23 April 2015

Guess Who's Coming to Story Hour?

Carrie Vaughn expresses some real frustration (and wisdom) about franchise-centric art that indirectly shines some light on some of the cockroaches busy scuttling under the sink in post-Battle-of-New-York Hell's Kitchen. As many problems as there are with poor writing in franchise-centric art — and that's not just H'wood, and sure as hell not just Marvel/Disney; comics themselves are a problem, and other forms too if one looks — they are not the principle source of the problem. Writers, after all, frequently get overruled; it may be by editorial, but it's usually by Corporate. And that discloses the underlying narrative source of the problem:

Marketing personnel demand — impose — an easy, unambiguous hook as part of their sales strategies. This implicates a necessary third-person-omniscient viewpoint. To say the least, a third-person-omniscient viewpoint is inconsistent with an awful lot of serial art being produced today, and especially the best serial art of the last half-century or more in all forms and media.

This inherently rejects the fundamental marketing/branding approach itself, which inverts the entire intellectual property/trademark process. Instead of allowing a secondary meaning to develop over time in the perception of actual consumers, consistent with the Lanham Act (and corresponding European and Japanese trademark concepts), there's a Plan that must be followed slavishly in which the brand managers do everything they can to direct what that secondary meaning might be. On one tentacle, there's some reason to follow a top-down plan for certain goods; the horrible example of the Edsel still lingers in every marketing curriculum in the US, and there are equivalents overseas. The other waving tentacles, though, demonstrate that this doesn't work in the arts, as epitomized by Jar-Jar, unplanned spinoffs, and the general artistic and marketplace success of character-development-oriented serial art.

Contrary to received doctrine, brand identification in the arts is not a chicken-and-egg problem... and, more to the point, cannot be managed through any risk-avoidance strategy comfortable to quantitatively trained investors. What works for cars, at least in the short run, does not appear to work in the arts at all, or at least not in any term beyond immediate release. If it did, virtually every new and prominent recording artist would emerge via an American Idiot-type process, because that's the epitome of brand-before-substance development. If it did, there would be no Harry Potter (or, somewhat more sleazily, Twilight... or Fifty Shades). If it did, the most-popular precinematic X Man among the target audience would be just about any character except Kitty Pryde, and the subtext of race-, gender-, sexual-orientation-, and religious-minority acceptance would be absent from all serial forms of storytelling.

Explicitly including those last themes which have been hiding in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and keep getting suppressed every time there's a new main-sequence film. That's really what has been going on with both Skye and Deathlok: Coulson has accepted those with gifts/powers as not just potential allies or outside resources, but as potential team-members. The marketing department isn't all that comfortable with that kind of, umm, integration, and so is constantly imposing its version of "all deliberate speed" on change — on a form of storytelling that by its very nature is inherently about unpredictable longterm development. That's not just plot development; it is most especially character development. And that's what people really care about in serial form: Not the particular events at an ambitious ad agency, but how those events relate to Don and Peggy (and Sally...); not whether S.H.I.E.L.D. can defeat a particular threat (whether one calls it "supernatural" or "Clarke's Law magic" is irrelevant), but whether female Peggy Carter and mixed-race Daisy Johnson and black cyborg Mike Peters can be accepted and have their own stories on their own terms. That sort of ambiguity frightens marketing dorks who Have a Plan... and thus we're back to Ms Vaughn's ire, all the while wondering whether this thin veneer of integration is going to lead to Problems with story hour because it doesn't fit the nonnarrative exploitation plan.