Thursday, February 28, 2008

Nobody But Me Finds This Funny

I gotta say, I'm really excited to hear about the upcoming 'Trinity' weekly series from DC. After a decades-long legendary stint as penciller of 'Amazing' and 'Ultimate Spider-Man', I'm really interested to see Mark Bagley's take on DC icons Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, especially with Kurt Busiek writing it all. But I suspect there's been a bit of an adjustment for Bagley as he moved from Marvel to DC; in fact, I can just picture the day that he turned in his first art for the series...

Editor: Hey, Mark, glad I could get in touch with you. I was looking over your art for 'Trinity' #1, and, um...there are some unusual touches I wanted to discuss with you.

Bagley: Like what?

Editor: Well, it's Batman, for starters. When you drew him, um...

Bagley: Yeah?

Editor: You made the eyepieces kind of big. Kind of really big.

Bagley: It's a stylistic thing. Todd McFarlane draws big capes, I draw big eyepieces. It's not going to be a big deal.

Editor: Um, OK...but what about this new "grappling gun" design? I don't recall Batman ever having a wrist-mounted grappling gun before.

Bagley: Batman's a tech-head, he's always coming up with new crime-fighting gadgets. With this baby, he won't even need the Batmobile! He'll just swing from building to building as he patrols Gotham!

Editor: Setting that aside for now...your Wonder Woman looks nice. She really does. But, um, you are aware she's not a red-head, right?

Bagley: She dyed it. Off-panel. Women change their look all the time, trust me. You have to admit, she looks better as a red-head, right?

Editor: Well, yes, but...we do have very specific looks for our characters we try to stick to here at DC. Like your Superman, for example.

Bagley: I kept to the colors there!

Editor: Yes, you kept to the red and blue...but what are all these black lines all over his costume?

Bagley: ...maybe it'll take me a little bit to adjust.

Editor: Perhaps. Although I like your "new look" Luthor. The crewcut and Hitler moustache really make him look more sinister...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Doctor Strange

(or "Different Singer, Same Song")

For those of you who want to know exactly how important a storytelling engine is to sustaining an open-ended series, you need look no further than Doctor Strange. Specifically, you need look no further than 'The Essential Doctor Strange, Volume Three', but let's take a step back first and look at the beginnings of the character.

Doctor Strange, like Spider-Man, is a creation of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko collaboration of the 1960s, and like Spider-Man, they hit this one out of the park. The origin is perfect (Stephen Strange is an arrogant, selfish-but-brilliant surgeon who suffers nerve damage in an accident. He goes to a mysterious Tibetan mystic called "The Ancient One" for help restoring his hands, but instead of finding a cure, he finds a calling as a defender of the human race.) The set-up is wonderful; Strange lives in a mysterious, creepy mansion in Greenwich Village, with the Ancient One acting as his mentor (as a wizened old man in early stories, and later as a disembodied ghost, a la Obi-Wan Kenobi.) He defends mankind against the shadowy, oppressive forces that dwarf our comprehension, existing in realms outside of our own. (A Lovecraft-inspired touch that Roy Thomas dwelt heavily on during his many classic runs on the series.) Admittedly, Doctor Strange runs into the same problem Green Lantern has; at times, it's difficult to figure out exactly what he can and can't do with his magical powers. But the tone of the stories remains true to Lee and Ditko's (mostly Ditko's) conception of him as the lone guardian, the sentinel that stands watch over the human race and protects it from forces that could utterly destroy it.

Now, let's look at 'Volume Three'. Steve Englehart is writing at this point, and having just come off a couple of mind-blowing stories (one where Strange witnesses the beginning of the universe, and another where he recreates the Earth in exact detail after its total destruction), he decides to come up with another wowser. This time, it's a time-travel story, in which Doctor Strange meets a variety of historical figures like Sir Francis Bacon and Ben Franklin, examines their supposed interests in the occult, and learns "the secret occult history of America"...all the while, fending off a mysterious sorcerer known as Stygro.

