Word came down last week that ABC’s former hit series, LOST (Wed 10P), one of the handful of shows credited with turning the network’s fortunes around a few years back, is in trouble. Seems viewership, already down this year, dropped off badly for the return episode two weeks ago – it was supposed to be calculated to bring everyone up to date and jumpstart interest, and generally got good reviews from TV critics – and lost about a quarter of that audience by last week, prompting open if unofficial suggestions from ABC that all mysteries might be wrapped up by season’s end, with the implication it could also be the series end as well if things don’t start looking up.
I’ve never watched more than ten minutes of the show, so I can’t make any judgments on quality. I know a lot of people who love it. Or loved it. I don’t hear many people talking about it anymore. There’s a lot of speculation about why interest has waned – long gaps between arcs (the same thing, essentially splitting seasons into discrete halves, has helped make the recently renewed BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (Sun 10P) shaky on SciFi); moving the show from 9P to 10P; keeping many of the most popular characters caged and functionally immobile for weeks on end; whatever – but it probably comes down to this:
Too many storylines, too many questions, too few resolutions.
Not that it’s unheard of in television: THE X-FILES, which really introduced that sort of thing to primetime TV, survived seven years on the same diet, and granted Fox, at least for awhile, credibility as a daring network producing challenging series. But ultimately the real challenge of X-FILES became to sit through episodes weighed down with imponderables and unanswerables the density of sizable boulders without rolling your eyes or laughing derisively. (ABC itself had previously tried and failed to do the same kind of elliptical programming with David Lynch’s bizarre north woods soap, TWIN PEAKS.) But X-FILES had a couple strong advantages over LOST that for a long time overcame the show’s unanswered questions: it centered on only a couple of characters and allowed the audience to identify strongly with them rather than interject character after character to run interference for each other, and LOST is a bottle show tied strictly to one location while X-FILES had the world and theoretically beyond as a canvas and could frequently step outside its uberstoryline to let its protagonists answer as least some questions and achieve some indisputable victories, even if those weren’t germane to the umbrella story.
Structurally, here’s the problem with stories like LOST. It’s what I call the “Master Of Kung Fu” concept: catch or kill Fu Manchu, and the series’ reason to exist ends. Don’t catch or kill Fu Manchu, and the protagonists ultimately come across as impotent, whatever minor victories they might achieve. More than that, we can think of any story as a parabolic arc (each with its own variations). Draw a straight line across the bottom of a sheet of paper. Find the point two-thirds of the way across the line, draw a straight line perpendicular to it that runs to the parallel point at the top of the page. Start on one end of the bottom line, draw a curve to the top of the perpendicular line. From that point, curve down to the other corner of the bottom line.
That’s what a story looks like.
Why isn’t the perpendicular line in the middle? Because it doesn’t work that way. In GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, Thomas Pynchon used the arc of a German V2 rocket bombing London as the model for his story structure, and it was a brilliant analogy. With its initial thrust, the rocket rises gradually, tentatively, struggling against the force of gravity in an effort to achieve momentum; in a story, that’s the setup. Momentum lifts the story and the rocket free from gravity’s pull, and movement become freer, swifter, but not entirely. Despite a sense of freedom, of all possibilities opened, gravity – the spine of the story – still has a grip, and the point will come, the crest of the arc, where momentum and possibility burn out and the true shape of the arc becomes inevitable. The rocket and story both start their descent toward their intended targets; gravity exerts its inevitability again.
The reason the arc is a lopsided, not perfect, parabola is that gravity reasserted speeds the descent; it’s plain physics. Things fall faster in collaboration with gravity than rise against it. This doesn’t mean the rocket or the story necessarily hit the desired target – there’s always an element of surprise possible – but at the point the arc begins to descend the direction and outcome are determined. The only real variable is time, and Pynchon noted that with the faster-than-sound V2 rocket, the logical end comes before we, the observers, are aware of it, because the scream of the rocket’s descent only reaches us after it has crashed and exploded.
Which also corresponds to a good story. Good stories don’t simply end with the action, but leave us with some repercussion, an unexpected blowback, consequence or sensation, a denouement as opposed to a climax. The climax is where the action ends, the rocket crashing to the ground. The denouement is the whine of the descent coming in on us just when we thought it was all over. GRAVITY’S RAINBOW identifies that as the end of logic and physics as the old world as the European world of the novel identifies them, the shattering of the chain of cause and effect as the rocket’s horrific arrival is announced only after it has already come and gone, and, yes, that shock of disorientation and reorientation is a function of fiction too.
Of course, launches can have other outcomes. Your rocket can achieve escape velocity and drift off into open space, and there are stories like that too. It can explode barely off the launch pad. You can miscalculate your trajectory and end up somewhere you never intended to go.
