Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Stories Your Letters Demanded

In the comments to my last post, Theolonius_Nick makes an interesting assertion:
You talked a few days ago about picking at the sore rather than letting it heal, and that's exactly what's going on in OMD. I don't think by this point in time the issue is whether OMD is legitimate or not. Readers have already decided for the most part it's not. I think most readers just want to accept the new status quo and forget about how we got here (in your system, they want a passive correction). I know that's how I feel.

The problem is the Spider Braintrust seems to think with OMD they have some great mystery going on and readers are eagerly awaiting the next installment to dig out clues (an active correction). In fact, by dribbling out the little bits of explanation over months and months, Marvel keeps reopening the wound. In this case, I'd rather live with the cognitive dissonance than keep being reminded of the continuity problems, again and again and again.
Looking back over my own words, I think that Nick is probably more correct than I was in his assessment of the situation. It's important to recall my previous words to the effect that the relationship of every individual reader to all milieu corrections are subjective. The reasons for this are not hard to understand, and they offer a means to understand exactly why the Brand New Day status quo has left so many readers unsatisfied - an answer which, itself, addresses many of the logistical and methodological problems raised by ongoing serial fiction.

There is one of the aspects of producing ongoing serialized fiction that the practitioners must find most aggravating above all others: no matter which philosophy a writer or editor assumes in reference to the strict continuity or lax consistency, there are always going to be people on either side of the divide who are invariably more invested in the question than you. As much as you (or I!) may dislike the writing of Jeph Leob, his attitude towards consistency must be freeing, and in fairness his strongest moments have come in venues where his lax attitude towards strict continuity has been an asset. Contrariwise, Dan Slott's mastery of Marvel continuity appears to rival Mark Waid's knowledge of DC lore, and as a result his stories almost invariably draw strongly on a direct connection to prior stories. Either approach can work or not work, depending on context or creator. But problems arise when both Jeph Loeb and Dan Slott are set to work within the same milieu at the same time.

(This is not to say that it would ever be possible or desirable to impose a consistent policy across an entire active milieu - barring an entire line - such as pre-Unity Valiant - written by a single person, there are going to be inconsistencies. These inconsistencies can work to the milieu's strengths as much as not, which is why, for example, the mid-90s DC line was strengthened by the presences of James Robinson's Starman, Garth Ennis' Hitman and Jerry Ordway's Shazam! (three of my favorite titles I plucked essentially at random). Three more dissimilar titles you would be hard pressed to invent, and yet they all coexisted, and even crossed-over (within reason) with each other and other DC Universe titles. Rather than detracting from each other, the existence of each book within the greater milieu created a context in which each title could either participate in or ignore the line's greater mega-story (as in the case of Hitman's notorious anti-crossover crossovers with Final Night, DC 1,000,000 and Cataclysm). Each of these books could easily have existed outside of the confines of the DCU. The fact that each co-existed owes as much to commercial demands as creative decisions, but each creator used the context of the DCU as a springboard for their own ambitions, and in each case the books were made stronger by, rather than weaker from, their association with the overarching milieu.)

One of the key problems with Brand New Day probably stems from the fact that Marvel simply had no experience executing that kind of serious active local course-correction before. One More Day was a story specifically designed to negate previous stories - hardly a new thing, certainly not for Marvel. But the difference between something like Avengers Forever and One More Day is that whereas Avengers Forever functioned as a broom cleaning out cobwebs - essentially fixing 30+ years of Avengers continuity and setting it neatly in order for the benefit of later creators - the Spider-Man story didn't really "fix" anything. I mean that purely on a mechanical basis: there were no glaring inconsistencies or garbled continuity issues for which One More Day existed to untangle. On a functional level, the Spider-Man books were actually remarkably streamlined. The aftermath of the Clone Saga throughout the late 90s and early 00s (really, up to the beginning of JMS' run on Amazing) had represented one long, slow, car-crash of a correction, piling passive neglect atop active, ham-fisted retcon until the books had become little more than footnotes to themselves. Every attempt to create new storylines - Joey Z! Senator Ward! Is MJ dead or just missing? - floundered because the continuity was so garbled. It actively drew attention to itself at every turn, resisting all attempts at consistency, until a new editorial regime flayed the titles within an inch of their lives as a means of returning "back to basics". JMS' new direction on the flagship, for good or ill, got people talking about something other than the long senescence of the late 90s.

