Friday, June 8, 2012

Character, Story & Economics in Comics

There's a "Phoenix rising" joke here somewhere...
It's no big secret that I've been a fan of (especially superhero) comics for a long time. While I've never been a serious "collector", or the kind of fan-boy who dresses up and flies around the world to every Comic-Con ever. I've never even been to the famed San Diego Comic-Con, and although I think I might have fun there, it's not exactly a high priority.

That said... I was the guy explaining who the giant alien with the big grin was to my buddies at The Avengers.

(It was Thanos, FYI... Who is a Death-obsessed jerk.)

It's also probably not news to all that many people that I'm a fan of Superman as a character and as a conceptual idea, even though I know most comic book fans don't treat him very seriously anymore.

As a filmmaker and story-teller myself, I think a lot about character. Even within the context of documentary film making, character matters a lot. One thing I've learned over the years is that good stories really aren't about sharp plots or witty dialogue, they're about believable action being derived from honest and clear character motivations. If a character is strong and well-developed, then it's incredibly easy to spot instances where they are acting "out-of-character", and when dialogue or plot points in a film hinge on a character doing something every audience member would understand he would never do, then the story suffers.

To use Superman as an example, everyone who is familiar with the character understands that he is a man of a virtually unbreakable morality and commitment to bringing villains to justice - he is not out for blood or vengeance. He stops crimes and aggression, he protects people from all types of disasters, defends the world against alien attacks - but he does not kill criminals. Superman is a character that is swiftly approaching 100 years old, and while different writers have done different things with him, that aspect of his character has remained fairly consistent.
Don't do drugs. Or Superman will KILL YOU!
He is a character that has the power to kill every human on the planet in a matter of hours if he really wanted to... But that action wouldn't be something befitting "Superman".

So imagine going to a Superman film and they introduce his back story: being raised by two loving parents in small-town Kansas. He's taught all the same core values we are aware of, he fights for "Truth, Justice and the American Way", and then the first random criminal we see him fight, he just slices in half with heat vision. No "justice" there.

Doesn't make any sense, does it? No.

More importantly... The drama of who Superman is, exists within that juxtaposition of his morality and his power. He could do just about anything he wants, and he could kill every villain he meets... But he won't. And he has to deal with that. Each time he hands a supervillain over to the police (or the Green Lantern Corps, or the New Gods or whoever else...), he knows that it's possible that that villain will harm someone else in the future. He's also got to deal with his immense power every time he's sitting at his desk at work, or kissing Lois Lane.

These are the struggles of Superman, and without them, there is just no story at all.

I've been thinking about all this quite a bit lately, because it effects my own efforts to become a better filmmaker. But thinking about personalities and motivations, and trying to get at who people are isn't enough to understand why people take action. You also have to consider what is possible for individuals to know, and how the limits of knowledge effect the choices people make.

Sometimes bad authors will cheat both their characters and, by extension, their readers by introducing some "deus ex machina" moment that completely disrupts the story with some new piece of information or new power that countermands all the other information they already gave throughout the story and voila, mystery solved or obstacle overcome!

That's just not fun, and frankly, it's also terrible writing.

The exciting thing about writing and reading fictional characters is when they're testing their limits, just like the best moments in real life are when we test our own. That - again - is where all the drama comes from. The thing that makes Superman people's least favorite superhero often times is simply that he's too damn powerful and writers don't explore the other side of that issue very well. The fact that he's too powerful makes him a hard character to write, because you can't really put him in jeopardy very easily.

He's bulletproof. He flies at supersonic, near light-speeds. He can run just as fast. He is strong enough - in some incarnations - to move the moon and other small planets. He has x-ray vision, heat vision, supercooling breath and immensely powerful lung capacity. He can fly through space no problem... And he's powered by the Sun, so even getting too close to a yellow star just makes him even stronger!

Now... Knowing all that. The writer's job is now to find this man some kind of challenger that can put him in danger. As you might imagine, that's damned hard!

Quick break-away from Superman for a quote about storytelling from a surprising source:
"The only thing that never runs out of being exciting to watch is human courage and overcoming odds, and knowing that character, 'You know what? Afterwards I'd have a beer with him', in other words you have to have some human touch and that's the hardest thing to do. Bullets are easy, you can buy them at 23c a piece. If you buy emotions... They're priceless, you can't buy 'em." - Sylvester Stallone

Sly's right.

Overcoming odds and relatability is the key... So to put it another way - you've got to find ways to make Superman bleed - and not necessarily literally.

With that in mind........ I would argue that there is one (often unexplored) major challenge Superman faces all the time that can and should create interesting character dilemmas, and as you might have guessed for this particular blog, it's an economics problem.

Superman faces a tremendously devastating economic calculation problem.

Seriously. He flies through space too!
Let's stipulate that Superman is an incredibly productive police force all by himself, and he can save far more people from far more horrific events than any human being can hope to accomplish... But... He still cannot be at all places simultaneously. He is, for all his powers, not omnipotent. There will never be enough "Superman" to go around and take care of all injustices all the time.

