Friday, May 14, 2010

Stop. Just, just stop.

If you haven't read Chris Sims's excellent, excellent post "The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling," you should do that. It's perfect, and the ramble I'm about to write here isn't going to even approximate how brilliant that was.

Look, I understand nostalgia. I really do. I've got a complete set of He-Man DVDs on my shelf; I spent most of my high school years listening to music made 15 years before; I frequently wish I were still in college, staying up 'til all hours of the night and not caring about what would happen the next day; nostalgia's great.

But, dammit, I'd think a major part of growing up is realizing that the time you're nostalgic about wasn't as good as you remember. We all idealize some parts of the past, remembering the good bits and forgetting the bad bits. Sure, I could take out some more student loans and go back to college, but not only would I be hit with all the things I chose to forget (having no money, homework, conflicts with roommates), I'd also be that creepy loser who thinks he's still nineteen.

Well, Geoff Johns1, wake up: you're thirty-seven. It's time to stop trying to force modern comics into the stories you made up with your Super-Friends action figures.

I understand wanting to tell the cool stories you imagined as a kid. Look, I'll lay it out right here: if I were writing Superman today, I'd be cribbing some plot points and characterization from "Lois and Clark." I'd be bringing in cryogenically-frozen Nazi super-soldiers and seeing if DC had the rights to use Tempus in the comics. I wouldn't be plagiarizing--I'd put my own spin on it, I'd ask permission from and credit other writers when necessary, but I can't deny that the versions of the characters I enjoyed as a kid. To some degree, all comics fans (and consequently comics writers) have preferred interpretations of the characters, which likely gelled when they first enjoyed those characters' adventures.

And I think that's largely okay--as long as you're doing something new with it. Frankly, I like the Rainbow Lantern Corps, because it's something new. It's progressive, it changes the status quo, it shakes things up. I don't like Perry White forgetting that Clark Kent has friends or killing off Ryan Choi and sidelining Wally West to make way for previous holders of those costumes. Nostalgic storytelling can be accomplished without undoing what's been done since. For example, take a look at Karl Kesel. Whether it's in Adventures of Superman or Superboy or Fantastic Four, it's clear that Kesel's nostalgic about Jack Kirby work. I know that, even though I've never seen Kesel kill off a character to replace them with a previous counterpart, or manipulate things so that he can introduce older elements without regard to more recently-established continuity. Instead, he's done things like introducing Project Cadmus into the modern Superman mythos, putting Superboy into the Kamandi role for a story arc and playing with those dynamics, or creating new Kirbyesque characters like Kossak the Slaver.

Or better yet, look at Grant Morrison. His work, I think, is less clearly nostalgic, but there's no denying that Grant's rooted in the Silver Age. From using Awkwardman Merryman in Animal Man to reviving the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, Grant's influences are so prevalent that they've inspired whole trade paperbacks. Yet he didn't bring these elements in by rejecting the intervening decades of Animal Man and Batman stories; he made Awkwardman Merryman into the voice of Limbo, he made Zur-En-Arrh a semi-hallucinatory failsafe put in place by the Batman who thinks of every eventuality.

It's a little like improv. Good improv results from taking what you've been dealt, adding to it, and passing it to the next person--"What are you doing with that banana?" "You never know when a gorilla is going to attack. Look out, there's one now!"2 Bad improv results from negation--"What are you doing with that banana?" "It's not a banana, it's a handgun." "Oh, um..." Negation shuts everything down. It breaks the flow of the story, it returns the segment to square one, and it's ultimately rude and self-centered. It shows a lack of respect for the other person's ideas, saying "no, my idea is better, and deserves consideration over yours." Regressing storytelling is comics' own negation, throwing out what has gone before in favor of your own personal preference. It's jarring, it's disrespectful, and it's counterproductive. More than that, it's uncreative. It's the easiest thing in the world for an improv performer to negate everything that's given to them and barrel forward with their own ideas of what the skit should be; it's much harder and requires much more thought and creativity and wit to be able to take someone else's ideas and run with them--but the end result is much, much more satisfying. The same is true for comics storytelling. It's beyond easy to ignore continuity and characterization and anything that directly preceded your story, and just barrel on through with whatever tale you've wanted to tell since you were in short pants; it's a lot harder to build on what's come before, to respect it and draw from it and incorporate it into your story, but the end result is a story which feels like a natural progression or extension of the previous works, using the same characters and setting and so forth. In ongoing, shared-universe comics, that makes for a much better reading experience than a bunch of discrete arcs next to each other featuring characters who dress the same, but that's where the similarities mostly end.
If you want to do some nostalgic storytelling, be my guest. That should be an option for everyone. But do it in a way that's progressive, that adds on what's come before and doesn't negate it. It's possible, and though it requires a bit more work, it results in a much better product.

