Monday, July 27, 2009

Not Brand Ecch

In the comments to the previous X-Post, moose n squirrel made some interesting points which I think warrant full reiteration, for those who may only skim the comments:
Anyway, I feel that this series of posts is in danger of running aground, in that it keeps getting hung up on Claremont, the uniqueness of Claremont, etc. Claremont's successors - particularly Lobdell and Nicieza - showed that they could ape Claremont's formula quite successfully, and did so for years. The problem is Claremont's formula itself, which is designed to endlessly recycle soap opera elements beyond the point of their viability. In order to make these periodic deck reshufflings convincing, increasing elements of tension have to be added to the mix - new plot threads are opened as often as old ones are closed, new mystery ciphers are introduced even as old ones are finally, grudgingly put to rest.

All of this takes place within the context of an ongoing story that presents itself, on the surface, as a story about change, while the reader cannot help but notice, over time, that nothing is changing but the most superficial elements. That's why all of us end up dropping the X-Men at some point or another - and, indeed, why most of us have dropped corporate superhero comics entirely at some point. The soap opera can't maintain the illusion of change forever, and so it loses its readers at some point. This didn't used to be a problem for superhero comics, because they used to attract a steady stream of new, younger readers, who'd get sucked into the soap opera and follow it reliably for a few years before dropping it; now, though, it really is a matter of attempting to keep readers reading forever, which is kind of insane.

How can a story like X-Men ever be a satisfying narrative? It doesn't have an ending - hell, its marketing strategy demands that it can't have an ending. But it must forever point in some direction (and don't you love that word "direction" as it's used in comics? Always "a new direction"!) without actually going anywhere. When we see this in television - most notoriously with "The X-Files," but more recently with shows like "Alias" and "Lost" - we call bullshit. When we see it in comic books, we accept it as a matter of course, because we've been trained to expect nothing happening, forever.
Most of which is 100% correct, and moose n squirrel does a wonderful job of articulating something which I've been trying to say in my traditionally roundabout, long-winded and exhausting (if not necessarily exhaustive) fashion: the X-Books are and always have been an ongoing soap-opera that hooks people at an early age and which many readers eventually outgrow. For a quarter century the books were popular enough that even with the expected reader-base attrition the sales remained steady, high and dominant. Then somewhere around the turn of the century something very vital got lost along the way and the books stumbled. What is it that precipitated the fall? That's the key question.

I think this answer is mostly correct, in that it points the finger squarely at the idea that an older readership grows less satisfied with soap-opera shenanigans once they begin to perceive the circuitous, repetitive and static nature of change within the context of corporate super-hero books. It's no secret that comic readership has been skewing older for a long time, so obviously those books which relied most heavily on hooking younger, less-experienced readers into boilerplate soap-operatics, which appealed primarily because of consistent attention to some very simple but dependable rules (some of which I outlined by negative example in the brief discussion of Cry for Justice).

But the point where I have to disagree with moose n squirrel is in his statement that "Claremont's successors - particularly Lobdell and Nicieza - showed that they could ape Claremont's formula quite successfully, and did so for years." I am really not trying to be facetious, I honestly would like to know: what part of their runs are you referring to? What issues are you talking about? Because over the years I read every single X-Men comic from the 1990s - I think I can say that with some degree of authority - in addition to a lion's share of the spin-offs. What can I say? Back then it was a lot cheaper to satisfy your guilty pleasures. $5-10 on X-Men comics nowadays would barely get you two books, but you could follow the bulk of the line for that price during most of the Clinton administration - most of you probably did, too. Anyway, I've read all of Lobdell's run, all of Nicieza's X-work, and I have to admit that this comment leaves me flabbergasted: when was it a successful ape of Clarement's formula? Sure, it was some kind of ape, but rather than a successful ape I think it was a pretty piss-poor ape that succeeded in replicating all the worst problems of Claremont's tenure without any of the charms.

