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Archive for September, 2011

This is indeed a disturbing universe

Posted by Matt on September 15, 2011

One of those curious features seemingly exclusive to genre entertainment is the idea of the shared universe (and the related concept of continuity), exemplified by Marvel and DC’s years of comic book world building. As far as I know, which admittedly is rather limited in many areas, they are the most successful examples of this concept; the expanded universes of popular franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, which are fairly vast, feel more like throngs of officially sanctioned fan fiction that are tossed aside by the folks behind the “real” product. This is likely a byproduct of those two franchises coming from more expensive mediums and being “expanded” by books, comics, and video games, which will always feel disconnected from the central parts of the lines. No, Marvel and DC’s comics have always been comics and only follow the lead of other comics, so they really come together as a whole.

There is certainly an appeal to the concept of the shared universe. There is the idea that it makes each story feel part of a greater whole, even though that really only exists in concept and not really in practice. Although I find the idea of superheroes as the new mythology to be misguided at best, laughable at my most cynical, there are parallels to be drawn there. For me personally, I kind of like the idea of all these disparate characters and ideas just existing in the same space. It feels…like breaking the rules, I guess? Wizards and space aliens and robots and modern street toughs just shouldn’t all converge like that due to some unwritten rules of fiction, and so knowing that they can and will is a delight. For silly people with silly imaginations like me, that is.

But you can’t simply have these characters and stories be able to come over for a visit, oh no. There needs to be synchronization. Giving other creators the ability to compromise the integrity of another creator’s story is bad for everyone. This hasn’t stopped them from doing this (see: New X-Men), but again, in THEORY, the idea is to make sure all the stories “count” (by which I mean their individual meaning, as little as it may be at times, should be respected by the other creators), and that means some content policing if one is to be part of the universe of stories. That is where continuity comes in. Removed from the imaginary context of these stories, it doesn’t seem particularly necessary – why should it matter how one thing is references or one character is described, as long as it serves the story at that moment? The individual stories are rarely ever harmed by a lack of line-wide continuity. But, considering that a lot of these publishers may want you, the reader of Book A, to think about picking up Book B, making sure those books don’t explicitly contradict each other and confuse you is a reasonable goal. Continuity can be both a hindrance and a help, depending on when and how it is applied.

Continuity can be limiting on some of the stories possible within that line’s sphere of influence, especially in the case of often well-deserved satire. The people upstairs have been known to tolerate such things at times, but push it too far and they may fight back. Things like that, however, are simply the sacrifice one must make when taking part in a grand project like this.

The fictional universe is at its best when all that policing is done by genuinely creative people, all who respect each other’s work, and who take part in the concept to essentially help each other out creatively. To riff and homage each other, essentially. A real communal atmosphere, and one that seems to be sadly absent from most examples of universe-building.

It wasn’t always that way. It’s hard for me to say that the environment was really less corporate in the past, I really have nothing to back that up. But I think the thought processes behind it were different. In the 60s, when Gardner Fox created the JLA and Earth-2 and all the other things, he was paying homage to the comics created by him and many others during the 40s. When Stan Lee (or whoever actually came up with the idea, it’s really hard to tell with early Marvel for someone less studied in the history and evidence like myself) had his characters meet up, it was because the idea of these costumed people filling the streets of Manhattan, and little nods like Spider-Man trying to get a job with the Fantastic Four were amusing.

The creator’s ideal in the fictional universe and the goal of those who take part in it should be that of a toy box: you have freedom to use the toys already in there in whatever way you want (just don’t break them), but the expectation is that for every toy you take out, you add one for someone else to play with. Take a penny, leave a penny. Contribute to the greater whole, etc., etc. It makes more a greater creative environment, where you know that not only will the others respect your contributions, but they are willing to further them and give you more story opportunities.

Where the problems creep in is when the contributors to the shared universe become too reliant on the elements introduced by their predecessors or contemporaries, warping a story into a arcane, spot-the-reference bit of purposeless fan wanking. If bits of continuity are used for their own sake, rather than to enhance the current story (or even another one), they make readers feel like they should be either paying more attention (for all the wrong reasons) or buying the other books (for all the wrong reasons). The latter is something economically desirable for the publisher, sure, but how likely will it be that they’ll create a sustainable number of obsessives? These things should be able to stand on their own, and can possibly be enhanced by taking part in the wider context of the shared universe; they shouldn’t need to be decoded. Which is not to say that obscure fan service is always a bad thing; it can be a great deal a fun for folks in the know. But it needs to be earned, and it can’t make the thing unreadable to a whole segment of the audience.

