Monday, April 27, 2009

Biology May Be Destiny, But Fictional Characters Don't Have Genes

One of the perennial debates in comics is the question, "Who created (insert character here)?" You really have to put "(insert character here)" into the end of that question, because there are debates over who came up with Spider-Man, who created Cable, whose idea was Venom...really, any successful and popular character you'd care to name, there's probably going to be a few extra people claiming that it was really their idea. (In general, this only happens with successful and popular characters. To quote Peter David, "Nobody argues about who created Night Nurse.")

The debate doesn't just encompass comics fans and historians, it actually goes all the way up to the creators themselves. Plain and simple, there's a lot of money to be had if you can prove that a character is your intellectual property and you weren't properly compensated for that idea, and so there's a strong monetary incentive to claim creator's rights. This doesn't mean that (to choose a random example) Steve Ditko is lying, or just in it for the money when he claims he created Spider-Man...I'm sure he honestly feels that his creative contributions to the concept are being overlooked, and deserve to be acknowledged. (Obviously, I haven't talked to him personally.) But the money issue will always be there, and deserves to be mentioned. Many lawsuits over copyright and trademark in the comics industry resemble all the worst parts of a custody battle and a contract dispute put together.

And that's fine, when it goes to court. The law has decided that the originator of a concept deserves to be compensated for their idea if money is to be made off of it, and if lawyers want to sift through all of the competing recollections and ambiguous evidence and try to say, "So-and-so created Character X", they can have fun with it. But we, as comics fans, aren't arguing for the benefit of a court of law. It's time for us to get past that question of "Who created?", and acknowledge that as a practical matter, it's actually a meaningless question.

It's meaningless because the creation of a character is actually just the first step in a long, long process of development that will see the character pass through multiple hands, writers and artists and editors (and in some cases actors and screenwriters and directors) all adding new elements as they interpret that initial concept in a different way. Ultimately, the interpretation that becomes popular might have nothing to do with that initial concept beyond simply the name. Arguing about "the creator" misses the point; it's all about the most important influences, not the first.

For example, there's really no question that Len Wein created Wolverine. He wrote the character into an issue of the Hulk, and then when he was coming up with the "All-New, All-Different" X-Men with Dave Cockrum, he decided to toss the character in to represent Canada in their international team. Len Wein = creator of Wolverine. Very simple.

Except that Wein intended Wolverine to be an actual wolverine, mutated by the High Evolutionary into a human form. He was going to be a teenage punk, a rough-and-tumble scrapper who had trouble getting along with human beings because of his animal ancestry, and who used metal blades built into his gloves to compensate for the natural claws that the High Evolutionary took away. (Edit: Len Wein personally swears that this is not what he intended for the character; Wolverine was meant to be a teenage punk with metal blades built into his gloves, but the High Evolutionary was not involved, nor were any actual mustelids. There was an intended plan to make Wolverine a mutated animal, but Len Wein was not, I repeat, not involved in it.)

Now, there's no question in my mind that this is a good concept for a comics character--one only needs to look at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to see how it could become a commercial hit. But Dave Cockrum first drew Wolverine without the mask, and he made him look to be in his forties instead of his teens. Chris Claremont took over the book shortly after its rebirth, and he promptly ditched the "mutated wolverine" idea in favor of his being human. John Byrne came on as artist not long after that, and spent a lot of time and energy suggesting ideas for Wolverine because he liked the idea of a Canadian super-hero. By the time the Claremont/Byrne era ended, Wolverine had a different origin, a different personality, a different set of powers, and a different costume. The only thing you can point to that stayed the same was the name, and even then, Claremont and Byrne gave him the "Logan" sobriquet. While there's still no question that Len Wein created Wolverine, calling it "his" character creates a serious misperception in the mind of the average fan. (It would be very interesting to visit an alternate reality where he'd stayed on the book, though, wouldn't it?)

