Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Editorial: Camera Obscura - The Soap Bubble

Chris Claremont established the soap opera formula for the X-Men family of titles, and it's never been able to escape from it. While the formula may have its strengths, says Alasdair Watson, there's no advantage in being slave to the soaps.
06 February 2004

The X-Men books will never be able to shake off the influence of Chris Claremont. Not only is he still writing one of the books in the franchise (and, in a damning indictment of the quality of the rest of the franchise, the general consensus seems to be that it's not the worst one), but his approach to the book in the seventies and eighties is still what informs writers on the title (and a lot of the rest of the industry) to this day.

Outgoing writer Grant Morrison has said in interviews that it was the Claremont/Byrne run on the title that most informed his own approach, and it's not really hard to see. And now it looks like they're getting Joss Whedon, whose BUFFY TV series may well owe a debt to the X-Men of the same era, so I can't really see him going too far from the basic premise.

I think that's a crying shame. Not because that run of comics was bad, you understand, because while Claremont's had his flaws, even in that era, it was still pretty good for its time. No, I just think it's a shame that creators won't ever genuinely try something new with it.

Nor do I expect anyone to. The commercial reality is that no-one in their right mind would suddenly shift gears on the biggest cash-cow franchise the industry has got, and chance that size of audience on an unproven idea. But still, the X-Men have been used as a metaphor for any minority or disaffected group you'd care to name, and it's been a soap opera for as long as I've been alive, which is a horrific thought, now I come to it.

But still, wouldn't it be interesting to see what else could be done with them? I don't mean the sort of stunt they pulled with X-FORCE/X-STATIX, although that'd be funny, too. I just mean cutting them off from the soap opera style of writing that's set the pace on the title for the last few decades. What would the X-Men become if instead of being driven by character, over long, rambling arcs (and even Morrsion's run for all that it's collected into trades works like this), the approach suddenly became to work (in some respects) like THE AUTHORITY - hard, four issue story arcs driven by plot, and unafraid to change the fictional status quo of the universe it exists in quite radically.

Obviously, it's not just the X-Men that's guilty of this sort of formula. You do tend to find that once an ongoing title has set out its stall, in terms of its storytelling technique, it doesn't change much from writer to writer, or if it does, it tends to move from being plot-driven to character-driven, rather than vice-versa. There's a sound commercial reasons to do this, of course - the soap operatic style encourages emotional investment in the characters, which will make people more likely to keep reading the book.

The counter-argument to that is that soap opera is less accessible to the casual reader than a plot driven story with harder divisions between arcs, as a lot of the power in the soap opera stories derives from months, if not years of back story - Morrison's story of the break-up of Scott and Jean's marriage in the opening story of the latest NEW X-MEN collection, for example, rests not just on his run on the title, but on stories dating back years.

Yes, there's a fair amount of recapping of the elements of Morrsion's run (and a few things outside of it) that one has to know, in order to understand what's going on, but the actual power of it rests on an emotional investment in the characters, and knowledge of their shared history outside of the recaps. A casual reader just isn't going to get it, however well the history is explained.

So surely, in these days of ever-dwindling audience figures, there's a strong case to be made for a more accessible, plot driven approach? Well, maybe, but plot driven books have their own problems. As entertaining as the first twelve issue of THE AUTHORITY were, there was little emotional depth there - the focus was squarely placed on watching the heroes beat up the monster of the week, without bothering to deal in terms of character or motive except on surface level. So long as there was an excuse for the two to fight, and look good doing it, that was enough. And while it's possible to sustain an audience on jokes and violence for a while, eventually they're going to wander off in search of something new, even if it's just a different brand of jokes and violence.

So the obvious approach would seem to be to look for a middle ground between the two, and perhaps the most obvious model to look to is TV show seasons (something Alan Moore used directly in TOP TEN), which are, in theory, more or less self-contained units featuring the same cast of characters (excluding the more or less mandatory season-ending cliffhanger), carrying perhaps a couple of major plot elements from season to season (but with a certain amount of space to re-establish them within each new season). But these days it's a rare TV series that gets to season 3 or 4 without storylines relying on elements of previous seasons.

It's not a new idea to comics, either - until Mike Carey's current run on the title, HELLBLAZER changed its cast and concerns pretty much wholesale with every new writer, leading to a succession of 40-odd issue chunks that are largely completely independent of one another. It breathed new life into the book each time, but I think it's a rarity. Occasionally, you find a writer brought in with a remit to radically re-vamp a title (Moore on SWAMP THING is another example, as it a lot of the early Vertigo output) but still it's unusual, especially on any superhero title, and one tends to find that one or two writers later, the re-vamp is simply part of the on-going soap opera status quo, rather than anything genuinely new.

I feel that there's got to be an approach that marries the best of the two schools I've outlined above, without drifting too far into either one, though I admit I can't pinpoint exactly what it might be. Maybe it's just my fondness for novelty for it's own sake that's pulling me in this direction, but I think I've seen the same soap opera plots one too many times, even if it with a different cast each time. And that's the reason I don't watch EASTENDERS.

Alasdair Watson is the author of the Eagle Award-nominated RUST.

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