The Slow Burn
I’ve mentioned before my new-found fandom for Atop the Fourth Wall. When it comes to comics, I agree with the host, Linkara, on a lot of things, particular a disdain for 90’s style darker and edgier stuff. Recently, he began a month long foray into The Culling, a crossover between Teen Titans, Legion Lost, and Superboy in DC’s New 52 universe.
You can see the episodes yourself starting here, but this post is about something he touched on only briefly: This crossover, billed as ‘shaking up’ (comic companies love to use that phrase) both affected teams… interrupted those series starting at issue #8! Yes, they decided to flip the status quo of books that weren’t even a ear old yet! Hell, with Teen Titans, they stumbled into this event while in the middle of still trying to complete their roster (by rescuing Superboy). I was only following Legion of Superheroes and not Legion Lost, so I can’t tell what was derailed there, and I have no idea if The Culling was something the writers wanted to do, or editorial mandate, but it is very, very clear that someone had an incredibly short attention span here.
I put out a call to my writery friends this weekend for suggestions as to what to blog about this week, and one of them (you can find his blog here if you want to blame him for this post), suggested I write about what I want to see more of on the shelves. And I’ve done that a few times: with Daughters of Buffy and Dare to be Stupid, for example. So this week, I’m taking these two things together and writing about one thing I have found sorely lacking; in comics, in fanfics, on TV, and in novels: Patience.
And before we begin, I will admit that I am often guilty of the things I’m going to talk about here. IF you’ve been with me for a while, or were just here before I started collecting chapters into Issues, you’ll know that Descendants Issues used to be four or five chapters of five pages each and now they’re five to seven chapters of five or six pages each. That’s because back in the day, I often found myself pressured to wrap things up in four chapters, leading to rushing.
Even without that, you might notice that a LOT of stories center on Warrick, Cyn or Juniper and not on Ian, Alexis and Laurel. That would be because I’ve been really excited to maneuver the former into places where I could do issues such as Rust Buckets, Fond Farewell, and CynQuest. As I now begin my attack run on a story I’m tentatively calling Avalon Rises, you might see more Ian and Alexis as well.
However. I feel that many writers skip over that tedious ‘maneuvering’ part to just get to what they want to do with no set-up or consideration for… the audience having even the basic elements of what the hell is going on and why they should care. And that’s why I’m going to take a constructive look at situations where writers should sit back and consider doing a slow burn.
Since there are a lot of facets to this issue, I’m breaking them up (also, because I break my articles up all the time anyway) into manageable chunks. First off:
Rush To Canon
This one is unique to adaptations, but it is the one that involves comics, where this whole thing began.
You know what I attribute the crumble and collapse of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe to? No, not its immature 90’s style grim and gritty sensibilities—let’s face it, that’s what sells. No, I think it came from the fact that the writers either wanted to or felt pressured to jam forty-plus years of Marvel Universe history and characters into as little space as possible.
When faced with the blank slate of the Ultimate Universe, the thrust very often was not to tell new stories in this new world, but to ‘ultimatize’ some character or storyline every month. Ultimate is only a little over ten years old, but it has had a Phoenix Saga, a Clone Saga (why in the name of Zeus’s wedding tackle did they choose to do that?), Venom’s origin, Galactus and the whole Cable mess—and that’s just the stuff I, someone who has tried to stay far, far away from Ultimate Anything as humanly possible can recall.
Each of these events, when they originally occurred, had significant run-up and ramifications afterward. Here… they were just another story strung together into the line.
And that’s what happened in The Culling. In case you aren’t familiar (And it’s become increasingly clear to me that a lot of you are superhero fans without being comic fans. Believe me, I’m starting to understand your position), in September of 2011, DC comics came out of Yet Another Crossover, Flashpoint, into a rebooted DC Universe created by the events of that crossover, dubbed the New 52. Basically, all continuity from all DC comics is gone. Never happened.
