To no one’s surprise, the highest-grossing movie this weekend was Marvel Studio’s The Avengers, which brought in over $200 million in the U.S. While nothing is ever certain in Hollywood — even a big-budget, effects-laden production can underperform (as Marvel parent Disney found out with John Carter) — The Avengers seemed destined to generate a box office bonanza. The film brings together characters from a series of previous films which grossed a total of nearly a billion dollars — Iron Man in 2008 ($318,412,101), Iron Man 2 in 2010 ($312,433,331), Thor in 2011 ($181,030,624), and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 ($176,654,505) — not counting the two previous films starring the Hulk.
Disney’s Marvel Studios has been preparing the audience for this film for several years. After the closing credits of 2008′s Iron Man, an extra scene appears in which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) encounters S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who states: “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.” Similar scenes appeared in subsequent movies starring the other Marvel superheroes who comprise the Avengers. Clark Greg’s “Agent Coulson” appears in several of the films, providing character continuity leading up to The Avengers. Additional teases were thrown in for the hardcore fans. In Thor, there’s a brief appearance of a character played by Jeremy Renner, who is listed in the credits as Clint Barton. Fans would recognize the character as the Avengers’ Hawkeye.
All of these maneuvers may seem like typical Hollywood marketing ploys: Team-up the characters from several successful films into one big event movie, build marketing teases into the earlier films, and throw in a crossover character or two. But Hollywood has nothing on the comic book industry, which is a font of marketing techniques based on clever storytelling techniques. Comic books have explored — and exploited — narrative structure like no other medium.
Team-Ups and Crossovers
Comic books have used myriad narrative techniques such as multi-issue story arcs, crossovers, team-ups, reboots, and multiple title tie-ins to “maxi-story” series to sell more comic books. In the process, they may have also blazed a trail for new forms of complex storytelling.
The team-up, as illustrated by The Avengers, brings together multiple superheroes in a single story. Before this weekend’s blockbuster film, The Avengers comic book, created by Marvel Comics in 1963, brought together a superhero team comprised of many of that company’s most popular characters. Before Marvel’s Avengers, there was DC’s Justice League of America, a superhero team-up which first appeared in 1960. And before that, DC Comics assembled the Justice Society of America, which first appeared in 1940.
Akin to the team-up is the guest appearance or character crossover — when one superhero appears in the comic book title of another character. When Spider-Man was given his own comic in 1963, Marvel’s most popular superheroes at the time, the Fantastic Four, made a guest appearance. (“The Fantastic Four think I’m trapped! But they don’t suspect my real power!” Spider-Man declares on the cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #1.) When introducing a new comic book, why not get fans of your most popular characters to give the issue a look?
Many crossovers involve the characters engaged in a fight — even though both are generally “good guys”: Spider-Man versus Daredevil, the Hulk versus the Thing, Batman versus Superman, and so on. Nearly every combination of superheroes has gone head-to-head in one or more cross-title confrontations. In 1976, even superheroes from competing companies — DC’s Superman and Marvel’s Spider-Man — faced off against each other in a 92-page comic published jointly by both Marvel and DC titled, Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century. Currently underway at Marvel Comics is “Avengers vs. X-Men,” a limited series crossover between two of Marvel’s superhero teams.
In The Flash #123 in 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds!” an unusual crossover tale in which the Flash from the 1960s Silver Age of comic books encounters the Flash from the earlier Golden Age of the 1940s. This issue of The Flash also introduced Earth-Two and advanced the concept of the multiverse in DC comic books – the existence of multiple, parallel worlds, each with its own characters and history. This opened the door to crossover events spanning the multiverse. A story pairing the Silver Age members of the Justice League of America and the Golden Age Justice Society of America became an annual tradition in the DC universe.
Techniques like the team-up and the crossover imply that the characters live in a universe larger than that told in each individual story. The characters inhabit a world in which the individual stories are only small slices. In some instances, the tales in comics explicitly reference their relationship with the real world. In Fantastic Four #11, the members of the superhero team stop by their local comic book shop to pick up the current issue of their own eponymous comic. When they find a long line waiting to get the new issue, Sue Storm (the Invisible Girl) suggests they come back later. The curmudgeonly Thing replies, “What’s the big deal. We know how the stories end!” Within their world, comic books aren’t fiction — they’re reportage.
Expanding the Narrative Form
Throughout the history of these narrative techniques, the story structure of comic books continuously evolved.
