Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Storytelling Engines: DC Comics Presents

(or "Too Good?")

At first glance...and, to be honest, at last glance, "DC Comics Presents" seems to be one of those truly excellent storytelling engines. It's another team-up book, one of a long line of "Popular Hero X Teams Up With A Different Hero Every Month" books; this time, it's Superman who gets the regular spot in the line-up, teaming up with a rotating list of DC heroes from the famous to the obscure.

And Superman really is the best possible hero for that slot in some ways; after all, we've seen anti-social heroes like Batman and Spider-Man in team-up books, and gruff-but-loveable curmudgeons like the Thing take the spotlight as well. Always, any storytelling engine built around the team-up as its central concept has to find answers to the question, "Why is this hero teaming up with someone else?" And really, nobody has an easier answer to that than Superman. He's the quintessential hero's hero, the guy who everyone can count on and who's always happy to help. When he sees the Metal Men duking it out with Chemo, you can bet he'll swoop in to lend a hand. When the Flash investigates a mysterious spacecraft outside of a small Midwestern town, you can figure that Superman's already on the case too. There are a fairly limited number of plot hooks to get two super-heroes to team up, and Superman is an easy fit on almost all of them.

That's right, almost. Because there's one classic way of getting two heroes to cross paths in a team-up book that doesn't fit Superman, and that's at cross-purposes. (See how clever that was? Oh, I amaze myself sometimes.) When you have a hero like Spider-Man, who's fundamentally decent but misunderstood, or a hero like Batman, who's fundamentally decent but spiky and intense, you can legitimately solve the story problem of "how does he meet this week's guest star?" by having this week's guest star blame him for the acts of this week's villain, and watching the sparks fly. (Super-hero fights are a little like catfights. They're tacky and cliche, but a lot more people love watching them than are willing to admit it.)

But Superman? He's way too nice for that sort of thing. They try it in the opening story-arc, pitting him against the Flash in a race through time (not against time, through it--this is the Bronze Age, where casual time travel was a monthly thing at DC) to catch up to an alien time traveler who was trying to change history. Supposedly, the two heroes were on opposing sides...but all Superman needed to do was explain his point of view, and the Flash said, "How can I help?" It's not exactly the source of tension and plot complications that a writer needs to find on a monthly basis.

Of course, there is always the old standby, mind control, and sure enough, Superman does wind up mixing it up with a few heroes while under the influence of villains like Killer Frost. But for the most part, while having a goody-goody like Superman opens up a lot of options for a team-up book like "DC Comics Presents", his very niceness closes one off.


billjac said...

I haven't rad a lot of DC Comics Presents so I'd be interested in hearing how they deal with Superman's high power level. How do they justify him not just swooping in and solving problems stymieing more street-level heroes? Professional courtesy? And how do they bring in other heroes to deal with Superman-level problems where they're arguably out of their depth? Calling on their specialized areas of expertise seems a bit character-centric for Siver Age DC.

John Seavey said...

Oh, it's mainly the usual--Kryptonite, magic, or Q Radiation, a Bronze Age-only weakness that enables aliens to beat him up. :)

For all that people complain about Superman being "too powerful", DC has never had problems hobbling them when they've needed to.

E. Wilson said...

Ah, but the problem there is that their methods of hobbling Supes are very, very Silver Age conventions that DC would be embarrassed about now, because comics are Serious Business.

John Seavey said...

Well put.