Another, simpler example: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Hulk. But the character they wrote and drew in "Hulk #1" wasn't dumb, wasn't green, didn't change when he got mad, and didn't have the distinctive "Hulk smash puny humans!" dialogue that generations of comics fans know and love (or hate, in the case of Marvel's current editorial staff and just about every writer they put on the book.) Those elements were added over months and years, frequently by other writers and artists. Even then, you could make a solid case that the interpretation that's stuck most solidly in popular culture is Lou Ferrigno's wordless, wild-haired Hulk. Should Lou Ferrigno be credited as "the creator of the Hulk"? Of course not. But his performance and what it brought to the concept shouldn't be brushed aside simply because he wasn't first in line.

Sometimes, of course, the creator and the prominent influence are one and the same. The Fantastic Four always seem to curve back towards the version that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created in their classic 102-issue run on the series. But in general, it's worthwhile to talk about all the talented people who worked on making a popular character who they are today, and leave the discussions of who created them to the courts. Because while it might seem like a custody dispute sometimes, and while we use it as an analogy a lot, these are not the children of their creators. There is nothing inherent that they give to the characters that cannot be removed by a later writer or artist, no hereditary stamp that is preserved forever. A new creator can always transform the concept so completely that it may as well be theirs. Because biology may be destiny, but fictional characters don't have genes.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Time To Go Calen!

I'm sure that you were proud to help out our planet yesterday by celebrating Earth Day, but did you know that today is Middle-Earth Day? It's a day dedicated to how we can all come together to help preserve the lands of Middle-Earth from the depredations of the Dark Lord, Sauron.

Sure, I know what you're saying. "I'm only a simple human/hobbit/elf/dwarf (delete where applicable.) I don't even know where the One Ring is, let alone have the time to cast it into the fires of Mount Doom! How can I help?"

Sometimes, it's not all about the grand gestures. You can help Middle-Earth in all sorts of simple ways. Take some time to scrub the walls of the White City, light a signal fire to the Riders of Rohan, slaughter an orc, bake some lembas bread for a hobbit, or even just plant an ent or two. Even the smallest gesture can make the greatest of differences--and after all, it's your Middle-Earth too.

Middle-Earth Day--if you don't help to crush the all-consuming evil of the Lidless Eye, who will?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Darkman

(or "The Kitchen-Sink Superhero")

Sam Raimi's been pretty open about two things when it comes to the creation of Darkman; one, that he wanted to create a superhero who could sustain an open-ended series of films, and two, that he drew on a lot of other superheroes for influence. The character winds up being an interesting mix of Wolverine, Swamp Thing, Batman, the Unknown Soldier and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (although it's worth mentioning that Raimi was thinking more "Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Phantom of the Opera" than Swamp Thing and the TMNT. But the conversation on the line of descent of those characters can wait until another day.)

So what you wind up with is a scientist who gets disfigured by crime bosses and left for dead. (Like Alec Holland.) He survives, though, and sets up a laboratory in a disused warehouse (an abandoned train station in the sequels), scavenging and stealing old technology and kitbashing it into new equipment. (Like the Turtles...although admittedly more the cartoon versions than the comics.) This technology allows him to recreate his brilliant discovery, a synthetic skin that allows him to assume the identity of anyone for 99 minutes at a time, covering his burns with a seemingly normal face for a while. (A la the Unknown Soldier--he even wears bandages when not using a mask.) But the formula isn't stable, so a normal life is forever denied him. (And we're right back to Swamp Thing again, along with the Thing, the Hulk, Robotman, and literally hundreds of other heroes and villains.)

Except that there's another angle to the character. This one is a scientist who gets disfigured by crime bosses and left for dead. (Like Alec Holland.) Surgeons save his life with an operation that nullfifies the pain of his horrific burning, but at a price--he no longer has any feeling in his body at all. He's impervious to pain, but the feelings of disconnection and alienation leave him with wild surges of uncontrolled anger and berserker rage, complete with spikes of adrenalin that give him superhuman strength. He fights crime as a shadowy creature of the night, barely able to keep his fury in check. (See, that's where the Wolverine comes in.)

