Consistent Story Worlds

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At StoryWorld 2012, Jeff Gomez’s keynote was centered around what he called the 10 Commandments of 21st Century Franchise Production.   Gomez went on to rate certain franchises based on how closely they adhered to these rules he’s laid down.  I feel as if his list has been adequately covered elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it here, but I thought I’d use it as an excuse to take a look at one important aspect of transmedia world building, maintaining a consistent story world, and do my own analysis of how successfully a few of these mega-franchises have trod this ground.

When the news broke a few weeks ago that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm and had thereby renewed the Star Wars film franchise’s lease on life, me and most of the other geeks of my generation were literally atwitter about the possibilities.  So let’s take a look at Star Wars’ so-called expanded universe.  Allegedly, during his reign at Lucasfilm, George Lucas himself signed off on everything in the Star Wars expanded universe, but the franchise has become so voluminous in recent years that I have to assume Lucas was rubber stamping a lot of this content, leaving most of the heavy lifting in this department to Star Wars continuity cop Leland Chee.  Chee maintains a database called the Holocron, an exhaustive font of Star Wars knowledge with dozens of levels of canonicity.  But before Chee was put to the herculean task of unifying all of the Star Wars stories under one umbrella, the state of the franchise was quite different: At the beginning of the Star Wars multimedia blitz, very little effort was made to maintain a consistent canon.  The first original novel based on the series, “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,” depicted brother-sister duo Luke and Leia getting a bit too close for comfort (before the characters’ shared lineage was public knowledge).  The Marvel Star Wars comic series, which told stories between and betwixt Lucas’ original trilogy, ran for more than a hundred issues, and was riddled with contradictions to the canonical films.  I applaud Lucasfilm for appointing a keeper of the continuity, but even after Chee came into the picture, Lucas reserved the right to alter Star Wars continuity on a whim, which meant, when you got right down to it, the only truly canonical Star Wars material were the films that Lucas made himself.  Even for a die-hard Star Wars fan like myself, it remains difficult to know precisely what is real canon and what isn’t.  As characters like Lumiya from the Marvel Star Wars line start appearing in the modern-day expanded universe novels, wouldn’t it be natural for us assume that that entire comic series has now been admitted into canon, contradictions and all?  Even the 1978 Star Wars holiday special, a variety show so bad it only exists today in bootleg form, and for years was alleged to have been disavowed by Lucasfilm completely, has seen elements like Chewbacca’s family and the Wookie celebration Life Day bleed into continuity.

But despite a somewhat convoluted canonicity, there are elements of the expanded universe that are near and dear to me, and one of my biggest concerns about the forthcoming Disney Star Wars films is whether or not they will adhere to the post-episode 6 expanded universe continuity which essentially started with Timothy Zahn’s fan-favorite “Heir to the Empire” novel trilogy, and has been playing out ever since in novels, comics and all manner of disparate media.  If the new regime at Disney’s Lucasfilm fail to honor the expanded universe in the upcoming films, they risk alienating a large percentage of the fanbase.  Of course, the alternative also leaves something to be desired.  Even if they find a compelling way to tell new stories with these beloved characters that take place in between the extant expanded universe installments, my experience watching the future films would be rather like that of a fan of the “Harry Potter” novels watching the movie adaptations: while it may be thrilling for them to watch their favorite scenes from the books realized on the big screen, there aren’t a lot of surprises there.  Since the big developments of Luke and Han and Leia’s lives have been laid out in the expanded universe for years to come, adhering to those would create an awfully rigid structure for the makers of the upcoming movies to have to work within.  And to a certain extent, it would rob die-hard expanded universe aficionados of the wonderment we experienced the first time we saw the original trilogy, when the sky was literally the limit in terms of what came next.  All that said, I’m starting to veer a little outside the scope of this particular blog entry: we’re here to discuss why maintaining a consistent story world is key to the success of a modern franchise.

So let’s shift gears for a minute to a Marvel universe and the DC universe.  When Gomez rated Marvel a 10 out of 10 on his franchise scale and DC a paltry zero, I believe he was referring specifically to the movie universes.  Interestingly enough, though, in its current state, even the continuity in the DC comic book universe is far from an exact science.  For starters, they recently resorted to the mother of all retcons by rebooting the DC universe entirely.  Retroactive continuity was the subject of an earlier entry in the blog, and is a necessary staple of the comics industry when a company’s central characters have been around for as many as six decades.  And even though a page-one reboot was seemingly a drastic action, when it was first announced, I was willing to give DC the benefit of the doubt.  If done right, a reboot could have revitalized the DC universe.  But to my mind, after a universe reboot, someone who’s lived in a cave for their entire life should have been able to pick up Batman #1 or Superman #1 with no knowledge of the characters and still been able to follow the story.  Instead, after the reboot, we were essentially dropped into the story in medias res, forced to assume that everything we knew about the characters was the same until we were told different.  It struck me as a particularly lazy way to handle such a massive retcon.  Now that I think about it, probably the best thing DC could have looked to as a model for how to handle a reboot would have been the early days of Marvel’s Ultimate universe.

