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.