever quicker. Another glance behind her reveals nothing...

And she runs headlong into Dracula, who waits for her with fangs bared. He leans in for the kill, only to be startled when the woman (one Ms. Carol Danvers) gives him a hard right cross that sends him flying. Infuriated, he charges towards her to give battle.

But just then, one--then many--then dozens of crosses expand out of the very air all around him. Dracula recoils, recoils again, realizing in horror that there is no place to recoil to. At bay, he snarls and bares his fangs...

And Iron Man descends on his boot-jets again. "Miniaturized holographic projectors," he says to the helpless lord of vampires. "They can follow you wherever you go, and if need be, I can deploy over a hundred more. There's no escape for you this time."

Just then, a balding man in a suit approaches. "Mister Tony Stark? AKA Iron Man, Director of SHIELD?" Tony pauses, uncertain, then nods. "Mister Stark, I have here an injunction ordering you to cease and desist all harassment of my client, Mister Tepes, and to immediately and forthwith vacate the whereabouts of his person pending a full and complete investigation of your conduct in this circumstance. The Super-Human Registration Act clearly applies to living beings, of terrestrial and non-terrestrial origin, while my client is equally clearly deceased. As a result, he is not subject to SHIELD jurisdiction as either a citizen or a foreign national." The lawyer hands Iron Man a sheaf of papers. "I think you'll find these are in order."

Iron Man looks them over, then looks up at the lawyer...and through his viewscreen, we see him as we saw Dracula, a silhouette of air currents. "You're a vampire too," Tony Stark snarls. "How do I know you didn't hypnotize the judge into granting you this injunction?"

The lawyer sneers. "An interesting argument, which you can save for your appeal. Rest assured, I have enough grounds for counter-suits to keep this tied up in court until your descendants are ancient."

Iron Man's fists clench. "But he's a mass murderer!"

"Not SHIELD's jurisdiction. Your job is to enforce the SHRA...and since that doesn't apply to my client, unless you want to trample over the laws you killed men to enact, I'd suggest you let it drop."

The holographic crosses fade. Dracula straightens up, dusts off his outfit, and smiles. "It pleased me, Anthony Stark, to best you in the field of battle you chose--the field of rules, and laws. Society's battleground. But I will never forget the insult you dealt to me. Do not sleep easy, man of iron. For one night, I shall come calling on thee..." Dracula fades into mist, and is gone. And even in his insulated armor, Iron Man feels the chill of the grave...

Monday, March 19, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Phantom Stranger

(or "That Grinding Noise? I Think It's Your Protagonists")

Both the Phantom Stranger and Doctor Thirteen, the two characters featured in 'DC Showcase Presents: The Phantom Stranger', have a long history in comics, originally popping up in the 1950s when horror comics were all the rage. Luckily, neither one was too horrific, allowing them to get a new lease on life after the Comics Code killed off EC and the horror boom. They were revived in the 1960s, teamed up in a single comic (but tellingly, the Phantom Stranger got top billing.)

Each character had a good central concept for a storytelling engine. The Phantom Stranger was a mysterious supernatural being, a sort of "wandering angel" who would appear to people in supernatural distress and help them fight it. He had a variety of mystics, demons, and the like as his Rogue's Gallery, and his powers, though vague, were no more ill-defined than Doctor Strange's (one of many "mystic champion" characters who he resembled to some degree.)

Doctor Thirteen, on the other hand, was a far more unique creation; he was a skeptic, a professional debunker of fake ghosts and false supernatural phenomena. Frequently called "the Ghost-breaker," he showed up at mystical mysteries and inevitably revealed them to be hoaxes (to varying degrees of malice.)

Immediately, you see the problem with these two storytelling engines: They can't co-exist. For Doctor Thirteen to be a workable character model, he has to be right; if we, the reader, can clearly see the supernatural at work, he comes across as a stubborn fool and not a expert debunker; and for the Phantom Stranger to exist, magic has to be a real, workable fact of life (since he is, himself, a user of magic.) The two paradigms are diametrically opposed, and that's all there is to it.

For the first few appearances, an uneasy truce existed between the two worldviews. Doctor Thirteen and the Phantom Stranger would team up to fight a seemingly supernatural menace, Doctor Thirteen would be allowed to debunk it in true Scooby-Doo fashion, and the Phantom Stranger would smile, nod...and vanish into thin air. Doctor Thirteen looked smart, but not unshakeably so, and the readers were treated to a "is he or isn't he" mystery.

