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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Batmen vs Supermen: Expanded Universes Beyond The "Event"

So you've decided your story needs a dramatic cataclysm to electrify the fans. You've marshaled the qualities of the Expanded Universe to bring it about, and will sacrifice anything for the drama. But is that really such a good idea? Is there another way?


Superman. Batman. Titans of their fictional universe. Who would win in a fight? To truly master this question we can't just smash the two together like dumb action figures. We need to dive deep into the qualities of the Expanded Universe genre.

The word goes out in the fandom. Batman is gonna kick Superman's ass, or vice versa. A stage is set, two sides assembled to wail on each other, the stakes get raised and raised again, people are dramatically intoning or mumbling lines like "it's all been leading to this", and the world will never be the same. What started as a simple fight between Batman and Superman has become something much bigger. Your expanded universe project has marched straight into that most tempting of death traps:

The "Event"

"We were looking for a way to make the ratings soar
So we orchestrated an encounter with the Borg..." --Voltaire, "The USS Make-Shit-Up"

If we view our networked setting as a constellation of connection points, the Event is a supernova in the middle, a ton of stars colliding dramatically. The Event appeals through flashiness and scale, promising to use its large crossover of plotlines and characters to reshape the metanarrative of the expanded universe irrevocably. Often it achieves this dramatic reshaping by killing a large number of characters and settings. In practice it therefore usually works like a large scale Fridging. 

Fridging is a term initiated by Gail Simone (archive) (though it was wider fandom that shortened her "women in refrigerators" to simply "fridging") to describe a process whereby female characters are abruptly killed or tortured in order to provide motivation to a male protagonist, or simply to make him suffer. This term has been somewhat generalized since to encompass any character killed off or taken out of commission to raise the narrative stakes and generally serve the stories of others. This has a strong negative connotation in fan discourse: trading the life of one character for another's character development, an "establishing of stakes", or a boost to fan engagement, is often seen as as a cynical ploy. The Event similarly fridges major characters with their own plotlines, and even whole worlds or civilizations that exist within the expanded universe, and receives in return a boost in attention and excitement from an audience, and a sense of awe at the scope of what's going on. Just like in Fridging, the Event is a trade-off. In our fight between Superman and Batman, might we not establish stakes by having Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen killed by falling debris? He's probably expendable...

The Event often in practice gets in its own way, though. If someone is more invested in the Asgardians of Thor Ragnarok and their ongoing narrative than Thanos's plots in Infinity War, discovering that Infinity War opens with all of the Asgardians genocided off screen might frustrate rather than engage you. Sure, one might argue, you're feeling an emotion about characters you like dying, but there's probably a qualitative difference between feeling rage and grief at a character's death, and rage and grief at having spent $20 on tickets and popcorn only to see the things you love get trampled by writers who Just Don't Care. Given the scale of an Event, which will by necessity often draw together many characters from across the expanded universe, it is easy to use a character or setting (always someone's favorite character or setting) as can(n)on fodder, and difficult to try and resolve complex and probably entirely unrelated plot threads and character arcs in the midst of the world-shattering main plotline. And, of course, what is an Event without at least some blood on the tiles?

So, audiences may treat The Event not as a dramatic must-see experience but as a cynical cash-grab, a sign that the writers have run out of ideas, a demonstration that they have no interest or investment in lower tier characters/places, a simple bungling by bungling simpletons, or all of the above. The Event is a gamble, and while sometimes you can get record box office numbers, other times you slowly murder the comics industry and/or destroy a bunch of narrative design space. This latter part seems particularly significant, and is a recurring problem our mechanical basis example Magic the Gathering faces. Each new set of the story's tie-in card game needs a particular hook. Often the narratives revolve around titanic changes to how the featured setting operates. Of course, when settings inevitably become quite popular, this suddenly poses a major problem for the future: you can't "return to a popular setting" if that setting has been blown up, comprehensively overturned, smacked on top of another setting, eaten by cthulhus, assimilated by the Steampunk Borg, or experienced the shattering of the concept of time. Magic, trapped in permanent Event mode, consistently tosses its narrative future on the fire to power the engine of its present.

This seems like something you'd probably want to avoid in a sustainable expanded universe.

Isn't that the nature of war and tragedy, though? Human beings famously don't have arcs, and maybe there's value in challenging the heroic mode of storytelling where everything resolves neatly and no one just gets suddenly hit by a car. I appreciate this line of thought, though how we might carry out negotiations about whose character in our shared universe takes a Tesla Self Driving Car to the skull will have to wait for a later article in this series.

Only, that's not the way Events or Fridgings play out in practice, are they? They still take place in the context of dramatic arcs, they're just the dramatic arcs of some OTHER character than the one dying. The narrative arc of Avengers: Infinity War is still fundamentally a heroic fantasy; it just has some genocided Asgardians in the background. We're not meant to think about them much more than we're meant to dwell on whether that mook Batman just punched has healthcare coverage. No one mistakes Twin Peaks or The Grapes of Wrath for Identity Crisis unless they are very easily impressed indeed.

