Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lost, the Comic Book Analogy

Why is Lost like a comic book? Sounds like a riddle, but it really is like a comic book, especially a superhero comic book. It hasn't been around 70 or so years like Batman and Superman, but in 6 short years it accumulated as much continuity baggage as any comic that's been rebooted in the last 30 years.

Lost really is the most successful comic book ever shown on TV. With a peak viewership around 16 million and an average by its end of 10 million, that's a whole lot more eyeballs than a comic gets. With that many people buying into that complex story, comics publishers, especially Marvel and DC, should really take a flyer at that market, pitching involved stories with strong characters and fascinating mythology. Hell, Lost even helped pique interest in comics with the first season appearance of a Spanish version of Green Lantern/Flash: Faster Friends Part One. Granted, the two characters who had interest in the book were a 12 year old kid and a man in his twenties who was also a little too deeply into Star Wars, but still, the audience watching the show encompassed a much broader and more diverse portion of the populace.

So here's why Lost is like a comic book. It's the story of about 14 survivors of an improbable plane crash, a la a team super hero book. Like Thunderbird in the re-creation of the X-Men 30 some years ago, characters who weren't necessary any longer were eliminated, though they never really went away. Each character inhabits a personality type or ethnicity or both, but is developed individually. There are villains to fight. There's science and magic blended together. There are causes to follow, often conflicting. There's no beginning and no end (don't let the end of the show's broadcast fool you).

How likely is it that the main 14 from the crash of Oceanic 815, as well as about 30 more, would survive that crash? More likely they'd be turned into pudding. But, that's no more unlikely than a radioactive spider bite turning a teen into Spider-Man instead of a kid with a sore hand. So why wouldn't that audience buy into the various improbable superhero origins?

The various personalities? Like the X-Men, JSA, JLA or the Avengers, the Lost cast each represented something(s) about humanity. It's the development of those initial archetypes into whole characters that's interesting, and superheroes, when written well, do the same, especially in a team book. Distinct voices, personalities, and outlooks are key to successful team comic books, as was the large cast of Lost.
This may be the weakest point for attracting fans of Lost to comics, though. Comics too often take one step forward only to take two steps back. A character's development suddenly takes a radical turn or just drops back to some place in the past. Does Peter Parker ever get over whining about his life, masked beneath the facade of endless quips? I remember times when I read Spider-Man as a kid where he seemed to be moving forward, but years later when I gave up, he was just the same, despite all that had happened. And don't even start on Tony Stark or Henry Pym personality shifts.

The double dealing and villainy in Lost is one of its strongest links to comics. Within the survivors there's ongoing suspicion of Sayid, Sawyer, and Kate. Michael kills fellow survivors to get off the island with his son. Ben infiltrates the survivors before proceeding to help to kill off most of the extraneous ones. Charles Widmore's motivations are never clear, but he's as deadly as Ben. Hired killer Martin Keamy. The Others. The Smoke Monster/Man in Black. Even Jacob is amorphous enough in character development that there's a certain amount of uncertainty as to whether he's a villain. This kind of thing, with turnings by the White Queen and Rogue to the good guys' side, or the infiltration of the JSA by Kid Karnevil, is so much like comics, Lost fans ought to leap into the comic book world.

Most significantly, Lost has no beginning or end. The six years shown tell a story arc, but they're not end points to that universe. The glowing light at the center of the island is never explained. Who built the structure around it is never addressed. Several of the characters who crashed on the island eventually leave the island to lead lives that are unexplored. The characters who stay behind on the island also have more stories in their lives. Even dead characters seem to have a lot more story to tell and keep hanging around. Comic books do the same thing all the time. Sure, there's an origin story for most superheroes, but then there are further developments of origins, ret-cons, and just plain re-booting. The thing about Lost is that there are a myriad of other stories to be told, just like the never ending stories of comic books. It's also similar to the fan fiction of a Star Wars or Star Trek, which have lent themselves to comic book story telling over the years.

For my money, Lost was the best comic book ever shown on TV. I wouldn't be surprised to see it crop up in new versions with more stories at some point.
And, just so you know, I liked the Lost finale. It concluded its story arc with the right moments and in keeping with the characters it had developed. Christian Sheppard's speech to his son at the end summed up a lot when he said it was time to move on. Seldom do a show's writer's speak that directly to its obsessive fans.
The most disappointing thing about the conclusion of Lost was the absolute failure of so many critics to do their jobs. In The Washington Post in particular, the entertainment staff spent the weeks leading up to the conclusion making smart ass remarks (ie all the survivors were young and hot, demonstrably untrue), which was petty enough, but then after the finale actually aired they wrote about the plane crash "survivors" having been dead the entire run of the show, which was diametrically opposed to what actually happened on the show. The comparison to The Sixth Sense was entirely facile because there was no surprise ending of the character who was the narrative window being dead all along as there was in that movie. It was as though they hadn't watched the show at all. That's like me reviewing a comic without reading it, which would be disingenuous and dishonest.


  1. Fantastic theory and very well put forward. I'm hoping plenty of people read this, you've done well.

  2. I hope so, too, and thanks.