But it couldn't last. Within a few issues, the series had firmly come down on the side of the supernatural, and every issue consisted of the Phantom Stranger fighting a blatantly supernatural menace in a blatantly supernatural fashion, only to have Doctor Thirteen scoff and say, "It can't be real!" Which is, of course, the perfect paradigm for the Phantom Stranger's series; he lives in a world of mysterious magic forces that use human lives as pawns, and in which larger-than-life cosmic dramas are played out against the tapestry of the human condition. For him, this is the perfect storytelling engine. But Doctor Thirteen's storytelling engine is in danger of being wrecked, because his credibility as a character is getting lost.

By issue #12, they hit upon the obvious solution: Stop teaming them up. Doctor Thirteen gets back-up stories in which he gets true hoaxes to debunk, and the Phantom Stranger no longer has to make him look bad by rubbing his nose in the existence of the supernatural. (And at this point, I'm getting so sick of typing the word "supernatural"...) It's still not perfect; in practical terms, a skeptical character can't exist in the DC universe because the "extraordinary proof" skeptics seek of the paranormal is given on a weekly basis, which makes disbelievers in the...in magic...seem stupid and stubborn. (The exception, of course, being Ted Knight in James Robinson's 'Starman', who perfectly captures the viewpoint of a skeptic in a magical universe.) Doctor Thirteen would work best in his own, out-of-continuity title that didn't have to deal with the baggage of trying to ignore Deadman, Doctor Fate, the Spectre, and the lost kingdom of Atlantis, let alone the Phantom Stranger.

But until then, keeping him away from the creepier corners of the DC universe is better than nothing. And if the Phantom Stranger gets a quiet chuckle at his expense as a result, then let him.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Special Guest Bloggers

Katherine Grace Henry and Cordelia Faith Henry, Official Youngest Nieces to Fraggmented!

They don't say much, but if a picture was ever worth a thousand words...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Torso Cut In Half (7)

As you may or may not have noticed, I recently went through the archives of this blog and labeled everything. I've got "crazy ideas", "depressing geek thoughts", "muppets", "zombies", et cetera et cetera et cetera. This is a relatively new technology, but it's proliferating at an alarming rate.

How alarming? When I went to do this entry (it was originally going to be a "bad movie lines" entry, but I couldn't find the quote), I looked on imdb.com for the relevant bad movie line. I didn't find it, but I did find that the movie in question had the plot keywords, among others, "shot in the stomach", "bitten in the throat", "exploding building", and bizarrely enough, "unisex bathroom". Clicking on "bitten in the throat", I find that there are dozens of related keywords, including "brain eating", "kicked in the face", "sister sister relationship", and, of course, "torso cut in half".

And I thought it was hard work coming up with labels for my posts. Who has the job of deciding whether a movie features "throat slitting" or "stabbed in the throat", and how many anti-depressants do they take each day?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Teen Titans

(or "The Inevitable Idea")

Sometimes in the world of comics, a series is born not out of inspiration, but out of tradition. Team books tend to be the most susceptible to this "inevitable idea"; once you have a number of individual super-heroes, the logical next step is to put together a book where they team up. And if each of those super-heroes has kid sidekicks, well...then the logical next step is to do a book centered around those sidekicks. 'Teen Titans', which we're examining today, started from that inevitable idea.

The next step in the engine seems just as inevitable (or at least, it probably did in the mid-1960s, when the team formed.) Since you're doing a book about teenagers, and since teenagers more and more have their own culture, their own slang, their own music, and their own trends, why not focus the book around that? You'll catch the wave of trendiness, and surf it all the way to the bank (one presumes.)

And, to continue the inescapable rush of ideas, the new Batman TV series has established a "camp" ethos that many comics had difficulty escaping during this period. So why not just roll with it?

So with that, the storytelling engine seems to just fall into place for the Teen Titans, without the writers seeming to need to add effort at all. The sidekicks of the major super-heroes (Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, and Speedy) meet modern teens, and help them with their "now" problems by fighting pop-culture-themed villains like Big Daddy Ding-Dong, the Mad Mod, and the Scorcher--all in the camp Sixties style popularized by the 'Batman' TV series. (As an aside, it should be noted for the sake of historical interest that there was no "Wonder Girl" acting as sidekick to Wonder Woman prior to the team's creation; the creator of the Teen Titans, Bob Haney, was never known for caring much about continuity, and simply assumed that the flashback stories printed in 'Wonder Woman' referred to a separate character named "Wonder Girl", and not to Wonder Woman when she was younger. Thirty-some years later, and they're still trying to get her origin straight.)

So, does being "inevitable" make this a good story engine, or just one that the writers couldn't avoid doing? The answer very much depends on what you mean by "good". Many of the stories that came out of this era of the Titans haven't aged well, but the fact of the matter is, it did what it needed to do when it needed to do it. And although some new heroes have crept into the team's lineup, and the tone has become decidedly less camp, the "teen sidekicks on their own together" and the pop-culture story pool remain the background of the series today.

