Monday, November 26, 2012

The Watson Report: Change and Growth for Characters in Pulp and Comics

by I.A.  Watson

Stan Lee argued that comics required series not to change but to have the illusion of change.

I agree that might be the case for those series which are intended to be ongoing forever. Series like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man have publishing histories older than many of their readers. Most modern fans will not have read anything like the bulk of previous stories. Only the major milestones, like the death of Gwen Stacy, have filtered through the years to significantly impact on the canon. For the rest, the same problems in different guises recur again and again - secret identity conflicts, returning villains, supporting cast problems - and when they're done right they can still be entertaining.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Long before the rise of the comic book, the weekly periodical story filled much the same niche. In the UK, magazines like The Magnet (1908-1940, 1,683 issues) featured ongoing series with many similarities to the comic-book. The Magnet was notable for Frank Richards'  Greyfriars School stories, adventure yarns featuring the original "famous five" schoolboys and their comedy relief Billy Bunter, "the fat owl of the Remove" [that's the lower 4th form, the 14 year olds for those not from British public schools’ in the US they’d be 8th graders]. Frank Richards is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most prolific author. Richards produced about 100 million published words in his lifetime under a variety of pseudonyms (his actual name was Charles Hamilton). Amongst many other works, he turned out a 30,000 word Greyfriars novella a week for over thirty years, then continued his stories in novel form for twenty years more - and at the end of that time the schoolboys were still 14, still in the Remove, and still interacting in much the same way as they had before World War 1. Harry Wharton and his chums make Franklin Richards (from the Fantastic Four; no relation) look like a real fast grower.

Frank Richards knew that his audience was constantly turning over. His main readership was boys aged between eleven and sixteen, so every five years or so he had a virtually new audience for his tales. The details of the stories changed because they were always contemporary. When World War 1 started, the schoolboys fought sinister agents of the Kaiser. During World War 2 they thwarted Hitler's spies. Compare this with Iron Man's various exploits, from the much-revised war in which he was originally injured, once Korea, then Viet Nam, now Afghanistan, and from his early commie-busting adventures to his contemporary anti-terrorist exploits. Comics have traditionally had a similar expectation of a limited-duration audience and a readership turnover.

But the same thing happened with Greyfriars as happened with superhero comics: some readers grew up but continued to read. Later in Richards' career his readership balance changed, with adult fans of the series supporting his novel releases. A fan club even produced facsimile editions of the original Magnet issues - 100 volumes in all, with even the original advertisement pages lovingly replicated. Again, compare to the hardcover deluxe collector's editions of classic comics that we see now with a high price tag. Greyfriars fans revelled in trivia discussions and obsessed over continuity (which, if the eternal 15-year-old-ness is overlooked, is remarkably good, given that a single writer steered the series over fifty years). Adult comics fans likewise obsess over reconciling discontinuities between older obscure events and new information; comics fans are often better informed about the characters than modern writers.

Event-driven comics

 The never-changing nature of ongoing comics means that changes which were meant to be permanent once had a major impact. At first these were "imaginary stories" - imagine if Superman married Lois Lane and they had a Superbaby! Later, memorable events were enshrined in "continuity"; who can forget the paradigm-changing Wedding of Reed and Sue? Still later, probably around the time of Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths, publishers realised that "big events" - and big meant future-comics-changing - sold. "This issue - someone dies!" became the key to reviving flagging market sales. Later still, "going dark and gritty" - equated with "more realistic" through some very shoddy logic - was considered an effective creative choice.

In fact change became a necessary sales tool. "Why read this issue? Nothing changes?" has become a common criticism of some comics, and especially of crossover events. The escalation of shock and trauma required to produce a sensation amongst an increasingly blasé and cynical readership has lead to character deaths (and subsequent character resurrections), to infidelities, to new characters taking on the identities of older ones, to heroes turning evil, to rape, incest, and probably cannibalism. To be fair, the characters are only doing to each other what their publishers and hired creators are doing to them!

Yet even in these event-driven traumatic days for comics, the illusion of change is there more than the reality of change. Captain America died and got real-world news coverage - but he's back now. Same with Batman – but he returned as a franchise. Asgard was destroyed - but now its better. Some heroes that did bad things were actually Skrulls, or mind controlled, or did them on numbered Earths that have now been erased or merged. Bucky Barnes and Jason Todd are alive, albeit changed and darkened to "coolness". Reality gets altered by the Devil, or the Anti-Monitor, or John Byrne, or Mark Millar, or whatever terrible menace to our heroes' wellbeing sells comics this month. And the change was illusory.

This cycle of apparent change, of life and death and reshuffling the pieces on the board, of the most-terrible-ever return of the Joker or Doctor Doom or Magneto, works pretty well for those new readers in their five-year reading span who haven't seen the previous most-terrible-ever return (remember the Doom who wore a flesh-mask of his true love Valeria?). But for that large segment of adult fans with longer memories there is definite trauma-event fatigue. The illusion of change is worn too thin. Eventually the magic is gone.

I recall Kurt Busiek [Astro City, Avengers] reflecting once that writers should only make permanent changes if what they put in place is at least as robust as what they destroy. You want to kill off Nick Fury? Come up with someone at least as compelling to do his job. Maria Hill and G.W. Bridge need not apply. You want to marry off Peter Parker? You'd better have a damn good game plan for how that might work.

Most stories have natural conclusions. Comics are a modern iteration of old legends, and in most of the greatest legends the heroes reach an end; either they get the girl, settle down, and live happily ever after or else they have a heroic passing - c.f. Hercules, King Arthur, Robin Hood. One reason that married superheroes struggle to find engaging ongoing storylines is that in our culture we view marriage as the ending of the "adventure" period; what comes after is the reward, the settled time of enjoying love and children. So unless your series is about a family unit who face adventure (the Fantastic Four is the rare and best example) then your comic book is going to struggle once the hero and heroine have reached what we instinctively feel should be a rest point.

When comics allow events to progress in certain directions - marriage and death are two of them - then either they move towards a proper conclusion, or more likely they have to take extraordinary and usually incredible efforts to backtrack. The recent Spider-Man change and the rebooting of now-single Superman are good examples.