Monday, July 30, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Uncanny X-Men, Part Two

(or "When It Didn't Work")

As briefly mentioned at the end of the previous column, the Uncanny X-Men underwent some major changes as of issue #200. Charles Xavier, dying of internal injuries suffered in a mugging some months back (how exactly the world's most powerful telepath could get mugged by a group of street toughs was kind of glossed over), passed on leadership of the team to a reformed Magneto and went off into space with his girlfriend to recuperate, seemingly never to return. Cyclops, meanwhile, had his first child (a son), reluctantly turned field leadership of the team over to Storm, and left the X-Men, also seemingly never to return. This then sets up the new storytelling engine for the X-Men; can they trust their new leader, a man they once fought against?

Except that this isn't the storytelling engine for the X-Men after issue #200. This is, in fact, the point at which Chris Claremont more or less abandoned the idea of a storytelling engine for the comic, with drastic consequences for the stability of the series.

The idea of Magneto as leader of the team and replacement of Xavier is abandoned first; indeed, "abandoned" is a rather charitable description under the circumstances. While an important plot point in companion series 'The New Mutants', the X-Men don't even see Magneto for ten issues or so, and Storm certainly doesn't feel any need to do more than consult with him on the direction the team is going. In fact, they abandon the mansion almost completely after issue #200, instead taking up bases in San Francisco, the Morlock tunnels, and Muir Isle.

Likewise, the team make-up becomes mutable to the point of chaos; Longshot, Dazzler, Psylocke, and Havok all join the team with very little fanfare or indeed set-up (again, some of the set-up is done in 'New Mutants'; at this point, it's more or less assumed that anyone reading one is reading the other.) Nightcrawler, Colossus, Shadowcat and Phoenix (Rachel Summers) all leave the team during this period, also without much explanation--indeed, a good part of the rationale for 'Excalibur', another X-Book spin-off, is simply to explain where these characters went. (Except for Colossus, who returned as abruptly as he left.)

By the time two years have passed from Xavier's departure, an entirely new status quo is established. As of issue #229 (just outside the current scope of the 'Essentials' series), Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Havok, Dazzler, Longshot, Psylocke and Rogue operate as a commando unit out of the Australian outback, teleporting to the scene of conflict and vanishing afterwards (since the world believes them all to be dead.) It's a decidedly different "look" from the series, and one that has a lot fewer storytelling opportunities...

But honestly, that doesn't matter that much. Because within the span of another couple of years, Claremont takes that engine apart too. By issue #251, the series consists of Wolverine and his ward/self-appointed protector Jubilee, searching for clues to the whereabouts of the missing and amnesiac X-Men. The storytelling engine that once built a comics empire is at that point two characters and one false status quo. (The remainder of Claremont's run is spent more or less putting the team back to the point it was prior to issue #200; it's difficult to guess how much of that was a plan on Claremont's part and how much was editorially mandated.)

And why did all this happen? (In storytelling terms, that is. Obviously, it happened because these were the stories Chris Claremont thought would flow logically from his initial premise.) It happened because there was no Xavier. Charles Xavier is the only character in the X-Men--and their various spin-offs--whose personal agenda coincides with the storytelling engine of the X-Men series. Magneto does not believe in the same thing Xavier does. Storm has no real desire to teach. Wolverine is not out to change the world. If any character other than Charles Xavier is in charge of the team, it forms itself around the new leader--and unfortunately, we're left with our initial dictum of storytelling engines. Not all engines are created equal. Not all stati quo give the same number of storytelling opportunities. And if the "classic" X-Men is one of the great storytelling engine, then it follows that any move away from that engine has a good chance of being a worse engine.

Sometimes, there's a reason things don't change too much in comics.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Book Recommendation of the Day

'Frozen In Time', by John Geiger and Owen Beattie, is an impressive (if intense) book about the Franklin Expedition, and its final fate. Franklin set off to discover the Northwest Passage, a northern sea route connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, during one of the last great eras of exploration. He had two ships, 129 men, the latest equipment and provisions to ensure his survival, and the hopes of England behind him. He and his men were never heard from again.

