Thursday, May 31, 2007

Groovy

My recommendation for the day: 'Evil Dead: The Musical'. The soundtrack is available from Time/Life, you can pick it up through Amazon or at a number of retail outlets, and it's a hilarious amalgamation of the first two movies with the spirit of the third, and some extremely catchy songs (like "All of the Men In My Life Keep Getting Killed By Candarian Demons"). If you liked the movies, you'll probably also like the musical--Bruce Campbell did, and if it's got his personal seal of approval, you know it's good.

It's not worksafe, though. Just to warn you now. There is much swearing, innuendo, and descriptions of violence including, but not limited to chainsaw dismemberments, shootings, and the biting of one's hand by a dead moose. (Which would make a great MPAA ratings box. "Includes graphic violence, language, sexual situations, and attacks by dead moose.")

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Superman Family

(or "Driving The White Elephant")

Looking back, it's hard to believe that Jimmy Olsen, Superman's Pal, ever got his own comic series. Or that it ran...222 issues? Can that even be right? Jimmy Olsen, the nerdy little geek with the bow-tie and freckles, the poster child for "Why DC Got Its Butt Kicked By Marvel" and the target of endless post-Crisis revamps to attempt to shake the stench of lameness away from him, was the headliner for a series that ran longer than 'X-Factor'? How can this even be? We have to look at the storytelling engine here. Something must be wrong.

So we've got Jimmy Olsen. He's a young man, just starting out in his career as cub reporter for the Daily Planet. He's bright, helpful, but with just enough terminal enthusiasm that he frequently rushes into a situation without thinking about whether he can handle it. But luckily, he's also resourceful, adaptive, expert with disguises and pretty good in a fight...and he also happens to be the trusted confidant of Superman, the Man of Steel. However, don't think that being Superman's pal solves all your problems--Jimmy's as often the target of Superman's enemies as he is the recipient of his aid. We follow Jimmy as he looks for stories, helps the little guy, and does his best to help the biggest guy of all, Superman.

Wow. When you actually sit down and read it, suddenly it does seem like a pretty good storytelling engine. There are lots of hooks that help writers get a story going, Jimmy is the kind of character who never has trouble finding something interesting going on, and the Superman angle is a nice way of giving him an unconventional superpower--he's like Johnny Thunder, able to summon the lightning down on his enemies when he needs it, but never in control of the actual results. Nobody seems to like Jimmy Olsen anymore, but he's got a surprisingly good storytelling engine sitting there, waiting to be used. Even the bow-tie and goofy jacket make sense, in context; Jimmy presents a distinctive appearance because it helps fix a mental image of him in people's eyes, so that just changing the jacket and putting on a normal tie is half-way to a disguise.

All that really makes Jimmy Olsen seem lame is the whole "Gosh!" and "Super-duper!" thing...and let's face it, for the Fifties, that was cursing like a sailor.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Doctor Who's Wacky Funtime Playhouse, Part Three

A day late, but this is the third and final part in the short story in which I attempted to create something completely new and different, similar only in the title and the use of "time travel" to the classic TV series 'Doctor Who'. As you'll soon see, this is also the point at which I realized I'd spectacularly failed...

Dale looked at him incredulously. “I’ll tell you what caused the end of it—I died! Or, I mean, I will die. As soon as you leave. Which I want you to do, because I just want to get this over with…I want to die. I can’t keep going anymore, and I can’t stop.”

“Why do you wish to die?” Gogos seemed puzzled.

“Because I’ve been doing this show, this albatross, this anchor, this…thing…for twenty years! It’s ruined me for any other acting work; can you imagine the host of ‘Doctor Who’s Wacky Funtime Playhouse’ doing Shakespeare, or ‘Death of a Salesman’? I can’t even go out and get drunk over it, because I’m supposed to be a role-model for kids! The show doesn’t pay enough for me to retire, I’ll never do any of the roles I got into acting to do…” The words poured out of him, twenty years of bile finally unleashed in a single flowing rant. “All my life, I wanted to touch people, and instead I wound up doing a local kid’s show for twenty years. It’s worthless.”

