Friday, June 11, 2021

The Long Game

I believe I know who is responsible for decompression in DCU storytelling.

In recent conversation, a friend and I were marveling at a paradox in the creation and consumption of modern entertainment.  It's supposed to be common knowledge and  unquestioned wisdom that "our average attention span has grown shorter and shorter." TikTok, Twitter, and memes, those repositories of contemporary sententiae, are proof of our current desire for 'fun-sized' infotainment.  We consume popular culture byte by byte at a buffet, rather than ordering a several-course meal from a menu.

Yet, at the same time, our entertainment formats are increasingly long-form.  Television used to be primarily, if not entirely, episodic; shows were written to be watched in any order.  Nowadays series are much more, well, serialized.  Not only is there an order the episodes are to expected to be watched in, but there is one or many overarching storylines that will be ruined if you do otherwise.  Cinema, formerly composed of individual films, is now composed of franchises and universes.  

Once upon a time, television teemed with variety shows (like Sonny & Cher Hour of The Carol Burnett Show or the Ed Sullivan Show).  What kind of people watch AN HOUR of Sonny & Cher? EVERY WEEK?!

 I bet you can't last ten minutes.  

Trapped people, that's who; there were only three networks, after all; at any point in the evening you had only three choices of what to watch, and, boy, did the networks take advantage of that fact.  Late night shows still have embedded vestiges of that era; could anything be more objectively incongruous than the musical guest spots in sketch show Saturday Night Live?

Similarly, vignette shows (like Love, American Style, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island) used to rule the small screen, like on-air retirement communities for faded and secondary stars.  Whitman used to make SAMPLERS, for heaven's sake.

All those are gone (except for SNL); even Sabado Gigante was cancelled. 

I would have imagined such entertainment as immune to time.

So, too, comic books.  Originally, comic books were full of, um, comics. Comic strips, that is, reproduced from newspapers.  These books were also variety shows; one book would contain features with wildly different tones and styles.  Those were the days of broadcasting; entertainment was designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, since everyone was vying for the same audience (unlike today, where the world of on-demand entertainment fosters "narrowcasting" to niche audiences).  

Even the Justice Society was a variety show. Most modern comic books readers think of the Justice Society as a 'team', which shows only that they've never actually read a Golden Age Justice Society comic book, which was as anthology series of different heroes having different adventures in different styles of art and writing, with a wraparound plot summed up by Captain Stubing and Mister Rourke. 

Or something like that.

I've been reading the early adventures of Doll Man lately (as you may have noticed) and they take place in something literally called "Feature Comics".

This month's special guest star: DEATH.

Here's a SAMPLER of the kinds of co-stars in "Feature Comics":

At home activity: kids, arrange these characters in order of gay joke potential!

If you want to sleep tonight, do not think of Blimpy.

It's hard to believe those characters were in the same comic where Baby Groot tried to rape Doll Man.

Over time, the new longer-form features (usually costumed crimefighters) created to flesh out these anthology books started to push out the comic strip style features.  "Comics" became "superheroes", with a main story and maybe a back-up feature (of another, less popular, superhero, like Green Arrow), until back-up features were also pushed out.  

As mainstream superheroes expanded to squeeze out their smaller co-stars, they took over their original books (such as Action, Detective, and Sensation), then got their own titles (such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman), then started to take over other titles (such as Brave & The Bold) and sometimes generating their OWN PERSONAL anthology titles (such as Batman Family and Superman Family).  

After that, their STORYLINES expanded beyond one-and-dones, into two-parters, then three-parters, until "arcs" became a thing and that thing became the norm.  "Writing for the trade", as it was called. facilitated the 'binge-watching' habits of modern audiences. Thus, the average comic book evolves from being a bunch of appetizers to the world's longest hoagie.

And often just as stale and dry.

In truth, shrinking attention spans and lengthening pop-culture formats are related.  Increasingly impatient consumers, no longer trapped in a three-network world, are ready to bolt if you don't grab their attention immediately; as a result, content producers are increasingly desperate to keep that attention, and so drag out their storylines as long as possible to keep the audience hooked (by the sunk-cost fallacy, if nothing else).  

