How to Screw Up a Comic

In his engaging book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud discusses the form of comics as a visual medium, as an art form, and as a method of storytelling.  He explores the graphic construction of panels, the types of transitions between them, the use of negative space, and what happens in the gutters.  All this and more are brought to bear in his attempt to place ‘sequential art’ on a firm theoretical foundation. This is certainly all well and good, and I support it, and McCloud’s desire to lift both the medium and the human creators behind it to a respected position is laudable. His focus is on the visual component of the art form, the fun part of capturing emotion and action and drama in shape and line and color.

But there is something lacking when visuals are all that is being discussed.  There must also be a focus on the mental aspects of storytelling in addition to the physical and the emotional.  Words and images can be both artfully designed and incredibly evocative, and yet the underlying story can be pure nonsense when the situations stretch logic and when the character’s motivations and psychology are not genuine.  Too often this is the case in comics, as there is an emphasis on how to tell the story but not on what story is actually being told and why.  A comic, by its very nature, is ‘episodic storytelling’ in addition to being ‘sequential art’. Story chunks are produced one at a time and, much like in ongoing television series, there is a tendency to start publishing without necessarily having a full story to tell.

And even if there is a well thought-out plot guided by a single mind, the story can wander off, running the narrative aground if frequent sightings of the course aren’t taken.  The situation is exacerbated when the storytelling is also the creator’s livelihood and, of course, the situation becomes even more chaotic when there are multiple creative voices and competing agendas.  There is a reason why retcon and stetcon have entered into our vocabulary.

In this post, I am going to identify the three largest threats to keeping the story headed in the right direction from least dangerous to most.

In third place: Alternate realities

There are several ironies associated with alternate realities appearing on the list.  The first is that the notion of many worlds is a common concept in the foundations of quantum mechanics and in quantum cosmology.  It is a valid avenue of scientific research and speculation.  It is also a psychologically appealing concept where our imagined ‘what if’ thoughts can be played out.  So, on the surface, this concept seems to be logically legitimate and a fertile ground for good drama.  And I agree, …in principle.  In practice, it is almost always used incorrectly and indiscriminately.  Characters move effortlessly between worlds, get switched with each other or left behind as doppelgangers, and so on.  Eventually, much like multiple copies of the same file with slightly different edits and changes, the whole situation becomes hopelessly cluttered leading to crisis on as many earths as possible as the logical underpinning frays.

There are also deep psychological issues.  More often than not, the copy character is much flatter than the original.  Not only are the motivations of the copy not as carefully considered, but the mere presence of the copy undercuts our emotional involvement with the original.  The use of multiple versions cheapens each of them much like a common item like a penny is tossed aside without much regard whereas a rare item like a pearl is guarded.  It’s simply human nature that we value that which is rare more than that which is common, and that which is unique more than that which is rare.

One final note: all of the above applies to the use of clones as well.  Simply replace the phrases ‘many worlds’ with ‘many clones’ and ‘quantum mechanics’ with ‘modern medicine’ and the same applies.  And we all know how well things turned out for a clone story (or is it saga) involving a certain wall-crawling fellow.

In second place:  Magic

The dangers here are easily an order of magnitude higher than those associated with alternate realities.  Magic at its most pure form simply becomes a new method for introducing the old deus ex machina concept. When anything is possible all of the ingredients for good drama go out the window.  Without limitations and frustrations, there are no joys and no triumphs.  Accomplishments become simply one damn event after another.  As a result, most writers attempt to limit or cap magical ability.  But they rarely succeed.  The story lines in these comics become either stagnant or they result in an arms race.

As an example, consider a childhood favorite of mine: Doctor Strange.  Very few of the stories involving the good doctor during his long publication career have avoided these pitfalls.  Certainly the early days of Lee & Ditko were revolutionary and mind-blowing, but looked at dispassionately, the charm of their stories flowed from three sources – each with a limited shelf life.  The first was the incredibly surreal presentation of the magical landscape brought about by Steve Ditko’s eye for fluid forms, missing horizons, and colorful shapes. The second was the novel territory we were invited to explore where entities such as Watoomb, Agamotto, and Dormammu held sway.  The third was the tension that resulted from the escalation from small farcas with Baron Mordo to the final face-to-face meeting with Eternity.  But where do you go when the imagery becomes commonplace, the novelty of new, strange-sounding names wears off, and when one of your characters is the universe itself (or at least some modality of it)?  Into cancellation is where!

One final note: all of the above applies to the use of mutants and super-science as well.  Where does the vast amounts of energy that Storm yields or Rogue expends come from?  Do they really have any limits?  I don’t see them eating way more food than everyone else so I guess that when they dig down deep in a crisis it is into magicland.  Interestingly, this unexplained source of energy could actually be placed on a really interesting and physically sound footing that would really drive tension and drama but that is a topic for another day.

And the winner is:  Time Travel

If alternate realities correspond to a limited military intervention, and magic to a regional conflict, then time travel is the global thermonuclear war of this list.  No other fictional trope is used as often with such bad results as time travel.  Why do we tolerate it at all? Well, at the heart of our acceptance of this plague is either curiosity or regret.  Our curiosity drives our desire to see what the future holds or to experience vicariously what living in the past was like.  Our regret demands us to replay that one moment that we would like to have back asking what choice could have been made that would have made things turn out differently.  I get that, and I respect those fundamental human longings to relate to the people around us even if they are removed from us by years or by choice.

But time travel is not the way to explore that.  Far better to use the alternate realities concept (occasionally and with restraint) than to indulge in this abomination.  Alternate timelines and journeys to the past and future shred causality and our logic with it. They belittle our ability to think and solve problems because we can always reload a saved state and replay instead of figuring it out. They erode character motivation because choices no longer matter (things have to turn out all right; I’ve seen the future).

By now the astute (or patient) reader may be raising two objections.  First is that the medium of comics is entertainment and therefore it doesn’t need to make sense.  There is some truth in this perspective and, in fact, a form of time travel is employed every Sunday night on Fox in the form of the Simpsons.  This family has essentially relived the same year for the last quarter century with no scars due to their lack of continuity.  Each week the situation is reset, much like reloading a saved state, and new hijinks ensue, only to be canceled out in the next episode. There is nothing wrong with this and, in fact, I endorse it because as an audience we know the rules going in.  But modern comics try to be more, and so must be held to a higher standard.  The second objection is that a comic creator can’t pick and choose if he works for a large company.  Suppose he works for Marvel and the powers-that-be ask for a Kang story line.  He can’t just refuse and still keep his job.  I agree that in this case there is no escaping the need for time travel.  But its use can be limited, and a clever writer may be able to make it work one of two ways.  Either by actually diving in with a well-defined set of rules (with a well constructed exposition) and strictly sticking to it (something like the movie Primer but better contrived) or with a great deal of humor.  After all, the only time travel movie that actually gets it pretty much correctly is the highly comical (and intelligently written) ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’.



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