Comics vs. TV Authorship

15Feb07

For those of you who care about such things, I apologize for my blogging scarcity of late. One of the more unusual aspects of teaching at Middlebury is the Winter Term, in which students take only a single course (or do a project) for the whole month of January. For faculty, this is quite an intense teaching experience. I taught a course on animation, which was both quite fun (3 hours a day of watching & talking about cartoons) and harried, as selecting & cuing up hours worth of 7 minute cartoons is a pain – I arrived to class with 10-15 DVDs in hand, and pretty much felt like a DJ mixing at a club. So this course, coupled with lots of other professional & personal obligations has led to an underfed blog.

One of the nicest aspects of Winter Term is that many visiting faculty come to teach for a month, allowing us permanent residents to meet some interesting folks. One such visitor had his office down the hall: Cole Odell, a Middlebury alum and current advertising writer, who came back to campus to teach a course on the American graphic novel. Unfortunately our courses met at the same time, so we couldn’t sit in on each others’ classes, but we had a number of nice conversations about comics, cartoons, TV, and other things of great import. Cole saw this humble blog and sent me a long and thoughtful commentary about my previous post about Gilmore Girls and authorship, which he’s allowed me to share with y’all (below the fold):

Hello, Jason. I recently came across a post you wrote discussing the current, Rosenthal-led season of GG in relation to seasons 1-6; I wish I had talked to you about this while I was on campus, as GG is perhaps my favorite show this side of BSG, and the topic is one that I occasionally think about–especially as I’ve caught (and mostly liked) the current season of GG on YouTube. I hope you’ll indulge me here a bit:

As a fan of mainstream superhero comics since I was very young, I’ve always been accustomed to shifts in creative teams on properties that I follow. In the current market, it’s rare for a superhero title to keep the same creative team for more than a year. Only the characters remain, and often only the title characters, as new creative teams invariably bring in new supporting casts to give them some flexibility in plotting denied them by set-in-stone characters like Batman or even Jimmy Olsen. Plot threads and thematic directions are often dropped, or altered in ways you know the previous writer never intended. It can be disconcerting, but I’ve learned to roll with most of the instabilities.

While the writing and pacing of GG have sometimes seemed “off” to varying degrees this season, it’s impossible to tell whether this perception is created, or at least exacerbated by the knowledge that the Sherman-Palladino team is gone. Certainly Amy and Dan had their share of “off” episodes and scenes, and fans were up in arms about Lorelai’s “out-of-character” behavior across large swaths of seasons five and six, when Amy was still in clear control. But if a program shows us a character doing something or acting in a certain way, how could it possibly be out-of-character? What does that mean? Who gets to decide?

For my class two of my students did a good presentation on comics fandom, but which was wholly positive, neglecting to account for the ways in which the rise of fandom problematizes the creative process. In comics, most creators have something of a tolerate/hate relationship with fans who have come to see themselves as the true owners of the characters. Thus creators are assailed, often in highly personal terms, for late work or for leading properties in directions that fans disagree with, for not showing proper “respect” for the characters they’ve been entrusted to write. Some of this is rooted in what I mentioned above; that many readers have been loyal to titles for decades, and may subconsciously stack that up against writers whose involvement is seen as short-term, casual, work-for-hire. Further, as McCloud says, the nature of comics demands that readers participate in the creative process through closure between panels–perhaps encouraging them to see themselves as part owners. It’s easy
to see how this pressure has affected creators of comics and comics-connected film projects, who must make their appearances at ComicCon, and who, to defend against bad buzz, must assure hard-core fans that they revere the characters, that they themselves are fans, that their work honors and respects both the original comics the comic book audience.

Of course, while Superman has had 70 years of continuous publication, most TV series are lucky to get a handful of seasons, and viewers are not active in precisely the same ways as comics. Still, I think the same dynamic is at work, in a compressed fashion. As I read the comments on GG at a site like TV Guide’s Ask Ausiello, I get a sense that many GG fans feel personally betrayed. They are deeply offended by plot twists, character shifts and changes in production staff–and they seem to have very little sense of 1) the structures, expectations or tropes of this kind of fiction or 2) the realities of the TV business. Like the worst stereotype of avid daytime soap opera
viewers, the most upset GG fans can’t seem to see further than the current episode.

When a viewer wants to deny the structural artificiality of a fiction, inconsistency and incoherence become intolerable. That’s why some comic book fans spend so much time trying to reconcile unintended paradoxes. But with any story of any intricacy produced by a changing team over a long period of time, some inconsistency and incoherence are unavoidable. Marvel used to laugh it off with their “No-Prizes” in letter columns, sending empty envelopes to fans who were able to come up with the most rational explanations for Marvel’s goofs. DC Comics turned this fan impulse into highly profitable comics, launching mini-series after mini-series to “fix'” continuity
problems within continuity itself. The creator/fan divide in comics has been blurred since the mid-1960s when Roy Thomas, one of the first hard-core obsessive fans, became a writer for Marvel, and went on to spend much of his time at both companies writing stories that corrected supposed continuity errors in older comics, or filled in
“missing” stories. TV creators still seem far more insulated from fan complaints and demands, but the internet and scramble to grab narrow audience segments have certainly shrunk that gap.

You posed the question in your post, but how do *you* understand seasons of TV series that fall outside the control of their original creators, or which, like X-Files, seem to exist past any creative need, only to satisfy the economic concerns of networks and producers?

