Grumpy Old Fan | On model kits and quantifiability
Who’s up for some discussions about Starfleet fonts in the “Phase II” period?
Well, that’s not all we’re going to talk about today, but it does occasionally engage my brain. (And don’t worry, when we get there, it shouldn’t be that painful.) Today’s topic deals with the desire to make the imaginative “real,” in a tangible or practical sense. It’s what happens at the intersection of re-creating and explaining.
See, part of expressing my nerdom is building model kits, and especially Star Trek models. On one level this is pretty straightforward, because the bulk of those kits are based on the physical (or CGI) models used. However, sometimes you get an urge to build something that wasn’t on screen.
Take the scout ship USS Columbia, mentioned in dialogue in the opening scenes of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Columbia’s identifying info came from Franz Joseph Designs’ 1974 Star Fleet Technical Manual, which extrapolated from what had been seen in the original Star Trek series, and included dozens of vessels spread among five starship classes. In short, under the section for Hermes-class scouts, there was a listing for Columbia, NCC-621, to go with simple schematics and statistics for ships of that type. Basically, it’s the Enterprise saucer and neck, but with a single warp nacelle attached to the neck (and no engineering hull). If you have the time and inclination, and an Enterprise kit you don’t mind cannibalizing, you can make your own.
But to recreate it as it might have looked circa 2273, you might end up asking some very specific questions. The Technical Manual notes that Columbia is one of the newer scoutships, “specially outfitted for regular duty as command and diplomatic couriers.” Therefore, it might not look as “old” as the TV-style Enterprise components in your existing kit, because judging by the upgrades in everything from technology to uniforms, Starfleet was evidently going through some significant changes. However, Columbia shouldn’t look as up-to-date as the refit Enterprise, either, because the Enterprise supposedly had the latest technology. Something in-between is probably more appropriate, and that means going behind the scenes to determine what components are upgraded, and how. And yes, that includes the Starfleet font style for custom name-and-number decals. (The Technical Manual used Microgramma Extended, but I’m partial to Eurostar.)
To bring this back to comics, at least a little, some similar thoughts went into the Green Lantern kit I just finished. This is a nifty model (which may be out of production, but should still be readily available) designed by veteran artist Terry Beatty for Moebius Models. It shows Hal Jordan hovering above a defeated retro-style robot, pinning it to the ground with a clear-green ring construct. Assembly is straightforward, as Hal’s head, gloves, and boots are all separate from his torso, so there aren’t a lot of seams to cover up (and some seams can be part of his uniform). Painting Hal is likewise pretty simple, as you can imagine. However, looking at the robot, I started asking myself why Hal is fighting it. It’s not a DC robot I recognized (at least, not an evil one). Is it just a generic killing machine? Why is it posed like that? Most importantly, what color should it be?
I decided to paint it like a Manhunter, with a red body, silver head,and blue “gloves,” “boots” and “briefs.” That would make it stand out against the rocky background, and would also give it some GL connection. Of course, it’s not a standard Manhunter, but the circular green chestplate made me think it had some built-in power battery. Maybe it was a more advanced Manhunter, or maybe it played a heretofore-unseen supporting role. Either way, I was satisfied that I had justified my creative choices, however minor they might have been.
By now you may be thinking “600 words into this thing and it’s colors and fonts?” Ah, but colors and fonts are just for starters. This line of thought is based around making something fit within a (potentially) very specific set of circumstances. Building a model gives physical form to something that, for many of us, may exist only as a two-dimensional image. When Bob, in the Bob’s Burgers episode “Weekend At Mort’s,” waxes rhapsodic about his model bus (with its little Keanu!) from Speed, he’s only exaggerating slightly. Little Keanu even “encourages” Bob to be creative, by playing around with his paint scheme. It’s another way to interact with the material, at least on a design level.
Once you get into the meaning behind the details, though, you risk having to give meaning to all the other details. Re-watching Batman: The Brave and the Bold, I can’t help but notice how reference-dense it is. The episode “Time Out For Vengeance” features an army of androids (speaking of robots) who make up a villain’s “revenge squad.” They have much the same color scheme, and skull-and-bat chest symbol, as the Batman Revenge Squad from the Silver Age. They didn’t need those details, but by the same token, why not use them? The B&B cartoon was all about using Batman to give viewers as panoramic a view as possible of DC’s superhero universe. This is not to say that world- and universe-building, and the consistencies those require, should be goals unto themselves. However, creating something which can fit into a particular universe is necessarily related to a fan’s desire to be part of that universe — and knowing the details goes a long way towards determining how a universe works.
I’ve also been reading Jon Peterson’s Playing At The World, an exhaustive but surprisingly engaging history of the development of Dungeons & Dragons and its place in the larger war-gaming context. Indeed, Peterson goes all the way back to the introduction of chess, and the variations which followed it. Specifically, chess might have been perfectly fine as a strategy game, but its play is too abstract to work as a credible simulation. Therefore, over the centuries various people around the world sought to create more accurate simulations, using rules and paraphernalia (maps, playing pieces, even projectile launchers) to reproduce in miniature the battlefields and armies of the Napoleonic Era, the American Civil War or World War II. Out of this line of gaming eventually came Chainmail, a somewhat-obscure set of rules for using miniature figures on a tabletop terrain. D&D started out basically as a fantasy-oriented adjunct to Chainmail.