Gogos shook his head. “Perhaps you did not hear me,” he said. “You have touched all of us. The empires of my sector of space span a thousand worlds, with a thousand billion inhabitants. Each of us has our own religion, our own culture, our own taboos, our own emotions. There is no common ground, no touchstone for us. Every day, we each encounter perspectives so alien to our own that there seems no possible outcome but violence.

“Your show changed all that. Every week, we saw something that we could all understand and appreciate. Yes, it was silly. Yes, it was intended for children. Yes, the values it espoused were simple, sometimes unworkable in the real and complex world we live in. And yes, the production values were low. But it provided us with a sense of wonder, a simple pleasure and enjoyment that transcended our cultural barriers. Through you, Doctor Who, we gained a common ground that different cultures could all appreciate. Love, luck, and laughter. They are not such bad values to build upon.”

There was a long silence. At the end of it, Dale said, “Thank you,” very quietly.

“You are welcome,” Gogos said. “Now, please, continue with your suicide.”

Dale raised an eyebrow. “Um…it really doesn’t seem…I mean, I think I can go on now, because like you said, um…”

Gogos shook his head. “I am afraid there is nothing I can do here. The series ceased transmission on this date. It is a historical fact, and there is nothing I can do about it. A shame, but that is the laws of causality for you.” He paused, obviously pretending to be lost in thought and not quite managing to conceal a hint of smugness. “Unless…”

Dale said, “Spare me the acting. Unless what?”

Gogos said, “It occurs to me that I could use the time-belt to bring you with me back to my home on Vinoma in the future. From there, we could then bring you on a good-will tour of the planets of the empire, performing before all the different worlds and uniting the fractured races in a new order of peace and harmony. It will be difficult, of course. After seven years of fighting, some no longer wish for peace. You may have to perform to hostile crowds. Your life may even be in danger at times.” Gogos looked meaningfully at the drawer. “Then again, I am not certain how much more dangerous it could be than putting a loaded fire-arm in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

Dale smiled ruefully. “I see your point. Sure, I’ll go.” He stood up. “I think my work is done here on Earth anyway.”

Gogos stood up as well. “Excellent,” he said. “Please, take my hand now, and we will transmit ourselves to the future.”

Dale clasped his hand with Gogos, and as he felt a strange, distant tingling sensation overwhelm him, he said the only words he could possibly think of as appropriate.

“Doctor Who prescribes love, luck, and laughter for the rest of the day!”

Monday, May 21, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Hulk

(or "Engine Elasticity")

Everyone knows how the storytelling engine of the Incredible Hulk goes. There's Bruce Banner, brilliant-but-timid scientist, who's being chased by the hot-tempered, obsessive General Thunderbolt Ross. When Banner gets angry, he changes into the Hulk, a big, green, dumb guy with unbelievable strength, who smashes everything around him in a rage. (Which is, natch, why Ross is chasing him.) Meanwhile, Banner searches for a cure to his condition so he can reunite with his beloved Betty...who happens to be Thunderbolt Ross's daughter, in a classic case of divided loyalties.

Unsurprisingly, that storytelling engine doesn't actually show up as much as you'd think when you sit down and read the Hulk. Why? Because it's a terrible storytelling engine, that's why. It's a false status quo, for a start--Banner can't ever cure himself of being the Hulk, and Ross can't ever catch him, because either way, the comic would end. The Hulk is a passive character--not as maddeningly passive as the Man-Thing is, but still very limited in his ability to shape the storyline. He either wants to smash it, or he ignores it. Most Hulk villains have to essentially goad him into beating them up, sort of like a kid who throws rocks at a "mean" dog until it snaps at him. And there are very few easy story hooks in this engine--Ross is only interested in catching Banner, Banner is only interested in curing himself of the Hulk, and Betty...the less said about Betty Ross the better, but let's just say she won't be a spokesperson for the National Organization for Women any time soon. The stories using this engine quickly become repetitive, which reduces the interest of both writer and audience over time.

