Monday, June 30, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Robin

(or, "You Can't Be A Serious Superhero In Short Shorts")

Everyone knows who Robin is. If you think about the best-known superheroes in popular culture (indeed, arguably the best-known figures in popular culture, period) Batman has to pop up right near the top of the list...and everyone who knows about Batman knows that it's not just "Batman", it's "Batman and Robin". The Boy Wonder is an essential element of Batman's storytelling engine, and has been for generations. He's a handy audience identification figure for younger readers who want to imagine themselves adventuring side by side with their hero, he's a handy means of providing exposition (so that Batman doesn't have to talk to himself quite so much), and as a crimefighter slightly less competent than the Darknight Detective, he's a useful source of plot complications if the writer needs to extend the story. (And he's also a source of comic relief, if your source of humor trends towards terrible puns and the overuse of the phrase, "Holy (fill in the blank), Batman!")

But all that is Robin's role in Batman's storytelling engine. What happens if you want to try to take Robin and turn him into a lead role? How do you handle taking the sidekick and making him into a hero? That's a bit of a tricky question, one that DC struggled with for many years while trying to establish a storytelling engine for Robin. As we can see from 'Showcase Presents Robin, the Boy Wonder', they weren't quite sure where to begin.

They began by establishing him as more of a grown-up, which is a good start. Robin kicks off his solo career by leaving Gotham behind and going to college. (This is a bit of a backwards step, as most of the people writing Robin at this point had left their teen years behind a while back--there's very little as painfully awkward as reading dated teenage culture references. It's like listening to your dad try to be "hip".) With his own stomping grounds and a bit of distance from Batman, Robin has to be the lead hero because there's nobody to save his bacon (apart from occasional guest shots by other "young heroes" like Batgirl, of course. And a guest shot or two from Superman. And okay, yes, Batman does drop by campus a few times to see how he's doing. But, um...yeah. Sorry.)

Other arguable mistakes would include keeping the iconic Robin costume, which is by now practically a symbol of childhood (in particular, the little short shorts and the bare legs (which must be shaved, if Dick Grayson is a college student and still able to keep them that smooth. That doesn't speak tremendously of your macho heroism, being the only superhero on the block who makes sure to use 'Nair'.) The change from 'Boy Wonder' to 'Teen Wonder' seems like a good idea, highlighting his growth, but "teen" tends to connote junior high and high school kids rather than college students, thus having the effect of making Robin still seem a bit young.

But the great mistake is the lack of a rogue's gallery. Batman is out there fighting the Joker, Two-Face, Killer Croc, and Ra's Al Ghul, and Robin's helping out neighborhood kids and trying to figure out who's sending threatening letters to the Dean. One of these two is going to be seen as a major superhero, the other is going to be seen as a sidekick. One guess as to where Robin falls, here.

It really isn't until the 80s (and arguably the 90s) that Robin begins to work as a solo hero. Dick Grayson gets a major makeover from Marv Wolfman and George Perez, turning him into Nightwing and making it clear that he's ditched the trappings of childhood completely, while the new Robin, under the wing of Chuck Dixon, ditches the puns, the short shorts, and many of the much-derided elements of the old Robin, and begins accumulating his own supervillains to fight as well. (Dixon also has a hand in the storytelling engine for Nightwing, his run on that book establishing a home city, a rogue's gallery, and a supporting cast for the former Robin. Of course, all that's gone now, and coincidentally, the book is kind of floundering. Go figure.)

So now, instead of one Robin who doesn't work as a solo hero, we have two that do (three, if anyone here actually cares about the resurrected Jason Todd. Anyone? Anyone? No, didn't really think so.) What made the difference? Arguably, Chuck Dixon. As a writer who's always been concerned with the nuts and bolts of good storytelling, he made sure to surround his characters with the elements that made their storytelling engines work. He made sure the characters had easy access to story ideas, if for no other reason than it made his job easier, and it made those characters work in a way they hadn't before...and in a way they haven't since, as the supporting casts he built up got killed off in the current climate of "shock comics" that exists at both of the Big Two. If there's a lesson to be taken away, let it be that. A hero without a good supporting cast, a good setting, and a good antagonist is really just a sidekick. And not every Robin has a Batman to hang around with.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Under the Hood: Star Wars, Episode One

So at this point, my computer refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Internet, which means I can't surf the web, check my email, or illegally download Doctor Who. (I'm typing this on my room-mate's computer; he will be handling the illegal-download duties this week.) But you didn't come here to hear about my problems, you came here to listen to me yammer about random stuff!

