Monday, February 16, 2009

Going Meta(series)

So I was finishing up watching Gundam 00 a couple weeks ago, and, while I worked out whether it was an intriguing return to form after 2 absolutely terrible previous fanservice-obsessed series or so convoluted that it finally collapsed on itself, I began to think about a few things, specifically how Japan handles franchises vs. how we do across the pond, and the pros and cons of different approaches.

For those of you who aren't up to speed, let me explain it to you like this. By and large, TV series, like manga and other things, tend to have a finite run--the stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and once they're done, that's pretty much it. There are some exceptions, but usually, even if it has a long run, when the door's closed on it, it's closed for good.

Mind you, "over" doesn't necessarily mean "over." The story might pick up, but in Gundam's case it usually involves a several year leap with a new cast and if the older characters are referenced at all, it's either with substantial changes or they're little more than cameos.

Gundam's other trick is to start another story (the "alternate universe" continuities) which take the surface elements and a few plot points (maybe) from the original and goes its own way. Usually these will have the fingerprint of their producer all over them and the general effect is a little bit peculiar--sort of like seeing something very common with a nevertheless very familiar voice.

I should add, continuations don't always happen--thankfully some shows are such individual statements (FLCL and Cowboy Bebop come to mind) that repeating them would be pointless, insulting, and pretty much a fool's errand--some things are a non-recurrent phenomena, and that's all there is to it.

But back to Gundam, or more specifically, Gundam's example. I began to think, what with the common formula of popular producer/creator coming on to a corporate property, cherry picking what he does and doesn't want to use out of the property's vast mythology, getting their bang out and then leaving and doing something else . . .what if comics were like that.

Then I realised comics are pretty much like that already.

Because I've just described, more or less, the mechanics of a "run."

Ever notice, especially in this day and age that runs by creators tend to be these isolated things that exist independently of the ongoing "story" of a character in continuous publication? I mean stuff like Morrison's New X-Men, or Lee and Loeb's "Hush" storyline in Batman, or Morrison (again) in All-Star Superman--over and over again, especially lately, there's a tendency to create these kinds of runs wherein they're less an Ongoing Installment In A Continuing Narrative and more an island and law unto itself. Continuity as it relates to the story they're trying to tell isn't a problem, but continuity as it fits in to the larger ongoing soap-opera is.

Some of this, of course, is simply Ambition Collision, but I find myself wondering if some of it's just the birth struggles of the next evolution of the superhero comic. If the tendency of creators now is to ignore the idea that they're custodians of a larger narrative belonging to a character several generations old and all too often forcing them into either dead-end plots cooked up in their fevered brains or arresting the characters in neat little boxes from days gone by, maybe finally the idea of superhero comics as this big, long never-ending soap opera is winding itself down.

Maybe the future's full of stories that start and stop by their own rhythms and end on their own rhythms. The long continuous take on a character is replaced by shorter, self-contained takes on the character and his history that bear a more individual stamp to them since the creators in question would ideally consider themselves capital-C creative types rather than small-c custodians of enduring characters.

I'm not sure that's a good thing by any means--while you'd never know it by amount of people who try it, not everyone is a big huge Creator with Important Things To Say on a title--it does seem to be the way things are going. The real question is, will the corporations who hold the rights to these characters actually allow a clean break from the never-ending soap opera?


C. Elam said...

I'm not sure it's the corporations who are the roadblock to winding down the never-ending soap opera, as you phrased it. I think it's more of an issue with a readership which has been conditioned to expect a degree of linear continuity that is, quite frankly, nigh impossible to sustain over a long haul. Marvel and DC still pay lip service to the ideal of it, but their "universes" are replete with bandages trying to fix elements that don't match.

I don't think it's necessary for Joe Creator to have something Important to say on every run - as long as they can sustain the property adequately, the corporation will be happy however it goes. It's just that wallowing in the illusion of continuity is a "cheap pop" (to use wrestling terms) and it has proven to increase sales among those who partake in the Kool Aid. So they keep dragging it out because it's a surefire way to increase sales.

I tend to expect the market will turn closer to the model you are seeing, but it's going to be an agonizing process, and people will be complaining the entire time.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I actually approve of "modular storytelling", as it were - the idea that every run constitutes a self-contained unit with no precedent and no antecedent.

It's a mind-set that allows you to enjoy, say, Chris Claremont's pre-Australia "Uncanny X-Men" and Matt Fraction's "Uncanny X-Men" without forcing you to connect the two, or acknowledge anything beyond those points that interest you. It's also a great way to trim the amount of continuity you, as a reader, keep in mind - my "Daredevil" canon is Miller to Bendis to Brubaker and that's it. What came between those runs doesn't even matter, because the one positive aspect of Ambition Collision is that those writers will almost always provide the context you need to start with their first issue, even if that context becomes irrelevant within six panels.

Kazekage said...

I think it's pretty much where the people who create the comic want things to go, and the audience, if the sales figured on the post-BND Spider-man title is anything to go by, people will follow runs over characters to one extent or the other.

I think what you're talking about in the second paragraph is more like continuity a la carte [I smell a new Witless Dictionary post!]--wherein one simply picks and chooses what continuity bits count from a whole smorgasbord of history and treats the rest as what it is--there, but not urgently important and worthy of reverence as though it were part of the True Cross.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

It's probably because comics have shifted to a writer-centric paradigm, as opposed to the artist-centric approach of the '90s: the story is more important than the visuals, which I count as a big step in the right direction for the medium.

Well, that's the thing about breaking comics into modules: if every run is self-contained, with a clear beginning, middle and end, you can theoretically chain together as many modules as you like and leave out the ones you don't. Of course, it's rarely an entirely smooth transition... but it can be done.

Kazekage said...

I think so as well--that runs have gotten to be more compartmentalised does seem to have been a turn-of-the-century thing, helped along (no doubt) by the more trade-centric market.

It's probably a more concrete version of the old practise of just dropping a run when a writer/artist/writer and artist team jump off a book. :)