Early comic books typically contained short vignettes with one or more self-contained stories within a single issue. Spider-Man first appeared as one of four short fantasy tales in issue #15 of Amazing Fantasy in 1962. The first issue of Spider-Man’s solo comic book several months later, The Amazing Spider-Man in 1963, contains two separate, self-contained stories. (As the cover touts: “2 great feature-length Spider-Man thrillers!”)
Single-issue story arcs quickly became the norm for superhero comics at the dawn of the Silver Age. Within a few years, however, storylines commonly stretched across multiple issues, such as the single story arc in issues #31, #32 and #33 of The Amazing Spider-Man from 1965-66. Like the movie serials popular in the 1930s and 1940s, issue #32 ends with a cliff-hanger, with Spider-Man trapped beneath an enormous weight of metal as water streams in from the cracked dome of an underwater fortress. To find out how he’ll get out of this jam, readers needed to purchase the next issue of the comic book. By the end of the decade, ever-expanding multi-issue tales were the norm.
Many of these individual techniques – such as the multi-episode story and the story as window into a larger world — are found in other media, of course. Movie serials and television series excel at multi-chapter storytelling. J.D. Salinger’s tales of the Glass family evoke a larger narrative universe of which his tales are but fragments. Many other examples in film, television, and the written word could be cited. Yet comic books have honed and extended many of these techniques to a greater extent than most other forms.
The pinnacle of this expanding narrative form is the multi-issue “event” series like the various “Crisis” stories from DC. Here, the narrative extends beyond the titles in the main series, with the story spreading across additional “tie-in” titles.
Over time, the DC multiverse expanded into many parallel worlds, with dozens of different earths each with its own unique features and characters. If this sounds overly complicated, by 1985 the editors at DC Comics reached the same conclusion. DC undertook a plan to push the reset button on much of what had gone before in order to simplify the mythology of their fictional universes.
The result was the year-long 12-issue series, “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” In the course of the tale, several DC characters die, the multiple worlds collapse into a single universe, and the previous histories of the surviving heroes are erased. In 2005-2006, DC again restructured their universe with “Infinite Crisis,” a seven-issue limited series supported by a number of ancillary “tie-in” titles. In 2008, DC launched “Final Crisis,” a seven-issue series with a wide range of tie-in stories in existing titles like Batman and a number of Final Crisis “one-shot” single issues and additional limited series.
In a recent example of the expanding narrative structure of these comic book mega-events, in 2011 Marvel Comics’ “Fear Itself” series consists of a prologue comic book, a seven-issue limited series containing the core narrative, dozens of tie-in story elements in Marvel comics such as The Avengers, Hulk, and Iron Man; as well as numerous “Fear Itself” one-shot titles; multiple epilogue stories; and “The Fearless,” a 12-issue spin-off miniseries. To take in every aspect of this extended tale would require reading somewhere in the neighborhood of 146 individual comic books.
The story has now become too expansive for most individual readers to fully take in. It’s a world unto its own, that allows the reader to explore whichever dimensions are of the greatest interest. Follow the events from the perspective of Iron Man or Thor. Or just peruse the core series and ignore the supplementary story elements. The series presents a nearly unbounded narrative universe for the reader to explore.
It is easy to interpret this with a cynical eye as nothing more than a series of cheap marketing tactics designed to pump sales. And, indeed, it is difficult to deny that many of these techniques — the crossover, the team-up, the mega-story event, etc. — are intended to drive sales. And yet, when well executed, something larger emerges.
New Forms of Storytelling
At the extreme edge of these techniques, such as the multi-title story events, new forms of storytelling begin to emerge. These extended series give rise to tales that can be viewed from multiple perspectives — from within a single title or across multiple titles, each with their own story arcs. Although all contained within the form of comic books, these are techniques that are being explored in new media forms such as the transmedia storytelling, which unfolds as a single narrative across multiple types of media, and alternate reality games (ARGs), which use the real world as the platform for complex story-telling.
Much of transmedia storytelling and many ARGs are similarly marketing focused — using websites, Twitter feeds, and real-world games to promote movies and television programs. But many observers believe these forms of storytelling will come into their own as new formats for complex, layered, multi-faceted tales.
It may well be that, as new forms of storytelling like transmedia and ARGs develop, we’ll look back at these comic book techniques as the vanguard in the evolution of these new narrative structures. Born of ploys to sell more comic books, these techniques are giving rise to new forms of creative storytelling.
A shorter version of this article appears Knowledge@Wharton: “The Avengers, Comic Books and the Future of Storytelling.”