Friday, September 23, 2022

Dazzler & Aristotle Teach You to Just Write Good Stories

A thoughtful anonymous commenter ("AC") on this blog recently said (in reply to a recent post about mishandling of DC characters under Dan Didio), 

"This probably sounds like a hopelessly simplistic take on comics, but I swear it makes sense to me: just write good stories about your characters."

The comment was so heartfelt that it seemed like it merits a reply-in-post, rather than by comment.

As Plato pointed out, "No man knowingly does evil". 

Then again, Plato never met Tom King.


I'm sure that writers of bad stories think they ARE writing "good stories". That's why "just write good stories about your characters" sounds hopelessly simplistic to you (and me). But there is still wisdom to glean from it.


1. We need to define what constitutes "good". That's part of what this and many of my other posts (such as my screeds against decompression) try to help do. 

Sometimes we have to do that by process of elimination: identifying elements that make stories bad. It's why so much fandom--not merely of comics but in general--focuses on negative criticism. It's a natural (if unpleasant) tool in the search for The Good.  Because if years spent reading ancient philosophy teaches you anything, it's that "The Good" can be difficult to define quickly and succinctly.

"Just write good stories" runs smack into the wall of that conundrum of ancient philosophy: "What is The Good?"

Just like reading Plato's "Republic", which I don't recommend because it'll give you a headache and make you angry.  VERY decompressed. Lots of jabbering, no action. Pointless "character moments" with characters who are jerks anyway. You can just read Bendis et al. for that.

Is adhering to the structural basics of storytelling (as discussed in our next point) "good writing"? I don't think so. I mean, you can drive a car perfectly well, but still use it to do evil things; so, too, with stories.

I learned that from Dr. Wertham.

When the Joker had his own comic book series in the '70s, one of the problems was that the Comics Code--or, if nothing else, the zeitgeist at the time--insisted that the villain not be allowed to get away at the end of the story. So EVERY ISSUE ended with the Joker getting captured (or the implication that he was about to be captured).  That's because The Powers That Be felt that a "good story" couldn't end with a villain escaping.  Is that something we would all agree on today?

There are other examples where time and place shift what is considered "good" in a story, but instead let's consider character.  Some readers feel that good stories will always show Bandanaman acting in character ("Bandanaman would never use a Kleenex; it's against his code."). Some reader feel that good stories show that Bandanaman isn't perfectly predictable; that would make him and his stories boring ("Did you see what Bandanaman did this month?!"). Some readers feel that good stories show that Bandanaman is neither predictable nor unpredictable, but adaptive, and make his choices depending on the situation at hand. ("What do you think about Bandanaman's difficult decision this month?")  

But does anyone care about what Bandanaman thinks...?

What about taste?  I love me some Jonah Hex, the DCU's standout weird western character. The dark ironies, the poetic justice, the small but deep personal drama with an ever changing landscape of characters. 

And there's some special appeal in brawny bondage and branding, done tastefully.

But others readers do not like those things. To them, the very elements that make a Jonah Hex story good to me are what make it a bad story to them. So, to them, there can be no 'good Jonah Hex story', unless you write one that discards those elements, making it so out of character that a reader like me would say it's 'not a Jonah Hex story at all'. 

I mean, it's not like you can send him into a post-apocalyptic future, or have him befriend Justice Leaguers, or hang out with Space Cabbie.

I could continue, but I hope you get the point. "Good" is a great concept in the abstract, but it falters as a yardstick for the concrete.  Yes, it would be good if everything were just... good.  But good is not the same thing in every case, at all times, for every person.  

That's not to say that "good" is meaningless as a goal for stories. But we must accept that it is more of a question than it is an answer.

If only I could think of an appropriate philosophical comic book reference for this point.

2. We need (believe it or not) to continue to define (or at least re-emphasize) what a STORY is. You'd think Aristotle would have covered that sufficiently in The Poetics, but I guess everything needs rebooted for a new millennium.

I do recommend The Poetics, which will not give you a headache or make you angry. Unlike SOME ancient philosophers, Aristotle knew how to keep it tight.

Stories have a comprehensible plot, Grant Morrison.
Stories have someone to root for, Garth Ennis.
Stories have a point to them, Brad Meltzer.
Stories have a beginning, middle, and an end, Geoff Johns.
Stories have diction with clarity, Brian Mumblecore Bendis.
Feel free to continue this list without me...

These are all necessary to making a story.  But note (as discussed in point 1) they do not necessarily or automatically make a story good.

