Some Thoughts on Comic Books and Serial Storytelling

A few months ago, I wrote a review of The Dark Night where I made the observation that comic books and movies had been growing closer over the past couple of decades:

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"The Dark Knight" - graphic inspiration for Nolan's take
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"The Dark Knight" - the movie

The development of the superhero movie genre has been fascinating to watch. Over the past couple of decades, comics have become more cinematic and sophisticated and adult, leaving the preteen audience behind to focus on college readers and adult collectors. At the same time, movie blockbusters have become more juvenile and franchise oriented, while on the production side they have adopted technologies that allow them to replicate the kinds of images and action spectacle previously only possible on the page. In retrospect, the superhero movie blockbuster seems like an inevitable meeting of storytelling forms. What makes it so interesting is the way the genre has been attracting some of the most talented and cinematically enthusiastic directors: Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, Sam Raimi, and now Christopher Nolan.”

It’s clear that the dark visions of Frank Miller’s take on the Batman had a tremendous influence on the movies, visually and thematically, though I would argue that Batman: Year One is an even greater influence than the more celebrated The Dark Knight Returns.

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Once this was the only kind of show open to comic-book writers

There is, however, a major storytelling difference: comics are (with exceptions) a serial format. Movies are (for the most part) self contained. Sure, there is the increasing franchise aspect to blockbusters, but even then it’s a wait of a couple of years between. In that aspect, comics are closer to TV storytelling, especially with the increase in long-running story arcs in such shows as Lost and Heroes. There, too, you can see the two formats borrowing from one another, not just in the conventions but in the increased crossover in writers.

Back in the seventies, it was almost impossible for a comics scribe (and I mean specifically superhero comics) to make the leap to television (apart from animated superhero shows) or screenwriting. When they did (like Roy Thomas on Fire and Ice and Conan the Destroyer) the results were invariably awkward and cartoonish. Gerry Conway, longtime Marvel writer (among his claims to fame: the Death of Gwen Stacy and the creation of The Punisher, both in The Amazing Spider-Man), quietly made the transition from animated kid shows to TV mysteries and cop shows and has since become a producer on such shows as Diagnosis: Murder and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but he’s an exception to the rule.

Or rather, he was an exception. In the last decade, the barriers between the media became much more porous, and not just on the genre shows like Hercules and Xena and Mutant X. Jeph Loeb (Batman: The Long Halloween and Spider-Man: Blue, among other notable work) is a writer and producer on Heroes. Brian K. Vaughn (Runaways) is a writer on Lost. Frank Miller retreated from his first Hollywood experience (Robocop 2) to concentrate on comics, only to return and become a director in his own right, following Sin City with his take on Will Eisner’s The Spirit (due this Christmas).

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And it works the other way, too. J. Michael Straczynski (longtime TV writer and producer, and creator of Babylon 5 and Jeremiah) created the self-contained mini-series Rising Stars and Midnight Nation for Top Cow and reworked the Squadron Supreme as Supreme Power for Marvel Comics, as well as taking over The Fantastic Four and revitalizing The Amazing Spider-Man in a tremendous six-year run on the title. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon not only brought the Buffy-verse to comics, he scripted a marvelous two-year run on The X-Men. Comic book fan Kevin Smith quite famously scripted a run of Daredevil, as did Bob Gale (Back to the Future).

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Buffy Season 8 - only in comics

This is all simply a long preamble to something that’s become increasingly clear in hindsight: the long-running serial format of comics offers challenges different from TV serials. “Spider-Man” has been running (often in multiple titles) for 45 years. “Batman” has been running for almost 70. Compare that to Straczynski’s five-year run of Babylon 5. TV shows like E.R. or Law & Order which soldier on after more than a decade do so by cycling through new casts and characters (there’s not a single original cast member from the first season of Law & Order) while preserving the dramatic format. It’s the structure and milieu that provides the continuity. Could you imagine coming up with new storylines for the same characters twelve years out, let alone twenty?

(Sure, Gunsmoke ran for over 20 years, but those characters remained static to the end, with nary a continuing subplot to threaten any kind of dramatic change to the characters or their relationships.)

For comics, options are limited: stand-alone stories where nothing dramatic changes, let alone evolves (think The Simpsons and the eternal adolescence of Bart and Lisa) or adventures set within long-running narratives where characters age and relationships evolve. The former was the template for all comics before the sixties. The latter development was largely inaugurated by Stan Lee and his collaborators at Marvel in the sixties, and honed over the course of the next decades. Peter Parker did, in fact, graduate high school and go to college and even get married. Reed Richards and Sue Storm married and raised a child. Tony Stark hit the bottle and bottomed out as an alcoholic.

Both approaches have their challenges. The former is dramatically limited and can get stagnant. The latter can get lost in its own complications and makes it hard for new audiences to drop in a title (a real concern when a title runs for decades). Fans, who can be very vocal about dramatic changes to a beloved character, resist a title reboot (Marvel has found an interesting solution in the “Ultimate” titles, which creates a whole new universe with characters starting fresh in a modern context and stories that are not beholden to the established narrative history), and there is always the problem of keeping track of the comic book universe in which the stories are set.

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Spidey unmasked

J. Michael Straczynski’s six year run on The Amazing Spider-Man (like the Bendis-Maleev four-year-plus Daredevil run, or the Grant Morrison run on New X-Men from 2001-2004) is one solution to the problem: remain true to the character while establishing a distinct storyline that refreshes characters and conflicts and redefines their place in the (comics) universe. (I write about his run on my blog here.)

Straczynski was helming the story when Marvel unleashed its universe-wide “Civil War” and was faced with a major, identity-shifting narrative storyquake – the unmasking of Spider-Man – that, for long-term purposes, he was forced to find a way out of. And that’s really the challenge of the serial format. The characters need to be refreshed, their conflicts redefined, their stories shaken up to keep the series from becoming redundant and stagnant, to keep older readers interest and attract new readers. At the same time, you have a mythology to follow and a personality to maintain. The latter doesn’t leave much room for the former, and creative writers can often bristle when faced with such restrictions. The more prominent the character, the more the restrictions.

Straczynski’s approach made for a dynamic and thrilling storyline, but Spider-Man’s identity revealed and Peter Parker hiding in the shadows is interesting because it’s an anomaly. For the long run, Straczynski had to get him back into the world, back into the social swing, so Parker could be Parker, and Spider-Man back as the wise-cracking, friendly neighborhood webslinger. His solution may be controversial but there’s nothing glib in the way Straczynski handles Parker’s literal deal with the devil, and he sets up title for future writers to take it in dramatically interesting places. Here’s hoping they manage to be even half as interesting as Straczynski was.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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