Bad Machinery
John Allison, 2009–

About a year ago I gave the first two months of the webcomic Bad Machinery a review that could fairly be described as tepid. It didn't seem like much of a departure from its predecessor, Scary Go Round, for which I'd lost some of my enthusiasm. My chief complaint about Scary Go Round was that creator John Allison had systematically written out nearly all the remotely sensible, likeable characters (Tim, Riley, Erin) and replaced them with obnoxious buffoons (Desmond Fish-Man, Paul Milford, Carrot Scruggs). At the same time, de facto main character Shelley went from wide-eyed if slightly dotty to genuinely certifiable, while Amy the spoiled brat and Ryan the dim slacker, formerly used as comic foils for the more grounded characters, were forced into service as the center of the proceedings. Scary Go Round had always been largely an exercise in, as Allison put it, "glib nuttiness," and as I've mentioned in both my articles on it (here's the first one), the glibness was the main draw for me — ask me why I was still reading Scary Go Round in 2009 and I will quote you a bunch of dialogue from 2002. But it turns out that having a fondness for at least some of the characters is also a big part of the equation, at least for me.

So I was encouraged to learn that Allison intended Bad Machinery to represent a philosophical shift towards some "genuine human feeling for a change." But after two months the project still seemed to be having some trouble finding its way. Just as Scary Go Round had suffered toward the end from a lack of diversity of character types, the Bad Machinery cast seemed kind of samey — Shauna and Charlotte in particular seemed to be just blonde and black-haired versions of Allison's stock character. How were they different from Tessa and Rachel, or from Esther and Sarah, or (more importantly) from each other? It also looked as though history might be about to repeat itself: Scary Go Round had been billed as a dramatic departure from Allison's previous comic, Bobbins, but pretty soon the old cast had started to trickle back in and before long they'd taken over. Bad Machinery was supposed to be about rival teams of tween detectives, but as I wrote my '09 article it seemed to be threatening to backslide into chronicling the further adventures of Ryan and Amy. I closed my article by noting that while I was thus far not especially impressed, the first few years of Scary Go Round had earned John Allison a sizeable buy-in from me and so I'd give it my three minutes a week for a while longer in hopes that it'd find its footing.

Bad Machinery recently wrapped up its second long chapter, "The Case of the Good Boy," which ran from mid-April to the end of September. And I am very pleased to report that it was great!

First off, my concerns about the characterization have been alleviated completely. For one thing, I can tell Shauna and Charlotte apart now: Shauna has developed into a wonderfully sympathetic heroine, responsible, loyal, open-hearted, yet still good-naturedly snarky; Charlotte's the sidekick, not necessarily incredibly mature, not necessarily incredibly deep, but someone you like having around because she'll just blurt stuff out. (The strips of July 1 and 5 do a great job of nailing Charlotte down in a handful of panels.) It's an interesting reversal, given that when the characters were introduced back in Scary Go Round, Shauna was just the shrill little sister of a chav who gets into a scrap with Desmond Fish-Man, while Charlotte's older sister was Sarah Grote, who'd been kicking around since 2004 and was eventually promoted to the primary cast, hanging out with Esther and Shelley. It's kind of strange to look at the Shauna/Charlotte dynamic now and remember that less than two years ago Sarah could quip that "my little sister is the only thing standing between Shauna Wickle and motherhood at 14." But a big part of what makes Shauna so lovable is how far she's come.

She's not the only one. In Scary Go Round, Shauna's mother was a horror show straight off the set of Jerry Springer. In Bad Machinery she's become, not a completely different person, but a three-dimensional version of her SGR self. This is one of the key differences between the two strips. Bad Machinery is still basically a comedy, carried by Allison's off-kilter dialogue; it's still full of wacky adventure, with wendigos and likhos and tie-wearing robots; but it's also got little moments like Shauna's mom putting her arm around her distraught daughter and vouching for her honesty to her good egg of a stepfather. I remember that back in the Scary Go Round days I once complained on the site's message board that Esther and the Boy, who were supposedly in love, seemed to do nothing but bicker. This provoked a string of scornful replies from the regular posters sneering that having them make boo-boo eyes at each other in every strip would be a million times worse. But it's not like those are the only two alternatives! Bad Machinery gives us relatives and friends who actually seem to like each other — sure, they tease each other, they make jokes, but they don't sound like insult comics. Like, here's Jack and his sister, here's Mildred and her dad, here's Shauna and her baby brother... I might not laugh the way I did at some of the classic SGR lines ("It started off explodey... and then it got explodier!") but the affection that undergirds the world of Bad Machinery gets me looking forward to my 9 p.m. trips to Tackleford as much as I did during Scary Go Round's heyday.

