Last month, I went on at length about influences on and from comics in general. Now, let’s be more specific.
Years ago, in the course of some book sale or other, I ended up with a book called Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia by Frederick Palmer. My copy is the 1922 edition (second revised edition) from Palmer Photoplay Corporation Department of Education (Los Angeles), so (just to be clear) it’s now in the public domain. And I’m about to use this pop-culture antique to take a look at comic-book stories.
The subtitle is An Analysis of the Use in Photoplays of the Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations and Their Subdivisions.
Did you know there were precisely 36 dramatic situations? Palmer says it’s “a list of all the fundamental dramatic material to be found in human experience.” So when we’re talking about influences, Palmer’s premise would be that we’re always dealing with no more than these basic influences. (Mind you, he has enough subdivisions of each to fill many pages.) In bold, then, here they are—along with a look at a few of the forms we have as examples in comics. (For the record: This analysis was brainstormed with former Comics Buyer’s Guide Editor Brent Frankenhoff. Because, no surprise, no matter what our day jobs may happen to be at any given moment, both of us still obsess on comics.):
How about the premise of Power Pack (Marvel, August 1984)? Whitey asked the kids to complete his mission for him and, in the process, gave them powers. (Boy, I miss this series as originated by Louise Simonson and June Brigman!) It was up to the kids, not only to carry out Whitey’s request, but also to keep their adventures and powers secret from their mom and dad.
A better-known example of this—one that formed the basis for one of the most popular comics characters—might be Silver Surfer’s interaction with Galactus. (In fact, I bet we will find more than one of the 36 Dramatic Situations lurking in the Silver Surfer’s over-arching storyline.)
This is one of the most common heroic and super-heroic situations. “Who was that Masked Man?” was the stereotypical response to the Lone Ranger’s preserving folks from catastrophe. Certainly, this was the original goal for most (all?) heroic figures in comics’ Golden Age. Think of Superman, Batman, Prince Valiant, Captain America, Captain Marvel … OK, it’s a given in our field, right?
THIRD SITUATION—CRIME PURSUED BY VENGEANCE
Batman, of course. But that was just the start—or one of many starts, come to think of it. Nevertheless, we’re looking for some variety here … How about Frank Miller’s Sin City? Punisher?
FOURTH SITUATION—VENGEANCE TAKEN FOR KINDRED UPON KINDRED
Bone—though that wasn’t initially apparent. And, hey, are you reading Mark Millar and Frank Quitely’s Jupiter’s Legacy?
Speaking of Bone: “stupid, stupid rat creatures!” Perhaps the over-the-top moment of Jeff Smith’s classic series would be the “Cow Race” sequence, with pursued and pursuers in the midst of a climactic crush of oddity. (Yes, of course, it’s not the only example. But we aren’t going to take all day on this.)
This is the set-up for all the post-apocalyptic science fiction in comics, from Walking Dead to Adventure Time to Kamandi to The Hulk’s “The End” arc. And, hey, Krypton blew the heck up, right? And—and this is part of the point of Palmer’s work—the sixth situation is often found in conjunction with other situations. Such as the first and the second: supplication and deliverance. (Hooray for Finn in Adventure Time’s “Slumber Party Panic,” to cite just one weird example.)
SEVENTH SITUATION—FALLING PREY TO CRUELTY OR MISFORTUNE
Concrete and Little Orphan Annie come immediately to mind, but there are many, many others. In the Golden Age, Doctor Mid-Nite was blind, Captain Marvel Jr. was poor and crippled in his non-heroic form (and Billy Batson before him was in bad shape before he became a newscaster). Misfortune? Heck, that’s the kick-off for more series than you can name!
Mouse Guard, Kingdom Come (with younger heroes against the older ones), Marvel’s Civil War. Yep. We don’t even have to visit the wonderful assortment of Star Wars timelines, courtesy of a variety of Dark Horse contributors. But we could.
NINTH SITUATION—DARING ENTERPRISE
The ElfQuest saga, Deadman’s search to solve the mystery of his origin, and the Green Lantern/Green Arrow “Hard-Traveling Heroes” era are a few that fit this situation comfortably. Or daringly.
Age of Bronze is a natural sample of this situation—but, of course, Eric Shanower brings together in his series the epic forces of The Iliad, so is it fitting to credit his masterpiece as one of the comics basics for this situation? Of course, there’s the Carl Barks classic “Donald Duck and the Mummy’s Ring,” which first appeared in Dell’s Four-Color #29 and featured the Ducks’ adventure to rescue Huey.
ELEVENTH SITUATION—THE ENIGMA
This provides probably the basis of the entire genre of mystery fiction. Detective Comics might be one of the starters for this situation, then, with an assortment of mysteries to be solved, even before Bruce Wayne entered the scene. In some cases, a story arc is set up to solve a riddle. Who killed Deadman? Sometimes, the existence of a character itself is a mystery: Is Denny Colt (aka The Spirit) dead or alive? On the other hand, sometimes it’s just ignored: Plastic Man is just plastic because he fell in a vat; deal with it.
Hey, Galactus was all about obtaining, right? Minor detail: What he wanted to obtain was Earth. Hey, no way, big guy! Another obsessive out to obtain a bunch of stuff: Uncle Scrooge McDuck, whose experiences in “Tralla La” (Uncle Scrooge #6) provided a marvelous lesson in economics for young readers.
THIRTEENTH SITUATION—ENMITY OF KINSMEN
Marvel’s Loki has it in for his brother, Thor. Joe Kubert’s Tor is kicked out of his tribe (“alone … to face a hostile world … in the world of a million years ago!”). Oh, and Gladstone Gander is Donald’s perpetual rival for Daisy’s affections. (Yeah, so ganders aren’t really close relatives of ducks—but this was comics.)
