Monday, April 28, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Legion of Super-Heroes

(or "'Spin-Off': Is There Any Word More Thrilling To The Human Soul?")

Over the years, the Legion of Super-Heroes has become one of DC's mainstay titles, an icon every bit as important to the fictional universe as the Flash or the Justice Society. It's gotten its own cartoon, it's maintained a fanbase through three complete continuity reboots, and it's kind of hard to remember now that it started off as a one-off appearance in the Superboy section of 'Adventure Comics'.

Yes, the Legion of Super-Heroes is a spin-off, and arguably one of the most successful spin-offs in history. (Did 'Frasier' get his own cartoon series? I don't think so.) But what is it about the Legion of Super-Heroes that made it such a successful spin-off? What elements made it succeed where so many other spin-offs wither and die?

For starters, it had an instantly accessible central premise. "In the future, teenagers will have super-powers and they'll hang out together in a clubhouse, fighting crime." It's a perfect idea. Most of the readers at the time were kids themselves, and they'd probably formed a club or two of their own at some point, and many of them probably even had a clubhouse. The "future" and "super-powers" aspect just plugged right into the love of science-fiction that was infusing comics with new life in the Silver Age. (Which means that logically, they should be doing a manga reboot of the series now...but I digress.)

Even the names are instantly accessible; sure, in the 80s and 90s, when comics became more 'serious', the naming conventions of the Legion took a drubbing, and many of the Legionnaires decided to start going by their real names, but as hokey as they sometimes sound, when you read about 'Colossal Boy', 'Lightning Lad', and 'Braniac 5', you've got a pretty clear idea right off the bat of who these people are and what they can do, which is important for a series with a large cast that wants to attract new readers. Legion comics in the 90s advertised with a poster that was nothing more than a giant flowchart of the various characters and their relationships to each other, not understanding that advertising, "Hey, we're complicated, confusing, and have a large cast!" might not be the best way to go in attracting fans. Having an easy "hook" to hang on each character might have made for simplistic storytelling at first, but it did make them memorable. (And memorable characters have a better chance of succeeding.)

Setting the comic in the future helped a lot as well; I've talked in the past about worldbuilding, and by placing the comic in the 30th century, the writers of LoSH have an almost unlimited opportunity to do just that. They can explore the future of Earth, hop to strange alien planets, play with the conceit of time travel, and in general make use of science-fiction ideas too outrageous for comics set in the present day.

Most importantly, though, they made good use of their "parent" title. Superboy was a member of the Legion, as was Supergirl (the Super-Pets had their own 'Legion of Super-Pets', of course.) Over time, as the "Superboy" concept grew less popular, the Legion gradually began to de-emphasize him on the cover, but he was always an integral part of the Legion--and not just within the pages of the comic itself. Superboy helped sustain interest in the title until a fanbase could cohere around the new characters, and appearances by his enemies (such as the infamous Lex Luthor) helped the writers think of stories while the Legion's own rogues gallery accumulated.

Ultimately, this was the only real mistake DC made with the Legion. By removing Superboy from continuity, they left a hole at the heart of the Legion, one which reboot after reboot has never quite managed to fill. Worse, by rebooting again and again, they've added a significant new element to the Legion's storytelling engine--notably, that it gets blown up every five to ten years when a new writer comes along who doesn't like the direction the book has gone. (Reintroducing the old versions of the Legion only makes things even more confusing.) One can only hope that DC will stick with the current Legion for at least a while...as mentioned at the beginning, the Legion of Super-Heroes has maintained an impressive fanbase, but their patience isn't indefinite.

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Not My Day" (in fact, not my week)

Friday already, huh? It's not been a pleasant week. Frankly, I'd skip blogging altogether this week if it wasn't for the fact that those "Storytelling Engines" posts look silly right up next to each other. I'm exhausted, I'm feeling decidedly uncreative, and in those situations, there's really only one thing to do: Put up something old that was cluttering up my hard drive and never got published anywhere, but that I sort of like. This is a very short story I wrote to submit to the 'City of Heroes' comic book, back when there was such a thing and they took fan submissions. It's about life as a low-level superhero, and it's called...