So, I’m a little wary of this approach. On one hand, it can lead to some great stuff, where talented folks can work on each other’s ideas and make them even better; plus, it can be kind of fun. On the other hand, it can also be terribly limiting. The appeal is definitely there, which is why the comics have been able to implement it rather successfully over the last few decades. But it’s not easy to create, and definitely not easy to maintain. I would say it’s a high risk, high reward idea, but is the reward really all that high? It seems more like high risk for a unique reward, one that is rarely seen and a little spectacular when done right. That sounds a lot like genre fiction in general, really.

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Away, Away, Away

Posted by Matt on September 5, 2011


(Fuck you, I don’t have a camera and my parents have a less-than-fancy one)

This was taken during my trip to Toronto, which I blathered on about rather boringly here. I have since grown very interested in the whole Toronto Island set-up. Something about a smaller community surrounded by water and just a skip from a modern metropolis, being able to see it right across the pond, has caught my imagination. Read the same shit I did about it here!

Places inspire me more than anything else. I look at a building, a park, a shopping mall, a street, an old hockey arena, and I start thinking about what could happen there, and how it could be used as a setting. If there was a martian battle there, what would it be like? I think locations have provided me with a basis for my most solid story concepts, because it anchors them to something real. It great being able to do whatever I feel like, but it often feels that with no foundation, nothing I can look at and feel like there’s a physical thing to base them off of, they can become a vaporous entity. Something that just drifts away, pointless and meaningless. I can think of a million silly things, but I just can’t seem to care about them without that connection to earth.

It often seems that this ideology I’ve developed has driven me to base most of my ideas on one or more of three things: character/personality, nature, and of course, places. All real things, things I can experience (in various ways and in varying doses). But location holds a special place for me, especially in the last few years, as it is something I’ve had the most experience dealing with. I don’t meet as many real characters I can turn into fake ones as I do step into buildings I can set a story in.

It’s one of reasons I enjoy just going somewhere else, not even having a real purpose for the journey (although when I do, there’s usually another story in that). While a lot of people I know have become jaded when it comes to vacationing, only feeling the need to go to places that live up to their high standards. Not me; anywhere I go, I can generally find something worth thinking about. Even in the dingy little villages that dot the provinces, only half-integrated with the modern world, usually home to an auto shop, a family restaurant, and a droning sense of monotony. There’s stories to be told about them, too.

At the same time, it also makes me appreciate where I come from, even when I want to escape. Familiarity breeds contempt, but familiarity also gives me the opportunity to employ nuance I just can’t with the big cities that leave me awe-struck, as an easily-impressed city slicker from the middle of the flatlands. I always pretend I want to escape, but what would I do without the schoolyards I know like the back of my hand, the hotel lobbies I once traversed and still associate with New Years Eve and lungs full of chlorine, or the city’s centerpiece, the hockey area where I once had to find my own fun while my siblings actually competed in sports. I’m quite curious to observe my own reaction if and when I finally leave this town for greener pastures.

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Because that’s not a topic I haven’t talked to death about

Posted by Matt on September 2, 2011

Hey, how about them digital comics?

I think Dustin Harbin brings some good points to the fore. At the very least, it’s a lot more considerate of what the stores and publishers want than people like me with our “it’s obvious, you dumb idiots!” diatribes. The fact is, Marvel and DC (and even the alternative publishers to a lesser extent) probably have every reason to be scared of losing the direct market, because it’s the only market they have right now. Until digital is a sure thing, and who knows what will convince them of that, they will be cautious, and make their digital offerings overpriced and out of date. I’m not saying they’re not stupid for being so hesitant, but there are rational reasons why they aren’t pursuing this avenue.