Something about all that must have tripped somebody's "controversial storyline idea" alert, because Englehart's off the book two issues into the storyline, leaving Marv Wolfman to step in. Now Wolfman has to finish the story, but he has to finish it in a way that doesn't use Englehart's idea. This is where the storytelling engine shines. He might not be able to use the specific ideas Englehart would have used, but he knows the type of villain Doctor Strange faces, and the sorts of stories usually told in Doctor Strange. This allows him to plug in the mysterious "Quadriverse" as the villains behind Stygro, and although the story takes a different direction, it continues to work like a Doctor Strange story.

And then, after a few more parts, Wolfman leaves, forcing Jim Starlin to step in and finish the deal. But again, Starlin knows what a Doctor Strange story looks like. He understands the storytelling engine of Doctor Strange, and although he uses his own "pet" cosmic being, the In-Betweener, instead of Eternity, it's still 'Doctor Strange meets massive cosmic forces as the representative of humanity'. The same story goes through three writers, but they all are working from the same status quo, which allows them to salvage a workable tale from what could have been an utter disaster.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Disturbing Cheerleader Meme

Chris Sims, over at his excellent blog, has decided to spend a solid week talking about the cheerleader movie franchise, 'Bring It On'. It's disturbing the way that talking about crappy cheerleader movies can get into your head. He asked for title suggestions, and he got over 150. Once you start thinking about it, it can be awfully difficult to stop. I came up with an idea for a "ninja cheerleader" movie, only to find out from his latest post that there have been two. But I think I've still got the market (specifically, the direct-to-video market) covered with my idea for:

Bring It On: Chimp Cheers!

It's a film that practically writes itself: An eccentric billionaire leaves a fortune to the high school to build a new gym, but with one proviso. The school must accept his pet chimp, Lucy, onto the cheerleading squad. The girls have to try to win at the State Cheerleading Competitions with a chimp on their squad...and, in an ironic twist, the girl who the chimp replaced is the niece of the billionaire, and she challenges his will! It all comes together at the end when they win State ("I checked the rulebook, and there's no rule that says you can't have a chimp on your squad") and the judge (who's attending the meet) is so moved that she decides to dismiss the case! And, of course, the girls find that with a graduating senior, there's room for the niece to get back on the squad.

It's the feel-good hit of the year, I tell you. Get Warner Brothers on the phone. (If Warner Brothers doesn't make the 'Bring It On' movies, they'll probably know who does, at the very least.)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Marvel Saga

(or "Night Of The Living Document")

Despite what a lot of people might believe about comics fans, we do understand that the world of comics isn't real. We know that none of the stuff depicted in the pages of the Fantastic Four or the Avengers actually happened, and that history has not been influenced by the Skrulls, the Celestials, or the Kree. (Jury's still out, though, on whether there's a big bald guy in a toga watching us from the moon.)

It can be useful, however, to pretend that the universe of Marvel Comics is real, because it shares similarities with the real world. It has a geography (with Latveria, Wakanda, and the Savage Land) and, more importantly for purposes of this column, it has a history. By looking back on all of the many issues of the many titles Marvel has published, you can compile them into a single grand story, simply titled 'What Has Gone Before'. Or, if you're Marvel, you're having your 25th anniversary, and you're feeling a bit grandiose, 'Marvel Saga'.

The Marvel Saga shows everything that happened in the Marvel Universe, starting with the first flight of the Fantastic Four's rocket-ship (and, simultaneously, the leader of Alpha Flight designing his first version of the Guardian armor), moving on through Iron Man's first adventures (and his first meeting with Jim Rhodes, the man who would one day replace him), and concluding Volume One with a definitive account of the life of Captain America and its defining tragedy, the death of Bucky Barnes.

Yes, now you're realizing what those parenthetical comments have in common. There's a big difference between the real world and comics after all. Namely, that no matter how much archaeologists and historians search for new information on the past, they don't have to worry about the past actually changing. Conflicting accounts, lack of detail, those are all bugaboos in the real world, but once something's happened, it actually happened and we all know it. In fiction, that's not true. If Ed Brubaker decides that Bucky's badly-injured body was instead fished out of the North Atlantic by the Russians and used for decades as a brainwashed assassin, then that's what happened. (Until, of course, someone else decides that he was a Skrull all along. "Dueling retcons" are common when dealing with comic-book history.)

