Or – “Poochie Is Proactive. He’s In Your FACE. He Doesn’t Just Get Busy; He Gets “Biz-zay”!”
Back in the day, my friend Karl and I used to say that there’s a fine line between “high concept” and “dumb joke.” Any idea, story, or setup can be boiled down to a three-sentence marketing pitch (“How ’bout this: Snakes. On a PLANE!”) but the real test is in what you DO with your concepts once that pitch has been approved. A prime example would be Howard The Duck: “Outsider trapped in a world he never made” created great satire and deep emotions when Steve Gerber did it in comic book form (you should really go get the Essential Howard collection, by the way.) But, when translated by other minds into a film, it’s become shorthand for “box office flop.”
Anyone who has seen a movie trailer or read the Previews Catalogue in the last ten years knows that many of the comic books and movies that make it through to final execution do so solely on how pithy the concept is (“Man wakes up from coma after zombie plague occurs,” or “Woman falls in love with undead emo kid”) but the REAL test comes in the EXECUTION of the idea…
“It’s Like Wagon Train To The Stars!”
Probably one of the greatest success stories in television history comes from this modest little show that was pitched as a cross between cowboys and space rangers. Cancelled far too early, the series left fans slavering for more, and spawned an entertainment juggernaut that created five spinoffs, a dozen movies, thousands of comics, and pioneered the concept of slash fiction. The simple conceit has proven to be very malleable, and allowed the various Star Trek series to deal with heady matters of race, social injustice and more in a science fiction context, but always with a grounding in reality.
“The Monster IS The Hero!”
Given Marvel’s success with 50’s monster books, it’s a natural progression to ease their way back into superhero stories by creating a superhero who WAS a monster. Though the Fantastic Four’s Thing came first, Ben Grimm was really just an average Joe in the body of a nightmarish lumpen… well, THING. It was The Hulk who really came to emblemize the “monster as hero” dichotomy. Hounded as a menace, hunted by the government, all the monster really wanted was a moment of peace, and his search for harmony led him to change hundreds of lives, whether he realized it or not. The formula would be recreated over and over by Marvel and other companies, but the Hulk is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. Even repeated bad movies can’t kill the green goliath’s appeal, and if you don’t believe me, play a sad minor-key piano riff at your next party and see what everyone associates it with. (“Foolish female!” is also Gatekeeper Hobbies owner Deon’s new favorite catch-phrase.)
“The Heroes Are VILLAINS!”
Somewhat similar to the previous hook, this is a more post-modern take on the concept of heroism, redemption, right and wrong. Sure, lots of villlains had gone straight before, especially in the Marvel Universe (Heck, fifty percent of the Avengers were villains at one time or another) but in the wake of the ill-advised “Heroes Reborn” launch, Marvel gave us a team of heroes who WERE villains, led by one of the most evil people in the Marvel Universe. That last page reveal was a real shocker (no pun intended) back in the day and 150-plus issues later, the Thunderbolts are still striking whereas few other concepts from 1997 still have gas in their tanks. (Major Bummer anyone?)
“Our Hero IS Our Villain!”
The concept of the evil twin is an ancient one, with roots that trace back to Beowulf and further, but what would you do if your evil duplicate wasn’t a brother or a cousin or what have you, but a time-lost version of YOURSELF? That was the quandary that faced Adam Warlock back in the 70’s, when the head of the Universal Church of Truth was revealed to be The Magus, Adam himself with a futuristic ‘fro that even Gaumer would be proud of. The fight to stop not just an evil entity, but to keep himself from ever BECOMING that entity moved Warlock away from straight-forward heroics into a more metaphysical plane, and the resulting stories are legendary. Recent events in Guardians of the Galaxy have led to a return for the purple despot, proving that, in comics, no good villain will go unused for long.
“Strange Visitor From Another Planet!”
Do I really need to explain this one? When two kids from Cleveland pitched their concept, I’m sure it was likened to Doc Savage, The Scarlet Pimpernel, or perhaps a circus strongman from space… The resulting success led to nigh-on a century of constant publication, a sprawling universe of related concepts, more rip-off, knock-offs and homages than anyone could count, and CREATED the concept of the superhero, forever changing the nascent comic book industry. Superman is like a big brother, a father-figure, even a controversial messiah-type icon that literally EVERYONE recognizes, but if you read those first issues, it’s a simple hook: Big strong guy fights for justice. Much like peanut butter and banana sandwiches, you don’t have to love it to understand why people do.
“Have You Seen Bob’s Tattoo?”
