Thursday, March 27, 2008

More on plot advancement and superhero comics

-New favorite Trader Joe's cereal: the banana nut clusters. Unfortunately, the nearest Trader Joe's is about an hour from where we're moving this summer.

-In response to my latest treatise on What's Wrong With Mainstream Comics (and Their Fans) Now, Jones left a comment which got me thinking:

As for comics fandom's focus on plot, I wonder whether it's different from any other narrative fandom. Do message boards for Lost or, I don't know, Gilmore Girls talk more about aesthetics?

Hmm. Well, I've never watched an episode of either show, so I might be talking completely out of my ass here. I'm reasonably confident that Lost does very much conform to the SHOCKING PLOT DEVELOPMENT school of comics writing, though I'm under the impression that atmosphere also matters (though I don't doubt for a moment that most fans discuss plot above all else). I know even less about Gilmore Girls, but the Wikipedia entry suggests that the show's dialogue is one of its major draws. And I might be mistaken, but I think part of its success might also be attributed to fans' attachment to the actors.

That seems like a really significant point of departure to me. You do hear some superhero readers, especially people with an interest in older comics and/or non-superhero comics, go on at length about who drew the best Silver Surfer (correct answer: John Buscema) or whatever. But it's really rare that you hear someone say that there only one artist has ever drawn a particular character "correctly" (a common example which I agree with: Jack Kirby's creations for DC in the 1970s). On the other hand, television viewers tend to respond unfavorably to recasting on general principle (with a few celebrated exceptions, like Dr. Who). I don't want to over-exaggerate the relationship between television acting and superhero comics drawing, and I certainly understand that the nature of the modern American comics industry works against artists remaining permanently associated with particular characters. But it is interesting to note that the writer is generally less conspicuous in television than actors or producers (kind of analogous to comics editors), while in comics the writer is considered the primary "author" of a comic book. Not sure what to make of it, though.

-But wait, there's more: Jones' comment also led me to consider other types of popular television shows, ones which are perhaps a bit less reliant on plot advancement. I'm specifically thinking about mysteries and sitcoms. Each of these kinds of shows often have larger plot arcs, but a lot of the pleasure of watching them comes from the ways they hit the requisite notes of their respective genres. The people I know who watch conventional television mysteries like CSI do so in order to see how the mystery is solved; the cleverness with which this is executed is especially important.* Likewise, the main criteria in determining the quality of a sitcom is the extent to which it makes one laugh. Mysteries and comedies often incorporate some kind of larger story arc (particularly the slow-burn romance in sitcoms). Once these meta-plots are introduced, viewers start expecting plot progression. But a sitcom or mystery can also succeed in a largely episodic format, with little continuity between episodes.

In other words, people watch television shows for reasons other than plot advancement. I think that has a lot to do with genre and expectations. I don't have a whole lot expertise in literary studies in general or the mechanics of genre in particular, but I do feel pretty comfortable saying that most people who read/watch genre work expect certain things out of it. The kind of pleasures to be gained from watching detectives solve a case or an office manager embarrassing himself are often more rewarding than learning how the overarching plot pans out. So readers/viewers can still find something to enjoy, even if the plot of the episode has been "spoiled" for them.

This was once the case with superhero comics, which generally tended to fall into the genres of action or science fiction. The latter reached its apex in early 60s DC comics, particularly those edited by Julius Schwartz. Action-oriented comics were (to my admittedly limited knowledge) dominant in the Golden Age, reaching an apex with Jack Kirby's work for Marvel in the 1960s. The action-oriented approach to comics, with the exception of the "relevance" movement of the late 60s/early 70s, was ascendant well into the 80s, when a more soap opera-oriented style started to supplant it (more on that later). For most of the history of superhero comics, readers have gone into issues expecting lots of punching, kicking, jumping, throwing, and explosions. Or, if they were DC fans in the 1960s, they expected plots to be resolved by the Flash applying a few simple science facts, or maybe Green Lantern figuring out how to paint the giant alien war tank some color other than yellow.