But I doubt you'll see the return of Big Daddy Ding-Dong anytime soon.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Review: 300

Hunh. So that's what it'd be like if 'Fox News' taught Ancient History.

Or, to be less facetious, I understand that Hollywood distorts historical accounts to make for a more interesting story. I did not walk into the film '300' expecting an accurate account of the early days of the war between Greece and Persia, and of the Battle of Thermopylae. But there are distortions and there are distortions, and I did not walk into that movie expecting to see an account whose distortions were systematically performed to make the history conform to a right-wing political agenda.

'300' turns the war into a culture clash between the decadent, liberal Persians (Xerxes looks like he stepped off the float at a Pride march, has a harem of bisexual women, and in one scene stands behind the butch Leonidas, puts his hands on his shoulders, and tells him, "Kneel before me and I will give you everything.") and the moral, upright, tough and conservative Spartans (the historical record of Spartan culture isn't just brushed under the rug, it's nailed under the carpet. Spartans in this film mock and condemn "adulterers" and "boy-lovers", two practices which historians believe were common-place and accepted in Sparta, and they frequently talk about how they're "free men", equating Persia with slavery and slavery with evil. Nobody ever seems to ask who tends the crops in Sparta.) Through the film's imagery, the Persians are equated with deformity, deformity is equated with decadence, and decadence is subtly equated with liberalism.

The contributions of the other city-states of Greece are downplayed into non-existence; in '300', Leonidas is a king who alone among his people has the foresight to spot the need for a war, and when the cowardly and decadent Senate refuses to fund his troops, he's forced to go off alone without the men and equipment he needs, dooming him to failure. (This is, of course, not so much a distortion of history as a cut-and-paste replacement of it with the current conservative view of the present day.) The pre-eminent anti-war Senator turns out to be a traitor in the pay of the Persians, and is stabbed on the floor of the Senate by Laura Bu--errr, Queen Gorgo.

And, of course, we get the conservative refrain that the military culture is "better" than the civilian culture; the volunteer forces that accompany the Spartans are shown as less worthy, less courageous, and ultimately cut and run when the going gets tough--the historical records say differently, but who needs history when you've got an agenda? And, in the end, we're shown how Leonidas' heroism inspired the Spartans to amass a huge army to finally destroy the evil Persians and end the threat they posed to America. (Sparta, sorry. I'm so bad at this.) The fact that Persia is, in essence, modern-day Iran should perhaps worry anyone who wants to read into the symbology of all this. We don't see the final battle, but of course, we know how it has to end...after all, the Persians lost, right?

They did, in fact. In a decisive naval battle. To the Athenian navy. (You know, the "philosophers and boy-lovers" the Spartans made fun of at the beginning.) But apart from that, it fits the right-wing philosophy perfectly.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

ConBestiary #5

Grumbling Banshee: As far as cryptozoologists can determine, these creatures are close cousins to the banshee (spectralis amplificus). Unlike the legendary banshee, who predicts death with its loud, discordant shrieks, the grumbling banshee appears at conventions to predict discord, irritability, and lack of sleep. It floats, bodiless, into hotel rooms and lets out a series of low, growling rumbles, letting the inhabitants of the room know that they're in for a difficult night and an irritating morning of arguments about who's a loud snorer.

Cryptozoologists have tried explaining the concept of the "self-fulfilling prophecy" to grumbling banshees, but they apparently don't have the conceptual framework for it.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Godzilla

(or "The One-Armed Lizard")

When Marvel acquired the rights to produce a comic book based on legendary Japanese monster Godzilla (or, for purists, Gojira), they made a very unusual decision in their development of the comic. Or, at least, it was unusual by the standards of most publishers. Only in the world of comics is it generally assumed that all publications from the same publisher exist in the same fictional world; Marvel made no exception for Godzilla, firmly establishing him in the same comics continuity inhabited by Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, and SHIELD.

SHIELD, the international super-spy agency, also provided writer Doug Moench with a solution to one of his biggest problems when coming up with a storytelling engine for Godzilla--how, exactly, do you write about the continuing adventures of a mindless, rampaging monster with no motives, friends, or overall goals? Moench decided to focus the series as much on SHIELD as on Godzilla, using them as a perpetual nemesis whose hunt for Godzilla kept him moving, seeking refuge and escape as much as destruction and battle. This status quo is familiar from such legendary novels as Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, but modern audiences probably recognize it best from "The Fugitive". (Which brings to mind odd pictures of Tommy Lee Jones in the next Godzilla movie--"I want a hard-target search of every skyscraper, power plant, nuclear testing site, and monster-infested island in the area!")

