Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Silver Age Plot Types: The Three-Act Play

Modern writers often marvel over the compact nature of storytelling in the Silver Age. Every Batman issue from 1955-1962 contained three stories ranging in length from 6-10 pages each. Because of this marvelous consistency, I decided to examine the stories.

By far the most common plot used was what I call the Three-Act Play.

1. Batman and Robin battle some crooks, who get away (sometimes with the loot).
2. Batman and Robin battle the crooks a second time. The crooks get away, but never with the loot. Sometimes they kidnap Batman or Robin at this point.
3. Batman and Robin capture the crooks.

There is a solid logic to stories having three acts, because we are acculturated to the notion that the third event is the climax. Many jokes are effectively three-act plays; we understand that the third incident is going to be the funny one.

For an example of a three-act play, consider the story City of Heroes from Batman #116. Batman and Robin are after the Gimmick Gang, who are dressed up like Thor, Cyclops and Pan (yep, three villains), for an annual costume event in "Legend City". In their first encounter, Thor's hammer explodes near Batman and Robin, stunning them so to the gang can get away. In the second act, the villains have changed their costumes to Hercules, Medusa and Zeus. Medusa turns Batman and Robin "to stone" (paralyzes them with a gas). In the third act, Zeus tries throwing thunderbolt gimmicks at Batman and Robin but they outsmart him with their Batarangs and capture the gang.

The three-act play was used endlessly in the Silver Age in longer stories as well. Many of the stories that I have discussed in my single issue reviews are effectively three acts. In X-Men #8, Hank is defeated by Unus, then the rest of the X-Men are defeated by Unus, then Hank defeats Unus. The JLA/JSA teamups had a very similar structure. Indeed, DC comics often made the three acts explicit in their book-length stories with three separate splash pages leading off each "chapter".

The Batman/Joker stories in this era feature an unusual and interesting twist on the three-act formula. Some item of pop culture gives the Joker his inspiration for a new set of (three) crimes, which inevitably leads him to success on his first mission, more limited success on his second, and failure in the third. Some of these stories show real ingenuity despite the reliance on a formula.

A particularly amusing example comes from Batman #86 (September 1954), The Joker's Winning Team. The Joker is at a baseball game when the lightbulb goes on above his head:

The Joker gets the brilliant idea of trading some of his reliable henchmen for other gangsters who have the specific skills needed for upcoming crimes. In the first act, his getaway specialist helps the gang escape from Batman and Robin. In the second act, a military strategist and two acrobats manage to hold off the caped crusaders long enough for the Joker to get away. In the third act, a disguised Batman infiltrates the Joker's gang and foils the scheme. These stories typically end with Batman, Robin or a cop making a sarcastic comment based on the pop culture inspiration the Joker was using, as here:

Hence the "Bah!" response I pointed out a couple days ago.