Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Illusion of Change -- The Comics and Pulp Conundrun

In comics and pulp stories, the marketability tends to be in the characters remaining the same, i.e. Batman is Bruce Wayne, The Phantom doesn't lose an arm, Spider-Man remains hapless and downtrodden, Doc Savage doesn't die and pass the name onto an adopted circus acrobat, etc. So, in light of that, we sought out some of the top comics and pulp writers to find out what they had to say about that very thing.

How do you keep characters interesting when you can't provide significant growth and change to let them adapt and mature?

Joe Gentile: I am of the school that likes to keep most of the character intact. We like these characters for a reason, so we see no real need for an overhaul. We want old and new readers of course. What we try to do sometimes is add some "bits' the characters when appropriate. We want to try to make the characters more 3D by personality. And sometimes, we will tweak an ability or skill to help the character stand out more from the pack. Plus, for good measure, we will give some dimension to the supporting cast as well. So, we like to add more than subtrac t... as long as it keeps the integrity of the character.

Erik Burnham: Show them something they haven't seen before and reveal their reactions. ...Or kill them. Hey, they could get better.

Mike Baron: In the case of the Badger, we're rebooting the whole thing.  Since many Badger stories deal in magical realism, this isn't a problem.  Badger readers have learned to expect the unexpected--guest appearances by Elvis, Charles Mingus, Warren Oates and W.C. Fields are common.  Ham is a powerful wizard and brings magic into play.  Since we are debuting Badger to an entirely new generation of readers, Badger is now an Afghani war veteran.  The classic elements remain: his brutal treatment at the hands of his step-father Larry, and all the old characters will reappear but in surprising new roles.

In the case of Nexus, we are merely sticking to the time line.  All readers need to know is that he is a cosmic executioner driven by his dreams to find and destroy mass murderers.  But now he is married and has a son.  It helps that the entire Nexus canon is available from Dark Horse in a series of hardbound volumes and now in a new cheaper omnibus format.

In the case of Batman, there have been so many stories, so many different takes--let's face it.  People who insist on seeing Batman as a real person and embrace his entire history have to realize he would have to be about a hundred Batmans to get them all in.  Comic books are escapism.  The best fiction is escapism.  But in order for us to fully enter into the escape we must believe it's real.  So a story's premise must fit comfortably within the character's personality.  Or within the personality's character.  People will not accept Batman as a callous killer.

I.A. Watson: This depends on the initial character concept. If it's a Harry Potter-type neophyte growing up then it's very hard. There are only so many life lessons to learn. But suppose the character is already fully formed, like Sherlock Holmes; then the fun comes from putting them into new situations and seeing how people react to them. We don;t need Sherlock to discover compassion or tact. We just want to see what happens when he encounters the French ambassador or the self-proclaimed king of thieves.

Lee Houston, Jr.: By developing interesting characters to begin with. After all, just what is it that keeps readers coming back to The Shadow, Spider-man, etc; and not one of the endless zillions of clonish knockoffs?

Jourel Freeman: This exact same question is one that haunts me daily. I feel that to establish a character heavily within a story, readers prefer to have that deep-seeded relationship with serial characters, and so it's best to keep characters consistent for a while. This way, so much can be absorbed before any major chance can be made.

Greg Glick: You put them in interesting plots or locales (James Bond is always a womanizer, it's where he is and who he's up against this time and how he's gonna defeat him that makes it interesting.  And who he's gonna bang this time, without the gun. ;)    In characters meant to adventure forever, you intertwine plot and character.

There's also the fact that, for the most part, many heroes are ALREADY presented as the peak of moral and ethical perfection in their little worlds (such as Superman and Doc Savage) when the adventures BEGIN.  There's no ROOM to grow.  How does a god grow into  a better god?  The Spider may be crazy in our world, but in his he's clearly presented as the most clear-thinking character around:  only HE can take care of the problem, and he knows it.

Marvin Cheveallier: I create a new challenge that will either require another way to take care of the situation outside of what the reader is use to. Sometimes making it hard enough that the character may need a little help to overcome. That way it gives me a chance to put supporting character in the spotlight for a short time. After all, I don't want said character to be the only one with fans.

Why is it important that characters remain the same? Is it for new readers, old readers, or more maintaining the marketability of the property?

Mike Baron: As far as I'm concerned, the First Rule is to entertain,  I would never change the basic nature of my characters because they are what they are and I like them that way.  It's their concepts that intrigue people as well as the writing.  Back to Badger.  We have been going round and round on how to reboot the series and I have written story after story that would have fit seamlessly into the old continuity but did nothing to bring readers up to speed on who Badger is.  Therefore we decided to reboot the whole thing in such a way as to please original fans and excite new ones.  He's still a multiple personality.  I know that the shrinks decided that MPD doesn't exist but they will probably change their minds next week.  And again the week after that.  The workings of the human mind are always fascinating, and the Badger is about psychology as much as anything.  It is also about kung fu and unexpected humor.

