The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Why Writing Comics Ain’t Kids Stuff

Posted by BigWords on November 29, 2010

Despite there being no good reason for my hesitancy to commit to the proposal of my NaNoWriMo “novel,” which is actually a comic-book as there is nothing in the rules to say that such things are disallowed, I still can’t get the thing to anywhere near the required 50k. The reasons for my failure are complex, though I can pin down the biggest problem with one word – format. I fucking hate writing in such an annoying layout, and every couple of pages I’ll revert to film-script layout for a few scenes before realizing what I’ve done and have to re-set the pages to conform to the overall aesthetic. My OCD is absolutely hammering my creativity on this project, so I’m kinda being pushed into taking extreme measures. This probably falls somewhere between the cracks of the accepted NaNo word-pimping techniques, but as I am already bending so many rules with this thing – inserting fake ads, writing two background novellas,  some Alan Moore-esque “historical documents” – there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with a further mockery of the rules.

This post, as you may have gathered by now, exists for the sole purpose of getting me somewhat closer to the magical fifty thousand word minimum. In order to justify my use of these words towards my goal I am stripping apart the bones of the story and laying them out before you, in a sort of masturbatory look-how-clever-I-am way. You’re probably already sighing and shaking your head at this blatant cheating, so I’ll sweeten the deal by giving you a (very concise) history of comics alongside my outline for… ah, here’s where the problems begin. The title of the story is “Who Needs Heroes: An Existential Crisis Of Conscience.” To any comics reader, one word in there will probably stand out – it is, of course, riffing on DC Comics’ Crisis, and is an easy reference to get.

There are a lot of obvious gags in the text, but I always try to throw in the odd genius bonus where I can, though never at the expense of those who may not be so well-read. Allusions to popular culture are a recurring theme in my writing, and event though there are people who insist that such things are not meant to appear in “literature” I heartily disagree. In-jokes and fandom-pleasing references have a long and glorious history, reaching back to the days of Shakespeare plays and beyond. Just because the jokes have lost their grounding in places, events and people, doesn’t make the fact that they are there any less important. Ever wondered why the line “a rose by any other name” can make me smile? Go look it up. You may be surprised at how immature a diss it truly is.

One of the reasons I chose to portray my “heroes” as amoral, bad-tempered, border-line sociopaths was to honor the true spirit of early comics – a time when Batman shot people with no compunction and Superman spent an awful lot of his time grabbing criminals crotches. Ye gods, I can’t believe I just typed that sentence, but as I have started I may as well make my stand and hope for the best. National Periodical Publications, one of the names under which DC Comics was publishing in the early days, wasn’t adverse to the kinds of characters which I am making use of in my own superhero work – those first heroes were racist (“Slap a Jap” is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Golden Age comics), sexist (Wonder Woman may as well have been called Bondage Woman) and, despite everything, truly fun to read.

In many ways, my loutish superheroes are more respectful to the early comics than the Mary Sue fan-fiction currently being published by Marvel and DC, and the best example of where I am pulling ideas from is The Sub-Mariner. Despite appearing in print for the first time in a children’s comic, he was a precursor – in many ways – to the post-millennial terrorist fears which Hollywood has peddled with gleeful abandon. Here was a character who didn’t merely hate America, he hated the entire human race. In his first appearance he throws an ship out of the sea in the kind of act which would get serious members of Greenpeace stiff. The only way a comic-book could be more contentious is if the hero was an Osama Bin Laden expy, and he was able to tear apart submarines with his bare hands… It was this willingness to murder supervillains which led me to think about the world after the criminal element had been, uh, “disposed of.” It didn’t take long to work out that, deprived of their raison d’être, they would eventually end up being just as shallow and uninteresting as the vapid celebrity element currently being embodied by the underwear-eschewing, nightclub addicted (and quite possibly insane) Britney Spears. Superheroes would be assholes in real life.

Wait a sec. Before you jump to the comments and start telling me how pessimistic a view of humanity I have, let me qualify this with something which has been bugging me for a few years. Before the Comics Code Authority laid out a list of things which couldn’t be seen in comics there were stories which set out the behavior pattern of the “heroes” which would, by and large, dictate the way they would thereafter be presented. In most of the stories the heroes were, quelle surprise, complete monsters. Not only were they hypocritical, they were self-interested, egomaniacal, power-hungry and vicious. Removing the taming influence of their mortal enemies would only lead them to boredom, and with boredom they would lose what little self-restraint they may have possessed.

A rather contentious argument, but one I’m willing to run with.

