Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Romney Logic

So as I am to understand it, the Israeli standard of living is much higher than the Palestinian standard of living, due to their "superior culture". Romney looks at the Palestinians, whose country is under occupation and whose trade has been interdicted by the Israeli government (to be fair, the reason that the Israelis try to make sure that the Palestinians don't have any money is the not-unreasonable fear that the Palestinians will spend it all on bombs and guns that they'll use to kill the Israelis. Which is why international diplomacy is so complicated.)

Unless you're Mitt Romney, of course. Then it's not complicated at all. The Israelis have a superior culture, so they live better.

Has anyone ever asked him if that means, by extension, that the Nazis had an even more superior culture? After all, I'm pretty sure that if you compare the standards of living of Nazi party members to German Jews in 1942, you'd find an even vaster disparity in income and standard of living. And many of those surviving Jews went on to be among the earliest Israeli settlers. I think someone should check in with Mitt and see if the syllogism holds for him.

Actually, on second thought, I think that'd be a very bad idea. He might tell us.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Storytelling Engines: Black Panther

(or "From the Klan to King Solomon's Frog")

First, a brief apology for the delay in this post; I've been fighting a bit of a stomach bug, hasn't left me much in the mood to write. I'll try to make up for it with a Saturday post. Now, on to the Black Panther!

As a concept, the Black Panther has his roots in a number of different traditions, both in myth and reality. Pretty much all of these traditions strengthen his storytelling engine, to the point where it's surprising he's not had his own series more often than he did (although he has amassed a quite respectable record as headliner, appearing in print frequently throughout the 70s and 80s before becoming a major seller for most of the last decade.) They bring a lot of versatility and credibility to his storytelling engine, giving writers the freedom to tell a number of different kinds of stories about him...as we'll discuss. But what are these different traditions and concepts?

For one thing, he's the king of a "distant, exotic" (presuming that the majority of his readers are American) kingdom, with a culture drawn from a mix of African fact and pulp stories told about Africa. This can sometimes have unfortunate effects--let's face it, there's no nice way to say it, but just about any story about Wakanda is going to be treading along a narrow tightrope of racial stereotyping, because any attempt to create a fictional "typical" African kingdom is going to draw on fictional tropes regarding the continent. Those don't, generally speaking, have a good record for cultural sensitivity.

That said, Wakanda is presented as unique among African nations, in that it has a first-world level of technology despite being in a third-world region. The leveraging of vibranium to create Wakandan technology allows the country to be a fantastic and unusual place filled with wild "futuristic" story ideas, while also feeling quite "realistic" on other levels...many countries in human history have become significant all out of proportion to their size and population due to rare natural resources, and that sense of verisimilitude helps you to buy into the sonic blasters and aircars. (And to its credit, Wakanda is shown as a country that has not been forced into colonial subjugation due to that advanced technology. There's a strong, subtextual suggestion that without guns to give them an unfair advantage, the colonial powers really were inferior to the natives they enslaved and exploited.)

But by the same token, Wakanda isn't presented as a simplistic "modern country in Africa", either. The inhabitants might use Western technology, but they are shown as having their own cultural heritage that sits uneasily with American tradition...which is exploited brilliantly as a source of stories in 'Essential Black Panther Volume One'. The first two-thirds of the book revolve around a civil war started by the comically-appropriately-named Erik Killmonger, who exploits the wedge driven between the Black Panther and his people by his time with the Avengers. Again, there's something startlingly, almost uncomfortably realistic about all this...history is filled with monarchs educated abroad who clash with their own people when they attempt to "Westernize" their home country. It always helps a writer to become inspired when they can draw on the real world as a source of their ideas.

The Panther himself is always presented as sitting--perhaps somewhat uneasily at times, but usually squarely on the side of his people. He respects his Panther Totem as a source of spiritual as well as physical strength, and lives within the traditions of Wakanda in a way that generally refuses to condescend about such things. There might be elements of his homeland that T'Challa wishes to change--what leader doesn't? But ultimately, he refuses to be co-opted into the Western worldview. This is a good source of conflict, both with other heroes and with villains like Doom, and provides a writer with even more ideas.

And then, as you find out about two-thirds of the way through Volume One, there's another side to the Black Panther. Ultimately, for all that he is a king, he's also an adventurer and a superhero. He can do stories where he fights a civil war for the soul of Wakanda, or where he confronts racial prejudice in America...or he can go on a quest for King Solomon's Frogs and battle vibranium monsters. It's a lot of flexibility for a character, although admittedly an amount that probably shouldn't be exercised quite that drastically and without finishing the previous storyline. But it does contribute to making the Black Panther an enduring and popular hero.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Reactions to the Comic-Con Comic Movie News

Comic-Con, of course, is your go-to spot for big gigantic epic humongous super-cool movie news, ever since they realized you could fit the entire reading audience of the best-selling comic at either Marvel or DC into the building and have some space around the sides. Let's face it, it's either diversify or die, and luckily tons of people are into superheroes nowadays, even if they don't know that they're still publishing stories about them in small pamphlets to a niche audience of aging fans.

