Tuesday, August 25, 2009

And This is Why I Don't Like Corporate Storytelling...

Dwayne McDuffie got the nod to write Justice League, supposedly DC's flagship title. Dan Didio even made a big noise about McDuffie using his Milestone characters:

The great thing is, we have Dwayne McDuffie who is one of the owners and creators of the Milestone characters working for us and also of course, writing Justice League of America, so he’s going to finding ways to incorporate the characters into the storylines that are going to be unfolding within Justice League.

And said the book was McDuffie's for as long as he wanted to write it. We all know now how that story ended.

Apparently, despite his being handed the keys to kingdom as it were, McDuffie ended up not having nearly as much creative control as he would've liked. He wasn't permitted really "[to find] ways to incorporate the characters into storylines." Why? Because company-wide crossovers and character use in other titles prevented him from telling the stories he'd planned:

I’ve had virtually no input into the composition of JLA. It’s DC Comics’ flagship book. They tell me who to put on the team, based on their needs elsewhere in the universe, and I do it. I believe I had influence in getting rid of Red Tornado, but even there I was forced to put him back in his body about two years before I had planned to…

There are a large number of changes coming up, mostly due to members leaving in the aftermath of Final Crisis. Again, I had little to no influence on how the team is shaking out. Dan and Eddie are allowing me to frequently guest star several characters who by rights should be written out of the book because of what’s going on in their titles. They also acquiesced to my request for a member rejoining the team (as soon as another project is done with him in about eight months). That character will be my first addition to the team, roughly two years after taking over the book.

This situation definitely sucks for McDuffie himself and for the readers as well, but I can't imagine this stuff with JLA and the Milestone characters came about because of the kind of perfidy no less than Tony Isabella suggests in the comment section at Pop Culture Shock:

As I’ve said elsewhere, I think DC’s main interest in the Milestone characters and the Archie super-heroes and the Thunder Agents and Doc Savage et all is to keep anyone else from using them. Well-done self-contained universes featuring those character would compete very favorably with the current DCU and, for that matter, the Marvel Universe.

Why would a company pay money just to eliminate competition, then sit on potential profit-makers? Why pay money and then not try to make that money back somehow? To suggest otherwise seems... well... a little too conspiracy theory for my tastes.

I'm not saying DC absolutely doesn't do this, just that it seems unlikely unless they truly are somehow evil. And I just can't believe that without actual proof. You know, a behind-closed-doors mission statement or Time-Warner strategy memo of DC's seeking some kind of monopoly or something. It'd make much more sense for them to buy or license the characters (which would fulfill the function of preventing their use by competitors) and then actually use them to make a profit (which would fulfill their function of being a corporation).

That's why I think it's more likely Dan Didio was telling the truth and DC acquired all those Milestone characters-- perhaps merely to use Static, as some suggest-- with just those kinds of big plans for some or all of them but things didn't or couldn't work out because of how many writers and editors they have crafting the overall narrative.

If the summer crossover The Death of the Infinite Final Identity Crisis Gods team have their own plans that include killing the central figure in your monthly narrative, suddenly putting someone else into the costume for whatever arbitrary reason or denying you use of a character you deem absolutely essential to your plot, then you have no choice but to change everything you painstakingly set up in order to maintain your status as a team player and preserve the corporate narrative.

How can a writer work under those conditions? Not well, I'm afraid. It seems your job would be merely to plug in other people's ideas and provide dialogue, perhaps covering for plot holes and whatnot-- remember Identity Crisis, the big prestige project from a few years ago was literally riddled with them like the big hunk of moldy Swiss cheese it really was and other writers had to clean up the mess in the monthlies afterwards and Jim Starlin couldn't actually end Death of the New Gods satisfactorily because a lot of the Fourth World concepts he was dealing with were due to come to their conclusion in Final Crisis, ultimately rendering his story pointless-- until you're not actually a writer, per se.

You're kind of a facilitator. A copywriter like the people who put all those words on the cereal boxes for the most part. Forget about writerly techniques such as foreshadowing or character development. Your plot points might get erased before you even get to them, and the character you needed for your big story moment may be unavailable when the time comes.

As a reader, I just can't get behind a kind of authorship or enjoy a comic book story where ten or twenty people with conflicting needs have a hand in a single ongoing narrative and may moot it at any point. A writer gets on a series and can't generate any kind of narrative momentum and is constantly undermined by big events. Consequently, there's no plot development I trust, no character I can fully enjoy for fear he or she might be desecrated unnecessarily at some point due to the whims of the group-think approach.

It's practically an axiom in films the more screenwriters you have, the worse the movie's going to be. With that in mind, I'm thinking of doing a series of essays on characters and stories ruined by corporate authorship. So outside of the creators of those occasional books that are just incompetent dreck for other reasons (the aforementioned Identity Crisis and the lamentable Redemption Road Batgirl mini and the Batman "As the Crow Flies" storyline I mocked the other day, for example), I can't fault anyone on an individual basis for any of this stuff. Corporate authorship at this level is simply a poor system for producing fiction. It does writers a disservice, ruins character development, renders stories moot seemingly at random, opens the editors to all kinds of paranoid charges, creates narrative chaos and ultimately undermines the idea of "story" itself.