Not My Day

Kevin stepped off the tram slowly, his armor still heavy and unfamiliar on his body as he walked the streets of King’s Row for the first time. Everything felt new to him—the sounds of gunshots in the still dusk air, his freshly-laminated I.D. card that proclaimed his new identity as “Neutrino Man” to the citizens of Paragon City, and the tip his friend Paco Sanchez, who worked in Galaxy City’s hospitals, had given him.

“The Circle of Thorns,” Paco had said. “They perform rituals on the rooftops in King’s Row at night. I don’t know what they’re doing, but I know they kidnap people to do it…and that those people are never seen again.” Kevin was still a bit new to the hero gig, but he knew that was exactly the sort of thing he had to stop.

He looked at the setting sun, then at the tenement buildings that rose up all around him. “Rooftops,” he muttered to himself. “Good. Very specific.” He picked a direction and started walking.

He didn’t walk long. After only two blocks, he heard a scream from up above him. It was a woman, shouting, “What are you doing to me?” A deep, sepulchral voice responded, “The ceremony must continue!” It sounded like what he was looking for. Kevin looked for a quick way up the building.

There was a fire escape about halfway along the building, and Kevin quickly jumped for it…only to find that his armor weighed him down just a little too much to do more than brush against its lower rungs. “Stupid nuclear regulations,” he gasped, making another futile jump. “I tell them and tell them, I could get by with half the lead shielding, but…” He carefully hopped onto a nearby fence, balancing tenuously. From there, he leapt to the fire escape…but took a step too many, and plunged back to earth.

“Not my day,” he grumbled, leaping back to the fence and then back to the fire escape. This time, he managed to hold his position and started his way up the ladder. Ominous rumbles filled the sky above him as swirls of green lightning flashed overhead.

Three stories up now, and Kevin was really hoping that whatever this ritual was, it took awhile. He was also mentally redesigning his armor to drop seventeen pounds of redundant systems, and making plans to join a gym.

At seven stories up, the fire escape simply stopped. Kevin looked up, and saw three more stories between him and the roof. “Why didn’t I just go inside and ask if there was an elevator?” he asked himself. He made a desperate leap, grabbing at a window ledge ten feet above him, and managed to just barely hook it. Another leap put him on another window ledge, and another…was just slightly misjudged. Kevin saw the ground rushing up at him, and plans for boot-jets unfolded with desperate clarity just before the impact knocked them right back out of his head.

The armor’s chronometers showed he’d only been unconscious for a few minutes. He could still hear the ritual overhead. Thankfully, the armor also protected him from the seven-story fall he’d just taken…and that ‘unnecessary’ lead shielding had protected King’s Row from the effects of a portable backpack-mounted nuclear reactor hitting the ground.

Another jump to the fence. Another jump to the fire escape. Kevin wasn’t sure how long he had, but he knew he was running out of time. ‘Running’ had featured far more prominently into his day than he’d planned it to, given that he only started this superhero gig as a way of promoting his portable energy sources. But as he reached the top of the fire escape and started his wild jumps again, he knew that there was an innocent woman up there depending on him. As he clung to an air conditioner nine stories above the ground, pulling himself up for the last jump, he at least hoped she was cute.

Finally, he crawled onto the roof. He staggered to his feet, preparing for battle…and saw the flash of light again, thirty feet to his left. Easily misjudged from ground height. Across the alley. On another rooftop. He looked over, and saw three hooded figures in dark robes. He looked out over the alley, did a few quick velocity calculations in his head, and came up with an answer he didn’t like. He looked two stories down, at his probable landing site on another fire escape. He backed up.

“Not my day,” he muttered, as he sprinted across the roof and flung himself into space…

The End

(People who don't play 'City of Heroes' are sort of saying, "Huh," right now. People who do play 'City of Heroes' are saying, "Omigod, that is totally what I was like that first time I had to do that!")