Wow – lots of great ideas to respond to there. First, I agree that comic book fans tend to both be more accepting and aware of the shifts in authorship than for TV – in part because of the inherently smaller & cult-ier fanbase of comics, and in part because the shift in artists is always recognizable to a dedicated reader at the level of figuration & design. Late season GG or West Wing don’t look that different, but they certainly sound different without their primary writers/producers – the average viewer probably neither notices the shifted credits nor the specifics of how the show might have changed (although I’d guess that many casual viewers do note that something’s a bit different, even if they don’t tie it to authorship).

But many contemporary shows are growing more similar to comics in many ways, from cult fan activity to serial plotting to genre ties to fantasy, sci-fi, and action – and note that the most visible moments of Lost fandom have occurred at ComicCon! For shows like Lost, 24, Heroes, etc., engaged audiences do feel ownership of the characters, and thus do take umbrage when they feel betrayed by the producers – whether it’s by leaving (as on GG), or by making unsatisfying choices, as many Lost fans have been griping about.

What I think is crucial about the cases of GG and West Wing is that one of their chief appeals stems from the voices & pacing of the dialogue – both Sorkin and the Palladinos made their name through their tone & texture, not clever plots, outrageous twists, or flights of fantasy. I gave up on West Wing midway through the season following Sorkin’s departure because it felt too much like a John Wells show (which it was at that point) – my wife still cared about the characters, but I felt that they were no longer the same characters, just actors playing the same parts (if you catch the difference). I didn’t even start this season of GG out of concern of disillusionment (plus the time demands of too much TV to watch!).

There are many shows that could easily switch Executive Producers without too much disruption, more like Batman comics – most cop shows, soap operas, sitcoms, animated series, medical dramas, etc. I see shows like GG and West Wing as more like independent comics expressing a specific author’s perspective, like Bone or From Hell – you can’t imagine switching writers midway through projects like that. (And yes, the analogy is far-fetched given that TV shows are inherently multi-million dollar collaborative projects, not like independent self-produced comics, but bear with me…) Such programs are so fully identified with a main author’s voice that when they leave, fans lose trust in the show – in the case of West Wing, it took a few seasons for the show to regain its stride & fan trust (alas, just before it was canceled).

As to Cole’s final question, about my dangling question from the original post: there is no answer as to how to deal with seasons of a series that seem out-of-place from the main thrust of the show. It all depends on what you’re trying to understand – if I’m talking about how Roseanne offered new representations of working-class America, I’d definitely ignore the final season (as the premise was overturned entirely); if I was exploring the role of stardom and production, it becomes crucial (as Roseanne herself asserted her “vision” in the wake of other producers leaving the show). It’s all part of the show, but not necessarily part of a given analysis. When I examine how West Wing offered innovations for contemporary TV narrative, I focus on the Sorkin era, as it was the most groundbreaking and relevant to my arguments, but certainly a study of political representations would have to grapple with the entire series run to be comprehensive. The trick is to not let fandom obscure the academic inquiry – or at least to devise an academic project that dovetails with fannish judgments!

Anyway, thanks to Cole for this great feedback…



2 Responses to “Comics vs. TV Authorship”

  1. Thanks for your comments, Jason. Your comparison of strong-authorial-voice shows to single-author comics like Bone was dead-on. And the difference in scale has to be a major factor; the audience for the most popular comic on the stands (a couple hundred thousand a month, max) wouldn’t sustain a show on a cable channel. Occasionally, the mainstream franchise comics will temporarily mimic the feeling of more personal books, such as Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil in the early 80s, or Grant Morrison on almost any superhero book he’s ever written (including Animal Man, Doom Patrol, JLA, X-Men and his current All-Star Superman–all worth checking out) but those runs always end, and the books invariably snap back toward the baseline.

    Your distinction between characters and actors playing roles definitely pertains to Gilmore Girls this year, although I suppose my fannish desire to see the plots and characters arcs resolve shields me against the shift. Occasionally, (as with last Tuesday’s episode) the show really clicks, and it’s difficult to imagine Amy and Dan doing it differently, but more often everything seems about 14% off. For instance, they really don’t know how to write for Rory, or how to integrate the ensemble into the main plot. The latter deficiency, more than anything else, is what has made GG seem more conventional this season. Too often now it is a show about the life and loves of
    Lorelai Gilmore, when before it was a show about language, pacing and tone.

    The comparison you make to Lost is interesting, in that the show has actually hired two high-profile comic book writers this season: Jeph Loeb (who also wrote for Smallville and who wrote the films Teen Wolf and Commando back in the 80s) and Brian K. Vaughn (author of perhaps the most cinematically constructed comics right now, Y the Last Man and Ex Machina.) And it goes both ways, as Joss Whedon is currently the main writer on X-Men. Bryan Singer, Reggie Hudlin and other Hollywood types have worked for the major publishers. DC’s “go to” writer right now, Geoff Johns, came to comics after working as Richard Donner’s personal assistant, and has actually brought the old man over to co-write Action Comics with him. I wonder if part of the rise of complex narrative shows has anything to do with fans of insanely convoluted 1980s comics moving into positions of power in Hollywood, and forcing their tastes on the system. It seems as if poking any random TV writer these days reveals an old-school comics geek. I see the world through kryptonite-colored glasses, but sometimes it really feels as if the comic book subculture has
    effectively hijacked a significant chunk of the pop culture landscape.

  2. Longtime comics writer Steven Grant crystalizes what I suggested concerning the link between comics and the current crop of complex TV serials in his new column at Comic Book Resources today; it’s really worth a read:
    http://www.comicbookresources.com/columns/?column=10


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