By Matthew Shaer
Back in the day – before the attack of the portable electronic devices but after the attack of the basement-dwelling bloodsuckers – Stephen King used to toss around a theory about the problematic nature of the “reveal” in horror literature.
The theory went something like this: horror stories traditionally follow an arc from an early atrocity to a final comeuppance. The villain remains “masked” for the majority of that arc; we see him in fragments; he is described tangentially. Since our imaginations are exponentially more chromatic than anything the average writer can muster, that masking is what lends weight to the story.
Eventually, the writer must come to terms with the villain. He must “unmask” the antagonist, and expose its fundamental nature and identity, so the plot can be resolved. And this, King wrote, is where the whole thing goes to shit: a Revelation, robbed of suspense, is never as vivid as the Build-Up. (Similarly, sayeth Hugh Hefner: A naked Playgirl is never as interesting as one wearing half an American flag T-shirt or one off-blue cowboy boot.)
Worth keeping in mind in these halcyon days of the comic book “Event.” Comics publishers have long gone nutty for the big seven or eight book arcs, which string readers along from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and keep the coffers full. It’s a specific sort of business magic, pioneered in part by Kirby and refined by Stan Lee.
"Civil War" image courtesy of Marvel
But in the last couple years, the “Event” has become the de facto state of the Big Books – the X-Men, or the Batman titles. Over at Marvel, we’ve swung through “Civil War” and “Messiah Complex”; now we’re diving into “Secret Invasion.” At DC, we had “52”; soon, we’ll have some smash that hints at the permanent incapacitation of Bruce Wayne. (Again.) The “Event” strings readers along like sheep – you’ve got to buy all those tie-ins and tertiary titles and then maybe if you’re feeling particularly randy, you buy the alternate covers and the sketchbooks and the hardcover edition, with its special portfolio and artist’s note.
The money is huge. Marvel raked it in with “Civil War,” and even managed to parlay the death of Captain America into the New York Times and CNN and “Colbert.” “52” sold like nails, and “Batman: R.I.P.,” which hits shelves on May 14, will likely loop nicely into the pre-hype for the “Dark Knight Returns.”
Batman image courtesy of DC
Still, it should be said that – generally speaking – the writing in these books is necessarily formulaic. There is no suspense; there is no build-up; there are only reveals. Wolverine hunts down Nitro; Elektra is a Skrull; Tony Stark could be a Skrull; Steve Rogers gets popped; Spider-man switches costumes, then switches back, and takes off his mask at a news conference. Because every book must barrel towards one massive conclusion, each of these events is swept clean of ambiguity. It is there only to bring us closer to the next book.
More egregiously, since dozens of characters are all in service of the “event,” they become simple cogs. Their back-story is in service of a larger story, and Spider-man’s quips are interchangeable with Luke Cage’s one-liners. Wolverine’s ferocity is mirrored by that of Scott Summers, and made moot.
So here’s the question, for comix geeks of all stripes (and for the writers, too): Is the damage permanent? Are the “event” and solid storytelling mutually exclusive commodities? Are we living in a state of perpetual “reveal”? Are there writers who can transform this story arc transparency into something compelling? Answers and comments will be featured on the next “Unmasked” post.
(Unmasked: On Comics runs Wednesdays and Saturdays on All Shook Down.)