Friday, January 30, 2009

An Open Letter To Grant Morrison

Dear Mr. Morrison,

First, let me just apologize in advance if this expression of dissatisfaction comes across as depressing and personally abusive. Rest assured, I have a great respect for you as a writer--honestly, if you'd retired after 'Animal Man', I'd have a great respect for you as a writer, on the strength of that alone, and your later work has only helped your reputation.

That said, I think you might be slightly confused as to the source of some of the ire fans hold for the recent comics that you have written, and DC has published. This isn't necessarily your fault, of course. While I love the Internet greatly, I do find that some of the people that populate it aren't the best at articulating their thoughts and feelings. (Luckily, everyone who reads my blog is intelligent, articulate, and possessed of eminent taste and discretion.) But I do flatter myself that one of my strengths as a writer is in explaining things clearly, so let me go ahead and try to do just that.

In your recent interview at Newsarama, you express a great deal of confusion over the phrase "event fatigue", wondering exactly how someone could be "fatigued" with "events". You also express some confusion and dismay at the frustration fans felt with "Batman R.I.P.", and wondered why it was that these fans were so angry. The causes are distinct, but related. I'll try to tackle them in order.

The first one is very simple. "Event fatigue" is not a mental syndrome, but a financial one. I'm aware that most DC writers are put on the "comp list", where they get copies of the company's comics every month, so it might very well have been a while since you've had to pay for a comic yourself. I'm also assuming (and certainly hoping) that DC pays you pretty well for your efforts. Between these two things, you might have forgotten just how much one has to spend to follow an "event".

Newsarama has been kind enough to break down the cost here. If you who don't feel like wading through the article, it comes out to about $135, with an extra $152 for those who bought 'Countdown to Final Crisis', which you have said was not connected to 'Final Crisis'--a fact you politely waited until approximately one week after 'Countdown' had concluded to mention. Which does, of course, mean that the people most interested in 'Final Crisis' had already spent that money before finding that fact out. They also tack on an extra thirty bucks for 'Death of the New Gods', another series that was released as being "essential to 'Final Crisis'" that actually wasn't.

Note those last two points. Stories not connected to 'Final Crisis' were being sold as "essential to 'Final Crisis'." This is also an issue with "Batman R.I.P.", which was first sold as "the end of Batman", then sold as "the end of Batman that ties into 'Final Crisis'," then finally explained as "a Batman story that came out at roughly the same time as the end of Batman which happens in 'Final Crisis', because Dan DiDio asked me if we could have these two relate to each other so I made sure they happened at roughly the same time." (If I can slightly paraphrase your statements in the interview. I hope I'm not taking too severe a liberty with them; the link is, of course, there for those who want to read your exact words.)

These two issues relate there, at the convergence of DC's marketing strategy (which I could charitably describe as "disingenuous") and the rather large financial outlay required to pick up all of the stories that DC is marketing as "essential to 'Final Crisis'." Very few fans have unlimited financial resources that we can devote to comic books. We have to pick and choose the titles that we're interested in, and fit our purchases to a budget. Event crossovers are a strain on that budget, because of the extra purchases they require--asking fans to bear that burden too often, and essentially tricking them into bearing a larger burden than needed through deceptive advertising and deceptive public statements, invites discontent which eventually becomes frustration which eventually becomes exhaustion with the medium as a whole. Hence, "event fatigue".

Now naturally, you have the right to feel as though laying this at your doorstep is unfair. You are not DC's marketing department, nor are you DC's editor-in-chief. You didn't schedule 'Final Crisis', nor did you participate in the various marketing tactics that caused people to spend large amounts of money on comics that they didn't enjoy, and found out they didn't need only after they'd spent that money. In that sense, yes, the ire directed at you is entirely misplaced.

But as noted, you weren't exactly speaking up at the time to protect your fans' financial well-being. You waited until after we'd spent our money, then explained that of course we didn't need to spend that money in order to follow your story. Who could possibly have thought otherwise? And it's hard not to feel that you're being deliberately obtuse in that regard. Surely you had to know that they were marketing a full year of build-up to your story, one that would ultimately be nothing more than a waste of time and money? Surely you had to notice, as you did interviews leading into "Batman R.I.P.", that DC was promoting it as "the end of Batman," "the last Batman story", et cetera, something that you knew it wasn't going to be and wasn't intended to be? Surely you have to understand that it's a bad idea to create expectations of a work that you know it's not going to be able to fulfill?