I'm not sure that most contemporary superhero comics clearly belong to any genre. Some do, of course: Green Lantern clearly has science fiction roots, Captain America reads like a spy/espionage thriller, Daredevil is basically a crime/mystery comic, and Iron Fist bears a very strong resemblance to martial arts movies. Perhaps not surprisingly, these are some of the most critically acclaimed superhero comics being published today. Larger plot advancements still matter for each of these titles, but readers expect certain genre-ish things from any given issue (like Daredevil trying to solve the mystery of who's wrecking his life, Captain America/Bucky trying to foil the Red Skull's plot to destroy America, etc.).**

Other superhero comics, however, don't clearly belong to any single genre. You might call some of them action comics, but the action scenes seem to get weaker every year. In some titles they're basically an afterthought. The science fiction-leaning books (like the Annihilation series and its spinoffs) seem to be finding their footing a little better. But, overall, superhero comics increasingly rely on a mixture of self-reference (in a variety of forms--satirical, reverential, critical, pandering), soap opera (with the emphasis on opera, as in death), and well-established trappings, both general (like costumes and secret identities) and specific (Peter Parker works at the Daily Bugle). If those are the only standards which superhero comics have to meet, it's not surprising that so many readers are unsatisfied. In years past, a good fight scene or a clever escape from a deathtrap might have satisfied readers. These days, readers expect comics to depict characters "correctly," but also to keep larger plots (including line-wide plots) churning forward. It's hard to balance fans' need for shocking plot developments with fussy Iron Man fans' expectations for the character.

So, if writing action comics is so much simpler than writing modern superhero comics, why don't Marvel and DC go back to basics? I can think of a few reasons. Note that these aren't all causal factors--some represent reactions to the modern, plot development-focused superhero comic.

1. Movie special effects and stuntwork have drastically improved
Movies deliver bigger action thrills than they did in the 60s and 70s (let alone the three decades prior). I might find a Jack Kirby fight scene more interesting than Jason Statham driving a car, but I'm old and weird, and Jack Kirby doesn't draw comics anymore. Special effects are also a lot better these days. The Spider-Man movies have been way more exciting than almost any of the comics (though, to be fair, the real strength of Spider-Man has never been in the action sequences).

2. Realistic, ultra-detailed art may not be entirely compatible with action-oriented storytelling
Ever since Marvels, superhero readers have gravitated towards comics featuring detailed, highly referenced art. It's no mystery what this has done to deadlines; a lot of folks (like me) also think that it has hurt storytelling. Action sequences might have suffered the most. One would think that artists would have updated their photo reference files with some MMA or pro wrestling magazines to complement their celebrity gossip rags, but that doesn't seem to be the case (Greg Land's fondness for Triple H aside). It might simply be too much to ask for a deadline-plagued artist to choreograph a photo-referenced action sequence.

3. The legacy of Alan Moore
Miracle/Marvelman showed the gruesome reality of realistic superhero combat. Watchmen mocked the common superhero trope of resolving problems through fisticuffs. Subsequent writers have loved these books, but lacked the talent to say things as profound. Or maybe there's not a whole lot else to be said. In any event, it seems like some writers, especially the more ambitious ones, are somewhat embarrassed by fight scenes.

4. The legacy of the X-Men
Chris Claremont's writing didn't lack for action, but X-Men owed much of its popularity to its soap opera aspects. This was especially true after the Dark Phoenix storyline raised the stakes for long narratives, delivering an unprecedented payoff. You can see the influence on many contemporary writers, most obviously Brad Meltzer. The major difference is that Claremont (at least in the 70s and 80s) kept X-Men well within the acceptable boundaries of action-oriented superhero comics. Meltzer's work includes a lot of talking, a lot of jeopardy (including death), but not a whole lot of action.

5. Pacing in era of "writing for trade" does not lend itself to action as a genre
Five or six chapters crammed with fight scenes do not lend themselves to reading in a collected format. When reading collections of older superhero comics, I can only handle a few issues before needing to move on to something else. I do think there are a lot of advantages to writing in a more restrained pace, but it kind of rules out writing a bunch of fight scenes in every issue.

