Storytelling Engines: Blackhawks
(or “The Theme Team”)
In a way, it’s a little surprising that we’ve gotten this far into this series of columns and never once touched on super-hero teams designed around an organizing theme; then again, that’s partly my fault. The Blackhawks’ “international team” motif was re-used pretty much wholesale when Professor X organized the “all-new, all-different” X-Men, and I didn’t think to mention it then because there were so many other things going on. But the Blackhawks pretty much were their international gimmick; it was the one constant in their transformation from World War II patriotic heroes to post-war “science heroes” to hideously embarrassing superheroes to obscurity. So let’s take a moment and look at the gimmick in action, shall we? Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Shi
Hey, kids! Comics!
Billy Tucci’s ‘Shi’ comes out of a very different era in comics than most of the ones I’ve discussed in this column before; the 1990s really saw the dawning of an era where comics were selling more to adults than kids, particularly independent comics. And one of the chief appeals to these adults buying comics was that they could get plenty of sex and violence in their stories; the “bad girl comic”, traditionally featuring a scantily-clad butt-kicking female lead character, became a staple of 90s comics. Which isn’t to say that ‘Shi’ is an attempt to exploit those trends, but it is worth remembering them (along with the obsession with Japanese martial arts that reached its heights in the late 80s, but that retained plenty of devotees years later. ‘Shi’ is as much a part of the “ninja craze” as Elektra, Ronin, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.)
Shi also follows a much grander and more ancient storytelling tradition, that of the “revenge story”. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Highlander
(or “There Won’t Be Only One”)
‘Highlander’ is a relative rarity among storytelling engines, because it didn’t start out as one. In fact, writer Gregory Widen turned in a script that seems to defy sequelization at all–it’s the story of the final battle between a group of immortals that have lived in secret among the human race, summed up by the iconic line, “There can be only one!” (As an aside, it’s important to note the difference between coming up with a sequel and coming up with a storytelling engine. Coming up with a sequel means finding the logical extension of a stand-alone story, while coming up with a storytelling engine involves setting up a premise that can generate multiple stories. It’s the difference between ‘Die Hard 2′ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’.)
But as the movie developed from a minor flop into a slow-burn cult hit, it became evident that “only one” wasn’t enough. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: The Simpsons
(or “Packing Up The Shop”)
Futurama, Matt Groening’s second television series, suffered from a single great problem that afflicts all too many science-fiction/fantasy shows. It was on the Fox Network. (Rimshot.) The series’ creators, all of whom had gained a lot of experience while working on the Simpsons, designed their series almost as an exercise in creating a good storytelling engine; the futuristic setting allowed for any number of stories set on any number of distant, quirky planets, and the delivery-service that the show centered on gave them a good reason for going there. Fry, as an unfrozen 20th century guy, served as a viewpoint character and a handy source of exposition for the strange world of the future, and all of the characters had their own private frustrations and unfulfilled desires that expressed themselves in comic ways (Fry’s unrequited love for Leela, Leela’s need to find her true parents, Zoidberg’s desire for wealth and legitimacy, et cetera.) Really, you can go back through just about every column I’ve done, looking at things other series did right, and you’ll find them expressed in Futurama at some point or another.
But unfortunately, Fox has a love/hate relationship with sci-fi series. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: The Simpsons
(or “And Then The Children Were Rescued By…Oh, Let’s Say Moe.”)
The storytelling engine of the Simpson family is a pretty familiar one to anyone who watches television. The average family with a not-so-average life is pretty familiar ground for television comedy, and has been ever since the days of ‘I Love Lucy’. Matt Groening (who supposedly based the series on his own family) created a deceptively simple family structure that generates plenty of stories–the dumb-but-loveable dad, the mischievous-but-good-at-heart son, the intelligent-but-socially-awkward daughter, and the slightly-stir-crazy stay-at-home mom each have their own reasons to provide the writer with storylines (and hyphens, apparently.) Groening’s main contribution to the genre was to open up the throttle slightly in a way that works well with the choice of cartoons as a way to deliver the series. Homer isn’t just dumb, he’s cartoonishly stupid. Bart isn’t just mischievous, he’s cartoonishly wicked, et cetera, et cetera.
