Saturday, September 16, 2006

Tec 823: How To Write A Superhero Comic

It's nice to have a reputation as a blogger who's not afraid to be unusual or controversial. Well, praising Paul Dini is neither unusual nor controversial; but I just can't help myself!

As I'm sure most of you are aware, Paul Dini is one of the genius writer/producers behind Batman: The Animated Series, and currently the writer on Detective Comics, his first regular comics gig.

The most recent issue (Tec 823), featuring Poison Ivy, was a fine example of why Dini's Batman is so popular, and almost serves as a primer for Those Who Would Write Batman Or The Like.


1. The story stands by itself.
And by that I don't just mean it's "done in one", although that alone is an accomplishment nowadays. I also mean it's tyronic enough that you could give it to someone who wasn't familiar with Poison Ivy (or even Batman and Robin) and they'd still be able to figure it out. Comic books should be a bit less ironic and substantially more tyronic.

Even more impressive, most of the information (such as Ivy's poisonous nature and her abilities with plants) is conveyed as part of the natural flow of the story, without recourse to the heavy-handed exposition so common to comics.

2. Although it stand by itself, it contributes to a larger whole.
By that, I do not mean it's part of larger "arc"; I'm sick of arcs. I think DC needs to stop hiring novelists and start hiring short story writers.

What I mean is, the story provides opportunities and ideas for other stories, but doesn't require them. In the pre-Crisis days, writers didn't seem worried that they were going to run out of ideas, and would casually toss ideas around left and right. Grant Morrison's tendency to do just that is part of his popularity. Great writers have no problem throwing out an idea and moving on to another. Neil Gaiman produced amazing new characters the way you or I produce sweat on a treadmill; as part of the process, not the point of the process. When later writers took over his creations, they beat these characters to death (including Merv Pumpkinhead, Lucifer, and Death herself).

Similarly, it introduces a new character ("Harvest") into the larger Batman mythos, whom another writer may or may not choose to use again. Writers used to do this all the time; Batman faced lots of villains who were never seen again (remember "The Blaze"?). His great foes were not introduced with enormous fanfare and force-fed to us into greatness; characters like that (such as Bane, Hush, or Azrael) are pretty much doomed. His great foes were introduced in exactly the same way as the one-hit wonders, but returned because they were popular or struck a chord with readers and writers both.

It enriches an existing character (Poison Ivy). I don't want to call this character development per se, because "development" usually means that the character changes. The long-term/cyclical nature of comic books does really allow for major characters to change; rather, our understanding of them deepens or their circumstance around them change to show them in a new light or provide new storytelling possibilities. Traditionally, Ivy attacks others with plants; what would happen if plants started attacking, and why? Dini's a master of this, this "character envelopment" which adds new and interesting layers to familiar figures. I'm sure if you'll think about his work on the Joker, Clayface, the Mad Hatter, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, and Mr. Freeze, you'll see what I mean.

3. It has characterization that derives from the plot without needing to contribute to it.
An example may make that murky statement a bit clearer. When Batman find Robin alone playing a word game with Poison Ivy, he shouts for him to get away from her. Technically, there's no plot reason for that. She is, in fact, in no position to harm Robin physically at all. But Batman has just seen recent evidence of how sick and cruel she is, and his instinctive reaction is to want to keep Robin away from her. Similarly, when he shows Robin the evidence he warns him to brace himself, and Robin asked Batman to please turn off the tape.

Those behaviors aren't needed for the plot to advance; but they serve to show Batman's paternal concern for Robin and his awareness that his partner is still a "kid", and Robin's reaction backs that up. This isn't a Poe story where every element must contribute to the story's end; time is taken, when the plot allows, to enrich the relationships among the various characters through their interaction, helping to create the feeling of integrated world of characters we "know".

I don't expect all writers to be able to do these things as well as Dini. But many writers seem not only incapable of such things but almost unaware of their value; that is something I would like to see change. Perhaps if they were less interested in telling "important" arcs and more interested in telling good stories... ?

Because I think I've come to the point where I believe those two goals are incompatible.

20 comments:

Bill Reed said...

Hmm... but this issue wasn't very good. The last two, though... there you go.

William said...

I loved the issue, as well. Then again, I've loved all of Dini's stuff on 'Tec so far. He's said that the issues seem standalone, but there's actually an arc in the background. So far, the link seems to be that all of the victims are members of Gotham's aristocracy.

My only problem with this particular issue is...well, isn't Poison Ivy dead? I mean, sure, it's comics and all, but she died before Infinite Crisis in Gotham Knights, I believe. It seems that Gotham Knights has a TON of unresolved plotlines, and this is just one of them. Maybe they're going to explain it during "52", but it's starting to be bitch figuring out who's bad again and who's alive again on New Earth.

Tim O'Neil said...

Yeah, you're usually pretty spot-on with these things - but I think you picked a bad book to champion. Yes, it was done-in-one, but it was also poorly paced and rushed at the end. You're 100% right that episodic superhero books need more skileld short story writers - but even a mediocre a short story writer wouldn't have tripped themselves up in poor structure like Dini did in this issue.

