(or "The Only Way To Win Is To Lose")
I'm going to let you in on a little secret in today's installment of 'Storytelling Engines'. It's a little bit embarrassing, but not too surprising. Some of you might have already suspected it, to be honest. Ready? OK...
Sometimes I come up with an idea for what I'm going to write for these columns before I actually read the books.
Not always, of course, but I can sometimes come up with a hypothesis for the storytelling engine of a series before I even open the book. In those cases, reading the actual title is more about testing and refining that hypothesis than about figuring out what to write about. In the case of 'Young Love', DC's long-running romance comic, I was pretty sure that I'd be writing about the impossibility of creating a storytelling engine for a romance series, due to the fact that romance inherently creates false status quos. When you're writing a story about two people falling in love, you have to progress in some way or another. A story where two people like each other a lot, but never do anything about it, implies by definition a story in which they finally get around to doing something about it. (Yes, I'm looking at you, John Kovalic...)
So if you can't write a romance story without eventually getting to the end of that story (the happy couple gets together), then you can't have a storytelling engine. That's why there are no recurring characters in 'Young Love', because at the end of each story, that character's story can't progress within the model of a romance comic. What can they do? Fall more in love with each other? Kinda boring. Fall out of love? Sends the wrong message for a comic that's all about the importance of chaste, heteronormative, monogamous relationships that invariably lead to marriage. (Oh, yeah, I should mention that I've read World War II comics that read less like propaganda than these things.) So you have to keep inventing new characters to live out the same old plotlines.
That's what I assumed. Then I read the book, and found out that there actually was a recurring feature that ran for about half the length of the collection. The continuing adventures of Mary Robin, R.N., dealt with a nurse in a major metropolitan hospital and her difficulties in finding love and balancing it with her career. Every issue found her romantically involved with a patient or a doctor (or helping out another nurse who had their own romantic troubles), only to wind up alone at the end of the issue. Usually, it was because she realized she couldn't give up nursing, and her potential husband (of course it was a potential husband--'Young Love' was about as likely to suggest two people shack up together as 'Sgt. Rock' was to suggest holding a conflict resolution seminar with the Nazis) wanted her to be a housewife first and foremost.
The problem with this recurring feature, of course, is that it only proved my hypothesis right. Mary Robin couldn't find true love in her regular feature because as soon as she did, the story would be over. And in fact, that turned out to be exactly the case; her last story involved her finally finding a man who could love her once he'd been hypnotized into it by an unscrupulous psychiatrist. (No really. That's actually how it ended. Comics are freaking weird, you know that?)
So while 'Young Love' did hold a few surprises, it nonetheless proved my point right. When you're writing a story that has to lead to a happy ending, it's really going to be pretty much unworkable to think in the long term. Romance comics are all about telling the same story with different characters so that people can keep getting that "lovers united" fix again and again; in that sense, their storytelling engine is almost the exact opposite of your average story. A recurring cast actually defeats the purpose. All unrequited love does is pad out the journey to the inevitable finish.