Comics Ate My Brain

April 18, 2007

Could, Would, Does, Part II: Evil Kids, Mismatched Moons, the Multiverse, and Green Lantern

Filed under: green lantern, meta, questions, star trek — Tom Bondurant @ 2:40 am
This weekend the Star Trek Remastered episode was “And The Children Shall Lead,” a … well, just a wretched episode that I think trumps even “Spock’s Brain” as the worst the Original Series offered.

It’s got a creepy premise — a research team commits suicide to keep a malevolent entity stranded on a distant planet, and their deaths leave their children vulnerable to being controlled by the entity itself — but wow, everyone acts like idiots. I mean, no one thinks to tackle scrawny Tommy Starnes as he makes his onanistic gestures? What’s worse, the kids can take over the Enterprise so easily because apparently they only need to control a half-dozen people. Never mind the other 420-odd, who are apparently fascinated by shiny objects and FreeCell. Oh, and shiny objects reminds me: daggers, Sulu? I wonder — would that long-desired Excelsior-centered spinoff have ever featured a story where the Captain was paralyzed because he thought his ship would be Ginsu’ed open?

Sheesh. I don’t even need to mention Melvin Belli’s sparkly muumuu.

As you can tell, “ATCSL” really tests my defense of the wild and wacky as harmless examples of the “Does” approach. It cries out to be rehabilitated. In fact, I couldn’t help but make connections between it and the plot of Star Trek V. Both feature eevil aliens manipulating the naive to bring them starships and spread their eevil throughout the galaxy, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to suppose that Gorgan, the Friendly Angel, is (appropriately enough) affiliated with ST5’s “God.” There’s probably a novel waiting to be written there, complete with flying daggers attacking Excelsior.

Of course, we could all just agree to forget “ATCSL,” much as Gene Roddenberry disavowed Star Trek V, but that raises a troubling question: once those disavowals start, where do they stop? Indeed, aren’t such disavowals the flip side of this whole Could, Would, Does structure? On one hand, the Does approach seems very fundamentalist, even dogmatic, in its suggestion that even the dopey stuff has value. On the other, though, a desire to justify every detail seems to lead inexorably to the Could and Would camps. I haven’t quite figured out how to graph the degrees of Could, Would, and Does, but apparently one can pass through the Does realm and end up in the Could.

This kind of analysis always reminds me of “Twin Peaks.” If you remember, the show made a big splash over its initial run of six or seven episodes in the spring of 1990. It then went on vacation for the summer and came back at the end of September — the very day, in fact, that “The Best Of Both Worlds, Part 2” premiered on my local station. Oh mais oui, many donuts and slices of cherry pie were consumed that night!

Ahem. So I was watching all the “first-season” episodes, looking for clues, and noticed that at the end of the first-season finale, when Cooper is shot, the Moon was in a particular phase. However, at the beginning of the second-season opener, which picked up immediately thereafter, the Moon had changed phases. Now, at first, I thought this was a clue, because who knew what was and wasn’t a clue at that point? The more I thought about it, though, the more I figured it was just a mistake — or, in a more sinister vein, a deliberate attempt by David Lynch & Co. to screw with his viewers’ heads. By the time I got to the troublesome logistics of X Files bees carrying virus-laden pollen, I was too tired of overthinking and just went with the flow.

I don’t like admitting that kind of thing, because it seems antithetical to the Could approach, and the Could is a fairly rational, if somewhat obsessive, middle ground between the fundamentalisms of the Does and Would viewpoints. I’m trying to see how far the Does approach will go, but as we have seen, the Does approach ultimately sank both “Twin Peaks” and The X Files. This is — not to put too fine a point on it — because the Does approach could also be shorthand for “making it up as you go along,” which both David Lynch and Chris Carter were doing after a while. Moreover, the cynical might well describe it as “the rubes will buy anything.” I stoppped watching “Lost” when I thought its writers were headed down the same path.

Accordingly, there’s a strong desire to temper the Does excesses with Could justifications. This becomes a problem when the Could-derived rules start limiting the Does-inspired possibilities. To bring this back to superheroes (thank goodness), I remember a few stories from the 1970s and early ’80s which tried to establish that various parallel Earths were twenty years ahead of each other, such that the Batman of Earth-2 was 20 years older than his Earth-1 counterpart, and the Earth-1 Batman was twenty years older than some other Bruce Wayne, etc. This was the premise for the very fine story “To Kill A Legend” in Detective Comics #500, but expanded to an ongoing rule of an infinite Multiverse, it’s too restrictive.

This may seem a little hypocritical, since I called the Multiverse a Could tool in the last post, but I think the difference is that the Multiverse expands storytelling possibilities, whereas rules defining it may tend to restrict those possibilities.