Monday, April 21, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Justice League of America

(or "CARR! What Is He Good For? Good God, Y'All!")

The storytelling engine for 'Justice League of America' is another one of those "inevitable ideas" that every comics company comes up with sooner or later; we have N comics that sell X copies each, therefore a comic that features every single one of those characters in a team will sell N times X copies. So the heroes of the (fill in the blank) Universe team up to more effectively promote truth, justice, and heroism in between their exciting solo adventures.

In this particular case, the Justice League is a newer, slicker version of the Justice Society from the 1930s and 40s. (Editor Julius Schwartz famously thought that "Society" sounded snobbish, whereas "League" brought to mind America's national pastime of baseball.) As the JSA featured the popular characters of that era, so does the JLA feature the Silver Age's most popular super-heroes--Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, the Martian Manhunter and Snapper Carr.

"Wait, what, who?" I hear the casual comic fan asking. (While the longtime comics fan says, "Oh, God, not Snapper Carr...") Snapper Carr was an attempt to include an audience identification figure; after all, a book like the Justice League, with a large ensemble cast of super-heroes has less room for a supporting cast than a solo book. So on their first adventure, a teenage beatnik named Lucas Carr, nickamed "Snapper" for his habit of snapping his fingers to indicate he likes something, helps the League defeat Starro the Conqueror with his high-school level knowledge of starfish biology. As a sign of their appreciation, the Justice League makes him an honorary member.

To many (perhaps most) comics fans, Snapper is an annoyance, something of a throwback to an earlier era of comics where every hero needed a "kid sidekick" to give the kid readers someone to identify with. (See also "Jones, Rick.") Every time Snapper pops up, answering the JLA's mail or listening to their stories or getting shanghaied on one of their adventures, people who take comics seriously as an adult medium feel like they're biting down on tinfoil. (It doesn't help that his dialogue is "beatnik" jargon written by people who've never actually talked to a beatnik: His first line of dialogue in the series is "Man, this grass mat is the coolest! Wait'll Daddy-o casts his orbs on it!")

But Snapper does perform a valuable service to the Justice League's storytelling engine. Not as an audience identification figure, though. I can't imagine anyone reading about Snapper Carr and saying, "He's just like me!" No, Snapper Carr is useful as The Guy Who Doesn't Know What's Going On. This is a vital character for any truly long-term storytelling engine, and variants of it pop up all over long-running series. Why? Because storytelling engines are all about things that recur, about elements that get reused because they've got potential for more than one story in them. But every story is somebody's first. Having a character who doesn't know the backstory gives the writer a chance to deliver important exposition without it seeming forced or awkward.

There's a long and noble history of Characters Who Don't Know What's Going On. Kitty Pryde in the X-Men (or Wolverine in the X-Men movies), Justice in the Avengers, every single Doctor Who companion, the list could probably go on forever. These people aren't necessarily "audience identification figures" in the sense of being unusually sympathetic or "normal", but they are people who act as surrogates for the reader who's coming to this universe for the first time and don't necessarily know who Doctor Light or Chronos the Time-Thief are, and why they might have a grudge against the Justice League. Without them, the comic becomes insular, catering only to a relatively small audience of fans who already know the intimate details of the fictional universe. Good expository writing helps open up a series to new fans, and characters like Snapper Carr, who don't know anything about Earth-2 and need a quick and convenient explanation, help make for good expository writing.

Mind you, they become more important as we move into the Bronze Age. Back in the Silver Age, writers thought nothing of simply dropping large chunks of exposition right into the story, either in the form of narrative captions, or random info-dumps spoken by the characters. "Yes, Robin, it's our old enemy the Riddler! His gimmick of coming up with clever riddles to taunt us with information about his future crimes has nearly been our downfall, and he's escaped from the jail we put him in after our last encounter!" That sort of thing.

