Strange Animals 26jul2017: Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!

Strange Animals has been missing in action for a bit. I skipped two instalments over the last little while, and it makes me sad because I knew exactly what I wanted to write about in both of those, but I didn’t have the time to actually sit down and write them.

This newsletter is largely about trying to capture what I’m thinking about at a particular moment, so when the moment is gone, it becomes a chore to reconstruct what I wanted to say.

I remember that for May I wanted to note down some stuff about Penny Dreadful and how its last season seemed to be a failure of the new writers in understanding what John Logan was trying to do. (Particularly in the case of Catriona Hartdegen, who was exactly the sort of character Logan was so far reacting against.) Then I had something about its unfinished engagement with the subaltern in how it paid attention to gender but not to race (and this especially in opposition to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell which has a much more interesting approach in this regard).

But then time passed.

For June, there was something I had about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which, again, I can’t regurgitate in detail, but which funnels nicely into the movie I watched today and which I’d like to talk about in rambly detail – Spider-Man: Homecoming. Spoilers follow, obviously.

Toys for Boys

Spider-Man: Homecoming was, for me, the quintessential superhero movie, and it shows a way forward for Marvel’s future movies. This doesn’t mean it was their best movie yet (and I don’t have enough engagement with their properties to choose one), but, very specifically, it shows that a particular way of making superhero movies is past its sell-by date, and needs to be replaced with something new.

This is the idea of each movie having a ‘character arc’. The idea that each character needs to ‘learn something’ – i.e. be changed in a major way by the events of the movie.

The failure of this standard Hollywood workhorse approach is already apparent from the fact that Tony Stark learns the dangers of being overdependent on technology in every movie since Iron Man 2 and is back at square one at the beginning of the next movie. Apart from being a thematically empty film, Captain America: Civil War’s major problem is that other Marvel movies exist which need characters to be at particular starting positions, which means that the screenplay has to contort itself to provide both that and the ‘journey’ that the Hollywood screenplay demands.

Except … that’s not what Marvel’s making right now. Marvel isn’t making individual movies, it’s making a universe made out of series which in turn are made out of episodes.

Let me parse out GotG 2 a little here to make the problem clearer. To go with me on this, you have to believe that a) GotG 2 had a weak screenplay and b) I’m qualified to comment on what they did wrong with that. It’s fine if you don’t believe either of these things. James Gunn and his co-conspirators are successful at what they do, while I am a comic-book letterer and ex-editor who objectively failed at having a writing career at all.

So, there is one ‘movie’ story in GotG 2 – one story that needs to be told as a singular journey from the beginning of the movie to its end, and that is Yondu’s journey from being a criminal and a cad to admitting to himself that he has feelings and allowing himself to belong. This story, however, is shortchanged by its lack of screentime. Specifically the screentime given over to Rocket, who literally did not need any sort of arc at all. Every scene devoted to setting up how Rocket is an asshole to the people that love him and his ‘journey’ to letting them love him (including the incredibly cringe-inducing “You’re me, boy” moment) could have been excised from the movie and it would only have made a positive difference.

Then there’s the reconciliation between Gamora and Nebula, which is rushed because, for some reason, the story of their rivalry needed to be done in one movie rather than being divided over multiple movies, which would have a) made it more convincing and b) left more space for their fun ‘sibling rivalry writ huge’ relationship. One can easily imagine an alternative version of their story in this movie ending right after Nebula’s admission of wanting Gamora to have been her sister not her rival, and then letting that guilt sit with Gamora till the next movie.

The problem with both these elements as they stand (I’m leaving aside Peter Quill’s story, because that’s big and complex and doesn’t have a quick fix) is that they’re written by people assuming they’re still writing individual movies. Even when these movies are a part of a series, they’re being written as sequels to the previous movies.

But writing a Marvel movie isn’t like writing a movie. It’s IP management. It’s like writing a Big Two comic book. What your readers/viewers want is a separate question. But as an IP manager, you’re not supposed to write stories with characters that learn and grow. Whatever stories occur are a side-effect of the mandate, which is to take a character from one movie to the next.

