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.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Election Day

So this is an idea I've been mulling over for a while now, and while I'm aware that there are flaws in it, I have to say that I think it's worth doing. Australia does it, and they seem to get along alright...

My idea stems from America's low voter turnout. Everyone knows that somewhere around 50-60% of US citizens actually vote. This is how George W. Bush got into office, basically; he took the very strong support of 30% of the country, made sure all those people voted, and then picked up about 10% of the undecideds. That only adds up to 40%, but when only two-thirds of the country vote, 40 out of 60 is 66%. (Trust me on the math here.) People aren't taking seriously their responsibility to vote--and it is a responsibility, as much as it is a right.

So let's make voting mandatory. Election days would become a federal holiday, but you would be expected, as a taxpayer, to get your butt down to the polling place and cast your vote. Obviously, this is going to create a bit of a demand on the system, which is currently geared towards not expecting many people, but I've got a solution to that: Punishment for failure to vote involves either fines, which would go directly towards purchasing equipment for the polling places, or community service, which would be done during the next election (as, you guessed it, a volunteer.)

I've heard a few objections when I mentioned this before, but most of them boil down to "I don't want stupid people voting." (Which seems to radically misunderstand exactly who the 30% of the people who helped put Bush into office are, but that's neither here nor there.) These people aren't stupid. Apathetic, perhaps, even despairing of the political process. But in the end, putting a boot up their backside and making them get out and vote is only going to increase their emotional investment and involvement in the political process. They'll be bound to become a little more aware of what's going on if they have to. (Perhaps not much, but it's not like there aren't plenty of people who walk in, vote a straight-party ticket, and walk out feeling like they've done their due diligence as citizens.)

Of course, the real trick is getting it passed. Obviously, no politician is going to go for it; they all like to make lip service about how voting is important, but as incumbents, they have more than a little attachment to the way things are. I say let's put it on the ballot as a referendum. Really, it's bound to pass...after all, the majority of people actually showing up at the polls are smug bastards like me who want to see voter turnout increase. And most of the people who'd be against the bill...well, they're not voting this year.

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.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Sorry

No Thursday post this week because the day after I posted this week's "Storytelling Engines" column, I came down with a mean-spirited cold bug. ("Nasty" just doesn't cover this one.) I'm feeling a bit better now, but I still don't have a ton of energy, and next week's Engine might be a bit delayed as well.

We apologize for the inconvenience. (Well, I apologize. The cold germs are probably laughing like hell right now.)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Aquaman

(or "Whither Aquaman?")

In many ways, Aquaman's storytelling engine began in a similar way as Green Arrow's; to wit, there wasn't much of one. He can breathe underwater, he can command fish, and he fights crime. As a backup character to Superboy, that was really all that was needed. (In fact, much like Green Arrow used exotic arrows, Aquaman used a variety of exotic sea specimens to help him in his battles.) In the beginning of Volume One of 'Showcase Presents Aquaman', that's really all you get.

But Aquaman got his own series in 1962, and along with that came the building of a storytelling engine. He'd already picked up a boy sidekick, Aqualad, and he soon picked up a mischievous ally, Qwisp, a girlfriend and later wife, Mera, a setting and duty in the form of his rulership of Atlantis, and by the time Volume Two had ended, he'd had a son, Arthur Jr, aka Aquababy. (Aquagirl, Aqualad's own girlfriend, would follow as well.) In short, over the course of about five to ten years, he developed everything a writer needs to help tell Aquaman stories.

Of course, anyone paying attention to events in Aquaman over the last couple of decades can tell you what's happened to all that. The problem is, Aquaman's never been very popular. As a fantasy character, operating as King of Atlantis, he's never appealed to more than a niche audience. As a superhero, he's hamstrung by his need to operate near water. So a variety of writers have attempted to generate "buzz" for the King of the Seven Seas, through a variety of tactics that have become standard practice for the comics industry, all in an attempt to make the character more popular and sell better. Let's go through them, and you can follow along and see how many of them applied to your favorite heroes in the 90s and beyond!