In short, I think that if you want less dissatisfaction from fans, you need to take a greater hand in the promotion of your work at DC. I'm aware that such a thing is probably much easier said than done, but a good share of the frustration with 'Final Crisis' comes from a feeling--probably one a lot of fans couldn't even articulate to themselves, much less to others--that the series was badly misrepresented to us, and that DC walked away with a lot of our money based on that misrepresentation. That creates mistrust, which is a very dangerous thing in an industry that relies on its customers returning every week for the rest of their lives. The last thing you want is for your readers not to trust you, and clearly 'Final Crisis' proves that the promotion of your work can't be left in the hands of the DC marketing department. While you blithely suggest in the interview that dissatisfied fans "Do something else, buy cigarettes or booze or bananas," if they don't want to buy the series, I'm sure you don't want to see readers abandon DC en masse.

I hope that this proves helpful to you. But really, I'd settle for you ever actually seeing it in the first place.

Sincerely,

John Seavey

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Silence of the Sublime

Sometimes, I worry that I only write reviews on this blog (and in general) when I've read something I dislike. Not that I think I'm unfair in my bad reviews--I try to give specific, concrete reasons why I dislike something, and I like to think I'm fair, even if I admit that I can be cruel.

But what I worry about is that if people read only negative reviews, they'll start to think that I'm actually a negative person. I worry that I'm coming off as a grump, a curmudgeon that doesn't like anything at all. Whereas in fact, I'm a grump and a curmudgeon who likes a lot of things. (Rimshot.) I just find it harder to talk about the things I like than the things I dislike.

Because the fact is, it's a lot easier to write a bad review than a good one. A bad review can point to specific areas where improvement is needed, giving concrete and constructive advice like, "These two characters are telling each other information that both of them already know, solely to provide exposition for the audience. That's a mistake." Or, "A car chase scene doesn't work nearly as well in a book as it does in a movie. Work to the strengths of your medium." Or, "Research is important to a believable and well-crafted book. If you're going to use intelligent zombie rats and mice in your novel, you should do some reading on actual rats and mice, so that your book doesn't wind up filled with plot holes because you don't understand just how hard it is to 'rat-proof' a building." (Um, sorry, Brian Keene, author of 'City of the Dead'. But it's all true.)

But a good story...it touches the soul. Whether comedy or tragedy, horror or romance, there's an indefinable element to the alchemy it produces in its audience. When you describe something truly brilliant, eventually all you're left with is synonyms for "good". You can say "the characterization is wonderful," you can say "the story was brilliant", you can say "the acting was amazing", but you can't ever really describe why. That brilliance exists on a level deeper than words. The sentence, "If Bruce Springsteen had ever recorded 'Born To Lurk', these two would have been on the album cover," cannot be pinned down or quantified to explain exactly why it is funny. It just is. There is a transcendent comic genius to Simon Pegg jump-kicking an old lady in the head that you cannot explain to anyone who has not seen 'Hot Fuzz' for themselves--and you'll get some odd looks if you try. The end of 'The Kindly Ones' will always bring tears to my eyes, but I can no more explain why than I can tell you why 'Slither' terrifies me.

Which is, of course, what we love about these stories. It's why we make art, to create something that transcends a mere description of its contents. But it does mean that ultimately, any good review can only say, "Go and experience this for yourself. I cannot do it justice." And you feel silly writing that every time.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Universal's "Dracula"

(or "Undead Means 'Not Dead'")

When it comes to horror, Bela Lugosi's turn as the infamous Count Dracula has gone beyond simply being a classic, genre-defining role to become a pop culture touchstone. Millions (possibly even billions) of people who've never in their life seen the original 1931 film still know that vampires all talk in Hungarian accents and say things like, "Children of the night...what sweet music they make!" or "I never drink...wine." Universal didn't have to think twice to realize that they had a bona fide hit on their hands, and even in an era where horror was becoming increasingly neutered due to film censorship boards, they were thinking 'sequel'.

