Dennis O’Neil: S.H.I.E.L.D and the Long Game
So there it was, that kind of news item. We might once have seen something like it – a second cousin? – in the comics fanzines hobbyists published now. I find stuff like it virtually every day in Yahoo’s news section. This particular item speculated that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is, as you must know if you access this particular website, a television series broadcast on Tuesday night on ABC stations, is playing a long game. (Where do I collect my tortured syntax award?)
It is maybe also common knowledge among you aficionados that the program is a disappointment in the ratings. Not doing too well, there on Tuesday night. We can speculate, as some already have, that viewers may feel that they have been prey to the old bait-and-switch gaff, promised one thing and presented with another. The TV honchos make a big deal of the show’s comic book origins, even including the word “Marvel” in the title, and prefacing every episode with the same montage of comic book images that precedes Marvel’s movies. So it’s reasonable to expect the kind of entertainment Marvel is most associated with, superhero stories. (If you’re a Marvel fan who cherishes the memory of Millie the Model, well… bless you!) But instead of superheroes, what do they give us? An action show. No flying, no awesome feats of strength, no grotesque superfoes, not even the odd cape or mask, Just, you know, fights and guns and car chases and stuff.
Not a bad action show, actually. Decent acting and dialogue, and stunts that seems to me to be a bit better than what’s usually found on the tube. And the plots are often flavored with science fiction, which could partially justify the superhero connection.
But, at the end of the hour… no superheroes. Wonder what’s on the Comedy Channel?
So they’re playing the long game? I interpret “long game” to mean that they’ll take their time, and ours, introducing characters and plot elements that will justify membership in the superhero club.
Comics got there first.
Twice, in my years behind editorial desks, the long game question arose, though we didn’t call it that. In one instance, a previous editor had promised the writer a five-year story. Awkward. I didn’t want to disappoint the writer, a good guy, and I may have been reluctant to make my predecessor a liar. But I doubted that any comic continuity of that era could be stretched so far. That’s the kind of decision editors are paid to make and sometimes the job can be a bitch.
We struck a deal. The long storyline could continue as long as sales remained above a certain number. Lagging circulation got the title cancelled and I was off the hook, and I hope the writer bears no ill memories of the incident.
The second long game was not being played on my turf, exactly, but because I was a big honkin’ group editor I had to notice it. If memory serves (and won’t that be the day?) the scripter planned to reveal certain crucial story elements several years into the run. The book didn’t last that long. Not even close.
The lesson we can take away from all this is that the long game won’t work unless you build an audience. Give ‘em solid reasons to keep coming back, episode after episode. Promising something, even implicitly, and then putting it on indefinite hold is not a good strategy.
THURSDAY AFTERNOON: Tweeks!
FRIDAY MORNING: Martha Thomases
SATURDAY MORNING: Marc Alan Fishman