Much of the appeal of classic characters is like slipping into a warm bath of anticipation.  We know the characters and it is their character, as well as the narrative voice that draws the reader through the story.  That's why we gobble up series books like Robert Crais' Elvis Cole stories.  We know and like Elvis and he always has exciting adventures.  We want to slip into that frame of heightened expectation.

Erik Burnham: Familiarity SELLS. That's why you'll see "From the Guy Who Did The Special Effects On Jurassic Park" on a movie as a selling point. A lot of people saw Jurassic Park, it had special effects, so... bam. A connection is made, and the movie is no longer 100% unfamiliar. Same with comic characters -- familiarity sells.

Yes, the argument can be made for change (to appease old readers -- like Spider-Man getting married as the audience ages, to name one gripe folks who didn't like that plot point made... or new readers -- see Kyle Rayner... or maintaining the marketability... bringing Tony Stark back from an a teenager to an adult.)

I dunno. I just like writing fun stories.

I.A. Watson: In some cases the situation is the appeal. Secret identity characters are fun because no-one knows that Don Diego del Vega is secretly a masked hero. We share the joke with him. Remember when Superman stories ended with him winking to the reader as Lois was baffled again? In other stories the presenting problem defines the series. If the rebels defeat the terrible dictator then the driver of that series is over. If our hero ever truly avengers the murder of his fiancee and finds true love again then the drama is done.

Of course, in many cases its because fans of older stories who now have turns as creators themselves want to write the character as they first fell in love with him, in the situation they best enjoyed his tales. Since many "accretions" to stories move characters away from the concept that first made them popular writers often feel justified in contriving a return to original circumstances or a reasonable facimile thereof.

Publishers get to cash in two ways. "Everything changes" sells. "Back to basics" sells later. Then everything can change again.

Greg Glick: Frankly, I'd say marketability.   For example, there was an episode of Star Trek: Next Generation in which a parallel universe was created where the Federation was at war with the Klingons.  Someone pointed out, in a real war, characters like Riker would be given their own commands and starships, and wouldn't be serving on the Enterprise.  But fans want to keep seeing their heroes even if it doesn't make sense.  If a favorite character vanishes, the ratings go down.  Same with presenting character "relationships."  As long as Ross and Rachel are dancing around each other sexually, the ratings hold and profits continue.  The moment they "get together" or permanently don't, the reason for their existence is done--and so is their marketability.

Marvin Cheveallier: Most readers don't like major change to the story they already love. I think some writers fear that they may chase off some readers as well because the character went an unexpected direction for them. Other fans my see it as an improvement so it is a gamble for the writer. I don't fear such a change as it is my story and I enjoy the drama. Readers will just have to expect that of me, however there are still some character that I just love the part they play and wouldn't want to change them for any reason as they offer me too many doors in the story that I could open.

Lee Houston, Jr.: Basically, all of the above. Old readers get used to the writer(s) maintaining somewhat of a status quo, which gets new readers curious as to what is going on, and gives the marketeers selling points they can rely on from one new release to the next.

Si Mon: To see how marketability can be sustained while constantly developing characters, we only need to look at some of the comics from Japan, such as Dragonball, One Piece and Naruto. All of these have seen their protagonists grow from childhood into adulthood, their characters, relationships and abilities constantly evolving. All of them have also been phenomenally successful. The inability of Marvel and DC to move away from maintaining the status quo and allow their characters to change just shows what tired old dinosaurs these companies are. Interestingly, having said that, both Marvel and DC have enjoyed a massive amount of revenue from films such as the Batman and Spiderman series, which have been immense levy successful. one of the coon characteristics of these films is that their stories have been built around the development and growth of the central characters. Not one of them has left their protagonist as we found them.

Jourel Freeman: I look at how Avengers characters are seemingly ageless while we've seen the X-Men grow up from teens to militants and so on. This shows both how much it matters and how much it doesn't. It even shows both trends can co-exist in one continuous world. I guess the art lies in when and where to contort the time to where the story flows at a pace that keeps old and new readers going, while introducing new elements into the mix so that change can be mad more dynamically.

How do you know you've gone to far when writing a character that shouldn't change significantly? When do you go beyond what Stan Lee called the "illusion of change"?

Mike Baron: I trust my ear to tell me.  I read and re-read what I've written.  I ask myself, if I were telling this story to someone in a bar, would they follow me?  That's why it's important not to jump the shark.

Erik Burnham: If someone has to do a lot of work to either ignore or rewrite what I've done, I may have gone too far. Arguably.

