Sunday, October 23, 2011

Reading Superheroes and "The Book" - pieces on a board

En route to Laredo I switched between podcasts and the audiobook of Grapes of Wrath.  We'll talk Steinbeck some other time, but one podcast I listen to with regularity is Radiolab, produced out of New York. And if you wonder about the pedigree of the show, one of its hosts/ producers/ creators recently won a MacArthur Genius Grant.

The episode I was listening to while plowing across the glittering fields of Texas was "Games".  You can hear the episode below.

At the 26:30 mark, there's a terrific story on chess.

I loved this story. Jamie and I tried many games while we lived in Arizona, looking for ways to fill weekends. At one point, we owned a plastic chess set that actually had the possible moves of each pieces printed into the plastic. It was real beginner stuff. But whether we played Checkers, Chess or Connect Four, sooner or later, we stalemated. I always found this interesting if only because it became predictable and boring. We both play defensively, neither of us had any real strategy or experience to call upon, and so... we'd just stalemate. Too few moves in our arsenal, too little understanding of the games we were playing, and the fact we played only one another wasn't helping, either.

In the radio story, they describe a concept of "The Book". Chess fans will know this immediately, I suppose, but in "The Book", every major chess tournament and every game played at these tournaments by the great players is recorded. Apparently in Russia, for a long, long time, they'd had this room where they kept records of all the great chess games for decades if not centuries. And one day, not that long ago, somebody took these records, new and old, and put them online.

So, now, if you were going to play someone at a tournament, you could go and read every single game they'd played, understand their strategy, see what moves they make, or read other people and see what moves they make.

Football teams study tape, chess players have The Book.

But the Book has also changed Chess, this story said. It means that whole parts of the game now how rote. They just go through 10, 12, 15 moves that are so obvious and within the Book that its not until someone moves away from how millions upon millions of games have been played that you're now, I think they called it "Out of Book". This, of course, is where innovation lies.  Chess players call the newness, the unseen moves "The Novelty".  This is where new games are played and the new champions emerge.

Once you're away from the zone of The Obvious, what the software will tell you exactly how many times its been seen before (not just one move, but every move you've made up til now), so that you can hope to move from "this has been seen 1,245,532 times" to "this has never been seen before". But, of course, we're not talking about changing the rules, or changing the board or pieces. We're talking about players innovating, adapting and making use of the game.

Its a hell of a story.

So. All of this got me thinking on superhero comics.

Are writers and artists dealing with the Big 2 stable of characters (and editors and editors-in-cheif) not also beginning each story, each arc or change in creative direction as if it has a certain set of rules?  Don't we know the directions and changes characters are allowed to make across the board?  Aren't there prescribed plays and strategies within each of these games?

Superhero comics, as long running soap operas wherein everything, like a chess set which will simply be re-set after each game, are reset each game.  Be it whether we ignore the most recent run on Batman, we throw Joker in the slammer once again, or the Joker escapes to start the game once again...  that's resetting.  And if the tournament gets out of hand and Editorial decides that they need to shake up the entire universe...  we're starting over.  And the pieces move back across the board.   And to get the story started, we put the pieces into play.  The Joker escapes and kills someone.  Lex Luthor sets in motion another Rube Goldberg-esque plan to humiliate and defeat The Man of Steel.  A case of mistaken identity leads to two superheroes duking it out out of public view.   Most definitely, superhero comics also have a certain book within writers and artists work.

If they are smart and/ or seasoned professionals, those creators know the work of those who came before.  They know the potential for the moves of their pieces inside and out, including when to play which strategy.

But I keep thinking:  there's also something else there.  In the Radiolab story, they discuss how playing the game has changed as the internet has creeped in and the book has become known.  The best players move by rote through the first part of the game until they reach that portion where they do something new, where they take those same pieces and their limited potential per turn, but their nigh-limitless potential within the game, and they create something new, something nobody has seen before.

