John Seavey's Storytelling Engines: Spider-Man, Part Three

Here's the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Spider-Man, Part Three

(or "Is It Just Me, Or Does My Life Seem Twice As Hectic Lately?")

(or "It's Called 'The Night Gwen Stacy Died'")So as we discussed last time, the Amazing Spider-Man (and indeed, comics in general) took on a major change with the death of Gwen Stacy--there'd always been an element of soap-opera to them, particularly the Marvel books, but from then on, that element became more pronounced. Changes to the status quo bound readers to the books more tightly, even as they made writers' jobs more difficult. With changes in status quo, it became more important to remember the "position" of the main character, his/her supporting cast, the major villains, et cetera...because this new breed of comic brought with it a new, more engaged reader who paid extremely close attention to the continuing changes, sometimes (heck, often) moreso than the writer, and they made their displeasure known when someone screwed up.

All of which makes 'Spectacular Spider-Man' a different sort of spin-off than the old 'Superman' or 'Batman' comics. After all, when 'Detective' and 'Action' begat 'Superman' and 'Batman', there wasn't a whole lot to keep track of. Superman worked at the Daily Planet, Batman was millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, and everything else changed once in a blue moon. But Peter? He worked at the Bugle one day, the Globe the next. His romantic interests changed from year to year, his college career moved on towards graduation and post-degree work, and his villains...sometimes died. Suddenly, writers needed to co-ordinate all this stuff. (They also had to work in 'Marvel Team-Up' as well, but we've discussed that in a previous column.)

So how do they handle this? For starters, they create a new supporting cast and setting. Peter's graduate studies give Gerry Conway the chance to center the "other" Spider-Man title on campus, and we get a set of "co-workers", fellow teaching assistants that Conway can use in storylines without having to pull characters out of the main series. (After all, every Harry Osborn-based story you do in Spectacular is one less you can do in Amazing.) There's a downside to this, though; when you introduce a new setting and supporting cast, invariably some of the fans of the old setting and supporting cast lose interest. Which is why we continue to get glimpses of Flash, JJJ, Aunt May, MJ, and the rest frequently enough to keep readers involved. It's really not a full storytelling engine--just half of one. A delicate balancing act is required to keep it all working.

Another change is in the rogues' gallery. Whether by accident or design, there are very few of Spider-Man's "classic" villains on display in the first seventy-four issues of Spectacular Spider-Man. More often, they either use obscure Spidey villains like the Gibbon or the Beetle, bring in villains from other books like Moonstone or Boomerang, or create new villains (to varying degrees of success...Belladonna works, the Hypno-Hustler doesn't.) Again, the writers have to spread plotlines between two books, and since villains are the originators of plotlines, that means spreading the villains around as well.

Or does it? Beyond the scope of the volumes currently in print in the Essentials series, someone hits on the bright idea to end all bright ideas--if people are reading the series to see the changes in the status quo, and if we're co-ordinating these changes between the two series, then why not start doing multi-part stories that cross between the two books? And once you've started doing it that way, why ever stop? It's great marketing. Anyone who enjoys one book has to buy the other book as well to follow the story, whether they like it or not. And once you've done it with two books, why not three? Or four? There is an upper limit to this economic logic, of course. Even the X-Men don't seem able to sustain more than five or six interconnected titles a month(Spider-Man topped out at four in the mid-90s, with a quarterly title added in.) But it's a very seductive reasoning for the people who sell comics, and for the people who write them too. After all, one storytelling engine is easier to come up with than two...

...and much easier than one-and-a-half.

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