Take the Green Lantern mythology. A Green Lantern ring is a very Does-oriented device. The basic mechanics of the ring are also, I would argue, Does-oriented. The Guardians of the Universe use those big blue chess-club brains to generate green plasma for the Central Power Battery. The CPB then beams that energy all over the universe to thousands of individual power batteries, which in turn provide 24-hour recharges for individual rings. The setup may have been tweaked slightly since the Kyle Rayner era, but that’s pretty much it. It works for the kinds of stories appropriate to Green Lantern adventures.

However, it cries out to be rationalized and justified. What kind of nanotechnology is in the rings? How much of a charge do the individual batteries hold? Is the Central Battery like a cosmic cell-tower, beaming energy invisibly throughout all creation? Mustn’t that energy therefore travel faster than light? Couldn’t it be intercepted? These, I feel, are the kinds of questions around which Geoff Johns could construct the last GL epic anyone would ever need or want, involving Sinestro’s ultimate attempt to destroy his old masters by striking at the very supply lines of their power …

… but once Johns does that story, laying bare all the details of How The Rings Work, then every GL writer who follows Johns, and every GL fan, will be charged with that knowledge, and if anyone wants to change The Rules, he or she might be looking at another 5-part miniseries to explain the changes.

Instead, of course, Johns decided to continue the Kyle Rayner model and abolish the yellow impurity — ach! the only weakness that could crop up through a coloring error! — and, I think, the 24-hour rule as well. Not that the rings became more magical, mind you. Now they’re like super-tricorders, able to provide exposition at the slightest twitch of willpower. Additionally, now the Green Lanterns are more invested in procedure, thereby inviting fans to take notes for future nitpicking. There is a lot more jargon in Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps these days, which is not all bad, just … a little less swashbuckling.

I say that, and I’ve talked before about wanting the Green Lanterns to establish their jurisdictions more clearly, because in the Real World, they “Would” have to compete with local law enforcement….

Again, Could, Would, and Does all work together, and maybe with some more thought, I’ll start to figure out how.

Until next time–!

April 11, 2007

Could, Would, Does

Filed under: meta, questions, star trek — Tom Bondurant @ 2:29 am
Can’t remember where I saw the article — maybe in an old Best of TREK paperback, maybe in The Physics of Star Trek — but it stated flat out that the transporter represented technology so advanced, it didn’t even fit with what the 23rd Century otherwise showed was possible. In other words, going by the rest of the Federation, Klingons, etc., technological achievements, none of them should even be close to having a working matter-transportation system.

And yet there it is, like the proverbial bee that physics says can’t fly.

This may end up being a half-formed post full of half-baked ideas, but I’m on a sugar high from Easter candy. Buckle up, folks:

Are there only three kinds of superhero stories?

Any superhero story involves at least one idea that separates it from what we consider the real world. Accordingly, any superhero story makes a case for how a given Concept X either a) could work, b) would work, or c) does work.

“Could” stories include most retcons, but they also include stories which rely on a lot of “realistic” jargon. “The Anatomy Lesson” is a classic Could story, as is Alan Moore’s explanation for including the ‘50s Marvelman stories in his revamp. However, those Chuck Dixon Batman stories that tell you the costumes are made of Nomex and Kevlar are also Could stories. Basically, a Could story says that Concept X is workable on its face, but flawed in its execution. The Could approach says that Swamp Thing can have Alec Holland’s memories, and Mickey Moran can have ‘50s adventures, but they need these retcons to do so. Likewise, Batman would be ventilated like a breezeway without that Nomex and Kevlar. Superhero comics today rely heavily upon the Could approach. Batman Begins is a very Could movie.

The pinnacle of all “Would” stories, at least for superheroes, is Watchmen. Would stories are declarative and definitive. Civil War is a Would story. Miracleman Book 3 (where he confronts Margaret Thatcher and ends up ruling the world) is a Would story. Ruins, where the spider bite gives Peter Parker cancer (right? didn’t read it) is a Would story. Supreme Power is a Would story. Would stories are generally depressing.

However, in a sense, the early Marvel superhero titles are also Would stories, because by and large, they allow a generous amount of real-world influence. Peter Parker takes his Spider-Man act to TV, much like the JMS-flavored Blur becomes a product pitchman. The Fantastic Four likewise become celebrities, and their public identities give them a new set of problems. The Hulk is pursued by the Army. Even Captain America is taken wholesale from the last days of World War II and plopped into the 1960s. Early Marvel was doing riffs not just on DC-style superheroes, but also on its own pre-superhero comics, using those disparate ancestors to say that its new superheroes “would” act differently, and specifically more “realistically.”