If they did, then Dazzler would be the perfect Aristotelian character.

3. The word "your" in the sentence is a major problem. In fact, it may THE major problem for many modern comics writers. THE CHARACTERS AREN'T THEIRS. They aren't "your characters" Mr/Ms. Writer; they are "the characters". 

Just ask them.


They do not belong to you. Not legally, historically, culturally, or creatively. They are on loan. They exist already. Many of them, as I pointed out in a recent post, were created before you were,  Many will be around long after you are gone. 

I learned that from Mr. Mxyzptlk. 

Your job is to tell stories with the characters, not alter them, and many writers simply can't or won't color within those lines.  

When a writer is assigned (or actively chooses!) a character they often have (or are assigned!) the goal of making the character more popular. Sales matter, after all.  So they may think, "Why don't some readers like this character? What can I do to make Readers-Who-Do-Like-This-Character like this character?"  Since they can't change the readers... they change the character. Maybe they themselves never liked the character; maybe they chose the character because they thought it needed to be changed. 

Peter David never MET a character he thought he couldn't improve by simply changing it into a completely different one of his own invention with the same name.  If "Tarzan/Namor/Captain Hook rip-off' counts as 'his own invention'.

It's a natural impulse. It's also usually wrong.  If your car doesn't work, trying to turn it into a boat won't either. Just invest in fixing the damned car, or junk it.

Either the character (or group, world, set-up, etc.) are intrinsically, conceptually flawed (in which case, it should be abandoned) or it hasn't been handled correctly (or its past handling is no longer correct with changing times).  The answer in the latter case is to handle the character correctly, not alter them essentially.  If you change the character so severely that it now appeals to the people who didn't like it before, you are nearly certain to lose the people who liked it in the first place because you've now abandoned its original elements.  

You how do you handle such a character correctly? You can grow them. You can expand them. You can extrapolate them and their worlds in logical ways consistent with their themes, history, and generally accepted personality and relationships.  

This is why, although Geoff Johns has some flaws in the structure of his writing, and sometimes he's willing to write violence graphic enough to be contrary to the taste of some readers, that I still consider him a very good writer to be emulated as much as possible.  Geoff Johns knows how to handle characters and their worlds correctly: neither with stifling reverence, nor with revisionist contempt.  

Just read Jane Jacobs, people. Urban revitalization is the perfect metaphor for, well, most things.

He is not here to preserve your old downtown in lucite as a tourist attraction of times past, nor is he here to raze it to make way for some putatively superior shopping-mall of the future.  

Have you noticed that one of the first things Johns does when (re-)establishing a character is (re-)establishing their unique urban environment?

Because I have.

He is here to renovate and revitalize and capitalize on whatever is unique in your town. Will you like all the stores/stories and what's in them? You will not.  But the renovator has created a new energy, a more stable infrastructure, and larger more diverse environment that permits new storefronts by other writes whose wares will interest you.

So to recap. In order for writers to 'just write good stories about the characters', we have to reach a consensus--or fight for a victory--on the idea of what constitutes good writing, in structure, style, content, and goals and what the characters (and their associated world-props) are, are like, and are capable of being and in such that way, even if not every character will appeal to every person, that every person should at least being able to find some significant characters that appeal to them.  

It's not a hard goal to describe. Just a hard one to achieve.  


Thursday, September 22, 2022

The War for the Soul of the DCU

With the release of DC's December solicits it's increasingly clear that (as previously mentioned) the winds of change have blown through the editorial halls of DC and, as my great-grandmother would have said in heavily-accented English, "blowed der stink out". 

Examples:

Tim Drake is back as Robin in his own solo comic.

After rescuing the Cheetah from the clutches of the evil International Milk Company, Wonder Woman must set her sights on the real monsters behind it all…the gods of fear and panic, Phobos and Deimos. Wonder Woman, Cheetah, the evil International Milk Company, Phobos and Deimos. The only thing that sentence lacks is ETTA CANDY to make it perfect.

One Panel #634: Big Milk
The Evil International Milk Company.
With that phrase, DC just won back my heart.

This:

I want to see Flash dealing with villains and threats like a superhero, not fussing fetidly with "speed force" and internal personal legacy nonsense like a Regency novel character.

Two Tom King comics are ending, one in which he kills a Wayne family member and the one where he killed a Green Lantern.  The ending of Tom King comics is always a good sign.

Two-Face is back menacing Renee Montoya at the GCPD. Or is he on her side...? Regardless, it's old school comics.  