But where and when did this begin? Longer ago than I would have thought and in an unexpected place...

Fawcett City.

It's a little hard to imagine now, but there was a time in the early history of superhero comics that Shazam (then known as Captain Marvel) was more popular than Superman. A LOT more popular.  It's not surprising, in retrospect; Superman, after all, was just another adult adventure strip (except that the adventurer had superpowers).  Shazam was actually clearly written for kids, with a boy using a magic word to become the world's mightiest mortal, and talking tigers, and evil alien worms, and no child labor laws. 

Superman may be vulnerable to magic but
Shazam is vulnerable to lawsuits.

Shazam, in fact, was the star of one of the most popular movie serial of its day (1941) and one of the only ones considered remotely watchable by today's standards.  Inspired by its popularity at the cinema, the Fawcett comics publishers decide to try importing the 'serial' format into their books, as of Captain Marvel Adventures #22 (1943).

Just like Brad Meltzer!

It's the future of comics, Billy, and you're to blame.

Or, at least, your villains and publishers are.

This was the introduction of Mr. Mind and his formation of the Monster Society of Evil.

Oh, and "also the Nazis and Japs." 
One needs manpower, after all.

Mr. Mind didn't show his face because, of course, they were holding back for the eventual ironic reveal that he was just a tiny worm.  But the deeper reason is that Mr. Mind represented the perceived potential danger of the persuasive power of RADIO.  Mr. Mind's physical form wasn't important (as his very name implies).  Through the medium of radio he could be everywhere, direct a universal organization of evil, and safely effect spooky action at a distance.  It's no coincidence that Mr. Mind literally has a tiny radio hanging around his neck.

Even the later, post-Kingdom Come, interpretations of Mr. Mind preserve the idea that he control minds through invasive means (from inside their brains).  

As his taunt states, his long-game was to throw pawn after pawn at Shazam, eventually wearing him down to the point of cracking.

And, yes, this IS where Bane got the idea.
They still read Captain Marvel in Santa Prisca.

The key phrase here is "plot after plot".  The introduction of Mr. Mind teed up a serial format, where the plot of each segment was the "Monster of the Month" that Mr. Mind was throwing at our hero.  

Eventually, Mr Mind was caught;

This is what it sounds like
when worms cry.



and executed.

What did you expect? It's the Golden Age, of course they fried him, stuffed him, and put him on display.

This storyline had some 27ish chapters and took two years (as Billy Batson notes); now THAT is long-form.  And once it was over, the publishers asked for feedback about the character AND the format.

I am SO tempted to check yes/yes/NO, and mail it to that address, but I can't find a penny postcard any more.

There was an outpouring of support, according to writer Otto Binder (as quoted in the article linked above):
"We truly were amazed at the electrifying response...letters pouring in...and believe me, with a readership of over one million as we had in those days, the mail can become pretty imposing. A rousing consensus simply loved Mr. Mind! Why? We never figured it out.

As a result, the writers revivified Mr. Mind.

With a renewed joie de vivre.

Apparently, the readers loved not just Mr. Mind, but the serial format as well.  As much as they enjoyed the immediate fix of an exciting story, they also loved the payoff of longer-term commitment to a title.  

We are still paying the price of that discovery.


Bryan L said...

You're right, of course. It's all Captain Marvel's fault. But I will say that I remember each chapter of the Monster Society of Evil (it's been a bit) being a relatively complete adventure leading up to a big finish, but not making you feel like you got cheated by paying for the individual issue. And that's where it differs from today's more egregious money grabs. Today there's very little point in paying for individual issues at all -- get the trade and read it all at once. And while I'm not going to go into detail on pacing, today's comics feel excruciatingly slow to me. Five issues of repetitive fight scenes with one issue's worth of actual plot.

