Monday, July 07, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Captain Marvel

(or "Winding It Up Until It Breaks")

The storytelling engine for the classic 60s comic 'Captain Marvel' is surprisingly complex and adult for what's supposedly a kids' comic; even though Marvel was already experimenting with blurring the line between its target audiences, writing comics for more mature readers, 'Captain Marvel' takes the notion further than it usually goes. The "hero", Captain Mar-Vell, is actually a spy for the Kree Empire. He's merely pretending to be a super-hero (as well as a rocket scientist for the government in his secret identity), while he evaluates Earth's threat potential as a preparation to possibly wiping the planet out. He struggles with the complex triple life, trying to deal with his growing attachment to the human race and his loyalties to his own species. And to top it all off, his commanding officer has fallen in love with his girlfriend and is doing everything he can to get Mar-Vell killed. (Oh, yes, and his girlfriend is jealous of a human woman who seems a little too attached to "Captain Marvel".)

This is the sort of material that you could imagine John le Carre or Ian Fleming handling (albeit without the space aliens.) It's tense, filled with moral ambiguity, and features a protagonist who's decidedly not your average square-jawed hero. (Within two issues, he's stolen the identity of a dead man and erased the memory of the one person who could expose his deception.) But in a way, it's almost too exciting; the very tension that powers the drama renders it unsuitable for a long-term storytelling engine.

That's because tension is difficult to sustain over long periods of time. Tension forms from the expectation that something important is about to happen; the longer things go without changing, the harder it is to sustain that expectation. (Hitchcock once described tension as "two men in a room, with a bomb about to go off in five minutes." One would imagine it'd be hard to sustain the tension if the bomb kept getting set back.) Every time Mar-Vell escapes another one of his commander Yon-Rogg's death-traps, it becomes harder to worry about the next one. Every time Mar-Vell avoids treason charges, it becomes harder for the writer to find a way for him to avoid them next time. With each new plot development, it becomes more difficult to sustain the status quo. Every story ratchets up the tension, but it also places stress on the storytelling engine, like winding up a watch until it breaks.

Sure enough, by issue #11, writer Arnold Drake is forced to take a total change in direction. And what a change it is...suddenly, Captain Marvel is the servant of the mysterious cosmic entity known only as Zo, and is sent by Zo to destroy the Kree Empire. This storytelling engine proves to be even less sustainable, and Roy Thomas steps in to put the series on track with a more sedate status quo (one that seems to be a bit of an homage to the original Captain Marvel, Billy Batson, with Rick Jones trading places with Mar-Vell via the plot device of the "nega-bands.") A bit more conventional than the original, edgy tales? Sure, but there's something to be said for an engine that lasts.


Mory said...

There's also something to be said for constant change. You've convinced me to go out and read the original comics, which I've never done. But it sounds from what you're saying like it spends too much time repeating itself when it should be coming up with new ideas and situations.

Kyle said...

I'm going to agree with mory here, as an Alias fan (the show). You have to change up the status quo now and then, but it's a balancing act of how often, in order to maintain tension. Maintain is probably a poor choice of word... build up again?

Obviously I only mean this to apply to continuing stories revolving around deception.