Monday, April 20, 2020

The Seven-Part Sequence

If you have ever enjoyed any of my "Week" posts (like the Green Arrow vs. The Pirates Week that precedes this post), you may have assumed that the number of posts in a "Week" is arbitrary, or simply chosen to match a seven-day sequence.

It's not.  It happens to coincide neatly with that, yes, and that is very convenient for me.  But, in fact, the underlying reason is how Golden Age stories (and often ones from later eras) tend to be structured: in seven parts.

0.          Splash Page
1. Act 1: first prep
2. Act 1: first encounter
3. Act 2: second prep(s)
4. Act 2: second encounter(s)
5. Act 3: final prep and encounter
6.         Denouement

That's the template for many a comic book tale.

0. The Splash Page

We number the Splash Page as "0" because it's technically not part of the story.

Remember, during the Golden Age, a comic book usually contained more than one story, sometimes many.  So the cover couldn't necessary be used to convey the information about any one particularly story within.  The cover was therefore often a generic representation of the contents of any one story:

More Fun Comics (1936-1947) #78
This scene does not appear in this comic.
WARNING: The comic contains Green Arrow. Do not read while operating heavy machinery.

Thus each story has its own individual inside cover: the splash page. The splash page is 'the cover of the DVD'. it tells you:

who the protagonist is (LOGO!),

what villain or challenger he will face (The Black Raider pirate ship!),

and shows you a literal or metaphorical drawing an example of the conflict between the two.
This scene DOES appear in this comic.

1. Act 1-- Prep for First Encounter.

The protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain or situation) are introduced separately. They are doing their Own Things; but they are usually aware of each other.

The villain is doing crimes, and in the process we learn his Methods and Motives.  For example, "This is Pirate Captain. He steals at sea using an old-style ship"

Method: a rakish robber-craft leaving flaming destruction in her grim wake.
Motive: mad dreams of lawless looting in the evil brain of the pirate chief.

or "I was a penny-ante crook but now PENNIES WILL BE MY CRIME SYMBOL."
Joseph Coyne | Headhunter's Holosuite Wiki | Fandom

If he is a villain we already know, we learn 'his new angle'. For example, the Joker is bored; something innocuous inspires him; "I shall commit crimes... IN REVERSE!"

Pictured: hysteron-proteron.

This is common in Golden Age Batman stories. It's how they kept Batman's rogue's gallery both fresh but consistent.  This is in contrast, to say, Dick Tracy storylines, where the villain gets one schtick, one story, and then dies.  Badly. Like the one who got eaten by rats.

"It's what I do."

During the Prep for the first encounter the villain is probably not planning on an encounter with the hero and is, ideally, currently avoiding it. This, of course, may not be true of a returning foe, such as the Golden Age's greatest villain and ultimate evil clown,

Adventure 113 – Green Arrow vs Bull's-eye | Babblings about DC Comics

Bull's-Eye (a.k.a. Leapo The Clown).

During the Prep for First Encounter, the hero, meanwhile, is doing one of two things;

chilling in their private life

If the hero is Green Arrow,
"chilling" is always done while sitting.

or patrolling/stopping basic crimes.

This is before the first encounter with archfiend
Cousin Jane and her weapon, Junior the Bad Baby.

The earlier a story is, the more likely the hero is chilling.  Golden Age heroes hung around in sportcoats and smoking jackets a lot.

Learning about the villain's crimes in the news,

Pictured: the Golden Age news medium of "wuxtry".

hearing about them from Mr. Authority Figure,

"Then maybe we can pop into Ikea on the way back and get you a normal lamp."

or getting wind of something through Society Connections or a Personal Experience.

Pictured: a personal experience.

This is because in the Golden Age, heroes were less likely to be portrayed like policemen who go on patrol.  They were usually portrayed more like fireman; they trained to assist when an unusual "crime fire" broke out.  This is why the Golden Age Justice Society hang out around their big round table having milk and cookies, but the Bronze Age Justice League has members with godlike powers sitting in a satellite on monitor duty.

Because of his close relationship with the police, Batman was on the cutting edge of the idea that a hero would "patrol" his city.

Even if only to get out of the house.

This why his stories often open with him stopping some crime unrelated to the main villain; so often, that this trope is named "The Batman Cold Open."

In any case, either the hero makes the decision to tackle the villain / investigate the situation

"But when we do... I will be wearing THE most fabulous cape."

or circumstances throw them together,

"Post card"; just google it.

which brings us to the next stage.

2.  The First Encounter

The hero deals with the encounter per usual, but 'per usual' doesn't work. because of this villain's methods or motives.

Joseph Coyne (New Earth)/Gallery | DC Database | Fandom
"No one has ever just THROWN something at me before!"

The hero is caught unawares and the villain gets away (with or without accomplishing his goal; that doesn't really matter).  This is the end of Act 1.