And this year's news was no exception. Marvel announced that they would be coming out with 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier', 'Thor: The Dark World', 'Iron Man 3', 'Ant-Man', and 'Guardians of the Galaxy', while DC announced that after the climax of Christopher Nolan's Bat-Trilogy and the relaunch of Superman that fans have already been aware of for over a year, they have...um...maybe a 'Justice League' movie? Sometime in 2015? They don't have a script or a director or a cast yet, but they're totally working on it.

Let that just sink in for a moment. Ant-Man and Rocket Raccoon will be hitting the big screen before Wonder Woman and the Flash. At this point, it feels like Marvel is just doing victory laps. "Hey, whaddya think, guys!" you can hear them saying. "Wanna fast-track a Squadron Supreme movie for 2015, just to mess with their heads?"

Seriously, how does this work? Does Warner Brothers just hate money? There is a huge audience out there right now for well-done superhero movies that treat their source material with respect while remaining accessible to newcomers, and their mainstream DCU non-Superman/Batman track record for the last five years consists of 'Jonah Hex' and 'Green Lantern'. And extending it back much further runs into 'Catwoman'.

What these guys need is to find their own Avi Arad; someone who is savvy about the film industry, while remaining ultimately in the corner of the DC comics guys. They need to elevate DC to its own division in their company, with its own studio that focuses exclusively on DC movies. They need to show deference to the people who know the material, instead of assuming that the tropes of the superhero comic can be easily and painlessly extruded through the mold of a summer blockbuster. They need high-quality talent behind the cameras; Christopher Nolan should be the base level of quality for this kind of thing. (Admittedly, Martin Campbell looked like a good choice on paper...perhaps the lesson to take away from 'Green Lantern' is that your script has to work first.)

And they need to do all this fast. Because at this rate, by the time they do finally come out with a 'Flash' movie, people are going to assume it's totally a rip-off of that Quicksilver guy from 'Avengers 3'.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Storytelling Engines: CSI

(or "The Old Reliable")

Let's start by specifying which "CSI" we're talking about. We're not talking about the CSI TV show that's been going for twelve seasons, nor the other CSI TV show, nor the other other CSI TV show. We're talking about the CSI comics that are based on the CSI TV show that spun off two other CSI TV shows, both of which had impressively long runs as well. So you can already tell that we're talking about a pretty successful storytelling engine here. (What you may not be able to tell, and I'm not going to assume you know, is what "CSI" stands for. It's "Crime Scene Investigations".)

But why? What makes this the kind of storytelling engine that sustains so many stories so easily for so long? Do the comics contain some sort of clue that the TV show doesn't? Actually, it's hard to tell just what the storytelling engine is from one volume of the CSI comic book collections; the "decompression" effect of modern comic books is quite graphically demonstrated (if you'll pardon the pun) with these series. A trade paperback that's over 300 pages long really only contains three individual stories; that's barely enough time to put names to faces, let alone give you a really detailed look into what makes the series tick.

Fortunately, one of the things that the CSI TV series show is that it doesn't really matter who's doing the investigating. All three shows have rotating casts, in addition to having three complete sets of casts, and it doesn't seem to dent the popularity of the shows or the ability of writers to come up with new story ideas. It's the jobs the characters do, not their personal lives, that drive the engine of a police procedural; the occasional episode or storyarc might come from the characters' pasts or personalities, but usually the easiest way to get a police protagonist involved in a story is to call 911. (Depending on the series, of course; 'Criminal Minds', for example, tends to run its one-off stories as basic procedurals and base its longer arcs on the backstories of the people involved. Neither approach is "right" or "wrong", but one definitely lends itself better towards casting changes.)

And likewise, it's not the location that's important; the CSI that the comics are based on happens to be the Las Vegas CSI, but New York and Miami offer no more or fewer storytelling opportunities. Pretty much any big city has a high enough crime rate that you can believably imagine one interesting murder case a week. CSI: International Falls doesn't work quite so well, but you could easily imagine them spinning off the franchise into Dallas, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, or Atlanta without any real difficulty.

So if the people don't matter, and the place doesn't matter...what makes this such a workable storytelling engine? Surely if 100+ previous entries have taught us anything, it's that those things are usually pretty important. Why is CSI evergreen without any of it mattering?

The answer, I think, has to be the crimes. Sad to say, there is an endless variety of human misery out there, ready to inspire us to create art that examines its meaning. Meaning that there's never going to be an end to the inspiration for police procedurals; as long as there's crime today, there will be a story tomorrow that imagines those criminals being brought to justice. That's enough material to supply a hundred police procedurals for a hundred years...which is probably something I shouldn't say too loud. I might give the CSI people some ideas.

Friday, July 13, 2012

No, Seriously, Republicans, Who's Your Real Candidate?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about how utterly inept politician Mitt Romney was at the basic fundamentals of politics; to wit, he has a very hard time presenting himself as a decent and likeable human being that you'd want to elect, and he has a hard time keeping negative stories about himself from circulating. I posted a series of jocular headlines I expected to see over the coming months, as Romney's liabilities continued to snowball.

