Tuesday, September 26, 2006

And everything in its place

The Civil War rant is taking longer than I thought. Hopefully this will tide you over.

I just read some of the latest Paty Cockrum post (the part which was quoted here, in which (among other things), she calls all of Grant Morrison's fans "mindslaves" and roundly condemns his work on New X-Men, based mainly on his treatment of Magneto. She accuses him of "[jumping] a hundred fifty years into the supposed future in a vain attempt to keep Marvel from using the X folk again in current continuity!!!" and that's the part of the post and subsequent discussion that I'm going to focus on.

Let me lay my cards on the table here: I liked Morrison's New X-Men run. I came into it late, picking up the first trade and then the subsequent two, before jumping into the run at "Riot at Xavier's" and following it to the end in floppies. Aside from the first 12 issues of Astonishing, this is the only time I've ever regularly bought a core X-Men book (I used to pick up the issues with cool covers as a kid, and I bought X-Force/Statix up until El Guapo joined, and lately I've been following X-Factor). The story had its ups and downs; I was none too fond of anything involving Fantomex, and the last story was simply confusing, but Planet X was excellent. The Magneto-as-Xorn reveal was very well-done and completely unexpected, and it's a shame that it was so quickly made as unimportant and confusing as the rest of X-Men history.

Anyway, in the comments section on Blog@Newsarama, David Horenstein says "Plus, he’s [Grant Morrison] always been good at putting toys back in their box so the next person can play with them (in his words). Any changes that remain, remain, because most fans, writers, artists, and Marvel itself liked it." That got me thinking. There are some writers who are simply terrible at "putting the toys back" in the right place. How does Morrison figure into that? How does his X-Men run, and subsequent runs, figure into that?

Well, to begin, when I thought "who's bad at putting the toys back," my immediate thought was Mark Waid. Let's take a look at his Fantastic Four run, shall we? He killed Dr. Doom, he effectively killed Galactus, he killed and resurrected the Thing, and he made the Fantastic Four reviled around the world. Removing the two main villains in their rogues gallery couldn't have made it easy for whomever picked up the title next. Thankfully, it was J. Michael Straczynski, who doesn't really pay attention to things like "continuity" or "the point of the characters," and just takes the story on a one-way trip to nuttyville.
Waid's Flash run was similar; he ramped up the Flash's powers, introduced the Speed Force, replaced the Rogues with Replicant, introduced both the Flash legacy and Cobalt Blue legacy, time-traveled and Hypertime-traveled, and killed Wally no less than twice. How could you follow such a run? Waid did everything.
Jeph Loeb left Supergirl a blank slate, sure, but when he left Superman he still hadn't resolved the mystery of the faux Silver Age Krypton, and I think poor Clark Kent was still fired from the Daily Planet. Took the poor guy until OYL to recover from that blow to his supporting cast. Loeb left Hush with Batman's newest (and dumbest) villain still running around, both Catwoman and Riddler knowing Bruce's secret ID, Jason Todd resurrected--oh wait, not really, and a bunch of fans really puzzled as to what just happened.

So, what about Grant? He connected Animal Man to the universe's morphogenetic field, created a new Psycho Pirate, held a second Crisis, passed down the mantle of B'Wana Beast, tied Vixen into a greater dynasty, and gave Buddy the secrets of the universe (though made it vague as to whether or not he remembered them in the end). Finally, he restored some of the status quo (resurrecting Buddy's family) and left the book. With the JLA, he justified Green Arrow's trick arrows, revamped the Key, revitalized the JSA, revamped Queen Bee and the Shaggy Man/General Eiling/The General, made Plastic Man a formidable character, revamped Starro, introduced Zauriel, proved that the League can still function as a large team, introduced Prometheus, fought a giant war, finished Aztek's story arc, and pared the team down to a manageable level by the end. In New X-Men, he destroyed Genosha, made Magneto a martyr, developed a Mutant subculture, introduced the secondary mutations, introduced Cassandra Nova, killed Jean (again), hooked Scott up with Emma, fundamentally altered our perception of the Weapon X program, fleshed out the student population, introduced Xorn, revealed Xorn to be Magneto (albeit under the influence of Kick), did a fairly traditional Magneto-wants-to-kill-humans story, and left everything off with a futuristic tale (a staple of the X-books ever since "Days of Future Past") and a bittersweet ending for Scott.