3.  Prep for the Second Encounter(s)

During stage 3, we separately see both the hero and villain take stock of the situation again after their first encounter:

"Two-face let the hostages go?"
"The Joker had the flowers rigged!"
"The Catwoman was there in disguise all along!"
"It seems our thief has pennies, on the brain, eh?" 
"...Well, NOW we know what to expect next time."

Armed with this new knowledge, the heroes feel better prepared for the next encounter, sometimes preparing countermeasures; "next time we'll be on the lookout for that, with our bat-copper-alloy-repellant!"

Or sometimes they set up a lure for the villain so they can control the time and place of the second encounter:

"We'll place a fake story in the newspaper about the Van Landorpf emerald that Penguin can't resist!"

Thought I made that up, didn't you?

The villain does the same. "oh-ho! Batman's on my trail, is he? Well, wait till he see what I have in store for him!"

4. The Second Encounter(s)

In the Second Encounter,  the hero and/or villain employ countermeasures developed as a result of the First Encounter.

Pictured: countermeasures.

Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.  They do not result in the villain being captured;  BUT they sometimes result in the hero getting captured.


Depending on how many pages the creators have to fill, there may be more than one 'second encounter'.  The second encounter can be dragged out easily because it's the battle of wits between the hero and the villain, just as long as the outcome is slightly different each time.

"You'll kick my ass in a completely different way this time!"

For example:

  • First Encounter: Villain gets away with loot.
  • Second Encounter A: Hero countermeasures work; villain loses loot but gets away.
  • Second Encounter B: Villain countermeasure works; the hero is captured. or the villain gets away with the loot.

This is how the hero winds up in a death trap which the villain doesn't stick around to monitor.  The villain's real goals (loot, revenge, etc.) are elsewhere. Killing the hero was never the goal; the hero is just an impediment to the villains' real goals.

What could possibly go wrong?
It's not like you can make a telephone out of two pennies and a box of spices!

5.  Act 3 -- The Final Encounter.

In Act 3, the action is accelerated. Sometimes there is no prep and the hero's countermeasures finally work; or the villain does not prep because they don't expect the hero to escape capture, and a result, the villain is defeated.

The Giant Penny and the Penny Plunderer: the enduring legacy of a ...

Or dies.

Bull's-Eye pulling an undignified but effective exit.

The Joker, ALWAYS copying Bull's-Eye. Sad.

Often in some ironic way.

Hail. And farewell.

6.  The Denouement.

This brief ending is the bookend to the Splash page, and accomplishes the return to normal status.  We see the hero pondering whether the villain is dead.  Or we see the villain going to or in jail.

Hat and all.

Or the heroes discuss the outcome with Mr. Authority Figure, or among themselves back in the domestic setting.

Shut up, Ollie; you are no Adam West.

"If only he hadn't done X!"
"I guess that the end of him."
"It'll be a long time before we see him again!"
"That's what you get for doing crimes."
"Boy, I need a rest after that!"
"I am happy that's over with!"
And those are the seven sections of a regular Golden Age story (and many that follow in later ages):

  • 0. Splash Page
  • 1. Prep for first encounter
  • 2. First encounter
  • 3. Prep for second encounter
  • 4. Second encounter(s)
  • 5. Final Encounter
  • 6. Denouement.


Yes! said...

This arrangement of story beats seems to have persevered, even unto tv shows (Batman 66, Arrow). I can remember timing Smallville story sections down to the minute, commercial breaks and page turns both reinforce the format.

Do team stories follow this at all? Thinking of World's Finest and Justice Society specifically.

The story format seems to help explain the phenomena of detective and/or inventor protagonists even when those character traits are in tension with other aspects of the character. A new gadget fills the heroic countermeasure role quite well. Even non-inventor heroes tend to have a side kick or paradise island from which to rely.

John C said...

I have to wonder why the early cartoons, under similar space restrictions (six minutes) and usually introducing thumbnails of new ideas, didn't follow a similar format. Seems like they were much more likely to blow a lot of time laying out the villain's plan (instead of streamlining it) to the point that the "three acts" of the story are typically just one encounter.

Also, I like that the Joker's plan doesn't warrant a "this is brilliant and I'll finally get what I want" so much as a "ummm...yeah, sure, let's just get this story moving." And Detective Tracy doesn't even ask if the kid's father is a criminal; he apparently just goes around murdering fathers in the name of the law.

Bryan L said...

Y'know, I'd never really thought about deathtraps as delaying measures, rather than a serious attempt to kill the hero. They make a lot more sense that way -- "Look, I need to get to my next crime, so I'm outta here. This should keep you busy for a while. If it kills you, fine. If it doesn't, eh, tomorrow's another day."

It much more effectively explains the whole "leaving the heroes while they escape" business, rather than just shooting them.

Anonymous said...

Bryan L - I'm the same way, I never thought of the death trap as a mere getaway tactic. Scipio explains it all!

cybrid said...

Under what circumstances did Dick Tracy kill young Mr. Moto's father?

Scipio said...

Don't you mean "Joe Jitsu"...? :-)

Andrew said...

This is why I love the Absorbascon - come for the dry wit, stay for the incisive literary analysis!