When I was a kid, I knew at least two guys with flaming skull tattooes. (In fact, my younger cousin Elwood, now a motorcycle mechanic on the West Coast, eventually got one of his own.) Given the time frame, I can’t be sure whether those tattooes were inspired by Ghost Rider or vice versa, but I can tell you that the image of the skull-headed biker has endured through 40 years of changing fortunes and revamps. (I have to admit that I have always had a profound distaste for Danny Ketch’s adventures and motorcycle. I suspec it has to do with my love of Johnny Blaze as GR…) Either way, the idea of someone who is cursed and uses the abilities the curse provides to fight for good is as strong an idea as the burning skull is an image, and no amount of cheesy Nicholas Cage mugging has been able to kill the character’s appeal.
“There’s A Man Who Controls Your Dreams!”
Neil Gaiman’s masterful tale takes legends and lore and turns it into an epic sprawling tale of the man that mortals have come to call The Sandman…
Wait… Wrong Sandman. Although, come to think of it, he does have a close relationship with a Raven, too. Hmmm… The story of Morpheus (more than god, but less than a man) and his journeys through the world allowed Neil to play with pretty much any concept he wanted, from old comics to legends of lost civilizations to the alienation of modern society. More than just “a guy who can see your dreams,” Morpheus becomes a tragic presence, a central character whose own nature and unwillingness to admit his flaws lead to his own downfall. Like any good tragedy, Morpheus sees his doom, could actually act to stop it, but chooses not to, and the story that unfolds around him isn’t so much about him as it is about everyone. I still don’t know why someone hasn’t tried to ruin this story with a movie version…
“Robots… IN DISGUISE!!”
Man, 1982 was a great year. We had Snake-Eyes and his pals, we had the Fifth Doctor, and we had robots everywhere. I remember reading about the upcoming Transformers series in the Bullpen Bulletins page, and discussing with my cousin Elwood what a cool idea a robot who could become a machine was. I clearly remember our discussion of whether a robot who turned into a washing machine would be awesome or not. (It would, by the way.) When the cartoon series kicked off, I was overwhelmed by a wave of awesome that couldn’t be stopped, not by alternate futures where Judd Nelson got the Touch, not by assassinations of Optimus, not even by the fact that Cobra Commander and Starscream were the same voice. (And by the way, not since the Smurfs has there been a more amazingly diverse and versatile voice cast…) Even if you can’t stand the recent live-action (although neither of those words is 100% descriptive of the Shia and Megan) version, you can’t avoid their pervasiveness or the fact that they made more money than you or I will see in a lifetime. More than meets the eye, indeed…
“Future Kids Think You’re Cool!”
It’s a simple hook, really, a very Silver Age premise: Heroes come to try and make Tom Welling qualify for THEIR club, like they don’t already know he’s the greatest of all greats and all the kids should love him. The heartless pranks that the LSH play on young Clark in this issue are pretty true to adolescent life, and the twist ending is cute as well. There’s no reason why this should have been anything more than a Mod Gorilla Boss or Ant-Head Superman issue, but somehow it was. The idea of a group of heroes in the far-flung future who have rocket ships and cool belts and funny helmets struck a chord, and fifty years down the line, they’ve gotten their sixth or seventh #1 issue and a huge profile in the DC Universe. Not bad for three kids that I’m sure Mort and company just dreamed up on a weekday afternoon to fill a ten-pager by deadline…
“It’s Bigger On The Inside…”
Barring things like “Meet The Press” or some of the dinosaury soap operas currently extant, it’s rare for a show to run more than fifteen or so seasons in America… The Simpsons is pushing 21 years, I think, and Law & Order just got cancelled in the season where it tied Gunsmoke’s record for longest-running drama series. But let’s talk about the success of Doctor Who. In Britain, those sorts of runs are nearly unheard of, but Doctor Who ran from 1963 to 1989 without pause, and then the new series picked up in 2005. The simplest of concepts, (“Man wanders the universe and helps people, having adventures”) the stories of the Doctor have many brilliant fiddly bits to them. Regeneration is an incredible idea. The Sonic Screwdriver is a fun bit. The conceit of the companions travelling with the Doctor, and the changing dynamics of the crew of the TARDIS, also neat. But the one that hooks it all together, the one idea that has never been equalled or ripped off as successfully as it is done here is the concept that the tiny phone box is a tesseract, bigger on the inside. That one bit of storytelling is what really sets Doctor Who apart from other series of the “time-travelling fix-it man” ilk. (Marvel’s Exiles, Quantum Leap, Sliders and others have all taken bits of Doctor Who successfully.) Even Bill and Ted’s phone booth was finite in dimension, and the moment where a new companion babbles, “It’s bigger on the inside?” is as much a tradition as reversing polarities or jelly babies ever were…
Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: What other Cool Concepts can you think of that are merely Silly Ideas turned on their heads?