DCnU: Beating a Red Hood...er, a Dead Horse

Welcome back, kids.

Tonight's impassioned entry was inspired by a conversation I had just an hour or so ago with Tim aka @Ikariniku, one of my followers over on Twitter. Anyone who enjoys my entries over here, please, get yourself over there and follow me there at @Gary_M_Miller, and follow Tim while you're at it! We have some fun debates, 140 characters at a time.

What makes a "great" first issue?

It's a deceptively simple question, isn't it?

As someone who, once upon a time, wrote a story during Marvel's Epic 2.0 initiative, let me tell you: a first issue isn't easy to write. Especially when you're "pitching," a first issue has to hit all the right notes. Depending on what a company needs, that story might become a one-shot, or the first issue in a miniseries, or if you're very, very lucky, it might become the first issue in an "unlimited" series. If the latter occurs, congratulations, because it means you can do a bit of world-building and seriously expound on the concepts in that first story.

DC Comics creators got very lucky this year, because up popped fifty-two magical lottery tickets. Last month, fifty-two series premiered. They were written by forty-two writers, including fourteen writers who took on more than one project (and two who braved three!) and seven writing duos.

With the sheer amount of new first issues coming out last month, and the onslaught of publicity that surrounded the DC relaunch, it was important--nay, essential--that the writers know how to write great first issues. To coin a cliche, the stakes were never higher.

In simplest terms, a first issue must introduce the key roster of characters, tell us why we should love or hate each character, provide at least one thrilling set piece, and tell an engaging enough story so that we, the readers, just can't live without picking up the second issue in a month's time.

And yeah, there's that whole "first issue of how many?" question.

With these tenets in mind, I started thinking about the DC "New 52." And just as there are some stunningly good examples of what a first issue should be, there are also some depressingly horrible ones. Because it's so much fun to beat a dead horse until it wakes up and barfs blood all over you and fifteen of your closest friends, I've chosen to level my criticisms at what I declared to be far and away the worst of the new lot.

That's right: Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 is again squarely in my sights.

You've heard from me before, and many other writers more loquacious than I, about the treatment of Starfire in this tale. By now, you've likely even heard from Red Hood writer Scott Lobdell on the hubbub. The comments Lobdell has provided show less a writer who's just insensitive about his portrayal of a beloved character, and more a writer who just doesn't know how to write a good first issue...nevermind a great one.

All right, that isn't quite fair, and I admit it. I'm taking the opportunity right now to say that I've never been one of Lobdell's biggest fans. I've never been a fan. Since he had the thankless job of taking over when both Chris Claremont and John Byrne abdicated the main X-Men books in 1991, adding the words to fit between Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio's pretty pictures, he's come off as a bit of a flyweight. More accurately, some comic fans--myself included--group him in with everything that went wrong with nineties comics in general and the X-mythos in particular. Scarcely a moment went by in that decade where the X-Men weren't embroiled in some long-running, editorially-driven arc, and very often Lobdell was front and center. He has the reputation--earned or not--of being able to write just what Marvel's editors wanted at any given moment.

Scott Lobdell, "company man." And now one of two writers--with Geoff Johns being the other--who writes the most "New 52" books every month.

Does he write good books, or just what editors think fans want to see? You decide.

I have big problems with "I Fought the Law and Kicked Its Butt!" and a great deal of them concern the middle third of the script. But let me begin with what the book actually does right, and we'll proceed apace.

I can appreciate the three-act structure of the book. Lobdell remembers the maxim well: if you're gonna do action, then by all means, start on a beat of action. The opening sequence reads just like the first reel of a move starring Jason Statham or any number of today's action heroes. In theory, the first sequence is the "hook," the second sequence expands upon the characterization hinted at in the first, and the third should give us a big bang of action before the big conclusion.

Where does the book fall apart? I don't like Lobdell's humorous sensibilities. From jokes about a team member's breasts ("Who do we know who carries a pair of 38s?") to bad puns ("Tanks!" "Don't mention it."), it's off-putting, it's sophomoric, and it's cringe-worthy at worst. Was his stand-up act so insipid?

The humor's the tip of the iceberg. I firmly believe if you're writing a first issue, you should keep one thought centered: people are probably going to pick up this book who haven't picked up any other appearance of the characters in it. And based on the impressions they receive from reading this first issue, they're going to decide if they like these characters, and if they will pick up the second issue. "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

So, what's our first impression of these characters? Jason is a womanizing jerk. Roy gets in trouble and has to be bailed out. And Kori, she's an alien with a short attention span who likes to have sex.