Never count Two-Face out; he's VERY well connected.


DC: Mech is ending. If you don't know what it is, just be glad.  So is DC vs. Vampires (ugh).

Geoff Johns is bringing back the Justice Society (again).

Geoff Johns Launches Justice Society Of America and Stargirl Comics
Which he's been trying to do since 2016, if you haven't been keeping track.

Jaime Reyes is back to Blue Beetling.

Kal-El is back on Earth and here to stay.  

Lady Cop is back (although she's in the hands of Tom King, so expect her to be kicked to death by the Killer in Boots).

And perhaps most dramatically:

Nightwing in Dark Crisis #7 Leads To The "Dawn Of The DCU"
The Sensational Character Find of 2022


Gone are the remnants of Dan Didio's 5G plan to Kill Everyone's Childhood and replace all heroes with replicants containing only his DNA.  His crisis-driven/Crisis-driving style gave us a mess of messes for nearly two decades before the backlash overwhelmed his momentum two years ago and he was removed as swiftly, completely, and mysteriously as if he were a victim in a '70s Spectre story. 

"I can't find Dan; anybody know where he is?"
"Last time I saw him, he was... headed out."


Big ships turn slowly. Since that change was a sudden one, there was no real plan in place to follow it and it showed.  Various unpleasant initiatives with Didio's sticky DNA all over them--darkly cynical gigantic crossover events like DCeased and *snort* Dark Crisis--have had to wind their way to a close, like dying automata from a passing steampunk era. 

"ZOMG THE JUSTICE LEAGUE IS DEAD and now they're going to replace them with legacy characters!"
Uh-huh. Yes. Yes, I'm sure they are.

One of those unpleasant initiatives is Damian Wayne, a character who truly personifies Didio's approach to things.  "Robin is currently a super-competent, well adjusted guy named Tim Drake.  He's been Robin for over 25 years; as long as Dick Grayson had been when the Batman '66 TV show began. Let's dump him for Batman's illegitimate son from an Elseworlds story, who's an unlikeable murderous little ****." Didio didn't come up with the idea but he supported it 1000% percent. 

In the old days, that would have been a one-issue "fear of being replaced as partner" story,  and the kid would have been revealed as a fake by the end, AND redeemed himself by taking a bullet for Dick from  some random gangster and dying on the spot, with a few final words of regret. Instead, we've been trapped in a 15-year-long "Ransom of Red Chief" scenario.


Maybe Damian can pair up with Nightman:
"Nightman and Red Chief".

Batman versus Robin is pretty clearly about taking Damian out of the Robin role with Tim Drake going back into it.

All of the above is part of the real-world internal war for The Soul of the DCU, one that's been raging for 20 years. If Crisis on Infinite Earths issued in (or at least coincided with) the beginning of roughly 15-year Dark Era in the DCU (with its '90s exxxtreme badassery and antiherohood), the following 20 years has been a grand Zoroastrian battle between Dan Didio's forces of Darkness and Geoff Johns' forces of Light.

Action Philosophers Tpb Part 1 | Read Action Philosophers Tpb Part 1 comic  online in high quality. Read Full Comic online for free - Read comics  online in high quality .
Look, just read Action Philosophers, okay? All of it. All. Of. It.


For 20 years, Didio was pushing his vision for the DCU and Johns another and they were, at heart, as completely opposed as Uxas and Izaya. At one point, Tom King (Didio's Desaad) had Wally West going insane and murdering other heroes at the very same time Geoff Johns was bringing him back as the Personification of Hope in the DCU.  Johns eventually fell back and distanced himself from DC, given how entrenched Didio's forces were... but all that changed two years ago.  

And now Johnsian apostle Mark Waid is writing the comic that's shuffling Damian off and making way for Tim Drake, as well as bringing back to life Alfred, whom Tom King gratuitously killed with Didio's permission (or at his insistence).  Didio's plan to replace the original and legacy characters beloved by Johns with creations from his own stable was struck down by a corporate thunderbolt. Johns has returned and is bringing back the Justice Society, which he was blocked from doing properly six years ago during Rebirth, his last big push to de-darken the Didioverse.  Really, the biggest target left would be to pry the Legion--DC's ultimate symbol of an optimistic future of heroic legacy--out of the cold dead literary hands of Didio's Granny Goodness, Brian Mumblecore Bendis.  

Yes. It seems increasingly clear who has won the war for The Soul of the DCU.