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Darkman series (as opposed to the Darkman movie, which makes this dichotomy its central conflict.) On the one hand, you have a superhero whose powers lend themselves to plots involving intrigue and subterfuge, as his ability to impersonate anyone leads him to set criminals against each other while he steals their assets to further his research while posing as them. It requires a hero who's patient and clever, calm under pressure and able to outfox anyone at their own game. (And who just happens to be a gifted mimic, because the masks don't change your voice, but Peyton Westlake seems to be in luck there. Amazing how that happens soemtimes.)

On the other hand, you have a superhero who's filled with barely constrained fury, who could snap at any second and frequently does. He defeats enemies by overwhelming them with sheer brutal power, savaging them with his relentless, single-minded anger and devotion to punishing them for their crimes. (One of the best moments in the movies is when Darkman is dangling from a helicopter piloted by the villains, furiously waving away a police chopper and shouting, "He's mine!")

These two aspects of the character don't always mesh well, forcing writers to make the character behave inconsistently as the plot demands. He winds up having a sort of convenient "pocket berserker fury", only to be brought out when it's time for a big action sequence and the writer has run out of other ideas. The Darkman sequels demonstrate this problem--both of them turn from complex caper films into action mayhem, sacrificing the payoffs of a well-timed twist for a big set piece where Darkman beats a bunch of guys up with his super-strength.

Which isn't the only problem with them--it's a struggle, having gone to all the work the original did to try to set him up as a plausible superhero in a realistic world, to find antagonists outlandish enough to fight a man with super-strength and plastic faces that last 99 minutes (more in the dark, but that's an angle that always seems to get forgotten--mainly because a 99 minute timer makes for more drama.) The sequels introduce super-strength drugs and laser cannons, elements that jar with the atmosphere established in the first film. This might eventually be overcome simply through acclimatization; as you become more accustomed to a weird world, it becomes easier to accept that drug kingpins routinely employ insane scientists that design exotic particle beam weapons with nuclear batteries. But unfortunately, Darkman never got the time to make that kind of transition in the movies or on TV. Hopefully, returning to his spiritual home in the comics will give the character a bit more space to resolve these contradictions and come out of them as a more unified hero.

And with that, I close what will be my last Storytelling Engines column for a while--I'm putting the series on hiatus for a bit, hopefully not indefinitely. It's not a lack of time or energy, it's a lack of material--having covered just about every significant Marvel and DC character, and big swathes of movies and TV, I have gone through just about every open-ended series that I have books/DVDs of. Naturally, if anyone wants to buy me some DVDs or trade paperbacks so that I can watch/read them and do a column on them, they can feel free to leave a comment to that effect and we can talk, but for now, I think the series will go on hiatus while I "reload". There will still be a Monday(-ish) column on my blog every week, rest assured, and the entire series of Storytelling Engines columns is re-running from the beginning on for those of you who missed the early installments (shameless plug alert!), but for right now, I'm putting it to bed after 114 columsn for a nice, long, well-deserved nap. Thanks to everyone who read it, and thanks even more to the people who told me so!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Everyday Magical Items

Sure, we all know about your standard rings of protection, swords of slaying, and all the other wonderful and wondrous goodies that can be found in any Dungeons and Dragons campaign. (Some campaigns more than others, of course. When I was a kid, we considered ourselves lucky if we even got +1 chainmail! And we had to walk uphill into and out of the dungeon!)

But really, how useful would those actually be nowadays? How many people really need magical armor and weapons? Let's face it, if we had real wizards these days, they'd be crafting items like you'd see on the list below.

Decanter of Endless Soda: This insulated plastic mug will fill, upon speaking the command word, with forty-eight ounces of any soda the holder wills it. The soda stays cold, and does not go flat no matter how long it is left in the mug.

Ring of Spell Checking: This magical ring tightens (not painfully, but noticeably) around the wearer's finger any time they misspell a word when typing a document. (Leetspeak users may consider this a cursed item.)