So, how about the toys? The X-writers after Grant came back to the toybox to find some of their toys scuffed, some broken entirely, but a whole bunch of new toys and playsets to make up for it. Immediately, little Chucky and Chris started putting things back together and trying to set things up the way they were before, while Joss picked up Grant's favorite toys and ran with them. Sure, Grant made it relatively difficult to tell more Jean Grey stories, and he made Magneto back into a remorseless bastard and a world-class threat to humanity (though the personality changes could easily be explained away as influenced by the Kick), then promptly killed him (not usually a problem for Magneto). But look at what we got in return:
  • New characters
  • A new status quo for several members, most notably Scott and Emma
  • A new way to look at the Mutant population and growing subculture
  • A school which feels like a school, and not just a hangout for old superheroes
  • The U-Men
  • A new mechanism (secondary mutations) for updating old characters
  • A new status quo for the Shi'ar

And so on. It's not that Grant left the toybox in a shambles, it's that Claremont and co. wanted to keep on playing the same game they've been playing since 1970-something, and Paty Cockrum is right there with 'em.

See, the job of a good writer isn't to leave the status quo undisturbed. It's to tell good stories. If you can tell a good story without altering the status quo, go for it. Plenty of folks have, and still do. But the X-Men's status quo had long been "confusion, retcon, resurrection, and inaccessibility," and what Morrison did was strip all that away, in order to tell very accessible (if 'Morrison-weird') X-Men stories, which paid attention to continuity without being bogged down in it, and which progressed the franchise so that other writers wouldn't get caught in the quagmire of inaccessible storylines, convoluted history, and boring, static characters, which has plagued the X-Men for at least the last decade and a half. Half of the reason for suckiness since then is the systematic dismantling of what he created, reducing things back to the old standard rather than moving the story forward. Only Joss Whedon ran with the ideas, creating new villains and bringing in new ideas, playing with the characters that dominated Grant's run, and trying to move X-Men singlehandedly out of stagnation, while Chris Claremont and the others just made the remnants of Grant's run as convoluted as any other piece of X-Men history, what with twin brothers and false revelations and whatnot. And then Decimation comes along and takes out the elements of subculture which Grant cultivated so well, leaving the X-Men in a weird sort of limbo.

There are three types of comic stories: Static, Progressive, and Regressive. Static stories exist wholly within a given status quo. Sometimes these are quite excellent (Alan Moore's in-continuity Superman stories come to mind), some are mere filler. Ultimately, these Static Stories make up the vast majority of comics, especially mid-Silver Age comics. Progressive stories advance the status quo somehow. These advancements may be minor (Perry and Alice White adopting Keith), or major (Hal Jordan going insane and being replaced with Kyle Rayner), and sometimes minor advancements occur within a generally static period. Regressive stories restore a previous status quo, and sometimes these are good (Green Lantern: Rebirth) while most of the time, they're terrible (JLA: Tenth Circle). While progress can be made for progress's sake, regression requires that special little dance to respect what you're retconning away while so as not to alienate the people who liked the changes, while also trying to make the old ways look new, interesting, and viable, since the changes were presumably made because the old ways lacked that.

The nice thing about progressive stories is that they almost universally open up new avenues for other writers to tell new and different stories. Alan Moore's changes to Swamp Thing transformed the character from a mediocre horror feature to the first of a pantheon of new gods for the DCU. Grant's changes to Animal Man paved the way for subsequent writers to tie him into the larger Elemental tapestry, to make him master of the Red, as Swamp Thing masters the Green. Mark Waid's Flash run altered the protagonist's powers and left him a married man, but all his forays into the timestream left a whole chunk of Wally's character unexplored and unexploited, and it's in that more down-to-earth realm that Geoff Johns's follow-up run excelled. Grant Morrison's New X-Men run is no different, and Joss Whedon's work proves it.

