Have a drink. It might help that mortis attitude of yours.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Good Writing vs. Good Business: Shared Universes

Now comics are tricky things to write. Actually, writing anything, prose, poetry or otherwise, is tricky. Good writing is a mix of excellent characterization and rising conflict, both in personal drama and plot. This is tough and becomes even tougher once the writers enter into shared universes like DC and Marvel. Then it is not just one writer trying to raise the conflict/drama/plot of their titles but twenty who are trying to raise the conflict/drama/plot of the shared world.

Why do it? Why risk bad storytelling? Because the payoff is totally worth it, because there is nothing like when a crossover works and you can go week by week from this comic to that comic and see the overarching story unfold. It is the best that the industry has to offer. Actually, it is some of the best storytelling you can get, in or outside of comics. Also, as collectors will be buying more titles, it is good business.

Of course, this process is almost doomed from the start. You know what they say about too many bakers? Once you have dozens of writers, even more editors, not to mention all the people who do the visuals, someone along the way is going to get sick, have an off month creatively, wrap their story quickly, or simply screw up. It’s human nature – we cannot keep our A-game forever. There seems to be two answers to this problem when it arises.

The DC Answer – Just keep putting out comics. So Countdown comes after the events of the “Sinestro War,” we know this because Dan Didio said so. However, in the pages of Countdown it is revealed the Kyle Rayner is basically back to his old self, that Hal Jordan is flying around o.k, and so on. In fact, the threat of Sinestro and his army has been squished so much that it isn’t even a mention in the overall story of the DCU. DC robbed the Green Lantern story of its suspense. Sure, everyone will keep reading because the writing and the art are both fantastic but there is no heavy drama anymore.

Here is another example. In the Justice League of America Wedding Special, Dwayne McDuffie set up this very tense storyline. Half the JLA were taken prisoner by the ILU and the other half were getting suiting up to do some rescuing. Then came out last week’s Black Canary/Green Arrow Wedding Special, which showed…um…the wedding. If McDuffie’s storyline kicked off during the bachelor and bacherlorette parties, his first storyline will take place during the days directly following these parties. When the second wedding special showed all the JLA present we know that everything works out A-OK. Not only that, when the bad guys attack the wedding Sivana and Deathstroke have to gather bad guys. This means that the ILU falls apart right at the end of the first arc. Well, it should if the editors are worth their salt.

Problem: DC is giving away story beats for the sake of production schedule.

The Marvel Answer – hold things back until the story can match up.

I take us to last summer and Civil War. The main storyline was falling behind and so Marvel made the choice to delay all the titles that directly tied in. They wanted to preserve the mystery and suspense within the arc as a whole. While this made sure the story beats and outcome was not ruined it did leave Marvel with a shortage of titles to put out. With the core story six, seven, eight weeks delayed, the company needed something. So they created a bunch of hastily thrown together one-shots and specials to keep the readers attention. Now some of these stories were actually interesting but for the most part they were filler. The fans knew this and got angry, some losing interest entirely.

Problem: Marvel was ruining story flow for the sake of productions schedule.

So here are the questions of the post. What is worse for business: Revealed Stories or Delayed Stories? What is worse for the writing?

13 Comments:

Blogger BIG MIKE said...

I think you make an excellent point, Ben. In my opinion, DC is allowing these reveals because they have developed countdown tunnel vision - that is to say that they assume the only suspense worth having is suspense related to countdown and final crisis. Sinestro War is a great story, but I think you're right that it could be a lot stronger if the stakes were higher.

9:30 AM

 
Anonymous John said...

Revealed stories don't particularly bother me. To use an example from another medium: I started watching Buffy at the beginning of its fourth season. When I finally had the chance to see the episodes I'd missed from the first three seasons, I largely knew what was going to happen -- that Angel would go bad, be sent to hell, come back, etc. But the stories were so well told that it didn't matter I already knew how they would end. Did I miss out on something by not getting to experience the shock of seeing Angel turn evil, of not knowing whether he would get his soul back? Probably, but as they say, it's not the destination that matters, but the journey.

Delays are much more damaging, I think. Turning again to TV for an example, every year Gilmore Girls would go on a mid-season hiatus, and every year it absolutely killed whatever momentum and excitement that had been building up to that point. Regardless how enthusiastic I'd been about it pre-hiatus, it was always a struggle getting back into the show afterwards. I'm sure that had I been reading Civil War or ASBAR or Spider-Man and Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do, I might feel the same way. Doesn't mean I won't buy the new issue when it does come out -- I bought the last issues of Camelot 3000 and Watchmen even though they were late -- but it does diminish the experience when the schedule falls apart, in my opinion.

9:45 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think people place a little bit too much emphasis on continuity. I mean does this REALLY bother all of you that the timing is a little off? I mean, OF COURSE the Injustice League will be defeated. That's practically the WHOLE POINT of having them..is to be vanquished by evil.

The characters aren't dramatically that off and I can enjoy the stories independently of one another.. So what's the problem?

Enjoy the Ride.

2:44 PM

 
Blogger Rob S. said...

I'm with John. Nine out of ten times, what's revealed isn't something that comes as a great surprise to most: The Good Guys Win. Kyle and Hal are fine in the aftermath? I'm not surprised at all -- but I still want to know *how* they escaped.

Meanwhile, delays either diminish my memory of stories by keeping me waiting for anything, or diminish my enthusiasm by publishing ham-handed water-treading filler stories by whatever creative team is available. I'd honestly rather have a fill-in that has nothing to do with the delayed story than a tie-in that cripples the main story by doing too little (or too much).

Then again, I think it's a bad idea to tie all of a line's books into such a strict timeline in the first place.

2:50 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel about in the middle on this.

