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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Metamorpho

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Metamorpho

(or “Nobody Gets What They Want Except The Audience”)

I’ve talked from time to time in this column about something I call the “false status quo”. The rough idea of a false status quo is that it’s a set-up for a series in which the central concept involves something that the protagonist is trying to resolve, something that would result in a dramatic change to the series’ set-up if they ever did manage to fix whatever was wrong. (The classic example is ‘The Fugitive’, a series that revolved entirely around the hero’s hunt for the one-armed man who killed his wife. Every week, he almost finds him, and every week, he fails, because the second he finds him, the series ends.)

In general, I’ve talked about false stati quo as something to avoid. This is simply because putting a false status quo into your story makes an implicit promise to your audience that it will be resolved, and that’s not always something that you can follow through on. (All too many series have floundered after finally resolving their false status quo, and a few–‘X-Files’, I’m looking at you–faltered when the audience got sick of never getting their resolution.)

But comedy has a slightly different set of rules, and ‘Metamorpho’ provides a great example of that. All the great comedies revolve around a false status quo, because the secret ingredient of all the greatest comedies is frustration. Not failure, because that’s depressing, but that tiny gap of frustration between failure and success. Basil Fawlty never manages to make his hotel into a vista of taste and sophistication, Fozzie Bear can never quite polish his stand-up routines, Dobie Gillis never gets the girl, and David and Maddie never sleep together (remember what I said about series floundering after resolving their false status quo?)

And Metamorpho is truly one of the great comedy storytelling engines, a screwball superhero epic full of comedy frustration. Rex Mason, aka Metamorpho wants to be human again so he can get the girl, Sapphire Stagg, but Sapphire’s old man, Simon Stagg, keeps putting him off with one promise or another. Simon, meanwhile, wants Metamorpho out of the way–dead, or at least the heck away from his daughter–but the crazy supervillains he keeps bumping into require an on-staff superhero to fight, and Metamorpho works cheap. Sapphire just loves Metamorpho, and doesn’t care what he looks like, but she can’t get him to accept that. And Java, Simon Stagg’s manservant and an actual reanimated anthropoid, thinks that if Metamorpho dies, Sapphire will have no choice but to fall madly in love with him. Needless to say, he’s doomed to frustration on both counts.

It’s been said that the classic comedy formula is two people who don’t like each other stuck in a room together. Here, we have two people who don’t like each other caught in a partnership.
Rex and Simon hate each other’s guts, but they both need each other just enough to force them into adventure after adventure (and the adventures are classic Silver Age craziness from Bob Haney, a trippy mix of pop-culture and pop-culture parody that effortlessly encourages you to laugh both with it and at it.) Even the addition of a frankly unnecessary “Element Girl”, a female Metamorpho, just enhances the atmosphere as she adds a bizarre fifth side to a Freudian love quadrangle.

Ultimately, the series ended (as series are wont to do, even classic ones.) Metamorpho has continued on as a second banana to various teams in the DC Universe, but he’s never managed to once again reach those same heights of popularity–and I think part of that has to do with the fact that Simon and Sapphire Stagg haven’t returned when he has. Bringing back Metamorpho without his supporting cast misses many of the wonderful elements that his storytelling engine provides…and those are elements that the Element Man desperately needs.

12 Comments

Couldn’t agree more with this. When I started reading the new series of Batman and the Outsiders, one of the main reasons was to catch up with Metamorpho having read the Showcase Presents Volume. I was strangely disappointed, even though I was enjoying the series. Why, well John got it, no Simon and Sapphire and Java. I sussed this when I started digging around the internet solely to find out what had happened in their relationships. I think Metamorpho’s a fun character and I like him a lot BUT with his supporting cast he’s a truely great character.

I’d love someone to take the bull by the horns and try a Metamorpho book. Animal Man is getting another go and if DC are smart they’ll take him away from his space adventures and place him back at the heart of his family, what I believed made Morrison’s take on Buddy so great. Metamorpho could succeed just as well, all be it with a very different ‘family’ dynamic!

I never understood the appeal of Metamorpho, becuase I never read these stories. he just seemed to be Chemistro or Absorbing Man as a hero. Now I understand! It also explains why he has a little bit of the Ben Grimm ugmo to him.