Can you imagine if Moore's Swamp Thing had been followed with a regressive writer? Can you imagine someone like Chris Claremont coming in and having Swamp Thing discover that the Green was all a hallucination, prompted by the Floronic Man, and that he really was Alec Holland after all? What great stories would we have lost? The Elementals are now fundamentally tied into the DC universe, much like the Endless and the Order/Chaos conflict. Imagine what would have been lost if someone had decided they liked the straight horror more. Imagine what would have been lost if someone came into Animal Man and bring Buddy back to his Silver Age-y roots, losing the philosophical trappings and the elemental-esque connection that Morrison had introduced. Would he be nearly as popular a character today? Would he have shown up in World War III and 52? Imagine if someone wrote a story which invalidated all of Morrison's contributions to the Doom Patrol, and turned the team back into lame X-Men wannabes...oh, wait. Sorry.

The point of all this rambling is that comic storytelling ought to be primarily progressive. If you can maintain momentum and suspense and interest with static storytelling (I'm looking at you, Paul Dini's Detective Comics), then by all means, do so. But most good stories come from moving things forward. Think of comics like a relay race; you run your part, but then pass the rod to the next person in the line, and they'll hand it off somewhere down the track. Even the best regressive stories still advance the situation somehow (going back to GL: Rebirth, in undoing Hal's death and the Parallax debacle, they redefined the core concepts of the Green Lanterns, introduced Parallax as a new villain, and changed the way the Corps operates). To continue the race metaphor, this is when the track has circled around back to the starting point; yet the runners have been moving forward the whole time. If you hand it to the next girl and immediately she starts running backward, then what you've done has been ultimately worthless.

So, Paty Cockrum, why don't you recognize comic characters for what they are. They aren't icons that can remain trapped in amber; even Mickey Mouse has had to roll with the changes. They're characters, and characters have to develop, change, and grow. Grant Morrison's New X-Men run was radical because it kicked the X-Men out of their fifteen-year slump, and all but begged for the next runner to end the cycle of "Magneto and Xavier's different viewpoints clash in a heated battle -> Status quo is restored -> Resurrect -> Retcon -> Repeat." Claremont and others ignored Morrison's advice, and X-Men remains in that slump, with the exception of Astonishing, which actually decided to play with Morrison's new status quo, and is consequently the best X-Men book around (though I hear Mike Carey's doing good things with his title now). Marvel's not recovering from Grant's "insanity and ineptitude," they're recovering from the short-sighted, self-serving retcons employed by writers who couldn't stand to see things move out of their decades-long rut. Claremont had found his comfortable ass-groove, and damned if he was going to give it up for something as inconsequential as "better stories."
Move forward. Go ahead and undo what you don't like, but do it in a progressive fashion. Clone Magneto, pull him back out of the timestream, don't say "oh it was never actually him." It doesn't do anyone any good to just start running the other way.

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Dorian said...

Because Paty Cockrum, like many comic book fans, feel that they "own" the characters and that it's the responsibility of the writers, artists and editors to tell ONLY the stories THEY want to read. ANY deviation from that model is clearly intended as a personal insult to them.

It's all just fan entitlement and nerd rage. When it crops up it's best to just let yourself be momentarily amused by it and move on. It's a never ending, vicious cycle and to dwell too heavily on it leads only to madness.

Anonymous said...

This Paty person has a few isThe folks at that website are a scary bunch of mouthbreathers.

Tom Foss said...

Dorian: to dwell too heavily on it leads only to madness.

As is clearly the case with Paty. BWAHAHAHAHA...uh, no.