And yet, this is the model the Hulk always returns to sooner or later. More than any other series, the Hulk departs its own storytelling engine to build a new one; the Hulk gets smart, he gets pardoned, he goes into space, he goes into another dimension, he gets split in two, he gets cured, he becomes amoral, he becomes a member of a secret organization of immortal warriors and then goes into space...but always, it seems like we go back to "Hulk smash puny humans" sooner or later. Why?

Because, as stated in the opening of the post, everyone knows how the storytelling engine of the Hulk goes. The vast majority of Hulk readers, even true-blue comic geeks, are as familiar with the Hulk cartoon, the Hulk TV series, and the Hulk movie as they are with the Hulk comic (in fact, unless you're a devoted fan of the Hulk comic, you're probably more familiar with the TV series than the comic.) It's a repetitive formula that doesn't work very well over extended periods, but it's also an iconic, simple idea that makes a deep impression when you first see/read it. So while the Hulk engine has to stretch away from the iconic central concept in order to get room to tell plenty of stories, it inevitably "snaps" back to that concept, because it's what we think of as who the Hulk is. Even if a single writer swears they'll never go back to "Hulk Smash" stories, no writer lasts forever on a title. And sooner or later, someone'll come along who remembers what Hulk comics "should" be like. They should be about the Hulk. Smashing things. And being chased by the military.

And, of course, the magical purple pants that change size when he does.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

'Doctor Who's Wacky Funtime Playhouse', Part Two

A continuation of last week's story, which was written to the brief "Reinvent Doctor Who, keeping nothing but the name and the concept of time travel..."

Dale went into his dressing room, shut the door gently, and then carefully wedged one of the two spare chairs in the room underneath the doorknob. He could have just locked it, of course, or even just left it closed—people didn’t really walk in on him in his dressing room. But that seemed so un-melodramatic for what was, essentially, a huge cry for attention.

He sat down in his own chair, in front of the mirrored dresser where he did his own make-up, and reached into a drawer. He pulled out a piece of paper on which he’d already composed a note (sealing it carefully in a waterproof envelope), and a .22 caliber revolver. He held the gun nervously, turning it over in his hands with the wary air of someone new to the world of firearms. He was, in fact, new to the world of firearms; this was the first gun he’d ever owned in his life. He’d never felt any great need to possess one before, and had always worried about something going wrong with it—imaginary headlines like ‘CHILDREN’S TV STAR KILLS YOUNG BOY’ kept him from ever seriously contemplating having a gun. But he figured that by this point, he was through worrying about newspaper headlines. In fact, for the past year or so, he’d even taken a morbid pleasure in imagining them. Surely, he thought, everyone would understand. Many probably expected it. After all, if you were recognized anywhere you went as a man who dressed up in a goofy fake doctor’s outfit to entertain small children, wouldn’t you eat a bullet sooner or later?

His mind made up, he reached back into the drawer and pulled out a box of ammunition. He carefully loaded each chamber of the gun, one bullet at a time. He was aware that he’d probably only use one bullet, but decided that it was better to be safe than sorry. Then, snapping the chamber back into position, he put the barrel of the gun into his mouth, grimacing slightly at the taste of oiled metal. He cocked back the hammer. He closed his eyes tightly, and prepared for the release of oblivion.

“Excuse me,” someone said behind him, “but what are you doing?”

His finger tightened reflexively on the trigger in shock, and he suddenly realized three things in very short order. One, he’d forgotten to take the gun’s safety off. Two, the person watching him had just seen him humiliate himself further by trying to shoot himself in the face and failing. Three, there was someone watching him. Four, which came to him as a surprise bonus, that meant that there was someone in the room with him.