Girdle of Metrosexuality: Anyone wearing this girdle, whether male or female, becomes instantly able to pick out stylish, fashionable clothing and decorate their houses or apartments impeccably. They also gain a new appreciation for modern art and the ability to listen to what other people are saying and really understand their feelings.

Amulet of Protection From Flames: All posts, chats, emails, and trolls directed at the wearer of this amulet are instantly lost in dropped connections, forum glitches, and other seemingly coincidental Internet misfortunes. The net effect (no pun intended) is that nobody can ever say anything nasty about you online.

Vorpal Toothbrush: This toothbrush instantly gets rid of all plaque, tartar, bacteria and discoloration with just a single swipe across the teeth. Brushing once a day with the vorpal toothbrush is the equivalent of getting a six-month cleaning from a dentist.

Universal Cleanser: A slightly milder version of the universal solvent, this alchemical mixture just gets rid of dirt, mold, mildew, and stubborn stains. (It is not recommended as a shampoo or body wash, though. You can never tell whether the wizards were paying close attention when they were mixing it up.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Brief Primer on Mathematics

Dear Marvel Comics,

Today, we're going to learn about numbers! Numbers serve a very important purpose to your comic company, and to your reading audience. After all, Marvel publishes a new issue of every comic every single month! Without numbers, new readers wouldn't know what order to read the old issues in. They'd get very confused and irritated, and might even stop reading as quickly as they'd started.

You already know some of this, of course. Why, you put a number on the front of every single comic you publish! But you seem to be a little confused as to how to figure out what number goes with what comic. We know it's a little confusing, so we're here to help you out.

You see, each number represents a quantity of comics. So if you took all the individual issues of a series and stacked them together, the number of comics in the stack should be the same as the issue number of the top comic in the stack. For example, a comic that's run for fifty issues should be issue #50. Every time you add a comic to the stack, you add one to the issue number! And if someone wants to start from the beginning, they can just find issue #1, and work their way forward. Like a counting game!

And for that game to work, you see, you have to use every single number. Even though #1 is a very popular number, you can't just call every single issue "#1", or nobody will be able to play the counting game right. And even though "#600" is a big, exciting number, you can't just change the rules and decide to jump to #600 because you've decided that #1-55 were secretly #545-599 but you didn't tell anyone at the time because those numbers don't sell comics. I mean for God's sake, you decided to renumber Avengers at issue #500 and then canceled it three issues later to relaunch it for another new number one! How dumb do you think your fans are? Do you really think our enthusiasm for "collectible" issues is so deeply ingrained that we salivate like Pavlov's dog at the mere sight of a new "#1 collector's edition"? Don't you realize that you're strip-mining the enthusiasm of your fan-base for a quick couple of bucks, while rendering the hobby practically incomprehensible for anyone trying to enter it cold? Try mail-ordering an issue of Captain America mail-order, or the Avengers, or Iron Man, or any re-re-re-relaunched series! It's like Russian Roulette, trying to get the right volume number! Seriously, what the hell are you people thinking!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!?!??!!!?!?!!?

...that is to say, by learning this simple lesson, we can all have more fun! Isn't that right, boys and girls? Of course it is. Now, have fun learning how to put the right issue numbers on your comics, and practice at home!

And when you've learned, teach the guys at DC. "Green Lantern #41" my sorry butt...

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Battletech

(or "Subverting History")

I'm not saying anything particularly new when I say that science fiction is rarely about the actual future. It's really more about the present, translated into an allegorical form, and the venerable "Battletech" franchise is no exception. It doesn't even really disguise it, with the various Great Houses of the Inner Sphere being clear analogies of various Earth nations--it doesn't really make much sense when you sit down and analyze it that these lines of sheer demarcation between a Japanese monoculture, a Chinese monoculture, et cetera would actually translate across hundreds of light years and centuries into the future, but it makes emotional sense to us because it's a recognizable allegory for our world. It feels right that in the fall of the Star League (Rome), the Inner Sphere (Europe) would splinter into bickering, warring nation-states constantly jockeying for political advantage, with ComStar (the Catholic Church) as the primary mediator of disputes. (You could probably write a paper on the symbolism of ComStar, guardians of faster-than-light communications, acting in the role of priests, but not today.)