The series developed the other elements of its storytelling engine over its first few seasons, bringing in supporting characters like Moe and Barney, settings like the nuclear power plant and the school, and gradually developing more ways to generate stories as it went on. This is pretty much par for the course with any sitcom (although as a cartoon, the Simpsons have the advantage of not having to worry about actor availability. You can develop a much larger supporting cast when they’re all really Hank Azaria.) Again, this is nothing we haven’t seen in any sitcom.
But all family sitcoms suffer from the same problem Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Doctor Who
(or “The Perfect Engine”)
Disclaimer time, here: I’m a bit biased when it comes to Doctor Who. I’ve been watching the series since I was two years old, I have loads of Doctor Who DVDs and videos, and I currently type this in a room with bookshelves stacked from top to bottom with Doctor Who novels, Doctor Who trade paperbacks, Doctor Who audio plays, and non-fiction books about Doctor Who.
On the other hand, a) that does make me pretty well-informed on the series, in all its various incarnations, and b) that’s a lot of incarnations of Doctor Who. Doctor Who is one of those rare concepts that has been adapted to every medium; there have been Doctor Who stage plays, Doctor Who poems, Doctor Who movies and radio plays and comics and yes, a television show that still holds the record as the longest-running science-fiction series in television history. So what is it that makes the concept of Doctor Who as enduring as Superman, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes? Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Star Wars
(or “Parts Do Not An Engine Make”)
When the Star Wars saga resumed, in 1991, it was with Timothy Zahn’s sleek thriller ‘Heir to the Empire’ (and with the rejoicing of a generation of grown-up Star Wars geeks.) The series picked up five years after the end of the classic trilogy, featuring a sinister, calculating general in the mold of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, with a plan to restore the glory of the Empire and defeat the hated Rebellion.
The “Thrawn trilogy” proved popular enough to unleash a torrent of spin-offs, from comic book series like ‘Dark Empire’ (featuring a reborn Emperor), to ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ (featuring a Sith Lord, Exar Kun, and Ulic Qel-Droma, the Jedi he seduced to the Dark Side) to novels like ‘The Courtship of Princess Leia’ (featuring an Emperor-like Dark Jedi named Gethzerion), to the ‘Jedi Academy’ series of novels (featuring a Dark Jedi whom Luke must help redeem), to ‘Darksaber’ (featuring an evil Hutt who is Jabba the Hutt’s successor) to the “Rogue Squadron” series of both novels and comics (featuring Ysenne Isard, another Tarkin-esque figure), to the massive ‘Shadows of the Empire’ project, which crossed over into just about every medium other than film (and centered around a Jabba-esque crimelord…)
Do you start to see the issue, here? Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: House of Secrets
(or “Imperfect Pitch”)
When I wrote about ‘House of Mystery’ for this column, back in April of last year, I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing the right thing. After all, ‘House of Mystery’ is an anthology series, right? Sure, it has a framing sequence with recurring characters, but the actual tales within each issue are pretty much interchangeable with those of any other horror comic, right? How much difference does Cain’s existence as a narrator actually make to the enjoyment of the stories within? How much were those framing sequences helping the writers come up with story ideas?
And lucky me, I actually get to find out. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
or “Can’t Stop The Changes”)
So, now that we’ve discussed Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Man-Thing, the Flash, the Martian Manhunter, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Captain Marvel (both of them), Thor, Captain America, and Daredevil, let’s see what’s on TV, shall we?
