Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Transformation, Emotion, SitComs and Comic Book Storytelling

I am no expert on comic books, so bear with me on this topic. You may think I'm way, way off, and maybe I am. But when I heard that DC comics killed one of their major characters today (slight NSFW language), it inspired me to write about some of my thoughts on comic books and the stories they tell.

Transformation = Emotion

When you get any kind of emotional rush out of watching a movie - or even any kind of satisfaction from watching one - it's almost always because there's some element of transformation.

Based entirely on my unscientific approach, and off the top of my head, I'd say that in most films, this usually takes one of three forms:

The main character starts out in an unfulfilled state, living an incomplete life. By the end of the movie, they have been transformed and now live a complete, fulfilling life (this is the most common type of "character arc" and the vast majority of films follow this model).

or...the main character is a fulfilled, morally centered person who lives in a world that is corrupt or unbalanced. By the end of the story, the main character hasn't changed, but they have transformed the world around them and turned it into a better place (this type is sometimes known as a "traveling angel story"). Sometimes the transformative person is the main character, or sometimes the main character is more of an unfulfilled character living in this broken world, and they meet the transformative agent at some point. Then we see the change in the world through this character's perspective ("Mary Poppins" and "Tangled" both fit into this type of category).

Then there's the mirror, tragic version of the first type: we meet a vibrant, fulfilled person that is living a balanced life. By the end of the film, they are a twisted, hollow, corrupted version of what they were at the beginning. This type of downer ending is pretty rare in Hollywood films, of course, with (SPOILER ALERT) "The Godfather" being a pretty famous example of this type of character arc.

I'm no psychological expert on why seeing characters change gives us a rush of emotion. I'm sure this has been written about to death somewhere else already. But if I had to guess, I think change is one of the hardest parts of life. It's very hard to change our lives. It's hard to accept the constant changes that life brings. So I think change has a lot of emotion tied to it, and - knowing how hard it is to change our lives for the better - when we see someone on screen totally change their lives from bad to good, we feel a rush of emotion because it gives us hope and inspiration that we can do the same in our own lives.

So most movies are all about transformation, and that's where the satisfaction and emotion comes from when watching a film that does it well. And the change has to be irrevocable and lasting: it should never be a change that can be undone easily. Otherwise, it wasn't really that tough to achieve and it's not really that dramatic.

Hour-long dramatic TV shows embrace this concept as well. TV series have a wider ability to do big and small changes within the characters: shows like "Lost" or "The Walking Dead" can affect changes to the characters within each episode, as well as over the course of a season, or over an entire series. The episodes are meant to be watched in order, obviously, and the revelations and changes build on top of each other as the show progresses and the characters go through many transformations, and the audience learns deeper and deeper truths about the characters.

Comedic Television is a Different Story

Sitcoms (or half-hour comedic shows) work differently.

Traditionally, sitcoms don't give their characters transformational arcs within episodes because they're meant to be watched differently. Sitcoms - unlike dramas - are not meant to be emotional. They're supposed to be funny. And while change is dramatic, it's definitely not funny.

Also, sitcoms are not meant to be seen in order. Many times sitcoms that run long enough become syndicated, which means they are re-run in random order. So if the characters are changing and transforming in each episode, it'll be confusing to any viewer that is seeing the episodes for the first time and trying to figure out and track who the characters are. The characters will be inconsistent from episode to episode and confusing.

Also, sitcoms are usually meant to last as long as they can and generate as many episodes as possible, whereas dramas usually have some sort of predetermined scope of how long the story will last and where it will end up. So keeping the characters the same helps sitcom writers churn out consistent episodes for an indefinite length of time.

Also, I think a big part of comedy is knowing who a character is and watching them fulfill your expectations as they act out their same comedic foible over and over again, without learning anything from their misadventures. If Homer Simpson wakes up one day and realizes that he's an idiot, that's not funny....that's tragic and sad.

So if we accept this idea that irrevocable change is dramatic and that this is where emotion comes from in most stories...we can learn a lot by looking at comic books through this lens.