This, of course, sounds cynical, and it is. These movies exist purely to make money, and because currently superheroes are the device that enables that. But that doesn’t preclude quality or even, theoretically, enjoyment on part of the people writing them. And treating them like they’re really individual movies is going to lead to fatigue because there are only so many whiplash-fast journeys you can take a character on before it stops bearing any relation to real people.

Dan Harmon does just fine thinking about TV exactly this cynically:

A feature film’s job is to send you out of the theater on a high in 90 minutes. Television’s job is to keep you glued to the television for your entire life. […]

Movies can afford to blow up the Death Star at the end. In a sitcom version of Star Wars, however, the protagonist would be a desk clerk working in the hangar bay at Rebel headquarters. In a dramatic series, he’d be an X-wing pilot constantly making raids on the Death Star. But note that in both the sitcom and dramatic TV version of Star Wars, the Death Star stays. If not, the show would end.

In its ideal form, a Marvel movie is somewhere between a regular movie and an episode of a TV show. As I mentioned above, a Marvel movie is a lot like a comic book.

Specifically, it’s like a Big Two comic book from the 70s or 80s, when comics writers had figured out how to relay the never-ending soap operatic nature of the ongoing narrative (calling it a story is misunderstanding it) through the single unit of entertainment that is an issue, before ‘writing for the trade’ (i.e. constructing an issue to simply be a part of the story that would be collected in the paperback) became the dominant mode of storytelling.

This format understood that the ongoing narrative was not really going anywhere. There was no ending, there were only rest stops, so the character had to be popped into one problem after another more or less without respite. These problems are all engines for the real meat of the book – the thrill of the action, and the character moments that make us want to continue following the character. Characterisation rather than character arcs.

And here, the function of the individual issue is to be a discreet unit that either provides a small change or the illusion of one (which can then be sidestepped, walked back, or used as a bouncing board for the next small change).

The problem with writing a Marvel movie like a traditional movie is that usually, at the end of a movie, the character’s journey is complete, thereby rendering the character useless for more stories, at least of the same kind. Iron Man 3 was a logical ending for Tony’s superhero career, and all the payoff from it was undercut by him appearing essentially unchanged in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The shark, it was jumped.

Going back to GotG 2 for a moment, Rocket and Gamora/Nebula each have an effective scene that reminds us why we like watching them. For Rocket, it is the scene where he fights Yondu’s men singlehandedly, and for Gamora/Nebula, it’s the scene where Nebula crashes a plane into a cave because she needs to get to Gamora as fast as she can. These scenes were all we needed to understand that character/relationship. The rest of these stories were … unnecessary.

And Spider-Man: Homecoming gets this right. There are two very small ‘arcs’ in the movie – Tony Stark learning that Spider-Man is indeed capable of being a superhero despite being 15, and Spider-Man learning that it’s not the suit that make him a hero. Film Crit Hulk sees this as a continuation of the Marvel problem (which definitely exists), I see it as a solution.

It’s simply tiring to have every movie you watch adhering to the hero’s journey. You know exactly where the movie’s going, you know how it’ll end. And when there are twenty of these fuckers every two years, it’s also incredibly boring, especially when you know that every character will have to come to some sort of place of weakness once more at the beginning of the next one.

It comes, I think, from a fundamental misunderstanding of what serialised superhero fiction is supposed to do. We’re not here to watch someone become a hero. That’s the origin story – that’s the pilot. Every later episode is about the character being the character. Characterisation, not journey.

Serialised superhero fiction is, in its base state, thematically slight, because it’s pulp fiction that literally divides the world into good and evil. It has nothing to say beyond “nice things should happen to good people and bad people should be arrested” and it blows that a lot of the time. Every interesting superhero story you’ve read in the last long while doesn’t have interesting things to say about superheroes – it has interesting things to say about other things and it happens to be presented in a superhero format because that’s the dominant storytelling mode in comics.*

* I anticipate some will try to present Grant Morrison’s superhero-centric stuff like Flex Mentallo and Seven Soldiers, but I would contend that the interesting things about those books still have little to do with superheroes. They say a lot of stuff about superheroes, yes, but those are not, to be clear, the good bits. All-Star Superman is one book you might be convince me about, though.)**

** Personally, the only superhero film I’d say is genuinely trying to say something about superheroes is Batman v. Superman, which is a Wagnerian melodrama that gets its strength from the weird fascination Zach Snyder has with the fascistic implications of superheroes (or maybe he just read Earth 2 and liked it). BvS is not necessarily a good movie, but it’s an interesting one because Snyder clearly didn’t get the memo that his primary function was peddling IP.