But by the time Snapper was really needed, he was gone. Just as unmotivated infodumps were a casualty of the end of the Silver Age, so too were kid sidekicks and audience identification figures. Snapper betrayed the JLA to the Joker, was forced to resign his honorary membership in disgrace, and has been reduced to an occasional cameo appearance in random comics. Can it really be a coincidence that comic book readership has declined ever since?

Well, yes it can. Snapper himself isn't important, only what he represents. Comics need a person who isn't as familiar as the writer with the details of its universe, or otherwise they'll only appeal to people who already know everything about the comic. And in the end, that audience is doomed to dwindle away.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What Schroedinger Never Understood

The cat knows.

There. Now can science-fiction authors please shut up about the experiment?

(The preceding tiny rant was brought on by 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency', one of the umpteen billion sci-fi books that brings up "Schroedinger's Cat". Although at least Douglas Adams had the decency to do it as a joke, and to point out that the experiment wouldn't work.)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Moon Knight

(or "The Modern Hero")

Moon Knight isn't exactly what you'd call a "big name" in the superhero comics business. Oh, he's had a respectable amount of success; a few series, but none that have managed to pass the sixty-issue mark, a cult following that keeps him from becoming cannon fodder for the next big crossover to come along, but when the average comics fan thinks of Moon Knight, they probably relegate him to the category of "Batman rip-off".

Which is brutally unfair on a number of levels. For one thing, it suggests that "Batman" is the template for any masked hero without actual super-powers. Zorro, Doc Savage, the Spider, and the Scarlet Pimpernel all might have something to say about that. For another thing, Moon Knight is a far different animal from Batman, with a storytelling engine all his own; indeed, you can point to Moon Knight's creation in the Bronze Age as a template for a whole different sort of hero, a thoroughly modern superhero that draws on the culture of the 70s and 80s in the same way that Batman drew on the pulp heroes of the 20s and 30s for inspiration.

You can see in Moon Knight's origin a reflection of the troubled times he was created in; he started his life as a callous mercenary, an ex-Marine who had turned to his talent for violence as his only marketable skill. (With the Vietnam war winding down and many soldiers returning to an unsympathetic or outright hostile homeland, the notion of the disillusioned vet was heavy in the public consciousness. Only a year after Moon Knight's first appearance, 'Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle would be portrayed as a vet.)

Of course, Moon Knight can't stay a callous gunman if he wants to be published in a Marvel comic, and after a change of heart brought about by a near-death experience and an Egyptian god, Marc Spector sets out to become a costumed vigilante just like any other. But Doug Moench, the character's creator, made him entirely unlike any other by making him more like the "vigilantes" we see in the streets than in the comics. Spector was a damaged individual, developing his alter-ego into an entirely separate personality--and in fact, developing many identities, each with a personality all their own. His wealth as a mercenary enabled him to live a playboy lifestyle as "Steven Grant", his need to obtain street-level information brought about cabbie "Jake Lockley" (note the significance of Lockley at just about the time 'Taxi Driver' was released. Perhaps not intentional, but the characters shared the same zeitgeist.)

Nowadays, we think of this as Batman's exclusive schtick. Everyone knows that he thinks of Bruce Wayne as the fake identity, and Batman as his "real self". But Moon Knight was doing it first, and doing it with more sincerity--to him, every identity was a "real self".

Also, the very notion of "vigilantism" was being re-examined. Instead of being seen as a hero who helped the law, Moon Knight and other, similar characters were seen as people who operated outside it. After all, when you boil it down, Marc/Steven/Jake/Moon Knight was just a guy who wandered the streets beating up people he thought were bad. This series was one of the first (alongside the Punisher) to take the position that this might not necessarily be an automatically good thing.

Moon Knight's antagonists, as well, were damaged individuals--Stained Glass Scarlet was an ex-nun who ruthlessly pursued her own criminal son, Black Spectre was another Vietnam vet with a grudge against society, and Morpheus was a crazed insomniac with psychic powers. All elements of the same damaged society that the media of the day examined (again, 'Taxi Driver' is almost a required reference here.)