For another type of character work on display in Bad Machinery, take Linton. (Hrm, I guess there are slight spoilers coming up in this paragraph, so consider yourself warned.) Initially Linton seemed like he was just going to be the voice-of-reason character who would inevitably be packed off to either hell or Wales. But then the comic hit its stride and we learned that he's a little edgy about the fact that he's discovered girls but they seem not to have discovered him... which would be one thing if all the other boys his age were in the same fix, but the girls all seem to swoon over Jack. (Except for Charlotte.) We also get subtle hints that Linton's aware that the fact that he's black in a not particularly diverse area is one more obstacle to overcome where his future dating prospects are concerned. The result is that jealousy prompts him to start acting like a jerk — not in an over-the-top way, but just in how his teasing goes too far, takes on a certain edge. Things eventually come to a head... and Linton realizes that he's become a jerk, and reins it in a little. Not so much as to become a completely different person, but enough to show that he's got some self-awareness working in his favor. This is exactly the sort of nuanced character work that Allison had suggested would distinguish Bad Machinery from SGR. Maybe it took a little bit of warming up before it kicked in, or maybe it just took me a while to see it, but I think we can count this one as another promise fulfilled.

Finally, I want to say a little something about plot. One of the knocks on Scary Go Round (that didn't usually bother me overmuch) was that Allison didn't always plan things out very well — he'd end stories on cliffhangers with no idea how to resolve them, or let them just kind of peter out. Bad Machinery, by contrast, is plotted out well in advance, with a strict three-act, 100-page format for each chapter. One result of this decision is that you get a lot of plot — I was going to diagram out the plot of "The Case of the Good Boy," but in the interests of avoiding spoilers I'll just say that I identified eleven separate plot threads that were interwoven in different combinations to form the storyline. But another result was that Allison was able to pull off one of my favorite tricks. At a climactic moment, the day is saved by the sudden appearance of a particular character... and the moment that character arrives, all of the hints foreshadowing that appearance become retrospectively obvious. But at the time those hints were dropped, they didn't even look like hints! What I had thought were jokes for the sake of jokes were actually clues, a possibility that never occurred to me even as I explicitly thought about the loose end in the plot that they neatly tied up.

And having broached the subject of plotting, let's move on to...

The Avengers, The New Avengers, The Mighty Avengers, Dark Avengers, The Avengers v4, The New Avengers v2
Brian Michael Bendis, 2004–

As the list above indicates, Brian Bendis has been the lead writer of the Avengers family of comics for several years now. Bendis is known for his dialogue, which brings the rat-a-tat-tat style of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin to a genre, superhero comics, better known for the purple prose of Stan Lee and Chris Claremont. And it's not hard to see why Bendis has received the acclaim he has, for he's often quite funny — in particular, he writes some of the best Spider-Man lines you'll ever read — and even when he's being serious the dialogue crackles with that distinctive patter. But that's my problem with it. It's too distinctive. Bendis is terrible at establishing a variety of different voices. He gives the same verbal tics to every character. For instance, there's the repetition. The repetition? The repetition. You mean they repeat each other in conversation? I mean they repeat each other in conversation and repeat themselves in monologue. Sometimes the repetition takes the form of intensifiers. It absolutely takes the form of intensifiers. And confirmations. It takes the form of confirmations. It really does. And sometimes it—it—it takes the form of stammering. These are just the most obvious tics, the ones on the surface. There are other, larger-scale patterns that become apparent after you've read more of Bendis's stuff. I won't catalogue them here, but just as an example, his characters love to explain things to each other by laying out these staccato you-are-there scenarios. Imagine you're reading a Bendis Avengers comic. And you notice that Iron Man sounds like every other Bendis character. And you notice that Captain America sounds like every other Bendis character, except maybe a little shoutier. And you notice that Thor sounds like every other Bendis character with a few archaic phrasings thrown in. And you notice that the Wasp sounds like every other Bendis character with maybe a pinch of Joss Whedon thrown in. And you notice that Bendis sure does love using anaphora. Maybe this gets a little tiresome. Maybe you start thinking about posting about this sometime.