Another thing to note: some superhero readers don't seem to value good action sequences as much as other considerations. One of the best action writers active today is Mark Millar, who might just be the most controversial figure in superhero comics. Leaving aside all issues of self-hype and stupid statements made on his message board, the main knock against Millar is his use of schlocky action movie cliches, especially in dialogue. That criticism is fair enough, but I think it's also fair to ask whether Millar's greater proficiency in writing action sequences offsets his relatively poor dialogue (I'm going to leave aside criticisms of Millar's characterization, since that gets us into wanky fanboy territory). I'm no more annoyed by Millar's unbalanced skills than, say, Brian Bendis' (less so actually--I'm not really a fan of Bendis' dialogue, usually considered one of his stronger suits).

As is usually the case with my longer, rambling essays, I don't really have any corrective policy to advocate. There are clearly a lot of advantages DC and Marvel reap from this concentration on plot advancement, not the least of which is that it puts the focus on their intellectual properties rather than the creators (for more on this and lots of other interesting stuff, be sure to check out Tom Bondurant's column on the subject at Blogarama). And it's clearly making them money right now. But if event fatigue ever sets in, the Big Two consider thinking about genre.***

*Quasi-interesting side note: my mother-in-law loves police procedurals for the usual mystery-solving elements, but she cites the colors used on CSI Miami as the main reason she watches the show (which she otherwise finds inferior to the other versions of CSI).

**This isn't to say, of course, that all the good superhero comics published today borrow from other established genres. Grant Morrison and Matt Fraction both write superhero comics which don't neatly fit into any particular genre, and they're arguably the most talented writers employed at DC and Marvel, respectively.

***Postscript: As you probably gathered from the above, I don't really consider superheroes to be a genre in and of itself. I usually refer to it as a sub-genre here, with the understanding that the parent genre is action. In the case of certain DC comics, however, science fiction is the parent genre. In other cases, like Daredevil, it's more like crime/mystery.

But, despite this movement across genres, I don't think that superheroes really constitutes its own genre. It's more like an occupational setting. A television show set in a newsroom could be in the mystery, comedy, or soap opera genre. I think that's basically the case with superheroes, which works pretty well in unexpected genres like comedy.


Tom Bondurant said...

Doesn't the conventional wisdom hold that the more "standalone" a show is -- i.e., sitcoms and cop shows -- the better it does in reruns and syndication?

One thing which didn't quite make it into yesterday's column was the notion that plot can break down genre. Not just "what genre is a Jonah Hex/Green Lantern story?", but the more sinister suggestion that Jonah might lose some of his Western-ness by being associated with GL. In other words, a shared superhero universe can include different genres (Western, war, sci-fi, gangster), but you have to be careful to sustain those genres and not subordinate them to some more nebulous, overriding "superhero" sensibility.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I can't believe I misspelled superhero in the title to this, and left it that way overnight. That word is a source of constant typos for me.

That's a good point about crossovers, Tom. I'm reminded of complaints about Peter David's latest X-Factor run, which seemed to be incorporating the conventions of mysteries. Seems like the multiple X-Men crossovers really sapped its momentum; it doesn't get nearly the attention it used to.

matches said...

Tom, I think you're exactly right, and I think that's one of the things DC in particular has struggled with in recent years, as it has increasingly tried to sell the idea that most or all of its comics are part of one larger meta-narrative. For whatever reason Marvel has been able to keep Daredevil feeling like a crime comic even through its events, but the DC books have IMO become blurred.

The Fortress Keeper said...

I've been trying to come up with a similar post for some time now, but you hit the nail on the head.

Personally, I'm one of those who likes a lot of action in comics and still find Jack Kirby's action scenes more exciting than a lot of movies.

But I'm probably even more old and weird than you are.

Banana Nut Clusters rock, by the way.

Gardner said...

I think you're right on in saying that "superhero" is not a genre, but I think in your TV analogy you're missing the next logical step: actors are not analogous to artists, but to the superhero characters themselves. George Clooney is not analogous to (for example) Jim Lee; he is analogous to Batman. Clooney can star in a breezy crime caper, a blockbuster action movie or a legal drama, and though he's playing different characters, there is still an essential recognizable Clooneyness to each performance. Similarly, Batman can star in murder mysteries (Detective), big-budget sci-fi spectacle (JLA) and whatever the hell Morrison's Batman is, and can simultaneously be a different version of Batman and still recognizably Batman. Obviously there are characters who are less malleable than others, for various reasons, but I think this analogy holds true for most Marvel and DC characters. The Punisher, for example, can support two vastly different titles yet still remain recognizable as the Punisher, and I suspect the same will be true of Iron Man once Fraction's book starts up.

