At this point, I’ve now done seventy-six entries in the “Storytelling Engines” series, which is a lot longer than I generally tend to stick with things. (Honestly, I’m kind of impressed with myself. Probably much more than my audience is impressed with me.) But the problem is, I’m actually running out of things to talk about. I originally based this series on the great big “Essentials/Showcase Presents” volumes because they were cheap, and because they gave a nice overview of a long period of a series’ history, which allowed me to take a look at the way storytelling engines changed over time.
Well, unfortunately, Marvel and DC aren’t publishing them as fast as I’m writing about them. As I write this, there are seven series (‘Shazam’, ‘Sergeant Rock’, ‘Metamorpho’, ‘Robin’, ‘Human Torch’, ‘Rampaging Hulk’ and ‘Captain Marvel’) left that I haven’t done an entry on. And honestly, I have no idea what to say about the Human Torch’s solo series. DC is coming out with a few new volumes in the next few months (‘House of Secrets’ and ‘Blackhawks’), but after that, I’m officially out of material.
So I’d like to hear people’s opinions for a moment. Should I, at that point, wrap it up as a regular feature? Eighty-five entries, thanks very much, good job and well done? Or should I try expanding it to other areas, some of which wouldn’t be comics-related? (For example, I’ve got the entire series of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, the Critic, Monty Python, Futurama and Black Adder on DVD, not to mention more Doctor Who and Simpsons than you could possibly imagine.) Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section. I’ll be paying close attention.
Storytelling Engines: Metal Men
(or “Death Is But A Door”)
So what, exactly, is it about the Metal Men that makes them such an enduring property? Continue Reading »
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: The War That Time Forgot
(or “Ya Gotta Have Faith”)
The central concept that drives the storytelling engine of “The War That Time Forgot” (a perennial back-up feature in ‘Star-Spangled War Stories’) has to be one of the best ideas in comic-book history. There’s a mysterious island in the Pacific during World War II, perpetually shrouded in mist. US soldiers scout the island, believing it to be held by the Japanese, but it turns out that the island is actually overrun with dinosaurs. So it’s World War II soldiers versus dinosaurs. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ meets ‘Jurassic Park’. If there’s anything more high-concept, I’ve never heard it.
But writer Bob Kanigher (a long-time stalwart of DC’s war comics) seems to worry that the idea isn’t enough on its own to catch his audience’s interest. Continue Reading »
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: Enemy Ace
(or “What Makes A ‘Cult Classic’?”)
‘Enemy Ace’ was published (as a back-up in ‘Star-Spangled War Stories’, ‘Men of War’, and ‘The Unknown Soldier’) during the last great flowering of war comics from DC. It was an era in which the genre did amazingly well, breeding long-running, famous, enduring characters like Sergeant Rock, The Unknown Soldier, and The Haunted Tank (just to name a few.) ‘Enemy Ace’ came along towards the end, in the mid-to-late 1970s when superheroes were beginning to truly dominate the medium, and it had the kind of storytelling engine that lends itself well to creating a “cult classic” series. Continue Reading »
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: Monster of Frankenstein
(or “Changing Your Source Mid-Stream”)
So let’s say you’re Marvel comics in the mid-1970s. (Probably a heck of a career change for you, depending on who’s reading this, but just go with me for a minute here.) Recent revisions to the Comics Code have made it viable to publish horror comics again for the first time in a couple of decades, and you’ve got a popular Dracula comic and a popular werewolf comic. What comes next? Frankenstein’s monster, of course!
Gary Friedrich started writing ‘Monster of Frankenstein’ by drawing from the original novel by Mary Shelley. He picked up the story pretty much where Shelley had left it off, in fact, by having the Monster discovered in the Arctic ice where it had gone off to die, perfectly frozen for a century or so of inactivity. Naturally, a series of events unfreezes the monster (after a few issues that retell the origin for people who’ve never read the novel), and off we go!
Friedrich’s ‘Frankenstein’ makes a few very interesting choices in the way it sets up its storytelling engine. Continue Reading »
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: Batman and the Outsiders
(or “The Key Word Here Is ‘Batman’”)
Last week, I spent some time talking about the Legion of Super-Heroes, an amazingly successful spin-off from the Superman titles that has lasted for decades in continuous publication. Today, though, I’m going to turn my attention to a somewhat…let’s just say less successful…spin-off, ‘Batman and the Outsiders’. Or, as it’s been known since issue #32, ‘The Outsiders’. Continue Reading »
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: Legion of Super-Heroes
(or “‘Spin-Off’: Is There Any Word More Thrilling To The Human Soul?”)
Over the years, the Legion of Super-Heroes has become one of DC’s mainstay titles, an icon every bit as important to the fictional universe as the Flash or the Justice Society. It’s gotten its own cartoon, it’s maintained a fanbase through three complete continuity reboots, and it’s kind of hard to remember now that it started off as a one-off appearance in the Superboy section of ‘Adventure Comics’.
