Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Warlord

(or "The Kitchen Sink Must Show Up In Issue #29")

At first, when reading Mike Grell's classic series, "Warlord"...oh, let's all be honest. At first, when reading Mike Grell's classic series, "Warlord", we all ooh and ahh at the spectacular art. Arguably, the black-and-white reprints are even better than the original color issues of the series; color is almost a distraction from Grell's crisp, clean, gorgeous lines. But once we start actually paying attention to the story, it seems a little...well, cliched. It's got a hero who winds up finding a hidden "hollow world" at the center of the Earth, with living dinosaurs and barbarian tribes, and sorcerers, and secret Atlantean technologies, and time moves differently in different parts of the world (allowing for him to be gone a few months inside Skartaris, but years and years outside) and, and...

And then you start to notice that what seems to be a lack of originality at first is, in fact, a calculated effect. Grell isn't just being lazy, he's deliberately trying to evoke the tropes and themes of an entire genre of adventure stories. He includes elements of "John Carter, Warlord of Mars", bits and pieces of "Tarzan", chunks of "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon"...the series actually tries to create a sense of familiarity, like a painter deliberately aging one of his works to make it look like one of the Old Masters. The intent isn't forgery, but an attempt to create a novel work that fits, stylistically, with a different era.

And because Grell is trying to evoke as much of the atmosphere of those old adventure stories as possible, he has a huge advantage in setting up his storytelling engine; anything that doesn't directly contradict a previous storytelling element is fair game for inclusion. So when he's stuck for a plot, he can have Travis Morgan relive his previous incarnations (a la Alan Quatermass) or bring in creatures of dark magic from pre-human Earth (a la Conan.) He's got a veritable cornucopia of ideas to draw on, and the more he piles on the old pulp tropes, the more authentically "pulpy" it seems. After all, those guys weren't averse to sharing ideas back and forth themselves. Perhaps if Lovecraft, Howard, or Burroughs were alive today, you might see a few references to Skartaris in their stories.

How well did this genre pastiche work? Well, it ran 133 issues; pretty good work, for a series that steadfastly refused to tie in with DC continuity for much of its run. Even now, it's fondly remembered; while a Bruce Jones reboot fared poorly, Mike Grell himself is returning to the series he created and seems to be getting positive press for it. And with decades of pulp (and pulp-inspired) stories out there, it's doubtful he'll run out of inspiration anytime soon.


NTB said...

Sounds cool. I've never read Mike Grell's stuff beyond his Iron Man ( which was a mixed bag, though not nearly as bad as Iron Man fans would have you believe ), but the Showcase volume makes it worth a look.

Oh, I addressed your Avengers storytelling engine essay in one of my own analyses here; please let me know what you think

Rawrasaur said...

The thing with a storytelling engine like this is all about the execution. He's working from established tropes, sure, but it can be done well, mediocre, or poorly, and if it isn't done well, the penalty is much higher than if he was trying something totally different and/or new.

It actually functions an awful lot like the current TV show Glee. Glee isn't a revolutionary show; they pretty much throw every high school trope in the book at it that they can. The major difference is that they are succeeding based on their execution of the material, not the originality.


John Seavey said...

Well, every book succeeds or fails based on the execution of their material...but that's pretty much a given in my mind, and not the point of these columns. My point is, "How does the set-up of the book help (or hinder) a writer in coming up with new story ideas?"

There are lots of books with great storytelling engines, but lousy stories. :)

Although I do agree, a real hazard of designing your book around established tropes is that it can feel very cliched if you don't give it plenty of energy. Nothing fails like other people's warmed-over ideas.