So why, if Moon Knight has tapped into the modern age so well, does the character not seem to get the kind of following that 'Apocalypse Now' or 'Raging Bull' has? Part of it (much as it pains us to say it, given that this is a series of columns on the elements of a series that stay constant as creators come and go) is the departure of Bill Sienkiewicz as artist. Sienkiewicz's magnificent art reflected Moon Knight's unstable psyche, growing in sophistication as the series went on, and it's never really been the same without him.

Also, subsequent writers never managed to balance Moon Knight's alienated persona and his superheroic nature very well. Either he was written as just another street-smart vigilante, or the "damaged" side of his psyche was played up to the point where he was too vicious to be sympathetic. In a world where everyone imitated Moon Knight, he had to become more extreme to push the envelope, perhaps too much so.

And ultimately, that's the factor that harmed Moon Knight's popularity the most. Having seen that he was the future of superheroes, everyone jumped to position themselves in front of him. Batman's villains started to emphasize their fractured psyches over their gimmicky crimes, anti-heroes became more savage and brutal, and everyone suddenly gained a tortured soul and a borderline-psychotic personality disorder. And Moon Knight went from being unique, the Modern Superhero, to just one of the pack.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Highly Delayed Karma's Gonna Get You...Someday

Dave Barry said it first, but I read it and thought, "I knew that!"

In his book, 'Dave Barry Turns 50', he talks about fifty things he's learned over the course of his life. One of them is, "If the person you're having dinner with is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person."

And it's absolutely true. There's a certain class of person (and you know who you are) who thinks that being in a restaurant gives them a license to be rude, demanding, obnoxious, and cruel...and all to someone who has to respond to that with nothing but politeness or risk losing their job. Sure, we've all had situations where the food is bad or the service really is terrible, but you can find ways to let people know that without taking out your frustrations on them. (Especially the food. They didn't cook it, they just brought it out to your table. When you shout about overdone steak, you're not even shouting at the right person.) Really, you can tell more about a person by how they treat the waitstaff than anything else about them.

I'm gonna let you in on a little secret. When you die, and you march up to the Pearly Gates, God's going to have a big book with your life in it. And it's not going to contain your donations to charity, or the number of times you swore or had sex or got drunk. No, that book's going to contain a list of every time you went out to eat, and exactly how you treated your waiter or waitress.

God knows how much you tipped. Literally.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Storytelling Engines: The Unknown Soldier

(or "How Real Is 'Too Real'?")

Other war comics might be more famous, might have had better creative teams on them, or might have wound up telling better individual stories, but no war comic had a better storytelling engine than 'The Unknown Soldier'. (And it's a great title, too.) It begins with a great origin; the series focuses on a soldier who learns the hard way that the right soldier in the right place at the right time can turn the tide of a battle. He and his brother are manning a foxhole and wind up in between their own lines and a wave of attacking Japanese troops. His brother dies saving him from a grenade, and although he stems the tide long enough for reinforcements to arrive, he's badly scarred by the same grenade that killed his brother.

Instead of heading back to the States, though, he becomes a one-man army, a secret agent and master of disguise who conceals his ruined features with a variety of disguises so as to impersonate any soldier, anytime, anywhere in the war. He impersonates key individuals at key moments, because after all, the right soldier in the right place at the tight time can turn the tide of a battle. (He also has one of the iconic looks of any character; underneath his disguises, he wears a set of bandages reminiscent of the Invisible Man. It's almost a shame when they finally show his face; as horrible as Gerry Talaoc depicts his injuries, nothing matches the face you imagine to be under the bandages.)

Obviously, this is a storytelling engine that has some serious legs. World War II, in case you hadn't heard, was quite a big war; because of his position as "troubleshooter" for the Armed Forces, writers like Joe Kubert, Bob Haney, Bob Kanigher, Archie Goodwin, Frank Robbins and David Michelinie could insert the Soldier into any theater of the war at any period. They even manage to ring in a very nice "nemesis" for the character towards the end of Volume One of the 'Showcase Presents' collection; he's a German soldier whose face was scarred by one of the Soldier's more successful ops, who has learned his techniques and is obsessed with destroying the man who ruined his face. And while "war stories" tend to be a bit formulaic at times, they could use any of the different formulas, because the Unknown Soldier could be any soldier.