There's only one small problem. The movie, the stage play and the book that both were based on all end with Dracula getting a wooden stake pounded through his heart, finally ending his eternal life once and for all. Um...oops?

This is actually a problem with more storytelling engines than you might think, particularly those in the horror genre. Historically speaking, lots of people have failed to realize that they have a potential series of films on their hands, and they go for the closure of seeing the villain meet his or her grisly demise instead of disappointing audiences with a teaser ending. (Heck, it doesn't even have to be horror. The Joker was slated to be killed in only his second appearance as a Batman villain, and only a last-minute addition to the art saved his life. Anyone want to imagine Batman without the Joker?) Freddy, Jason, Michael (who seemed to survive the first movie, but bit it in the second), and the shark in "Jaws" all shared Dracula's remarkably definitive fate.

This problem--how to resurrect a very dead yet very essential character--shaped every subsequent appearance of the character. "Dracula's Daughter" tried to escape the snare by being about, well...Dracula's daughter, not the Count himself (I know, the title led you to suspect a twist.) In fact, it opens with Marya stealing and incinerating Dracula's body in order to try to escape her own curse of vampirism. Unsurprisingly, she fails. Even less surprisingly, the sequel turned out to be less popular than the original, in no small part because when people go to a movie with "Dracula" in the title, they expect to see Dracula.

"Son of Dracula" decided to skirt the issue by being ambiguous. Count Alucard could be a vampiric descendant of the original count...or he could be Dracula, concealing his true self behind a pseudonym. The movie never really decides one way or the other, and it almost feels like the screeenwriters (Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor) were arguing about it behind the scenes. Whether imitating his famous father, or reprising his fate, Alucard nonetheless bites the dust (no pun intended.)

Which leaves the door open for the solution finally decided upon in the last two Universal films featuring Dracula, a solution later used by Hammer Films for their Dracula series, and for that matter by Freddy and Jason and all his pals. Namely, that Dracula's a resilient little cuss. "House of Frankenstein" has a scene where the evil scientist finds Dracula's corpse, stake still protruding from his chest...and wouldn't you know it? As soon as he pulls it out, phoomp! Instant Drac, just add blood. Sunlight, crosses, holy water, they all put him down but not out.

Which has also become part of the myth of Dracula. As Buffy says, "I've seen the movies. I know you come back." Dracula might have died back in 1931, but the power of imagination and our need to see him return has made him far more immortal than any vampire's bite ever could. It took Universal a little while (and several actors) to see that, but eventually they caught on to Dracula's eternal appeal.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Showcase Update '09

Another year begins, ripe with the promise of twenty-four brand new thick volumes of black-and-white goodness on cheap paper. That's right, it's time for another update of my wish list for DC's "Showcase Presents" line!

DC's slowed down considerably from their first year, where it seemed like every month had two brand-new series coming out. But that's only to be expected; having released collections of most of their "big guns", they're starting to get deeper into those series' original runs. Two volumes of the Flash, three of Green Lantern, four or five now of Superman...it starts to cut into the number of new series they can release. (Marvel's in the same boat.)

And looking at last year's list, it kind of shows. Of the fifteen titles I picked for my wishlist, only two (Blackhawks and Doom Patrol) were released or are slated to be released. That's not to say those were the only new series DC put out--did anyone ever expect to see a "Showcase Presents Ambush Bug"? But in terms of their score of catering to my personal wishes, they didn't do so good.

So what are my personal wishes for the coming year?

15. Kamandi. Really, this and the "New Gods" material should have been released in preparation for "Final Crisis" (and probably some "OMAC" stuff as well.) Sure, DC can point to their big, thick Kirby Omnibii and say, "Look, we're putting out our Kirby backlist to help make "Final Crisis" comprehensible," but those things aren't cheap. I'm not made of money, here, DC!

14. Tomahawk. DC's been pretty good about getting their war comics into the line, but their westerns have been far less represented; why not start here, with the frontier adventures back from when everything in the United States counted as "frontier"?

13. The Demon. Another Kirby creation (how he's not featured prominently in "Final Crisis" is downright inexplicable to me), the Demon has tons of material available for collection. Sure, his own original series only ran sixteen issues, but he's had numerous revivals, guest appearances galore--heck, they could toss in his appearances in 'Batman Adventures' if they wanted!