Then I remember what Warren Ellis said not too long ago, and he’s also right. Even if these publishers do get digital comics going, until they actually start commissioning original stories (that actually take advantage of being on electronic screens connected to the Internet) to be sold on them, they will be second-class, an afterthought. It makes me wonder why, if they are so afraid of making their direct market books available online and hurting the specialty stores, why not make your digital comics new ones instead? I mean, if the quality’s there (well, relative quality for some of them), then it won’t take as long for initial skepticism and brushing off as “silly experimental side projects” (which will inevitably happen) to subside. So you can try out the digital format, and won’t have to undercut DM until you have to (which will also inevitably happen).

I can see why they might scoff at this idea, though. Aside from that initial dismissal, there might be problems finding creatives to work on them, and it would really need some Grade A talent to make people really take notice (or it could take finding some new talent that could pull off something new and amazing, but that`s far less likely). Second, since these would be different books than the `main` lines, some readers might think they are superfluous. Even if DC published a Batman comic digitally, if it wasn’t THE Batman comic, then it might get ignored. This wouldn’t be a problem if the comics were really new, but readers probably would ignore them anyway, as they do with most new concepts in print. Neither of these are problems for publishers who aren’t reliant on established properties and hype, but those same publishers can’t buy New York Times headlines and get the idea out there. I want the alternative press to pursue this option too, but unfortunately they can’t quite get the blogs talking, and I think that’s something that needs to be done to get the rest of the pack to come out of their glossy paper shells.

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All this digital/print comics derpderp really makes me appreciate my webcomics to-read list. They may just be scraping by a lot of the time, but they get to keep their integrity and avoid all the dumb bullshit the rest of the industry spews.

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In related news, DC’s starting their new universe now. In the first issue of JLA: not a whole lot happens. Oh boy.

They also apparently set up some Dame-us Ex Machine in Flashpoint, who reset the universe for some reason and is now showing up in other comics. Like they’re preparing for something. Or making an exit strategy in case they have to. Real show of confidence for your big change-up in either case, guys. Either you’re going back into big crossover mode, or you think there’s a chance that you’ll need to go back to your old horrible universe if your new horrible universe doesn’t pan out. Neither option is terribly inviting to new readers, now, are they?

I’m honestly surprised by the number of people apparently upset by the new status quo. They really need to explain what it was they were getting out of the old one that makes it so sad if it goes away. I mean, the retconning nonsense DC is doing is utterly nonsensical patchwork, but again…how is that different than it was before?

They probably have a point when they say that this won’t really do much good to attract new readers, at least past the first three months or so (especially if JLA is indicative of anything, pacing and general quality-wise). It will almost certainly end up as just another short-term boost in sales before they plummet back to the same levels as a few months before, just like everything else DC and Marvel do. So what was the point of it, then? Well, there probably is no point, although it’s nice to see them acknowledge some of the problems that they aren’t going to do anything about. Pointless or no, though, is doing nothing really better than trying something slightly (very very slightly) different, even if they end up with the same results? At least one shows a little bit of thought on the publisher’s part. And really, who gets hurt here? A tiny cult of lingering carrion feeders? And even to them, how many amazing wonderful stories set in the old DC continuity are they going to be missing because of the reboot (recognizing that several books had to have certain runs and story ideas cut off because of it)?

I’ve heard a couple of people suggest that DC should have made an Ultimate-style line. This is a bad idea because (1) DC has tried that about two or three times now, and aside from getting an all-time great story and a curious relic of Frank Miller’s descent into insanity, nothing came of any of them, and (2) look at what actually happened to Ultimate Marvel: hot shit for a couple of years, and now…god, I don’t even know (I think the new Ultimate Spider-Man kid is a great idea, though: if you’re going to have two Spider-Man comics, might as well make them as different as possible. Plus, I’ve been convinced that a black kid being Spider-Man just makes sense). It’s pretty much verbatim what I said in the digital comics part of this post: once you start dividing it into “the REAL X” and “the other X”, it’s the latter that will get short shrift eventually. The Ultimate comics are pretty superfluous now (even more so because the ‘real’ Marvel universe began to look more and more like it over the last couple years), and would be the same deal for DC (again). Plus, this is far more headline-grabbing, no?

Plus plus, who cares what happens to the DC universe, what with all its five billion Legion of Superheroes timelines.

So basically I point is that the old DCU was a wretched thing, and putting it down was the most humane thing DC could have done. But apparently they still think they should make sure they can dig up the corpse if they need to. If it comes to that, though, maybe they should fucking give up.

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