Out today is ATB Publishing’s latest foray into comic book analysis, author John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: How Writers Keep Superhero Sagas Going and Going! (available now at atbpublishing.com). Culled from years of blog posts from his website Fraggmented, Seavey’s book looks at comic book story arcs through the lens of the Marvel Essentials and DC Showcase Presents series. For the unfamiliar, these two series typically collect around 20 significant issues from a given book’s run and reprint them in one volume in black and white, allowing the reader to quickly (and cheaply!) catch up on major plot points they might have missed out on during initial publication. They’re a great way for readers to see how things develop over the long term, but for Seavey these anthologies represent something deeper.
As he read selected tales spanning the bronze and silver age, Seavey says, he began to question the nature of each book’s setting, backstory and characters, as well as the motivations at play on a regular basis. The totality of these things, he came to realize, was a prime generator of stories for authors to draw upon. He dubbed this combination a storytelling engine because, taken as a whole, it makes it easier for writers to create ongoing, even endless stories than it might be if they didn’t have the benefit of preexisting details and drives. As the book puts it, the storytelling engine is a set of tools the writer can use to create stories. The better the engine, the more readily the material lends itself to new stories.
“When you’ve got one of these setups, it wasn’t like it was a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end,” Seavey says. “It was several stories one after the other and the goal was not to make big changes to the status quo. The goal was to have a status quo that you could tell a lot of stories about without making big changes. And so I started to think of this as a generator.”
According to Seavey, Superman is the gold standard when it comes to storytelling engines because everything in the classic setup has the ability to easily generate stories. Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Clark Kent — all of them have so much going on for an author to draw from that it becomes easy to keep the story going.
“Dial H for H-E-R-O is the counter example,” he said, “where everything is designed to make it harder to come up with the next issue. You have to do more work than you’d do to tell a Superman story because you have to come up with extra characters for [protagonist Robby Reed’s] hero ring, and a reason for him to get involved in this story even though he lives in this rural area where nothing ever happens. It’s much more work because the storytelling engine is set up badly.”
This isn’t to say that books with a weak storytelling engine are going to be bad by default, only that they present greater challenges for their writers. Sometimes that can be by design, like with Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, a book that consciously ignored the main character’s backstory for years and had little to no story hooks built into the status quo, which itself was subject to constant change. Yet Savage Dragon works because Larsen has an imagination so vivid that he doesn’t need to rely on a storytelling engine to generate ideas.
Seavey is careful to note that having a reliable storytelling engine doesn’t mean a book will necessarily be stagnant or routine. “You can have a storytelling engine that feels free to generate a lot of different kinds of stories,” he said, giving Spider-Man as an example. Though it had a very consistent status quo, especially in the early years, there was plenty of opportunity to generate stories with the main character’s school, his work, and his many relationships. “Even though it was a very stable storytelling engine, Peter Parker had a lot of freedom to change in his life,” he says.
Many long running characters have had more than one storytelling engine in their tenure. Batman, for example, has had his status quo see such dramatic shifts that at times in the book’s history the character would be nearly unrecognizable to fans of his current Dark Detective setup. In the 1950s for example, Batman became a science fiction comic with regular time travel and visits to outer space. “It’s a completely different storytelling engine than the Batman of the late ’60s and early ’70s. There was very little market for super heroes in the ’50s but science fiction was selling like hotcakes.”
Creating a strong storytelling engine isn’t the same thing as being formulaic, which can be dull and repetitive. Instead, a storytelling engine is more like a recipe than a formula. As Seavey puts it, “If you’re following a formula you have to do everything the exact same way every time, whereas a recipe encourages a certain degree of experimentation.”
I asked him about whether the larger comics universe of Marvel or DC becomes its own storytelling engine, essentially becoming a self-sustaining reaction. “I don’t want to spoil anything for Infinity War,” he said, “but you can see the way that just putting all these characters that have had their own stories individually into a room, they generate scenes and stories and plots just from the way they interact with each other. That whole idea of a shared universe being something that can then inspire writers on its own is a big part of why shared universes come into being.”
Those that have seen the film can find a prime example of just that sort of thing when Rocket Raccoon meets the Winter Soldier. An amusing scene plays out based entirely on what audiences already know about each character, i.e. that one has a penchant for stealing prostheses from their owners and the other has a metal arm. Said Seavey, “It’s a story that kind of writes itself in your head as you think about it.”
Understanding the concept of the storytelling engine is of supreme importance to comic book writers, but everyday fans will appreciate Seavey’s book for the insights it offers into classic characters and series and what makes them tick.
“What it really gives you is an appreciation for a good status quo,” Seavey said. As even casual comics fans will recognize, publishers do a hard sell to readers pretty much every summer promising crossovers where nothing will ever be the same. Yet at the end of these events, fans either get angry that everything is different, or just as angry when the status quo magically resets. So while grand events can be fun, they can also detract from a book’s long-lasting appeal. According to Seavey, “A good storytelling engine doesn’t need to make those big changes. You can make an unlimited number of stories about Professor X finding and training young mutants to fight evil mutants.”
Storytelling Engines is available now at atbpublishing.com.
Editor’s note: ATB Publishing’s co-publisher Arnold T. Blumberg is an occasional contributor to IGN.
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