12. New Gods. Again, this is something that should be out already--"Final Crisis" is so dense in Fourth World mythos that it desperately needs supporting material to make it comprehensible. And yet, the only "Fourth World" collections are sixty bucks apiece and need a forklift to get them out of the comics shop. It's a travesty, I tells ya.

11. Superboy. Sometimes, it can be hard picking new series to go up here, especially for someone like me who didn't spend his childhood steeped in DC lore. (I was a total Marvel Zombie as a kid.) Luckily for me, I have a feeling this one is here to stay forever, what with the endless litigation over the rights to the character between DC and the Siegel estate. (Which I have literally no opinion over--it's strictly a business matter between the Siegels, Warner Brothers, and the court system, and with any luck it will be resolved fairly between the two parties.)

10. Sugar and Spike. I was gratified to find out that I'm not the only person who really wants to see DC's classic humor series published; none other than the legendary Chris Sims, of the Invincible Super-Blog, referred to the situation of this book not being in print as "DC hating money".

9. Plastic Man. Or maybe it could just be, "DC hates fun." Plastic Man is pretty much their only signature character who doesn't have a "Showcase Presents" volume--the entire Super Friends pantheon has one, including an actual "Super Friends" collection coming soon, but Plas is left out in the cold. (Hope he doesn't become brittle.)

8. Warlord. They're launching a new "Warlord" series soon, if memory serves me right, so that might mean we actually see this one--DC's been pretty good about marketing synergy like that (although there's always room for improvement.)

7. The Question. I've heard rumors that "The Creeper" is coming soon (all right, I did a search for "showcase presents" on Amazon and it listed it as coming soon.) Point is, if they're doing "The Creeper", can "The Question" be far behind?

6. Blue Beetle. Or for that matter, can "Blue Beetle" be far behind? (Note for non-die-hard comics fans...who I have to imagine are reading this solely out of sheer bloody-mindedness..."The Creeper", "The Question", and "Blue Beetle" were three of Steve Ditko's classic series during the time he worked for Charlton comics. Charlton was later bought out by DC, so they're DC characters now.)

5. Swamp Thing. This had so many A-list creators working on it that half the series has already been collected in color; why not give us a nice, cheap black-and-white version we can lend out, too? (I suspect the answer is, "Because that's a Vertigo series." About which I will say no more right now.)

4. Firestorm. I don't think DC realizes just how popular this volume would be--the original Ronnie Raymond Firestorm is just old enough now to catch a strong wave of nostalgia (and the fact that he was in a couple of seasons of "Super Friends" can't hurt.) The old series could segue into the new series pretty effortlessly, if they needed additional material, and increasing the character's visibility before trying another "Firestorm" relaunch couldn't hurt.

3. Hawk and Dove. It's another classic Ditko series, but more than that, the later run written by Karl and Barbara Kesel is my personal favorite series DC ever published, and it's the series that got me into DC. More than any other item on this list, this is a personal indulgence on my part, but I don't care.

2. Suicide Squad. So after canceling the "Showcase Presents Suicide Squad" volume, and telling everyone that it would be resolicited next year...DC did not, in fact, resolicit it. It's the lies that really hurt, DC. You can make it up to me by putting this collection of 80s awesomeness out this year, though.

1. MAD Magazine. People have pointed out to me that you can get a CD-ROM collection of every MAD Magazine issue, but if I've managed to get one thing across with these yearly lists, I hope it's that I still prefer old-school, hard-copy, ink-on-paper editions of these classic stories. You can't toss a CD-ROM in your bookbag and read it when you're in line at the bank, you can't grab it off the shelf on your way to the bathroom when you're just looking for something to while away a minute or two, and you certainly feel a lot worse if you drop it in the tub by accident. I'd like all of MAD, from the beginning, in a convenient and affordable format. Because I love it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Strange Adventures

(or "Storytelling Paleontology")

When we look at 'Strange Adventures', the 50s science-fiction anthology comic published by DC, it's worth asking the question, "Is this actually a storytelling engine at all?" Because not everything is. The storytelling engine is composed, after all, of those things that help the writer generate ideas for stories. If the writer is just coming up with ideas for stories, then writing them, the resultant stories aren't part of an engine of any sort. They're just stories. Nobody ever said a writer had to have help coming up with ideas.