Also, I take some issue with this--"But it is interesting to note that the writer is generally less conspicuous in television than actors or producers (kind of analogous to comics editors), while in comics the writer is considered the primary "author" of a comic book."--in that television producers and writers are frequently the same thing. Writers are never going to be as conspicuous as actors, by sheer virtue of not being onscreen for 20 or 40 minutes every week, but I'd say the writer/producer is the driving creative force behind most TV shows. (Though cynics may successfully argue that network executives and advertisers are the true "creative" forces.)

Todd C. Murry said...

Hey, Dick. Leave it to me to take some throw away point in your magnificant opus, and blow it up to look for blackheads, but I was moved to write a full post response to your assertion that superheroes aren't a genre here. Main point, genres are defined by whatever helps make people differentiate what they like, so superhero comics are a genre.

I tend to get carried away about these things.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Gardner, I guess the problem I have with comparing superhero characters to actors is that the former are frozen in time; Batman will always be (or can always be) somewhere between the ages of 28-32. George Clooney, however, keeps getting older, changing the types of roles he can play, and changing the way people think about his work.

I'd also note that editors probably play as important a role in what appears in comics as producers. The Joe Quesada writing credit on the last issue of One More Day is probably more representative of reality than the typical credits on most Marvel/DC books.

LurkerWithout said...

I have nothing to add except to say that Trader Joe's Banana Nut Clusters are indeed awesome. Also their Puffins cereal...

Matthew J. Brady said...

I'm late to this discussion, and I probably wouldn't have much to add anyway, but I wanted to weigh in on the subject of Gilmore Girls. I was a pretty big fan of the show up until the final season, and I would definitely say that plot was not the main draw for me (although you could probably have figured that out from reading any of my comics reviews or whatever). Instead, it was the dialogue and acting, and also the setting and music, to a lesser extent, that made the show so enjoyable. In fact, it's an interesting parallel to what you're talking about there, in that the creators and head writers of the show (a husband-and-wife team) left at the end of the penultimate season, and I stopped watching soon after. With different writers, the characters suddenly became very shrill and acted strangely, seeming like they were trying and failing to emulate the dialogue that they had so eloquently spouted just a year ago. I think the writers eventually found their footing and got a bit better (although nowhere near as good as their predecessors), but it didn't really matter, since the show got cancelled. So yeah, it's actually pretty similar (in my book, at least) to somebody besides Kirby trying to write the New Gods. How about that?

Leigh Walton said...

If I got every superhero comic delivered to my living room (a la television), I'd certainly (like your mother) make some of my consumption choices based on color. Invincible is a lot more fun to look at than Thunderbolts.

Dick Hyacinth said...

That's my mother-in-law who watches CSI. My mother prefers that English paranormal investigation show where the medium's feelings are given equal weight as photographic evidence and the like.

But yeah, color is probably the single most under-explored area in comics criticism, at least in North America. Sometimes I think lettering gets more attention.

Matthew J. Brady said...

That's an interesting thought about color. It's an aspect of comics art that could definitely use some more coverage. Chris Mautner should do one of those critic round-ups about it.

Actually, now that I think about it, it's probably due to the lack of focus on art (in favor of plot, tying in nicely with this post's topic). People can barely be bothered to mention what they think of artwork, unless it's to complain about Greg Land's photo swipes or Ed Benes' propensity for drawing asses. So of course color gets marginalized, with a book either being color or black and white. But there's some incredible stuff being done these days, like the Marvel guys mentioned in that recent discussion of the colorist that died (Stephane Peru? Sometimes I'm good with names, sometimes not) who was working on The Incredible Hercules. Or Christina Strain, who does some really cool stuff on Runaways. Or Manny Trembley, who blew me away with his work on PX! What about Richard Isanove's work with Jae Lee on The Dark Tower? Or Jose Villarubia on, say, Batman Year 100? Or Laura Allred's amazing embellishment's of her husband's art? It's pretty impressive the stuff they can accomplish with the technology they have these days, and it's too bad people don't mention it more. I'll have to try to talk about it in the future...

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