Of course, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ isn’t on TV anymore, except in reruns. It started out as a movie, then became a TV series (with ancillary books and comics), and now continues on exclusively as a comic book. Why? Why not keep going with the TV show indefinitely? The answer to that question provides a valuable insight into why it is that even the best of TV series don’t last as long as a comic or book series. It’s all down to the storytelling engine…and those pesky, fickle beasts known as actors. Continue Reading »
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”. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Human Torch
(or, “Yes, The Human Torch Actually Had A Series”)
Well, sort of. Back in the early days of the Fantastic Four, he shared the book ‘Strange Tales’ with Doctor Strange. It’s actually a pretty sensible decision at first look; he was a character with name recognition, at least in theory (kids might have found old Golden Age comics with the original Human Torch, or at the very least heard about him from older siblings or parents), he was a member of the extremely-popular Fantastic Four, and he was a teenage superhero in an era where that was just becoming a popular sub-genre (as seen by his rivalry with Spider-Man in this era, something developed in both the FF and Spider-Man.) But for some reason, the Human Torch has never worked well as a solo character. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Rampaging Hulk
(or “Rejecting The Continuity Implant”)
When Doug Moench took on the assignment of creating a new, stand-alone Hulk title (created due to the popularity of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV show), he made something of an unusual choice. Not so much his decision to give the Hulk a supporting cast that consisted of Rick Jones and an alien “techno-artist” named Bereet with a transdimensional bag containing dozens of nifty gadgets, or his decision to set up a group of marauding aliens called the Krylorians as the Hulk’s principal antagonists for the series…although those were somewhat unusual choices, as well. No, the really odd decision was Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Shazam!
(or “It’s Alive! It’s ALIVE!”)
From one Captain Marvel to another, we now look in on the original CM, whose publication history has been a bit…spotty. How spotty? The company that owns him doesn’t have the trademark to his name, that’s how spotty. (DC generally markets his various series using the word ‘Shazam!’ somewhere in the title to let fans know who he is.) Captain Marvel has gone through a lot of dormant periods in his sixty-nine-year history as he journeyed through legal disputes, multiple publishers, and various creative hands–’Showcase Presents Shazam!’ collects his second major run, from the 1970s, when DC first acquired the license to the character.
Well, actually, to the whole storytelling engine, because CM’s got a doozy. Continue Reading »
Here’s the latest (well, sorta latest, I am a bit late with it – BC) 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: Captain Marvel
(or “Winding It Up Until It Breaks”)
The storytelling engine for the classic 60s comic ‘Captain Marvel’ is surprisingly complex and adult for what’s supposedly a kids’ comic; even though Marvel was already experimenting with blurring the line between its target audiences, writing comics for more mature readers, ‘Captain Marvel’ takes the notion further than it usually goes. The “hero”, Captain Mar-Vell, is actually a spy for the Kree Empire. He’s merely pretending to be a super-hero (as well as a rocket scientist for the government in his secret identity), while he evaluates Earth’s threat potential as a preparation to possibly wiping the planet out. He struggles with the complex triple life, trying to deal with his growing attachment to the human race and his loyalties to his own species. And to top it all off, his commanding officer has fallen in love with his girlfriend and is doing everything he can to get Mar-Vell killed. (Oh, yes, and his girlfriend is jealous of a human woman who seems a little too attached to “Captain Marvel”.)
This is the sort of material that you could imagine John le Carre or Ian Fleming handling (albeit without the space aliens.) It’s tense, filled with moral ambiguity, and features a protagonist who’s decidedly not your average square-jawed hero. (Within two issues, he’s stolen the identity of a dead man and erased the memory of the one person who could expose his deception.) But in a way, it’s almost too exciting; the very tension that powers the drama renders it unsuitable for a long-term storytelling engine. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Robin
(or, “You Can’t Be A Serious Superhero In Short Shorts”)
Everyone knows who Robin is. If you think about the best-known superheroes in popular culture (indeed, arguably the best-known figures in popular culture, period) Batman has to pop up right near the top of the list…and everyone who knows about Batman knows that it’s not just “Batman”, it’s “Batman and Robin”. The Boy Wonder is an essential element of Batman’s storytelling engine, and has been for generations. He’s a handy audience identification figure for younger readers who want to imagine themselves adventuring side by side with their hero, he’s a handy means of providing exposition (so that Batman doesn’t have to talk to himself quite so much), and as a crimefighter slightly less competent than the Darknight Detective, he’s a useful source of plot complications if the writer needs to extend the story. (And he’s also a source of comic relief, if your source of humor trends towards terrible puns and the overuse of the phrase, “Holy (fill in the blank), Batman!”)
But all that is Robin’s role in Batman’s storytelling engine. What happens if you want to try to take Robin and turn him into a lead role? How do you handle taking the sidekick and making him into a hero? Continue Reading »