Although in this case, "a writer" does have help, in the form of several other writers. 'Strange Adventures' has eleven writers credited for the five hundred pages of stories within its pages, a fairly high number for a comic-book series over that length. It's almost no coincidence that the stories are also mostly unrelated; without recurring characters, the series churns through ideas at a fast pace. New writers with new ideas are constantly needed to feed the beast. (It probably doesn't help that each issue contains four six-page stories. "Decompression", the modern technique of spreading a story out over several issues, has a crucial advantage in that coming up with one new idea for a story every six issues is a lot easier than coming up with one every six pages.)

So all right, 'Strange Adventures' has no storytelling engine. With no central narrator and framing sequence, even the fact that all of the stories contain the same theme ("science fiction") doesn't really count as an "element that assists the writer in generating story ideas". After all, pretty much every anthology has a theme of some sort. It's an organizing principle, not a storytelling aid. Case closed, 'Strange Adventures' doesn't really belong here...right?

Well, not exactly. You can see, as you read through the eighty-one stories (one issue has five stories, not four) that comprise Volume One of 'Strange Adventures', how the elements of a storytelling engine are present in a sort of protoplasmic form. Certain recurring ideas take shape--the human who gains temporary, but extraordinary powers that help him handle a crisis; the scientist called in to deal with an unusual situation, perhaps involving aliens that have contacted Earth; the friendly alien, arriving on Earth to aid us in some way (perhaps with hostile aliens.) These sub-themes are proto-storytelling engines, there to aid a writer stuck for ideas by giving them a place to start. ("Okay, so it's a guy who invents a serum that lets him...grow wings! We haven't done that one yet!")

The next step in the process, one which you begin to see as the stories progress, is taking these recurring themes and turning them into recurring characters. For example, Darwin Jones, of the Department of Scientific Investigation, makes a couple of appearances in the series. You can almost see the writers slowly coming to realize the advantages of not having to make up a new scientist every time they need to investigate an alien menace. Of course, since it is the 50s, all comic book characters wind up seeming pretty interchangeable anyway.

Which is a key point in looking at this series--it's from a relatively early point in the history of the medium, when storytelling techniques were still being developed and the comic book was still seen as essentially disposable entertainment. If you were to tell John Broome or Otto Binder that their six-page science-fiction stories would be collected in book form and read by grown-ups as classic examples of an era's literature, they'd probably laugh. (Heck, they'd probably make it into a story in the comic. "A scientist travels through time and finds that the students of the future are studying...get this...science fiction comics! In their History class!") This book is almost like seeing a fossil of an early life-form as it develops into something we recognize. We can see the limb buds here, the first signs of gills there, but it's a far cry from our modern life.

The idea of a science-fiction series that centers around unusual science isn't necessarily one that has a storytelling engine, and 'Strange Adventures' only has the beginnings of one. But as writers work with the idea, turn the vast array of interchangeable scientists into a few distinctive and recognizeable ones, toss out some of the stories that don't quite fit and find ways to help come up with ones that do, and use more modern storytelling ideas like decompression and metastory arcs, well...let's just say that modern TV shows like 'Fringe', 'Primeval', 'Torchwood' and 'Eureka' can look on 'Strange Adventures' as a sort of distant ancestor.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

TV Schedule For Tonight

Tonight, at 8 PM (7 Central), George W. Bush makes his "Farewell" address to the nation.

Following that, at 9, Barack Obama makes his "Don't Let The Door Hit You In The Ass On The Way Out" address to George W. Bush.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Storytelling Engines: The Muppet Show

(or "Failure Is Funny")

I don't think it'd be controversial to say that Jim Henson was something of a genius when it came to comedy (then again, judging by some of my previous posts, I also don't think it'd be controversial to say that I'm not good at guessing what's going to be controversial and what isn't.) He certainly spent time thinking about settings and character dynamics that would help him come up with skits for a half-hour variety show; he's famously quoted for his axiom on how to end a comedy sketch ("blow something up, have one character eat another, or start tossing animals in the air"), but he also spent a lot of time working on ways to begin one. 'The Muppet Show', his best-known series, is filled with recurring gags and repeated characters that somehow never get old, and it all comes from one of the simplest rules of comedy. Failure is funny.