That scarcity results in the need for Superman (or really any superhero) to constantly deal with the question of prioritization and the ranking of his own actions against their possible alternatives. He must decide who gets his attention, and how urgently, and he must do this constantly while also balancing his own needs as well.

To give a specific example, In one issue of Superman I picked up recently, it opens with Kal-El having returned to Earth recently from an extended period off-world protecting the galaxy from some huge intergalactic threat, and I believe, visiting a newly re-created version of his home planet, Krypton. When he returns, he holds a brief press conference and in the middle of it, a tearful woman walks up to him and slaps him.

Slapped Superman. The Man from Krypton. In the face.

Anyway... She explains that her husband died of a brain tumor that Earthly doctors told her was inoperable, but that Superman, had he been on planet Earth at the time could have used his x-ray/heat vision to destroy the tumor and save her husband's life. It was sad for Superman, and it made him get all philosophical for part of the book wondering if he's forgetting about doing the "right thing" for the people.

But what the hell!?

Yes. He could have used his precious time to save that one woman's husband from an untimely death. Instead... He was busy SAVING SEVERAL WHOLE PLANETS of people/aliens. It seems to me that Superman used his time wisely.

But then, here's the rub...

Economics tells us that - in fact - neither me, nor the woman, nor Superman, can say for certain that he made the right choice. Why? In short, because Superman isn't a savior-for-hire within a free market.

Without a price system, and without Superman actually selling his services in some way, he's got no way to accurately judge other people's true need or what uses of his time maximize value for the individual people he presumably serves. Prices are the only decent way of acquiring that information, and it's a problem for Superman just as it's a problem for non-profit organizations... We spend so much time in the non-profit world just trying to figure out if we're wisely using our resources because we just don't get the necessary feedback information from a market. If we could get price-based feedback, it'd be a lot easier to know if we were doing the right things. Or rather, it'd be easier to know if we were using our resources in ways that maximize value to our intended "consumers".

All that aside........... Let's be honest... If Superman did have profits & losses to guide him and help him decide what to spend his time & energy on, then I think it's exceptionally likely that the entire populations of the planets he was off saving would undoubtedly pay far more for his valuable & rare protective services than any random woman with a cancerous husband could afford.

Thus in truth, I'm quite sure that the result would be the same either way: Superman would fly off to those other planets, save millions of humans and aliens in the process, and ultimately he would just have to learn to accept that even though it sucks he wouldn't be there to save a handful of individual people who he could have saved otherwise, what he actually did choose to do was a far better use of his available time and powers.

Now... To be clear... I'm not actually saying Superman should sell his services, or exist within a for-profit market. I don't really think he should be doing that any more than I think non-profit institutions like the one I actually work for shouldn't exist. Non-profit institutions and services are every bit a part of a free society as any for-profit business... But they have knowledge limitations. Serious ones...

In spite of the fact that profits & losses would tell Superman if he was doing things people valued - a for-profit Superman would have a lot of social credibility downsides, so I'm not sure that's the right answer.

But still... Anyone working without price signals has a calculation problem, and thinking as a story-teller who cares about character development, I believe that there's a lot of drama that can be found within that problem.

How does Superman know that he is making the right choices in deciding who to save and who to ignore? He doesn't. So he's going to have to wrestle with that. It's a good story line... He's also going to have to wrestle with the fact that he has wants, needs and desires for himself as well. So what happens when he takes a day off and X number of innocent people die who he could have saved?

What happens when it's not some random woman's husband, but Lois Lane who needs immediate saving, and Superman is millions of light years away on Apokalips or wherever fighting Darkseid?

How's he going to feel about his value judgement then? Maybe still ok, but... Ouch, right?

Faces of death. Superman edition.
Is the alternative for Superman to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, fighting every level of injustice from playground squabbles, to business fraud, to Facebook bullying, to Ponzi-schemers and government bailouts and congressional insider trading... and, you know... also the really scary stuff like Doomsday?

No Lois. No Daily Planet. No TV anchor gig. No Martha Kent (or Jonathan, depending on whether or not he's alive)... No Lana Lang. No fireside chats with Bruce Wayne... No scientific exploration, taxonomy projects, and it goes without saying... No playing "farmer" up in the Fortress of Solitude. Nope.

All day, every day, Superman is fighting injustice... and even still, some injustices persist. So in the split seconds this utterly miserable version of Superman has between various rescues, while he's blazing around the world, he should probably just cry because he's a failure.

It's extreme, but I think it makes the point.

Superman as a character is not just a product of his powers, or his morals. He's also a product of the choices he makes in deciding how to act versus the literally innumerable alternatives from which he could select.

And that problem - the problem of tradeoffs - is an economic problem.

How cool would it be for some writer of Superman to really delve into this question? How does Superman decide who and what gets his attention? How does he know he's making the right decisions? He has no system of measurement, no competing bids for his time. At the end of the day, it's only a question of his subjective values and a first-come-first-served selection process... I wonder if that would make him feel guilty, or if it would frustrate him to not know whether or not he's using his time effectively.

Maybe I'll try to write that story someday.

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