Marvel Saga finds itself in an awkward position, in that sense. It's trying to present itself as an accurate and definitive history, but there can never really be such a thing in a fictional universe, because the narrative changes with every flashback, time-travel story, and "everything you knew is wrong!" shocker. Its storytelling engine is to treat the Marvel Universe as history, but it's undercut by the demands of an ever-changing universe.

So does this mean that the Marvel history should never change? Should the Marvel Saga be the Bible of the fictional universe, the history that's "nailed down" so that we can move forward? Probably not. There's always something new to say about the past, and looking back can make for an interesting story. Certainly, the new Captain America wouldn't exist if Ed Brubaker hadn't decided to weave a new narrative around the gaps in Cap's history.

Which isn't to say that the past should be treated as wholly mutable, either. There's a lot to be said for simplicity, for a past that everyone can understand and get up to speed with quickly. The more convoluted a history is, the harder it is to emotionally invest in the character's present. Look at the Vision, a character who went from being "an android created by Ultron" to "the armor of Iron Lad, a younger incarnation of Kang the Conqueror, made sentient by a download of the consciousness of the android made by Ultron out of the body of the original Human Torch (which was temporally duplicated by Immortus) and the brain-patterns of Simon Williams, aka Wonder Man." Adding retcons into a character's background is like digging a mine. There's lots of valuable stuff in there, but if you hollow the whole thing out, it's going to collapse into a big sinkhole.

In other words, the Marvel Saga shouldn't be a Bible...but it does do a nice job of telling you where it's still safe to dig.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An Urgent Message On Behalf of 'Marvel Saga'

Hello. Recently, Marvel released
The Essential Marvel Saga Volume One in trade paperback format, a compilation of the Peter Sanderson series that retold the history of the Marvel Universe in chronological order, from the first flight of the Fantastic Four up through the coming of Galactus. Unfortunately, many retailers have failed to order the book in any kind of significant quantity, meaning that many customers are aware of its existence.

Ladies and gentlemen, 'Marvel Saga' needs your help. It needs you to convince your local comics shop (or online retailer) to order a copy for you to purchase, and it needs it today. The very existence of an 'Essential Marvel Saga Volume Two' depends on your decision to spend 12-15 dollars (depending on what kind of discount you can get) on this book.

Why should you buy 'The Essential Marvel Saga'? If you have any interest in researching comics, either personally or professionally, it's an extremely important piece of work. (Even, yes, essential.) It's the only place, to my knowledge, where anyone attempted to explain exactly how the seminal events of the Marvel Universe fit together in a chronology, showing what was going on with the X-Men while the Fantastic Four were fighting Doctor Doom for the first time, detailing exactly when the Amazing Spider-Man had his show-business career, and so on. It is, of course, a document of its time, and some of its continuity points have since been retconned (for example, in issue 12 it says Bucky died in World War II), but it still retains huge amounts of very useful information.

It also presents this information in a clear, accessible fashion, by using actual panels from these classic comics interspersed with bridging text. So instead of just saying, "Then they formed the Avengers," it actually shows the panel of the team uniting for the first time. This makes it more entertaining to read than a simple history, and also functions as a nice abridged version of many classic Marvel stories, omitting the occasional silly moment. (For example, the 'Marvel Saga' version of the Fantastic Four's first encounter with the Skrulls uses text to gloss over the fact that according to Stan Lee, Skrulls couldn't tell the difference between photographs and Jack Kirby's artwork.) If you're someone who can't take "uncut" Silver Age comics, this provides a version you can stomach that still gives you all the classic moments.

It also features all of the extremely nice wrap-around covers for each issue ('Marvel Saga' had no ads in its original run, which meant wrap-around covers...and, incidentally, is why the 'Essential' only collects twelve issues.)

Most importantly, the more people who order 'Volume One', the greater the chance of seeing a 'Volume Two', and I really want 'Volume Two'. And, of course, I'm a tremendously egotistical person.