Comic Books and Emotional Stories

The comic book industry is in a tough spot, for several reasons.

The well-known superheroes that are featured in the most popular comic books were all created a long time ago. This is really a unique situation: I can't think of an equivalent model in any other art form. Superman was created in 1938, Batman a year later. Nobody listens to the type of music that was popular in 1938, and nobody goes to see movies that are like the ones that were made in 1939. But there are still many comics published that are based on characters that were created back then. Most art forms change and grow quite a bit over time as artists search for new forms and ways of working. In some ways, comic books have stayed the same for almost a century.

Since their creation, comics have had to contend with more and more competition for their audience. More movies compete for the same viewers with every passing year, as do more TV shows, more video games, etc. And these art forms are always trying to explore more and more sophisticated and effective ways of story telling, in order to attract a bigger audience and give that audience a more satisfying and emotional experience.

Comic books have tried to do this too, and comic book creators know that creating change within their character's lives is a good way to create drama and emotion, as well as create stories that feel more sophisticated and nuanced as audiences become more used to that type of storytelling.

But the problem is that their characters also have elements of the sitcom model: over the years, the readers have fallen in love with the characters for who they are, and people want these characters to retain their inherent characteristics. So you can't change Batman, Superman, Daredevil, Wonder Woman, Captain America or any other beloved comic book character without running the risk of altering what people loved about the character in the first place and losing the audience out of frustration.

So it seems to me that comic book creators have tried to have it both ways: they want to be able to change the characters and therefore create emotional stories, as well as keep the characters exactly the same from issue to issue. So one solution they've tried is to split the realities that these characters inhabit into different universes, where different versions of the beloved heroes undergo different transformations and experience different emotional journeys, while they stay the same in other universes.

Also, comics have created a tradition of undoing any kind of change that happens. Nothing is ever permanent. When a character dies, they can always be brought back to life. Even origin stories are rewritten and reshaped from time to time.

But there's a real problem with change that can be undone easily, or is undercut by being a change that happens in just one of many universes.

I think change is only emotional when it's truly irrevocable and cannot be undone. Nobody is ever going to feel emotional about a character dying when they know that character can (and will be) revived in the near future. That type of change becomes meaningless, and holds no dramatic weight. And it seems like cheating. You're not really committing to real change within your characters.

And yet, if DC and Marvel tried to invent new characters every few years, and kept changing their characters as they tell stories about how they change and grow, I don't know how the core audience would react. They'd probably demand the return of the characters that they know and love. So I don't know what the answer is.

And I'm sure that many people will write and tell me about graphic novels and comic books that have told emotional stories successfully that I just don't know about (I think "Maus" was certainly powerful in it's own way and I think Art Spiegelman definitely did a great job at pushing the boundaries of what types of stories can be told within the form. Another favorite of mine is "Jew Gangster", by Joe Kubert, which involves a character that transforms and changes). As I said, I'm no definitive expert on every comic book. Forgive me the gaps in my knowledge.

Anyway, as I've said in previous posts, there are some elements of comic books that I would change if I was to create my own. And, when I decided to do so, that's one of the biggest deciding factors in how I decided what type of story to tell: I wanted my tale to involve characters that undergo real change and real emotion, if possible. That's what we try to do at Disney as we create movies, and I think it could work really well in comic books as well. If comic books could somehow figure out a way to deliver that type of narrative, I think they would be a more emotional and satisfying experience to read.

For me, anyway.

So I've tried to craft a story where the characters underwent significant and irrevocable change, and when the story is over, their lives will never ever be the same. Will I be successful? I don't know. But if nothing else, I hope to end up with a better understanding of what can be done in the comic book form, and what works and what doesn't, and how to deliver emotion through that type of storytelling.


Applejinx said...

Me too, my friend, me too.
I think you'll be up and doing it quicker, and I'm sure I'll be able to use you as a beacon :)

mark kennedy said...

Ha, thanks for the very kind words, Applejinx!

David Balan said...