The book contains contemporary accounts of the Franklin expedition--its planning, the historical context of the search for the Northwest Passage, and the reaction from Franklin's countrymen as it became apparent that something had gone wrong. It then shifts to almost 150 years later, as forensic scientists (Beattie included) attempt to find out exactly what happened to the men of the Franklin expedition, using the only evidence remaining...the bodies of three of the crew, buried by their shipmates but containing vital evidence that the Canadian ice preserved.

Really, a genuinely gripping read, if a little sad and unnerving.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Uncanny X-Men, Part One

(or "When It Worked")

Now we come to an examination of what could be the most successful storytelling engine in comics--certainly, in its prime, 'Uncanny X-Men' was one of the top sellers in the medium, the book that drove Marvel's ascent to the top of the heap in the comics publishing industry. But as previously noted, there didn't seem to be anything special about the X-Men prior to 'Giant Size X-Men' #1, and the establishment of a new team. So what exactly changed?

The first thing that leaps to mind is the tone, and certainly, Chris Claremont took his writing a bit more seriously than other writers had in the past. His version of Magneto was a grand, tragic figure instead of a cartoonish super-villain, and he wrote 'The Dark Phoenix Saga' as just about the closest thing to a Greek tragedy you'll see in a comic (unless you're reading an adaptation of a Greek tragedy.) But he also included stories like "Kitty's Fairy Tale" and had his X-Men referee a scavenger hunt led by the Impossible Man, and let's face it--dark and operatic stories have come and gone since then, and none of them have been as successful as the X-Men.

It also bears mentioning that Claremont gave the X-Men's rogues gallery an upgrade, with memorable villains like Mystique, Proteus, the Morlocks and Hellfire Club all fitting neatly into the X-Men mythos in a way villains like Lucifer never did. But then again, he also added villains like Arcade, the Brood, the mad emperor of the Shi'ar, the N'Garai, and Deathbird, and made them all work despite their lack of mutant street cred. Heck, Deathbird and Mystique were old Ms. Marvel villains.

Ultimately, the major element to the success of the new X-Men comes from two elements of the comic that readers scarcely notice and good writers slave to get right--team dynamic and setting. Len Wein, who never gets enough credit, designed a new team of X-Men that had strong, dynamic personalities that could create conflict, yet still work together. The addition of Wolverine was absolutely crucial, and not just because he was going to go on to become the most popular comic book character of all time--he's the trouble-maker, the hot-head, an element the series strongly lacked before. With the new X-Men, when Professor X gave an order, there was always a chance that Wolverine would just say "No." The added tension made each mission an adventure, even though you knew that Wolverine would help out when the chips were down.

And most crucially, the setting of the series was letter-perfect to allow the kinds of major changes that Wein and Claremont made. Professor X, his school, and his dream of good mutants defending and aiding human-kind, wasn't something that needed a particular set of people around it. The original X-Men could leave and come back as they pleased, new team-mates could join, old ones die...Xavier went ahead and recruited a second team of mutants, at one point, and it all made sense because readers had grown to accept the idea that the comic was about the school and its inhabitants, not any specific person. And that grounded the book even when out in space, or in the Savage Land. The team thought about Xavier and he about them. The school and its mentor enabled writers to make major changes while still keeping the book familiar for intermittent readers.

Then Xavier left in issue #200, and as we'll see next week, that may well have been Chris Claremont's first serious mistake on the book.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I'm One For One

In a previous column, I predicted that Michael Vick would end his NFL career without having won a Superbowl.

I think that prediction's looking stronger and stronger...although I have to say, I find it more than a little disappointing that Commissioner Roger Goddell's stance of "We'll suspend them as soon as news of the crime goes out, no more letting them stall the case out until the off-season to get it out of the public eye, we're sick of these guys giving the league a bad image" dissipates as soon as the person he has to suspend is actually someone whose name sells tickets. (And T-shirts, although some of his still say "Mexico" on the back.)

They're letting Vick play because he's a superstar, and despite claims that they plan to get tough on thugs and crooks in the NFL, the truth is that superstars play by different rules than anyone else. But that only holds true for the NFL's system, not the legal system, and the case against Vick looks pretty seriously air-tight...and with a maximum six-year sentence, he might not see the field for a while, suspended or not.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Classic X-Men

(or "If At First You Don't Succeed...")