However, there’s more to it than that. Peterson argues further that the fundamental aspect of “role-playing” can be seen in such venerable sci-fi/fantasy works as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Both of these (and many others) feature contemporary protagonists transported to strange and exotic lands. In a sense, they “play themselves,” as opposed to asking readers to imagine themselves as natives of Barsoom. When the renewed popularity of The Lord of the Rings caused a resurgence of fantasy literature in the 1960s, this very fannish impulse may have also reawakened, inspiring gamers like Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson to invent rules for simulating adventures in Middle-earth or Hyborea. Somewhat ironically, though, while much of early D&D was clearly inspired by LOTR, Gygax drew from other fantasy works for the particulars of statistically modeling his game’s creatures.
Indeed, that anecdote shows the limits of war game-style simulation. Back in the day I played my share of RPGs, from Advanced D&D to Traveller and Champions, and also dabbled in wargames through Star Fleet Battles; and they were tons of fun. However, none of them could replace traditional storytelling. DC has apparently done pretty well with its line of video game tie-in comics like Injustice and the Arkham series. Clearly there is an appetite for material which fleshes out the story behind the game, and gives fans of the game more than they could get simply by playing. This is not to denigrate RPGs or war games, just to say that they’re different experiences. Sometimes you just want to read or watch; sometimes you want to interact.
Even with an open-ended RPG narrative, though, you have a certain amount of control. You’re not engaging with an author as much as you’re participating in a system. (The neutral referee was an off-and-on feature of war-gaming throughout history.) Therefore, when dealing with a well-known universe, you-the-fan may have to decide whether it’s more valuable to treat it as the collective expression of any number of creative people, or as an aggregation of characters, events, and other details. Naturally, the latter risks stripping away the less-quantifiable contributions of the former.
To be fair, it’s not quite that binary. After all, the creative people who contribute to these various universes all have to play by each universe’s particular rules. It is probably more accurate to say that either approach (or some combination thereof) may be appropriate under the circumstances. My reasoning about robot colors and Columbia details certainly falls into the “aggregation” category, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Steve Englehart and Dick Dillin’s Manhunter stories in Justice League of America, or the hidden charms of Star Trek: TMP. I mean, I didn’t get into comics or Star Trek because I wanted to learn more trivia.
Still, I like the trivia as much as the next person (assuming the next person is curious about the rollout of new Starfleet signage). Obviously there’s a place for it, and that place isn’t in the driver’s seat. These sorts of discussions are not new. What’s troubling to me now is the notion that all of DC’s disparate characters are being shoehorned into the same system, and the same set of rules. That’s what Tim O’Neil was talking about in his incisive “Trinity War” critique, and it also goes along with my own feelings on the current Justice League event. The standardizing effects of the New-52 relaunch put the characters at a certain distance from longtime readers. Moreover, the appeal of the DC Universe doesn’t come from everyone getting along (although I don’t welcome the reverse). Rather, DC runs on the energy from the collision of distinctly different styles.
This doesn’t mean DC can’t have a cohesive shared universe (or Multiverse). However, it does mean that DC needs to recognize the character quirks and storytelling styles which are unique to each of its features, so it can get the most out of putting them together. I’m glad Brian Azzarello is keeping the Superman romance away from Wonder Woman, and I would hope DC’s other creative folks would take their cue from that decision. If every New 52 title starts to look and sound the same, it might help facilitate a smoothly running shared universe, but eventually it all runs together. Some of the superhero books — including Wonder Woman, Flash, Batwoman, Green Arrow, The Movement, All Star Western, and Supergirl — stand out among the crowd, thanks to the distinctive styles of their particular creative teams. However, others (including OMAC, Frankenstein, I, Vampire, Demon Knights and Dial H) have already come and gone. A revolving door of creative personnel doesn’t help either.
Of course, DC hasn’t forgotten about its wackier elements. B&B may be gone, but the “DC Nation” shorts are full of such homages. Just this week Cartoon Network teased Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer’s new Metal Men cartoon. DC seems all too eager to present a wide range of approaches to its characters, but it is gradually turning the comics themselves — and particularly the “main line” of superhero titles, which arguably still set the tone for the characters’ current interpretations — into something very calculated. I’ll be 44 in November, so I may not yet be DC’s target audience, but I hope this trajectory changes before I get there.
Look, I like making model kits and being immersive. I’ve always liked that, and probably always will. Again, a big part of a kit’s appeal is the idea of making these fantastic things “work” in a practical sense. However, it’s appealing because they’re fantastic. There has to be something challenging about the translation. If they start out homogenized, or with their rough edges removed, all you’re doing is going through the motions.
Worse, if the people in charge of the superhero line decide that the system (i.e., the universe)’s best interests should dictate how the characters are presented, then that doesn’t serve the characters, and it certainly doesn’t honor their original creators. To borrow Tim’s example from “Trinity War,” I liked reading about Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family in their old Fawcett reprints, and I was excited when they started interacting with Superman and the rest of DC’s characters in the early 1970s. However, if today that means they have to be “darkened” or otherwise fundamentally altered in order to be part of DC’s superhero line, I’d rather have them behind some firewall on Earth-5, where their local rules could remain inviolate. Putting Cap together with John Constantine isn’t impossible, but it should be more like Punisher/Archie or Daredevil/Ultron than Flash/Green Lantern. Otherwise, these characters just become different variables in the same equations.
Ultimately, I think these conflicting impulses — on one hand, to enjoy a story as a reader; and on the other, to be more interactive or immersive — are fairly complementary. Each feeds on the energy of the other, and each comes back to the same well of curiosity about a particular fictional setting. Part of DC’s current mission is to translate its characters to different media, whether it’s Man of Steel, the Metal Men cartoon, or the Flash on Arrow. In looking out past comics, though, it risks squandering the limitless potential of the comics themselves on something very narrow and small, which in the end might just take up space on a shelf.