Saturday, July 23, 2011

Why I Should Be in Charge of Comics, part one: Spider-Man and How to Tell Stories

or: The Problems of Marvel

Marvel’s main problem is a misunderstanding of how stories work and progress, how to create characters, and how to write.

Let me take you through this using, of course, Spider-Man, the most poorly-treated flagship character in comics history. Bad decisions (some later reversed) over the years had him:

1) revealed as a clone (reversed due to not only fan rage but the inherent stupidity of the idea: it turned out the guy who was the clone who was actually the real Peter was actually a clone)

2) be such a strung-out weirdo over feeling guilty for his Aunt’s soon-death that he bullied his wife into selling their marriage to the Marvel Universe devil (not reversed: the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel basically hates marriage)

3) Do you really want more examples after those two?

First, let’s get something out of the way by starting out with starting out.

Starting Out

The first, say, sixty issues are what define your character. Or fifty-four, whatever. It’s an arbitrary number. It’s something that you sense more than anything. You know when you’ve defined a character because he or she is fully realized and three-dimensional; he/she has all the elements present to create good story arcs for years to come--just like real people.

“Defining the character”

Suppose I’m writing a 12-issue miniseries. And at the end I plan to reveal that the main character is really a clone. If new issues are ordered after that, I write them knowing who that character is—he’s a clone. I don’t really need to shake that up. So what happens later, after the defining moments? Well, then come the refining moments, if you want to be pithy.

Now of course, someone will point out that, in Spider-Man, the whole Gwen Stacy thing happened way past issue 100, when the character should have essentially been “defined” already. Perhaps “informed” is a better word. Really, though, all this is just a convenient sort of shorthand and there are huge flaws in using the words I’ve chosen--it's just so I don’t spend eighty posts trying to explicitly state what I mean. You get what I mean by the words I use, hopefully.

Anyway, we have the famous story of Jason and the Argonauts. That story tells us who Jason is as a (long) dictionary definition. Euripides' Medea tells us more about Jason and expands it to a small encyclopedia entry. Knowing Jason from the Argonauts story can either inform us about the choices he makes during Medea, or Medea can retroactively add more depth to Jason by developing his character in a way that sheds new light on his actions. What it can't do is write Jason as a momma’s boy who handed over his milk money every day to Chad Blendersen, head bully. That’s not Jason.


And we all know it, because we’ve read about Jason and the Argonauts. Even if Medea tried to make sense of the disconnection by explaining that Jason got buff and tough later to get revenge on the bullies it still wouldn’t ring true. Jason is the Argonauts guy, and the way Jason acts throughout that doesn't really suggest any such thing. Although if it does and I forgot it, just substitute "Paul Bunyan" for Jason and the Argonauts. In fact, that's even better, there's no way Paul Bunyan was ever bullied. In conclusion: Jason is the Argonauts guy.

Not Paul Bunyan.

And that’s the thing: Peter Parker IS Spider-Man. Not some other guy who is the clone (except not, except yeah he's totally a clone) of Peter. Hercules IS the one who performed the 12 Labors. There are certain unalterable truths. Who was Hercules? Dude who did the 12 labors. Demigod. Wife named Megara. Who is Jason? A jerk who grabbed the Golden Fleece and moved through women like a something through another thing.

After the definition

So, returning to my twelve-issue clone guy, what do you do after the miniseries ends? Well, you ask yourself how this twelve-issue creation moves through other issues. He moves through phases in his life and picks things up—baggage, anti-baggage, whatever. But then you move on, because the character has to move on, or else he becomes depressing. Let’s use a shark to illustrate what happens when a character or story stagnates:

It fricking dies, that's what happens

Speaking of tragedies, baggage, and moving on, you want to write people more like the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit: remembering the atrocities of WWII but having a life just the same. As broken as we are, we keep moving on.

And speaking of sharks, there’s no such thing in real life or good stories as the Street Sharks model, where there’s always the Sports Guy who always responds to things like a Sports Guy always would. That’s not writing.


Remember: personality is just how someone responds to situations. And that’s when you use the defining moments and the informing moments and refining moments to get a grasp of the character as a whole. Introduce new things for them to do or else they stagnate. Gwen Stacy’s role in Spider-Man ended in issue 120 or so and they still bring up that stupid bridge whenever they need a dramatic plot point. Move on.

The “Spider-Marriage”

Okay, so let’s take a look at an example of Marvel not understanding storytelling. Peter Parker and MJ are married. You don’t say, "Peter Parker is a hip web-swinging guy! This MJ girl is going to be a problem. The only option is to have them sell their marriage to the devil.”

 If you don't read comics, take comfort in knowing that THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED

No, that’s writing the story the wrong way ‘round. Instead, you look at how that hip web-swinging guy transitions to married life, and that’s a period of time full of stories of its own. And then once you get to married life itself, oh man. Married life has a metric ton of drama. And at any rate, it’s a mistake to remove MJ from the Spider-books because like it or not, she’s become part of his mythology. It would be like removing Babe the blue ox from the Paul Bunyan story, or revamping a certain Shakespeare play as Romeo and Imogene.

For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Imogene and her Romeo

Now if you're thinking, “But wait! You said first issues define the character!” then I guess maybe I sounded a little too firm on that point earlier, though if you’ll notice, what I’ve been talking about since then is “things happening to characters.”

"Life-changing" events can happen to characters, but characters don't change: they develop. You should always be able to recognize in a character the core traits that made them who they are. If you have an alcoholic character sober up, you still portray the problems that led him to drink in the first place (usually it's a tendency towards depression). And when he's at a function with alcohol, he drinks water.

All you need to know to write Peter Parker is that he started as the most overlooked of all the high school wallflowers, was given powers that went to his head, and could have prevented the death of his father figure. Also that at heart he’s just a wisecracking wiseguy given a responsibility that sometimes seems too much for him even as an adult.

Anyway, always remember that that’s who Spider-Man started as—and who he still is, when written well (Brian K. Vaughn in particular does a great job when Spidey shows up in the Runaways “Escape to New York” arc). And if you do, then not only will you probably turn in a spectacular spider-man story, but you’ll notice that some of the recent stuff in the comics seems like a real stretch.


Ultimately a story is its characters and the way they act in situations. And that’s another thing Marvel doesn’t seem to understand when writing their flagship character. “Situation” was pluralized there for a reason. The kid who has to balance being a superhero and being a high school student is a great situation. It’s beautiful, it’s genius, there’s a reason people responded to it. But it’s not the only situation for that character to be in. If it is, you’ve written a bad character. If you decide your character “works better” as a single person, then you’re probably not thinking of all the possibilities (the one exception to this is people who are seriously traumatized or given to their work, like Batman, but even that isn’t an impossibility, I suppose). A good character should be able to change just like real people, because ideally you’re writing the character as if he was real.

So ask yourself, “how does that guy transition? What happens when things change a little?” Because that is an interesting story.

I’ve got an example waaay back from the early days of comics that will further illustrate my point, but I’ll save that for another post.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments are always appreciated (sometimes), and possibly mandatory.

Also, I know the blog has been screwing up logins, so if you aren't able to login, please write a name or something at the end of your post. Or whatever.