The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 232 | On the interplay between formula and innovation

Leaving Proof 232 | On the interplay between formula and innovation
Published on Thursday, July 17, 2014 by
On this week’s Leaving Proof: We argue that reliance on tried-and-true formulas is not incompatible with innovation and excellence in technical execution in comics. ALSO: Some quick thoughts on the first episode of FX’s The Strain.

So it happened that I attended a little informal get-together last weekend with a small group of local video game and animation professionals. Listening to them talk about the creative issues they deal with everyday as artists and designers, it struck me how many of their concerns mirror those that have been raised by certain outspoken comics industry veterans in recent years such as Joe Casey, Paul Jenkins, Eric Stephenson, Mark Waid, and many, many others.

While the specifics are unique to each person I spoke to, the broad strokes paint an environment where a combination of consumer research, licensing interests, and market-proven formulas increasingly dictate a work’s creative direction, more so than the accumulated insights and experience of its creative team. It’s a situation that can occasionally have artists, designers, and other creative types feeling less like they’re making distinctive contributions to an artistic collaboration and more like they’re doing assembly-line work at a factory for pop culture geegaws. Some of the artists I talked to were actually more comfortable referring to themselves as craftsmen or tradespeople with reference to their day jobs, preferring to reserve the artist label for themselves when they’re doing their own thing, on their own time.

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Celebrated neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran theorizes that there are neural and evolutionary bases for the aesthetic response.

This isn’t to suggest that adhering to formulas and catering to market trends are inherently bad things in the creation of art intended for commerce, whether in terms of its aesthetic quality or its commercial appeal. Formulas—whether in comics, video games, music, popular literature, television, or film—become entrenched as formulas because they work. The monomyth (what is commonly referred to as “the hero’s journey”), to cite one example of a widely-used narrative blueprint, remains as popular as ever for fiction in all manner of media because of the cultural momentum of millennia of storytelling tradition and, as certain academics would claim, our innate psychological wiring. The influential neuroscientist and psychophysicist V.S. Ramachandran even proposed that there are neural and evolutionary bases for our ability to appreciate visual art, and that the intuitive rules (or formulas, if you like) for what constitutes “good” or “bad” visual art are descended from these bases.

However, it is when the excessive reliance on formulas leads to a creative situation where risk-averse groupthink and safe, market-mediated conformity is always given precedence over inventiveness and personal expression that it becomes problematic for both a work’s consumers and its creators. When a set template is substituted for genuine vision, when context is ignored, and when art is reduced to an algorithm with no allowance for improvisation, the formula becomes a crutch—a burden, even—instead of a tool. Coupled with the ubiquity of pop culture and the fact that production cycles have become shorter in the past decade-and-a-half, the overwhelming feeling one gets is that of déjà vu and homogeneity. This is especially in the world of comics, where sometimes it seems like everything publishers come out with these days is a reboot, a remake, a relaunch, a “reimagining,” a cross-media spin-off, or an homage to some nostalgic favorite devoid of thoughtfulness and reflection.

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While hewing to shōnen manga’s most fundamental formula, One Piece still manages to stand out from its peers.

At the same time, I don’t subscribe to the commonly-held view that adherence to a formula indisputably forestalls innovation in comics and other creative fields. To be sure, it can be demonstrated in many cases, but it doesn’t always have to be true. Take, for instance, the example of shōnen manga, particularly the most popular and enduring past and current serials found within Shueisha’s Weekly Shōnen Jump manga anthology. Whether we’re talking about Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball, Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk, Hiroyuki Takei’s Shaman King, Tite Kubo’s Bleach, Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto, or Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece, they’re all formulaic in the sense that they feature the three major themes that Weekly Shōnen Jump‘s editors codified early in the long-running publication’s existence as the hallmarks of successful action-oriented, preteen and teen oriented manga: yūjō (friendship), doryoku (effort), and shōri (victory). Though they all feature young protagonists working hard in pursuit of victory and discovering the value of friendship along the way, no one with the most basic familiarity with comics and manga would confuse One Piece with Slam Dunk, or Dragon Ball with Bleach. It is still possible to innovate and offer something unique within the confines of an established and transparent formula.

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Ed Brisson: “Ideas are nothing next to execution.”

Genuine originality is, by its very nature, a rare thing. Left to their own devices, I imagine many creatives would probably end up recreating to some degree, deliberately or subconsciously, their major influences. It’s easy to picture, too, these same creatives intentionally or unintentionally getting caught up in some flourishing creative or market trend. And that’s perfectly alright, on balance. In response to a panel question about the value of “ideas” in the creation of comics at the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival, Tiny Kitten Teeth co-creator and The Amazing World of Gumball writer Frank Gibson replied that the “idea never matters,” and that an “amazing book” can be created from the “most banal garbage” by a sufficiently skilled creative team. It’s an assessment shared by Ed Brisson, writer and co-creator of the Image Comics-published Sheltered (soon to be adapted into a major feature film by the producers behind AMC’s The Walking Dead), with his own reply that “ideas are nothing next to execution.”

Gibson and Brisson’s viewpoints align with my own experience with the task of critically appraising comics. The emergent lesson of my four years of writing comics and graphic novel reviews for the Geeksverse (and its predecessor sites, the Comixverse and Kitty’s Pryde), is that no amount of novelty or originality can redeem a work that is rendered unintelligible by an insufficient level of craft and technical polish, whereas excellence in execution can be counted on to elevate even a conceptually uninspired or derivative work to at least a minimum level of readability.

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Digressions

Speaking of formulaic entertainment, I caught the first episode of FX’s The Strain this past Sunday. It’s sufficiently entertaining for what it is, a live-action episodic TV adaptation of a competently-constructed-if-not-especially-memorable vampire novel by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Maybe this is my comics bias talking, but I think David Lapham and Mike Huddleston’s adaptation (published by Dark Horse Comics) is much more engaging. The 90 minute-long premiere episode was hindered by a frustratingly slow narrative delivery, something that was not helped by the predictability of the plot and its beats and the occasionally leaden, expository dialogue (co-leads Corey Stoll, Mia Maestro, and David Bradley could only do so much with the material they had to work with). Even without the foreknowledge gleaned from reading the novel and the comics adaptation, I don’t think it would have been difficult for me to suss out where the story was headed after the episode’s first 30 minutes or so.

Still, for viewers looking for an alternative to HBO’s True Blood or AMC’s The Walking Dead in the cable TV horror-space, The Strain looks like it will work well enough based on this first episode, and if nothing else, the show’s production values border on feature film-quality.

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