As a recent graduate of a program focused entirely on comics ("Sequential Art" is what it's called there) and a fairly prolific reader of comics, both mainstream and independent...

I completely agree with you.

I think the problem you raise is one that only afflicts what us comic-ers call the "mainstream" industry. That being all the superheroes and such, characters from the 30s etc... Independent comics like The Walking Dead, Saga, etc. don't necessarily suffer from this malady.

Which is why I think both the comics industry and Hollywood are so obsessed with hero origin stories - we've got a third reboot of Superman coming up, and we've already seen a trilogy AND a reboot of Spider-man. In the comics, the origins of every superhero have been told and re-told countless times.

I think the reason for this is that the origin stories are the only places in Superhero comics where change truly occurs. It's the same arc you put at the beginning - the hero goes from living an unfulfilling, broken life to a fulfilling, happy one by realizing their superpower and saving the community from whatever villain threatens it.

It's hard to really affect much change after that for all the reasons you stated. I'm not really sure what the solution is, to be honest with you, or even if there is one.

But there's plenty of room for comics that don't deal with those old, beloved characters and can break new ground with entertaining, transformative stories. I plan to make some, and I'm excited to see the ones that you make!

Thanks for this post, your blog is always insightful and informative. :)

~ David Balan

Santiago said...

I believe that within comics there is a big difference between open-ended comics (that work in the same way that soap operas do) and finite series & graphic novels.

With open-ended comics, such as most superhero comics, the franchise is what matters and becasue of this even though there might be apparent change with the characters this change is not permanent as the story goes back to the status quo sooner or later.

In the case of finite series & graphic novels (such as Y The Last Man, Channel Zero, Saga, Persepolis and Soulwind) the characters do change within the story. And this change is a big part of it, and the emotional core of these stories.

Ccs said...

The Japanese like to do that through creating very similar stories that appeal to the same demographic (when it's for young men it's called "shonen" comics) and have similar protagonists, but their own unique twists and outcomes. Sometimes these characters get as popular as American superheroes (Goku in DBZ for instance), though superhero movies have definitely enlarged public knowledge about a lot of heroes people didn't know about before, like Iron Man.

Anonymous said...

Dragon ball is an interesting comic concerning death because it introduces an afterlife and a mechanism in which to bring back the dead. I think Japanese comics excel at creating believable relationships between characters as they grow together by facing adversity. At the end of a Japanese series it is like you know the characters and enjoy with them their hard won finale.

What I don't understand is why hasn't Warner and Disney copied the Japanese workflow from manga to anime? A few Japanese comic frames translated to animation:

Unknown said...

Santiago makes a good point, that there is a big difference between the superhero serials (where there's a lot of money to be made and where a lot of the social consciousness is) and other parts of the comics industry. Lately I've come to think it weird, and a bit bothersome, that when we think of comics as any sort of serious endeavor, we think of the superhero comics industry.

There is an ever-growing wealth of fantastic graphic novels and finite series that have more standard story arcs with character transformation and definite endings. (I'm particularly fond of Bone and Scott Pilgrim).
It's also worth noting that comics have their definite sitcom situations in the never-changing worlds of newspaper funnies.

I'm an avid reader of several webcomics, and I think that they often get overlooked when people talk about the comics industry. There's a strong stereotype of two-dudes-on-a-couch-playing-video-games comics, or wacky-college-student-adventures comics, but like comics in general, webcomics run the gamut from static sitcom serials to epic fantasy adventures to deeply personal stories. A couple good "graphic novel" webcomics to look at are O Human Star and Power Nap.

In a number of webcomics dealing with people's ordinary lives (Something Positive, Questionable Content, and Girls With Slingshots are popular examples) you'll actually a see curious hybrid of transformation-based storylines and the static world of sitcoms and Newspaper funnies. Characters age and change over the years, and new readers may feel a bit lost, but comic foibles often stick around and there's usually something for a new reader to enjoy.

One way these comics deal with the need for emotional development in a serial comic is simply by having a large cast. As a comic gets older we take frequent breaks from the main characters to see the adventures of their acquaintances.

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