A few years back, I found myself discussing the Star Wars prequels with a friend I've unfortunately lost touch with. We were talking about how much they sucked, to be specific, and how easy it would be to rework them into something better. We came up with plans for revised versions of all six movies (as we pretty much took it as a given, even back in 2002, that Episode Three wasn't going to be a classic.) Today, I'm going to share with you our views on what needed to happen to Episode One, the Phantom Menace!

First, the story needed to begin in mid-battle. We never see the droid troopers in battle against anything other than Jedi for the first three-quarters of the movie, and the Jedi basically school them. Which makes the battle droids appear weak and unthreatening (and their spindly design and comedy voices don't help.) So our Episode One opens with the Trade Federation fleets (and needless to say, our Trade Federation aliens would have their own language, with subtitles) attacking the peaceful planet of Naboo (except that Naboo would probably have a less silly name in our version.) Droid soldiers (who would look more like the droids in Episode Two, with stockier bodies and deeper voices) overwhelm the Naboo soldiers, and all appears lost...

Until two Jedi arrive. Qui-Gon Jinn and his rebellious student, Obi-Wan Kenobi, show up to negotiate (and if necessary, enforce) a peace. The Trade Federation are expected to toe the line--the Jedi are, after all, respected for over a thousand years as the peacekeepers of the Republic. (There's a hint of something unsavory about this, here. Many of the species outside of the Republic, on the Outer Rim, are immune to Jedi powers, and there's definitely an undercurrent of an idea that maybe the Republic was founded when the Jedi kicked out the people they couldn't control. But Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are decent men, even if Obi-Wan is a bit of a hellraiser.)

But this time, the Trade Federation refuses to kowtow. They instead take the unprecedented step of attacking the Jedi, insinuating that they have the patronage of something darker, more ancient, something that even the Jedi must fear. Qui-Gon is worried and wants to find out more, but first, he and his apprentice have to fight a world of killer robots, free Queen Amidala (who isn't elected, because Queens tend not to be) and get back to Coruscant, the capital of the Republic to warn everyone.

For two Jedi, this is easier than it looks. They get the help of a native of the planet, whose name isn't Jar Jar Binks, who isn't clumsy, and who is actually useful in a fight. Think an amphibious version of Chewbacca, rather than the CGI mess we got. Sort of if the Creature From the Black Lagoon was a nice guy. But we'll continue to call him Jar Jar here, just to make it clear who we're talking about. They save Jar Jar, and Jar Jar repays the favor by helping them rescue the Queen and get everyone off-planet.

The Trade Federation give chase. Conversations with their secret master, Darth Sidious, make it clear that this is just the first step in a plan to split the Republic apart, and he needs Naboo's resources to make it happen. It's clear that while the Trade Federation isn't afraid of the Jedi anymore, they're very afraid of him. The Jedi's ship gives the Trade Federation the slip by escaping past the Outer Rim, into the frontier territory controlled by the Hutts, but their ship is damaged and they must put down for repairs on a backwater planet. (Not Tatooine. No Tatooine until the end of Episode Three, that's my motto. This is another part of the Hutt territory, a few systems away from Tatooine.)

While the Queen's people are fixing and Qui-Gon is meditating, Obi-Wan sneaks off. (Hellraiser, remember?) He winds up meeting an orphaned teen just a year or so younger than him (say, seventeen to Obi-Wan's eighteen), who's in the middle of an illegal swoop race with a bunch of alien bikers. (For the non-Star Wars literate, swoops are to the speeder bikes in 'Return to the Jedi' as Harleys are to those little crotch-rocket motorcycles.) The teen, one Anakin Skywalker, is racing for money, and wins...and as a Jedi, Obi-Wan can tell that this kid is using the Force to help him race on a scale that staggers Obi-Wan's imagination. Meanwhile, Qui-Gon winds up having his meditation interrupted by a force of one hundred armed guards, sent by the Hutts.

While all this is going on, Darth Sidious sends his apprentice, Darth Maul, to apprehend the Queen personally should the Trade Federation fail. Maul lands on the planet, and begins seeking his quarry out...and the first thing that attracts his attention is an apocalyptic bar fight between several dozen disgruntled alien bikers convinced that Anakin was cheating, and Anakin and Obi-Wan, who become instant friends while slicing, dicing, and shooting aliens. But Darth Maul is watching them...

The Hutts, meanwhile, have summoned Qui-Gon to ask him exactly who this "Trade Federation" is that's just landed a battlefleet right above their planet, and why they want this Queen. (They're not angry. The Hutts merely sent a hundred armed men to fetch him merely as a sign of respect for his abilities as a Jedi. To send just one armed goon would be a grave insult.) Qui-Gon explains the situation, and while the Hutts have no interest on either side, the Trade Federation's presumption and demanding attitude alienates them.

A major battle follows. In space, Hutt battleships fight the Trade Federation's forces, and the Hutts fight dirty. On the planet, Qui-Gon returns to find that Obi-Wan and Anakin have dragged a whole army of lowlifes to their hangar. He gets everyone on board the ship and prepares for lift-off, when Darth Maul shows up. Maul cuts a swathe through the angry mob, and very nearly through Qui-Gon as well. He's very well-trained, and uses the Dark Side of the Force in a way that hasn't been seen in centuries...not since the founding of the Republic, in fact.

Qui-Gon holds his own just long enough to get to the ship, which takes off and weaves its way through the space battle, finally getting clear of the planet and jumping into hyperspace. Next stop, Coruscant! ...where Queen Amidala finds little sympathy for her cause in the gridlocked Senate. Her personal Senator, Palpatine, manipulates her into putting him forward as a candidate for Chancellor.

That night, Obi-Wan goes to see Amidala in her quarters. (Because, y'know, grrrrowlll! Jedi are discouraged from forming relationships, but it's not forbidden.) He finds her there, but he also finds Darth Maul. A lightsaber duel follows, with Obi-Wan handling Maul better than Qui-Gon, but still not well enough. The two combatants trash the room, slowly destroying power couplings and lighting fixtures over the course of their fight so that the room gradually darkens, eventually lit only by their twin lightsabers. Then, Maul manages to disarm Obi-Wan, and the room is lit only by one saber, gradually inching down towards Obi-Wan's face...

And then, behind Maul, there's the trademark sound of lightsabers turning on, one after another after another until the entire Jedi Council stands illuminated. In the center of them stands Yoda, who's not wielding anything. He's just staring at Maul with a little scowl on his face. Maul sees that, and runs for it. He slices open a wall and jumps out into Coruscant hover-traffic, leaping from car to car until he's just a spot in the distance.

With that, Amidala decides to return to her homeworld. She's no safer on Coruscant than anywhere else, and Jar Jar has pledged the help of his people against the droid armies. Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Anakin decide to accompany them--Anakin wants to become a Jedi, and although Yoda insists he's too old to begin the training, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are both open to the idea. (Yoda, meanwhile, warns Qui-Gon that the power, the darkness he felt in Maul is reminiscent of the ancient warnings, the legends of the Sith. He urges the utmost caution. If the Sith have returned, dark times may lie ahead for the entire galaxy.)

The heroes' forces run the blockade surrounding Naboo, and Queen Amidala allies herself with the Gungan armies for a showdown. They free many of the captured Naboo pilots and a handful of ships, and Anakin volunteers to help fly a risky assault on the Trade Federation's co-ordinator ships (which enable their droids and starships to act in unison.) He's hoping the Queen will be at least a little impressed with this show of bravery...after all, grrrrowlll!

Gungans fight droids (more competently than in the movie, which made it look like a sort of Special Olympics of war), Anakin heroically destroys the co-ordinator ship, and Darth Maul battles both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Qui-Gon dies, Darth Maul dies, but even without the co-ordinator ship, the Trade Federation's forces are overwhelming, and defeat seems certain...until Chancellor Palpatine arrives with the Republic's forces to save the day! Huzzah!

Or, at least, sort of huzzah. Qui-Gon is dead, and without him, Anakin's dream of becoming a Jedi seems stillborn. Not to mention, the captured Trade Federation leaders mention a further Sith Lord in the shadows, the master to Maul's apprentice, one they only know as Darth Sidious...and on mentioning his name, they immediately drop dead in agony. Yoda fears the worst. Even with all his misgivings, though, he cannot deny Obi-Wan his ascension to Jedi Knight. And as a full Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan may take an apprentice. He chooses his fast friend, Anakin Skywalker. And at the awards ceremony, Amidala delivers a kiss that makes it pretty clear that she, too, chooses Anakin.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Informal Storytelling Engines Poll

At this point, I've now done seventy-six entries in the "Storytelling Engines" series, which is a lot longer than I generally tend to stick with things. (Honestly, I'm kind of impressed with myself. Probably much more than my audience is impressed with me.) But the problem is, I'm actually running out of things to talk about. I originally based this series on the great big "Essentials/Showcase Presents" volumes because they were cheap, and because they gave a nice overview of a long period of a series' history, which allowed me to take a look at the way storytelling engines changed over time.

Well, unfortunately, Marvel and DC aren't publishing them as fast as I'm writing about them. As I write this, there are seven series ('Shazam', 'Sergeant Rock', 'Metamorpho', 'Robin', 'Human Torch', 'Rampaging Hulk' and 'Captain Marvel') left that I haven't done an entry on. And honestly, I have no idea what to say about the Human Torch's solo series. DC is coming out with a few new volumes in the next few months ('House of Secrets' and 'Blackhawks'), but after that, I'm officially out of material.

So I'd like to hear people's opinions for a moment. Should I, at that point, wrap it up as a regular feature? Eighty-five entries, thanks very much, good job and well done? Or should I try expanding it to other areas, some of which wouldn't be comics-related? (For example, I've got the entire series of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, the Critic, Monty Python, Futurama and Black Adder on DVD, not to mention more Doctor Who and Simpsons than you could possibly imagine.) Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section. I'll be paying close attention.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review: Don't Look Now

(Sorry about the lateness of this entry--been too tired to write lately. I'm thinking about taking multi-vitamins.)

There was a time in my life--a happier time--when I could say I have never seen a film that could be summarized with the words, "Donald Sutherland wanders around Venice for two hours, then gets stabbed by a midget." But unfortunately, that's no longer the case. Because I have seen 'Don't Look Now'. This unintentionally-aptly-titled 1973 thriller is legendary for its infamous "shock" ending, which made #22 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Moments In Film. After watching the film, I understand why the ending is so popular. After sitting through this movie, I was overjoyed to see any kind of an ending.

In all seriousness, the film is deadly dull. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland play a couple whose youngest child has drowned, and their working vacation in Venice (he restores old cathedrals) is filled with...well, as I say, endless sequences of them wandering through the streets, and loud, ominous music that continually seems out of place in its efforts to convince the audience that something is happening when it isn't. Christie meets two elderly British women, one of whom claims to be psychic, and the movie tries to squeeze a little mileage out of that, but as with all of the subplots, it never really seems to get going. Every so often, someone mentions something about "murders", but the director never lets any of that get in the way of endless shots of people wandering around the Venetian scenery.

And then, in the end, Donald Sutherland gets stabbed by a killer midget that he thinks is his daughter. No explanation, no set-up (because really, how do you set up "killer midget"?) I'd say I was sorry for spoiling the movie by telling you that, but really, if you read this review and wind up not wanting to see this film, I've done you a favor. (Oh, by the same note, the cancer patient did it in 'Saw' and he's pretending to be the corpse on the floor.) Then, as he lies dying, we get a quick montage of every scene in the entire movie, just to complete the illusion that we're trapped in a never-ending hell of dull, pointless sequences of awkward, stilted dialog and random musical cues.

I realize that very few of my readers were clamoring to see 'Don't Look Now'. Most of you have never even heard of it. But if I've saved even one person from wasting 110 minutes of their life watching this testament to cinematic immobility, my time on this earth shall not have been in vain.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Metal Men

(or "Death Is But A Door")

So what, exactly, is it about the Metal Men that makes them such an enduring property? In a lot of ways, they seem very similar to many of the other quirky, off-beat characters that DC created in the Sixties as they tried to capture the youth culture, and their storytelling engine reflects that. Unusual villains (like Chemo, the Gas Gang, and a giant radioactive version of their creator, Doc Magnus)? Sure. Quirky characters that don't always get along, led by an irascible mentor? Yep.
A slightly different take on the "public hero" motif, with the Metal Men sometimes loved and sometimes feared by a fickle public? Check. But all of these are shared by the Doom Patrol, the Fantastic Four, or even the X-Men. There's got to be something unique about their storytelling engine, something that keeps it going through all these years.

They're all robots, and when they get killed, Doc Magnus just rebuilds them? Yep, there it is.

And it doesn't just keep them going in the literal sense, either. The Metal Men, as characters, endure because Doc Magnus keeps finding a way to put them back together after they sacrifice themselves fighting the enemies of humanity, but the concept of the Metal Men stays strong because removing death from the equation of their storytelling engine opens up the potential for some truly strange, genuinely memorable stories. Nothing really stops the Metal Men, allowing the writers to get them into situations that no other hero could get out of and exploring the nature of heroism in some decidedly odd ways. Metal Men get trapped in space, become radioactive, turn evil, blow up, blow themselves up, and through it all, writer Bob Kanigher knows that he has a "backdoor" out of these plots in the form of Doc Magnus and his robot-repair skills.

Of course, removing death from the equation has some downsides as well as upsides. It's hard to really feel concerned for one of the Metal Men when they wind up in a life-or-death situation, because previous stories have demonstrated that there's really no such thing for them. No matter how devastating the injury visited on Tin, Lead, Gold, Iron, Mercury, or Platinum, they'll be back again by the next issue right as rain. The only way to induce real tension is to go after Doc Magnus, something the series does regularly. You can almost think of it as a logic gate; the potential for death opens up tension, but at the cost of closing off storytelling possibilities.

Readers tend to thrive on tension, though, so the "unkillable protagonist" remains confined to a relative handful of storytelling engines (Resurrection Man, arguably Metamorpho, and Robotman of the Doom Patrol tends to be pretty tough to get rid of.) But those few series provide something genuinely different for the readers, a glimpse into a world where all the rules are changed...even the most fundamental rule of life.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Match.com: Performance Art?

The radio ads for match.com are so strange, so bizarrely desperate and weird that I do sometimes suspect that they're not meant to be enticements to visit the site at all, but perhaps some sort of meta-commentary on the futility of attempting to convince people to buy your product with persuasive discourse. Last year, for example, they ran a series of ads discussing how you could sign other people up for the dating service if you didn't want to use it on your own behalf. "Match.com--for the yenta in you!" (I can only assume that they stopped doing this because of all the potentials for disaster that could result. "Honey, we decided we didn't like the man you were dating, so we signed you up for Match.com. Here's Harold, we think he'd be a much better boyfriend for you.")

Later, they took to emphasizing their "six months free" promise. As in, "If you don't meet someone within the first six months, we'll give you another six months free." That's right, if you've wasted your time and money on our website in a seeming eternity of desperate loneliness...hey, you'll just waste time from now on!

Their latest campaign is all about how "easy-to-use" the site is. How easy? Well, they say that you can learn via a page of hints and tips from experienced Match.com users, their "best customers". But Match.com is a service whose goal is to try to get you not to use it anymore. If you've been using Match.com long enough to figure out every detail of its web interface, then you're clearly not their "best customer"--you're someone who apparently has nothing better to do on a Friday night than figure out how to adjust your profile on a dating website. The people whose advice you want to listen to would tell you, "I dunno--I put up my information, met a nice girl/guy in about five minutes, and never needed to use the site again."


I can understand that advertising a personals service is probably difficult, as there is a bit of a stigma attached to using one, but even by those standards, Match.com has a strange, flop-sweat desperation to its ads. Still, at least it's an entertaining desperation. It could be worse. They could be the guys at "It's Just Lunch".

