DENNIS O’NEIL: Continued stories revisited yet again…
In last week’s installment of what some of you may be beginning to think is an endless blather, when I was discussing movie serials I neglected to mention that serials were among the first non-comics forms to use superheroes. During that decade, lucky young popcorn eaters could see Superman, Batman, Captain America and, in my opinion the best of them all, Captain Marvel in the continued chapter plays that were a staple of Saturday matinees. (That probably doesn’t exhaust the list, but memory is not my greatest gift… At least I don’t think so…) Having seen some of the above-mentioned entertainments, and having, within the past two weeks, seen the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four movies, I realize that the serial makers were born too soon.
Because, let’s face it, some of the serialized costumed do-gooders look kind of silly. That’s because the directors lacked the technology to make them not look silly. It takes an army of costumers, model makers, CGI wizards, animators and, probably, guys whose jobs I’ve never heard of to produce, on the screen, what cartoonists produced with ink on paper in large quantities for lousy pay. Of course, we comics readers had to bring some of our own imaginations to the artists’ static, silent images, but that was okay, we could do that.
Consider the preceding two paragraphs a digression, please. And now we return to our regularly scheduled topic –
What about these continued stories, anyway? Good or bad? Pro or con?
Let’s begin with the obvious con. If you come in late, maybe you’ll have trouble understanding the story. There are remedies for this problem. The serial makers mentioned in the opening digression showed the last minute or so of the preceding chapter before getting on to new material. The old radio serials used a similar technique, and a lot of current television shows begin with a voice over intoning something like, “Previously, on Your Father’s Moustache…” and then we get brief takes of the scenes that will escort us into the new action.
It helps if the situation and characters are compelling, which is why the most successful televised serials, 24, Lost, and Heroes among them, survived this past season when a lot of others, as expertly directed and cast as any, quickly perished. It also helps if those opening summaries do provide enough information for newcomers to comprehend at least the broad beats of the plot.
Cluing in new comics readers is trickier, but it can be done. Marvel has, at various times, done a title-page explanation of the chief character, which, though it may not elucidate the current plotline, at least tells newcomers why this particular hero deserves the sobriquet “super.” And when the Batman franchise at DC did an extended and complex year-long continuity called “No Man’s Land” I wrote some high-falutin’ copy that went above each issue’s title and explained the series’s basic premise. This is not exactly subtle stuff, and it’s not always necessary to get the job done. Really sly-boots writers can incorporate the necessary exposition into ongoing action/dialogue and thus inform readers without hitting them on the head with info or bringing the story screeching to a halt while latecomers are enlightened.
To be continued…
RECOMMENDED READING: Introducing Semiotics, by Paul Cobley and Litza Jansz
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles.
Artwork copyright DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.