Monday, April 30, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Spider-Man, Part One

(or "The Big Bang Theory")

When looking at Stan Lee's original run on 'The Amazing Spider-Man' (approximately issues 1-110, or the first five volumes of 'The Essential Spider-Man'), it's downright amazing (no pun intended) just how much imagination Lee and his co-writer and artist, Steve Ditko, packed into a relatively short number of issues. The first volume of 'The Essential Spider-Man' contains the first appearances not just of Spidey himself, but of the Chameleon, the Vulture, Doctor Octopus, the Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, the Enforcers, Mysterio, the Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter, and the Scorpion. That's pretty much every A-list Spider-Man villain ever created (notable exceptions being the Kingpin and Venom) and the vast majority of his B-list opponents. Lee and Ditko wrote and drew those first thirty-eight issues in a mad rush of inspiration and innovation that almost single-handedly put Marvel Comics on the map.

The innovation didn't just extend to Spider-Man's growing Rogues Gallery, though. Lee and Ditko were also very willing to make changes to every aspect of Spider-Man's status quo in those early days, when they were first figuring out what worked and what didn't. Peter Parker went from a high school student to a college student, with a constantly changing supporting cast (including a romantic life that was constantly in flux, a real surprise when one considers that the average super-hero at the time only had to deal with the question of whether their One True Love would be able to deal with life as Mrs. Superhero.) The status quo didn't arrive from divine inspiration, but from experimentation--Peter's job at the Daily Bugle is perfect from a storytelling engine perspective, allowing him to go out "looking for trouble" as a photographer as well as a superhero, but in the first issue, Peter actually contemplates a life of crime and a job with the Fantastic Four.

But when Ditko left, all that changed. We may never know how much of the creative element of those early Spider-Man stories came from Steve Ditko, but whether Lee wasn't sure where to go without his collaborator, or whether he was satisfied with where he was, Spider-Man's storytelling engine seems to solidify into a status quo right around the time of Ditko's departure. Peter locks into a relationship with Gwen Stacy, a friendship with room-mate Harry Osborn, and a relatively constant rotation of classic villains (the few new villains that appear after John Romita takes over for Steve Ditko are relatively undistinguished, like the Kangaroo and the Gibbon. Only the Kingpin really hangs around to become a memorable foe.) What changes we do see are all relatively illusory--Norman Osborn gives up his Green Goblin identity "for good", but with a handy escape hatch that allows him to resume his evil ways whenever needed. Gwen and Peter are a couple, but never so solidly that there isn't room for a break-up or make-up (as needed.) Peter's supporting cast at the Bugle and at ESU remain reliably consistent--really, it's a set-up that you could see Stan Lee extending for another 200 issues with remarkably little need to shake things up in any significant way. And it's hard to escape the feeling that if he'd kept writing another 200 issues, he probably wouldn't have. After the initial rush of ideas and innovations, Stan Lee had (depending on your perspective) either found an engine that worked, or allowed himself to stagnate.

But Stan Lee didn't keep writing Spider-Man. And next week, in part two, we'll look at his successor Gerry Conway, and the way that it's all going to change...

Thursday, April 26, 2007

ConBestiary #6

Intellect Devourer: I don't actually know what this is, but it's whatever causes people to walk up to guests at cons and ask them where the bathrooms are. I mean, come on, people, he's Marv Wolfman! He wrote 'Crisis on Infinite Earths'! He's not the freaking information booth! Peter David does not know where the dealer's room is, and he probably doesn't care, either! Ask a volunteer, not the man who helped create MAD Magazine! Pretty much every guest is way too nice to tell you this, but it really irritates them, and you can tell if you're paying attention.

I'm just saying, is all.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Storytelling Engines: House of Mystery

(or "Perfect Pitch")

When looking at an anthology series like 'The House of Mystery', we can strip away a lot of the things we've been discussing in this series. Aside from the framing sequences, there are few if any recurring characters or settings, there's no real "central concept", and really, all that's important in the stories themselves is the tone of horror mixed with gallows humor.

Which makes the tone all the more vital. In fact, in any anthology series, keeping a consistent tone is the most important difference between a series that keeps going and one that gets cancelled. After all, when a reader picks up a Spider-Man or Batman series, they have a general idea of what to expect. A Spider-Man comic that's "off-beat" will still feature Spider-Man, and he stays consistent even when the story is out of his usual tone. (This is why Spider-Man gets into so many crossovers--he can be counted on to provide the reaction of a normal guy, even in weird cosmic situations.) But with an anthology series, there's nothing for the reader to expect. Creative teams vary from issue to issue and indeed story to story, protagonists don't always stick around for long (especially in a horror anthology, where "don't always" can be replaced by "rarely"), and settings vary widely. That consistent tone is all that readers can really expect to get when they pick up a new issue.