1) Killing off the supporting cast. Aquagirl, Aquababy, and much of the Atlantean supporting cast introduced in the 70s and 80s are now dead; Tempest, aka Aqualad, is alive but amnesiac and powerless. "Death sells" has been a mantra of comics for the last 25 years, and since there's only so much death you can inflict on your protagonist, bumping off supporting cast members allows you to put big shocking "Somebody dies!" headlines on the cover while not having to cancel the series.

2) Having supporting cast members turn evil. That's right, Peter David's joke about "Dark Qwisp" became a reality in the 1990s; much like death, betrayal is always the kind of shock tactic that can hook in a jaded reader.

3) Ditching the ball and chain. Mera and Aquaman broke up over the death of Aquababy, and although the red-head continues to show some feelings for her former husband, they've never managed to patch things up completely. Why? Because it's received wisdom in the comics industry that readers can't relate to a married super-hero. Love interests are great, but nobody should ever actually tie the knot for good. ("Gee," Marvel readers say, "this sounds familiar.")

4) The hero goes dark. Sometimes as a reaction to all of the above, sometimes coincidentally, but the hero becomes more anti-social, less friendly, more willing to bend his/her code of morality, and certainly more willing to use weapons. In Aquaman's case, he also got physically mutilated, losing his hand (the better to stick a razor-sharp harpoon on the end.) Physical mutilation isn't required, but it's not uncommon either.

5) The origin gets revised. (Frequently known as the "Everything you know is WRONG!" clause.) In Aquaman's case, he learned that he wasn't the son of a lighthouse keeper and an exiled Atlantean; in fact, he was the son of Atlantean royalty and immortal sorcerers, sired as part of a secret master plan.

6) Kill him and bring him back. During 'Our Worlds At War', Aquaman died in dramatic fashion when Imperiex boiled the oceans, killing him and all of Atlantis...but luckily, they were all actually teleported to another dimension and captured by an evil sorceress, instead. (Amazing how that sort of thing happens so often.)

7) Kill him and replace him. Aquaman seemingly died again during 'Infinite Crisis', sacrificing his own life to raise San Diego from the ocean depths (it's a long story.) Luckily, there was a new Aquaman waiting in the wings, a young man with remarkably similar powers and origins. He adventured alongside what turned out to be a not-so-dead-after-all original Aquaman, who then died one more time for real, leaving the all-new, all-different Aquaman in charge of the Seven Seas.

So, with all these changes, surely Aquaman is more popular then ever, right? Oh. No longer being published at all. And apparently, DC doesn't even know how they're going to go about launching a new Aquaman series, because the status quo of the character has become so confused and convoluted that they're not sure where to go from here. Huh.

And this is the lesson for today: You cannot, in the long-term, improve the status of a character by wrecking their storytelling engine. Because shock events can only happen a limited number of times before you run out of them--you can only kill so many supporting cast members before you run out, you can only play the "death card" so many times before it loses its novelty, you can only revise the origin of a character so many times before it becomes too confusing to follow. When you are done with all those shocks, you will need to fall back on the storytelling engine to sustain the series...and if it's not there anymore, audiences might not have the patience to wait while you repair it.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Friendly Advice for Cinematic Titanic

This isn't exactly a review of the first release for Cinematic Titanic, the new venture from the people who once upon a time brought you 'Mystery Science Theater 3000'. (Not to be confused with "Rifftrax" or The Film Crew, two other new ventures brought to you by the other people who brought you 'Mystery Science Theater 3000'. The Film Crew is Kevin, Mike, and Bill. CT is Joel, Frank, Trace, Mary Jo, and Josh.) But as I say, this isn't a review of 'The Oozing Skull', per se, because by this point I think everyone knows what to expect from a release of this nature, a good-natured (and sometimes not-so good natured) "commentary track" to a B-movie of questionable quality, featuring rapid-fire jokes at the film's expense. As always seems to be the case with these films, the volume of jokes is so high that even if you hit a bad one or two, there's always more coming along in a minute or so. So as I say, this isn't a review. Just a little advice for future releases.

1) Have a framing sequence. It doesn't necessarily have to be something new every episode, like MST3K or The Film Crew had. You could just do a credits sequence before each film. But something to ground the audience, introduce yourselves and let us know who you are before you're just silhouettes in a dark room, making fun of a movie would really help. (There is a premise to CT, as with the other shows, but it doesn't get mentioned on the disc itself. It probably should, as flimsy as it is.)

