Saturday, February 04, 2006

Arf, arf, arf

So there we were, Mum, Marie and me, in the upstairs room that used to be my room many moons ago. And Marie asks me, what did you read when you were little?

So I disappear into the next room, where the books are (I tell a lie, books are everywhere, but many of them are in the next room... which was also my room some fewer moons ago). I come back with a big yellow book: 50 Years of Popeye.

I don't recall how I got it. Maybe it was a bargain mum picked up at a book sale, or maybe my grandparents got it for me... they had a habit of getting me grown-up stuff, which I didn't appreciate at the time, but now I look back and appreciate the sentiment. Y'know what they got me for my eleventh birthday? Art of the Byzantine Era. Can you believe it... but I digress.

So Popeye. One of my childhood heroes ... along with Michael Knight, Captain Kirk and Doctor Who. I loved the Smurfs, too, but none of them qualified as heroes.

I showed it to Marie, who by then had forgotten the question and was getting to know all the stuffed toys in the room. So I started looking at this grown-up book about a kid's comic - from a grown-up's point of view. Or at least a 30-year-old.

The funny bits were just as funny. The difference between the drawing style of the 1920s and the 1970s was just as amazing. But what I never understood before was the story behind the story - how Popeye, introduced as an incidental character, single-handedly took over the comic strip almost independently of his creator.

Y'see, Thimble Theatre - as the comic was called back in 1929 - had a steady cast of characters: Olive Oyl, her brother Castor, and her boyfriend Ham Gravy. One day they needed a ship, and a captain. The first guy on the scene - Popeye.

It seems, though, that series creator Elsie Segar had written many of his own values and personality into the one-eyed sailor. Because he kept coming back and playing an important part in the story.

And the rest... is history.

This reverie made me think: people of my generation, or even most people born after WWII, have a lot of knowledge on story brands.

Whether it's the baby boomer who knows everything about the Beatles (I've met a few!) (and yes, that's a story brand, there was just more music than usual)... or someone my age (born mid-70s) who knows their Star Trek inside out... or a generation Y-er, or whatever, who knows everything about 24, or Grey's Anatomy, or ER or ... you get the picture.

The point - and yes, there is a point here, er, somewhere - is that we not only know about the stories themselves, we are of necessity exposed to the marketing and business procedures under the bonnet of the programme. Hence the perennial popularity of "Behind the Scenes" exposes.

Story literacy. It's the challenge of anyone who wants to write today - your audience instinctively knows more about how to craft and market a story, and therefore need surprising more, than the audiences of 50 years ago.


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