Yes, the Legion of Super-Heroes is a spin-off, and arguably one of the most successful spin-offs in history. (Did ‘Frasier’ get his own cartoon series? I don’t think so.) But what is it about the Legion of Super-Heroes that made it such a successful spin-off? What elements made it succeed where so many other spin-offs wither and die? Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Moon Knight
(or “The Modern Hero”)
Moon Knight isn’t exactly what you’d call a “big name” in the superhero comics business. Oh, he’s had a respectable amount of success; a few series, but none that have managed to pass the sixty-issue mark, a cult following that keeps him from becoming cannon fodder for the next big crossover to come along, but when the average comics fan thinks of Moon Knight, they probably relegate him to the category of “Batman rip-off”.
Which is brutally unfair on a number of levels. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: The Unknown Soldier
(or “How Real Is ‘Too Real’?”)
Other war comics might be more famous, might have had better creative teams on them, or might have wound up telling better individual stories, but no war comic had a better storytelling engine than ‘The Unknown Soldier’. (And it’s a great title, too.) Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Booster Gold
(or “The ‘Hero’s Journey’ Just Led Down A Mineshaft”)
Booster Gold is a relative rarity in the universe of storytelling engines we’ve looked at so far, in that he’s a hero created after the 1960s. Most of the series reprinted in the ‘Essential’ and ‘Showcase Presents’ series to date have been creations of the Silver Age, that period of intense creative fertility at both Marvel and DC that sprung forth in the early 1960s, and which both companies have been very happy to harvest ever since. A few of the series we’ve looked at have come from the so-called “Bronze Age”, in the 1970s, but by the time Booster Gold came onto the scene, brand-new heroes were few and far between in the sea of reboots and recreations.
And Booster’s got a good storytelling engine. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Tales of the Zombie
(or “The Macguffin”)
At first, ‘Tales of the Zombie’ can seem like a frustrating series to get into. The protagonist, Simon Garth, is maddeningly passive…which makes sense, given that he’s a zombie, one of the walking dead, and that his essence is tied to a mystical amulet whose possessor controls his every action. The supporting cast fades in and out, the locales shift from issue to issue, and that’s quite apart from the fact that a lot of the stories in ‘Tales of the Zombie’ are just your typical horror anthology filler, having nothing to do with the “main” story at all (although they do all feature zombies of some sort.) The storytelling engine of ‘Tales of the Zombie’ seems broken…but actually, we’re just not looking at it right. ‘Tales of the Zombie’ isn’t about Simon Garth, or his daughter, or any of the individual characters; ‘Tales of the Zombie’ is about the amulet. (The “Macguffin”, to use Alfred Hitchcock’s term, the “thing that everyone wants.”)
The idea of basing a story around the history of an object, rather than around the history of a character, isn’t new to ‘Tales’, but it’s not common either. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Aquaman
(or “Whither Aquaman?”)
In many ways, Aquaman’s storytelling engine began in a similar way as Green Arrow’s; to wit, there wasn’t much of one. He can breathe underwater, he can command fish, and he fights crime. As a backup character to Superboy, that was really all that was needed. (In fact, much like Green Arrow used exotic arrows, Aquaman used a variety of exotic sea specimens to help him in his battles.) In the beginning of Volume One of ‘Showcase Presents Aquaman’, that’s really all you get.
But Aquaman got his own series in 1962, and along with that came the building of a storytelling engine. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Green Arrow
(or “There Ain’t No ‘There’ There!”)
Boy, does Green Arrow have a lot of trick arrows. In ‘Showcase Presents Green Arrow Volume One’, we see the luminescent arrow, the vine arrow, the lava arrow, the jiujitsu arrow, the heli-spotter arrow, the ricochet arrow, the flashlight arrow, the firecracker arrow, the umbrella arrow, the boomerang arrow, the rain arrow, the cocoon arrow, the jet arrow, the rope arrow, the acetylene arrow, the fountain-pen arrow, the dry ice arrow, the flare arrow, the balloon arrow, the two-stage rocket arrow, the net arrow, the siren arrow, the boxing-glove arrow, the fake-uranium arrow, and in one notable story, the cat arrow, which was an arrow with a stuffed cat on the end.
You tend to notice the trick arrows a lot in a Green Arrow story, and not just because some of them are so ludicrous that you can’t imagine them being fired. They’re notable because they’re really the only thing that is notable about Green Arrow in the 1950s and 60s. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Doctor Strange
(or “Different Singer, Same Song”)
For those of you who want to know exactly how important a storytelling engine is to sustaining an open-ended series, you need look no further than Doctor Strange. Specifically, you need look no further than ‘The Essential Doctor Strange, Volume Three’, but let’s take a step back first and look at the beginnings of the character. Continue Reading »
Storytelling Engines: Marvel Saga
(or “Night Of The Living Document”)
Despite what a lot of people might believe about comics fans, we do understand that the world of comics isn’t real. We know that none of the stuff depicted in the pages of the Fantastic Four or the Avengers actually happened, and that history has not been influenced by the Skrulls, the Celestials, or the Kree. (Jury’s still out, though, on whether there’s a big bald guy in a toga watching us from the moon.)
It can be useful, however, to pretend that the universe of Marvel Comics is real, because it shares similarities with the real world. It has a geography (with Latveria, Wakanda, and the Savage Land) and, more importantly for purposes of this column, it has a history. By looking back on all of the many issues of the many titles Marvel has published, you can compile them into a single grand story, simply titled ‘What Has Gone Before’. Or, if you’re Marvel, you’re having your 25th anniversary, and you’re feeling a bit grandiose, ‘Marvel Saga’. Continue Reading »