2) Slightly fewer sketches. I like the innovation of "freezing" the movie for the sketches and doing them in the theater in silhouette, and I like that there are sketches. But it felt like there were perhaps one or two too many. MST3K stuck with three breaks for sketches, and I think more than that tends to make the film drag a bit...and trust me when I say 'The Oozing Skull' drags quite enough without your help.

3) Have just a bit more faith in your material. A few times over the course of the film, someone would deliver a joke in a tone that suggested that the source of the comedy was that they were telling a bad joke, not whatever they were making fun of on-screen. This really kills any chance of making the joke funny, because the delivery undercuts the humor of the joke. If you don't think it's funny, leave it out. If you do, give it a chance to make someone laugh.

4) Hire me to write for you. I'm local!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Green Arrow

(or "There Ain't No 'There' There!")

Boy, does Green Arrow have a lot of trick arrows. In 'Showcase Presents Green Arrow Volume One', we see the luminescent arrow, the vine arrow, the lava arrow, the jiujitsu arrow, the heli-spotter arrow, the ricochet arrow, the flashlight arrow, the firecracker arrow, the umbrella arrow, the boomerang arrow, the rain arrow, the cocoon arrow, the jet arrow, the rope arrow, the acetylene arrow, the fountain-pen arrow, the dry ice arrow, the flare arrow, the balloon arrow, the two-stage rocket arrow, the net arrow, the siren arrow, the boxing-glove arrow, the fake-uranium arrow, and in one notable story, the cat arrow, which was an arrow with a stuffed cat on the end.

You tend to notice the trick arrows a lot in a Green Arrow story, and not just because some of them are so ludicrous that you can't imagine them being fired. They're notable because they're really the only thing that is notable about Green Arrow in the 1950s and 60s. The character really doesn't have much of a storytelling engine at all. His character is essentially lifted wholesale from Batman (millionaire playboy who secretly fights crime with a teen sidekick), and indeed most stories begin with Oliver Queen and Roy Harper sitting at home when they see the "Arrow-Signal" in the sky. Star City, his home, is really just a name; there's nothing to give it any real character or sense of place (unlike the moody Gotham, the sunny Metropolis, or even a real-world city like New York.) Heck, Green Arrow doesn't even have his own version of Commissioner Gordon to discuss cases with--he usually just grabs some nameless desk sergeant to get the details of the latest crime. Outside of Speedy, his ward, and Arrowette, who makes an appearance or two (complete with her powder-puff arrows, hairpin arrows, lotion arrows, needle-and-thread arrows, and hairnet arrows, comics being the bastion of Women's Lib that they are.)

He doesn't have any villains to speak of, either; for the vast majority of the stories, he fights counterfeiters, jewel thieves, and the other various and sundry criminals that populate big cities who don't need to put on spandex outfits and give themselves sinister names. In short, pretty much every element needed to fill in a storytelling engine comes up either blank or hastily filled in, sometimes by copying off his neighbor's paper. Which seems odd, at first, since I've been saying all this time that a good storytelling engine is important to a strong-selling book. If Green Arrow is so under-prepared, why is he still around?

The answer is simple: He was a back-up feature. These stories all ran in the back of other comics (usually 'Adventure' or 'World's Finest'.) Meaning that a) they didn't have time to sketch in all the other elements that make up a complete storytelling engine, because they were trying to work in a complete story in eight pages, and b) they didn't need to worry about a complete storytelling engine, because people didn't pick up the book just to read Green Arrow's adventures. The stories could afford to be more formulaic, which saved the writer from having to come up with too many ideas (excepting, of course, for the trick arrows, which is clearly where all the creativity was going.) Green Arrow could afford to be a "generic" super-hero, because he was riding the coat-tails of Superman and Batman.

Later, as he developed his own character (right around the end of this volume, in fact) he developed more of a personality, became more distinctly different from millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. He lost the trick arrows, developed more of a supporting cast, and today, he's got a storytelling engine all his own. Which is another important point to remember; when you're starting from almost nothing, it's very easy to add these things in later. Easy, and if you want your character to be anything more than a second banana, vitally important.