So think about buying 'The Essential Marvel Saga Volume One', won't you? If you were for sale, I'm sure it would buy you.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Savage Sword of Conan

(or "Why, Yes, I Am About To Compare 'Conan' To 'Mystery Science Theater 3000'")

'Savage Sword of Conan, Volume One' represents Dark Horse's entry into the "oversized digest reprints game" (something I heartily encourage, if for no other reason than it means I might someday get a big black-and-white 'Groo the Wanderer' collection); it mostly features Roy Thomas' classic Conan adventures of the 1970s. (A few other writers are represented, and many of the stories are adaptations of Robert E. Howard's original Conan stories, but the predominant authorial voice is that of Thomas.) Anyone who follows the career of Roy Thomas shouldn't be surprised to find his name on these issues; Thomas' main love and primary source of inspiration was the classic pulp stories of the 1930s, and I imagine that the chance to work on an iconic character from that era like Conan was a pure joy for him.

As you read the book, it's sometimes startling to realize that Thomas isn't just making up random barbarian stories; specific stories follow each other, or precede each other, or come from specific eras of Conan's life. Each story stands alone so well that you almost stop thinking of them as needing to link together; when a supporting character from a previous story shows up again, or when a small caption mentions that this story takes place during Conan's reign as King of Aquilonia, it's almost jarring to realize that someone's thinking about this stuff. (Although it shouldn't be--respect for continuity and chronology is another hallmark of Roy Thomas.)

A casual glance at Wikipedia shows that thinking about Conan's timeline is a major occupation for a lot of people, though. The life of Conan, as he turns from young wanderer to thief, to nomad, to mercenary, and finally to king, is something that a lot of people feel should be kept consistent. But it's interesting to note that Howard, Conan's creator, never put that kind of effort into delineating Conan's life himself. He wrote an 8000 word essay on Conan's setting, for his own personal use, and he did endorse one of the timelines, but he never seemed to feel the need to set down a chronology of Conan's adventures.

It might be, of course, that he knew the timeline of Conan's life intimately enough that he never felt that he had to set down an order of "this story happened before this story"; however, I think it's telling that he was more concerned with creating a realistic setting for sword-and-sorcery adventures than with making an iron-clad biography for his central character. Because any "Conan Chronology" is, in essence, part of the storytelling engine for Conan, not the story. They're specifying eras of Conan's life that you can set stories in. "If you want to write a story about Conan as a pirate of the high seas, it goes here." "If you want to write a story about Conan as a mercenary soldier, it goes here." The supporting cast of 'Conan' is fluid enough, and the stories accessible enough, that new readers don't really need a whole lot of exposition as to where the story "fits" in Conan's timeline.

In that sense, it's a lot like another long-running series, 'Mystery Science Theater 3000'. (I warned you I was going to do this.) There is a chronology for that series, essentially based in production order; following that chronology will explain why Dr. Erhardt is replaced by TV's Frank, or what happened to Joel, or why the robots get new voices...but the audience understands that these things are just surface details, not nearly as important as the central concept. Conan's timeline only "matters" if you want it to; because the character is so timeless and classic, the audience quickly adjusts to whatever details might be relevant to this story (Conan's a thief now? And his traveling companions are this guy, this girl, and this other guy? OK, got it, now on with the show.) Which isn't to say that people should stop composing "Conan Chronologies"; it's an interesting pastime. It's just to say that Conan's life isn't a story, it's an engine for telling Conan stories. There's a key difference.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

How To Save Marvel Comics, Step Three

I've been joking for a while now that Marvel and DC only have three problems they need to overcome--unfortunately, those problems are content, marketing, and distribution. The first two columns in this little mini-series talked about content and marketing, and hopefully left Marvel in a place where they were once again in synch with their brand identity, and pulling audiences into the specialty stores that have become the core of their market. (Actually, "core" is misleading...more like "core, pulp, juice, skin, and everything but the stem".) This, in turn, leaves Marvel with some cash to start funding the third and final leg of their journey back to financial success...better distribution.

The first and most important part of this involves breaking off their exclusive deal with Diamond. This doesn't mean that they should stop doing business with Diamond...necessarily...but Marvel needs to understand that Diamond mostly does business with a network of hobby shops and specialty stores, that they don't have the inroads to major retail chains that Marvel needs to push their business to the places they need to go (i.e. everywhere), and that Diamond ultimately needs Marvel a lot more than Marvel needs Diamond. Marvel can find other distributors, but Diamond can't just make up about half their business walking away. So Marvel needs to do what's best for Marvel (a running theme in this column), and start working with other distributors to get themselves out there.