I love the terms "fan entitlement" and "nerd rage," they're absolutely perfect descriptions, derisive without being vulgar.

law dog: I haven't yet had the intestinal fortitude to surf the NightScrawlerS boards, but it seems like it might be a good one to submit to SomethingAwful's Weekend Web feature.

Anonymous said...

Here's a nice little exerpts from Paty's little flights of fancy - "There are factions at Marvel who hate Magneto's backstory. They want him not to be interesting but tyo be a one dimensional cookie cutter villain because that is the only type of character they are capable of writing. They don't want him to be a charasmatic adversary who is basically RIGHT in his view that you don't fight for your survival from a position of weakness or subserviance but from a position of power. They hate him being of Jewish stock, even if he isn't a practicing Jew... simply because he IS so powerful, charasmatic and yummy. He, a comic book character, gets more action from females than THEY do! How humiliating! Well... he, as Claremont portrayed him, is far more real and interesting and sexy than THEY are as supposedly real humans ...and that really enrages them. Hence the ongoing battle for the soul of Magneto...waged by his ardent fans...note my signature...the battle still rages..."

Hello, Earth to rabid nerdy fangirl, Magneto isn't real.

Matthew E said...

The point of all this rambling is that comic storytelling ought to be primarily progressive. If you can maintain momentum and suspense and interest with static storytelling (I'm looking at you, Paul Dini's Detective Comics), then by all means, do so. But most good stories come from moving things forward.

I mostly agree, but only mostly. It may be tougher to tell good stories with static storytelling, but I think that should be the usual target to aim for. I believe in progressive storytelling in stages. Figure out what works in the stage your comic is in right now, and tell some good stories accordingly. Then, when it's time to move on, advance the comic to a different stage, carefully. Repeat. Don't make changes to your status quo without knowing what kinds of stories you'll be able to tell after the changes. (And, depending on what comic book you're talking about, a stage could last months or decades.) You don't want to write yourself into a corner where the only way to get the next issue out is with an awkward retcon or, worse, a reboot.

Greg said...

Good post, but to be fair to Paty, she called Morrison fans "mindlsaves." Get it right, Foss!

Tom Foss said...

Greg: Oh, "mindlsaves"...I always get those two terms confused, what with being a mindlsave and all.

Law Dog: I like how she's extolling the Claremont version of Magneto, which did its own selective ignoring of backstory. As I recall, Mags was pretty one-dimensional when Stan Lee wrote him.

Matthew: True enough, and what I think I failed to get across in the rambling was that the general status quo can remain static while progress occurs at the detailed level. I guess it's a matter of the blurry distinction between "status quo" and "subplot," but I think things like Keith being abandoned, befriending Superman, finding his mother once more, then losing her again, then getting adopted by the Whites, represents a progressive sort of status quo. It didn't affect the basics (strange visitor from another planet, etc.), but it gave the story a sense of forward momentum through the supporting cast.

Similarly, I remember Mary Jane's smoking being a big story arc back when I first started reading Spider-Man; Peter disliked it, and she tried to quit, and it wasn't until she saw sleazebag Nick Katzenberg dying of smoking-induced cancer that she actually gave up the habit. All this occurred in the margins of the stories, but it was real progress for some of the book's main characters.

The big leaps forward in status quo (Electric Superman, Kyle Rayner) are warranted less often, by virtue of their drastic nature. And I absolutely agree--if you're going to change the status quo, you have to be aware of what stories will be possible after, vs. what story possibilities will be lost.

But the stories that exist in a vacuum, the total-standalones, can get tedious after awhile. You have to find the balance between done-in-one standalones and longer stories, or progressive subplots.

Though it's not comics, I think the perfect example of this sort of thing was in Justice League Unlimited, where up until right before the season finale of the second JLU season, each story stood on its own, but also built toward a greater arc.

Matthew E said...