There are two other trends in comics that need to stop, which are somewhat related. The first is a matter of stalled maturation. Nostalgic storytelling is, at least somewhat, rooted in that desire to play with the same toys you played with as a kid. But I think most people, by the time they get to the point where they can play with those toys professionally, recognize that there's something childish about all that. It's embarrassing to have those toys out in the open where everyone can see them. They realize that they have to do something to fight against that, to prove that they are, in fact, mature adults. You can already see where this is going: there are quite a lot of comic creators (and, I suppose, people in general) whose definition of "mature adult" means "violence and sex." This is, somewhat understandably, what a thirteen-year-old might think "mature adult" means, but it's sad that there are people who make it to adulthood without correcting that misapprehension. There's a place for adolescent gore and sexuality, but it doesn't make anything more "mature," and it only serves to make your immature nostalgia look like something you're ashamed of. But if you're ashamed of it, why write it in the first place?

I can think of few better examples of this idiocy than that Teen Titans debacle, where Wendy and Marvin and Wonder Dog of the SuperFriends cartoon were introduced into the comic continuity, only to have the teens brutally murdered by a monstrous Wonder Dog. If I had to guess, I'd suspect that whoever brought those characters in did so out of a genuine liking for the characters. And I further suspect that they were killed out of this misguided embarrassment, that somehow the inclusion of cartoon characters would have to be validated or justified or balanced or ameliorated by doing away with them in a "mature" way, to prove that the writer's still "cool" by some external standard. Repudiating what you really like, pretending that you don't like it, in order to appear more mature in the eyes of the cool kids isn't "adult," it's something DJ would do on an episode of Full House, leading to a valuable lesson learned and a hug with dad at the end.

Contrast that with, say, bringing Vartox into Power Girl. Vartox is a goofy character with goofy roots from a somewhat goofy era of comics. Gray and Palmiotti brought him into the modern age by embracing the goofiness, acknowledging it through their protagonist, and using it as a springboard to tell a deeper story. There's nothing grim about Vartox; he doesn't get eviscerated by the alien bug things he's brought to Earth, he doesn't rape Power Girl, he isn't decked out in guns and girls to make him seem to be more acceptable. He's played straight, but he's given depth and dimension. It's those things--plot, characterization, and depth--that are the real signs of maturity.

On the other hand, you could just play it for fun. I don't know why this seems to have been confined lately to parts of Marvel and Tiny Titans, but "because it's awesome" should be justification enough. Who cares if it's childish? Fun is fun is fun. One example I like of this is when Zan and Jayna showed up in Young Justice. It was a relatively short appearance, but the only real update they got was that they spoke in an incomprehensible alien language. No blood, no sex, just the Wonder Twins doing what they do, because it's fun.

Point: if you're going to do nostalgia, do it progressively and maturely. You want to do Superboy-Prime? Look to "Superman: Secret Origin" instead of "Infinite Crisis." Don't be the idiot man-child who mistakes "R-rated" with "mature."

The other trend I'd like to see ended is another mistake of juvenile, short-cutted storytelling: the "badass by proxy" character. Whether it's having everyone extol the virtues of some character so you don't have to show said virtues (or acknowledge that the character has never possessed such virtues in previous portrayals), or just having the character do something shocking to prove how shocking they are, this is a crappy way to get your point across. Ultimately, the latter method is the better one, as it involves showing instead of telling, but it seems that, too often, it boils down to "New Guy beats up Strong Guy to prove that New Guy is a threat" and variations thereof. When the alien can throw Worf across the room, when the unknown bad guy can knock out Superman, then you know they must be really powerful. And when the bad guy does something comically over-the-top evil for no good reason--say, killing Ryan Choi or a busload of kindergartners, then you know that bad guy is really evil.