Nightwing in Dark Crisis #7 Leads To The "Dawn Of The DCU"
The Sensational Character Find of 2022

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Respect Your Elders!



Comments on my previous post have given me an idea for a new rule.

It's occurred to me how little sense it makes that Tom King, who began writing Batman in 2016 and was born in 1978, should be allowed to summarily kill off Alfred Pennyworth, a character who's been supporting Batman rather essentially and consistently since 1943. Do seniority, gravity, tradition, history, resonance count for nothing? Did you read any of those stories, Tom? Or were you so obsessed with breaking down Batman that you didn't care? Your resume says you interned at DC, but you sure seem like an outsider to me.

Maybe you considered Alfred your competition.


I think it goes without saying that writers shouldn't be killing off characters willy-nilly or really, you know... at all. Hey, comics writers; I know a lot of you are novelists (or frustrated ones), but these characters aren't fodder in YOUR novels. They are part of society's collective mythos. More to the economic point: they are IP, baby. IP is gold. 

Remember this throwaway moll from "Joker's Favor" (BTAS, 1992)?
30 years later she's worth more than most Caribbean nations.

No wait, that's not right, because gold is static. They are money trees, really.  How many stupid, obscure properties need to become hits on tv or the movies or cartoons before DC realizes that WRITERS are way more replaceable than characters and that characters are potentially a LOT more profitable.  DC, if you are given a choice between "killing off" your characters or a writer, the choice seems pretty obvious.  After all, the character will never abandon you for Substack and no writer is ever going to headline a show about their adventures as a member of the British SAS.  The Polka Dot Man has a major motion picture; I guarantee you Tom King won't.

But even if you can't agree that no writer should even be allowed to kill ANY character, I ask you to at least concede this:

No writer should ever be allowed to kill off a character older than they are.

I mean, if a character has lasted longer than you currently have... it wins.  It's earned its safety, at least from YOU.  You have no idea what the world was like without it, so if you're thinking of killing if off, you don't know what you're doing.  

Let's take me as an example. If the new forces at DC (because strong winds of changes are clearing blowing there) were to call me tomorrow and say, "Well, we all stayed up all night reading the Absorbascon and agreed that YOU'RE the only person who can write VIBE!, Vibe & The Groove Crew, Vibe Family, and Breakdancer Comics. Will you do it?!" I would say (loudly enough so that my neighbor, Tom King, could hear), "Yes, but only on the condition that you not allow me to kill any characters that existed before I did."

Admit it:
you're thinking about just WHO would be in the Groove Crew.
Suggestions welcome.


Here's a list of some of the characters I couldn't kill because they are JUST older than I am:

Flash characters Eobard Thawne, Ira West, Mick Rory

You know damned well she'd shoot you first, no questions asked, before you could get to her dad.

The Doom Patrol and General Immortus

What a relief to know that one is at least SLIGHTLY younger than General Immortus.

A truckload of Kryptonians (Kru-El, Nor-Kann, Gra-Mo, Sul-El, Tala-El, Gam-El, Roz-Em, Hatu-El, Ras-Krom, Zora Vi-Lar, Ha-Kor, Nim-El, Tur-Tel)

Of course "killing Kryptonians" isn't really much of an issue any more.

Batman villains Thomas Blake, Simon Hurt, Zazzala 

Catman, in particular, has proven to be pretty resilient as a character

Green Lantern villains Neal Emerson, Karshon, Abel Tarrant 



I'm sure you didn't really need me to post those pics for you.


Aquaman character Mera

Frankly, I pity the writer that tries to kill off Mera, may they rest in peace.

Eclipso /Bruce Gordon

Have you ever wondered why Eclipso hasn't met Two-Face?
Like, even just for coffee or something?

The Legion's Jan Arrah, who doesn't know anything anyway.

Much though some people might like me to.

Hawkman foe Ira Quimby

I'm sorry, if you don't love a villain who dresses in biker drag and becomes super-intelligent by sunbathing, why are you even reading comics?

 

Wonder Woman foe Mouse Man 

Although if I DID kill him off, you had better believe I'd have Catman do it.

and...

Zook 

Oh.
Oh.
Um....
Perhaps... perhaps I'm being a bit hasty with this idea...


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

God Save the Butler

 Well, well, well. Look who's back.


O.G. Alfred.

Alfred, the faithful butler.

Tom King's killing off of Alfred--by Bane (of course it was Bane)--was one of the final straws that put a stop to my reading any comics.  It was a sure sign that there were no adults at home at DC any more and that the children were running amok, breaking toys and setting fire to things just see what would happen.