Which must have presented an awful large temptation, at times. After all, World War II has a number of iconic moments to it that just about every schoolkid knows; it'd be tempting to have the Soldier be one of the men raising the flag at Iwo Jima, or storming the beach at Normandy, or dropping the bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Wisely, though, the series avoids any such temptation for the most part, instead creating "small but crucial" junctures of the war for him to act in. This is probably the final point that makes 'The Unknown Soldier' work so well. Just because the Unknown Soldier could be anyone doesn't mean that he has to be; in fact, it's extremely dangerous to just plop the title character into a famous point in history, because it undermines the very point the series makes. "The right soldier in the right place at the right time." The central theme is that any soldier can be a hero if the circumstances are right. The more times that said soldier turns out to be secretly replaced by a disguised super-hero with every kind of combat skill imaginable, the less we believe the main idea.

Any time you insert fictional characters into history, you risk devaluing the achievements of the real people who lived during that era. There are ways to pull this off, of course; 'Doctor Who' does it all the time, showing its central character as more of an observer and occasional influence than an actual maker of history (and when he does help out a historical figure, it's generally with an alien invasion that happens to be going on right around then, which Leonardo da Vinci can be rightly expected not to be able to handle.) But the Unknown Soldier is a character who could quite easily become bigger than the heroes of the war he's in; managing to keep his actions "human-sized" goes a long way towards making this series the classic it is.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Breaking Scandal!

JAMES BLOODHOUND INDICTED ON FIVE COUNTS OF CHILD LABOR VIOLATIONS

(Associated Press) The Bloodhound Detective Agency has been a well-known staple of the private investigations field over the years, with its catchy slogans and friendly staff. But recently, it's seemed that even if you did in fact have the crime, owner James Bloodhound didn't have the time. The owner and chief investigator for the agency had been noted for his almost perpetual absence in recent months, apparently leaving his cases to a number of youths who frequented the offices.

But it didn't take a detective to find the detective; James Bloodhound was found by a process server in the Eagle's Eye Tavern, a local haunt, at 3:42 PM yesterday. According to witnesses, he was drunk and belligerent, threatening the server with bodily harm when he was presented with a writ to cease operations pending an investigation by the Department of Labor. Police arrived on the scene soon after, and Mr. Bloodhound was taken into custody. Bob Smith, owner of the Eagle's Eye, claimed that Mr. Bloodhound came in every day when the bar opened, and frequently would not leave until closing. "I always wondered where he got his money from," Smith said. "I never dreamed he had some kids solving mysteries for him."

But it turns out that this appears to be exactly the case. Callers to the Bloodhound Detective Agency were greeted with a cheery "Bloodhound Detective Agency, Mr. Bloodhound isn't here," time and time again, and instead of Mr. Bloodhound himself, they found a gang of teenagers solving their crimes. Although the teens had a strong success record, they received no compensation for their efforts, renumeration instead going back to the agency.

"We just do it for the thrill of solving mysteries," said 'Skip', one of the three youths who form the unofficial 'Bloodhound Gang'. "We never thought about getting money, I mean....I..." At this point, 'Skip' broke down into tears. "Please don't tell Mr. Bloodhound I talked to you. He'll hit me again. I...I don't even know what happened to Zach and Cuff!"

At press time, the future of the Bloodhound Detective Agency remains uncertain. The 'Bloodhound Gang' claims to be looking into opening a partnership with Billy Jo Jive, super-crime-fighting ace, but he denies all reports of this, claiming to already be quite happy with his current partner, Smart Susie Sunset. One thing is certain, Mr. Bloodhound is most definitely in trouble, and nobody knows just who will be there on the double.