The framing sequences help a lot to set this tone, which is why "apart from the framing sequence" is a bit of a cheat. By establishing a narrator with a strong personality that fits the tone of the series (Cain, the narrator of 'House of Mystery', is a wonderfully cynical heel with a world-weary eye for human nature), the series has a stronger narrative "spine" that connects together the stories in a shared "world". The House itself provides a convenient narrative hook for writers, which isn't necessary but can certainly come in handy. And a few recurring features, such as the "Page 13" gags and some wonderfully black comedy pieces by Sergio Aragones, can help create a sense of familiarity that helps readers plunge into stories that have to establish their characters and settings from scratch each time.

Every comic tries to establish a sensibility that helps both readers and writers know what to expect when the next issue comes along; when dealing with the blank slate that each issue of an anthology provides, this isn't a straitjacket, it's a life-vest.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gotta Disagree

Despite what the old saw says, I actually think "of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are, 'Oh, no! That bus full of puppies just crashed into that maternity ward!'"

...but I suppose that wouldn't scan very well.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Marvel Team-Up

(or "This Is A Bit, Right?")

Looking at Marvel's venerable title, 'Marvel Team-Up', from the perspective of the 'Storytelling Engines' series is almost a bit cruel on the face of it. After all, the concept of this series of columns is to ask, "What ways does this particular set of ideas, characters, and settings make it easier for a writer to come up with new story ideas?" If you look at 'Marvel Team-Up' from that perspective, it's a nightmare that should send any writer screaming for the hills.

For starters, the central concept is neatly encapsulated in the title. "Team-Up." Every issue of 'Marvel Team-Up' must feature two characters who do not regularly team up with each other, meeting and fighting a villain of some sort. An unwritten rule of the series is that the team-up can't be the same from one issue to the next--only in the very beginning of the series did it feature the same two heroes from issue to issue (Spider-Man and the Human Torch). So if a writer wants to do multi-part stories, he or she has to add a new super-hero to the "rolling team-up" each issue. (One four-part story featured the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Doctor Doom, and Moondragon, for example.) Oh, and with a few exceptions, most every issue featured Spider-Man as the anchor of the book. So, to sum up the storytelling engine:

Spider-Man, a notoriously anti-social, lone wolf superhero, must every issue find some excuse to meet another superhero, team up with him/her to fight a villain, and either wrap up the story within one issue or involve another superhero by the beginning of the next issue. And it's all "in continuity", so it must dovetail with the events in his own series (plural, by the time 'Marvel Team-Up' wrapped up.) As well, of course, as dovetailing with whatever's going on in the continuity of his guest star.

At this point, the perverse unworkability of the concept becomes the storytelling engine; as readers, we're essentially spectators as much to the writer's attempts to meet the challenge above as we are to the story he or she eventually comes up with. Part of reading each issue of 'Marvel Team-Up' is seeing the pairing on the cover and wondering, "How are they going to pull this one off?" From simple team-ups like the Human Torch or Daredevil to complicated ones like the Black Panther or Killraven to absolutely absurd ones like the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players (sadly not reprinted yet, but I await it with bated breath), we the audience are almost participating in a bet with the writer.

Which doesn't make it an easy storytelling engine to write for, but certainly an entertaining one to read.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Finn's Limit

I was feeling a little torn on what to write about today, because it seemed like an appropriate time to discuss the Tarantino/Lucas Index...but on reading some discussion about the Don Imus controversy, I felt like it was a better time to discuss Finn's Limit.

Finn's Limit, which is named after the amazing and spectacular Finn Clark (who is hopefully honored and not irritated by my naming this after him) is the point at which any message-board discussion between two or more people with fundamentally opposing points of view ceases to be an exchange of information and opinions and transforms into people repeating themselves in an effort to get in the last word. Finn himself set Finn's Limit at about three posts per person; I named it after him because he never bothered posting more than three times on a topic, figuring if he hadn't convinced the other person by then, he never would.

Internet debates beyond Finn's Limit have interesting sets of behaviors you can almost invariably find if you look for them; for example, a post-Finn's Limit tactic is the Judo Last Word, wherein the person posts that this will be their last post on the subject and that the other person can, if they want, have the last word, because they're no longer worthy of attention. Of course, as soon as the other party responds, they become worthy of attention again.

One question that has yet to be settled is whether or not multiple parties grouped into two camps increases or decreases Finn's Limit; it does, however, undeniably increase the length of discussion beyond Finn's Limit. This "zombie thread" effect occurs when a subset of posters on either side continues the discussion beyond the interest levels of the majority of the posters. People drop out of the discussion, frustrated at their inability to convey their point of view; however, since the discussion continues, they can find themselves dropping back in when a particularly interesting or infuriating point comes up. This, in turn, prompts other people to jump back in, and the discussion continues.