Tom King was about five years old when at Marvel Comics the Kingpin put Matt Murdock through the ringer during Frank Miller's run on Daredevil, creating the template for "a great story is when you break a hero down as much as possible". Or at least that was the takeaway for less talented writers than Frank Miller. 

It must have made an impression on little Tommy because those less talented writers certainly includes Tom King, who probably swore on the graves of his parents to do the same thing to Batman when he grew up. Since Batman is a greater character than Daredevil, that would make him a greater writer than Frank Miller!

I also assume young King killed his parents so that he could make this vow.  And because he believes you can't be great unless you suffer and other people die for you. No wonder the CIA snapped him up.

And so he did. He made Batman an emotional basketcase, set up a wedding fake-out that would have shamed a telenovella writer, and, when he was running out of barns to burn, used Batman's most lazily-conceived villain to kill one of comics most beloved, well-known, and long-standing supporting characters, purely for shock value.

LITERALLY long-standing. Have you ever seen Alfred sit down? It's his super-power.

Now, look; Alfred's been dead before. I remember the last time (well, now it's 'the first time', I suppose).   Motorcycling bad-ass Alfred died heroically sacrificing HIMSELF to save Batman & Robin because OF COURSE that's how he would die. Detective Comics #328 (1964):

I should rather think Alfred would make more of a "squish"
but that would probably have set the wrong tone.

So there was an in-story reason that Alfred died. And there was a real-world reason to: so that the writers could bring in Aunt Harriet to make Batman seem less gay. Is that a good reason? Does it make sense? Obviously not.  It was achingly stupid. 

But at least it had a purpose, compared to Tom King's use of Bane to murder Alfred. Tom King is just playing Angry Greek God: he just wants to see Batman suffer.  

If you're a bigger asshole to heroes than Mr. Mxyzptlk is, should you really be writing comics?
Because Tom King will not try being guilty for a while, I assure you.

Even if I could forgive being gratuitously dickish to Batman for shock value, I would draw the line at using BANE.  Really, I don't want to say a bad word about (Bane creator) Chuck Dixon, but Bane leaves me little choice.  Everything about him is absurd (and not in a good way).  The Mexican wrestler get up, the cheesy origin, the utter lack of motivation as a Batman villain. All of it is made 1000 ties worse by his creation as The Villain to Outvillain All Other Villains, when he's obviously much more like disposable muscle hired by an ACTUAL villain.  

Even Joel Schumacher knew that.

Bane BEGS to be taken seriously and writers of Bane beg for you to take him seriously. You know who doesn't beg to be taken seriously? SERIOUS VILLAINS.  Think of most versions/portrayals of, say, the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler. PLEASE underestimate me, they say. Look how goofy I am! Right before they murder the **** out of you. That's what makes them scary; they don't give a hoot what you think about them. 

You know who else begs to be taken seriously? Tom King. So of course he had to use Bane; they are two of a kind.

This is how you really do it, TK.

I suppose I'm not being fair to Tom King for ruining Batman; it's a limited view of his work. He's ruined other characters, too, mostly notably Wally West.  

All things considered, "ruining Wally West" is a VERY impressive accomplishment.

Nobody who was in Heroes in Crisis came away unsullied; even the robot therapists had to be scrapped. Robot therapists; where'd you'd get those from, Tom; Professor Ivo?

Like Professor Ivo, Tom King believes the JLA must be punished.
People like Tom King are the reason Vibe died.

So, thanks to Tom King's thirst for blood and fame, harmless, humanizing Alfred has been missing for, what, two years now; three? But the adults like Mark Waid are back home from date night and ready to put the house back in order, no matter what absurd plot devices (Demonic Damian! Jakeem Thunder! Tim Who Remembers Me Hunter!) are required.

Never despair, Batfans. Because there is always Superman.
And as long as there is Superman, there is Mxyzptlk.
And Mxyzptlk implies Bat-Mite.
And through Bat-Mite, anything can be fixed;
he's here to help.

I can't honestly say I'm looking forward to reading Batman vs. Robin #1 (because Damian is truly the Tedious Character Find of 2006), but I certainly welcome Alfred's return. Batman's world hasn't been the same without his snappy comebacks, his dry wit, and his ability to put Bruce in his place.


You know who actually originated that characterization of Alfred?
Frank Miller.

I would also welcome the return to sanity I hope it signals for DC editorship.

Hey, look, he's sitting down.

The King is dead.

Long live the Butler.