Part of the relaunch of the Avengers titles has been a series of text pieces by Bendis chronicling the history of the team. It's sort of a prose version of a talking-heads documentary — a paragraph from this character, a paragraph from that character. A sample:

Hank Pym: She bounced back.

Janet Van Dyne: I bounced back. I am a bouncer. I bounce.

Here's an early attempt at Thor:

Thor: I wasn't sure this gathering, brought together by fate, would be strong enough to weather the storms of Hela. But I was wrong. And glad to be so.

That's not too bad! Sounds kind of like the Thor I know, except maybe for the "wasn't." But then, a month later:

Thor: I think I should have expressed to him then how much I understood about what he was going through. I was going through the same thing.

And a month and a half after that:

Thor: I was stuck back in Asgard. I don't think what was happening there is for the ears of Midgard. I'm not sure how I could even describe it to you.

Dude, where's Mjolnir? Keeping up a voice that isn't your own is so exhausting!

And these are just the obvious examples. A lot of what makes Bendis's dialogue so samey is almost subliminal — it's the same set of tics, but they don't draw attention to themselves and it's only the cumulative effect that makes them wear on you. I'm just going to pick a random page and see what I find:

Clint Barton: It's hard to imagine. Actually, it's not hard to imagine at all. [...] It was so embarrassing. To this day it embarrasses the hell out of me.
Steve Rogers: Some people, most people, never rise above their circumstances. Most people use their circumstances as an excuse to act in poor character.
Jacques Duquesne: I know who Clint Barton is. I know what he is and I know what he's capable of [...]

In The Avengers v4 #2 there's a bit in which a conversation appears in a series of captions laid on top of fight scene, and I have no idea who's speaking in any given box. Based on the above, you can probably see why.

But I brought this up because I wanted to talk about plotting!

Remember, dialogue is supposed to be one of Bendis's strengths. Even his defenders acknowledge that his plotting, by contrast, leaves something to be desired. Bendis's stories have this sort of lurching pace to them that's as distinctive as his dialogue. As an example, let's look at one of his big storylines, "Avengers Disassembled"; spoilers follow:

So one day the Avengers are hanging out at the mansion, bantering in Bendis fashion. "Janet, am I wrong? Is he being a pig?" "No, you are not wrong. And yes, he is being a pig." Suddenly they are attacked out of the blue. (This reminds me of the Champions campaigns I played in back in high school, which tended to start, "So you're hanging out at your headquarters when the phone rings and a voice says, 'Fuck you! Let's fight!'") There's a big two-page explosion followed by two pages of "what's going on?" Cut to the UN. Tony Stark is giving a speech, then inexplicably flips out and starts an international incident. He's ushered offstage by some other Avengers, who then learn of the attack on the mansion. At the mansion, people are standing around talking. There they are attacked again. Another two-page explosion followed by two pages of pictures of wreckage. Robots attack. She-Hulk flips out and starts punching robots and Avengers alike. That's issue one.

The other Avengers arrive from the UN and knock She-Hulk out. Cut to the hospital. Some Avengers receive treatment. Others soliloquize. Still others stand around and have a looooong Bendis conversation. "I think that this was just a bad day that isn't over." "A bad day?" "Yeah, a really bad day! We have extraordinarily bad days. This was—this was an extraordinarily bad day." Iron Man gets insulted and flies away. The others return to the mansion to find that pretty much every Avenger ever is standing out front. That's issue two.

The dozens of Avengers stand around in front of the mansion and talk. Suddenly they're attacked by Kree spaceships. Big chaotic fight while various characters protest that this attack doesn't make sense. Hawkeye goes berserk and gets killed, but takes down a big spaceship in the process. The other Kree ships fly away, while the Avengers check out the crashed one and see that it doesn't seem to be made right. Suddenly Doctor Strange shows up to report that all of these attacks have been magical in nature. That's issue three.