Greg Glick: At the core of each character is a certain "soul", if you will, that cannot be bent.  Sometimes it is hard to define, but it is there.  And when it is broken, you know.  Usually by having a character do something you as reader know instinctively he would never do.  SPider Man selling his marriage to a demon is an example.  The Elongated Man losing his wife in an attempt to "darken" the character is another.  EM is, and has always been, light-hearted in nature, and to try and blacken him up violates him.

Marvin Cheveallier: When I get a lot of hate mail.

Lee Houston, Jr.: The obvious points would be by killing or altering the character in some drastic way, like giving him/her a new costume or sidekick.The illusion of change would be things like a temporary depowering or growing a mustache, or changing hair color if they had to go somewhere in disguise.

Jourel Freeman: The challenge for me would be HOW the continuity will work in the beginning, i.e., if in the beginning I want to create a world where superheroes have been around for, say, 25 years, and now you have to create the FEEL of an established world, and start from there.

I.A. Watson: Some situations break the paradigm. Once Peter Parker is happy, rich, married, his secret known and he publicly feted for his heroism, the distinctive things that made the Spider-Man series what is was are gone.

I'd like to give a special mention to those character-destroying storylines that pollute a hero forever after, requiring more radical rebooting than is usually credible. Green Lantern committing genocide, Iron Man's actions during Marvel's Civil War, any character that turns to murder, torture, or rape, become more or less lost causes unless its proven that it wasn't really them.

Kurt Busiek reflected once that writers should only make permanent changes if what they put in place is at least as robust as what they destroy. Do you agree? How can you know you're doing it right?

Erik Burnham: I do agree. And I figure I'm doing it right if there's no lightning from the heavens striking me down.

Mike Baron: Kurt is right.  Every writer must write to please himself first and foremost.  If I don't entertain myself I will not entertain others.

Greg Glick: Agreed -- but darned if I know how I would know I was doing it right!  The fans would have to tell me!

Lee Houston, Jr.: I totally agree with Kurt Busiek, although it should be the readers who ultimately decide if the changes are correct and not some editorial or boardroom committee.

With all that said, characters need to grow and expand as much as they can within their adventures, for their readers are certainly not exactly the same from one day to the next. Being an avid reader for decades now, I could definitely talk about this subject for more than just a few quick answers to this roundtable, but we would need the proper forum than just a brief Q&A to cover this adequately.

Jourel Freeman: I agree that a major change should be the catylyst to more change. Not in the way Marvel has been doing it for the past 10 years (Civil War, Secret Invasion, Messiah Complex, etc.), but in terms that show growth in both the story and the involving characters. Showing how major elements effect a story/character(s) is always a good way to go in my book (no pun intended) . The way you see if it is right for you is "Listen to the character." The readers may hate the direction you're taking a character, but one never knows how far you can turn a character inside-out and make a whole new direction out of pushing the limits.

Marvin Cheveallier: I fully agree. I really don't think one knows if they are doing it right until they get feedback. I think one way of knowing you have it right it is you have plans of reverting that character or presenting the change as an imposter or some kind of mental problem (or possessed) that gets resolved later. Now if that character is only getting stronger that is another story. However as a writer I think one has to be careful of not making characters too strong as it makes writing harder in the future. It is hard to create drama and clashing if a character can destroy anything with a snap of his fingers. You then take away your links to making it interesting.

I.A. Watson: It's a long time ago now, but I recall Busiek illustrating this by describing his proposal for a new Spider-Man series after the Ben Riley Spider-Clone debacle. It wasn't picked up. John Byrne was hired to do a run instead, starting with a modified Year One origin series that explained why Norman Osborn and Flint Marko had the same hairstyle.

I apologise if I'm grossly caricaturing Busiek's actual pitch; I'm reportng this from long memory. At that time, (as best I recall) Aunt May was dead, MJ had divorced Peter after he'd hit her (or was thought dead, I forget which), and Parker had been missing for some time. Busiek's plotline had JJJ discovering a badly-beaten Peter in circumstances that had Jonah decide to take care of the boy, perhaps even adopting him. JJJ effectively took over the Aunt May role, becoming as attached to Peter as he hated Spidey. Peter got a new flat, though he had some trouble with his landlord and occasional friend Flash Thompson. I think there was a Stacy cousin in there too to add some romantic tension. Effectively, Busiek found new relationship links to replace many that had been burned away by some poor storytelling choices beforehand. That seems to me to be a fair representation of moving things on while respecing the fundamental concepts of the series.

An actual example of such a change "done right" might be Justice League headquarters. After Mount Justice came the JLA satellite, then the embassy phase, and then the Watchtower. Let's try and forget Detroit. Each base fed a different kind of story for a different kind of team, but each felt right for its era. Another substitution that worked back in the Michelnie-era Iron Man period was the replacement of the relatively one-dimensional Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts with James Rhodes and Bethany McCabe (and the wonderfully fierce PA Mrs Arbogast). Rhodey and Beth brought rather more to the party than their predecessors and were key parts of that excellent run.