FOURTEENTH SITUATION—RIVALRY OF KINSMEN
Is this the time to bring up Superman’s keeping secret the mere existence of Supergirl—or should we forget about that Silver Age annoyance? Hm, “rivalry” vs. the thirteenth situation’s “enmity”: Maybe Donald and Gladstone belong in this one, instead. In any event, DC’s Cain (House of Mystery) and Abel (House of Secrets) qualify, right?
FIFTEENTH SITUATION—MURDEROUS ADULTERY
P’Gell? Characters in the Conan saga?
Well, we need go no further than The Joker, of course. But how can we resist pointing to The Creeper, Harley Quinn, Deadpool, Badger, and Lobo? ’Nuff said?
SEVENTEENTH SITUATION—FATAL IMPRUDENCE
We don’t have as many ongoing villains who actually die in comics—which is not to say we have none. Nevertheless, King Nevawuzza comes first to my mind: the ancient ruler featured in “Donald Duck in Ancient Persia” (Four Color #275).
EIGHTEENTH SITUATION—INVOLUNTARY CRIMES OF LOVE
Did Norrin Radd do it all for love of Shalla-Bal? That’s the story!
NINETEENTH SITUATION—SLAYING OF A KINSMAN UNRECOGNIZED
OK, folks. This is the challenge; I have to take it in the order it appears in the book, but I should have saved it for last. I can’t think of a case in which this is a fundamental comic-book situation. Probably, this is due to my mental lapses regarding manga; I betcha there’s lots of these stories in manga.
TWENTIETH SITUATION—SELF-SACRIFICE FOR AN IDEAL
Back to Norrin Radd again, right? Are there others? Well, throughout their respective careers, such characters as Peter Parker, Kal-El, and Bruce Wayne have given up “normal” lives to help others. In fact, it may be fair to consider this one of the basic memes of comics.
TWENTY-FIRST SITUATION—SELF-SACRIFICE FOR KINDRED
Why limit this to “kindred”? Bruce Banner risked all to help Rick Jones, for goodness’ sake! And let’s not forget Bucky. On the other hand, if we must limit it to relatives, here’s Peter Parker again.
TWENTY-SECOND SITUATION—ALL SACRIFICED FOR A PASSION
Ghost Rider, Age of Bronze, Sin City, Morbius …
TWENTY-THIRD SITUATION—NECESSITY OF SACRIFICING LOVED ONES
This is an element (or at least a threat) in stories ranging from Walking Dead to Sandman.
TWENTY-FOURTH SITUATION—RIVALRY OF SUPERIOR AND INFERIOR
How about Sivana and Captain Marvel? (Which, come to think of it is the superior, The Rightful Ruler of the Universe or The World’s Mightiest Mortal?) How about Superman and Jimmy Olsen (well, hardly in all the stories, but …) And there’s Mr. Incredible vs. Buddy (aka Syndrome).
Getting tired yet? Well, let’s note Age of Bronze and DC’s Starman and Black Canary situations and leave it at that.
TWENTY-SIXTH SITUATION—CRIMES OF LOVE
Again, wow, lots. Let’s settle on Watchmen.
TWENTY-SEVENTH SITUATION—DISCOVERY OF THE DISHONOR OF A LOVED ONE OK, I’m picking History of Violence for this. Did you even know it began as a comic book by John Wagner and Vince Locke? Or maybe you’d pick the discovery of Speedy’s drug addiction in “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #25.
TWENTY-EIGHTH SITUATION—OBSTACLES TO LOVE
Concrete. Swamp Thing. Sand Saref. Aw.
TWENTY-NINTH SITUATION—AN ENEMY LOVED
Daredevil and Elektra. Batman and Catwoman. Spider-Man and The Black Cat.
Well, Sivana declared himself to be Rightful Ruler of the Universe. Which is pretty all-encompassing.
THIRTY-FIRST SITUATION—STRUGGLE AGAINST A GOD
Though the Plot Encyclopedia says, “…its popular appeal is obviously not great,” and adds, “It requires a breadth of treatment and a philosophical insight which are indeed rare,” things have changed a bit. The Golden Age Wonder Woman tales often involved Mars, and that was decades before Thor coped with both Loki and Odin. The kid series Olympians, of course, involves it, too; have you checked out those graphic novels aimed at young readers?
THIRTY-SECOND SITUATION—MISTAKEN JEALOUSY
Is there another plot in Archie Comics? Of course, it doesn’t have to be mistaken jealousy.
THIRTY-THIRD SITUATION—ERRONEOUS JUDGMENT
How many Funny Animal plots don’t involve this?
From Power Pack to Phoenix to Cerebus, characters make mistakes, and the smart ones question their own behavior. What could they have done differently? What should they do differently in the future? From Sandman to Spider-Man …
THIRTY-FIFTH SITUATION—RECOVERY OF A LOST ONE
How about the Olympians series again? Sandman features more than one classic tale with this basis—and we remember Bone yet again.
THIRTY-SIXTH SITUATION—LOSS OF LOVED ONES
There’s Walking Dead, Spider-Man, and Flash. And that’s just for starters. But—
But here’s what strikes me about this list, even as virtually all of its 36 themes can be found again and again throughout comic books, comic strips, and animated cartoons: Nowhere among these situations is what I’ll now posit as the THIRTY-SEVENTH SITUATION—RECEIVING SUPER-POWERS. Hey, does this mean there is something new under the sun, after all?
Hooray for comics!
Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month on Toucan!