Monday, March 24, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Tales of the Zombie

(or "The Macguffin")

At first, 'Tales of the Zombie' can seem like a frustrating series to get into. The protagonist, Simon Garth, is maddeningly passive...which makes sense, given that he's a zombie, one of the walking dead, and that his essence is tied to a mystical amulet whose possessor controls his every action. The supporting cast fades in and out, the locales shift from issue to issue, and that's quite apart from the fact that a lot of the stories in 'Tales of the Zombie' are just your typical horror anthology filler, having nothing to do with the "main" story at all (although they do all feature zombies of some sort.) The storytelling engine of 'Tales of the Zombie' seems broken...but actually, we're just not looking at it right. 'Tales of the Zombie' isn't about Simon Garth, or his daughter, or any of the individual characters; 'Tales of the Zombie' is about the amulet. (The "Macguffin", to use Alfred Hitchcock's term, the "thing that everyone wants.")

The idea of basing a story around the history of an object, rather than around the history of a character, isn't new to 'Tales', but it's not common either. The idea is that the object itself is of importance to a wide variety of people over a long span of time (as in Alan Moore's novel, 'Voice of the Fire', which follows the history of a city through several stories of its inhabitants.) Thus, you can tell a wide variety of stories by focusing on the way the object interacts with the life of different people (such as '100 Bullets', a series with a large, sprawling cast all connected by a gun and its one hundred untraceable bullets.) Since the object, by nature of being highly coveted, moves from one set of hands to another quickly, it means that the supporting cast and setting all change on very little notice.

This storytelling engine offers both advantages and disadvantages to a writer. On the one hand, it allows them a free hand in dealing with the supporting cast. Since nobody is "essential" to the storytelling engine, the writer can move supporting cast members in and out as their usefulness to the plot dictates. This, in turn, makes the stories more suspenseful, since nobody can be sure that their favorite character is safe from one moment to the next.

On the other hand, since cast members do tend to rotate in and out so quickly, it can be a little hard for a reader to develop an attachment to any particular character. Without that attachment, the reader can lose interest (especially as "macguffin-based" stories can start to feel a little similar after a while, since everyone generally wants the object for the same reasons. Very few people in 'Tales of the Zombie' want to get ahold of the Amulet of Damballah to get a zombie to do housework.) 'Tales' attempts to bridge the gap by making the "macguffin" into a semi-sentient protagonist; in theory, we'll work up sympathy for Simon Garth and his plight as a zombie, enough so to get us through stories that jump from city to city as the amulet changes hands. In practice, though, Simon is a bit too passive (and in life, unsympathetic) to really root for. His daughter is a much more sympathetic character, but as previously noted, she's not always around.

Ultimately, 'Tales of the Zombie' tries to ring in a number of twists on the classic "Macguffin" story, some successful, some not. (Commercially speaking, it seems as though the "not" outweighed the "successful"; the series only ran ten issues, and while it has been recently revived, it's in substantially different form.) But it remains a good example of a decidedly different type of storytelling engine, one where just about anything can happen. Because the only constant is the "Macguffin." Everyone else has to look out for themselves.

1 comment:

robocop is bleeding said...

It is also interesting to see the aborted attempts at tacking on some sort of engine to the story. There's the secretary-priestess, the two dudes who hear about the amulet from a lawyer-hating hobo, and some sort of mystic conspiracy lead by a floating half-man. All that stuff starts to go somewhere, but then quickly ends, leaving poor Simon to stand alone in the swamp waiting for the next engine to misfire and lurch him into action.

I wonder what stories would be generated if a Next Issue Project-style effort for each of the aborted engines were to come into existence?