Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation - Part 2

Cast of Thousands doesn't even begin to cover it. So DC and I redid a mere 52 (!!) comics. Looking at those 52 titles alone, let's think about how many characters we're dealing with. A quick spitball makes, on average, about three main characters per title. That's accounting for ensemble titles (Justice League, Tean Titans, etc) and titles who repeat the main character (Detective Comics/Batman, Action Comics/Superman, etc). That gives us 156 main characters, each with their own powers and personalities, any one of which would totally change our understanding of the world should they emerge fully formed from one of their books ("The Reverse Gumby" - DON'T GOOGLE THAT).

But that's not all! Each title has at least two supporting characters. These are the Alfreds, the Lois Lanes, and so on that give our main characters someone to talk to. Were it not for Alfred, Batman would be spending long nights just typing away at the Bat-Computer, the reader bored to tears. (Note to self: Batman Without Alfred the next Garfield Without Garfield?) That gives us another 104 characters to toss into the mix. Again spitballing, we're up to 260.

But what is a comic hero without her villain? Tame, directionless. So that's another 52 villains. But what villain goes it alone? I mean, have you seen how many heroes there are out there? That'll be another two Named Henchmen (Think Harley Quinn, Lex's Mercy, and the various hirelings and assassins at the Big Bad's beckon call, mercs like Deadshot or thugs like Metallo) per villain. 156 more active characters are tossed into the mix. 416 unique characters all up to something, every month.

How the hell do you keep track of all those people? I can barely remember what I'm supposed to be doing next weekend. Well, you can cheat like I do and have a wife who is good at remembering things like that, or you can do what the big comic companies used to do and get a Continuity Keeper. From my understanding, though, past Keepers were very much the low folks on the totem poles in their relationships with their employers. If Big Name Creator wanted Awesome Man to show up on the fifth moon of Bulkrang, even though he was supposed to be in the Lower East Side rebuilding launderettes for charity (man the 70s were weird), then there wasn't a hell of a lot the Keeper could do about it.

What's more, given that 'Dude Who Sits Around Reading Comics For A Living' is within the Top Ten of Fantasy Nerd Jobs, if the lowly Keeper messed up (or got a mess up pinned on him), there would be a horde of applicants baying at the doors, resumes in one hand, torches in the other. A quick peek around the internets shows that many comic fans, the posting, commenting types like yours truly, really do care about this sort of thing. Sure, it's an easy sitcom nerd stereotype to have some loser spout off about how Awesome Man must build launderettes on the moon or whatever, followed by a nudge of taped glasses and a snorking chortle, but I think even the most casual of reader wants some internal consistency, a grounding logic in their comics. We're willing to accept that a man can fly and a woman can turn invisible, please don't make us have to accept that they are in two places at once (unless they're Madrox).

So what does this mean? It means we need stronger editorial control in comics. Not just the control needed to keep writers from blowing up Australia or artists from deciding that Wonder Woman would be all about the bouffant, but the fine motor control that keeps things on an even keel. It means that someone needs to keep track of what all 416 characters are up to on a monthly basis.

It all means we need to rein in our creators a bit.

I'm thinking of a story I remember reading about the creation of the Elongated Man. See, he was tossed into the Flash because they needed a dude with stretchy powers, not remembering that DC had acquired the rights to Plastic Man four years earlier. Now, I would argue that the setting is better for the inclusion of both Mens Plastic and Elongated, but that's beside the point. There are already 416 characters that need to be tracked, written, and developed into three dimensional people the reader can believe in. Care must be taken in the introduction of new characters lest that number swell up up and away.

There is also the matter of Power Creep. Now, coming from my gaming background, Power Creep means that a latter supplement or edition of a game will have more powerful options than the latter. The best example of this is Rifts, a roleplaying game where in the first book you can make street samurai and rogue scientist, but in later ones you can make tattooed Atlantean vampire hunters who could take the full brunt of an atomic blast and walk away (and that's before they get into their five headed dragon power armor that can level mountains by accident). Just like Sam and Dean beating the Devil from last entry, one has to ask, where the hell do you go from there? If you introduce a mercenary character, trained in the deadly martial arts, to fight Batman in issue #50, that character will of course lose. So in #60, you bring in a merc who is not only trained in the martial arts, but has laser swords. After the Dark Knight dispatches that one, you roll around to Issue #70 where you introduce a merc who is not only a martial artist, not only has laser swords, but is also part robot. And a princess. Of an entire nation of robot ninja laser fencers.

In comics, old characters, even minor ones, never really go away. Witness Batman, Inc. to see what I mean. Each iteration of Character Who Can Go Toe To Toe With Batman For Six Pages is still with us. And if you try to be economical and merely upgrade existing characters ("Paging Mr. Neron... Mr. Neron to the white courtesy phone..."), you still end up with Power Creeped up folks.

Now, creep of all kinds - character numbers and character power - is inevitable. That's fine and dandy and part of the genre. It just needs to be managed very, very closely. That's one of the reasons I think comic settings should be put on a clock and periodically rebooted. It may not be fun, but there needs to be a firm editorial hand playing the role of Mom while the rest of us kids have ours with the understanding that, at some point, things will go too far and then...

Well, as the man said, Mom's comin' round to put it back the way it aught to be.

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