But whether or not you’re on board with the DC reboot, the new books don’t even seem to be internally consistent.  After the reboot, DC made the interesting choice to start ongoing series set in completely different eras, a present day Superman series, for instance, and a year-one era Superman series telling the story of a younger Clark Kent’s early days.  Again, on paper, I love this notion of ongoing, parallel storytelling in two different time periods, but to make it work, it is absolutely essential that one hand talks to the other, and the word on the street is that very little of that his happening in the DC bullpen.

On the other hand, Marvel, in recent years, has been pretty good about keeping their comic universe consistent and keeping a dialogue going between their creators.  Once a year or so, Marvel’s top creators have a story summit to beat out the major story points in the coming year, and to coordinate to what degree the various books will be involved in the year’s tentpole events.  And unlike the Marvel of the early ‘90s, when slapping “An Infinitely Gauntlet Crossover” on a cover was little more than a thinly-veiled attempt at selling more books, it’s been my experience of late that when an ongoing Marvel series ties in to one of their big event storylines, by and large these interludes are expertly woven into the larger context.  And when you really think about it, the fact that all of these separate comics exist in the same unified story world gives Marvel the opportunity to explore aspects of the story that a film or TV universe never could.

But even Marvel is not immune to the sin of retroactive continuity, the most egregious example in recent memory being the mystical annulment of Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson.  Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada had long been on record as saying that he wanted the opportunity to tell stories involving a single Peter Parker (even though, for my money, Marvel already had the perfect venue for those kinds of stories in “Ultimate Spider-Man”), and a few years back, Quesada pushed through a plot device involving a devil’s bargain between Peter and the demonic Mephisto which reshaped reality as though Peter and Mary Jane had never gotten hitched.  Now, the last thing in the world I want to do is vilify Joey Q, because overall I think his influence on the Marvel universe has been stellar: It helps to have a creator at the helm instead of a bean counter, and I have little doubt that the methodically unified Marvel universe that fans like me enjoy today is due in large part to Quesada’s efforts.  All that said, we’re digging up this old chestnut now to highlight the dangers of massive retcons, so here’s what really bugged me about the now-infamous “One More Day” storyline.  The profound personal implications this development had for Peter and MJ were bad enough, but there was a component of the change that, for me, was even more vexing.  When you have a massive story world like the Marvel universe, every retcon has a butterfly effect of repercussions, some of which are impossible to predict.  During the Civil War storyline, Peter Parker famously outted himself as Spider-Man on National TV news, and Peter’s company-mandated deal with the devil apparently retconned this out of existence too.  As I recall, the official spin from Marvel tried to band-aid the problem by claiming that Spidey still outted himself during Civil War, only now no one remembers who was actually under the mask.  But, seriously, in what way does that make sense?  And just to show you how deep the rabbit hole goes, it took another storyline, “One Moment in Time,” just to hash out some of the lingering continuity issues that grew out of Mephisto deal.  At any rate, after this happened, despite my longtime love for the character, I boycotted all of the Spider books in the Earth 616 universe.  Because, honestly, why should I bother devoting time and energy to becoming invested in Spider-Man and his story if some editorial edict can invalidate the most important relationship in Peter Parker’s life while at the same time irrevocably disrupting the Marvel Comics story world that I know and love?

And I think that gets to the heart of the matter.  If we’re going to devote the time to get invested in a series, we want to trust that we’re in good hands.  We want to know that like the Cylons, the storytellers have a plan.  And we want to be secure in the knowledge that no one’s going to come along and retcon our favorite stories out of existence.  Now, in the strictest sense, you could make an argument that the Star Wars franchise is really more multimedia than transmedia, and comic book universes aren’t even necessarily that.  But the one thing all of these things have in common is a massive, interconnected story world.  The dozens of separate series that make up the Marvel and the DC universes are different windows into those vast story worlds, the same way that transmedia tools like social media and alternate reality games provide windows into the transmedia experiences we’re creating.  So what are the takeaways from today’s post?  Take the time to map out your story and your story world up front in intricate detail, because the fans can tell when you don’t.  Remember that when you’re designing immersive narratives, division of labor can be the enemy if all of the creators involved aren’t on the same page.  And do everything in your power to avoid painting yourself into a corner that only a massive retcon can rectify.  Because fans like me who are obsessive enough to immerse ourselves in your transmedia story worlds are exactly the kind of people who are going to crucify you if we feel like you’re jerking us around.

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