Where do I mean by "out there"? Everywhere. Marvel is a periodicals publisher, they publish short reads designed for impulse purchases, and that means that anywhere people buy things, Marvel can put their stuff and expect people to say, "Oh, and I'll add a comic, too!" Video game stores are a good place to start; put a Marvel comics rack next to the check-out at 'GameStop' or 'Best Buy', and there's a pretty good chance that the people buying video games are enough of a comics fan that they'll probably decide to grab an issue of Spidey or the Hulk if the cover looks interesting. (Which is another thing that needs to change; go look at old Silver Age comics, and you'll see something comics publishers used to know, but have forgotten--the cover is not a piece of artwork, it's an advertisement for your comic. You know why they did all those covers of Superman being a dick? It's because they knew people would pick up the comic to see why.) The collections of 'Penny Arcade' are already being sold in video games stores on this logic--and when two guys running a website in Seattle have more marketing savvy than your forty-five year old company, you're in trouble.

Beyond that, bookstores are an obvious place to go. Sure, some bookstores already have a comics rack--but it's in the wrong place. Comics shouldn't just be shelved with periodicals, where customers go looking for them; they should be at the check-out aisle, next to the candy and stationery, where kids waiting in line with their parents can say, "Ooh! Comic! Want!" The same holds true for grocery stores and drugstores. There's a reason you can still find those Archie digests in grocery stores, even today--it's because the 'Archie' guys know that ringing up a week's worth of groceries for a family of five takes about ten minutes, and if you've got a six year old with you, that's an eternity without something to do. So Mom or Dad tosses them an Archie digest, kid reads and is happy, and Archie makes another few bucks.

And if you've got an entire line of adult comics, why are you selling them at the same point of purchase as your kid-lit material? Half the problem with Marvel's 'MAX' line isn't that they shouldn't have an adult line, it's that they can't seem to differentiate it from their other lines in the key areas of marketing and distribution. Sell your adult comics in coffee shops, and let people pick up an issue of 'Fables' to read while they sip their venti latte. (And yes, I know DC publishes 'Fables'. That's back to Column #1 on the list: Get some actual decent series going in your 'MAX' line, Marvel, something with real grown-up cred like Vertigo has. Vertigo's backlist includes 'Sandman', 'Swamp Thing', 'Animal Man', 'Doom Patrol', 'Fables', '100 Bullets', 'Preacher', 'Transmetropolitan', 'Y: The Last Man', and 'Fables'. MAX has Garth Ennis' 'Punisher' series. Something must be done, here.)

(You probably can't sell comics in movie theaters, but this is as good a time as any to mention giving them away. It's marketing, not distribution, to give away free promotional comics with tickets to comic-book movies (an Iron Man comic for 'Iron Man', a 'Punisher' comic for 'Punisher: War Zone', et cetera), but giving away comics to movie theater patrons would probably buy you twice as many new customers as 'Free Comic Book Day' ever could, because it's targeting people who like comics characters but aren't going to comics stores.)

In short, at the end of this third column, anyone who wants comics can find them easily and buy them (which should translate into cheaper comics, since the more people buying, the cheaper you can sell them for.) And all this is predicated on a firm belief of mine: There are more potential comics fans out there than ever these days. All Marvel (and DC as well, let's not forget) needs to do is connect with them.

Will the fans like this step? By the end of this step, everyone will be a fan.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Supergirl

(or "Keeping the Important Flaws")

One doesn't generally think of early Silver Age stories as "character-driven"; during the era when Mort Weisinger edited the Superman comics with an iron fist, the emphasis was on fast-paced energetic stories that sold, and plot logic seemed to take a backseat to that, let alone character development. Yet despite the surface simplicity of these stories, there's actually a really strong character-driven storytelling engine to the classic adventures of the Silver Age Supergirl, one that the modern-day 'Supergirl' series could take lessons from.

The backstory for Supergirl is pretty straightforward (if a bit loopy); she comes from Argo City, a chunk of Krypton that managed to ride out the destruction of the planet relatively intact. The inhabitants built a dome to keep in the atmosphere, used lead shielding to keep from being poisoned by the ground they walked on (which had, after all, turned to Kryptonite), and used Kryptonian technology to generate food and other necessities. Kara Zor-El was born on Argo City, but when she was fifteen, tragedy struck--meteor showers shredded the lead lining, contaminating the environment, and dooming the survivors of Krypton to a slow death. They used their remaining resources to build a rocket for Kara, and shot her towards Earth, where they'd learned that one other Kryptonian survived.