I agree. I remember times, though, where I was almost begging for some total standalones for a while. I collected Teen Titans (or New Titans or whatever they thought they called themselves) for a while in the early '90s, and they spent, I believe, over two years changing the membership of the team. Some storyline where Pantha came in and Danny Chase was Phantasm and there were these lame Titans from the future... Just cut it out and fight the Disruptor.

Tom Foss said...

I think that's why comics like Dini's Detective, All-Star Superman, and Jonah Hex, and even short arcs like Morrison's JLA Classified, feel like such a breath of fresh air. People have gotten so caught up in writing for the trade and decompression and event comics that they don't tell single-issue stories anymore, so it feels novel when they actually do.

Anonymous said...

Paty is actually kind of nice. She's better than Byrne at any rate.

Dorian, I would LOVE to see you fight her on her message boards. Heck, any of you.

Tom Foss said...

Why? There's no sense in fighting someone who can say
But it is all interpretation. One can give examples to support one's views in any direction. and this is the beauty of the genre.. the complexity of the characters.
in one post, and then call people "mindlsaves" for liking Grant "walking, talking pile of excrement" Morrison, because he ruined her favorite character. There's no reasonable argument with a woman who, by her own admission, becomes "wild eyed and irrationalas [sic]" when you mention someone who had a different interpretation of Magneto. There's no point in discussion with a grown woman who would put "Magneto rules! Xavier drools!" in her signature.

Saying that someone is "better than Byrne" seems to be damning with faint praise. At least Byrne just comes off as an arrogant, self-righteous, self-centered, racist, sexist jackass. This woman comes off as an immature nutcase with an inflated sense of entitlement. With Byrne, you get the impression that, for all his ignorance, bigotry, and overreaching pride, he's not insane.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

The neverending struggle between "advancing the story" and "preserving the trademark for merchandising purposes" carries on.

How many times has Marvel editorial (or DC, I'm sure) decided to shake things up and revive interest in their books, only to cram things back to the status quo in fear of hurting their licensing operations?

"Advancing the story without advancing the story" is a tricky, tricky business.

And dammit, I loved Morrison's X-Men. It was the only time I've read them in twenty years. As a mindlsave, I didn't have a choice.

Matter-Eater Lad said...

I think you're being overly harsh on Waid's FF run -- Doom has been killed off and brought back dozens of times, it was pretty clear that Galactus would be back sooner or later (at the very least, no subsequent writer would have to jump through any hoops to bring him back), and the FF's standing had largely rebounded by the end of his run, IIRC. As for killing Ben, well, he DID bring him back, which seems the very definition of putting the toys back as they were.

Tom Foss said...

Don't get me wrong, I don't think it was a bad run. As a matter of fact, unlike say when Doom and Reed "died" together back in the '90s, Waid took Galactus and Doom off the board for a reason. That reason is that the Fantastic Four have a small and crappy rogues gallery.

Now, I haven't read the FF regularly except for Waid's run (and for a time around Infinity War), but it seems to me that every landmark run and every big story involves one or more of the following:
1. Doom
2. Galactus
3. The Skrulls
And the rest of the FF's rogues? Puppet Master, Mole Man, and the Red Ghost. Sure, the Red Ghost is one of the most awesome characters in the history of comics, but the other two don't provide much of a threat. I think by taking Galactus and Doom out of the picture for awhile, Waid hoped that the FF could progress a little, could get past the same three threats and beef up their rogues' gallery a bit.

Mind you, I don't think that "not putting the toys back" is a bad thing. Sure, sometimes it sucks (see: Adam Strange: Man of Two Worlds), but it's often done in the best of intentions, and I think those are the intentions Waid had, trying to shove the Four out of a rut they'd been stuck in since Byrne or Simonson had been associated with the books. He knew as well as anyone that Doom and Galactus would eventually be brought back, but I think he hoped that it would be a longer period of time, that writers after him might innovate and experiment and invent, rather than go right back to the old standards.

The Incredible Kid said...

I was unaware of this rant by Paty Cockrum, but I really appreciated the thoughts you wrote down in response.


Morrison Mindlsave