As a reader who is losing some patience with this relaunch of the New 52, is that I'm feeling?  Watching 52 different games being played out by players at different levels - some grand champions, but many just hobbyists who dropped by the tournament - is that it?  We know the moves, we've got them on record.  We don't need to see Kara Zor-El replay the same game again that she played in the relaunch 7 years ago.  Nor do we need to see Blue Beetle re-launched with all the little flourishes of familiarity from pawns as happened over issues 1 and 2.

If I know The Book, is it worth watching all these games going on in hopes of seeing something new, or do I just watch the Bobby Fischers and Garry Kasparovs?

And aren't there different kinds of genius there that we can expect to see only in the subtlety of the variation?  Of the motives behind the moves which eyes of the layman aren't necessarily attuned?  the kind of moves that cause whispers among the grandmasters in attendance?

Superhero comics have been churning and churning for 70 years under the same set of rules of capes, villains, masks and amazing abilities.  We've seen the same strategies employed - from the team-up, to the hero-v-hero face-off to the risen-from-the-grave-gambit.  And its not that the rules or the plays don't work, but its in how and when they're executed with those pieces with their pre-defined moves.

I'm quite enamored of this whole idea right now, and so don't be too shocked to hear me talk about "The Book" from here on out.  Its a useful way for me, as a reader, to think of these things, and to discuss how and why I find some things work for me and others do not, especially when we're seeing things we may have seen before.

Would it were that comics fans and reviewers had the same taste for "the novelty" and innovation in their comics as Chess fans apparently have in their game.



Anonymous said...

The same old moves are being played because the same old players are being hired.

The comics industry is most insular nepotic conglomeration of mediocrity that ever existed.

There are tons of creative innovative writers and artists that can incredibly infuse the industry. Most are on the margins because the editorial staff at DC and Marvel would rather hire their buddies.

The difference between chess and comics is that a brilliant player can play up into prominence and his/her natural talent will come through in wins. It's the same thing with most competitive sports or other industries. DC and Marvel have a stranglehold on hiring and distribution which breeds complacency and nepotism. It took some very bold editors back in the day to hire Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller.

If you want innovation get out of the mainstream companies. These characters have more value as licensed properties instead of creative characters. DC and Marvel will actively work to stifle deviations from what they can license in toys, cartoons, pajamas and videogames. If you want to sell a crapton of videogames you are not going to put Alan Moore on your Superman property. You will have a 100 page guidebook on trademark and copyrighted elements on Superman.

Anyway, I thought there are still people changing the "GAME" last time I checked. Isn't Irredeemable still going on? Isn't Walking Dead still being published?


The League said...

I didn't talk so much about not reading "mainstream" books because that wasn't really what I was concerned with, in this post at least.

What I'm interested in here is the parallel between a set board, and set pieces with different moves having recognizable patterns, right up until they aren't recognizable anymore - The Novelty.

I agree... DC isn't doing much to hire someone who can GET to The Novelty. But it does happen upon occasion.

I'd point to All Star Superman (and I'll acknowledge that your mileage will vary), but its comprised of pieces of the past of Superman and manages to tell a wholly unique story for the character, never breaking from the milieu or intention of the character as established as far back as the 1950's.

Yes, its usually something unorthodox such as the impending death of Superman that drives a story towards Novelty status, but I think that's where we can see the parallels to things that haven't been seen before at the chess tournament.

DC hasn't hired Bobby Fischers. By and large, they've hired guys from the park with an enthusiasm for gaming. And the issues you describe as end results have become exactly that in most cases.

I talk about mainstream stuff here because I talk about mainstream stuff here. Its not that I've never cracked open something off the DC reading list.

And I'd agree on Irredeemable and Incorruptible. Great comics, both, and I think Waid is at the top of his game right now. And its all being done with familiar looking pieces.

I don't think its impossible to do these things at DC. But, as you say, right now DC's leadership is not anywhere close to whatever was happening in 1986 when they were willing to try new things, nor how it was in the early 90's when they knew how to push the envelope via Vertigo.

What I'm looking for now is which of the New 52 will play the game deftly enough that I feel its worth continuing that read. I have the suspicion that its going to be a shockingly small number of titles by this Spring.