Flashback to a Bendis conversation between the Wasp and the Scarlet Witch (which contradicts previous continuity, but whatever). Cut to the mansion, which still has dozens of Avengers standing around in front of it. Doctor Strange explains to them, in typical Bendis fashion, that the Scarlet Witch is behind the attacks. They all continue to stand around and debate how this could be true and what the implications are. Iron Man randomly returns just in time for Doctor Strange to explain that everything that everything that v3 of The Avengers ever said about the Scarlet Witch's powers is wrong. He explains for a long time using a lot of speech balloons. Cut to some time later, as the Avengers check in on the Scarlet Witch to find that she's lost touch with reality. Big fight. Doctor Strange zaps her. Magneto shows up and asks the Avengers to hand her over, which they do, having no idea what he intends to do with her. "Magneto, where are you taking her?" one asks as he flies away. No response. Maybe that was a question to ask before meekly surrendering your beloved friend, in need of intensive psychiatric care, over to a supervillain? In any case, that's the end.

The short version: talk talk talk chaotic violence chaotic violence talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk chaotic violence talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk chaotic violence talk talk inexplicable stupidity the end.

But that was years ago. What's Bendis been up to in 2010? Let's take a quick peek at v4 of The Avengers:

Steve Rogers talks to many superheroes and puts an Avengers team back together. They're hanging out at Avengers Tower, bantering in Bendis fashion. Suddenly, Kang attacks! Thor bops him with his hammer! Kang goes flying! Then Kang produces a device that Iron Man recognizes as a super-weapon. Everyone stands around and talks about the device. "It's a doomsday device." "You invented a device whose only purpose is doom?" (That's Thor, by the way, in case you couldn't tell, which you couldn't, because everyone sounds the same.) Kang talks at the Avengers for several pages. He leaves. The Avengers talk amongst themselves for several pages. End of issue one! (I'll spare you the rundown of the issues that have followed. I figure you've got the point.)

You might protest that, hey, you could boil down any superhero comic this way — it's basically all talking and fighting, right? Well, let's see whether I can find a counter-example...

Adam Warren, 2007–

This one requires some explanation. I guess we can start with the creator. Adam Warren is a writer/artist who first came to my attention for a demented series called Livewires that starts with an amnesiac teenage girl being driven somewhere by a Nebraska linebacker who's casually snacking on something that turns out to be pieces of a robot. Warren is known for straddling the line between Western comics and manga: his characters have weirdly spherical faces and impossibly mobile mouths, but at least they have lips to go with them. The story behind Empowered, as I understand it, is that Warren found himself taking on a lot of commissions for a tied-up, gagged superheroine in a tattered costume. Not the most ennobling work, but it paid the bills. And then, apparently sharing my affection for the redemption of the ludicrous (Pattern 12), he decided to try making something out of them. Who might this superheroine be? Why was she so prone to getting captured? So he came up with some backstory. Her name is Elissa Megan Powers. She came into possession of an superhero costume, called a "hypermembrane," that grants her amazing powers when she wears it. The only problem is that it's extremely fragile and winds up getting snagged on things like loose nails and rosebushes, and as it gets increasingly shredded, Elissa's powers sputter out. Hence her susceptibility to winding up tied to a chair. Warren then wrote a few stories for her to star in that mixed the fetish art for which she had been created with some not especially sophisticated superhero parody — we learn that Elissa is an associate member of a team called the Superhomeys, whose characters have their silly names (Sistah Spooky, Capitan Rivet, etc.) written across the fronts of their costumes, and so on in a Mad magazine vein. These early stories are as much an art experiment as anything else, shot directly from pencils; it seems like we might be looking at a case of "let me try this style on my throwaway cheesecake project to see whether I might want to use it on something serious."

And then Warren decided to redeem the ludicrous again and turn this into something genuinely good.

Now, the first volume of Empowered is already good for what it is. As Warren develops his world, he gives Elissa a boyfriend ("Thugboy," an emotionally supportive multiracial hunk and former minion-for-hire), a best pal ("Ninjette," another supervillain who Elissa inspires to go straight), and even a wacky neighbor (the "Caged Demonwolf," an eldritch galactic conquerer whose essence Elissa captures in an alien artifact from one of her previous adventures). At this point you've basically got a sitcom. Warren describes it as "sexy superhero comedy," which is worth taking a moment to unpack. Consider:

  • The bondage sequences in Empowered do nothing for me, and in fact I tend to skim through them. It's just not my kink.

