Last week I talked about the dynamics involved in writing a team book.
I’m going to expand on that by looking into the use of solo arcs or stories within a team book. This topic was brought to my attention by a couple of things in the past few weeks.
This last week I’ve put together Amazing Garbage, a quick solo vignette for Venus Green, as a contribution for a friend’s Tumblr. This was a fun little exercise in establishing her speech patterns and trying to make a strip that works as a self-contained story for people who haven’t been following Universe Gun. It also sets up who she is, sort of, and her inital situation, which will weave into the main story in a few months from now. There’ll be a front page link going up throughout the week when the story is published.
In Universe Gun, I’ve got a few small solo arcs mapped out in my head. We’ve already had some solo stories as I gather the core team together. Princess Amtora got a couple of solo chapters, Kid Identity got a solo chapter, and Coriolis Boy and Star Girl 3000 share a chapter next week. Once the group and its dynamics are established I will be revisiting certain characters for a quick solo story – Princess Amtora, Kid Identity and Star Girl 3000 all have one lined up currently. These strip away the N-1 interaction with the rest of the team and pit the character against an external faction or situation to grow them, either in their personal arc, or in their description and delineation by the story.
It’s a tricky thing to do right. You can give the character more “time” ie more lines of dialog and more facial expressions and body language, but you lose the interactions that make them who they are. Are Cyclops and Wolverine fully themselves without the other to bounce off? When asked what my favourite Superman stories are, I’d say Morrison’s run on JLA rather than any solo Superman book, because they showed him right in the centre of a complex universe with teammates, even if he didn’t get the spotlight all the time. Done wrong, a solo story can feel a bit flat. Done right, you feel like you know the character better.
The second thing that got me thinking about solo arcs was a recent drawing challenge with the topic Vertigo. This brought back a flood of memories from the early days of DC’s experimental imprint, and I ended up doing a few sketches, including this one, which got me thinking about the best solo stories I’ve ever read in a comic.
If you don’t recognise Rebis from Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol, then I guess I envy you, because you’ll have the pleasure of reading this for the first time some time.
The condensed version is that the Doom Patrol are DC’s disabled superhero team, self-proclaimed freaks whose powers are more curse than blessing. In 1987, after Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, it was a commonly held belief that the superhero landscape should consist solely of disturbed vigilantes who deconstruct the genre and show how unrealistic it is. While I loved the two series that spawned this movement, and other similar titles like Marshall Law, I was never really into this approach. Doom Patrol was a breath of fresh air with its unrepentant wallowing in all the strangeness and surrealism of the superhero genre, and its oddly optimistic tone, that these scarred people could help each other and make the world a better place.
The team consisted of Cliff Steele, a racing driver whose brain was transplanted into a robot body, a total amputee tormented by memories of being human. Crazy Jane was a woman with Mulitple Personality Disorder brought about by childhood abuse, with each of her 64 personalities having a different set of superpowers. The wheelchair bound Chief was a cold and brilliant scientist who lead the team, and finally there was Rebis, my favourite. Larry Trainor, test pilot, was infused with an energy spirit that left him dangerously radiaoctive and freakishly transparent like an x-ray. He appeared in the original Doom Patrol as Negative Man. He was the weird one, a lovely package of analogue electronics, radio crackle, radiation and early space programme that made him very much a product of the early 60s.
In the Vertigo run, Larry and the spirit fuse with Eleanor Poole, a black woman doctor, to become a spaced-out mixed-race hermaphrodite, with Dame Edna specs and a tie over the traditional bandages to signify hir* dual sexual identity. Rebis would float through the series uttering cryptic statements as it reintegrated the two people that composed it, and irritating Mr Steels with hir aloof self reliance. If the sweet and poignant relationship growing between Cliff and Jane was the heart of the book, then Rebis was the organ you didn’t even know you had. Teams often have an cold introvert type, like the Vision in the Avengers, or Martinex in Guardians of the Galaxy. Rebis took that to extremes, eventually having hermaphroditic sex with humself*. Hir relationship to each teammate was pretty much the same. Talk to them calmly and offhand. Hir relationship with the reader was pretty much the same – you had no idea what was going on in hir head, or under the bandages.
I remember my excitement when the next issue box said that Rebis was getting a solo story next month. How do you do a solo story for a character like this? They’re not defined by their team, but could they really carry a story by themselves? Would it spoil the character if you reveal too much? The Chief had a solo story a few issues back that worked brilliantly in that it gave absolutely nothing away about him. The Beard Hunter was obviously satirical and a bit of fun, but it was played straight by the Chief, and he said all of three words in it. So there was hope.
I was going home to Aberdeen from Edinburgh the week of the Rebis solo story, and I picked up Doom Patrol #54 on the way to the bus station. I read Aenigma Regis in the back of the bus and it absolutely blew my mind. Practically nothing happens in the story, and it asks more questions than it answers. Rebis is inexplicably on the moon, and retrieves a large egg from the site of the old lunar landing, which houses a bizarre alchemical double tree. We don’t know how Rebis got there, what the tree or egg are, or anything really. This sparse story is intercut with hir internal monologue, which plays out like poetry, with scenes that symbolise the rather violent integration of the two people into one being, cloaked in alchemical imagery. One scene reads like surreal sci-fi spoken word pornography heard over a crackly old radio, another depicts the divine hermaphrodite as a prostitute, visited by the rain man from an old barometer. It does a brilliant job of fleshing out the character without making hir any more relatable or human.
Perhaps the only story that tops this in the run is Cliff Steele’s solo story in #58, drawn by Sean Phillips. Once again, nothing happens much, but its a meditation on the character and who he is, more like poetry than prose.
If you haven’t read these comics, and appreciate strange superhero fiction, go and track them down. Start with Crawling from the Wreckage and go from there.
Putting all this together, writing this made me realise that Venus is my team’s Rebis or Vision in many ways. She isn’t aloof or cold, but she sees things from her own un-human perspective, is generally passive and incredibly self-contained. You’ll see what I mean over the next year if you keep reading.
See you in seven, single superhero story readers! Dr Mike 2000, 13 July 2014
*Gender indeterminate pronouns can be fun!