Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Stakes of a Story: What's Wrong with the Current Curators of the DC Universe

A response I wrote to a good column from

One of my biggest problems with the current curators of the DCU is that they have failed to grasp a basic concept of fiction writing: the stakes are as high as you make them. Consider much of 20th Century short fiction (Hemingway, Faulkner, Oates, Carver, Updike, etc.): in many of these stories, a single decision by a character has far-reaching implications for that character’s life. In many cases, no one dies. Maybe someone loses a job, or a fish, or whatever. But in that story, what the character loses or wins are the stakes of the story.

In “classic” comics (Golden, Silver, or Bronze Age stories) – and in things like Timmverse stories – the stakes vary from episode to episode. While there might be a MacGuffin of world-ending proportions, the stakes of the individual episode or issue were often character-related. Spider-Man needs to stop the Vulture before his date with Gwen or she’s breaking up with him. Superman needs to stop the Toyman without revealing his secret identity to Lois. Batman needs to solve the mystery before midnight or an innocent man goes to the gas chamber. The Vulture, the Toyman, and the mystery of the month aren’t threatening enough to the respective heroes to make us worry about the heroes’ safety most of the time. But if we care about the characters, then the stakes of that particular story are enough to make us care about what will be won or lost.

DiDio and Johns, in particular, seem to believe that the only stakes ever are life, death, or dignity, and that only the life, death, or dignity of a named character matter. That random dude on the street? Shoot him in the head; who cares? That lady in the corner of the bar? Have a villain – or a hero! – rape her; who cares? But if it’s Ted Kord who’s shot, or Sue Dibny who’s raped, then it’s a named-character’s death or dignity at stake. And they can’t even give the heroes a chance to save that character most of the time. All heroes fight for these days is revenge.

The problem? If the stakes are consistently raised to that level, then to raise them for an “event” or “major story” requires mass murder, mass rape, mass destruction, or all three. More named characters have to die to give the story “importance” and “gravity.” And suddenly no story has importance or gravity, because everyone comes back from the dead. Every story is the most important. The stakes are always the same. That’s boring.

(In addition, it’s wasteful. John Seavey wrote an insightful essay on this years ago talking about how the Dibnys’ “story engine” was destroyed to give a little more “oomph” to Identity Crisis. Now IC is long-done, but the Dibnys are destroyed forever. No more light-hearted mysteries (which don’t fit with the current life-death-dignity stakes) because Meltzer needed a named-character to assassinate. Never mind that it effectively took Doctor Light off the board for the foreseeable future.)
And that’s why today’s comics just don’t work for me in many ways.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Superman, Batman, and Modern Comics

I realize this hardly qualifies as a post, but I'm kind of a big fan of what I'd call "authentic" experiences: things that really happened, happened naturally, and that illuminate some truth (large or small).  This truth is small, but here it is:

Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett's run with Superboy in Adventures of Superman back in the mid-90's sure started off with a bang.  In a nearly perfect first issue, they introduce a few new characters and set up an entire story-engine. 

I went to my local comic store today and my kids and I raided the quarter bins for something for my three-year-old son to look at and tear apart.  We left the store with several DC books from the mid-90's:  Robin II #1, Superman something or other ("Massacre in Metropolis" is the cover blurb), Adventures of Superman #501, and Batman Adventures #9.  During a lull in the chaos of two children, I read the Adventures of Superman issue, and I genuinely enjoyed it.  It didn't blow me away the way, say, Miracleman did/does, but it was almost impossible not to read the whole issue.  The story and art were both clean, serviceable, and entertaining.  By "clean" here, I mean that they were both accessible to someone who hadn't read the preceding stories in ten+ years, they both left me wanting to pull out the next issue, and both still satisfied me that I'd gotten a "whole story" even though it continued into the next issue.  In other words, the story had a wrapped-up A-plot and several continuing B-plots, while the art let me see Superboy, gave me dynamic shots of him, but also told the story clearly.

Now, to be fair, the "Massacre" issue of Superman seemed dull and pointless in comparison.  At the same time, at least my children can read the issue without having nightmares about decapitated heads or asking me uncomfortable questions.

I didn't bother with Robin II, as that mini-series' hideous multi-cover over-printing is still a sore-spot with me, and I paged through Batman Adventures simply to admire the art of Mike Parobeck, but by that time my children required attention, so I left them.

As I think about all of the New 52 issues and series that seemed interesting enough to try (few) and those with which I've stuck (far between) and those I'd let my children read (none), I miss those sweet-spot comics like Adventures of Superman #501:  truly entertaining for all ages.  Where have they gone?