04 December 2012

an end to cliches

Storytelling evolves over time.  Often we hear that an old show, or an old comic, or whatever either "holds up" or "doesn't hold up".  Have you watched an episode of Family Ties anytime in the last decade?  It's on Nick or TV Land every so often.  It's completely unwatchable.  And this was a pretty good show in its day, right?  I liked it.  Lots of people did.


A big reason for this is that storytelling is always evolving.  Family Ties hasn't changed in the 30 years since it was a big deal.  Its quality is constant, but we now evaluate that quality in a world that not only already includes Family Ties, but 30 years of shows that built off of it.  As much as curmudgeons want us to believe that popular culture consistently rolls down the tubes, it's always growing and getting better in some respects.  Tropes that we've seen over and over become cliche.  One can dislike the coarseness that increasingly pervades our entertainment, but there's very little objective question that something like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad is better-written, better-acted, better-produced and generally better-conceived than Falcon Crest or Hill Street Blues.  Part of that is because the producers of the newer shows have had an opportunity denied their predecessors.  They've SEEN Falcon Crest and have had a chance to go through and pick out what works and what doesn't, and then improve on it.

Bringing it around to comics, (mostly) gone are the days where the heroes had to explain to you every step they were taking, *while* doing it.  "By Rao, I'll use my super-breath to create a vortex that will stop that falling train!" "Great, Superman, but how will you do that if you don't stop running your mouth?"  We've left behind a lot of the redundant exposition that peppered most older books.  "Now that I've saved that train, I'll head back to Metropolis where I work at the Daily Planet in my disguise as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent."  "Aha!  So you're secretly Clark Kent?!?"

But as one generation's cliches and bad tropes go away, more rise to replace them. We've got our own set of annoying tropes.  I think just about everyone is now wise to the played-out shortcut of having a TV news reporter summarize the plot for the reader.  A few others, though, have gotten less scorn than they deserve.  So I've taken it upon myself in this post to expose these obnoxious cliches for what they are.  I cast a pox on them all!

"Did you really not see me until just now?"  We're all familiar with the Geoff Johns thing where someone from a Roy Thomas comic shows up on the last page, right?  Last-page reveals are kind of tiresome but I wouldn't do away with them altogether.  What bugs me, though, is the trick of hiding the last-page reveal by cheating with the camera.  In other words, the next-to-last page doesn't show the whole scene - you turn to the last page and all of a sudden Nuklon or whoever is right in the midst of the action.  Did no one see him coming?  The reader couldn't, but what about the other characters in the story?  Nuklon and his big red dorky mohawk just sidled on up and no one noticed until he was 2 feet away?  Stop it.

"My name is Henry McCoy.  Still."  Yea I like the intro to Burn Notice, too - just leave it out of my comics.  No one thinks in exposition!  No one would ever think to themselves "my name is.."  This is the "Webster's Dictionary defines..." of exposition.  It's clumsy and obvious.  You'd be better off just drawing his logo next to him.  Stop it.

"They're always after me lucky charms."  Related - having multiple caption boxes, colored differently to represent different narrators.  This is truly terrible.  It's exactly the same thing as having word balloons all over the page, except it's more confusing.  If I have to take time - even a second - to figure out who's talking, the device has failed.  Plus it's lazy.  Thought balloons didn't go away just because they were dumb-looking - they went away because it was a narrative cheat to lay out the characters' inner thoughts that way - it was telling rather than showing.  Coloring your thought balloons purple doesn't change that. Plus, stories don't have multiple narrators, at least not in the same scene.  Stop it.

"If I cross that line, I'll be just like you.  And then you'll have won."  Oh dear God I hate this one.  Look - ending the life of a genocidal madman for the express purpose of stopping him from killing anyone else is not the same thing as blowing up a busload of orphans.  It just isn't.  And no - unless said madman's goal was to make sure he got killed, he will not have "won".  He will be dead.  Unless his goal was to be dead, he failed.  In superhero comics, the good guys usually don't kill the bad guys because the bad guys need to reappear in a few months.  That's fine - good, even.  But don't feed me some BS line about "letting the system work" - you could get away with that in the real world but it's ludicrous in a world where people escape maximum security prisons on a weekly basis.  Stop.  It.  Seriously.

"I'm doing this to teach you a lesson."  If this sentence appears in your script, it is a frank admission that you can't think of a real reason for your villain to be fighting your hero.  I'm looking at you, Wonder Man.  I'm looking at you, Deathstroke.  "You people are too violent.  I will convince you to be less violent through violence!" C'mon, I'm no pacifist but geez....  Stop it.