He opened his eyes and looked in the mirror. Behind him, a…a…a come-back-to-that-later had seated him…her…itself down in his other spare chair, and was looking at him with an expression of what looked like it might be polite interest. Dale wasn’t sure, because now that he did come back to it, the…person?...didn’t look human.

Oh, it looked human-ish. It had two arms, two legs, and a head. But it had two sets of ears, one right on top of the other, and its nose was just a flattish bump with two tiny slits that fluttered as it breathed. Its skin was a whitish-gray, the color of a four-week old corpse, and it had black, shark-like eyes. It stared at him, its fingers (seven on each hand) steepled together in a pose of patient interest. It opened its mouth and spoke again.

“I am sorry,” it said, “but again I must ask what it is that you are doing.”

Dale was so unnerved, he forgot he had a gun in his mouth. “Oo he huck ar oo?”

The creature blinked. Its eyelids were on the sides of its eyes, he noticed. “I am sorry, Doctor. I do not understand.”

Doctor? He took the gun out of his mouth and said, a bit more calmly, “I asked who you were.”

It smiled. Its teeth were all flat and rounded, like a horse’s teeth. “I am Gogos, High Researcher of the Vinomian Archives. Please, Doctor Who, forgive this intrusion. I do not wish to interrupt such an important moment in history, but we simply had to know for ourselves what happened to you.”

Dale slammed the gun down onto the drawer, suddenly irate at the intruder. “As it happens, I’m trying to kill myself. I was hoping to do so in privacy, and with perhaps a little dignity, but I guess that’s just a little too much to ask! Jeez!” He sighed. He paused as he actually started thinking about what the being had said. “What are you talking about?”

Gogos gestured towards him. “I am from a planet called Vinoma, five thousand light-years away from your world of Earth. We are an advanced species, capable of many technological feats that your planet has not yet developed even in our own time. For our signal-catchers, it is child’s play to capture and replay the transmissions of your Earth ‘television’. We have been watching your broadcasts for twenty years now, and the entertainment that ‘Doctor Who’s Wacky Funtime Playhouse’ has provided has helped unite the warring factions of our vast empire.

“Seven years ago by our time-scale, the transmissions ceased. Our records show that no episodes of ‘Doctor Who’s Wacky Funtime Playhouse’ were broadcast after this date in relative history. Without your show, tensions have once more built up among our different races. No other program has succeeded in uniting us in mirth and happiness the way yours has—not even the legendary ‘Howdy Doody’ broadcasts that brought about the cease-fire in the Horghal-Iridus War. I decided to use our time-belt to travel back to the date of the final broadcast, over five thousand years ago, and determine for myself what caused the end of ‘Doctor Who’s Wacky Funtime Playhouse’.”

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.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Breaking News Extra!

From the Associated Press:

"Yankees' Wang hit hard by Rangers"

No, seriously.

It actually said that.

'Doctor Who's Wacky Funtime Playhouse', Part One

A little something different, this week...I'm going to recycle old material!

Directly, that is, instead of writing new stuff about my old ideas. This is a short story I wrote for a Doctor Who charity anthology (Doctor Who fans have a history of producing short-story anthologies with the proceeds going to various charities. Obviously, it violates copyright, but the BBC has traditionally looked the other way so long as the money really does go to a worthy cause. Some of them, like the classic 'Perfect Timing', got some fairly well known professional authors to contribute alongside the fan writers.) The anthology in question, 'Atypical History', was supposed to come out in 2003 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the series. I think it's pretty unlikely that it'll make it in time.

The brief for all writers was as follows: Write an original short story using the name 'Doctor Who' and the concept of time travel that could serve as the springboard for a series of further stories. In short, we were to imagine another way that Doctor Who could have gone back in 1963, using as little of the original as possible. So here was what I did with it...