  • A lot of the first volume is about Elissa's sex life, and she and Thugboy even have a fair amount of on-panel intercourse. But! Warren is careful to frame everything in a TV-14 manner — strands of hair strategically placed over nipples, etc. And the very knowledge that what I'm looking at is censored short-circuits any porn potential these scenes might have for me.

And yet, while I don't find them arousing, the sexy chapters do indeed strike me as sexy, which is interesting. How does that work? One thing I learned when I finally became sexually active at the age of 62 is that sex, in addition to being a biological imperative and an expression of love and all those other things you hear about, is a way for couples to dump a bunch of positive energy into their relationships and into their lives. It's like reaching up into the sky, grabbing the dial marked "GOODNESS OF THE WORLD," and giving it a healthy clockwise twist. And I suspect that something similar happens in the arts. Add the sort of sex that the folks in the audience consider fun, and you generate positive energy even if they're not actually getting off on it. And, as with the good vibes of friendship and familial affection in Bad Machinery, that positive energy colors the readers' impression of other aspects of the work. Banter becomes funnier than it would be out of context. (Though the Caged Demonwolf is pretty amusing on his own. Elissa: "Gotta go fight some non-cosmic evil... will you be okay, Planet-Raper?" Demonwolf (watching a video): "Perhaps... if this wretched excuse for a director would say something! You dare call this a 'DVD commentary track'? Then try some commenting, you nonloquacious jackanapes!")

But volume two is something else again. It ends with a story called "Fruity Flakes" that's more than just fun sitcom fluff. It's the sort of thing that should interest anyone who's interested in the craft of storytelling. It looks like Warren started from the premise, "What's the best story I can tell given that the heroine has to spend most of the running time bound and gagged? How can I make the story emotionally moving, and Elissa authentically heroic, without cheating these initial restrictions?" And, dang, he pulled it off. It's still funny, but at the same time... if you can get through it without things getting a little dusty, you are made of sterner stuff than I. And this principle remains in effect as the series goes on: how good can I make this without evading the underlying premises? How can I tell goofy stories about a superheroine who fights bad guys like "Chloroformaster" and evil organizations like "ARR" ("Advanced Restraint Research"), and usually loses... but at the same time make those stories notable for their incisive, nuanced character work? And, hey, while I'm at it... can I also make this work as a superhero series and show off my skills in that genre — conveying the wonder of people doing miraculous things, digging deep into the implications of having certain powers? The answer is "yes" more often than you'd think. Not every story is a winner, but the ones at the end of each volume are usually pretty fuckin' great. And that brings me to the one I want to talk about.

Volume five of Empowered ends with a story called "Say That I Deserve This." I want to compare the plotting of this story to that of the Bendis Avengers stories mentioned above. However, this is going to require a fair amount of spoilage, which sucks because this story is wonderful and I don't want to ruin it. So let me give you a chance to bail out, go read Empowered (here are volumes one, two, three, four, five, and six), and come on back when you've read up to the end of v5.

Ready? 'kay, let's do this.

So there's this bad guy named Willy Pete, and despite the name, he's seriously scary — he's a blazing fire elemental whose name is military slang for white phosphorus, and his special gimmick is incinerating people and then fucking their skulls. Sistah Spooky (whom we will hereafter call Theresa, for that is her name) has performed a divination spell and determined the time and place of Willy Pete's next appearance; most of the heroes have a Joint Superteam Alliance meeting to attend, but the doofus Major Havoc gathers a posse of B-listers on the "d10," a satellite maintained by a powerful telepath called Mindfuck. (Mindfuck — who "speaks" in mental blasts full of parenthetical asides, for Warren, unlike Bendis, uses different speech patterns for different characters — is Theresa's ex-girlfriend, and we've already learned a fair amount about her horrifying backstory. We love Mindfuck.) From the satellite, the heroes open a portal and beam down to ambush Willy Pete — keeping it open in case they need to make a quick escape, and leaving Elissa behind, for she is deemed too lame to be of any help. Mindfuck attempts to telepathically console Elissa and guides her up to the bridge, whose seats have been patched together with duct tape — budget cuts, y'know. Havoc has Mindfuck scan the area for strange minds... the heroes on the scene debate how Willy Pete might arrive (fly? erupt from underground?)...