Where things like LOST collapse is that they’re all upward arc, where the most energy of the process is spent, and wasted, and it’s eventually tiring for audiences too, since you’re asking them to invest energy as well. You can’t go on upward arc forever; you either run out of gas and crash or you just never come back, usually the former. Which it seems is what LOST is currently doing. At some point you have to start the downward arc and head for point of impact, because the promise inherent in the launch, in the mystery, in the premise, is the impact at journey’s end. So where do pretty smart people get the idea they can stay in upward arc forever?
Part of it’s the nature of series TV. Networks are resistant to screwing with what they see as a winning formula, completely forgetting that most winning formulae were originally viewed as risky. If you’ve got a show where resolving issues means altering the premise of the show – once the survivors uncover the true nature of the island, where does the show go? Once Muldar finds his aliens and proves they’re real, what does he do then? – networks are loathe to tamper with success, and the decision that such tampering is necessary usually comes only when it’s more profitable to cancel a show than resolve it. Basic audience habits don’t help the situation; audiences traditionally don’t respond well to changes in beloved shows, and even when actors come and go the basic situation had better not change. Shows like LOST, when successful, can easily get stuck on their own success, so that even if the writers and producers really want to start wrapping things up they find themselves only laying question on question, because on shows where the upward arc is everything, the downward arc is seen as death, and it frequently is. It helps to know where your rocket is aimed, but if getting there means the end of the show, literally or conceptually, getting there is the last thing you or your network want, if you even know what you’re aiming at. (I don’t know about LOST but X-FILES apparently didn’t, as it turns out.)
But this sort of storytelling should be familiar to many of us. It’s often mentioned how far behind the cultural arcs comics usually are, but in this instance we were not only ahead of the curve, we probably caused the curve. One word:
X-MEN leaped to comics dominance in the late ’70s under the wing of Chris Claremont and John Byrne, and it wasn’t long before Chris developed the plotting style that would dominate not only UNCANNY X-MEN and all its spin-offs and associate titles but much of the Marvel output for the next 20 years. It rested on a premise that turned out to be presciently successful for the company for a long, long time: stories don’t need conclusions. I’m not sure Chris was consciously doing it, but if you look back at his lengthy run on the mutant books, plots are continually being introduced, built, and then shunted aside for some other character or plot, seemingly banked against the moment when another script was due and no idea presented itself. To some extent this predates Chris – Marvel longterm plotting in the ’70s, half-imitating what was perceived as Stan Lee’s method and half a result of a periodically rapid revolving door for writers that left lots of strings dangling, grew increasingly haphazard as the decade wore on – but he developed it into an artform.
Chris’ heyday on the book was 15-25 years ago. It wouldn’t greatly surprise me if the recent crop of hot writers and producers in Hollywood grew up religiously reading X-MEN. I know many of them grew up reading comics; they’ve told me. Even if they didn’t specifically read X-MEN or its brethren – but it has been the most consistently popular title of the last quarter century +, so odds are they did if they read comics at all – they almost certainly read comics greatly inspired by the series. By the mid-90s, most of the comics Marvel published, and many published by DC and others, were fairly slapdash affairs of storyline after storyline thrown in then veered away from for other territory. I remember going to story conferences during the period when Marvel was organizing their titles into “brands” and orchestrating crossover events between titles within a brand, and being told our books had to build toward the conclusion the writer of the core title envisioned for the book then being told he had no idea what the conclusion would be, only the premise, and that was how he always worked. Which kind of mooted the whole point of the story conference; all that came out of it was we were being told to build toward a conclusion that was never settled on, and I heard similar stories from a lot of writers in the ’90s, on a lot of different crossover projects.
Chris had several advantages the producers of LOST don’t have. He developed this plotting style at a time when fans had mostly convinced themselves story in comics is only an excuse to print the art, and he worked with many of the best artists superhero comics had to offer. He had a vast cast (that he constantly increased) to work with and a reputation for focusing on character that merged with the other traits of his work to give it a vaguely avant-garde coloration in the mind of the average fan. His canvas was all time and space and the special effects were no more costly than an artist’s page rate. Those are all elements that don’t really translate to television. They didn’t even translate well to many other comics, and while there was something in Chris’ style and mentality that let him pull it off, most other writers who tried it couldn’t. It takes special juggling skills to keep that kind of momentum going.
But it’s a natural tendency for people, especially writers and artists, to imitate what they like, and only the most imitable aspects of it, especially when dealing with something like comics, which are usually absorbed and appreciated only at the most visceral levels; it’s all many comics are even built for. I have this strange suspicion that Chris’ work on X-MEN became a form of cultural kudzu, a decorative plant in its natural habitat and a relentless, ecology-destroying weed when introduced into others.
