‘Storytelling Engines – How Writers Keep Superhero Sagas Going And Going’

❉ The monthly comic’s ability to carry on with new stories for decade after decade is a fascinating case study in how ongoing narratives work. 

“What comes through above all in Storytelling Engines is a genuine enjoyment for superhero comics. Seavey takes his topic seriously but also sensibly. Where some efforts to treat the genre substantively seem almost apologetic and keen to look at any aspect but the actual comics, he keeps his focus on the stories themselves”

Between Marvel Comics’ recent movies turning fairly obscure characters from the 1960s into household names and the 1000th issue of Action Comics marking 80 years since the debut of Superman, the superhero genre shows little sign of diminishing. If anything, there’s a case to be made that superheroes represent the dominant thread in current popular culture. Putting the financial element to the side (as much as possible), the impact of the genre’s ascendancy has been incredible – reviving the careers of numerous actors and pushing questions of representation thoroughly into the mainstream. That’s no small feat for a medium that was considered the height (or nadir, depending on one’s perspective) of disposability.

Though the monthly comics themselves only attract a fraction of the audience their cinematic offshoots do, they remain the most enduring expression of the form. Their ability to carry on with new stories for decade after decade is itself a fascinating case study in how ongoing narratives work. This aspect is rarely discussed, but the new book Storytelling Engines works to redress the balance.

Adapted from and expanding on a series of online columns, writer John Seavey finds the wellspring of the genre’s longevity in a somewhat paradoxical concept – that of the status quo. While the term status quo is generally associated with being limited or boring, Seavey artfully uses the term to describe the broader context in which the characters function – the characters and situations that facilitate each issue’s excitement – the “storytelling engines” of the title. In his view, the variety of stories (or lack thereof) that these fundamentals make possible is frequently the difference between an icon and a perpetual supporting player.

Seavey devotes plenty of time to characters in the former category such as Superman, whose narrative potential he describes as “the gold standard” among superheroes. Considering the writer’s willingness to refute the conventional wisdom about Superman being boring and limited, it’s not surprising that he’s often most insightful when discussing well-established but less popular characters like Ant-Man and Aquaman. Because they’re less essential to their fictional universes, characters in this category can undergo significant shifts in their status quo without disrupting the broader narrative, as happened when the Silver Surfer finally regaining his freedom to travel the universe. Seavey identifies that situation as a shift that made the storytelling engine more powerful, but he also delves into cases where a shift curtails possibilities.

This is particularly true with mid-level characters who tend to be the ones most impacted by the massive crossover events that have been fixtures for DC and Marvel since the 1980s. The gray area between being reasonably familiar to readers but not part of the top-tier provides a useful loophole for these publishers. It allows the universe-shaking storylines to present actual consequences yet limit their effect to avoid uproars among fandom at large.

Three decades of constant crisis – including several Crisis-named storylines from DC – have turned these would-be epics into obvious targets for derision. However, Seavey articulates their underlying problem without taking the cheap and easy path. In his piece about perennial B-list hero the Elongated Man, whose life was shattered by the violent death of his wife in the acclaimed (but also polarizing) miniseries Identity Crisis, the author encapsulates the self-defeating aspect of such narrative bombshells.

“It’s not that they killed off greatly beloved characters; it’s that they made changes to the status quo in order to sell extra copies of a single story, with no thought given to the thousands of future stories that would no longer be told.”

The book is no less entertaining when examining the superhero genre’s dominant characters like the Hulk and the Flash. Of particular interest are the cases where Seavey looks at multiple periods from a character and/or team’s history to illustrate why a particular status quo worked more effectively than another. His multi-part look at the X-Men family of titles – not just the mothership but also the spin-off series X-Factor and Wolverine’s solo series – deftly illustrates the delicate balancing act a successful series entails and how little it takes to make an effective engine start sputtering.

Batman also gets multiple pieces, covering both his individual titles and his team-up books, The Brave and the Bold and Batman and the Outsiders. Not surprisingly for a figure of his stature, these essays touch on some of the genre’s major preoccupations. Implausible resurrections and other media influencing the content of the comics may be more commonplace in recent years, but these essays make it clear that they’re by no means new phenomena. Likewise, the piece about The Brave and the Bold is noteworthy for showing how shifts in a character’s status quo – and their broader environment – over time can make a once popular concept less appealing in the present.

What comes through above all in Storytelling Engines is a genuine enjoyment for superhero comics. Seavey takes his topic seriously but also sensibly. Where some efforts to treat the genre substantively seem almost apologetic and keen to look at any aspect but the actual comics, he keeps his focus on the stories themselves. This is true even when dealing with creations like Sergeant Rock or Conan who don’t strictly speaking fit the superhero mold. Though at times he’s more dismissive of certain characters than their longevity warrants (e.g. DC Comics’ “Golden Age” heroes), even that’s fitting. Playing favorites is part of being a fan, and Seavey is clearly a fan.


❉  Storytelling Engines by John Seavey is released 16 May 2018. The book is available to order directly from ATB Publishing RRP $14.95 US.

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