One of the problems for specfic is that a concept that’s awesome when first introduced inevitably becomes mundane over time. Case in point, SILVER SURFER: New Dawn by Dan Slott and Mike Allred (cover by Allred, all rights remain with current holder)
This was an enjoyable, if very Doctor Who-ish riff on the surfer, who winds up with a human companion, Dawn, traveling alongside him on “Toomie” (“Isn’t that what you always call him — ‘To me, my board!'”). But there’s one major plotline that totally tanked for me. It involves a planet that has captured a cosmic entity called the Never Queen, who turns out to be the life partner of the cosmic entity Eternity.
Eternity. Eternity, the embodiment of our universe. Who with Death makes up all of our reality. Eternity has a wife?
That’s really, really stupid writing (Death is established to as Eternity’s sister, but that doesn’t press the same buttons for me). But it also shows the point I’m getting at, that Eternity, a being who was completely unfathomable when Dr. Strange first confronted him, is now so fathomable he has a love life.
And that’s true of lots of stuff in comics (and not just comics, but that’s what I’m using for my examples). When Reed Richards first discovered the Negative Zone, it was an alien region so savage and dangerous that entering it was close to suicide. During Civil War, the pro-registration side was building an Earth base in it, as if it were somewhere mundane like the moon.
When the Avengers have their first encounter with an altered timeline in their second annual — a new history where they’re the tyrants running the world (for its own good, of course) — they’re terrified at the thought the world they know no longer exists. Now of course, erasing the entire timeline is “It’s Tuesday.”
Of course even if they tried to keep things like that unearthly, long-time readers would end up finding it less mind-blowing just by repetition. Flashpoint tried to make erasing the whole DC post-crisis universe terrifying, but it wasn’t (admittedly that’s partly because I can’t take these reboots seriously any more). James Bond was shockingly violent and oversexed when he appeared in Dr. No, but now he’s something people take their kids too. And that’s true for most genres: as the protagonist puts it in Deathtrap, how do you startle an audience that’s seen all the twists in Ten Little Indians, Gaslight, and Dial M For Murder?
One approach is to kind of accept the mundaneness. In a sense that’s what urban fantasy does, present nightmares — black magic, werewolves, vampires, demons — matter-of-factly, weaving them into every-day life. I suppose that’s part of what I’m doing with Southern Discomfort.
Another is just to do the old stuff well. Ten Little Indians and The Mousetrap still work if they’re well executed — at least they work for me, even knowing the twists going in.
Another is to go over the top — more gore, more death, scarier monsters — but that frequently doesn’t work for me.
The ideal is to do something that’s wildly weird and different, as much as the old stuff was, but without going over the top. I’m currently rereading Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run, for instance, and he’s a master at creating a supernatural world that’s stranger than anything I’d seen when I first read it — or today. Like the Dresden Madonna, which bleeds sour milk from her stigmata every 28 days, and that’s just a background detail. Or a sorcerer trapping cultist killers in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. Or the Dry Bachelors, homonculi formed from shed skin cells and animated by the bitterness of discarded love letters.
But giving Eternity a love interest was definitely not the way to go.