Well, let's clarify that a bit. Other people's failure is funny, so long as you don't focus too sharply on the consequences of that failure. 'Requiem for a Dream', for example, is never going to be regarded as a comedy classic. But looking at the Muppets, you see a group of people united by a) their passion for entertainment and their dream of making people happy through art, and b) their lack of talent at their chosen field. The gap between their desires and their actual abilities provides fertile ground for chaos, confusion, and comic misunderstandings as events slowly (and sometimes quickly) spin out of their control.

It starts with Kermit, who's the emcee and showrunner, but who has problems controlling his temper and asserting his authority. Not only can he not keep his cool when problems hit, but when he does fly into a rage, it's endearingly cute instead of intimidating. Then we have Fozzie, who's almost the perfect emblem of the show; he's a comedian who's so unfunny it's funny. Miss Piggy is a diva who doesn't conform to the traditional feminine standards of beauty, but who acts like she does. Gonzo is an avant-garde performance artist trapped in a run-down vaudeville theater, Bunsen Honeydew's inventions don't work, Sam the Eagle continually fails at injecting moral uplift into the show, Wayne and Wanda can't ever finish a single song, Statler and Waldorf are continually disappointed in their hopes of seeing quality entertainment--really, the only characters who seem fulfilled are Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, and you still get the feeling they'd rather be doing arena rock for a bunch of counter-culture types.

This "comic disaster" mentality permeates every aspect of the show, helping to create not just sketches but entire episodes that are structured around a slowly building crisis--Carol Burnett, for example, comes on the show to do her "classic" comedy bit, the "lonely asparagus" sketch. But due to a scheduling conflict (Gonzo's running a dance marathon in the theater that week), all her efforts to get some stage time are continually frustrated until at the end, she only manages to get off one joke before time runs out and the show's over. Quite clearly, they only had one joke they could come up with in the "lonely asparagus" sketch (it's too terrible to repeat, even by my pun-happy standards), but by turning the story into the failure of the sketch, they made that one terrible joke into an entire hilarious episode.

This structure also allows Henson to come up with recurring characters and sketches that nonetheless manage to be funny every time, despite only slight variations; somehow, seeing incompetence never manages to become too formulaic, no matter how many times we see it repeated. The basic gag for the Swedish Chef is the same every time, but it's always funny to see an incomprehensible guy fail spectacularly at a simple task. In fact, the Swedish Chef is probably the perfect distillation of the entire concept of the Muppet Show (and 'The Jim Henson Hour', and 'Muppets Tonight', and all of the various movies and specials and, well, everything else Muppety.) Watch the Swedish Chef, and you'll understand Jim Henson's genius in less than two minutes. He wants to teach people how to cook, but he can neither cook nor teach. That's just always going to be a good start to a comedy bit.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

ConBestiary #7

Celebrity Shade: These poor souls were once human as you or I, but their life essences were captured by television cameras a long time ago. Unlike regular celebrities, who maintain the semblance of normality by regularly renewing their contact with the film industry, these people only snagged one or two choice roles over the course of their life, and never managed to act again. Without a soul or a connection to one, they must exist in a perpetual half-life where their existence is defined by that one TV series they appeared in twenty-five years ago.

Celebrity shades can be found filling out the lower echelons of the guest list at any convention, lurking in the Walk of Fame in a desperate attempt to feed on the glimmerings of their half-remembered fame. They're too weak to be really dangerous; instead, they come off as somewhat pathetic, sitting around all by themselves with an occasional burst of happiness as someone remembers their show from when they were kids. One can only hope that they somehow manage to reclaim their soul someday, either by returning to the TV studio where it's being kept or by finally breaking it free of the seductive embrace of fame once and for all.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Sgt. Rock

(or "A Rock-Solid Character Study")

For all that I frequently talk in these columns about the need to consider the entire set-up of a series in order to really get a feel for its storytelling engine--setting, supporting cast, core concept, recurring antagonists--every once in a while a series reminds me that the whole thing really does live and die on its main character. Sure, there are a few ensemble series where no one character is the protagonist, and everyone plays a role in the development of the story...but "Sergeant Rock" is most definitely not one of those series. While it does have a recurring cast, the lead character, narrator, viewpoint character and most compelling and interesting person in the series is Frank Rock, top-kick of Easy Company, and the series outlived most other war comics to become the gold standard for the genre based on him. (Not that Joe Kubert's brilliant art didn't help, of course. But Kubert also illustrated "Enemy Ace", which did not run for hundreds of issues.)