Maybe we could care about the mook's healthcare coverage, or poor Jimmy Olson Superman's Former Pal (press F to pay respects) though. Maybe we could also avoid the way mass fridgings so often seem to disproportionately wipe out women, people of color, and queer characters. It might be worth trying to do an Event well. After all, bringing numerous plot threads and characters together for a dramatic longer-form narrative is genuinely cool and engaging when done well. If built up properly, such stories can be a powerful culmination of years of collaborative storytelling, or thoughtful meditations on the way complex social and political systems interact, or just examinations of how events can spiral out of control. So, the primary goal of anyone seeking to create an Event probably should be to mitigate and avoid as many of the drawbacks as possible. Let the coolness of all these characters interacting carry the audience engagement part of things, and focus attention on ensuring that anything you're sacrificing for the Event is really, truly, worth the cost.
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The Multimodal Structure

It's worth trying to conserve our resources, our narrative design space, in this way, because the Expanded Universe has a property not shared by more linear narratives: an open ended and multimodal structure. We've already covered the networked nature of an expanded universe, the way it brings multiple characters and settings together in various connections. In truth, though, that could be said of any sufficiently long narrative. A single TV series might move to a number of different locations with new characters throughout the course of a season. This constellation of possibilities, though, is still experienced largely as a single linear framework which does not deviate from a preferred reading order.

The expanded universe explodes that linearity. It is open ended in multiple senses: the map of how you navigate the story might have a number of different equally valid paths, and the potential for new paths to appear is always left open as long as someone continues telling new stories.

Well, that's the case as long as the narrative space remains open. Killing off a character or blowing up a planet greatly forecloses what kinds of stories you can tell and what connections you can make to other parts of the story.

Let's hold off on that, though, and dig deeper into just how radically modal an expanded universe can be. If you have already decided that your stories will not be a single novel, film, tv show, or concept album, you can start to dismantle some other models of media production. Perhaps individual stories will be written by different individuals, each with their own perspectives. Perhaps one will be a novel, a whole set of others will be serialized short stories, and a third a webcomic.

There are therefore many modes in which the overall expanded universe might be instantiated, and any given reader can take the pieces of the narrative and rearrange them as they wish into their own unique reading order, focusing on some things and discarding others. Individual storylines of particular characters also take on this multimodality, to some potentially interesting effect. Homestuck spent most of its life as a comic with large blocks of instant messenger style chatlogs accompanying sometimes animated illustrations. This afforded the talkative or visually expressive characters a lot of internality as they verbally or visually expressed themselves. Others characters opened up far more in the publication of the Epilogues, which were written more like an experimental novel, and included extensive third person seemingly omniscient narration that shifted what characters could express internality.

This same thing may be true of our fight between Batman and Superman. In fact, a good reason for not blowing up either or both characters and their connected worlds is that the open ended nature of the story makes it possible for them to have a number of such contests and rematches. Is it possible that the medium of one story might give Batman or Superman the edge? That might seem like a strange way of looking at it, as we are so used to analyzing fiction diegetically--from the perspective of the universe, as though these things really happened. From this perspective, even if we're motivated by theme or by economic considerations, we still largely decide what the story will be, and then choose a medium. In practice, creating is much fuzzier, and we might find that it's much easier to describe Batman's brilliant strategies in prose, and much easier to visualize Superman's awesome powers in comics. Which medium we use might shape the way the conflict plays out as we contest with what the medium encourages or discourages.

By now it should be obvious that determining who between Batman and Superman would win is pretty contentious. We have all these different systems that might be employed within an expanded universe, and they all suggest different possible answers. And now we've even called into question whether one can really "win" finally! After all, any victory might be reversed elsewhere. Hell, despite the way a major character death forecloses a lot of narrative possibilities, the multimodal nature of the expanded universe means that additional stories might be written about that character's past exploits and dropped into the overall tapestry of the world. So, multimodality allows the question of who would win to remain unresolved. 

This is part of what makes it so tantalizing. This open ended structure means that there are always new twists and turns of the story to follow. Of course, this can also become exhausting. After a certain point it starts to feel like maybe both Batman and Superman should retire, lest they just be duking it out for eternity. The vast scope of an expanded universe might eventually irritate and exhaust readers if it never seems to go anywhere or see any permanent change. Its very multimodality means there are always countless jumping off points. For a reader who leaves, therefore, the question of whether Batman or Superman would win in a fight can be resolved fairly easily:

Simply stop reading once the hero you favor wins.

There are various ways of counteracting this, but one is particularly worth devoting time to, as it paradoxically provides a driving impetus to keep reading, while also calling into question the very premises of the Batman vs Superman concept.

Why have them fight, we might ask... when we could have them kiss?
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The Shipping Possibilities

(Relation)shipping is a simple reality of modern fandom, the engine that drives countless fan works, powered by a desire for wish fulfillment. It's great, and the Expanded Universe, with its countless possible connections, naturally offers countless potential ships--goodships, badships, and a dazzling array of extremely unlikely "crackships".

