Friday, April 26, 2013

Why it is important for writers to earn their readers' trust

The year was 2005, and I had just closed the book on the final chapter of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (don't worry -- this topic will be about comics, just hang in there).  I'd been a fan of the series for five years, and had read and re-read the first five books so many times I'd lost count.  I loved everything about the series. Over the years I had given a special place in my heart to Headmaster Albus Dumbledore; I had come to believe Snape was truly one of the good guys; and I had come to love returning with Harry and his friends to the Hogwarts school each book.  In one fell swoop, during the climax and denouement of the story, author Rowling seemed to have taken all three away from me.  She had Snape kill Dumbledore -- actually kill him, not just pretend -- which wiped out one of my favorite characters and proved me wrong about Snape in one page.  And then at the end, Harry had declared he was not returning to Hogwarts to complete his seventh year.

Needless to say, I could have been very worried about what was going to happen in the final book of my favorite novel series.  Rowling, to all appearances, had made choices that could potentially have destroyed my enjoyment of the final book.  After all, a Harry Potter book without Dumbledore?  Snape being really evil after so many times seeming so and then being proven good (or at least neutral)?  And worst of all, no Hogwarts classes to read about, no studying for exams, no going with Hermione to the library?  What could book seven possibly have to replace all that?

I certainly would not have predicted most of what happened in the final novel, but as I put down Half-blood Prince, I was not worried.  Over 5 years and across six novels spanning thousands of pages of text, J.K. Rowling had earned something very important: my trust.  I knew that, whatever she chose to do in the final book, whatever new directions she might have charted, it would be good, and I would enjoy it.  She had proven herself capable of writing tales I enjoyed for six novels.  I would stay with her until the end.

Much the same phenomenon has happened to me a few times in comic-books.  On this blog, I have praised Walt Simonson's Thor run (337-382) many times as being perhaps the greatest comics of all time.  Certainly they are up there.  Quite a few times during that 45-issue stint, Uncle Walt seemed to have written himself into a corner, to have done things that were at best ill-advised with Thor, only to surprise me with an elegant plot resolution.  After enough of these, I started to be comfortable putting myself in his hands. Wherever Uncle Walt wanted to go, I would follow, because I trusted that, in the end, he would write a story that was both enjoyable and satisfying.

Significantly, however, both Rowling and Simonson had to earn my trust. I didn't give it to them at the outset.  They had to work at it, by producing high quality stuff, and always resolving plot elements to my satisfaction. They never took the cheap way out. They never retconned earlier parts of their stories, told me major hunks of narrative were "just a dream" after the fact. They never actually painted themselves into a corner and then invoked some kind of lame Deus Ex Machina to get out of it.  After enough time, I came to trust they would always play honest and fair with me as a reader, and that they would always produce good stories.  Then they had me, and I was willing to go with them wherever they went.

Over the years, only a handful of writers have earned my trust the way Rowling and Simonson did.  Barbara and Karl Kesel did, in their Hawk and Dove run.  Peter David did, in his 80-issue stint on the third Supergirl series.  A few, like Robert Jordan with his Wheel of Time series of novels, earned it but then lost it by violating that trust in later work.  My scorn for them is perhaps even stronger than it is for those who never earned it in the first place (like Grant Morrison and Scott Lobdell).

I bring up the matter of trust because, in the six months since I've returned to the comic-book collecting scene, there aren't many writers who have been able to earn my trust.  This isn't because the authors don't write well. Rather, it's because they writing questionable scenes in their stories -- scenes that make me wonder what the writer and editor are thinking.  And so, in many cases, when I see a cliffhanger, I don't enjoy it the way I used to. Instead, I worry... that it's not just a plot device but that it will lead to bad writing that will do even more to undermine a character I had previously liked, or even more to make me question the title's place on my pull list.

A good example of someone who may be a decent writer, but who has failed to earn my trust, is Rick Remender with his Captain America series.  Cap has been restarted (it's not a reboot) and is on issue 6.  So far we are still in the first "story arc" which began on issue 1. Cap was transported into the "Dimension of Z" (Arnim Zola) in issue 1 and has been there since.  That in itself is not a problem.  But as part of the story, twelve years have passed for him in six issues, and some major character-changing events have happened.  I'm not sure how we will ever get a "normal," regular Captain America after these events, and I haven't read anything by Remender before, so I'm worried.  I don't trust him to bring this story to a satisfying resolution.  I'm concerned that when the resolution happens, it will destroy the whole concept of what I like about Cap.  In fact I suspect that the more likely scenario is that he will ruin Cap for me.

But it's not just Remender.  I'm not sure I trust most of the creative teams to treat my favorite characters with respect at this point.  Crossovers like H'el on Earth have seen to that.  In fact, of the writers currently active in comics, the only one I trust implicitly at this point, is Gail Simone.  When Gail puts a nice juicy cliffhanger into a Batgirl issue, I savor it -- I trust that, whenever the resolution comes about, whether it's next issue or 10 months down the road, I will be satisfied.  And I trust that she will not do anything to destroy the fundamentals of Batgirl, the character.  The plot will be resolved in a satisfying way that provides a sense of closure and completeness.  There will be no Deus Ex Machina, no cheap shots, no claims that the last five issues were "all just a dream."

I wish I could say that more of today's comic-book authors had earned my trust, but they just haven't.  Too many of them take a cynical approach toward their characters, treating them as plot devices or sales mechanisms instead.

Trust is important. Trust keeps me buying the next issue when something seemingly ill-advised happens (from a story/plot perspective).  Trust makes me come along for the ride.  Without that trust, there's no guarantee I will bother looking for the comic next month.  Which, incidentally, is very likely to happen with this strange Captain America storyline Remender is doing.  Don't get me wrong, the story-line itself is not horrible (though it is not great, either).  But before writing something like this, Remender should have done an arc or two to earn my trust.  Without that, it's very hard to keep me along for the ride.

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