Monday, March 31, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Booster Gold

(or "The 'Hero's Journey' Just Led Down A Mineshaft")

Booster Gold is a relative rarity in the universe of storytelling engines we've looked at so far, in that he's a hero created after the 1960s. Most of the series reprinted in the 'Essential' and 'Showcase Presents' series to date have been creations of the Silver Age, that period of intense creative fertility at both Marvel and DC that sprung forth in the early 1960s, and which both companies have been very happy to harvest ever since. A few of the series we've looked at have come from the so-called "Bronze Age", in the 1970s, but by the time Booster Gold came onto the scene, brand-new heroes were few and far between in the sea of reboots and recreations.

And Booster's got a good storytelling engine. Heck, it's a great one; it's inventive, clever, entertaining, and very much in keeping with the spirit of the 1980s. Booster, you see, is a hero who wants to be rich. He's altruistic, yes, but he makes his living as a super-hero, not as a mild-mannered reporter or millionaire playboy. He came from the mean streets of Gotham (in the 25th century, if you don't mind a few spoilers), and growing up poor left him with a strong desire to make it big. So strong, in fact, that he was willing to shave points on college football...and when that blew up in his face, he decided to steal a time machine, pop back to the 20th century with a few high-tech gadgets, and try to strike it rich as a champion of justice.

This opens up whole new, untapped vistas for a storytelling engine. Booster Gold is faced with problems no other super-hero has. He's got to worry about his public image; is losing a fight going to lose him endorsements? He's got to worry about being a public figure in general; when Shockwave breaks out of prison and decides to go after a super-hero, Booster Gold is the only one in the phone book. He's got moral dilemmas; what happens when the company that makes his Boostermobile decides to market it to the general public? In short, he's got all sorts of interesting complications to his life that a guy like Superman just doesn't have, and they're all ones a writer can sink his or her teeth into.

Plus, the series has a great supporting cast. You've got the charmingly sleazy agent, the hotshot scientist, the mousy-but-kind secretary, and Skeets, who combines all the best features of Jeeves and C-3P0 to become Booster's coach, mentor, sidekick, and aide-de-camp all rolled into one. You've even got brand-new villains, something that's almost as rare by the mid-80s as brand-new heroes. Really, this is a series that has a lot going for it from a writer's point of view.

So what went wrong? Why did 'Booster Gold' only last twenty-five issues before the character was rolled off into being a C-list Justice Leaguer, then fading into oblivion for about a decade?

The big problem with 'Booster Gold', actually, was Booster Gold. Because despite the interesting premise, it is kind of hard to like Booster himself. He's greedy, arrogant, self-absorbed, egotistical, and kind of obnoxious. These are not good traits for your main character. (Especially the "egotistical" part. Audiences root for insecure characters, because we can see that the person is better than they think they are. We root against egotistical characters, because we can see that the person is worse than they think they are.)

Of course, Dan Jurgens tried to present these traits as part of a balanced picture of Booster, showing that he's also genuinely altruistic, that he really cares about crime-fighting as a means of helping people, not just improving his Q-rating, and that deep down, even after he's made a ton of dough, he keeps putting on the costume and jumping into battle because he's a nice guy. He even begins to mellow out the ego a tiny bit as the series moves on. But he never gets time to develop Booster into a well-rounded hero, because the audience just wasn't willing to wait.

This is the important lesson for storytelling engine design today. In a finite story, you can afford to take an initially unlikeable protagonist and show his or her journey to becoming a better person. But an open-ended series asks for an open-ended commitment on the part of its audience, and that audience isn't necessarily going to follow you if the lead character isn't sympathetic. Note that sympathetic here doesn't necessarily mean "sweet and nice and good"; Tommy Monaghan shot people in the face for a living, but he was a very likeable character. It's all about charisma and likeability; the Sixth Doctor, on 'Doctor Who', was supposed to start out being deliberately unlikeable and then mellow as the series progressed, but instead they fired the actor. You have to win over your audience in a hurry in an open-ended series.

Eventually, of course, after said decade of oblivion, Booster Gold was resurrected in the pages of '52'. Freed from the burden of having to carry a series, Booster was able to go through his journey of self-improvement, and the new series features a more likeable, more sympathetic, more charismatic Booster Gold. It's a very different storytelling engine, though, and despite its also being a good engine, one can't help but wish that the old series had the new Booster. Because it really is a concept that deserves another chance.

3 comments:

RichardAK said...

Wow, this was a great essay. And you hit exactly why I'm not crazy about the new Booster Gold series (don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled that he's got a solo series again, and it's not that I don't like the new series). I've been trying to put my finger on why I don't love the new series, but I wasn't quite able to articulate it.

Matthew E said...

I especially liked Booster's old supporting cast. Can't we have Trixie put on the Goldstar suit again just one more time?

Jared said...

Two thoughts spring to mind upon reading this entry:

1) I'm reminded of how much I liked that one episode of Justice League Unlimited, "The Greatest Story Never Told", starring Booster Gold after Batman relegates him to crowd control.

Really, I thought Batman deserved a smack upside the head. Here you've got Booster Gold ready and willing to step up to the plate, and what does Batman, supposedly the world's smartest superhero, do?

Make him into a benchwarmer, without one lick of appreciation that Booster's actually trying to help. It's the only time I genuinely disliked Batman and thought he did something really stupid, what with the way he treated Booster.

2) The necessity of having a likeable protagonist is a very good one-perhaps it explains the (relative) success of Bob Budiansky's version of SLEEPWALKER as opposed to the aborted version Robert Kirkman tried to launch in 2004.

Rick Sheridan was a Brooklyn kid from an average background, who had to work as a handyman and an English teacher to make ends meet. Nice enough kid, and when Sleepwalker gets trapped in his mind, everything gets shot to hell for him, and he ends up in danger of losing his job and his rent-free apartment if he doesn't shape up, due to circumstances beyond his control.

Whereas David Daily, by all accounts, was a lazy, rich snob who coasted through school by paying other people to do his homework for him, and who was in danger of getting cut off by his family if he didn't get his act together and finish his student film.

You tell me which protagonist was more likeable. :\

Has Eric Teall popped up recently? He hasn't updated his blog in weeks, and I'm getting a bit concerned.