Friday, January 18, 2008

Hello Cosmic Part 25: The Finale Part Three (Storytelling Tricks)

[The conclusion to my look at Jim Starlin's cosmic work for Marvel.]

Something I really love about Jim Starlin's "cosmic" stuff is that it rarely follows traditional sci-fi conventions. In Starlin's cosmic worlds, yeah, there's technology, but who cares, because it's more about magic and natural abilities and blowing minds. It's actually fantasy dressed up as sci-fi (and, yeah, there is some distinction). I mean, do you think Adam Warlock's Soul Gem has more in common with Frodo's ring or with Captain Kirk's phaser? Looking back on all of the work by Starlin I've read, the only character that uses technology on a consistent basis is Thanos--except it actually seems an outcropping of himself more than anything. Thanos uses his floating chair, shields and teleportation because, well, he can--he doesn't need to, but since he's got them, why not use them. You'll note that little time is actually spent on Thanos creating these devices--instead, he just has them--they are tools like a sword or horse. Actually, it's only the bad guys who ever seem to use technology, really, and Thanos is the only protagonist to do so because he grew out of villainous roots.

But, I digress (right from the beginning--a new digression record).

There are some characteristics of Starlin-penned comics that I'd like to discuss.

The first is the tell-the-character's-entire-past-in-a-single-page-with-a-montage-splash-and-maybe-a-floating-head-narrating-the-whole-thing technique. Starlin does not do "subtle," people--if he thinks you knowing a character's history is important, he just tells you said history by stopping the story and laying it all out there. The number of times I had to read Adam Warlock's history is staggering--although did allow for comparison between artists in an interesting way. My favourite difference was how Tom Raney drew the scientists who created Adam Warlock as these huge, muscle-bound guys while everyone else drew them like... scientists. Similar to this is how, in comics he drew himself, Starlin often had a chracter narrate an entire story--usually from partway through the final part. Again, very non-subtle foreshadowing. These techniques are rarely used now, especially the way Starlin has characters narrate, speaking directly to the readers, often with their floating head popping up throughout the story. This actually makes works like The Infinity Abyss and Marvel: The End seem antiquated and outdated by modern standards, which could be very offputting to readers (despite the fact that they're still good comics).

My favourite storytelling trick that Starlin uses is one that I've mentioned many, MANY times before: the giant inter-company crossovers that are actually small stories about Adam Warlock and Thanos with everything else thrown in to pad it out for six (or more) issues. Here's something you should know: anytime the Avengers, Spider-Man or Fantastic Four show up, they will show themselves to be useless. In The Infinity Gauntlet, Warlock has them attack Thanos just so he will have a distraction to enact his real plan because he knows that Thanos will slaughter them. Starlin speaks through Warlock to tell the readers that in these stories, the traditional Marvel heroes are ineffective and are, at best, distractions--both in the story sometimes and, always, for the readers. The Infinity War and Infinity Crusade take using the heroes for meaningless plots to new heights as Starlin has them in fanboyish "oh, that's some cool shit!" plots: fighting evil doppelgangers and then fighting one another. Except, in both stories, the villain is defeated by Warlock and Thanos. If you broke down those two crossovers to their essential elements, you'd get two issues of story that matters. However, these crossovers rarely read as such. Starlin was adept at padding those core stories out and making it appear like the unnecessary plotpoints matter. It's probably my favourite storytelling trick of his, mostly because it demonstrated decompressed storytelling years before it came in vogue, but did so in a way where few could see what he was doing.

Starlin's work has a lot of flaws, though. His dialogue can be very overwrought and unnecesarily melodramatic. Adam Warlock often goes off on these odd soliloquies that rarely differ from one another. It's always about how he doesn't know who he is, how he's not the hero everyone thinks he is and that all he wants to do is have some peace. Thanos sometimes suffers from "Dr. Doom syndrome" where he speaks in third-person and does nothing but proclaim his greatness, which is tiresome.

As well, Starlin repeats himself a lot. How many stories centre around Thanos finding an even more powerful method of ruling the universe? Or Adam Warlock trying to find himself? Or Warlock going insane? Or a mysterious force trying to take over the universe?

The mystery character is another fun bit of Starlin business. It isn't a Starlin book if there isn't a mysterious character that shows up a little bit for several months until finally... THE BIG REVEAL! The Magus, the Goddess, Count Abyss, Maxam, and Hunger all filled this role. But, so did Adam Warlock and Thanos from time to time (particularly Thanos as the mystery member of the Infinity Watch). This trope isn't necessarily bad, it's just that Starlin overused it sometimes. Mid-way through Warlock & the Infinity Watch, I became frustrated with these pointless mysteries, mostly because they were strung out for months (even over a year a few times) and the payoffs were, well, lame. Count Abyss was a guy who sold his soul for power while Maxam was from the future. Wow, because those are very common stories and totally don't blow me away! I did like Thanos as the holder of the Reality Gem as it was a mystery with a logical (and obvious) solution that kind of reminds me of Ellis' later revelation of the Third Man in Planetary. It's so obvious that the reader is thrown a little at the revelation because he or she figured something that obvious couldn't be the solution.

Starlin also dabbles, from time to time, in metafiction. In his first Warlock run, he does a nice little take on the state of Marvel at the time, specifically Stan Lee and the treatment of Jack Kirby. As I mentioned above, when Warlock tells the Silver Surfer in The Infinity Gauntlet that the heroes are just a distraction, Starlin is really telling the reader that the fight we're seeing is a meaningless distraction used to fill an entire issue, padding the series out. In Marvel: The End, Starlin has the universe end as a result of characters returning from the dead--and then Thanos remakes the universe so that can no longer happen, giving a practical and in continuity reason for Joe Quesada's then-editorial rule that dead means dead in the MU from that point on. I'm probably missing a few other moments like that, but they don't pop up frequently, just enough to note that Starlin has a fondness for metafiction.

I find myself not knowing exactly how to sum up Starlin's cosmic work at Marvel. For the most part, I enjoyed it. Starlin's first run on Warlock is a must-own as are The Infinity Gauntlet and Marvel: The End. Next week, I'll probably do a couple of posts on Cosmic Odyssey and Wyrd, the Reluctant Warrior.

It's been fun.