‘Doctor Who’s Wacky Funtime Playhouse’
by John Seavey

The energy of the crowd felt almost like a physical force as it washed over Dale Townsend, and for a brief moment he forgot everything and just basked in the cheers of adoring children. He couldn’t see them—right now, the spotlight he stood in kept him from seeing any of the audience—but he didn’t need to know what they looked like. All that mattered, for now at least, was their excitement, their applause. They had been infused with the excitement of the mob, each child feeding off the energy of the others and getting more and more enthused, thrilled, and energetic, and now it poured off them in waves as he stood there in his white coat, big shoes, and mint-green surgical outfit waiting for them to finally cool down enough for him to speak. It was a tiny moment. It wasn’t enough. But he’d remember it, he was sure, for the rest of his life.

Finally, the applause died down, and he spoke. “Well, kids,” he said, his voice filled with forced warmth, “the 1000th episode of ‘Doctor Who’s Wacky Funtime Playhouse’ is just about done!” He ended the sentence in an acclamative shout, the same way he ended all of his sentences when speaking in character. It was another thing he wouldn’t miss. “And I’m grateful to all of you for helping make it the best episode ever!” Not true, he thought as the crowd roared again—the 500th episode was much better. He’d gotten a few celebrities to do guest appearances, big stars who’d grown up in the area and had watched the show with fond memories. Nobody cared anymore. The show was still on because it was cheap to produce, mostly old cartoons that didn’t cost much and just one emcee to keep the live audience occupied.

He waved at the crowd, and they quieted down once more. “So thank you all once again, and here’s to a thousand more!” Another roaring crowd, but this time, he heard the beginnings of the theme song playing and knew that he didn’t have long. Quickly, using the same voice projection talents he’d once hoped would take him far in Shakespearean theatre, he uttered his trademark closing line: “And remember, kids, Doctor Who prescribes love, luck, and laughter for the rest of the day!”

The spotlight darkened and Dale Townsend, known for the past twenty years in the major Chicago markets as “Doctor Who”, let himself relax. Another episode, another paycheck, and that was just the way life worked. He didn’t see any reason to get emotional about it anymore.
He headed back towards his dressing room, only to have Tom, his producer, run up next to him and put his arm around him in what was probably meant to be a gesture of good-natured camaraderie. Tom probably had a last name, but Dale never bothered to remember the names of his producers anymore. He just noted whether they were the young kind on their way up, doing the show as a way to build credits for their resumé before moving into bigger and better things, or the kind on their way down, broken-down and weary and scraping the last few dollars out of their career by doing a local kiddie show in Chicago.

“That was great!” Tom said, in much the same tone of voice that Dale used on-camera. Tom was one of the young producers. Frankly, Dale preferred the old ones. They might drink, they might shout at the kids, and they might occasionally lapse into weepy tirades about how they used to direct Gwyneth Paltrow, but at least they had the good grace not to be enthusiastic about a show that forced people to dress up in mock surgical gear and entertain small children. “Really, Dale, I think that was truly super. Your best performance yet. You were…” He acted for a moment as though he was lost for words, which Dale privately suspected wasn’t hard. If you removed the words “great” and “super” from Tom’s vocabulary, he’d probably be mute.

Dale smiled wanly and said, “Thanks,” in a weary voice. He made a feeble effort to get out of his producer’s friendly grasp, but Tom wasn’t having any of it.

“So,” Tom said, “about next week’s show—I see us as leading off with some of the older black-and-white stuff, a sort of retrospective if you will—it’ll be a great way to start building our reputation again as the bleeding edge of children’s television.”

Inwardly, Dale sighed. ‘Doctor Who’s Wacky Funtime Playhouse’ never had a reputation as any kind of edge, except perhaps blunt and dull. It made ‘Mister Rogers Neighborhood’ seem “bleeding edge”, and Mister Rogers had been dead for six months. Speaking of which… “Say, Tom, could we take this up in twenty minutes or so? I’m feeling a bit drained, just want to rest in my dressing room for a bit. You know how it is.”