Some long-standing discussion topics permanently pass Finn's Limit; that is to say, even if they die down completely, the next time they're brought up, the exchange will begin beyond Finn's Limit and stay there. A partial list of these topics would have to include "UNIT Dating", "Lives Before Hartnell", and "It's Season Twenty-Seven, Not Season One." (If you're not a Doctor Who fan, you might not understand these references. Count your blessings. If you are a Doctor Who fan, please don't fill the comments section with your personal views on these topics. They're past Finn's Limit.)

Finally, I'll point out the useful aspect of Finn's Limit (because this isn't just a snarky post about message-board forums.) I use Finn's Limit myself, in everyday life--when I've posted three times about something, and I see that the same person who's responded to my post the first three times is disagreeing with it again...I just let it go there. Life's too short to keep talking just to get in the last word. It's frustrating for a minute or two...and then I forget about it.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Ms. Marvel

(or "Life After Death")

On the surface, there's not a whole lot to distinguish Ms. Marvel from Spider-Woman and She-Hulk, whom we've looked at in previous entries; Ms. Marvel is another female character pretty much created as a quickie spin-off from an established male character (in this case, Captain Marvel...you have to wonder if this has ever traveled in the opposite direction. Wonder Woman didn't spawn a Wonder Man...was there ever an original female character who got a "male spin-off"?) Ms. Marvel also had a new writer come on board after the first few issues and tweak a concept that was rushed into production. These are nothing new to longtime comics readers. But what is interesting is exactly who that new writer was--a young man named Chris Claremont, working in the Marvel offices on a lot of Marvel's second-tier titles like 'Ms. Marvel', 'Iron Fist', 'Spider-Woman', and 'X-Men'.

Obviously, the little 'Sesame Street' song starts up in every comic fan's head on seeing that list."One of these things is not like the others..." But at the time, 'X-Men' wasn't a big seller, it wasn't a hit book--heck, it wasn't even monthly. So Claremont had plenty of time to do other things. And, as it happened, a lot of those "other things" never caught on the way that the X-Men did. 'Iron Fist' only lasted fifteen issues, 'Ms. Marvel' only made it to issue #23, and although 'Spider-Woman' lasted a bit longer, Claremont's run came towards the end of the series.

So where am I going with all this? Simple. I'm pointing out that the end of a series doesn't mean the end of a storytelling engine. 'Ms. Marvel' lasted only twenty-three issues, but pretty much every character that Claremont thought had any storytelling potential, he lifted out and made use of in his other work. Deathbird made her first appearance in 'Ms. Marvel', as did Mystique and Rogue; Claremont later took these villains, the backstories and plans he'd worked up for them, and made efficient use of them when he needed ideas for the X-Men. In fact, Ms. Marvel herself became a semi-regular character in the X-Men (along with Misty Knight from 'Iron Fist' and Jessica Drew from 'Spider-Woman'...more examples of Claremont finding new uses for old characters.) These re-used elements helped Claremont when he needed ideas, because they were ideas he already had sitting around waiting to be used.

Eventually, Ms. Marvel wound up gaining cosmic powers and having space adventures. This new set of stories kept the character in the minds of the fans, eventually paving the way for her return in Kurt Busiek's 'Avengers' run, which in turn paved the way for her to get her own series again. Which demonstrates another good reason to recycle ideas and plotlines from cancelled series. Sometimes, all an idea needs is to stick around until it catches on.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Meet 'N Greet #2

It's, um, still Thursday, right? (Seriously, yes, I know this is late. Had some stuff to deal with that couldn't wait and took up a good chunk of time. But it's not every day one gets a free car.) So, only two days after it was supposed to be up, the origin of another fabulous super-hero/villain!

Karin Colbert was out jogging in Paragon City one bright spring morning when she had the seeming misfortune to turn down the wrong street at the wrong time. As she rounded the corner, she heard the sounds of chanting, and spotted an eerie green light--all of which stopped as she practically bumped into a group of three men in dark robes, their eyes glowing under the hood.

"So," one of them said, "the prophecy is true! Our ritual has, indeed, been interrupted by the legendary Champion of Light!" He raised his sacrificial dagger. "Speak, mighty Champion! Tell us the name of the hero we are slaying this morning!"

"...eep."

"Very well, Eep, prepare to die!"

Karin flung out a hand, attempting to block the dagger...and was stunned when a mass of whirling cinders flew out from it into the face of the cultist. He collapsed, choking, and the other two cultists quickly fled. The would-be victim stood up, and walked over to her.

"Congratulations, Champion," he said. "From this day forth, your karmic destiny is set. You shall battle evil. You shall fight the darkness. You shall be our Champion of Light. You shall be...EEP!"

"But I don't want to!"

"Too bad. Sucks to be you." And he vanished.

And ever since that fateful day, Karin Colbert has accidentally run into evil wherever she has gone, unwillingly fighting it with magical powers that she doesn't know how to use and doesn't want to, as...EEP!

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.