Friday, October 28, 2005

When Novelists Attack!

Or "New Recruits Tell Old Stories"

Marvel has just announced the addition of two critically-acclaimed authors to their ranks: Stephen King and Eric Jerome Dickey.

They've also announced what projects these two will be working on. Prepare to be bowled over (or not). King and Jae Lee will be doing a monthly series based on King's "Dark Tower" series, while Dickey teams with District X artist David Yardin for a six-part Storm miniseries that isn't actually a Storm miniseries (more on that in a bit).

But first... Stephen King. This announcement has sent up quite a burst of controversy lately. The argument seems to break down into the following: on the pro side, snagging a writer of King's calibre and fame is certainly a coup for Marvel. It provides a level of visibility that even DC couldn't obtain with Brad Meltzer. Also, by having King's project tie in to his "magnum opus" book series, Marvel could hypothetically snag most, if not all, of King's readers (who, last I checked, numbered somewhere in the millions). Quite frankly, this is an almost-assured financial and commercial success for Marvel.

The con side, however, points out that Marvel has basically told their own audience that, Dark Tower readers aside, they've got nothing to look for here. Accessibility obviously isn't going to be a factor when you've got seven novels as the base; not to mention, a lot of King fans (myself included) tend to draw a distinction between his work in the fantasy genre and his work in the horror genre. If you haven't already been reading "Dark Tower", you're probably not the target audience.

Which, I suppose, is fair enough if you look at it solely in terms of the money. There's no question that Marvel can only gain by ditching their readers in exchange for King's. But one criticism I'm very much inclined to agree with is the larger problem, which is that Marvel and King aren't bringing anything innovative to the table. "Dark Tower" has been around for twenty-five years. New story or not, there's nothing original here. I'm not saying they should have saddled King with the X-Men or something mainstream, but one does have to wonder why go this route, as opposed to something completely original that could appeal both to King fans and to the regular audience; something along the lines of JMS' "Dream Police", which has no ties to the mainstream but also no explicit ties to past works of the writer. That's the creative ideal, because there are no pre-requisites for any reader who jumps aboard. And King is certainly capable of that.

Unfortunately, this theme of "someone new doing something old" seems to have become a theme across the board. Damon Lindelof is doing Wolverine vs. Hulk. Daniel Knauf is doing an Iron Man story where his technology is stolen and used for evil. We've seen all this before. And it doesn't stop there, as Eric Jerome Dickey's "Storm" miniseries proves.

As I mentioned before, it's not really about Storm at all. Rather: "Dickey's Storm story arc will present an epic romance, revealing the untold love story of the world's two most popular African American Super Heroes, Ororo (also known as Storm of the X-Men) and T'Challa (a.k.a. The Black Panther), the world's first African American Super Hero... As the story and romance unfold, the duo come together to fight against a mutual foe who seeks to put them in a cage and exploit them toward wicked ends." (quoted from the press release)

So it's a Black Panther/Storm love story. An "epic" love story, no less. Except that, if we put aside the recent Milligan/Hudlin crossover, Storm and Black Panther? Not exactly Cyclops and Jean Grey, or Superman and Lois Lane. If I recall correctly, they shared one story together back in Ye Olde Days, and that was about it. And personally, I always felt there was something very artificial about the basic concept of a Panther/Storm relationship, because no writer has ever convinced me they're together for any other reason than they're both African. That's certainly the vibe I get from Reginald Hudlin, who gleefully lumps together Black Panther, Blade, Storm and Luke Cage despite the fact that the only thing they have in common is skin color. It's forced, and it doesn't convince.

And the annoying thing is that the press release regarding Dickey is utterly contradictory: first it promises to be a Storm series, then we find out T'Challa shares the billing. Dickey expresses his admiration of Storm, then explains how the series is about African Prince T'Challa meeting street girl Ororo, who gets along more because she's a sneak than because of her nascent powers. Hell, at least the older story had them on equal ground (he a prince, she a "goddess").

Which brings me to the same problem as before: Dickey isn't showing us anything new. We've seen Storm/Panther. It wasn't very convincing then. And for all that Dickey might be able to wrangle some kind of love story out of it, it's unlikely he'll be able to get past that instinctive sense of artificiality, precisely because - aside from him, Hudlin and whoever wrote that first story - it's not as if that many people find the relationship believable in the first place. Again, it's a waste of talent (though I'm not personally familiar with Dickey's work, so I can't comment on whether he has any talent to waste).

I've expressed hesitation regarding this influx of non-comics writers before. Primarily because there's not much indication as to whether these new recruits can actually write comics; but also because it's becoming increasingly clear that they're not really trying to think outside the box. And maybe the reason star power isn't translating into off-the-chart sales is because however well Lindelof pulls off a Wolverine/Hulk fight, it's still a Wolverine/Hulk fight. A rose (or pile of excrement, depending on your tastes) by any other name...