Ununnilium said...

I *entirely* agree. My only problem is that "Harvest" is such a mid-90s name.

Scipio said...

Oh, I'm not trying to make the case that Dini does what he does perfectly.

It's just that he, unlike many writers, grasps the underlying principles for writing in comics' episodic-yet-serial form.

mark fossen said...

"It's just that he, unlike many writers, grasps the underlying principles for writing in comics' episodic-yet-serial form."
Because he was doing it for years on the animated show.

You never know in what order someone will see a show that's instantly headed to syndication. You can't sustain long arcs, because you don't want someone to tune into "Part 4 of 8" and tune out. cartoons are one place where "every episode/issue is someone's first" is still taken seriously.

Bill said...

What I think I enjoyed most about this story was a bit of what you called the "character envelopment" of Ivy. When Batman finds her notes in the remains of her hideout, he remarks that some of her plant growth theories are even more groundbreaking than similar work by Alec Holland. And in that one little passage, we learn that A.) Ivy may be an even better botanist/chemist/plant science guru than the person who was pretty much the expert in the DCU; and B.) her expertise in the field is enough to impress Batman - and Batman doesn't impress easily. Such a simple little scene, but it adds so much to her character.

Rorschach said...

If there's one thing I didn't liked about this issue is the art. It was great, but really, it's like trying to read a pin-up book. The story gets lost in all the curves.

Jonathan Hamilton said...

I thought it was incredibly lazy. Since when does Batman know enough about botany to so quickly evaluate the quality of the charred remains of a madwoman's research notes?

What's more, the story reduced the character to a shallow sociopath rather than the nuanced and sympathetic villain made classic by the animated series, which the comics have drawn from heavily since No Man's Land.

cheezstk said...

Hello! First time post to say, er, 'I agree'. But more importantly, I've learned a new word today, and this tyronic poster is surprised and pleased.

Mikester said...

...And it mentions Alec Holland, which makes it a beautiful, beautiful thing. But then, I may be biased. :)

joncormier said...

I think my favourite moment was seeing Ivy reading Silent Spring (about the devastating effects of pesticides and how it's poisoning people as well). It's the little touches that make it good.

I'm positive if every person who wants to write for comics was forced to watch the Animated Batman series FIRST, they'd understand storytelling in a serialised formate a bit better.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

"In the pre-Crisis days, writers didn't seem worried that they were going to run out of ideas, and would casually toss ideas around left and right."

Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I have no idea why more writers don't do this.

A dirty secret of writing is that the more ideas you create and use, the more you come up with. If you have a single idea and sit on it, that's the only one you'll ever have. Churn through 'em like Gardner Fox on a caffeine jag, and you'll generate even more.

There's a nasty tendency in comics to go back and spackle over any holes or cracks in past stories and ideas. It's fun once in a while, sure, but it's a bust as a regular strategy.

k26dp said...

Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I have no idea why more writers don't do this.

Quite frankly, I don't believe today's audience wants it. I'm not talking about me personally... I love it. But in conversations with other readers, many can't stand inclusions of things that aren't directly related to the plot at hand, or resent any kind of "character development" that could move a character away from a more comfortable niche that they've been in. They are the first to start screaming "OUT OF CHARACTER!!!" the moment someone like Morrison takes on a book and starts letting it fly.

BTW, I agree with Scipio disertation here, even though this was by far Dini's weakest issue of 'Tec so far.

Shadow said...

"His great foes were not introduced with enormous fanfare and force-fed to us into greatness; characters like that (such as Bane, Hush, or Azrael) are pretty much doomed. His great foes were introduced in exactly the same way as the one-hit wonders, but returned because they were popular or struck a chord with readers and writers both."

Am I the only one who sees the brilliance of that statement? It perfectly sums up why Killer Moth keeps coming back.

David Cutler said...

I don't like Bane either, but I think the number of appearances he's had, his involvement in TAS, and his longevity in general debunks any notion of the character being "doomed".

Jim said...

"Perhaps if they were less interested in telling "important" arcs and more interested in telling good stories... ?"

I agree and would add even further that writers should want to write good stories about the character they are writing. Too often I notice writers are telling a story they want to tell and just cast the players in their story. Often the characters come across as out of character (best current example see Civil War).

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

funny that you wnet off on this as I just wrote up a short version of the same thought process (well, not the same, but similar) last night. the reality is that we need to get people who are better at the format than they've been, whatever the format is. you want to do long arcs? Pick the correct venue for that. you want to do stand alones? Yes, make sure that you're on the correct book. My daughter has a couple of Justive league Unlimiteds that remind me of the comics that I loved as a kid: good pacing, single issue stories with recurring characters. nothing wrong with that!

Scipio said...

"Too often I notice writers are telling a story they want to tell and just cast the players in their story. "

You are very very right, Jim. I'd never really put my finger on it like that before...

Barnabas said...

This won't actually have success, I think so.
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