Not having been particularly attached to DC’s comics in general, I was more than receptive toward it, and in fact declared a new age of Good Comics after getting my first look at Teen Titans, Blue Beetle and Legion of Superheroes. As this is a constructive post, I won’t get into what happened to Blue Beetle’s book, but Teen Titans really was kind of awesome: We had Robin II (Tim Drake) assembling a team to combat a shady group that’s been kidnapping teenaged metahumans, eventually recruiting Cassie Sansmark (who I can take or leave), original character (Yipee! Original!) Skitter, and the Most Awesome Super-Trio Ever: Bunker, Solstice and Kid Flash. The book even included Danny the Street as an honorary Titan.
…And that brought us to The Culling where this issue came on full force. I’m not sure if it was the editors or writer Scott Lobdell who are responsible for this (The Titans books are notorious for editorial bungling—in fact, I was wrong to implicate Sean McKeever in the Wonderdog thing in the shameful moments post; he soon quit the book over editorial mandates, including allegedly, that mess), but they got hit hard by a case of creative ADD.
In rapid succession, we are introduced to characters who were well known to fan of the previous universe’s incarnation of the Teen Titans, but for whom the new reader, or the person who took the New 52 at face value and accepted zero continuity, meant nothing: Omen, Beast Boy, Terra, and Rose Wilson, AKA Ravager.
The problem is… well exactly what I said up there. Nothing much was actually done with these characters. We didn’t get any back-story or much characterization at all; they were just flashed up on the page and quickly forgotten. You might say that their back-stories may come out later, but that’s the problem: we could have been introduced to them properly, but instead they’re just crammed in with zero fanfare. This goes double for Omen and Ravager who are now villains in the new continuity, but we never find out why because story’s short attention span needs to flit on over to Warblade, a guy folded in from the Wildstorm universe and some random new villains created for the crossover, And Fairchild, a character I liked from Gen 13 who is now bereft of her co-stars for no reason, oh and then after the crossover, it’s time to bring Raven in and… and…
If I could plead for one thing from comic book writers (other than a moratorium on killing D-listers), it would be that they stop trying to pull on every string they can tie into their story and just tell one story at a time. Maybe have a B or C plot. But that’s it. Don’t throw all your cards on the table right up front and then frantically try to explain them later. Because IIRC, the average run of a writer in comics these days is less than 12 issues. Given decompression, that means you might only get to tell two stories anyway and will never get to all the extra clutter you want to get around to. Chris Claremont was on X-men roughly five thousand years, that’s how he got away with the stuff he did. Given editorial’s own short attention span, there will never again be a Chris Claremont or LMS epically long run again, so you are benefiting no one by front-loading your book.
I ended up dropping Teen Titans because of The Culling, not just because it was a terrible story, but because I realized that the story it started with, the forming of the team et al, was never going to be finished. It was going to be nothing but ‘shake-ups’ from there on out even though there was nothing solid to shake up. It was just going to be endless hurrying on to newer ideas and forgetting the old.
But that’s not the only impatience that makes me impatient. Let’s talk about…
We’ve all seen this one. Mary Sue Heartsleeve has known Beef Bigchin for about twenty minutes and already she’s unable to stop thinking about his beefiness or his big… chin. Or Freezy McIcequeen has known Childish O’Funguy for a long time in canon, so the fan fic has her admitting her long-time crush for him in the first three sentences and the rest of the fic is about her being unable to think about anything but his beefiness or his big… chin.
A lot—and I mean a LOT—of writers, particularly those who aren’t dealing primarily with the romance, fall into this. They want to get to the ‘good stuff’ so much that they throw the characters together and affirm their love as quickly as possible without considering what to do next.
Even ignoring the toxic messages it sends about relationships and also the terrible, terrible writing, this is why Twilight is not a good love story. There is never an explanation as to why the baleful, joyless creature of the night and the vampire she has the hots for love each other. It’s just that… he thinks she smells delicious and she likes it when guys are assholes to her? What? I have listened to many hilarious dramatic readings of the series and I don’t think they learn anything about who the other person is in the first book. Nothing.
