07 November 2008

Soap opera

Stuart Moore sings the tale of X-Men in the ’80s and early ’90s.
Chris Claremont pumped the series full of mysteries and character conflicts, some of which hung, unresolved, for years — especially since the book was bi-monthly at the start. Once John Byrne came on board, he contributed more of his own characters to the stew, most notably the Canadian super-team Alpha Flight.

In those days, X-Men was unique because the artwork was fresh and, more importantly, it was an extension and reïnvigoration of the Stan Lee soap-opera comics formula. Claremont built on Stan’s serial-comics template, weaving a huge number of threads through the book’s uber-story. Many of them were family-oriented: Cyclops’ brother Havok had mysteriously turned against him, Banshee’s cousin Black Tom teamed up with Xavier’s stepbrother The Juggernaut against the team, Moira MacTaggart shared a mysterious romantic past with Xavier.

The early Claremont X-Men never alienated its audience because, while you might be wondering what the hell was going on with Phoenix, there were eight other immediate plot threads moving forward to keep your interest. Once the series went monthly, you’d have expected the dangling threads to be resolved more quickly — but the opposite happened. Xavier, Phoenix, and the Beast spent the better part of a year believing the others were dead, and vice-versa. The mystery of Cyclops’s father, Corsair of the StarJammers, stretched on even longer.

And the book grew even more popular. Its audience loved the spaghetti-strand plots, the personal stories that exploded into galactic-war epics, the hyper-Marvel-style of soap opera piled upon soap opera stacked on top of giant robots, surreal mind-wars, and globe-traveling adventure.

Eventually I realized that Claremont was cheating with his soap opera structure. It seemed like he had a grand master narrative at work, but after reading for long enough you realize that he just is leaving loose ends scattered all over the place, so that was possible for him to pick them up at his convenience and pretend like it was All Part of His Plan.

But the thing about keeping people from falling off the bus makes me think of my man Joss Whedon. He has often talked about how the character of X-Men character Kitty Pryde was a major inspiration to him. It's not hard to draw a line between the teenage superheroine Kitty — smart and fretful, but strong at the core — and Buffy.

But I hadn't made the connection before about the soap opera structure.

One of the interesting innovations of Buffy is the way it weaves a season-long story arc into individual episodes that still stand or their own. TV had been working its way toward that before: Hill Street Blues started it (and invented the brilliant “previously on ... ” device at the beginning of episodes), other dramas had committed to it more and more, and Babylon 5 had attempted the crazy trick of presenting a vast, single narrative disguised as episodic television. But Buffy managed a new level of craftiness in fusing the long and short narratives. Only now does it occur to me that he must have learned some of this trick from reading X-Men.

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