You’ve probably encountered the odd time travel story here and there, and it’s an easy enough plot to service almost any set of characters. It was the way that I could play with preconceived ideas which made it top the list of plot elements I wanted to squeeze in, but building up to the big plot reveal mid-story meant that the rest of the story fell away. There really was no other way of handling the twist other than by making the MC go back mid-story – otherwise I would be building up to a climax which could never pay off. The twist, that the hero goes back to save a supervillain in order to  bring them to the future and reignite the heroic impulse in other heroes, was too funny not to run with. That, of course, presented a further opportunity to mercilessly mock the way comics are written.

I have some really big problems with traditional DC and Marvel villains. They are motivated by their characterization rather than internal motives. Reading through any number of the acclaimed stories will show that the primary element of their personalities is imposed on them rather than occurring naturally from their circumstance. Kraven’s Last Hunt is one story which I often point people to, in order to see what proper characterization can add to a superhero story, and it avoids all of the pitfalls which annoy me so. He’s driven to his actions by something other than the need to fill a few comics’ worth of stories.

The villain I chose to be the Big Bad, whose elimination in the 80s would scatter all remaining supervillains and begin the reign of superhero-delivered peace, was to be built up into someone whose reputation was equal parts Lex Luthor and Khan Nonnien Singh. I really did my best to portray him, in the minds of everyone who spoke of him, as someone who was a feared and majestic leader of the most powerful criminals on Earth. Then, when I have him yanked from the last moments of his life into the future, I decided that I would eschew the godawful writing which most supervillains fall prey to. I did the opposite of everything which another comic would have. I had him state, that given the fact everyone thinks he is long dead, he will use his time to take up crochet, watch all the movies he missed, get a dog and settle down. As I was writing it, I knew there could only be one way to handle the end of the scene. The hero, frustrated that his plans have gone so awry, kills the former villain in cold blood. It’s funny in context…

Okay, so “funny” is a matter of opinion.

Maybe the month-long rush to get the story laid out wasn’t the best way to deal with something which required two timeframes, and thus two realities of the “present era” – one with peace, and one with a villain. It was when I decided that I might have pushed my hand too far that I freaked out, and started frantically re-writing chunks, deleting scenes, and making the work less horrific. There were way too many personal attacks, jibes at the expense of best-selling titles and popular characters – all of which I still feel have been sodomized by the current level of artistic indifference in the comic-book industry, but I’m not willing to risk alienating the companies whose characters I want to play with eventually.

Anyway, by the time I had completed my clean-up, I had eliminated the headway I had built up – and spending time compiling and writing a list of all the zombie novels available didn’t help with the word-count either. That moment of pure panic managed to give me enough time to come up with a few ideas which didn’t call into question the artistic element of the project. There’s a thin line between the super-minimalist quality of, for example, Jack Staff, and the woodcut influenced Mignola material I was looking at. It may not be something which I should have been concerning myself with, but in order to write effectively I have to have an idea of what I’m going to do with the finished story.

This is where I would normally image-spam you with all the sketches thus far, but most are (at best) scratches of ink across paper, and are less than suited for an accurate representation of the comic. I’ll do a post with character designs and style elements at some point, but at the moment I’m rushing to the finish line with a deficit of a couple of thousand words. There’s little time left to get this post written in order to pull me over the word count, and I’m damned if I’m going to lose so close to the end.

Where was I? Ah, yes. The references. I knew I was going to get around to this sooner or later, and this post may as well have some sort of explanation about the barrage of hat-tipping which makes up the character-interactions. If there is one thing which I can claim to do well, it is the ability to shape scenes with pop-cultural emphasis to bolster verisimilitude. People, in real life, often speak with others in a shorthand – having the films, books, television series and other media which shape their cultural background as one of the defining elements of their speech patterns. Look to the work of Joss Whedon for the best examples of this form of chatter.

I am not sure as yet if I have managed to ramble on long enough to get over 50k, but I’ll find out soon enough. Given that I spent all of Sunday frantically pulling scenes together, I really hope that the effort hasn’t gone to waste. There’s something to be said for a last-minute panic rush, but banging up against deadlines also brings out the worst in me. It makes the small problems seem larger, highlights writing deficiencies, gets me smoking more than normal… So that one may not be unusual, but the rest – real annoyances when I’m trying my absolute best to get enough written to make the concept worth doing.

Whatever. Off to see how much words I’ve managed to bank so far.

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2 Responses to “Why Writing Comics Ain’t Kids Stuff”

  1. I think it’s cool that you are writing a comic book.

    And per your suggestion, I did look up the origin of “a rose by any other name”….. 🙂

  2. bigwords88 said

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Yes, it’s a comic, and… Not going well either. Not only does comic script format irk me, page layouts seem to be driving me up the wall as well. Some of the things scribbled in the margins are nearly as colorful as the words that are meant to be on the page.

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