Storytelling Engines: Strange Adventures
(or “Storytelling Paleontology”)
When we look at ‘Strange Adventures’, the 50s science-fiction anthology comic published by DC, it’s worth asking the question, “Is this actually a storytelling engine at all?” Because not everything is. The storytelling engine is composed, after all, of those things that help the writer generate ideas for stories. If the writer is just coming up with ideas for stories, then writing them, the resultant stories aren’t part of an engine of any sort. They’re just stories. Nobody ever said a writer had to have help coming up with ideas.
Although in this case, “a writer” does have help, in the form of several other writers. ‘Strange Adventures’ has eleven writers credited for the five hundred pages of stories within its pages, a fairly high number for a comic-book series over that length. It’s almost no coincidence that the stories are also mostly unrelated; without recurring characters, the series churns through ideas at a fast pace. New writers with new ideas are constantly needed to feed the beast. (It probably doesn’t help that each issue contains four six-page stories. “Decompression”, the modern technique of spreading a story out over several issues, has a crucial advantage in that coming up with one new idea for a story every six issues is a lot easier than coming up with one every six pages.)
So all right, ‘Strange Adventures’ has no storytelling engine. With no central narrator and framing sequence, even the fact that all of the stories contain the same theme (“science fiction”) doesn’t really count as an “element that assists the writer in generating story ideas”. After all, pretty much every anthology has a theme of some sort. It’s an organizing principle, not a storytelling aid. Case closed, ‘Strange Adventures’ doesn’t really belong here…right?
Well, not exactly. You can see, as you read through the eighty-one stories (one issue has five stories, not four) that comprise Volume One of ‘Strange Adventures’, how the elements of a storytelling engine are present in a sort of protoplasmic form. Certain recurring ideas take shape–the human who gains temporary, but extraordinary powers that help him handle a crisis; the scientist called in to deal with an unusual situation, perhaps involving aliens that have contacted Earth; the friendly alien, arriving on Earth to aid us in some way (perhaps with hostile aliens.) These sub-themes are proto-storytelling engines, there to aid a writer stuck for ideas by giving them a place to start. (“Okay, so it’s a guy who invents a serum that lets him…grow wings! We haven’t done that one yet!”)
The next step in the process, one which you begin to see as the stories progress, is taking these recurring themes and turning them into recurring characters. For example, Darwin Jones, of the Department of Scientific Investigation, makes a couple of appearances in the series. You can almost see the writers slowly coming to realize the advantages of not having to make up a new scientist every time they need to investigate an alien menace. Of course, since it is the 50s, all comic book characters wind up seeming pretty interchangeable anyway.
Which is a key point in looking at this series–it’s from a relatively early point in the history of the medium, when storytelling techniques were still being developed and the comic book was still seen as essentially disposable entertainment. If you were to tell John Broome or Otto Binder that their six-page science-fiction stories would be collected in book form and read by grown-ups as classic examples of an era’s literature, they’d probably laugh. (Heck, they’d probably make it into a story in the comic. “A scientist travels through time and finds that the students of the future are studying…get this…science fiction comics! In their History class!”) This book is almost like seeing a fossil of an early life-form as it develops into something we recognize. We can see the limb buds here, the first signs of gills there, but it’s a far cry from our modern life.
The idea of a science-fiction series that centers around unusual science isn’t necessarily one that has a storytelling engine, and ‘Strange Adventures’ only has the beginnings of one. But as writers work with the idea, turn the vast array of interchangeable scientists into a few distinctive and recognizeable ones, toss out some of the stories that don’t quite fit and find ways to help come up with ones that do, and use more modern storytelling ideas like decompression and metastory arcs, well…let’s just say that modern TV shows like ‘Fringe’, ‘Primeval’, ‘Torchwood’ and ‘Eureka’ can look on ‘Strange Adventures’ as a sort of distant ancestor.