As a youngster, buying off the spinner racks at convenience stores, I would check the last page of every issue to see if it was continued before I plopped down my quarter. Which is one of the reasons I gravitated to DC over Marvel. Didn't buy much Marvel until I was old enough to make regular rounds of the stores with spinners and could be reasonably sure I'd get the whole story.

Scipio said...

"each chapter ... being a relatively complete adventure leading up to a big finish"

Yes; that concept got lost by some writers along the way.

John C said...

I'm reminded by an article by Lester Dent (of Doc Savage fame, among others) talking about his writing process, where he implored the fledgling writer to make something interesting happen on every page. Serial stories are fine, and there are good stories that can't be done well without the space to breathe. But it's the Sturgeon's Law thing, 90% of everything is crap, and that goes for all media. For every long story that uses every chapter as a satisfying story that also tells a part of the larger story (in TV terms, Krypton or Black Lightning, plus or minus a few misses), there are going to be nine shaggy dogs that were written by pe


ople who didn't give any thought as to where the story was going to be segmented. You get Supergirl, which (while I usually enjoy it as a whole) doesn't always seem to understand what an "episode" or a "season" is. Or an "Olsen," but that's another story or lack of story. In the extreme case, you have people who think that they're writing soap operas without bothering to, like, watch a few soap operas, and so produce an endless stream of a status quo with no satisfying endings anywhere, until the book/show gets cancelled.

It's worse in general "prestige" television, I think, where a show might start with three full episodes of wall-to-wall exposition, before anything deigns to happen. Contrary to Lester Dent, they'll gladly write dozens of pages where nothing happens at all, let alone something interesting.

But yeah, Fawcett definitely introduced the long-form story to comics. Over in Quality-land, Phantom Lady had a couple of multi-part team-ups with the Raven and Black Widow, but those "long" stories were two-parters in an anthology, and so only ran to about a dozen pages total.

Oh, and the Captain Marvel serial is, indeed, decent. All of the Republic/Fawcett collaborations are, including Captain America, which was pretty clearly written for Mr. Scarlet and changed at the last minute. Every once in a while, I want to pretend that Jeff King "of the Rocket Men" was meant to be Bulletman and concoct the Fawcett Matinee Universe...

Anonymous said...

You know where that semi-episodic / semi-self-contained vibe next found expression? "Hill Street Blues" and the other Bochco productions. Usually, Bochco gets credit for this astonishing new storytelling idea, but apparently all he did was rip off Captain Marvel like a big stinky Superman.

There's a Web comic called "Dr McNinja" that would honestly be something for modern comic books to aspire to. Plenty of action, plenty of continuity that doesn't suffocate the story, and there's even room for lots of humor. It's an approach that would work pretty well with most heroes this side of Batman, who is maybe a touch too broody to allow for it at present. (Of course, that changes over time, so there are no constants here.) I think, more than anything, it knows not to take itself too seriously, which is where so many comics go off the rails. A problem that old Captain Marvel comics knew to avoid.

MarkAndrew said...

Huh. That was my all time favorite article about Mister Mind.

I can think of a few long-running serials (or at least multi-parters, ala the Human Torch vs. the Sub-Mariner) from the '40s but between '50 and '60 American comics were almost completely done-in-one. (errr... as far as I know. I'd call myself relatively well read on '50s American comics which means I've read maybe 2% of 'em) So I'm thinking that multi-part stories might have been popular with people who were nerdy enough to write in to comic books, but sales didn't increase...

or at least didn't increase enough to make up for the publishing inconvenience of not being able to run whatever strip gets finished in whatever order.

Anyway, done in one comics are... fine, maybe not BETTER; I like Watchmen and Maus ok.. but certainly more fulfilling reading and require a more focused sense of craft from the writer and especially the artist. (I still love Gene Colan though! Gimme bad story structure that look amazing over boring old competence!) Reading comics has given me an appreciation for economy of storytelling - Did you see the Breaking Bad? Did you notice how it went on for three more seasons than it needed to make it's point? - that never left even as continuity focused mainstream comics totally abandoned such. *sigh*