As unsatisfactory and downright painful as it may have been to see the Spider-books flailing through the better part of the decade, the damage was contained. Rather than rewriting the rules of the universe as a means of getting out of a fix, they insisted on writing their way out of the corner - even after it became obvious to all involved that such a massive course correction would have been better for all concerned. But still: that was how Marvel chose to deal with these issues, and on the whole it worked: there were lots of bad books under the water, yes, but by the time they got to where they wanted to go, a loose attention to consistency enabled most of the bad to be forgotten in favor of the good.

The problem with an active universal course correction is that, rather than merely sidestepping the problem, the story mechanism has to actively draw attention to the problem in the first place. The original Crisis was a story about how unwieldy and counter-productive the multiple-earths concept was - wrapped in the context of perhaps the best multiple-earths story the company ever told. It was a neat trick, putting a tired concept to bed with one last hurrah, while explicitly marking the dividing line between "then" (pre-Crisis) and "now" (post-Crisis). The only problem was that by drawing such intense attention to the problem, the company courted disaster when complications inevitably arose (not so far) down the line. Active universal course corrections demand strict obeisance or they crumble - the moment people started going back to pick the scabs of Crisis (ie, the moment anyone used Hawkman), Crisis was an immediate failure. If you write a story for the express purpose of writing another story or stories out of the milieu, you must follow the consequences of the emendation to its logical conclusion and thereafter obey that conclusion. In other words: once done, it cannot be undone, and should be regarded as an inviolable fixture.

Marvel undoubtedly didn't think they were producing the kind of active universal correction One More Day turned out to be. Or rather, some of Marvel - JMS, from comments made in his exit interviews, clearly understood that a story like that had to immediately establish its conclusions, put them in the past and follow them without hesitation, otherwise it would be an immediate mess. It is no coincidence that JMS is a science-fiction writer - he was able to see the consequences and eventual setbacks of a sloppy correction, because that's what speculative fiction extrapolation is all about. It may have been unpalatable for Joe Quesada to create, instead of the vague and unsatisfying One More Day, a more methodical and specific "Crisis on Earth-Spider", but the alternative is the comic book equivalent of an unfunded mandate: the dangling, inconclusive retcon.

A massive story like Crisis can inspire many types of stories in its immediate aftermath, with individual titles and families of titles responding either actively or passively to the milieu-wide changes. As long as all the titles can be said to possess a kind of general consistency with each other, they can be as disparate in execution as they please. But by ostensibly isolating the effects of One More Day to a local scale, the long-term consequences of the storyline became more pronounced on the universal scale. You simply can't have Spider-Man showing up in, say, Iron-Man or The Avengers without some acknowledgment of the new status quo. To their credit, all the non-Spider-titles who have dealt with Spider-Man in recent months have assumed the attitude of passive correction, attempting to silently readjust the character's altered state to meet the demands of each individual story. But these kind of passive corrections only create bigger problems, because the underlying thesis behind One More Day has yet to be completely elaborated. Imagine, for instance, if Crisis had ended, not with one earth conclusively in place of all previous alternate earths, but a bare intimation of some kind of drastic continuity change without providing the exact mechanism by which this had been achieved. (Oh wait, they did that, it was called Final Crisis.)

If you have to do a universal correction, you have to make sure everyone has their stories straight, and you have to go forward without looking back. To return to the beginning of the essay, it is possible - and desirable - to create a milieu in which both Jeph Loeb and Dan Slott can play well. But it is necessarily, within the context of every individual story, for each writer to be consistent within their own framework - either more or less consistent, just pick an approach and go with it. The problem with One More Day and Brand New Day is that it tried to be all things to all people: a complete continuity transplant for the strict constructionists, and a much more vague, hand-wavey sleight-of-hand for those with a more passive attention to consistency. Either approach would probably have worked, but doing both at the same time means neither are successful.

I seem to have put a lot of balls in the air with this one - so, as always, to be continued.

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