Friday, July 01, 2005

We Now Return to the Continuing Story...

In examining how Stan Lee transformed comics I've gone over changes in the creative process and the introduction of good villains which led to good fights.

Next up - continuity.

Prior to Marvel, most comics were made from inventory stories. An editor assigned a writer and artist to do a story to fit a general space. It might sit for a while or it might run immediately. Since comics usually had more than one story per issue, you could have one story where Superman was fighting Luthor on the planet Lexor (named in honor of Luthor) and a second story where he was being chased by a fire-breathing dragon who had swallowed some kryptonite.

The inventory system was easy on editors. If two stories were too similar they could hold one back until later. They always had enough material on hand in case someone missed a deadline.

Marvel was too small an operation to maintain a large inventory. For the most part, Stan and the artist worked out the plot, the artist drew it, Stan added dialog, and it went to the printer.

Also, the books usually contained a single story. If there was a back-up story it featured a different character.

Since the books were published in order there was no reason not to refer to things that already happened, so Stan did.

In the third issue of the Fantastic Four, the Torch got mad and quit. The next issue opened with the rest of the team trying to find him (instead the Torch found the Sub-Mariner and had to summon the team himself).

Things were more subtle in Spider-Man. Betty Brant might refer to a fight that she and Peter had in the last issue. Stan even added a footnote telling what issue this happened in.

Just a minor change in editorial policy but it affected everything. It gave Marvel comics the feel of a continuous narrative. You didn't dare miss an issue because something important in Peter's civilian life might happen.

Also, once you have continuity you can have character growth. In the space of a few years Peter Parker fell in love with Betty Brant, broke up with her, started dating Mary Jane Watson, then fell for Gwen Stacy. Along the way he picked up a large supporting cast of friends, fellow students, and co-workers.

Other strips had their own progressions. Things changed over time.

Marvel began to attract attention. Comparisons were made to newspaper strips like Mary Worth and to soap operas.

Meanwhile, over at DC, you could pick up a comic for the first time in three years and find that nothing had changed.

All of this was the subtle side of continuity. There was also the blatant side - the continuing story.

Continued stories were nothing new. Superman had one or two per year. Of course, they never affected continuity.

Stan began with the smaller strips, ones like Iron Man, the Hulk, and Doctor Strange. These characters shared a comic with a different character. Iron Man and Captain America shared Tales of Suspense. Giant Man (later the Sub Mariner) and the Hulk shared Tales to Astonish.

With only a half comic to tell a story in, the stories were often cramped. Stan solved this by extending the stories over multiple issues.

At first the full-length comics had self-contained stories but the stories outgrew a single comic.

This also led to an interesting three-issue plot that appeared in both the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. In the first issue a villain would defeat the hero somehow. The next two issues had the hero(es) dealing with this against a different villain.

The Frightful Four beat the FF by luring them to an island and detonating a "Q bomb". This removed their powers. The FF spent the next two issues trying to duplicate their powers with mechanical aids while trying to take back their headquarters from Dr. Doom with the help of Daredevil.

In the middle of a fight with the Green Goblin, Spider-Man heard that Aunt May had some sort of attack. After re-evaluating his priorities, Spider-Man hurried to his aunt, giving the impression that he had run from a fight. In the next issue, while fetching some medicine in costume, Spider-Man ran into the Sandman. Peter was afraid that having his identity revealed to Aunt May would kill her so he hid from the fight. Later May gave him a talking to about courage and determination. In the third issue, Spider-Man and the Human Torch stopped Sandman from taking over the New York gangs.

Story lines like these were memorable and sold comics so Stan came up with a new policy - constant continued plots. For example, the same issue of the Fantastic Four wrapped up the Inhumans introduced Galactis. Thor became so busy that I think one story arc lasted over a year.

Eventually the extended plotlines got too long and too convoluted. Even with a scorecard, it was impossible to come into a storyline if you missed the beginning. This didn't happen until the 1970s, though with Marvel's second generation of writers.


Sidenote - there were a few DC comics that had continuity. The Legion of Superheroes is one. Even though it was officially part of the Superman family, it broke a lot of rules. Continuity was one - they constantly added new characters and occasionally killed or injured some. Another was that Superman (actually Superboy and Supergirl) were not the strongest. Several characters were outright stronger that Superboy, Mon-el , and Ultra Boy (both had similar powers to Superboy) combined.

No comments: