John Seavey's Storytelling Engines: Marvel Horror, Part Two

Here's the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John's description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Marvel Horror, Part Two

(or "At Long Last, Failure!")

"Wait a second!" I hear you asking. "The only long-running series you've done two columns on are the X-Men and Spider-Man! Even the Fantastic Four didn't get a two-parter, and they're your 'favorite' comic! Why does 'Marvel Horror' get a second column?"

The answer is, "Because the first volume of 'Marvel Horror' and the second volume of 'Marvel Horror' are two completely different storytelling engines." The first volume was all about the Son of Satan and his sister, Satana, while the second volume collects together several failed attempts at ongoing horror series from Marvel's Bronze Age, when the restriction on horror comics was first lifted by the Comics Code. Marvel did an immensely successful Dracula series, a successful werewolf comic, a brief Frankenstein comic...but what else did they try?

The answers reveal a lot of interesting things about storytelling engines. Up to now, pretty much everything we've discussed has been popular and long-lived, to some degree or another, so the discussion has more or less centered on "What They Did Right". Now, as we look at some series that never made it past ten issues (and significantly less, in some cases) we can look at "What They Did Wrong".

First, we get the adventures of N'Kantu, "The Living Mummy". It's a pretty logical progression for horror--vampire, werewolf, Frankenstein monster, and then mummy. N'Kantu is a former slave who was punished for leading a revolt by being condemned to eternal life (spent buried alive, natch. Not much of a punishment if he just gets to live forever.) Modern-day archaeologists dig him up, he frees himself, and...

Yeah. That's the problem. He doesn't actually have a whole lot he wants to do, he's not particularly sociable--he's sort of altruistic, as far as it goes, but not in a way that would get him involved in any stories. His quest to restore his lost appearance (the immortality serum made him nigh-indestructible, but ravaged his features underneath the bandages) is vaguely interesting, but fairly selfish and ultimately a false status quo. We all know he's not going to get a cure, because the adventures of "The Living Guy" isn't going to sell any comics. With nowhere for the series to go, it ends after its first epic adventure.

Then we get "Brother Voodoo". Thanks to Fred Hembeck, Brother Voodoo is pretty much the poster child for lame characters everywhere, but it's pretty easy to see why Hembeck picked him as a target. Sorcerers and spell-casters are kind of tough sells in comics, because it's hard to get a handle on exactly what they can and can't do. When the writer can just invent new abilities whenever their backs are against the wall, it wrecks the drama. Add to that the fact that co-creator Len Wein didn't have a real interest in voodoo and didn't think that the real religion lent itself to a comic-book hero, the fact that he was an African-American character being written by a couple of forty-something white guys, the fact that he gets knocked out in just about every story he appears in and generally saves the day by being tied up and letting the bad guy defeat himself through sheer stupidity, and the fact that his arch-nemesis is a guy dressed up like a rooster, and it's not too hard to see the problems that led to a short stint as a headliner here.

After that, it's "Gabriel, the Devil Hunter", a character that I'd never heard of before now (and I have five volumes of handbooks to the Marvel Universe.) This one actually has a pretty compelling core concept and central character--Gabriel was a priest who was possessed by a demon that forced him to rip his own eye out, and managed to drive it away by branding himself with a crucifix. Now aware of the material dangers of Satan and his minions, he works as a sort of "renegade priest" with the help of a mysterious psychic.

Sounds like good stuff, and at first it is. But the "exorcism fad" that prompted the creation of the comic leads it down a fairly repetitive path; every issue, Gabriel goes to a new home where someone's been possessed by demons, and drives them out. Combine that with the fairly fast-and-loose rules the series has for demonic possession (pretty much anyone, at any time, for no apparent reason can be possessed by demons and made to do horrible things) and you get a series that needed a few more drafts to work. This one could be ripe for a reboot somewhere down the line, though.

Then there's "The Golem", which is pretty much the myth you've all probably heard, but with most of the Jewish stuff taken out. (Which really renders his meeting with the Thing kind of flat, but this was years before Marvel was willing to acknowledge Ben Grimm's religion.) So instead of protecting the Jewish people, this Golem protects the three people who found it from the demon Kaballa (a gesture of sensitivity right up there with Wonder Woman's mentor, "I Ching".) Even if none of that were a problem, though, the Golem just isn't interesting. He doesn't talk, he doesn't think, he's just a walking wall between danger and three fairly uninteresting people. Heroes with no personality are tough sells.

Then we get "Modred the Mystic", another sorcerer (remember how they're hard for readers to get behind because it's hard to tell what they can and can't do from moment to moment? It's true in spades with Modred, who seems to be pretty much all-powerful in his few appearances.) He's got a bigger problem beyond just being too powerful for anything to threaten him--and that's saying something. But Modred also happens to be an unlikeable, arrogant jerk who got into his original predicament through being a hot-headed idiot, and is now wandering around causing mayhem and destruction. But it's alright, because...um, because...well, because his name is on the cover, right? That means you have to root for him. (Or hand the series over to Tigra for the next five issues, then cancel it. Either way works.)

And finally we get "The Scarecrow". No, no, not that Scarecrow. No, not that Scarecrow either. This is an entirely different Scarecrow, who is...um...he lives in a painting, and there's this cult that hates him, or maybe he hates them, and he's getting revenge on them for, um...something, but they want the painting, and there's a demon, and this guy keeps vanishing, and he's got the power to...do stuff, I guess, and...it's all actually more than a little confusing. A little mystery is a great way to hook readers into a series, but "The Scarecrow" reveals so little over its first couple of issues that the reader has no way of figuring out any of what the writer has in mind for the series. By extending "mysterious" into "confusing", creator Scott Edelman sabotages any chance he has at getting the reader to stick around. Even a postscript story in "Marvel Two-In-One" doesn't clear up much.

And so we look at the lessons. These series failed because the characters weren't likeable, because they weren't competent (or in one case because they were too competent), or simply because the writers couldn't come up with anything for them to do. Some needed better villains, some needed better backstories, but all of them ended up on the ash-heap of comics history. At least, so far they have. Given the industry's tendency to dig up and polish off old ideas, we could wind up seeing a new "Brother Voodoo" series any day now.

But probably not.

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