Saturday, 31 January 2009

[135] Television, Comics and Episodic Diversity

John Adams

I've just finished watching the second disc of the DVD boxset for the 2008 mini-series John Adams, which I'm reviewing for Den of Geek (the third and final disc is missing, which is unfortunate). What has struck me is the stylistic freedom and diversity that is afforded to the series by its format. Of course, it is not news that television series can sustain epic, layered storylines, going into much wider and more detailed narrative scope in tens of hours than a film can in 90 minutes. However, in the case of John Adams, which is at heart a biopic, one of the most steady, predictable genres of visual entertainment, there is a different application of the opportunities of the smaller screen. The 7-part structure of the series allows the creators to utilise an ambitious canvas, encompassing the man's life from before the War of Independence to his death over 50 years later. This is told over 8 hours of meticulous, accomplished drama.

More impressive, though, is the artful approach to each episode as embodying a distinct style or focus. Admittedly, the constants are John Adams, his family and the development of the United States of America, but these shifts are noticeable. The first episode, for example (Join or Die), is an 18th century court-room drama, as Adams defends the case of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Equally, the second and third episodes follow biography and history to Philadelphia and the Continental Congress and to Europe to the courts of France and Holland respectively, in turn illustrating the debate and disunity of early American politics on the one hand, and the pompous decadent ceremony of old society on the other. These mostly self-contained episodes allow for probing and illumination of key characters, with Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson especially being granted significant screentime in separate chapters.

This introduces various levels of appreciation and comprehension. Though Adams' life is the narrative trajectory throughout the whole series, and each section feeds into the next, there is sufficient self-contained identity between the episodes for them to be viewed as singular entities. This stylistic development, of unity between distinct parts, is something mostly unachievable in cinema, especially in these times governed by simple resolutions, crass sequels and 'reboots'. Even though it is possible to ferment diversity, either within one cinematic production (such as Todd Haynes' I'm Not There), or spread throughout a series, it is unlikely, and I've certainly come across nothing along similar lines. The cinema experience is too closed down, too self-contained in its own way - a television series dances the line between broken up, regular installments and a grander structure, which necessitates such a multi-faceted approach and can encompass such stylistic flourishes.


Perhaps the closest format I can think of in this regard is the comic book. Like television, the distribution methods of comics provides differing structures of coherence, such as the 32 page issue, the multi-part mini series, the long running arc, the graphic novel or the continuing series. The most prominent and widely-known examples of comics properties, from the DC and Marvel publishing companies, operate in a way that negotiates all of the above formats, relating them to established 'continuity'. These interlocking levels of relevance and creation, coupled with the succession of editors, writers and artists involved in the property, allows much stylistic diversity within the same unified, over-arching structure.

Scottish writer Grant Morrison's recent 2-year stint on the Batman series, for example, has been singled out for his commitment to the inter-connectedness of the character's 70 year's worth of stories. Throughout the run, Morrison would refer to, or seek to incorporate, often forgotten tales or characters from obscure old issues, culminating in a dazzling, head-spinning overview of Batman's history in his final two 'Last Rites' issues (#682-#683). To Morrison, all that had happened in the Batman comics were of the same relevance and importance, and he sought a way to show this in his writing.

However, more akin to John Adams, and indicative of the flexibility of the medium, is the experimental edge Morrison brought to the storylines and issues in his run. Across the 20-odd issues, Morrison shifted style and genre frequently, from the horrific murder mystery of 'The Island of Doctor Mayhew' (#667-#669) to the fragmented psychological thriller of 'Batman RIP' (#676-#681). The writing was amply backed up by equally distinctive shifts in the art style, with the former storyline featuring a collision of virtuosic photo-realism and classic Silver Age pencilling by J. H. Williams III. 'The Island Of Doctor Mayhew' features The Batmen of All Nations, an international team of crime fighters that were created in the 1950s; in the story, Morrison and Williams flit in between the dark present and a more colourful past, with the pages mocked up to evoke yellowing issues found in smelly basements. This diversity, even within a single issue, strengthens the metafictional depth of Morrison's vision - it is a self-aware comic, it knows its place in the history of the character, and the format itself.

What's more, throughout the series, Morrison would insert single issues that have their own identity, style and resonances, such as the satanic future nightmare of 'Numbers of the Beast' (#666) and the all-prose Joker story 'The Clown at Midnight' (#663). These shifts show that the comic form can sustain complexity not just in the hierarchy of narrative, but in a constantly developing sense of the series' style and focus. All this is achieved in Grant Morrison's Batman with impressive flair; John Adams exhibits elements of this also, although the marriage of writing and art in comics, as well as the agency of the author and penciller, give the graphic medium even greater flexibility.

Coda: Other Media? The Future?

These formal aspects, both in the distribution of the medium and its creation, allows for such interesting, episodic diversity. Cinema, as it is, can contain stylistic shifts or multiple focuses in one film, as can novels, but the very tied-in nature of runtime and page count restricts their expression in this regard. Are there other media than can contain such diversity? Maybe the video game.

It is certainly possible that a game could develop along differing stylistic or generic lines, perhaps in an episodic manner. Downloadable content, as well, is a way for developers to continue the gaming experience, with the freedom to experiment. To date, a large percentage of downloadable content released are mere packs of extra multiplayer maps, or new weapons. However, in the episodic installments of the Half Life series, Valve brought in new elements or themes, such as building up the sidekick character of Alyx in Episode One and introducing long driving segments in Episode Two. There is also the game Portal, which was released as a side-project; while occurring in the same world as Half Life, Portal was a total shift in genre away from adventure and action and towards item-based puzzle gaming.

Equally, the recently-released extra content for Fallout 3 allowed the player to experience elements of that game's history, by entering a virtual reality chamber. The player adopted the persona of a soldier, and the tone of the game, previously built on adventure, exploration and role-playing, shifted more towards action and straightforward gunfighting.

It seems, therefore, that with the advent of downloadable, episodic gaming, there is an opportunity for franchises and series to break out of staid or stubborn design, and be more dynamic and evolving.

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