The backstory is important to Supergirl, because while they don't harp on the point very often, Supergirl is a very different kind of survivor of Krypton from Superman. She's young (fifteen when she arrives on Earth), and unlike Superman, she was orphaned recently; Superman was a baby when he was rocketed away from Krypton, but Supergirl understood perfectly what was happening when she watched Argo City perish. She's lost everything of her home, her family, and her entire existence except for one person--her cousin, Kal. Superman becomes, in essence, a surrogate father figure, a substitute for her homeworld, and in general every possible symbol of authority a person could have, all wrapped up in one person...who's Superman, on top of that. Supergirl's whole character revolves around being afraid of disappointing her idol, and around trying to be the best person she can be to make him proud. (This also explains the occasional creepy romantic subtext to a few stories; anyone in that situation would probably develop at least a bit of an Electra complex. After all, if you're always comparing your romantic interests to your father figure, who's going to look good compared to Superman?)

Again, it's important to note that they don't make a big deal of this. Whenever a story brings up a character trait, the reader automatically assumes that said character trait will be important by the story's end. If, for example, I write about a character who's got a fear of snakes, the audience can pretty much take it as a given that at some point, that character will be trapped in a room full of snakes, and will overcome his fear in dramatic fashion to demonstrate his growth as a person. This is the sort of thing that readers talk about when they say they want to see "character growth" in comics; people overcoming their prominent negative character traits.

But in the real world, we don't always do that. In fact, it can be argued that we very rarely do. Sure, we'll work on curing something like a phobia or a bad habit, but in general, when it comes to something as deeply rooted as Supergirl's insecurities and her need for approval, we don't "overcome" them, we find ways to make positive use of them. So does Supergirl; she tries to be a good person, and a good super-hero, because at every turn she can imagine how it would feel if Clark was disappointed in her. (Which isn't to say that Clark is disappointed in her; there are a few stories where he expresses disappointment in specific things she's done, but on the whole, he's pretty supportive...for a guy who stuck his only living relative in an orphanage for a year or two while she learned how to use her super-powers.)

This character-driven engine has two major advantages; one, it automatically makes Supergirl a sympathetic character. Insecure characters always gain the sympathy of the audience quickly, because we notice the good things about them before they do; we believe them to be a good person who just needs to realize that. (Humility is always a sympathetic character trait, and insecurity is just an extreme form of humility.) Of course, eventually we expect them to overcome their insecurities, which is why (again, I can't stress this enough) it's important not to harp on how insecure Supergirl is. If it's not introduced as a plot point, the reader won't expect a plot payoff later on.

Two, it's open-ended. Supergirl's original status quo is a false one; she's staying in the orphanage while Superman teaches her how to use her powers, conceal her secret identity, familiarize herself with Earth culture, and be an effective super-hero. But there's only so long that writers can find good reasons why Supergirl should be kept a secret. In the end, they have to reveal her (and they do, in a surprisingly moving story.) But because Supergirl's need for Superman's approval is psychological, it doesn't "go away" when Superman tells the world how proud of her he is. All that means, to Supergirl, is that if she fails her cousin now, the whole world will know about it. Superman's praise means something to her, of course, but she's motivated by wanting to get more of it. That need isn't ever going to be "fulfilled" permanently. Which means she's always working, always striving, always trying to be the best Supergirl she can be. Which, in turn, drives her stories.

By contrast, the post-Crisis Supergirl (the post-Crisis Kara Zor-El, that is, not the 1990s version that was actually a shapeshifter from a pocket universe) is directionless. She never had to earn the right to call herself "Supergirl", she never cared about Superman's approval, and she already believes herself to be super-powerful, faster, smarter, stronger, better, and generally just amazing. She doesn't have the motivation to become a better person or a better super-hero, and any attempts to make her actually heroic tend to come off as authorial fiat, rather than rooted within the character. By taking away her flaws, they've actually made her a more flawed character.