But having built a universe that makes emotional sense to us, complete with a sympathetic British/American heroic House as the hero (the Federated Suns sort of blend that line as necessary, much like House Marik straddles a line between American and Prussian--again, you could probably do a paper on the way that two of the major strains of American ancestry are divided up in the Battletech universe)...having set up the universe to feel comfortable to us armchair historians, Battletech deliberately subverts the audience's expectations of how this "future history" will flow. So we see the allegorical China joining with Japan and Germany to repel an invasion by Britain and Norway, then a shift as the alliance between the latter two falters and the Japanese analog winds up allied with the pseudo-Britain, while the futuristic church of ComStar splinters along ideological lines--OK, so that bit's fairly historically accurate, but you get my point. Having established factions that we recognize, the Battletech writers then have them behave in ways that are very different from their historical analogs, which serves to heighten the sense of surprise at every plot twist.

The ultimate example of this is, of course, the Clans. The first era of Battletech books established the legend of "the Star League", the united and glorious nation that splintered into the various Great Houses. It felt comfortable, understandable, the kind of legend that you see a lot in fantasy and science fiction. The Star League drew upon historical Rome (which wasn't nearly as benevolent or enlightened as its legends would indicate, but that's what happens when you write all the history books) to create a backstory that made emotional sense to the readers. Nobody saw it coming when the lost legions of the Star League came back as ticked-off, bloody-minded Spartan-style conquerors sweeping waves of devastation through the Inner Sphere and forcing them into a tenuous alliance, any more than you'd expect to hear about the Roman legions coming back in World War II armed with machine guns. It was a complete paradigm shift in the whole concept of the Battletech universe, and yet one that was foreshadowed expertly in hindsight.

Once the Clans opened up the second era of the Battletech universe, it was even easier to generate real suspense. If something so major could change so rapidly, then surely just about anything could happen? And in some ways, it did. Several major plot twists marked the later Battletech novels of this era, as the political maneuvering reached a fever pitch. Unfortunately, many of the storylines were left unfinished as the property changed hands and jumped ahead about sixty years (to the "Dark Ages" era.) Still, that decision is in some ways typical of the Battletech line. It remains strong and vital in some ways because of the writers' willingness to take risks. There are no sacred cows in the Battletech universe, not even history itself.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Meet 'N Greet #6

This time, I'm actually going to focus on two characters for the "Meet 'N Greet" (an irregular feature that describes the backstories of my 'City of Heroes/Villains' characters, as silly as that sounds. Hey, they let you put a lot of detail into these characters' biographies, so I'm going to share them.)

But the question is, are they really two characters? On the one hand, you have Mary-Sue Quantum, a high school student from the 30th century with an A+ in telepathy, an A- in telekinesis, and a potential F in history staring her in the face. Clearly, there's only one thing for her to do--travel back in time to the 20th century and learn about events first hand by becoming the super-hero known as...Millennium Girl!

But Millennium Girl doesn't spend all her time in the 20th century, and sometimes when she's gone--especially after big, earth-shaking events--another time traveler shows up. Marisu Neutron, a nuclear mutant who's one of the last survivors of a dying human race, claims that for all their good intentions, it was heroes who caused the atomic holocaust that produced her future. The only way to stop World War Three, she claims, is to unite the world under a single leader, Lord Recluse (Statesman's arch-nemesis, and ruler of the Rogue Isles.) So, taking her cue from the last few ancient historical records she found with the time machine in the underground lab she stumbled into, she fights for Lord Recluse's cause as...Dystopia Girl!

Many have noted the remarkable similarity of appearance between the two women (once mutations are accounted for), but only the top temporal physicists have began to suspect what it might mean...and even they aren't sure what to do about it. But they suspect that despite the presence of two time travelers, time might be running out.