Ho Ho Ho, It’s Magic, by Elayne Riggs
In a comment to Mike Gold’s column on Monday regarding Marvel’s "One More Day" storyline, Michael H. Price noted, "It comes down to the question of ‘What is Sacred Screed, and what is negotiable?’ How far can the re-invention, or the seemingly likely evolution, of an established character go before the Powers That Do Be dictate a market-pandering reversal?" He even quoted the line that fanboy favorite Alan Moore borrowed for "Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?" — the famous "This is an Imaginary Story … aren’t they all?"
Now, I must confess off the bat that I haven’t yet read the "One More Day" saga. I think I may have read the first issue, but I’m still waiting for delivery of most of my non-DC comics from December. It’s something I’ve learned to live with, this being one or more months behind the "early adopter" new-comics-every-Wednesday crowd of which I was once a part, ever since my former job moved out of Manhattan, rendering impractical my weekly visits to the local comics store. It makes responding to the fan outrage du jour a little trickier, as I can’t cite specific examples of one thing or another, so I’m left with responding to the response, as it were.
I like to think it’s a tribute to writers and artists of the past that the characters and situations they had a hand in creating have taken on such illusory "lives" of their own that inspire such passion in readers that they seem to argue endlessly over something that doesn’t exist. If only that energy could be harnessed for good!
Although, come to think of it, even people who argue energetically and endlessly over real-life stuff can become tedious, redundant, and ultimately irrelevant. Even if it’s folks I like. Last Friday’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, the only American news show I watch with any regularity, consisted of nothing but fanciful speculation over the horserace that the 2008 presidential campaign has become (thanks, in large part, to the advent of American cable news networks forced to (a) show a profit and (b) fill airtime 24/7).
I heard not one word about the three Democratic candidates who dropped out as a result of the decision of a negligible percent of the US population, one of whom I had been hoping to cast my primary vote for in the Super Tuesday that now won’t be nearly as Super with fewer choices. The whole subject of fewer choices, of the role money (mostly TV money) plays in presidential campaigns, of how the TV news actually has a hand in dictating and steering our votes, of why the process is so different here than in most other advanced nations… you’d think there’d be at least a few minutes to examine these important issues.
But that would take away from the horserace, from the pontifications and guessing and theoretical suppositions — as Marvin Kitman calls it, from "playing the Fantasy Politics game." From the stuff that isn’t real.
At least comics fans all start from the same implicitly understood premise, that it’s all imaginary. The differences of opinion seem to come mainly from whether stories are internally consistent, and from the definition of consistency itself. In a shared universe, it’s nigh impossible to both encourage creativity among your writers and artists and keep your imaginary worlds consistent from regime to regime. Heck, I’ve just finished rereading all the Baum Oz books, and even one author couldn’t manage internal consistency from book to book. It happens. Plus, everyone has a different idea of what makes for good stories. The editors of yesteryear, coming from disparate backgrounds, approached storytelling with a sensibility very alien to many of today’s ex-fanboy editors.
On the surface, I don’t have a problem with the substance of the conversation related by Joe Straczynski about being assured by the Marvel powers-that-be that perceived storytelling discrepancies were "magic, we don’t have to explain it." That’s how a lot of comics work. Heck, that’s how a lot of fantastical TV works, too. How does a character manifest one amazing power in Issue 1 and another in Issue 2 and yet another in Issue 3 without the later powers being foreshadowed at all, and suddenly just happening to exist primarily to move the plot along and surmount obstacles?
Still, a lot of this "just happens to" kind of writing can be forgiven if you Tell Good Stories in the process, and countless examples of this abide (see any of the recent series of Doctor Who). Some continuity-smashing stories wind up being so good that parts of them become canon.
Good storytelling should also ensure that what works for one character doesn’t work for another. In response to Mark Waid admitting that, upon leaving Flash, he feels "out of step" with what current fans want, with growth and change for one character being acceptable and for another being unacceptable, Lisa Fortuner noted, "different characters have different stories that fit them, different books have different themes to them, and different companies have sincerely different feels. Add to that, different fans have different expectations for the characters. So these contradicting fan tastes aren’t really so contradicting."
I know I tend to bitch about fans who treat fictional characters with more reverence and respect than they exhibit for the real people who create those characters, but one of the positive results of this mentality is the understanding that fictional characters should not be any more interchangeable than real people. One size of story should not fit all. If you’re writing the story first then slotting in the character afterwards, the seams are going to show. The story’s not going to be organic, it’s not flowing from your characters through you as much as it’s you imposing your writer’s will upon them, wrestling them into submission. If ever a question is raised, "Wouldn’t this work just as well as a [Character B] story than a [Character A] one?" and the answer isn’t "Not without a whole lot of rewriting," that’s usually a sign that the characters involved just aren’t established enough in the minds of those in charge of telling their stories. And that way a whole lot of madness, and a number of badly-told stories, lie.
I don’t think, as Michael put it, that any Screed is Sacred. We all have our personal limits as to what we’ll accept — I will probably never like any Oz stories that feature a buxom grown-up Dorothy wielding a gun — but it’s like humor. There are no sacred cows, no holy canon. Tastes differ, tastes change. That’s not an endorsement of "market-driven reversal" for established characters, merely an observation that what you find funny (or a good story) ain’t necessarily what I find funny.
But, unlike fictional magic, internal story consistency does have to abide by certain rules. You know, along the lines of "If you see the gun in the first act, it’s likely to be used by the third act." One of the rules is, you don’t shake up a solid foundation without a reason, and if that reason upsets the status quo so much it must be executed beyond reproach (which is to say, acceptable as continued canon by the majority of readers who’ve been along for the ride so far). If any part of the execution falters, the seams will show — even more so when the people involved in the storytelling come to verbal blows in a public forum, as has happened with the "One More Day" tale.
What gives a change in canon validity? The passage of time? Acceptance by the majority of readers? The next big thing to come along, which distracts fandom onto another tangent as the once-heated discussion becomes yesterday’s news and comfortably settles into the background noise? I like to think it’s memory, which I guess is a function of time and distance. The further away you get from reading or viewing something, the more your visceral memory of it comes into play. Do you remember the Spider-Clone fondly, or is that tale still an object of mockery? What about the Death of So-and-So? Did you feel betrayed and insulted by that character’s inevitable resurrection, or vindicated?
For me, blessed or cursed as I am with weak fiction-retention skills, it’s much of a muchness. I do recall that some of my favorite comic book stories have been completely out of accepted canon and continuity, but featured a great deal of consistency built on an internally logical foundation. (A recent example was the exquisite Silver Surfer: Requiem series by artist Esad Ribic and, yes, writer J. Michael Strazcynski. This series was done at the same time as the Surfer "rose" in the last Fantastic Four movie, so it was anything but market-driven (having your protagonist die isn’t necessarily conducive to shoring up interest in him), but I found it to be a darn good story, one which will stick with me for quite awhile to come. If we can say the same in the days to come about "One More Day" or "Countdown" or any of the other sagas coming out of the Big Two, then the characters involved may undergo an acceptable evolution.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor, and is currently undergoing an unacceptable evolution of temporary unemployment, hoping to emerge from her chrysalis-like stage into a blooming job any day now.