WHROOM. He basically nukes them. From the satellite, Mindfuck feels her colleagues die as Elissa watches on the monitor (until Willy Pete decides to fuck the camera-bot. "Hell, why not?" he reasons. "Ol' Willy Pete ain't th' choosiest fucker around, after all...") Mindfuck scans him and discovers that his mind is a kludge of AI fragments... and as she does, he discovers the open portal, and starts pouring the heat of the sun into the satellite. Five pages of trying to close the portal ensue; eventually Mindfuck has to shut down all systems, and she and Elissa are stuck on a dead space station that, due to the damage, is dropping out of orbit — and it was already in a low orbit (budget cuts, y'know). Now they have to travel to the emergency portal on the other side of the station, and with most of the inside turned to wreckage, the only way to get there is by running along the exterior hull. Suddenly the depressurization reaches the bridge and Mindfuck is knocked out, her spacesuit damaged. The artificial gravity malfunctions, kicking into overdrive. Elissa is on her own and can barely stand up.

Priority one is to fix Mindfuck's suit. Solution: duct tape! Next, with Mindfuck strapped to her back, Elissa struggles to the nearest hull breach, making jokes to herself along the way to keep from thinking about how terrified she is. She makes it out... and there's the Earth, and it's so beautiful from space... oh yeah, and deadly, once the satellite hits the atmosphere. Gotta keep moving... and then she hits a pocket of even stronger artificial gravity... can't walk, can barely crawl... and with frozen tears dripping from her eyes, she begs — in a plea that touches at the very core of her character — "Please... don't... don't let me die h-helpless and on my fucking KNEES...!"

—and it turns out that in moments like these, it's helpful to have an awakening telepath on your back who can tweak your emotions and give you the courage to go on. As Elissa carries Mindfuck the rest of the way to the airlock, Mindfuck relates how she had to edit her own cognosphere to keep herself from becoming the psychopath she otherwise would have been, and gives Elissa some insight into herself along the way. Eventually they reach the portal, and Mindfuck reveals that... well, at this point I think I have enough example material to make the points I want to make and won't ruin the entire thing for you. I'll just say that I've taken you from page 151 to page 177, and while they're terrific, pages 190-193 are, as Mike D'Angelo once wrote in another context, "not just 'great,' not merely a masterpiece. Perfect."

Now let's look at that plot.

Note the paucity of scenes of people standing around and talking. A lot of information in this story is, in fact, conveyed verbally — but that happens at the same time as other things. Warren has Mindfuck tell Elissa about her self-directed neural photoshopping while they're scrambling for the airlock; Bendis has Strange tell the Avengers about Wanda's reality photoshopping while they're all standing around like they're posing for the team photo. I'm not going to say that one approach is always better than the other — sometimes you really do want to focus the audience's attention on one channel. Read this backstory! Don't do anything else! Okay, now watch this fight! Don't do anything else! But it generally makes for a richer experience when the story is unfolding on several channels at once. To learn about a character's past while following important events in the present, say.

In addition to communicating through multiple channels simultaneously, a good plotter often makes story elements serve multiple purposes. Take the bit about the duct-taped upholstery on the d10. It's a joke in a series, and a story, full of them (and, incidentally, one of the things I love about "Say That I Deserve This" is that it's a great example of Pattern 13, "comedy and tragedy can and should coexist"). But it also introduces the cost-cutting that ends up playing a huge role in the plot (I mentioned the low orbit, meant to save on transportation expenses, but cost-cutting also plays a big role in the drama at the backup portal) and the duct tape that both serves as a running bit in the series (it'd have to be, wouldn't it?) and becomes a plot point when Mindfuck's spacesuit gets damaged. That's a lot of heavy lifting for what seems like a perfunctory joke! But most of the jokes are more than just jokes. When Elissa discovers that her suit can stick to the satellite's outer hull and she mutters that it figures "that one of my powers would wind up being extreme clinginess," it's supposed to be funny, but it's also a character moment — the single biggest theme in Empowered is insecurity, and here's Elissa lending weight to that by being insecure about her insecurity. When Elissa, trying to talk herself into trusting that her costume will protect her from the vacuum of space, puts on the bad Southern accent she attempts way back in volume one, it's supposed to be funny, but it's also a reminder that we and Elissa have been through a lot together over the last several hundred pages and makes us feel closer to her. "The Case of the Good Boy" does the same sort of thing — in one strip there's a joke about one of Mildred's drawings that seems like just an offhand quip, but it later turns out to be a huge plot point. Bendis's jokes, by contrast, are often quite funny... but they're just jokes. Again, I'm not saying that's bad. I like jokes that are just there for the sake of having more jokes. The jokes in my own stories very rarely serve to further the plot. But then, I don't really consider myself a great plotter, which is why this article has gone on so long — analyzing the work of someone like Adam Warren who's better at it than I am is instructive.