It is strange, then, that so many corporate expanded universes are so sexless and seemingly uninterested in exploring the vast field of drama at hand. Perhaps as a Homestuck fan I just have a strange expectation of what shipping will look like. After all, Homestuck has repeatedly canonized a variety of crackships, and the fandom has responded to a field of 34 different characters the same age by exploring a dizzying array of possible relationships. Contrast this with superhero film franchises, still locked in a decades old set of romance conventions where a single love is introduced for the protagonist, as though anyone expects an arc to be resolved after the course of just one movie. Strange, given that frequently films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Film Universe spend considerable time establishing Lore for future films. Strange too is Magic the Gathering's seeming conviction that its target audience is still 13 year old boys who only want to see wizards hurling spells at each other, none of that icky romance stuff! You'd think a stable of countless Planeswalkers bouncing off each other would be a little bit more character driven, but outside of a few delightful exceptions (Jace/Vraska forever, suckers!!) character dynamics still are dragged around by the nose by The Events. Ah well. At least Star Wars has had the decency to tease viewers with at least six or seven fairly viable canonical ships between members of the main cast, and numerous other crackships. Good work, team!

All of this is to say, I find shipping's inclusion in an expanded universe's plans to be a bit of a no brainer. Obviously it is not required, but even if you are personally disinterested in shipping, major parts of your audience most certainly will be. It seems reasonable to harness the fairly common fascination with soap opera dramatics, if you can pull it off.

Moreover, there is good reason to do so. Unlike the other great driver of narrative--murder--sex can increase drama, create character motivations, and drive plot developments, without destroying narrative design space. In fact, let's put aside the question of romance and sex for the moment and consider just basic human relationships. Conflict and tension can arise from countless points of difference; it certainly does in daily life. Difference is indeed one of the great motivators of an expanded universe project. The differences in approaches and perspectives of the creators create a diverse body of art; the networked and multimodal structure allows diverse stories to be told. So why do we so often find ourselves returning to violence as the core driver of the expanded universe?

Well, in fairness, focusing on shipping might just externalize that violence in the form of raging fan mobs demanding the head of whoever sunk their particular ship. The dark side of fan investment is this sort of mobbing behavior, always present in fandom but made particularly effective with the rise of social media, rumor networks, and dumb algorithmic moderation.

Such rancor might be inevitable, though, as people generate new things to be mad online about on an hourly basis. Moreover, the fans aren't always wrong to be outraged. Queer fans are rightly discouraged by the lack of any meaningful queer relationship on the big screen in the Marvel or DC Cinematic Universes in over a decade, and by the overall dominance of white men as protagonists. It is just unfortunate that often on social media this rage is directed not at the vast monopolies who control our most popular and dominant expanded universes, but small queer creators who have less power but are easier to harass. This dour reality, though, is no reason to deny people the representation they deserve, particularly when a focus on these human relationships--not just romantic and sexual ones--can so enhance the power of your shared fiction.

And so we come to the end of our attempt to understand Superman and Batman's great contest of wills. We mourn the fallen (RIP Superman's Pal Jimmy Olson :,( ), consider the various contests we've seen spread across perhaps a few years of content, the two joining together to fight common enemies like Lex Luthor, only to split apart again as the tensions between Metropolis and Gotham, Day and Night, reassert themselves. Maybe we read a few side stories about the Green Arrow and his manic pixie dream boyfriend The Flash, or, maybe we didn't. It's really up to us. We've tallied the statistics, we've considered the symbolism, and we've muttered to ourselves, "It's all been leading to this." As the sun comes down behind them, Batman and Superman stand on a rooftop together. "I don't want to fight you," Superman says softly, low, gazing with alien vision out to the horizon. "It's not how my ma, Martha, would have raised me."

Batman, staring at his high tech combat boots with hidden bat blade attachments (+2 Deception, +4 Damage, +1 Punk Cred) starts in surprise. "My mother... was also named Martha," he growls.

The two stare at each other, and lean in, their lips parting, silhouetted by a sun that we're either describing in text, or capturing in animation, or expressing via keytar solo, or something else entirely. They close their heroes' eyes, and that's all the space we have in this article, join me in the next part of this series when we start digging deeper into the nitty gritty of how previous shared fiction experiments online came about!

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This article is part of To Make An Apple Pie From Scratch, a guide to writing expanded universe fiction. You can read future articles early on the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon for $1, and when the book is finally finished, edited, and compiled into ebook form, for $5 you'll have your name in the credits as a supporter, and you'll receive the book at least a month before its public release.

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Follow the project here on Storming the Ivory Tower, updating Mondays or sometimes Tuesdays.

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1 comment:

  1. "Why have them fight, we might ask... when we could have them kiss?"

    THANK YOU! Less punching, more dealing with problems like people.


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