Monday, May 26, 2008

Bathroom Monologue: War and Peace and Comics

Allow me to explain the problem with comic books. It is not the costumes, superpowers or unrealistic body types. Achilles is pretty much naked for two-thirds of The Iliad, then puts on some heavenly jammies his mother got him. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis features a man who turns into a giant bug for no explained reason (which makes Spider-Man plagiarism of great 20th century lit). What is wrong lies in the writers.

“Writers,” you may note, is the plural of, "writer."

Imagine if Leo Tolstoy wrote the first hundred pages of War and Peace, then turned it over to Fyodor Dostoyevsky for fifty pages. After a falling out around page 42 of his contract, Dostoyevsky is replaced by Aleksandhr Solzhenitsyn, who manages a stable run for a record-setting 150 pages. Each writer is a total literary genius with his (or her) own vision for literature and for War and Peace. None of them has any more authority over the other outside of the ability to write an angry letter that the newest chapter ruined Helene's character or made too much of Pierre's nihilism.

And all of this is edited by Joe Quesada, a self-professed die hard fan of Tolstoy’s early work on the book, but a man who recognizes that War and Peace needs “to be modernized” and “become more topical.” His editing means that he shepherds the entire writing process. He is governed mostly by sales, such that if chapters aren’t selling well he can pressure the current author to add more cliffhangers, sex and fight scenes. These genius writers have all the freedom that the editor feels like giving them. Quesada controls everything without ever writing any of it, and he can shift in new writers, such that Solzhenitsyn's chapters are followed up with a four-chapter story arc from Anton Chekhov, and then Aleksandr Pushkin, and then Dean Koontz.

And then we hit the Annual. At the end of the first year of War and Peace we get a bonus-sized Annual issue, not linked to the previous page, but its own story by its own writer, in some way related to Napolean's campaign. And because the regular author is behind schedule and busy, the Annual is written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But Marquez didn't read anything after Tolstoy quit the book (he prefers independent comics), so his story is set back on page 90, even though it will be printed somewhere on page 320. He seeds plot threads that no one else even thought of, though Quesada will order Chekhov to reference them from now on. Now perhaps American secret agents are dispersed throughout the war trying to sabotage Russia's efforts, and God actually makes a cameo to rebut one of Pierre's diatribes. After all, Marquez was told to experiment and have fun with the Annual issue of this masterpiece.

Another Annual featuring another all-star writer will appear every year until War and Peace is done (Boris Pasternak for Annual #2, Marcel Proust for Annual #3, and a tentative contract with Gertrude Stein to fill in some of the later annuals).

If Quesada turns this novel around so that it sells well, it will not end where Tolstoy intended. It could go on for decades, and there could be spin-offs. You see, War and Peace is doing so well that other ongoing novels, such as War and More War, War and Peace: Xtreme, and Bolkonsky Vs. Predator, will begin over the next year. They will have strong creative direction at first (Ayn Rand is very devoted to Xtreme), but will get similar creative shifts shortly thereafter. And as these expansive novels continue, some chapters will randomly crossover with the events of the original War and Peace, though you won’t really be able to understand what either set of characters is doing in these interactions unless you’re reading both novels simultaneously. Some stories flow like: War and Peace chapter 99, War and Peace: Xtreme chapter 11, War and More War chapter 13, and then conclude in War and Peace chapter 100. If you go straight from 99 to 100, you'll spoil the story for yourself.

By Koontz's stint on War and Peace the cast has entirely changed, since certain writers wanted certain characters. Every writer wants his (or her) own leeway and wants to tell self-contained stories, with most everything wrapping up every twenty pages, and with the cast rotating to suit their tastes, so that nothing lasts for too long. It seems Woody Allen wanted to write about Lise, and so he used retroactive continuity ("retcon") to bring her back to life when it turns out a pregnant body double actually died in labor, and she was secretly spirited away via U-Boat. Kutuzov actually repelled Napolean at Borodino in a strange Ground Hog's Day-like scenario (this chapter came with variant covers). A funny Chinese philosopher is introduced, turns out to be a shapeshifter, and assumes Andrei's role after his death so that no one is the wiser. By the time Leo Tolstoy is rehired in a grand publicity stunt to write War and Peace: Epilogues, the epic end to the series, he doesn't even recognize his masterpiece.

Of course, it's the costumes that ruin Superman.

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