I didn't actually expect that the June headline, "Romney Invested In Company That Disposes of Human Fetuses" and the July headline, "Romney Insists He Did Not Commit Felony With False SEC Filings", would actually top the ones I'd written. At this point, I am not ruling out the Horcruxes.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Storytelling Engines: John Byrne's Next Men

(or "Engines Within Engines Within Engines")

The 1990s were a very interesting time for the comic book industry. After decades of being dominated by the newsstand market, with its focus on single-issue storylines that could be easily picked up and understood by a casual reader, the medium was finally beginning to listen to the waves of long-term fans created by the direct market. These fans picked up every single issue, finding back issues to supplement their collections when needed or simply buying collections of their favorite book. They were tired of repeated exposition and short storylines that favored accessibility over depth. They wanted longer, more complex stories and they were vocal about it. (Depending on how you feel, this was either the best thing that ever happened to the industry or the beginning of its long, slow death march into cult obscurity, but that's a topic for another time.)

The change in focus from single-issue storylines to long-term plots had a major effect on the way storytelling engines were constructed. Many writers stuck with a fairly simplistic A/B/C structure, where they had a "main" A plot, a B plot that was usually foreshadowing the next A plot, and a C plot that ran underneath the main material for a longer payoff. (A sample Spider-Man story using this structure, for example, would have Spidey fighting the Vulture, with digressions to Doctor Octopus escaping, and occasional glimpses into the life of Aunt May as she worried about her health problems.) Others, like Chris Claremont on the X-Men, simply had multiple storylines going on at once of different lengths, counting on the obsessive nature of the fans to help them keep track of which mutant was amnesiac, which mutant was a fugitive, and which mutant was dead.

But John Byrne, in his creator-owned series 'Next Men', tried an entirely different tactic, one that would be far more familiar to modern audiences than to those of 1991. He came up with a single, overarching plot, one that was complex enough that it needed to be told in the form of several interlocking smaller stories. Each story, while relatively self-contained in and of itself, would advance the larger metaplot towards its ultimate conclusion.

Nowadays, this is a common trick for extended series; shows from 'Buffy' to 'Heroes' to 'Lost' did much the same thing. Each episode told a single story, while including plot points that rewarded careful and attentive viewing to lead to a larger conclusion...one that was made more meaningful by the emotional investment that the audience put into it over time. The last episode of 'Lost' wasn't just the end of the story, it was the culmination of six years of journeying along with the characters and finding out where they were going right along with them.

In the same way, 'Next Men' proceeds along with Jack, Nathan, Jasmine, Bethany and Danny. We see them at the start, confused and uncertain as their world is stripped away from them, and follow them along through a mystery that involves time travel, government conspiracies and eccentric billionaires. Each storyline functions in its own right, but Byrne is also telling a much bigger tale.

But it's not so much 'Lost' that provides the model we see here as 'Heroes'. In 'Heroes', the major, overarching plotline of the first season (Sylar and Peter's growing control of their powers and the ultimate question of whether or not New York will be destroyed) is intended to be only the first in a series of arcs that build to a yet greater purpose. Later seasons never quite followed up on that promise, and the series wound up being remembered less-than-fondly as a result.

Likewise, the saga collected in 'The Compleat Next Men' ends in a way that wraps up the whole plotline; the time-loop that we see the end of in '2112' and the beginning of in 'Book One' is filled in to the last detail, forming a seamless whole. And yet, the ending also tantalizes a future direction for the series...one that Byrne had to wait fifteen years to tell. Why did it take so long? (Apart, of course, from the 1995 collapse of the comics industry in the wake of the Marvel bankruptcy.)

Part of it lies in the storytelling engine, I think. Byrne created a large story that also served as a storytelling engine for generating its smaller, individual stories; but to fans of 'Next Men', those were only parts of a single whole. Many of them might not necessarily be fans of the overall engine that forms 'Next Men' nearly as much as they are of the overall story that forms the first 30 issues of the series, and they might not be willing to follow Byrne along in a new direction that forms a radical departure from what they've seen before...any more than they were willing to follow along when Peter became amnesiac, Nathan died and was replaced by a brainwashed Sylar, and Claire became a bisexual circus performer. (Or whatever happened...I'll admit, I get vague on the details of the latter seasons. Which is a factor in and of itself...the amount of planning time you have for a series is limited, which is why you use story-generating characters and concepts to begin with, and sometimes that second or third plotline suffers from the lack of prep time relative to your first, elaborately-planned idea.)

Ultimately, the long hiatus boils down to the fact that there's always plenty of competiton for people's time and attention (and yes, money.) It's hard to get people to follow along with a storytelling engine sometimes, but it's especially difficult when what they thought they were getting was just a single epic story.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

A Shocking Revelation

I can't imagine why I haven't seen this before.

He's an expert martial artist with a hidden backstory. He refuses to use guns, to the point of emptying the clip as soon as he takes one off a bad guy. He's determined to the point of seeming imperviousness to pain.

Eliot from 'Leverage' is Bruce Wayne in disguise.

Everything makes so much sense now.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Storytelling Engines: Young Love

(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.