Rock isn't just a sergeant, he's the sergeant; his character is both drawn from and informs the archetype of the combat-savvy veteran enlisted man who keeps his unit together in a way that officers can't. He does so with a mix of compassion, courage, toughness, heroism, and a down-to-earth understanding both of the psychology of the fighting man under his command and of the realities of the battlefield. To the men who serve under him, the Rock of Easy Company can handle anything, knows everything, and is an authority figure just one step above a general and one step below God. It seems like he's been a sergeant forever and like he will be a sergeant forever. (In fact, creator Bob Kanigher claimed at one point that Rock was killed by the last bullet fired in World War II.)

Every issue provides some additional shading and definition to Rock's character, of course; as the character moves from North Africa to Italy to France in his service, you also get a deeper understanding of his background and psychology. But the basic elements of Sergeant Rock are so definitive as to be instantly and intuitively grasped by any reader after only a single issue. You feel like you know who Rock is right away, to the point where you feel like you know what he'd do in any given situation. He's a character that almost writes himself, his personality is so clear. When you have a character like that, it makes the writer's job much easier. (You could argue that Spider-Man shares that same clarity of personality; you can drop Spidey into the middle of World War II, an alien dimension, or prehistoric times, and he'll still be Spider-Man. The same holds true of Frank Rock--no matter what he's fighting, he's still the Sarge.)

Of course, any World War II comic has a lot of advantages when it comes to storytelling engines; the war spanned almost a decade, sprawled over half the world, and had antagonists that have come to symbolize clear, unambiguous evil. That's a lot of stories to be told--and indeed, non-fiction books about the war are their own cottage industry. You can tell World War II stories for a long time before you run out of ideas. But stories about the war are, inevitably, stories about the soldiers who fought it, and a compelling war story starts with a compelling soldier. And when it comes to compelling soldiers, Frank Rock gives ground to nobody.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Hopefully Meaningless

I now have a Gmail account, and since it was glitching all the time when I used my old Blogger account to try to post to my Blogspot account now that Blogspot is owned by Google and Google runs Gmail and Gmail wants me to use my Gmail account to sign into Google's Blogspot...

Basically, it was all starting to seem a bit Doctor Seussy, so I added my Gmail version of me in as an author, gave him admin privileges, and then removed my old Blogspot self. If it all works right, nobody but me should ever notice any difference at all. If it doesn't, well...this post is here to tell you why some stranger is suddenly posting as me.

The Metastory Trap

This is one of those ideas that I've been looking for a place to fit into the "Storytelling Engines" series, as that tends to be where I put my ideas on how writing a long-term, continuing series of stories. But the problem is, it's a relatively recent phenomenon, and most of the books and TV shows and movies I've been writing about don't fall into it very often in the material I'm reading/watching for the columns. (Which isn't the same as "all", and I have touched on the idea in my entries on Buffy, Angel, and Spider-Man.) So I've decided to just devote a quick post to it, which neatly saves me from having to come up with something to write about this week.

Put simply, the metastory trap comes when a long-running series of separate-but-linked stories gets more interested in its metastory than the individual stories that compose it. Put even more simply, you get caught in a metastory trap when you're more worried about your arc than you are about your individual installments. Put even more simply, you're caught in a metastory trap when you write "Countdown to Infinite Crisis". *rimshot*

This is a relatively recent phenomenon, as I said in the opening paragraph, but you can definitely see its roots in Chris Claremont's 80s X-Men comics. As the series went into the 200s and the crossover began to rise in popularity, issues would come out that would have no payoff at all in story terms other than to set up the next crossover. Claremont did a pretty good job of balancing these "arc" issues with stand-alone stories, depending on who you ask (there's still a lot of fan griping about #229-280, a long run with progressively more arc material), but you can see the problem starting to take shape--as the series grew more complex and the plots grew too large to contain in twenty-two pages, the issues became chapters in a book instead of short stories.

