Wednesday, April 13, 2011

More History Lessons!

Jim Shooter:  Writer.  Creator.  Large Mammal.

If yesterday's review of Back Issue whet your appetite for comics history, Jim Shooter's blog is a nice supplement to that.  It seems to be updated daily, and currently focused on non currents events like memories of Jack Kirby's missing art, the birth of Secret Wars, and right this moment he's covering writing tips from the Old Masters.

According to Shooter, (as passed down from the sages of old) storytelling is composed of three parts:

  • What it was
  • What happened
  • How it came out

It seems overly reductive at first blush, but honestly, I have a hard time poking holes in it.  The old Campbellian Hero's Journey still has some cache I believe, and it follows that basic path.  It gets more complex in that the hero will initially resist moving to the "what happened" part, and there are very specific archetypes that assist and resist the main character along the way.  But yeah, that pretty much boils down storytelling about as far as it can go.

And I think that formula makes it easy to see where and why modern comics fail to find traction.  Continuity issues are murder on "what it was", aren't they?  Tie your X-Men thread into 30+ years of convoluted soap operatic history, and it's tough to get a handle on what exactly it was after all.  There's nothing wrong with having 30+ years of convoluted history, particularly if much of it is good fun, by the way.  There's nothing wrong with it, but the further you go, the more difficult it becomes to engage the reader with the first third of storytelling.

How it came out is completely sterilized by status quo storytelling.  Shadowland, I'm thinking of you, kid.  Daredevil goes ape shit, starts committing murder, takes over a chunk of NY and his friends have to figure out what to do with him?  That could have been a story, folks!

But because we know beforehand that "how it comes out" is pretty much exactly "what it was", the entire storytelling process is subverted.  So because the Big 2 will simply not allow themselves a real How It Came Out, they make Matt Murdock possessed by a lame and disposable evil spirit, Hell's Kitchen looks exactly as it does when the whole thing started, and we all know before the inevitable that Murdock's friends will accept him back after a little bit of moping.

Essentially what Marvel and DC have done is completely demolish 2/3 of what makes a story before you ever crack the cover, and the only thing we're left with is how deftly they execute the What Happened.  Most aren't sure what they were looking at in the first place, the rest know that nothing will ever change whatever that "was" was, and the best you can hope for is that your favorite creators gets a 9 from the judges on their ability to tread water, because nobody is really going anywhere.

Kinda sad.  Why do I love these things again?  Yeesh!

On a happier note, I think that very simple formula shows the way back.  Pare some reliance on backstory and have a little balls and let things change a bit, would you?  Seems doable.  Listen, guys, there's only 14 of us reading these things right now any way.  Whatever you drop into the comics, I can promise you it won't affect your action figure or movie ticket numbers.  Nobody is watching.  Let it rip!

So that's that.  If you're interested in learning about how a 13 year old freelance writer for DC ended up ruling Marvel comics, hey, Jim Shooter's blog.  He's telling those stories, daily.  He was in the middle of a lot of comics history.  Not everybody subscribes to Jim's version of certain events, and that's fine.  His version is pretty damn interesting.

- Ryan

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