Problem is, Metamorpho can’t support a book on his own in todays market, and, as you say, doing him right on a team involves bringing in his entire supporting cast for the ride. Which was what happened on JLE, giving some pretty decent stories, but if you do that too often he winds up taking over the book.

Oh, and Moonlighting didn’t fail because Maddie and Dave slept together. (Cheers showed that you can follow up sexual tension with plenty of comedy from ‘the relationship on her terms’, ‘the extended breakup/the other guy’, ‘the breakup that doesn’t take’ and/or ‘the relationship on his terms’, in any sequence that you can get away with.) It failed because its storytelling engine was a careful mix of mystery, comedy, and romance, and the writers decided to almost completely eliminate the mystery and comedy.

Stagg, Sapphire, and even Java appeared a couple of times in JLE, but that’s the exception that proves the rule: usually, a character in even one of the better team books doesn’t get to bring (or in most cases, even mention) their supporting cast.

The reverse would be, say, Blue Beetle and Booster Gold; both of whom had supporting casts before they were in the Justice League, but no one remembers them because they were terrible. Booster had a business manager that was a Manhunter, and I remember Beetle’s love interest as being kind of unsympathetic and horrible.

David and Maddie never sleep together (remember what I said about series floundering after resolving their false status quo?)

Moonlighting didn’t fail because it resolved its false status quo. If they just hooked them up and proceed from there it would have been fine. It failed because it tried to have its cake and eat it too. It hooked them up to excite the fans and give a big payoff, then it immediately broke them up in a forced, nonsensical and drawn out way in order to return to the will they or wont they? false status quo that the audience loved so much before, to the point where all the other good things of the series like the mysteries and the supporting cast suffered. And it came off as a slap in the face of the audience, who just didn’t care as much the second time around because the dynamic between the characters became so ugly that you didn’t care anymore whether they got together and actually wondered if they were better off NOT together.

The lesson wasn’t about resolving false status quos, it was about resolving them only to restore them again. For example on the Fugitive if immediately after the one-armed man was caught and the audience celebrated, he broke free in the next episode and re-framed the Fugitive and started the cycle all over again the fans would probably have been exasperated.

Or as Jeff R pointed out more concisely, it was a mix of romance, mystery and comedy that dropped the mystery and comedy altogether (while turning the romance incredibly ugly I might add).

Moonlighting was kind of forced to drag certain things out. Cybill Sheppard’s pregnancy limited her ability to appear on the show, especially in the action and physical comedy aspects. This lead to nearly a season of the two leads never appearing together.

Metamorpho is one of those characters who, appropriately enough, is mutable from book to book. As a solo character, the emphasis should be on the humor. But if he’s appearing in a group book like BATO or JLE, he needs to be played a little straighter so he doesn’t make the other characters around him look too goofy.

Agreed about Moonlighting above. For me, the quentessential series romance that tried its audience’s patience was Friends. After too many seasons of will they/won’t they idiocy from Ross & Rachel, BOTH characters became completely unsympathetic to me. By the end of the series, I was praying that someone else in the group who say, “Enough! You two are obviously incapable of sustaining a REAL relationship… Can you just promise never to date again?”

Isn’t this why Prison Break is doomed to failure? Every time they escape at the end of the season they are miraculously sent to another, even worse, jail. Why don’t they just start a whole new plot and cast every season? Anyway, enough ranting.

I hadn’t noticed, but the dynamic for Metamorpho is almost exactly the same thing that the TV show Eureka has that appeals to me.

I wonder if that show’s creators and writers ever read Metamorpho?

Theno

I don’t know if it’s fair to talk about revivals of Metamorpho when he hasn’t really been given any. He had the early-90s miniseries, which did have his supporting cast. And he had his recent Year One miniseries, and again his supporting cast featured. But he’s never had the opportunity to be ongoing again. And he’s had his various appearances in second-tier superteams like Justice League Whichever and the Outsiders on occasion, and team-books have their own very different set of storytelling engines that seems to often supplant the engines of individual characters. I.e., Batman seems to become a less tragic figure when he’s hanging with the Justice League.

Also, why no mention of the other major storytelling engine in Metamorpho’s history: Shift?

[…] at you–faltered when the audience got sick of never getting their resolution.) Originally from here. Once the messiah’s done and brought peace to the world its a similar situation. It’s sorta cool […]

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