Tom let go of him, then gave him a solid, bone-jarring last handshake. “Sure thing. I’m sorry, Dale, I should have thought—you must be overwhelmed. One thousand episodes…it’s amazing, it really is. Super, absolutely great. Tell you what—you take a half-hour, then you and I can go out to the bars and celebrate.”

Dale nodded awkwardly, and headed towards his dressing room. Great, he grumbled mentally. Now when they report the news, they’ll talk about how I “seemed happy”, how I was “already planning the next show”.

They probably won’t even read my note.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Contentious Statement of the Day

Now that Captain America and Iron Man have gone, the team currently being featured in 'New Avengers' is not actually the Avengers at all. It's the Defenders. In fact, it's a more authentically 'Defenders-esque' Defenders team than many actual Defenders line-ups over the years. The book's title should be changed to reflect this fact, and the upcoming battle between the 'New' and 'Mighty' Avengers should, in fact, be billed as "The Second Avengers/Defenders War".

Discuss.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Spider-Man, Part Two

(or "It's Called 'The Night Gwen Stacy Died'")

When we left our intrepid hero at the end of Part One, Spider-Man had settled into a comfortable routine that, like a rollercoaster, provided the illusion of wild movement without ever actually needing to leave its rails. Peter Parker had a job (that sometimes left him with plenty of free money, sometimes broke), a girlfriend in the form of Gwen Stacy (with an on-again/off-again relationship due to his secret life), an aunt (whose health sometimes worsened, sometimes improved), and friends in Mary Jane, Harry Osborn, and Flash Thompson (with whom he got along sometimes well, sometimes badly.) Those various relationships went up and down, but never really changed drastically.

Then Gerry Conway took over. Then came Amazing Spider-Man #121-122, which single-handedly redefined the way that Spider-Man, and possibly that comics as a whole, was going to work. Some even call it the story that ended the Silver Age. For those who may be unfamiliar with it...Norman Osborn, who has been cured of his tendency to dress up as the Green Goblin and commit crimes, suffers a relapse. He remembers Spider-Man's secret identity, and kidnaps Gwen Stacy to force a confrontation on top of a bridge. So far, pretty standard stuff for a Spidey comic. You can just hear the reader asking, "Uh-oh, how's Spidey going to get out of this one?" Spidey shows up, they fight, Gwen gets knocked off the bridge, and Spidey catches her with a web at the last second...and two pages before the end of the issue. Pretty standard stuff.

Except that when he reels her in, he finds that the web wasn't elastic enough. He'd stopped Gwen's fall, but she's dead anyway. The issue ends, alright. It ends with Spider-Man cradling his dead girlfriend's body and shouting at the Goblin, "You killed the woman I love--and for that, you're going to die!"

And in the next issue, that's exactly what happens. Sure, Peter doesn't do the deed himself. He's no murderer, and he recognizes that. But nonetheless, by the end of 'The Goblin's Last Stand', Norman Osborn is fatally impaled on his own goblin glider, dead on-panel so that there can be no last-minute rescue or cheat. (Except that there was, some twenty years later, but we'll save that for another long, angry day.) Two characters died, permanently and inescapably, and the storytelling engine of Spider-Man was changed forever.

Not just in the practical sense of "Who will be Peter's new girlfriend?" (MJ), and "Who will be Peter's new arch-foe?" (Harry). It changed because the notion of change became integral to the story of Spider-Man. For the first time since the heady early days of Lee and Ditko, permanent change became a part of the expectations of Spider-Man's audience, and people read the series not just to see what the story was, but what it would mean to the status quo of the series. "Life-changing" became a selling-point, a way to bind the audience more tightly to the book. After all, who would want to miss an issue when it could turn out to be the issue where Peter's life changed forever?

