Friday, November 15, 2013

The X-Files Problem

Yes, I'm actually talking about comics today.  By referring to a TV show.  But first, let's talk about some movies.

Star Wars specifically.  It's likely you've heard that Lucas at one point claimed he had planned both before and after the original trilogy of films.  This is obvious bullshit.  First, naming the first Star Wars "Episode 4" was a homage to old film serials, the same roots that Indiana Jones came from.  Second, have you watched the prequels?  They are actually built on a first drafts of scripts, not things planned years, if not decades, in advance.

Why do I mention this?  Star Wars is an example of putting a grand, overall plan on top of an existing work, and fucking it up, but that's neither here nor there.  A good comic example of this is the comic I've written so damn much about at this point, Sluggy Freelance.  I only mention this to separate this from the topic I am going to talk about, which is when there is an over arching plot, and when it goes wrong.

This is the X-Files Problem.  The X-Files, for those of you who are too young or lived with your head firmly up a rock's asshole, was a 90's TV show that featured a pair of FBI agents investigating weird things, but mostly aliens.  Insert your own meme picture of a guy with big hair saying aliens.  The X-Files had two kinds of episodes.  One was the episodic "monster of the week" episodes, which were fun.  Then there were the myth arc episodes.

The whole point of the series was this myth arc, about an alien conspiracy that dominated the government and all that jazz.  It was a great idea and powered the series for years.  Only one small problem with it:  the writers had no idea WHAT the conspiracy was, where it was going, or why.  This wasn't apparent at first, but as the series went on it became apparent that they were just throwing things at the wall.  They kept adding layers of mystery, new questions, new clues and while I'm sure some where meant to be red herrings, soon they began to confuse themselves.  By the end, it was such a mess, I just stopped watching.  I'm sure someone out there has sorted it all out, it's the internet and there are geeks everywhere, but just watching the show wouldn't allow for the mysteries to unwind themselves naturally.

Now I get what they were doing, they left it open so they could adjust the conspiracy plan as the series went along.  And the series lasted a LONG time.  And as the initial plots were wrapped up, new ones needed to be created, and those conflicted with the previous ones and things just got confusing after a while.  Another show that had similar problems was Battlestar Galactica, where every episode started with "they have a plan" and it became apparent that they did NOT have a plan.  When they eventually tried to fit one on, it had to be done after the fact and I don't think it fit very well (nor did I really watch it).

I can't think of many comics that have suffered from the X-Files problem out right, few comics last long enough for it to effect them, and those that have it can be argued if the artist does or does not have a plan.  That said, there is one comic that I can think of that is in danger of suffering the X-Files Problem:  Gunnerkrigg Court.

In my view, Gunnerkrigg is one of the best comics on the web today, and it does have an initial mystery:  Annie's father.  It's only been touched on a few times now, but with all the other stories and mysteries, it kind of gets lost, just another one of many.  Getting lost and buried, especially as the comic goes on longer and longer, creates an opportunity for things to go off the rails.  Has it?  Well I don't know yet, and the comic is good enough to support itself despite this possibility of failure.  It could also be that there is a plan, one that we, the readers, aren't completely privy to.

It also helps that Gunnerkrigg has another leg to stand on, that of a coming of age story.  The X-Files didn't have much of a story outside of the conspiracy, so when that went nuts, the series started falling apart.  Having something beyond that initial plan is what can keep the X-Files Problem from being, well, a problem, and I suspect Gunnerkrigg will do alright, for now.

That's not to say that having an initial plan, theme or mystery is a bad thing, by far it is not, the issue is how the plan is used and how it develops.  Reading through the commentary of Errant Story, for example, highlights how while there was an initial plan and route for the story to take, there was enough flexibility for Poe to take it to new areas, explore new ideas along the way.  Under planning would have forced these ideas to the forefront.  Over planning, of course, would have been even worse.

A rough outline is never a bad thing.  Being prepared to scrap that outline should also be considered.  Planning every step of the way could restrict how the piece actually develops.  As a piece goes on longer and longer, eventually favorite characters and stories (for the author!) can develop and the desire to put more emphasis on them will occur, throwing the plan into chaos.  Yet, if there is a mystery that is the core of the story, not knowing how the mystery is meant to develop could cause more issues as the story goes along.

Don't be afraid to plan, and don't be afraid not to plan.  Flexibility is necessary, but make it within the confines of the overall story that's planned.  Which is hard to do, of course.  If it wasn't, the X-Files Problem wouldn't exist in the first place.

Not sure what I'll have next time.  Until then kiddies.

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