There is the argument that Chris simply imitated soap opera plotting, but he didn’t. (It wasn’t Stan Lee’s style either, and while Stan’s stories were often soapy, especially when Pepper Potts or Betty Brant opened their mouths, his structure was more akin to advertising technique.) The soap opera still is represented in comics by Paul Levitz’s work on LEGION OF SUPERHEROES, where he generally used four plotlines per story, with the A plotline the dominant story in whatever issue, and the other three on slow build so that when the A story was finished, the B story would move up to A story, the C to B, the D to C, and a new D storyline introduced. Which is how soaps work, basically. Chris’ style was more like a game of 52 pickup where the deck size keeps increasing and you can’t hold onto more than a couple cards at a time. But that peculiar chaotic energy did give his work a sense of life, a thrill of randomness, that was rarely found elsewhere. It was a unique contribution to the field, but unique things are by definition not duplicable, and sometimes it’s not even worth trying. It’s possible to put the A-B-C-D format to ends other than soap operas, in extended series where contained stories are either stylistically undesirable or fly in the face of the core concept (and it’s certainly possible, even traditional, to build extended stories via contained stories that subtly fit together like a jigsaw puzzle; there are all kinds of ways to achieve whatever end you concoct), and to sustain wide audience interest that’s likely the better way to go about it, introducing one mystery, then introducing another as the first is resolving. That sort of thing can be kept going indefinitely, all other things being equal. The problem of a juggling act like X-MEN sustained for so many years (and it seems to have made a late comeback at DC, of all places, where their “universe” books now are apparently viewed as one huge interlocking, constantly rolling story) is that it’s like gambling. Even when you’re doing well, the odds are still in the house’s favor; keep doing it long enough and it’s the house, not you, that wins.
Things got a bit jammed up today, so if you’re reading this on Wednesday the 21st, check back tomorrow for reviews and maybe a couple other things.
Congratulations to Marvel for GHOST RIDER‘s whopping success at last weekend’s box office, a nearly unheard of (for February) $45 million, way beyond what anyone was predicting. It’ll be interesting to see how well it sustains and how well it translates into GHOST RIDER product sold, especially since Marvel just reprinted my one Ghost Rider story in their GHOST RIDER TEAM-UP trade paperback. (DC has done pretty well with movie tie-in product; I’m still getting checks regularly for the story they reprinted in a CATWOMAN tie-in trade, and that movie’s synonymous with “bomb” in every Hollywood sense of the word.)
Nothing much I want to discuss in politics this week, aside from whoever’s still harboring the delusion that John McCain’s a great choice for president because he’s a reformer outside the system needs a big reality slap. McCain’s been on a real roll these days: declaring the administration’s big mistake in Iraq is that it’s not fighting the war hard enough (that line of nonsense was huge among the right wing in Vietnam too, but pumping troops in like the shutoff valve was broken didn’t do any good over there either), abandoning his previous stance on behalf of science to speak at a Creationist convention, and most recently telling crowds in South Carolina that Roe v Wade must be overturned. So I guess in McCain’s mind the government has the right to control our bodies too. Which was the main decision of Roe v Wade, and bear in mind if you want to overturn Roe v Wade that you’ll be opening the door for the government to make its own decisions about your body too, whether you’re male or female, including whether or not you’re required to wear a subcutaneous tracking/identification device. You know, for your own good, and to fight the war on terror. Or do you labor under the delusion, particularly under this administration, that if they’re given an inch they won’t try to take a mile? If you are, you haven’t been paying attention. Speaking of paying attention, the Scooter Libby perjury trial is over except for closing arguments and jury deliberations, and it was quite the spectacle. Not that the government’s case was ironclad but Libby’s lawyers did a strikingly bad job: only niggling at witness testimony, promising in opening statements to prove Libby’s innocence with specific evidence that they then never brought up again and swearing to put defense witnesses like Dick Cheney on the stand then not calling them, and, possibly the most damaging to Libby’s case, listing Libby himself as a witness then at the eleventh hour deciding not to put him on the stand either (even the judge was expecting it, and shocked when they opted out), giving the impression that there were questions they didn’t want prosecutor Fitzgerald asking him. But it may have been a wise move, if the tapes of Libby’s grand jury testimony that got him into this mess were indicators; he seemed an appalling bad speaker. Libby’s lawyers seemed convinced members of the administration would ultimately step forth to rescue and vindicate him, but that never happened either; what administration representatives appeared, like former press secretary Ari Fleisher, came not to praise Libby but to bury him. If you didn’t catch any of this, though, you and the press can both be excused, because the Anna Nicole Smith death circus and Britney’s bald head are so much more important.
Congratulations to Paul Valois, the first of millions to correctly identify the theme of last week’s Comics Cover Challenge: circles. Or, as I told one reader who didn’t believe it could be that easy, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Anyway, Paul wants you to bop on over to online bookseller Strictly Discount Books, a great source for books on the cheap. Take that, Amazon!
For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme – it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything – and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next’s week’s column. If you need any clues beyond what’s here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column, but for some reason they never get any buzz. People used to complain that the challenges were too hard, but now people say they’re too easy, so I’ll see if I can’t rough things up a bit this week. (Remember, you asked for it.)
As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
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