But really, the problem didn't explode until after 'Babylon 5' really sold TV fans and writers on the idea of having a series with an over-arching metastory. While each episode of 'Babylon 5' theoretically told a stand-alone story, fans tended to focus on (even obsess about) the moments within each episode that advanced the overall plot of the war with the Shadows. They dissected each episode, looking for clues to Stracynski's "five year plan" and how it all was going to play out...something which was not lost on the creative team, who attended enough cons to notice that people cared more about the arc plot than they did about any given story.

That's the real essence of the metastory trap--once fans start caring more about whether an episode is "important" to the Big Picture than whether or not it's good, it's hard for a writer to keep on an even keel. Reviewers (and not just fans, but professional reviewers) will start dismissing episodes as "inconsequential", and "nothing really changed by the end" becomes an insult. The demand becomes a drumbeat: Every story has to do something big and change the status quo, and big stories that change the status quo are inherently exciting and dramatic.

Once that idea gets into a writer's head (and worse, an editor/showrunner's), there's trouble ahead. Because not all changes to the metastory are good ones, and if you're in a position where you're forcing yourself to make changes to the metastory just to keep audience interest, sooner or later you're going to make a mistake. Example: Xander and Anya's wedding in Season Six of "Buffy". (Spoilers ahead, although if you haven't watched the show after seven years of chances, I don't feel too guilty about telling you now.)

At the end of the episode, Xander left Anya at the altar, and Anya responded by resuming her ways as a vengeance demon. Big, shocker ending, major metastory advancement, and a big twist...except that the writers didn't have any idea where to go with this particular plot point, it flew in the face of the character development of both characters, it left them both without anything to do in the series, and after less than half a season, they reverted Anya to human...then killed her off half a season later when it became clear that she had no role in the series anymore. The obsession with advancing the metastory led the writing team to make a decision they probably wouldn't have made if they weren't feeling that pressure to do something big and shocking.

Likewise, "Civil War" is a good example. Mark Millar said he refused to do a crossover unless it was something as earth-shaking as "Crisis On Infinite Earths". It's telling (if a bit unfair to point out) that he cited "earth-shattering" instead of "good" as his primary criterion for the story's success. It's also telling that many of the consequences of "Civil War" were retconned away or quietly ignored not long afterwards--Spider-Man's secret identity has been re-concealed, registration is rarely enforced in the stories themselves, and apart from a few vague threats to "talk", Thor's taken it remarkably well that one of his oldest friends made a murderous clone of him and unleashed it on his other friends.

DC right now is all about the metastory, both in terms of its readers and its fans. Dan DiDio has been constantly building everything to "the next Crisis", from Identity to Infinite to Final, and that doesn't even count the way that the Sinestro Corps War has built to Rage of the Red Lanterns to The Blackest Night and the way that Batman has built from RIP to Battle for the Cowl. I don't blame DiDio for this, either; when your fans are constantly showing up at conventions, demanding more metastory, more big changes, more "important" stories that "shake up the status quo", what can you really do except bring back everyone who's dead and kill off everyone who's alive every two years, just to keep things moving?

So if the fans like it and the writers like it, why is it a metastory "trap" then? The answer is simple. The existing fans are not the only audience. A series that is all about its metastory rapidly develops a complex, tangled mythos that can obscure the simple, powerful idea at its heart ("A teenage girl fights monsters in a high school that's literally hell", "Intergalactic cops have near-magical weapons to help them fight space crime", "A boy sees his parents gunned down and grows up wanting to fight crime") and turn off new readers/viewers. And given that all existing audiences are subject to attrition (and not just from death or sickness, either--who hasn't cut back their comics buying at least some due to the recession?) ...well, if you're not getting in new people, you'll eventually lose your audience as frustration sets in and the mythos grows too impenetrable for even the die-hard fans to care about. Then the whole thing collapses into a mess, lying dormant for years, even decades until someone cares enough to dust off that central concept at its heart and make it shine again.

Sort of like "Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man".