Or let’s got to the example I always go to when mocking romance subplots: Friends. At least there was a bit of background there with Ross having had a crush on Rachel back in the day, and there was some build-up to their getting together, but it was really not enough to sell the relationship. Ross’s crush seemed to be based… on her being his sister’s hot friend, and her reciprocation seems based purely on the fact that she found out about his crush. Hell, there was an episode where Ross was made to make a list of pros and cons between dating Rachel or another character and the best—in fact ONLY—con he had for the other woman, who had things in common with him and he was currently happy with was ‘she’s not Rachel’. Even the character has no idea why he’s paired with this person!
The sad part is that there was an episode that did a great job of making the case for a basis of their relationship. In it, Rachel has to do her laundry at the laundromat for the first time and Ross tags along to help. He ends up teaching her to be self sufficient (she’s a spoiled rich girl) and encourages her to stand up for herself. It was a good, funny and tightly written episode and if it had been followed up; with Ross being her go-to guy for helping her navigate life outside the upper class, it could have potentially been amazing. Sadly, that was dropped fairly quickly and it seemed like all Rachel needed to learn was how to do her laundry to go from pampered princess to working girl (not that kind).
But, this is a constructive post, not an irate one, so I’m going to talk about some fixes. The friends one is right there: find a connection between those characters and build on it. Yes, you can keep Ross having had a crush in the past, but you also need him to get to know and love the Rachel of today, the one he’s standing beside as she becomes.
I honestly feel that watching the journey toward love is far and away more interesting than watching them be in love if you don’t have more plot going on than just them having to prove that love over and over again.
As much as we mock (and rightly so) Twilight, there is a good romantic plot seed buried in there. But it isn’t about how Bella love Edward thiiiiiiis much, or how Edward… is indifferent, hostile and creepy about Bella thiiiis much. It’s about how a vampire, a creature that preys on humans and a human, who up until they met their first vampire was comfortable, even on an unconscious level, being at the top of the food chain with only the occasional shark or tiger upsetting that balance, can fall in love.
Leaving aside a certain level of sexual attraction to otherness that leads people to fantasize about vampires, werewolves, Dranei, and billionaires (yes, somehow rich people are an equal type of fantasy to literal monsters. I am all for tearing down barriers to enfranchisement and opportunity for the middle and lower classes, but… buh?), the vampires are just a really good choice for this (unless you drop almost all of the things that make them vampires like Meyer, but constructive post, as I said): they are mostly human themselves regardless of immortality and powers, and yet they need to harm humans to at least some extent to sustain themselves. That right there is good drama, seeing how they deal with the very human need for human contact and yes, love.
If I wrote Twilight, not only would I not have them fall instantly in love, but Eddie wouldn’t be the first fangface she met. I’d have her meet a complete feral or a manipulative movie!Dracula style vamp who, of course, attacks her for her delicious blood. Then I’d have her become friends with Ed, grow closer and then BAM! Turns out he’s a vampire. Now she’s got to deal with the fact that she has gotten to know and like (and possibly love) this guy, only to learn something terrifying about him.
And on his end, I would have him genuinely trying to survive with his new unlife without the ability to cheat with blood packs or rats while attempting to still live the life of a normal teen (and yeah, he’d be very recently turned). Bella would be one of his first friends after the change and he would try his damndest to neither let her know what he is, nor end up feeding on her.
That would be the whole of the first book. Then you can expand your universe with more vamps and play with the actual love life of these two, but first and foremost, you have to dig into what makes this couple worth giving a damn about.
Now here is the place where I’ll admit to not having been the best of this myself. I think the best way to learn writing is more writing, then consuming as much media as possible with your new perspective garnered by all that writing. I didn’t have enough of that when I set up the Ian/Alexis and Warrick/Tink relationship. In my defense, the latter was kind of a chemistry that I fell ass-first into while trying to slow burn the Warrick/Cyn relationship.
As for the former, yes, I’ll cop to it: I pushed their relationship right off the blocks and left the build-up to the back story. My biggest wish looking back at it now is that I continued to write Descendants: Rewind back then as a companion to what was happening in the main series and didn’t suddenly just have them dating in Volume 1. Buuut, then I wouldn’t have had the moments I did in Objectivity, Ladies of Ragnarok, or Annual #1, so at least I did have a plan on what to do with them after the fact.
And finally, we come to our last section:
Rush To Action
This is the one I can understand most, but the one I wish wasn’t such a necessity.
I mean no offense to you, my wonderful readers, when I say that the modern audience for comics, novels and television is also afflicted with a shorter attention span. It is a lesson hammered into you when you’re trying to sell a book: if you can’t hook the reader in the first chapter, you’re dead. The same goes for comics, and TV shows. No TV show is going to let you spent the special one or two hour series premier getting your ducks in a row and spending some time living with these characters.
Sometimes, this is actually a good thing. One of my favorite shows, Leverage, pulled this off by structuring the first act to have flashbacks for each character that gave us great insight into each character in a tiny amount of time while at the same time running one of the shows signature quick cons, which became a staple for the series.
Well this started with Linkara and I guess it can end with him too. He got his start writing text reviews of terrible comics, namely Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood. Every year, on the anniversary of that review, he does a review of another awful issue of that series. And one of his more consistent complaints is that he has no idea who any of the Youngblood members even are. Many of them don’t even have real names as of his review of Youngblood #5.
Instead, the series plunges headlong into action scenes and then brings in guest characters and homages to other comic creators, and switches between one villain group and another and…and…
The overall effect is akin to having a seven year-old whose entire diet consists of sugar tell you about the awesome dream they had last night. Its’ fragmented, nonsensical, and completely breathless. Now, this being Liefeld, slowing things down won’t actually fix things because… jesus, I have no idea where to begin with his stuff and again, constructive post.
However, it would be vastly improved if only to give the characters things like… character.
In contrast, he also did a review of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, which—get this—spent the entire issue and then some with the character setting up his situation and the series’ storytelling engine. And while Spawn still isn’t my cup of tea, the issue did a good job actually connecting the reader to the universe and the character.
And that’s exactly what I wish I saw more of. Too often writers are too excited to rush off into their plot that they don’t stop and slow down and let you actually see that world and the characters. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, in the modern world, you don’t get that much time to do it, but it certainly can be done.
Ironically, the New 52 Teen Titans run was doing a good job of this! Each character was introduced in the course of Time Drake’s investigations into the kidnapped teens and were given time to start to get to know each other. Unfortunately, the stupid crossover and its attendant cramming of canon and rush to get to a big action scene (right after an already awesome action scene with the team vs. Superboy) derailed that and the series never did really regain its footing as far as I can tell.
I think a lot of writers are of a mind that ‘something happening’ and ‘character stuff and quiet moments’ are two exclusive things, but they aren’t. You can develop character in the course of action and quiet moments can advance plot. And I really believe that audiences can be just as hooked by a good, slow character moment as they are with action and plot motion.
I guess, in the end, what I’m asking is for everyone; both writers and audiences; to slow down every once in a while and let things develop at their own pace, to let stories become rather than just download to your brain. We all get impatient at times, but just like with food, while we might like burgers and fries from the drive thru, we also like a burger grilled up in the back yard after letting the beef marinates and a side of home fries. You don’t have to give up one for the other, just find a nice mix.
Thanks for reading. There will be no blog next week as this space will be taken up by CynQuest aftermath story. And in honor of my birthday, September will be my Top 20 Moments in the Descendants Expanded Universe. Don’t forget to check in and help my count down my favorite parts from the Minis, One shots and Limited series stories!
The paperback edition of A Girl and Her Monster is now on sale! If you would like a copy, you and get it from Amazon or CreateSpace. Use the code “JC6FHA72” during checkout at Createspace to receive 25% off. If you’d like a signed copy, please contact me via email or PM on the forum and we can make arrangements.
One last note, another friend of mine, Matthew Wilkins, has a new graphic novel out, a Vietnam era tale called The Rest of Heaven Was Blue. You can buy it from his website, or via Comixology.
Questions, comments, verbal abuse? Please post them below in the comments, or the forum.
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