Because, if we can say one thing about Claremont without any fear of contradiction, is that the man had a profound understanding of the franchise's limitations. The primary limitation was and remains that a book predicated on change - mutation, itself reflected in constant turnover and unexpected happenstance - could not and cannot actually change or end because it had become so popular it would never be allowed to follow any of its narrative threads through to their natural conclusion. Again, to reiterate moose n squirrel's comment:
In order to make these periodic deck reshufflings convincing, increasing elements of tension have to be added to the mix - new plot threads are opened as often as old ones are closed, new mystery ciphers are introduced even as old ones are finally, grudgingly put to rest.
That's pretty much the size of it, and to this effect, Claremont became quite adept at being the world's most expert plate-spinner. To return to the previous statements about character dynamics, he understood that in order for a long-form static soap opera to remain fresh it had to stay light on its feet. Things had to move quickly in order for people not to notice they weren't really moving very fast at all. It sounds paradoxical - it is paradoxical - but in practice it's not that hard to recognize.

The more stuff is happening, the easier it is to get wrapped up in the surface elements of adventure comics and soap operatics while conveniently overlooking the constrained franchise constants. Look at something like - to move away from usuing vintage Uncanny as our constant referent - Wolfman & Perez's Teen Titans that was a very, very dense comic, lots of stuff happened every issue, and yet very little about the status quo changed over the course of their long run. Tons of little things which sort-of kind-of added up to change if you just measured it in terms of collateral damage done to secondary and tertiary characters, but little in the way of actual change - and why would they risk changing the formula on what was, for a time, DC's most popular book?

So, Claremont's X-Men was constantly changing, changing as much as Claremont was allowed to do so - despite the fact that for the bulk of his run the most popular characters - Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Kitty Pryde and, later, Rogue - stayed fairly static throughout. Some of the parts of the later run which are regarded poorly by contemporary fans are regarded as such in part due to the perceived failure of some of Claremont's more outre attempts at deck-shuffling - hey, let's just have half the most popular members permanently incapacitated and replace them with Dazzler, Longshot and Havok! Let's kill them and send them to Australia! Let's totally dismantle the team and turn the title into a Forge solo book for a year! But even in the darkest days of the post-250 run (and it did get pretty dire, especially during the brief period when Forge was leading a team composed of Muir Isle cast-offs), there's still a genuine sense of unpredictability around many aspects of the storyline. Even if you get the feeling the constant desire for novelty is leading the book in weird and not entirely convincing directions, it still has a direction.

But the moment Claremont left the book's calcified into a pretty dire and static status quo - the type of status quo that made it infinitely harder to maintain even the most precarious illusion of change. Everyone who was ever an X-Man moved back into the mansion where they could all sit around and be beautiful, wealthy and bored. They got in their jet to go find adventures and react to all sorts of stuff, they went from being the perennial, haggard underdogs to a supremely efficient paramilitary strike force that actually could give the Avengers a run for their money. They became fat and complacent, and the soap opera became downright asinine, because without some sort of pressing narrative exigency, it just became flabby.

Look at the stretch of issues from roughly 212-240. This whole run is essentially a single storyline that has the X-Men slowly dismantled by the Mauraders, hired by Mr. Sinister for the sole purpose of hunting down and killing mutants who Sinister found to be superfluous or detrimental to his plots. Nowadays, the X-Men could deal with the Mauraders in no time flat, but back in the day Claremont took the time to sell them as not merely a legitimate but an existential threat to the team. Members were incapacitated, the team went on the run, picked up a pile of members who no one really knew and no one really trusted, had to constantly fight from a position of weakness, and were therefore made easy pickins' for a succession of gradually more diabolical threats. It felt like stakes were high.

Once the post-X-Men #1 status quo was instituted, however, the cast got too big to manage successfully - even spread across two and sometimes more main titles. Characters appeared and disappeared seemingly at random, showing up in crowd scenes waiting for something to say or do. (First rule: never include more characters than you can use!) And when subplots did arise, they did not do so organically, but haphazardly. Plotlines were forgotten and dismissed. You hardly got the feeling - even after, say, Lobdell had been writing the books for years, that there was a direction to any of it. Whereas you could feel confident when Claremont depowered Storm and introduced Madelyne Pryor and teased Nimrod's identity that these were plotlines which were going somewhere - even if it took years to actually get there - the mid-90s X-Books were so jerky and halting that anyone expecting to receive a consistent reading experience from one year to another - sometimes even one month to another - were sorely disappointed.

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