And so Conway continued to change things. Not much, by today's standards: Peter moving to a new apartment, finding feelings for Mary Jane, having to deal with Harry's nervous breakdown and decision to become the new Green Goblin...these were changes, but for every big event like this, you got a lot of stories that aspired to be nothing more than entertaining Spider-Man tales. (Or changes that seemed to promise big changes, but in the end returned to the status quo, like the infamous "marriage of Aunt May and Doctor Octopus." Sure, it fell through, but fans at the time had to wonder. After all, if they'd killed Gwen, surely they could do anything?)

But in these later stories, you can see the roots of modern "event-driven" comics. Comic book writers had always had to manage their desire for artistic fulfillment against the desire not to tamper with a working formula. But after the death of Gwen Stacy, they had a new factor to balance in: The desire for the readers to see change. This third factor tipped the balance against the "status quo", and has arguably resulted in some of the most problematic decisions in the comic book industry. (The infamous "Clone Saga" of the 1990s leaps to mind.)

And by deciding to make changes to his storytelling engine periodically, Conway had just opened another can of worms. Because it was during this period that Spider-Man pulled off a major comics coup--he'd gotten a second title. In part three, we'll look at that second title, and how different writers balanced the need to have a storytelling engine with the need to keep continuity with 'Amazing'.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Meet N Greet #3

(Ironically, this entry was delayed by a day because I was checking out the new patch for 'City of Heroes'...)

Colonel Meyer Hagen walked into the dimly-lit lab, already mentally biting his nails. Doctor David Flagg wasn't the worst scientist he'd ever had to deal with in his five years as liason with the civilian technical personnel on Alpha Base, but there was just something so irritatingly...childish about the man. No, not childish. Childlike. Flagg just needed to grow up, that was the problem. Put away childish things. He--

"Colonel Hagen! Good to see you down here again!" Flagg enthusiastically slapped the colonel on the back, receiving a tight-lipped smile in return.

"Doctor Flagg. I believe you said you had a breakthrough for me?"

"Oh, better than that. I've got a completed prototype, ready for field-testing." He flipped a switch, and banks of lights illuminated a corner of the laboratory. "Allow me to present the ultimate in human-operated exoskeletal technology...the Human-Occupied Law-enforcement Computer, version 1.0!"

Colonel Hagen looked at the seven-foot tall metal form for a long moment. Finally, he said what had been in his mind since the second the lights went on. "It's...green."

"Yes. Now the breakthrough came when I realized that instead of attempting to integrate a weapons system, you could simply focus on increasing the strength and durability of the HOLC system to levels that make it effective in combat without needing--"

"I'm sorry, the what?"

"HOLC. Human-Occupied Law-enforcement Computer."

"So you want us to test a giant green robot...called the HOLC. Which is super-strong and indestructible."

Doctor Flagg nodded enthusiastically.

"You've got issues, Flagg."

"Every single one since 'Tales to Astonish' #67. Now, I've increased the leg strength, so it should be able to jump great distances. The arm strength allows it to clap its hands to create giant sonic booms..."

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Not Actually An Idea

This isn't the "official" post for this week, because:

a) it's probably not funny enough (but when has that stopped me?)

b) it would really require Photoshop to work, and probably toys based on H.P. Lovecraft, and I'm not actually sure if there are any (but of course, there are...there are action figures of everything nowadays...)

c) it requires a lot of explanation to people who don't read 'Toyfare', and I don't feel like doing that

d) it's way out of date, because they call it "Twisted Toyfare Theater" now

e) I don't actually have anything more than the premise

f) someone else has probably already done it, and done it better.

So, with all those caveats, I decided to make it a special early bonus entry. I now present:

Twisted Mi-Go Theater! Wacky hi-jinks ensue, as all your favorite characters from the hellish imagination of H.P. Lovecraft are posed, photographed, and then photoshopped with word balloons involving jokes about poop, sex, and obscure fan-jokes!

I warned you it wasn't good enough to be a real entry...