The problem is that the trope gets way overused. If every new villain who comes up against the Justice League proves his power by knocking out Superman, pretty soon Superman looks like a wuss. If every villain who wants to prove how evil he is by killing a minor superhero or committing some act of extreme depravity, pretty soon those acts of depravity are going to make your villains some weird cross between Mengele and a moustache-twirling melodrama fiend. Also, you cheapen superhero death by making it a monthly occurrence. There are better ways to accomplish your goals of making characters badass or evil or powerful, and the big one is through good characterization, which isn't accomplished through a series of shocking actions or a series of laudatory exposition.

That point about killing characters deserves specific mention. As I've said before, part of writing comics in a shared universe setting is putting the toys back in the toybox so that the next writer can take them out and play with them. Most writers, traditionally, have left the same toys in more or less the same condition for the next writer, and I think that's fine. I think it's a sign of good writing if you leave more toys for the next guy than were there before you came along. It's bad form and bad writing to go around breaking some toys and hiding others and drawing all over a few more with permanent marker. It comes back to the matter of selfishness and self-absorption. Eric Wallace has left an indelible mark on Ryan Choi, and whoever comes along next and wants to write stories about the interesting Atom will be forced to acknowledge what Wallace did to the character, in order to undo it. Wallace has wedged himself into that character's history, scrawling his name on the toy with an X-Acto knife, so everyone who sees it later can know that Eric Wallace was there, and look what he did.

It's a sad truth of any medium that a lot of great work and great artists get forgotten. Not everyone who works hard and does their best and puts out quality work is remembered. Not all good characters are ever used again. You could spend decades churning out great comics with original characters and intriguing stories, and never achieve any real popularity with the fans or any lasting impact on the medium, your new characters and altered status quo fading into obscurity after you're off the title. All that hard work might go unnoticed by the next writer or artist, or otherwise it might just fade into limbo a few years down the line. But there are easy ways that you can make sure your run will be remembered, all you have to do is shockingly alter some character. It doesn't have to be a major character--in fact, it's the B- and C-listers who are most open for this kind of change. It doesn't have to be a death (although that generally works), it could just be a power change or a dark heretofore unseen chapter in that character's past or an atrocity committed by that character in the here and now. After that, potentially forever, future writers who want to use that character will have to explicitly acknowledge what you did, either by referencing it explicitly or changing it explicitly or denying it happened explicitly or even just by studiously avoiding it. The rape you retconned into that character's backstory, the criminal you had that hero kill, the new power you gave to that matter what, that's something that will have to be addressed at some point. And your run will always be remembered as "the story where they killed/raped/depowered X"--but what's important is that it's remembered. You've achieved immortality through vandalism.

I'm going to lay it out here in bold: If you have to kill established characters to tell your story, then you're not a very good writer. This isn't to say that established characters should never die, but it ought to be an exceedingly rare incident, one which has a little pomp and circumstance around it. Killing a character to make a point, or to characterize someone else, or for shock value, or to serve most secondary purposes, is cheap, unnecessary, and a good sign of a crappy storyteller. If you can't play with the toys without breaking them, then you should play something else.

1. As an example. He's not the only one, but he seems to be leading the current pack. I'm sorry, Geoff, because I generally enjoy your writing--I even mostly liked Blackest Night--but it's not 1978 anymore.

2. True Fact: I suck at improv.


Eric TF Bat said...

Three paragraph reply:




That is all.

Your Ol' Pal Rob said...

Let me be the first to say that anyone who does not see he brilliance of your post but focuses like a laser on your confusion of Awkwardman with Merryman is a living example of the problem. Well said, sir.

Brainy Pirate said...

You might be happy to know that Wendy (of Marvin & Wendy) survived the attack and is now being taken under the wing of Oracle over in the Batgirl series. Someone apparently agreed with you that those two were mistreated in that storyline and is trying to make her a legit character.

SallyP said...

Very very well said. One should indeed leave the toys unbroken for the next person to play with.

When comicbook death was uncommon, it made a huge statement, but it has been so completely overused, that all it raises is a yawn and some outrage...until the next death. Stop breaking the toys!