9 comments:

Nathaniel said...

I think McDuffie's situation is certainly a shame and I don't doubt that there's some editorial mucking around going on behind the scenes that interfere with just about everyone not named Grant Morrison or Geoff Johns, but I think he gives himself and his creations a little bit too much credit. Saying that a well-done universe using the Milestone characters would compete very favorably with DC and Marvel is akin to saying "well-done stories will compete favorably with DC and Marvel", since I think Milestone suffers from the same problem that 90% of indie books have: no one has any clue who these characters are (well, except for Static, and I wouldn't even call him a household name and to my knowledge his inclusion in Teen Titans has not caused issues to fly off the shelf).

I don't think there's anything wrong with the Milestone characters, but I don't believe for a minute that Milestone could ever rise up and hold any meaningful market share compared to DC or Marvel. Most people who want superheroes will go with one of those two companies, and I don't see that Milestone has anything radically new and different to offer, except maybe a better representation of minority characters.

Maybe books like Invincible are proof that there's a market for non-DC and Marvel superhero stuff, but I don't think DC and Marvel are lying awake at night in fear of the potential Milestone juggernaut.

Joel Bryan said...

Those are some good points. I think this kind of thing isn't limited to McDuffie's situation, obviously. He just got doubly screwed because of the involvement of his own characters.

I also think what you're saying reinforces the absurdity of the "DC just grabbed these characters because they want to destroy the competition" argument. What competition?

Maybe they just wanted Static and took the other characters as a loss-leader but I seriously doubt they intended to screw anyone. I'd need corroboration to even entertain that idea.

Nathaniel said...

I think he was more screwed over by DC's current "let's make it up as we go" philosophy toward storytelling rather than inherent evil.

At the same time, though, it's gotta sting that DC is currently majorly pushing characters from Red Circle, an imprint even more obscure than Milestone. I'm sure McDuffie wonders why they didn't allow him to write a series of ongoings dealing with his characters in the same way they're handling these new acquisitions.

Joel Bryan said...

Really? How long before that becomes hopelessly muddled and convoluted?

I used to think writing and drawing for Marvel or DC would be a dream job but now I'm torn between respect for those who can do it without going insane or becoming embittered and my own ideas of creative freedom and personal aesthetic goals.

Nathaniel said...

Well, I probably exaggerate the situation, but writers like McDuffie and Chuck Dixon who have parted ways with DC over the last few years seem to imply that storylines tend to change at the whims of the higher-ups with little warning. Just look at what a disaster the buildup to Final Crisis was for proof of that. And then there's poor McDuffie and his dead Hawkgirl scene that had to be changed after it had already been drawn because DC decided that Hawkgirl would still be alive.

I think it has to be a nightmare to work for DC, unless you're one of the top-tier creators who has enough clout to where the editors won't mess with your stories.

Joel Bryan said...

Yeah, there may be some writers who thrive on the "Hey! I'm making comic books for a living!" vibe, but I'd end up biting the hand that feeds me pretty quickly I think.

I just wish they'd leave the writers alone for a two years or so. No big crossovers, no worries about company-wide continuity. Just let people like Paul Dini do their thing. That guy has the potential to produce the most compelling Batman stories since Denny O'Neill's and yet he's dealing with this "Where's Bruce Wayne?" nonsense.

Joel Bryan said...

The more I think about it, the more I think the ideal situation is working on your own stuff for some company like Fantagraphics. One that treats you as a book publisher would a novelist. Another excellent way to create comics would be to work in tandem with someone like Mike Mignola on Hellboy where you're working in tandem with a small team and some really dedicated editors.

And another one would be something like a doujinshi circle where you're collaborating with a small unit similar to a band situation. In way I view the whole Hellboy set-up as similar to that, only more professional. Los Bros Hernandez have it made, too.

I also dig Mike Allred's method which is a little bit like Los Bros because he's working on creator-owned stuff with his family.

Not that they'll ever come asking but the only way I could see working for DC or Marvel would be with one of their imprints, or else doing some kind of self-contained "Elseworlds" gig, or a miniseries no one gives a rat's ass about but yourself.

But monthly superhero stuff? I doff the hat I never wear to people who can thrive in that kind of environment, which I see as almost anti-creative. Unless you're the toppermost of the poppermost. And even then a year or two later someone's going to come along and undo every story you told.

Or simply re-write them over and over the way they did with Chris Claremont's stuff in the X-Books and Frank Miller's on Batman.

Nathaniel said...

The sad thing is that I feel like it must be pretty hard to make a living outside of DC and Marvel if you're an untested creator. I'm not an expert on the indie marketplace, but it seems like most indie books don't sell enough for someone to make a living. And that's not even getting into Diamond's stranglehold on distribution and preference toward mainstream titles.

I've heard stories of some creators joining up with DC or Marvel just because they'll give them health insurance. It's sort of sad when you think of creative people having to work on uncreative projects just so they can pay the bills.

Joel Bryan said...

This is true. I think it's one of those things you do because you have to, not only because you love to tell stories but because you must tell them.

Although health benefits are nice.