If it's a good story, I can wait. Planetary, for example. On the other hand, if it is a good story, I don't want to have to wait. The Sinestro Corps, for example. I don't feel the drama of the Sinestro corp story is diminished by Kyle appearing in countdown, beacuse we stil don't know how Kyle escapes Parallax, or what lasting effects his posession will have.

Really, it should be "how we get there", not "how fast we get there" that we should be interested in. Counter example: Kurt Busiek's Kang story. that went on way too long.

5:47 PM

 
Blogger Siskoid said...

I think the problem is the crossover itself. As a concept, it's become so involved that events are no longer crossing over into titles, it's hijacking those titles plot points.

Look at the original "big" events. Even a weekly event book (like the terrible Millenium) could keep everything straight. But 8 issues is a far cry from the 52 Countdown is offering. A story CAN be planned out over 2 months, and each title's writer can be told (those 2 issues of your book have to tie in and this is the story outline). 52 issues can't be outlined that easily, and writers can't be expected to play along for an entire year without missing a step. An delay on any book will snafu the whole thing.

So ok, Countdown isn't simultaneous with all current books. What it's then doing is propagating a status quo that all titles must revert to by Countdown's end (or middle or wherever each should join up). See where editorial can make mistakes now? All over the place because it's just too complex an animal.

Making books late because the event book is late isn't any better (and even they screwed up with She-Hulk recently). Again, Civil War was way too long, and wasn't fair to any of the other titles. Longer series tend to stray from their outlines as reader feedback/sales can affect the story's progress... and then your other titles are making continuity gaffes.

Problems with the industry are playing off one another to create even more confusion. Chronic lateness + interminable mega-events + possibly editorial laxness = the problems you describe.

6:47 PM

 
Blogger Jon Hex said...

As far as the GA/BC wedding goes, the whole plot seems to be a rehash of the Society that came out of IC, but isn't the Society supposed to be still in existence? When did it disband? If a bunch of scrubs attack the wedding, does that really have anything to do with JLA?

I don't get annoyed with delays as some people seem to, but fill-in stories that suck out loud do annoy me. The fill-ins for Donnee/Johns Action Comics were great, but that Grotesk story for Batman was garbage. The Civil War specials that came out from the delay were obviously filler, so I knew to avoid them. Some of the planned specials sucked without a delay being responsible.

I am against having plot points being revealed by other books or in the case of World War Hulk, having people in other books carrying on as though WWH is over when there are two issues left.

8:15 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry to be late but i've been musing over the whole why Green Arrow went crazy thing. I believe it might have more to do with poision ivy's part of the plan than the a.l.e but who knows.

6:35 AM

 
Blogger Gyuss Baaltar said...

I don't know, is it really that big a deal? The great daddy of all these was Secret Wars, and that went well.

One month all the heroes dissappeared, the next month they were all back. Spidey had a new suit, hulk was in a cast and on crutches, She-hulk was in the Fantastic Four.

All these things were big reveals, but I was still happy to read the series and see how those changes all came about.

1:22 PM

 
Blogger Siskoid said...

Secret Wars did the One Year Later schtick, but at least it was self-contained, not crossing over for months on end. There was a "how'd we get there?" vibe to be sure, but a definite point of reference.

In the Sinestro Corps case cited above, there's no relationship between that story and Countdown per se, and in the middle of the story, BAM!, a spoiler about how it turns out.

Likewise, the wedding night twist seems to have undercut the interest in GA Year 1. I guess what I'm saying is that it's all pretty arbitrary, and that can be annoying.

7:53 PM

 
Blogger Rambo said...

I, too, am smackdab in the middle. It's gotta be the fanboy in me.

I hate it when some one gives away the ending of a movie or something to that effect while I'm engaged in it, but, the Kyle Rayner thing? The Injustice League being defeated? Those are things that you, or at the very least I, see coming a mile off. It's the nature of the beast as far as comics are concerned: everything comes back to status quo.

And I agree with John to a point. I just recently read the first Harry Potter. Now, I've watched most of the movies and I've seen a couple of the spoiler videos, so I know a lot of what's coming.* That being said, it doesn't stop the fact that I will now go and read books 2-7. I still want to have the experience of finding out how things happen and why certain characters end up doing what they do.

I guess it's just a matter of what's stronger: your desire get the whole story or your desire to be surprised as you get it.

*(Side Note: It takes a special kind of asshole to go to a bookstore, after having read through a book you don't like and documenting key plot points, specifically to ruin it for everyone there. What a douche.)

1:11 PM

 
Blogger Scipio said...

"Enjoy the Ride."

I agree with this commenter and his sentiments.

As much as I love the shared DCU, it's something that's more generated by individual stories than vice versa. The kinds of problems you've noted here? As a veteran DC comics reader, I haven't even noticed them.

This morning I read an old Metal Metal story, in which a blind boy regains his sight. Then it's discovered that the effect was only temporary, he is blind again, and everyone cries for the boy. This is then forgotten ON THE NEXT PAGE where the boy proudly demonstrates his newfound vision.

DC doesn't cling to the continuity blanket as tightly as Marvel, probably because it's older and more secure that its readers are into the characters themselves more than the story superstructure that accretes around them.

It all goes to the thesis that DC is myth (where continuity isn't the point) and Marvel is soap opera (where continuity is the point). Soap operas are about the surprise of what happens ("It was... my twin sister who faked her own death!") and Greek plays, where everyone already knows the outcome, are all about how and why it happens.

12:20 PM

 
Blogger Jake said...

I realise you may not want to, but remember the Crimson Fox? She DID pull a "It was my twin sister who faked her death!"

Sorry, I felt like being pedantic.

11:21 PM

 

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