For those of us who came of age as comics fans in the 80s and 90s, the thought that there was ever a time when the X-Men weren't immensely popular is a bit of a tricky one to get our heads around. They are, after all, the X-Men, the all-conquering comics juggernaut that single-handedly dominated market shares for the better part of a decade. How could there be a time, historically, when the title was a struggling bi-monthly that resorted to reprints for four-and-a-half years and was on the relative verge of cancellation? What was it that made one X-Men series such a hit and another not? What exactly did they add and remove to the X-Men's storytelling engine to turn it from dud to hit? It's going to be impossible to pin it down to a single element, of course, but let's look at some of the potential causes.

A big contender right off the bat is "tone". The style and emotional content of a series comes up only occasionally in these columns, if for no other reason than it's difficult to pin down when compared to the more concrete elements that stand out. But there really shouldn't be any doubt that Stan Lee and Chris Claremont are very different writers, and that the Silver Age and the Bronze Age were very different stylistic eras. Perhaps the central concept of the X-Men, with its emphasis on generational gaps and parallels to racial issues, was just inherently more suited to a Bronze Age writer that emphasized characterization rather than a Silver Age writer who emphasized action. Maybe it just needed time to come into its own.

The rogues gallery also deserves mention; sure, the first 66 issues of X-Men brought us Magneto, the Juggernaut, and the Sentinels, but it also brought us "Grotesk the Sub-Human", "Unus the Untouchable", Lucifer, and a big Frankenstein Monster robot built by aliens. Very few of the X-Men's foes from this era were interesting, credible threats, and of those few, even fewer really felt like they belonged in an X-Men series.

Ultimately, the one I think comes closest to being the root cause (and bearing in mind, this is only a personal opinion)...the team dynamic really falls flat compared to the other Lee/Kirby teams of the era. The Beast is a great character--someone who really comes alive on the page--but Cyclops and Angel seem fairly interchangeable, Iceman doesn't have the charisma that helps keep Johnny Storm from getting irritating, and Marvel Girl has a personality similar to pretty much any other 60s female character in comics. There's nobody to lend the team spark and conflict, like Hawkeye did for the Avengers, or the Thing did for the Fantastic Four, or...like Wolverine would later for the X-Men.

So why, then, did Marvel stick with the title? If you have to bring in a new creative team, jettison four of the five central characters, and redraft the team dynamic from the ground up, why are you still calling the team the X-Men? (Apart, of course, from the name-recognition factor and protection of trademarks.) What was the good thing about the storytelling engine that made them decide to try to salvage it?

Fundamentally, the X-Men just have a very good central concept, one that's interesting and unusual and opens up a lot of storytelling possibilities. A wise old man with amazing powers finds young people who are just developing their own startling abilities and takes them in at his school, both to teach them how to use their powers and to teach them how to protect the world against those who would use these abilities for evil. Someone must have recognized that a concept this good deserves a second chance.

Update

I just wanted to take a moment here to express my thanks for everyone's expressions of condolences and support during a difficult time for myself and my family. The past week has been hard, and it's helped my sister Tessa and my brother-in-law Sean a lot, I think, to have people there for them. At this point, it seems likely that Cordelia died of SIDS; it doesn't seem likely that Kate is in any danger, but I think we'll all breathe a sigh of relief once she gets out of the danger zone.

Again, thank you all for your kindness and support.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

I just keep getting reminded of this Harlan Ellison quote, because it was one I always used to tell myself whenever I was angry, or sad, or upset about something. He said, "Real pain only lasts ten minutes. Anything else is self-pity."

And he's right. He's so right. But he never said that those ten minutes don't all come at once. They're sharpened down to seconds, and each second of pain is like the stab of an icepick, and they just keep coming.

My niece, Cordelia Faith Henry, died today while sleeping. There will be no blog entries next week, as I will be out of town dealing with family concerns.

I don't know what else to say right now.

Insane Comic Moments, Part 3

I actually wasn't planning to do another of these, but I saw that people enjoyed the last one, and while I do write this blog for my own personal amusement, never let it be said that I'm above shamelessly pandering for reader attention. So, without further ado, I present another example of how logic took a backseat sometimes in the Silver Age.