A superhero movie is soap operatic fluff, and I sincerely applaud Spider-Man: Homecoming for understanding that.

The clearest illustration of this, I think, is the very end of the movie, where Aunt May discovers that Peter is Spider-Man. This is the first Marvel movie to truly end on a cliffhanger.

Superficially, it’s similar to Tony Stark declaring at the end of the first Iron Man movie that he’s the titular hero, but that was the final choice Tony needed to make to complete that movie. It was an ending.

While Aunt May walking in on Peter in his costume has nothing to do with Peter’s journey – it exists purely to set up the next movie. It’s bait to keep you glued to your screen. The screen just happens to be a big one.

Elsewhere But Still Me

1. Black Crown, Shelly Bond’s new imprint at IDW, announced its publication slate last weekend at SDCC 2017. Kid Lobotomy by Peter Milligan, Tess Fowler and Lee Loughridge had already been announced. Newly announced titles are Assassinistas by Tini Howard, Gilbert Hernandez and Rob Davis, Punks Not Dead by David Barnett and Martin Simmonds, and the Black Crown Quarterly, and I’m the lucky bugger who gets to letter all of them! You can find more art and information here.

I find myself tremendously thrilled to be lettering books by two of my comics heroes and by some amazing newer talents. Shelly’s been awesome to work with (I think I level up a bit with every story I letter for her), and I’m still constantly surprised and delighted that she thinks I’m good enough to be working on these books. And she’s also been kind enough to put my name on the cover of all the books. It’s still not very common practice to give letterers cover credit, and it means a ton to me so see my name on the covers of these gorgeous comics.

2. Unbound announced today that Grafity’s Wall is fully funded. That means this upcoming graphic novel by Ram V, Anand Radhakrishnan and Irma Kniivila, and hand-lettered by me, is definitely going to happen!

Here’s the blurb for the book:

A coming-of-age graphic novel about expression, rebellion, ambition and acceptance painted against the backdrop of Mumbai’s ever-changing and evolving street-culture.

When an aspiring street artist by the name of ‘Grafity’ watches the tenements outside his home being razed, he finds an unlikely canvas at the one wall still left standing in the debris. Over the next weeks, he begins creating a mural on the wall, one that chronicles the lives of his friends: A local low-level fixer named Jay who harbors dreams of being a rapper. A brilliant and awkward boy named Chasma who writes love letters in his breaks between waiting tables at a local ‘Chinese’ restaurant. And Saira, an aspiring actress with ambitions so fierce that they threaten to consume her and all those around her. As the mural progresses, the story gives us glimpses into these incandescent lives, their hopes and dreams both inspired and impeded by their circumstances, and the impossible city that they live in.

I believe you can continue to pledge for the book for the next month or so, so please get to it.

3. In case you missed this on Twitter and are going to be in the vicinity – I will be at the ThoughtBubble UK Comics Convention 2017. I’m not tabling there myself, but I will be helping Ram out at his. A lot of people/teams I work with will be there – Shelly, Peter, David and Martin from the Black Crown books, Jason Latour from team Black Cloud, Ryan O’Sullivan (with whom I have a project brewing), Fraser Campbell of Alex Automatic (for whom I’m lettering issue 2), Alison Sampson with Winnebago Graveyard, and I’m eager to meet them and all the other friends I’ve made in comics who’ll be around at the time.

This will be my first international convention, and I’ll get to participate in person in the industry I work in. Very excited! I’ll also be in London 16th-30th September (excepting, of course, the days when I’ll be at ThoughtBubble), so if anyone I know is going to be around, give me a holler.

Next Time

Something about China Miéville, the New Weird, and a strange momentum issue I’ve been noticing in my favourite kind of sf.