Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Your Favorites, After-hours

It is one of the great tragedies of the comic book genre that business always proceeds as usual. Spider-Man may be divorced now, but you can bet that in his next issue he'll fight a bad guy in New York, make some witty rejoinder, sling some webs, hem-and-haw over some undergraduate-level scientific solutions to a super-powered problem, and prevail--almost certainly not killing the villain.

This is the nature of the medium. Comic series that last do so by virtue of building on their most spectacular success--however superficial it may be. If you buy an issue of X-men and enjoy it for the team conflict and the social commentary, you'll expect more of those same elements in the next issue you buy. Comic book series of more limited appeal and shorter runs can sometimes overcome this limitation, but such aspiration is rather more rare in the flagship titles of the big comic book publishers. That's why this trend is a literal tragedy--the greatness and mass popularity of a comic can work against its absolute quality, leading to a downfall that necessarily follows its success.

When you have 32 pages a month to tell a story, present some action, establish menace and then give it some level of resolution--even if it ends in a cliffhanger--you don't have much room for fluff. Fortunately, this is where the popular comic book characters have a small advantage. When you are around for 40 years or more, even a tidbit of characterization per issue amounts to a deluge of little details. Done well, it can turn the 30 page monthly super-hero grind into something transcendent when you look at those 2 pages of legitimate characterization.

Once more, though, the commercial reality of comic book publication rears its ugly head. Writers change, characters get rebooted, and editors insist that a certain portion of an entire comic series is beginner-friendly. This works against serious dynamics and character depth, as any details that are included are more likely to be either static and vain or exaggerated as they're brought to the front of the action-oriented plot. Peter Parker's time crushing on Gwen Stacy was inherently limited, as she was simply bridge-bait for the Green Goblin, and much of the romantic confusion between Batman and most of his female villains is to serve as a convenient excuse for the Dark Knight to feel conflicted when it comes time to pull the trigger of justice.

This happens in virtually all popular media, but it's a rampant affliction of comic books. But it can be a fun mental exercise for hypothetically examining characters, or coming up with ridiculous (but not that crazy relative to the genre, really) scenarios you might not ever see in print.

Consider the crew of Serenity. The show did a decent job of showing us moments of casual comraderie, but the creative economy of the movie and short-lived series meant that you didn't get much that wasn't immediately relevant to the plot of the show. There's still a great deal of character realization available, and if we take the relative shallowness of many of Buffy The Vampire Slayer's supporting characters, we don't have reason to expect we ever would have gotten much more. But just supposing a few things based on what fans know and love about the characters, we can fill-in what they might be doing after-hours.

After-hours, Mal does squat-thrusts, wondering how long he'll be able to fit into the tight pants of captaincy and whether Kayleigh has cleaned up her choice in men. Zoe looks up conspiracy-theory sites on the Cortex--she tells herself she doesn't believe in that rubbish, but she wonders if Mal isn't secretly posting as 2Pretty2Theorize on the fluoride-subversion site. Inara spends three hours plucking body hair before bed--beauty is essential to a Companion, and it's also painfully methodical, after all. OCD and minor dermatillomania are the bane of the Guild of Companions.

After-hours, Jayne works on crocheting a pair of mittens to send back home someday, but it's been a six month project and doesn't show signs of wrapping up soon--every time someone walks in on him, he claims it's a gun-cover for Vera. River throws up, keeping her waif-assassin physique, and idly wonders what it would be like to be normal. To find out, she reads Simon's mind, but bores as she recognize that the observer effect prevents empirical certainty to this end. Simon pours over his universal encyclopedia, dashing off notes about Earth-that-was to impress the rest of the crew.

After-hours, Kayleigh poses in front of a hand mirror, experimenting with some lipstick she stole from Inara's shuttle. Book wakes up from night-terrors in a cold sweat, hoping no one heard his angry cries. Wash scans the Cortex shopping catalogs for some plastic ships for the son he hopes to have someday, and he jots ideas for a poem about flying.

Or, for an example from comic books, take "The Ballad of GI Joe":

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