Soap Operas and the Comics Industry, Part II of II
By David Young
Soap operas are a far superior art form to comics because it works within its own strict limits, the main one being that people get tired. Yes, there are people that have been playing the same role in the same soap for 30 years, but more often than not, they have either had several extended breaks from the series or they've been relegated to a recurring role for most of that time, only occasionally being pulled back into use.
If the comics were true to their soap opera leanings then Spider-Man would not be in title after title, guest starring and cameoing and starring and teaming up... we would see him about 10 times a year (even the stars of the soap operas aren't in every episode) and each story would attempt to be as watchable as the last. Not more complex, not more twisting, not with bigger explosions, not with more character, just rather equal.
Soap operas are a formula and they know that there can be no more than one love triangle at any one time and that you should only focus on 3 active characters per scene and only 4 juggled plot-lines per episode. No massive teams dealing with 15 gangs of villains at one time. Even popular characters get put on the shelf now and then.
Take Dazzler for instance. She wasn't Wolverine status, but she had her own title and it lasted pretty long. When's the last time you heard someone say "damn that Dazzler, I'm so sick of her" recently? You haven't because she's not there to be sick of. She still gets a story every now and then but when the writers are done with her she goes back on the shelf.
Punisher started as a bit role. He was popular, eventually he moved on to a starring role in the Marvel Universe (via his own titles) then he was shelved (albeit, only because the fans were so sick and tired of seeing him) but after a few years, he was brought back, and now, a few years later he's back to being a main character.
Back to my point... Read the last half of Morrison's JLA. Between the 16-member team and the Injustice League and the miscellaneous plot devices you're getting one character per page. Most people will easily pick up on the basics. Batman hates killers and the Huntress has killed before. Superman just wants to save the Earth. Plastic Man is funny, Big Barda and Wonder Woman are strong, Orion is violent and there's a giant something or other that's somehow going to kill the world. If that were all, then any non-comic fan would pick up any part and say "hot damn, this is an action packed storyline" but no. There's Metron. What's he here for? What's the deal with his chair? Why is Queen Bee building a hive? Why are these super-heroes talking to a girl in a wheel chair? When did they build this purple laser thing? What's Lex Luthor doing in the moonbase? Who's Firestorm and what's he doing with that Atom guy? Wait a minute... now everyone's got super-powers?
Yes, I know "well when you put it like that it sounds bad" but take the average soap opera. Watch a week’s worth of episodes. What's going on? Bob and Sue are in love but Mary wants Bob for herself. Jack is in the hospital with a life threatening heart problem and Betty is at his side trying to convince him not to give up. Cathy and Dirk are trying to figure out what evil schemer Terry is up to, not knowing that his lackey John has planted a bomb under their car. Yeah, it may not sound all that interesting but it's different when you're going through it.
That whole continuity thing is just something the hardcore fans use to keep novices out. Just like in comics. If you're talking to someone who's watched soaps all their life, then yes they're going to tell you all about so-and-so and how his father is so-and-so's cousin who just happens to be the arch-nemesis of this other person's daughter's cousin's son's doctor. But you don't need to know that. You just need to know who's sleeping with who this week.
You think the writers consult years and years and years of episodes so they can decide what the next step can be? No! They just need to know where they last put each character.
Comics are written by the same type of fan that can tell you who was
sleeping with who when so-and-so-got pregnant with person X's baby. They expect you to know, or at least be reasonably familiar with not just the 10 or so characters that are active in the book at this time, but also the cast and crew of every other book published by that comic company in the past few years. You can't pick up an issue and just enjoy it. Hank is replaced by his evil double from years ago that tagged along with him when he and the Wasp were battling foes (in another book) and Captain America is upset with
the Avengers because he's been battling a guy that has the same powers as he does and while he was doing that, the Avengers failed to clean up a mess that was caused by a robot obsessed with the Avengers 2 years ago and a giant spirit that stole a cursed sword from an ex-Avenger 7 years ago and Triathlon and Photon and Jack of Hearts (the last two just coming back from adventures in another title) are battling two guys that were sent by an evil group that the Avengers were insulted by 2 and a half years ago and these guys planted Triathlon there but we still don't know why and the Scarlet
Witch is still upset because she's in love with Wonder Man whom she brought back to life, much to the dismay of her former robot-husband/lover who's just realized that he's in love with her again and so he's trying to make her jealous by dating Warbird. And She-Hulk is super-strong. And in tomorrow's episode (well, next month's issue) none of that will matter because Captain America and all of the aforementioned characters will be in Greece with Silverclaw, who last appeared 6 months ago for about 8 pages in 2 issues, battling the Hulk who went insane in the pages of his own book.
That's why nobody reads comics anymore. The last time I heard someone compare soap operas to comics someone mentioned how ironic it is that soap operas are big ratings grabber, but comics are a very cultish thing and that comics need fewer fans writing the books and more good soap opera writers and I can't agree more. Too many comic writers depend on the concept that if you're reading the book, you have some idea of every major event that has occurred in not just that title but in that universe ever since that universe started (which in some cases, means a long time ago). Few soap opera fans can tell you what happened in the first episode of the series. Few can tell you what happened in the first 20 years of the series. 90 percent can't even tell you what was going on when they started watching the damn thing but that doesn't stop them from enjoying what's going on now.
Maybe you feel that you used to read a title years ago, and stopped, and now maybe it won’t appeal to you? Hey, the stories SHOULD appeal to you, regardless of your age or how many years you've been reading them. Few people say "I'm too old to enjoy ER" after all. Granted, there aren't many things that a person can enjoy the same way they did when they were 10, but there should be something of entertainment value for everyone.
It seems to me like the more transient comics have been the most popular ones. Around WW2 comics were extremely popular, not because they were exceptionally well written, but because they were easy to get into and out of. The writers weren't expecting readers to pick up every issue to continue a single plotline. Yeah, there's the "well, they were popular because it was during the war and people were buying them as cheap entertainment" argument, but the point remains, it didn't matter if you were a faithful follower of a certain super-hero or if you just bought comics whenever you'd go to town, they were the same sort of throwaway material as TV and paperbacks about cowboys and aliens.
What comics do most fans start out on? Archies. Almost every one of us (well, I can't speak for the non-Americans so probably this argument isn't the best one) has read one at one time or another but almost anyone would be hard-pressed to tell you what happened in one of them, other than the basics. Archie and Betty and Veronica are in a romantic triangle but Reggie wants Veronica. And Jughead likes to eat.
Yeah, in one issue Archie will get amnesia or Jughead may dream about living in medieval England and Veronica's father may cut off her allowance and make her get a job. In the end, the books (all of them, and yeah, there are many) remain the same. While they may not be X-Men level sellers (I don't even know where to look for stats on print numbers but I know they can't be too dynamite) they make a profit AND they have fans.
Back issues are nearly impossible to find... trade paperbacks, essential editions and masterworks/archives are non-existent... the life of any one issue is probably less than a year, but hey, they keep going. No continuity, no cumbersome five-year story arcs that lose their way after the first 3 months, no reboots, no special jumping-on points...
Maybe Marvel should take a page out of Archie's book instead of their current plan of "let’s make movies, then make books about the movies. And while we're waiting for the movies to come out, let’s put current hot creative teams on books so those silly comic fans will stay happy".
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