"What we do isn't for amateurs."  Yea thanks for the tip there Major Vigilante - I think you may have misunderstood the word "amateur".  See also: "This isn't a game".  Uh huh.  Remind me again why we're fighting Wonder Man who we were friends with last week?  Something about teaching us about why violence is bad?  Suurree... this is totally serious business.  And our female teammate is dressed like a stripper because?  Just stop it.

"The mutant conflict is a metaphor for racial prejudice."  OK, the notion that mutants would be looked down upon for being different is strained but we'll allow it.  Us humans, we're a xenophobic lot, and even if the math doesn't completely line up just right, so be it.  Explicit references to mutants as a "race" need to go, though.  Race is an immutable characteristic.  Mutant-hood is not, as evidenced by the innumerable times that various mutants have lost and/or re-gained their powers.  Before AvX there were a couple of hundred mutants.  Now there are thousands.  Pre- House of M there were millions.  The mutants didn't die in House of M and they weren't born during AvX.  They lost powers and gained powers - neither of those events constitute genocide.  Metaphors are all well and good, but when it's treated as explicit - when people losing their superpowers is explicitly referred to as "genocide", it trivializes the word "genocide".  It's just not the same thing.  Mutants aren't a race.  They're a group of people with genetically-driven superpowers.  This one is not so much a "stop it" as a "give it further thought and quit trying to make it so on-the-nose".

On the bright side, we seem to have moved past Crying Superman, characters watching each other on omnipresent video cameras, characters motivated to live up to the "legacies" of hopelessly obscure superheroes who have no legacies, diaries, and Black Alice.  Hopefully we've seen the last of those.   On the other hand, maybe Black Alice is just out of view all the time, but really right in the middle of the action.  What a last-page reveal that would be, amirite?


collectededitions said...

Multiple caption boxes in different colors. I had to re-read the beginning of I, Vampire three times the other day because one character has a light red caption box and one has a dark red caption box, and I could not tell the difference in low light.

matches said...

To paraphrase Monica Geller, they're as different as night and, uh, later that night.

My favorite is when they do something ridiculous like yellow writing on a purple background. It's like they're going out of their way to keep anyone from ever being able to read what's in the box.

collectededitions said...

Or caption boxes too close to the gutters! Comics pet peeves!

superfriend said...

i'm exhausted of retcons regarding troubled or traumatic hero upbringings.

or perhaps just the preoccupation with them.

matches said...

The corollary of that one would be the character who becomes a costumed hero in order to "make amends" for bad acts committed by someone else.

"I must redeem the name of Dr. Light because he was all rapey!"

Dan Coyle said...

In recent issues of Transformers: Regeneration One, Optimus Prime was forced to kill Megatron. Now, Megatron had done some stuff in the series (I'm being vague on spoilers here) that were truly beyond the pale, even by the standards of previous Transformers comics and movies. Optimus Prime did not want to kill Megatron, but he had to to stop the killing.

In the latest issue Prime wonders if there might have been another way, but it's pointed out to him that Megatron's victims didn't have that option. It's shown as weighing on Prime's conscience yet exterminating Megatron was still the only truly just option.

There's something seriously warped about Simon Furman Transformers comics being more nuanced than Bendis or Johns. Or Chris Sims.

matches said...

It's a shame that Greg Rucka's Wonder Woman run got derailed. He was presenting what seemed like a nuanced take on the issue - WW was willing to kill when there was no alternative, and *didn't* necessarily feel bad about it, but understood there were consequences and was willing to pay the associated price.

Unfortunately that got swept into Infinite Crisis where she just suddenly decided she was wrong after all even though, if one accepts the premise of Rucka's story (that she had literally no other option), she wasn't wrong at all.

Dan Coyle said...

What bothered me about that storyline- and this may have been an editorial thing- was that so much of Rucka's aftermath was focused on how Superman and Batman weren't her friends anymore because of what she did, even though Rucka stacked the deck to high heaven. It really bothered me, as if Rucka couldn't feel comfortable defining Diana as an individual, but only by how others percieved her (which was a theme throughout his run, it must be said). Even the lame story that kicked off his run, The Hikketia, wasn't about Diana, but how Diana relates to Batman.

I remember his Wolverine run around the same time was dealing with the "oh no, Wolverine's a killer!" yet pitting him against irredeemable monsters of the highest order. Claremont may not have been subtle but I'd much rather read his on the nose stuff than "Coyote Crossing".