The problem with this status quo, and the reason why Godzilla seems oddly "complete" after the end of its twenty-four issue run, is that it's a rare example of a "false status quo." False stati quo arise when the default setting of a series resolves around something the protagonist needs to do, be it recover their memory, clear their name from a crime they didn't commit, or make that one last leap home. A false status quo relies on the anticipation, every story, that this story might be the one where the protagonist actually manages to do whatever it is they're trying to do. And since they can't, frustration eventually sets in for the audience.

Writers generally handle this in one of two ways. First, they can resolve the false status quo and end the story. 'Godzilla' takes this option, ending the series with a big set-piece battle in New York involving Godzilla, SHIELD, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers. (No, I won't tell you how it ends. Go buy the book.) Alternatively, the false status quo can be resolved in a way that sets up a new status quo; the hero could, for example, decide never to get back home, instead using his time-travel powers altruistically. (Hypothetically speaking, of course.) And there's no guarantee that the new status quo can't be a false one as well--Transformers, to use a non-Essential example, went from resolving the false status quo in 'Beast Wars' (can Optimus Primal and the Maximals defeat Megatron and get home?) to a new false status quo in 'Beast Machines' (they get home, but find that Megatron got there first and established a dictatorship they must overthrow.)

Ultimately, a false status quo can be an interesting diversion, but it can't last forever. (You may now draw your own parallels to current events in Spider-Man's comics. Maybe he and Godzilla could team up.)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

An Open Letter To Marvel Comics

Dear Marvel,

My name is John Seavey, and for a long time, I've been a customer of your company. Since I was a small child, I've been purchasing Marvel's brand of periodical publications, and I've come to associate the 'Marvel' logo with a certain quality, and more importantly, a certain identity in entertainment. Much as I expect to see light-hearted family entertainment when I watch a Disney film, I've come to expect that when I pick up a Marvel comic, I can be assured of upbeat, family-oriented, fast-paced adventure stories. You've published books in a wide variety of genres, something I admire and respect, but I've always felt that Marvel knew what its strengths were and played to them well. You've almost always done an excellent job in shaping a solid stable of continuing characters, and choosing writers and artists who publish new stories in keeping with the tone and ethos of your publishing history.

Recently, though, you seem to have forgotten what your customers are looking for--a fact that isn't simply dissatisfying, but actively worrying to me as a consumer. Your writers (and more worryingly, your editors) seem to be more interested in indulging their own personal whims than in maintaining a stable of characters and stories that have a long-term publishing future; the recent 'Civil War' storyline is a perfect example, in which both Iron Man and Captain America, two of your flagship characters, were portrayed in a light so unsympathetic that I have difficulty imagining myself wanting to read about them in future. Perhaps this was an interesting individual story, but was it really worth trading on the brand identity Marvel has spent so much time and money to establish?

Your company has worked very hard in associating its trademarks and logos with certain expectations; indeed, in an industry where "hot" writers and artists come and go, these expectations are the only thing of real, permanent value you have. When you sell a comic that I, as a consumer, expect to be "upbeat family enterainment", and when I read it, it's "bleak, depressing adult storytelling", you are essentially using my goodwill as a consumer to line your pockets. This is not to say that I do not read adult stories, or that I have no stomach for thought-provoking tales. But if that is what I wanted, I know where I can find it. I purchased your comic in good faith based on expectations you have worked hard to establish; if you're unwilling to live up to those expectations, you should not be surprised to see your consumer base shrink.

Goodwill is not available in an unlimited supply, nor is its supply predictable. What causes a sales spike now (out of belief in your company's future performance, buying habit, or simple morbid curiosity) will not last indefinitely; I can't predict exactly when or how, but I guarantee you, if you continue to neglect the publishing ethos that made Marvel a success, your company will founder. And, due to its position, it may well take an entire industry with it, a tragedy nobody wants. Marvel should tell the stories it's best at, not the stories that the "writer of the week" is most interested in.

I'm not going to conclude this with a statement like, "I'll never read Marvel again!" I will continue to read the comics that I enjoy, those that live up to my expectations of Marvel comics as a brand and as a company (such as your 'Marvel Adventures' line, or your collections of archived material). But the "Marvel Universe," the flagship line of publications you have worked so hard to nurture over the decades, is traveling in a direction that I have no interest in, and that I do not wish to spend money on...and unfortunately for you, I consider myself to be a reasonable barometer of customer opinion. Perhaps you are telling the stories that you want to tell right now. But at this rate, you might not have anyone left to tell them to.