Monday, June 09, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Batgirl

(or "The Times, They Are A-Changing!")

When Barbara Gordon makes her "Million-Dollar Debut" as Batgirl, she's portrayed as something of a dilettante crimefighter. Sure, she's bright and capable, but those very same smarts have relegated her to the position of an 'old-maid' librarian with her hair up in a bun. (Actually, it's really up in the same style Princess Leia would later adopt, but that's not the point.) She becomes Batgirl not out of a thirst for justice, but because she wants to get some excitement out of her dull, humdrum life.

But believe it or not, this is actually progress off of the original Batgirl. Betty Kane (niece of Kathy Kane, aka Batwoman) also joins up in crimefighting for the thrill of it; she and her aunt are both portrayed not just as thrillseekers, but as barely competent in their newly-chosen profession. It's a constant struggle for Batman and Robin to keep them out of danger, and the continual subtext of the series is that Kathy and Betty (who use gadgets like lipstick that shoots concealed wires to snare criminals, or mace hairspray) have set "marriage/dating" as a condition of giving up crime-busting. (Which isn't far from the truth--the two characters were introduced solely to prove that Batman and Robin were interested in women, rather than each other.)

The second Batgirl can definitely be seen as progress from the original; she, too, pursues criminals "for kicks", but she's a lot more competent than Betty Kane was. (Although the writers still enjoy tossing in some rampant sexism, such as Gardner Fox's infamous "Batgirl's Costume Cut-Ups" story where Batgirl keeps letting criminals escape while she stops to fix her make-up.) The subtext is no longer, "Women should stop fighting crime and settle down with a good husband," but "Some women feel like there's a void in their life, and they fill it with beating up the forces of evil."

As Barbara Gordon becomes the lead in her own series of back-ups, instead of a supporting character in Batman's series, her role changes further. The writers reflect the changing role of women in the 60s and 70s by having Barbara become more independent, intelligent, and even willing to have a romantic life beyond pining for Robin...and at the same time, not willing to let any of these things take a backseat to her role as Batgirl. Barbara Gordon becomes very much an archetypal feminist as the archetype itself develops, culminating in her going to Washington as a member of the House of Representatives (of the State That Gotham Is In, to paraphrase the Simpsons.)

Alas, right about then is the point where her backups disappear. It's too bad, because "crimefighting Congresswoman" is a great notion for a storytelling engine, far better than "crimefighting librarian." Batgirl's stories tended to have a hard time working her into the action due to her profession--libraries tend not to be the scene of exciting criminal conspiracies. Usually, they preferred to use her relationship with longtime Batman cast member Commissioner Gordon as an excuse to get her involved with a crime. That link was actually one of the best elements of Batgirl's storytelling engine...until the point where there wasn't a Batgirl any more.

Because in the 80s, the whole notion of a "family" of supporting heroes went wildly out of fashion. Kid sidekicks, female counterparts, super-pets, all these became trite and childish in a medium that was desperately trying to be perceived as "adult". Supergirl died, Krypto and Ace the Bat-Hound were written out of continuity, and even Robin had to fight tooth and nail to stick around (with one Robin growing up to take on a more adult, "cooler" persona and another dying.) Certainly, Batgirl wasn't about to buck the trend. So Barbara Gordon's relationship to the Commissioner went from being a useful element of her storytelling engine to an excuse for the Joker to shoot her in the gut without having to reveal her secret identity, and the character went away.

Except that she didn't. Barbara Gordon continued to be a hero and a feminist icon despite being paralyzed from the waist down. Or perhaps because of it--comics have always attracted intelligent people as fans, especially among women, and the idea of a superhero who uses her brains instead of her fists to defeat criminals is one that has deep attraction, especially with the rise of the Internet. Batgirl evolved from being a dilettante librarian to a tech-savvy geek girl, just in time for the Information Age. Her storytelling engine seems to constantly reflect the evolving role of women in society, and her popularity reflects the fact that comics are no longer just a boy's club.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Taking a Break

Taking a week off from writing (it's sort of like a vacation, except that I still have to go put in forty hours at my regular job.) So there will be no blog posts beyond this one that tells you there won't be any blog posts.

Now you see why the tag for these is "meta".