Also worthy of note is just now seamless the transitions between sequences in "Say That I Deserve This" are. Willy Pete's ambush of the ambushers leads directly to his attack on the space station. His attack leads to the sequence in which Mindfuck tries to shut down the portal and ends up having to take the entire station offline. The station being offline is the next problem that must then be overcome, as Elissa and Mindfuck have to bail out before it breaks apart. The fact that it's breaking apart leads to Mindfuck being knocked out of commission, and another puzzle sequence as Elissa has to figure out how to fix her suit. The solution is duct tape, but having Mindfuck duct-taped to her back makes Elissa really have to tap her inner resources to overcome the artificial gravity inside the satellite. And so on. Each sequence is satisfying as a moment in itself, with a beginning, a middle, and an ending, but since the resolution of each problem presents the beginning of the next, there are no big fault lines between these moments. The same cannot be said of Bendis's work, which — and I'm not just talking about Avengers here, but Powers as well — is paced like stop-and-go traffic. You have scenes of violent pandemonium, full of people shouting, "What is this?" "What's happening?", and then when they end, it leads to... nothing in particular. People standing around trying to figure out what just happened and what they should do next. Spending pages hashing it over. And then suddenly, out of nowhere — eeeagh! another surprise attack! "What the hell just happened?!" "Oh man, what NOW?" Etc.

And observe how the moments that Warren strings together give the characters a variety of things to do. Think about it in terms of the basic conflicts that you learn in eighth-grade English class: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, man vs. himself. Mindfuck and Elissa trying to fend off Willy Pete's attack? Women vs. man (or women vs. synthetic man-shaped entity, anyway). Mindfuck succeeds in blunting the attack via a Gordian knot solution. Next comes the challenge of getting out of the space station: call that women vs. nature (using "nature" here as metonymy for any sort of danger posed by one's physical surroundings). That leads to another puzzle, and this time Elissa has to solve it, which she does in a different way: not a Gordian knot, this time, but a repurposing of a previously introduced item (the duct tape). Onward to the artificial gravity well, in which there's no problem to solve — it's a matter of summoning the inner strength to break free. Woman vs. herself. (Though she has help, which we can categorize as a third type of solution: creative use of superpower.) Hell, you even get woman vs. society in some of Elissa's quips to herself. All that in 15 pages!

And what do we get from Bendis? Again, there's not much in the way of creativity on the characters' part — it's generally just talking and fighting. In the current Avengers arc the team splits up, and one half lands in a cave and stands around with a bunch of other characters talking while the other half ends up in a chaotic war zone fighting. Bendis's fight scenes generally consist of a lot of pointless running around until the heavy hitter can deliver the big zap, followed by some dialogue like, "Hey, Iron Man, why didn't you do that when this guy first showed up?" "Oh, it takes my armor three minutes to charge up." Iron Man was actually the first comic I collected, back when Denny O'Neil was writing it. Check out those Chessmen issues sometime (#163-165). They're a lot closer to Warren than to Bendis. Iron Man defeats the bad guys not by waiting for his armor to charge up, but by being observant, figuring out his opponents' weak points, and identifying what to zap. These issues would actually translate well to interactive fiction (and indeed some bits in Lock & Key were cribbed from Iron Man #165). These stories, almost thirty years old now, have a bit of a rough surface to a modern reader... but the bones are really solid. Whereas a Bendis comic might make for a slicker read, but the underlying structure leaves a lot to be desired. And when a story works on both levels, like "Say That I Deserve This" — man, then you've really got something.

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