Once a superhero universe gets established, though, it starts to make its own rules, and therein lie the potential for divergences. “Flash Of Two Worlds” was a Could story. Dick Grayson leaving for college in “One Bullet Too Many!” was a Would story, but the eventual Robin/Nightwing succession was a Could story. It all comes down to the extent to which reality influences the fantastic. The most obvious real-world influence is the passage of time, and its acknowledgment is at the heart of both the Multiverse and the Dick-to-Jason transition. (It’s also at the core of DC’s problems with Captain Marvel, but that’s a topic for another day.)

That leaves the Does stories. All-Star Superman is a Does title, as is most of Morrison’s superhero work. By implication, then, the Mort Weisinger Superman of the Silver Age, and the Jack Schiff Batman of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, are Does stories. Instead of starting with the real world and incorporating the superheroes, they start with the superheroes and incorporate the real world. Hogwarts is a Does environment. Calvin and Hobbes was a Does strip. The Does stories are, at least theoretically, the most fun, but they put the burden most squarely on the creators.

See, the Could stories work from the outside in, relying on a knowledge base that is fairly public. It’s like fan fiction (to my fanfic-untrained eye): both extrapolate, or interpolate, based on identifiable bits of continuity. When we say Reed Richards is acting out of character, we are saying that our extrapolation/interpolation doesn’t match up with JMS’ or Millar’s. In that event, we need a Dwayne McDuffie to insert another knowledge bit — another variable that “makes the math work” (allusion intended).

In that respect, the Could stories and fanfic are two sides of the same approach. Both look at the deficiencies in Concept X and try to fix them with real-world rules. By contrast, the Does stories attempt to identify the “rules” of a fantastic/superheroic world and construct their stories around those rules — which may be, and probably should be, somewhat different.

Accordingly, the Does stories are the most vital, because they appear to be the only avenues for generating raw story material. Both the Could and the Would stories can put new spins on old material, but the Does stories provide the grist for the Could and Would mills. The Does stories are special for this reason, because almost by definition they are not predictable.

Now, this is not to say the Does stories are perfect. Plok reminded me in an e-mail that I already effectively labeled “Spock’s Brain” a Does story. It was in a comment on Jim Roeg’s blog back when Civil War ended:

…I imagine Data or Bashir or the Doctor cornering Admiral McCoy at some cocktail party and asking some winking question about “…so, you really got it reattached?” and rather than getting some remodulated Treknomedibabble answer, just having Bones shrug and smile. Oh well, these things happen. You don’t have to explain everything, because once you do, you’re limited by the explanation.

Obviously we’re talking about the willing suspension of disbelief here, and the degrees to which we can accept those suspensions. “Spock’s Brain” is pushing it, but the point is, it’s something new. It’s grist for the mill. You can’t construct a retcon around it if it doesn’t exist in the first place.

And that, I think, is the chance one takes by stepping out on that limb marked “Brain And Brain…” or postulating that a device can disassemble someone on a quantum level and reassemble him — body, mind, and spirit, remember — thousands of kilometers away. The transporter was born out of budgetary necessity (much like “SB’s” invisible alien ship, come to think of it), because it made the series work regardless of whether it worked within the context of the series.

It’s hard for me to pin down exactly how I feel about the Does stories, because ultimately, I just appreciate the creativity on display. Again, the Could and the Would stories are predictable to various degrees because they rely upon real-world rules. Readers are comfortable with them because they trust the rules of this world. The Does stories require the reader to put his trust in the creative team, and sometimes when you’re talking about the fantastic that’s not as comforting. It can be hard to embrace these kinds of stories, because to a certain extent that can involve choosing fantasy over reality, and that can be an awful choice….

… so instead we bring the real world into the fantastic, and we end up with the Coulds and the Woulds.

I dunno. I could go on for a little while longer about how “protomatter” represents the fudge factor of creativity, but I’m getting tired and you probably are as well. The point is, we readers (and writers, more often than not) keep trying to solve the mysteries of these universes, when their mysteries are their raisons d’etre.

What do you think?

January 31, 2007

Prison breaks

Filed under: questions — Tom Bondurant @ 8:12 pm
In the old days, when editor’s notes rolled across the prairie like an ocean of asterisks, the superhero books would show crooks being caught and, presumably, tried and incarcerated. Later, when it was time for them to cause trouble again, they’d be shown escaping from prison because, naturally, the escape would help demonstrate how dangerous they were. An editor’s note might even pop up to remind us how long they’d been in the pen.

Does anybody show that part of the process anymore? Generally speaking, do DC and Marvel track their supervillains’ movements that closely, or do they just treat them as free-range bad guys who are not so much captured as temporarily thwarted? If anyone has examples, please feel free to share. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I’m not thinking too hard….

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