Soap-er-heroes

November 5, 2006

I love Tom Spurgeon’s run-down of the super-heroic episode of Guiding Light and wish there was a similar look at the comic from a fan of the soap. As someone whose been an excessively dedicated fan of both soaps and spandex, I’ve always thought there were a lot of similarities between the two.

  1. A shared universe of a repertory company of characters that can be put into service of a variety of stories. The citizens of Pine Valley and Springfield really aren’t all that different from the denizens of the Marvel or DC universes. While relationships are the general driver in soaps, your average daytime ingénue can reasonably expect to be thrown into stories centered around crime, health issues, law, politics, the corporate world, the supernatural, or what have you. As with Spider-Man or Wonder Woman, the consistent element is (hopefully) the character you accompany as opposed to the specifics of the plot.
  2. A subsequent tendency for the audience to wonder just how so much can happen to one person. Admittedly, it’s easier to reconcile in comics just because of the ground rules. But if you count the times that Erica Kane has been married, kidnapped, drastically changed careers, discovered secret offspring, been accused of murder, been a target of murder, etc., the average super-hero might consider their lot rather quiet in comparison.
  3. Dead doesn’t always mean dead. There’s a revolving door to the afterlife in daytime dramas, too, and fans don’t seem to take it any more seriously than devoted Marvel or DC readers. From my days on soap message boards, reaction to a character’s demise almost always included some speculation on how (and when) it would be undone (the “closed casket” theory). While it’s usually the baddies who seem to have a round-trip ticket from the great beyond, I remember hearing about a character on As the World Turns who was killed, with her head removed and shrunk after death, who later returned to town fit as a fiddle.
  4. It’s not easy being a woman. Both soaps and super-hero comics make uncomfortable use of rape as a plot development. In comics, it’s troubling because the victim is largely secondary to the experience; it matters more because of how the men around her respond. In soaps, it’s usually troubling because of its function as a redemptive event for the victim. The formula generally involved an interesting bad-girl character played by a popular actress. To move the character into a more heroic framework and generate audience sympathy, the writers would craft a story where the character is brutally victimized, creating a clear break between the character’s function as a romantic spoiler to one as a heroine. A smaller subcategory in soaps is when rape (or more frequently stalking) would result in romance between the victim and attacker. In this case, chemistry between the actors would lead the powers that be to reconsider the dynamic between their characters to capitalize on a popular pairing. General Hospital’s Luke and Laura is the premier example of this.
  5. Shifting creators. Just as a familiar property like the Avengers can take a long journey of creative stewardship from Stan Lee to Steve Englehart to Kurt Busiek to Brian Michael Bendis, soap operas cycle through a similarly closed set of executive producers and writers, some of whom are viewed with a virulent distaste that would make even Chuck Austen blanch in sympathy. In my experience, the Chuck Austens of the soap opera world are soap-hopping head writer Megan McTavish and executive producer Jill Faren Phelps, but the roster is always growing. Along the same lines, a single character can be played by several different performers over the course of the character’s “life.” So it’s rather like seeing Spider-Man being drawn by a number of different artists, with subsequent modulations in character. (Of course, several different actors don’t generally play the same characters at the same time.)
  6. Reverence for the pioneers. If super-hero comics have Lee, Jack Kirby, and other defining creative voices, soaps have their own set of revered ground-breakers. And yes, fans do often suggest that these pioneers (like Agnes Nixon and Doug Marland) would tear out their hair if they could see what was being done with their creations, even if they’re still alive and can probably see very well what’s being done.
  7. A big bust. For super-hero comics, it was the speculator era. For soap operas, I believe it was O.J. Simpson. Coverage of Simpson’s trial led to what seemed like months of preemptions, which led a significant chunk of the soap opera audience to find alternative forms of entertainment. Many of those fans have never returned, and the audience levels have never regained their pre-O.J. levels.
  8. Crossovers. Characters do move from soap to soap. After the cancellation of Another World, several cast members moved to another Procter and Gamble property, As the World Turns. Characters rack up frequent-flyer miles between The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, as both are produced and were created by the same powers that be. ABC, which produces its own soap line-up, has staged major events where characters from, say, All My Children show up on One Life to Live, and these visits have significant consequences on ongoing stories running on the show they visit. This was about as popular with fans as you might expect.
  9. “It’s only…” This is more a message board phenomenon, but it’s virtually identical between the two fandoms. If there’s a turn of events that leads to audience outrage (generally springing from mangled continuity, an ill-conceived storytelling stunt, or a radical reivision of a long-standing character), someone inevitably shows up to try and deflate the reaction with the ever-unpopular “It’s only a soap opera” or “a comic” argument. And saying something along those lines isn’t ever welcome in a category-specific forum.
  10. A stereotyped fan base. I really don’t have to explain this one, do I?
  11. Quality = cancellation. The phenomenon is more frequent in super-hero comics, because it’s more of an effort and expense to launch a new soap opera than a comic, but no daytime drama is held in as much esteem as the ones that aren’t on the air any more. Just as fans mourn brilliant-but-axed comics like Chase and Young Heroes in Love, you won’t have to search hard to find a soap fan who insists that no show will ever be as good as warped, experimental Santa Barbara was in its prime. (In fact, you won’t have to search any farther than me to find a person who’ll say that.)