This one looks at Green Arrow, who could easily fill a year's worth of columns on his own (the "fake uranium arrow" is one of my favorites...but for now, we'll look at the story, 'A Cure For Billy Jones', originally published in World's Finest Comics #131. In it, we see young Billy Jones, who shows no interest anymore in books, TV, movies, his favorite sport of archery, or even reports about his two favorite heroes, Green Arrow and Speedy. He just sits there, moping. And unfortunately, Confuse-A-Cat is species specific. So what's a loving parent to do?

Naturally, they take him to see a psychiatrist, who believes that the best cure would be to have young Billy actually meet his heroes (good idea) and go out for an evening fighting crime with them (excuse me?) Green Arrow at first assumes that the good doctor must mean for them to stage a mock battle with hired actors, so Billy can see them in action, but Doc insists, "No--nothing phoney! If Billy found out, it would break his heart! It's got to be the real thing!"

Rather than check his credentials or seek a second opinion ("Yes, I also recommend an intensive course of child-endangerment therapy!"), GA and Speedy go along with the plan. They give Billy a bow and some trick arrows (like the bolo arrow, the firecracker arrow, the boxing glove arrow, and the rope-trip arrow...but don't worry, they saved the boomerang-balloon arrows for themselves.) They drive him in the Arrowcar and launch him from the Catapult...because this is actually how Green Arrow and Speedy get to rooftops quickly. The seat of their car is spring-loaded and launches them thirty or so feet in the air. And it says a lot that this isn't the craziest thing about the story.

Naturally, Green Arrow and Speedy get caught by some crooks, and they're worried--not just because they're going to get shot in the back of the head execution-style and buried in an unmarked grave, but because little Billy still doesn't have that pep in his step! But at the last second, Billy realizes that the reason that Green Arrow is getting his butt kicked is because he's more worried about Billy than himself, and proceeds to rediscover the joy of life through subduing violent criminals twice his size. In the last panel, we see that Billy is once more filled with energy, hanging out with friends and playing games. Perhaps the "bring friends over with games" strategy might have been employed before the "give him lethal weapons and catapult him onto a rooftop to fight hardened criminals" method. Ah, well. Can't argue with success.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Storytelling Engines: The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe

(or "The Big Picture")

"Now, wait," I hear you saying, as I begin this column. "The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe? That's not a storytelling engine! There aren't even any stories in there!"

But, I respond, refusing to use quote marks for my own sentences, that's just because you're not seeing the forest for the trees. You are correct in noting that the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe (and its Deluxe Edition and Update, reprinted in later volumes), contain no stories in and of themselves. They merely recap old stories for readers unlucky enough to have missed some of the classic issues. (The entire project was undertaken in the unlucky era before trade paperbacks, when only the wealthy could read classic comics.) But the storytelling engine isn't in the recaps, at least not exactly. The storytelling engine is in the title.

The idea of a Marvel Universe (or DC Universe, or Image Universe) is an idea so cunning and simple that we no longer even notice it--it's simply an inevitable consequence of these comics coming from the same publisher. Water runs downhill, cats chase mice, and comic book stories by a given publisher take place in the same fictional universe, allowing these characters to interact when commercial and creative concerns demand it. The Handbooks are just an exploration of that fictional territory.

But it wasn't always so. There was a point in 1940 when someone actually said, "We've got this hero, the Shield, and this other hero, the Wizard...what if we had one of them show up in the other one's comic?" There was a point when the idea of two super-heroes from different comic books meeting was a radical notion. And a "fictional universe"? Complicated and heady stuff.

By the time the Marvel Age of Comics rolled around in the 60s, it was down to a science. Even characters from mutually exclusive futures could be rolled into the package, thanks to concepts that fans had been familiarized with (like "alternate universes" and "different dimensions".) This was a storytelling boon; not only could heroes team up, but villains could be shared by multiple heroes, locations that provided stories for one comic could provide stories for another (like Counter-Earth, or the Savage Land), and storylines dropped in one book could be picked up in another.

Eventually, as we return to the topic of the title, just the exploration of the history and geography of this fictional universe could provide enough story material to fill five telephone-book sized volumes. (And a book called 'The Crossover Companion', should I ever manage to finish the thing.) In short, the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe demonstrates that just as storytelling engines can work on the microscopic scale of filling pages, so can they also work on the macroscopic scale of generating a whole publisher's worth of ideas.