Lobdell tells us--under duress--that Kori--Starfire--was being purposely evasive and sarcastic when addressing her past with the Teen Titans. He says there's a big reason why, and to reveal it now would spoil future issues of the series. That's all well and good, but it violates the keys of writing a good first issue.

Remember what I said about making a good first impression? First impression, first issue. You can make a good first impression in any other issue, but it's extra important to do it with number one. Number one is the blank slate. Even if a series has been around forever, the first story in a new volume should always go out of its way to establish character, motivation, milieu, etc. One of the things I think it's essential to convey is honesty.

It's hard enough being able to tell if a body's being sarcastic from reading words on a screen or a printed page. Lord knows there are ways to do it in print (he said, a smirk in his voice). It's harder in comics, especially if you have an uncooperative artist who can't fully realize your script or an editor who doesn't comprehend the subtext and changes your dialogue. But Red Hood? There's no hint of sarcasm here. None.

Ask yourself who is providing the information we're getting about Starfire. Jason gives us the first intelligence about her. She's an alien, she spent part of her life in captivity, and she doesn't like soldiers. He infers that he's slept with her. He tells us she has a "short attention span about all things Earth." He even suggests she remembers nothing about her time with the Titans. Does it occur to new readers to question any of the preceding? Because Jason takes an authoritarian tone on conveying the first facts about her, we're beholden to his point of view and new readers readily accept the rest as gospel.

Not to be outdone, Starfire is complicit in her own character assassination. Does she contradict any of what Jason says about her? She's got that carefree attitude about sex and initiates an encounter with Roy. When he asks "Aren't you...Jason's girl?" she retorts that the suggestion is "absurd" but doesn't refute it. (How many times have you known a woman who told you it was absurd to think she was sleeping with a guy--perhaps even told you with a slap--only to find later you were right on the money? Girls, feel free to switch genders and ask the same question, possibly minus the slap.) Also, she reinforces the idea Jason puts forth that she doesn't remember the Titans. ("You don't remember anyone named Dick?" "No." "Garth? Dustin? Vic?" "I can't recall.") With nobody casting doubt, with no hints in the art or story to suggest she's faking it, it must be true, right?

Why do we trust Jason? Because he's got the authoritarian captions, and because he's the guy whose name's on the front cover. Only those who have read his previous appearances would presume he might not be telling the absolute truth. Just like only those who have read Starfire's previous appearances might presume she's got a good reason for acting the way she does in this story.

The disconnect comes when you consider this issue is supposed to act as an introduction. It's supposed to largely be divorced from all that burdensome continuity and Superboy-Prime's reality-punches. Everyone should, more or less, act like themselves. The story should work if you have no preconceptions about these characters, if you've never met them before. Or, to put it another way: establish your characters before you go mucking with them. Have them do and say things that represent who they are. If someone's supposed to not be totally trustworthy, show us.

Simply put: Play fair.

There's an easy example to trot out here: Kurt Busiek's Thunderbolts #1. The story proceeds like a straightforward superhero epic, opening with action, introducing all of the members of this astonishing team that's stepped in to fill the void left by the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. They beat the "bad guys" decisively, and everyone vouches for the new team on the block. It's a terrific story...but then, Busiek pulls out the rug in the final few pages when he reveals the "heroes" to be the Masters of Evil, the Avengers' sworn enemies! Their real raison d'etre comes into sharp focus. While it's true you might get more out of the final revelation if you've been a longtime fan, Busiek clearly choreographs the events and gives new readers reason enough to enjoy the story without benefit of previous tales.

So it should be with all "number ones."

If you subscribe to the theory that Lobdell was trying to play with readers' expectations through his use of Starfire, then you're already making a key concession: that he was not, in fact, writing for a potential new audience. Rather, he was writing for the same old legions of fans who purchased hundreds of issues of Batman, New Teen Titans, and other series where these characters had previously appeared. Because if you are writing to play with readers' expectations, you're presuming previous exposure, previous opinions. That's where you end up with people seriously misjudging the work.

Because it's a new number one, and because everyone's being told the "New 52" is a fresh start--with characters like Firestorm being totally rebooted--it's easy to see why readers would throw a hissy fit over Starfire's apparent bimbofication instead of cogently debating the reasons for her change.

It's all about context. And with a number one, there should really be no context required.

Shame on Lobdell.

Introduce your characters. Show us why we should care. Give them something exciting to do. Make us come back for round two.

I guess it really is so difficult.


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