10 Things Comic Writers Cannot Be Trusted With
There are some comic writers who can be trusted with almost any material. If I see the name Ed Brubaker, Paul Dini, Neil Gaiman, Brian Michael Bendis on a cover I trust them to deliver the goods. These are the authors whose material you can seek out and expect a good read. Some writers may be genius but are inconsistent, making them a gamble to invest your time and money in. The names that come to mind here are Grant Morrison, Alan Moore and Frank Miller.
But almost completely regardless of who is doing the writing or what series they’re writing for, there are some topics and themes that I can’t trust them with. Not that they’re bad ideas per se, but they’ve been so over-used and mis-used that we should be dealing out severe penalties for using them in a story.
1. Alternate Dimensions and Timelines
There have been some great stories centered around the concept of alternative timelines. It’s a great way for writers to explore concepts and possibilities that couldn’t be worked into the canon. One of the most popular is the X-Men ‘Days of Future Past’ story which painted a nightmare scenario that could lay in store for the X-Men if they didn’t take action against Mutant Registration, depicting mutants cowering from Sentinels who roam the landscape picking off the X-Men one by one. The Marvel ‘What If?’ line acted as a way for writers to explore the possibilities in a manner that is understood by the reader to be hypothetical. This is fine.
What isn’t fine is the number of ways that writers use it as a get out of free card for big changes that they want to undo. Bringing characters back from the dead, rewriting origin stories and explaining away major changes to both character and narrative. Both DC and Marvel have created literally hundreds of universes to fix problems in their lines, with them sorted in different categories and a numerical system for organsing them. Writers primarily use these universes as a CTRL-Z reflex, such as when Spider-Man revealed his identity to the public only for a magic demon to take them to an alternate universe where it never happened.
Take this cheap escape out of the writers hands.
2. Time Travel
The amount of crap done and undone as a result of time-travel in comics would put Doctor Who to shame. Everyone from the X-Men to Batman is guilty of this as a cheap way of explaining away continuity errors or introducing characters. When combined with the alternate dimensions you end up with family trees that make ‘Game of Thrones’ look simple. Below we have the family tree branching out from Cyclops and Jean Grey from the X-Men, detailing their marriage, Cyclops’ marriage to what turned out to be Jean’s evil clone from another dimension, the child they had and sent into the future only to travel into the past, the other child that traveled through time from an alternate dimension, the other child from another alternate dimension…this shit has got to stop.
Even the ‘Ultimate Marvel’ timeline which was supposed to put a stop to this crap did away with Cable being Cyclops and Jean’s son from the future. They made him Wolverine instead. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Popular Characters
Comics now more than ever are driven by the needs of the business than creativity. This means that whenever a character becomes popular we can expect them to become more over-exposed that an instagram photo of an old bicycle that gets uploaded onto tumblr. At the outset it looks like a good thing – we, the readers, are getting more of something that we like. But this comes at a cost. With the character being spread out over more titles and stories we start getting quantity over quality. If the lucky winner is part of a team we get them being overused at the expense of the rest of the characters.
Let’s look at an example shall we? Below is the first volume of Ultimate X-Men – a story that focuses on Professor X bringing Cyclops, Jean, Beast, Storm, Iceman and Colossus together to form the X-Men and battle Magneto. Obviously the one that make the cover is…
So then we come to Volume 2, in which all the X-Men are captured by the evil Weapon X. All except Wolverine.
Huh. Obviously in the third volume, all about the X-Men traveling the globe only to be confronted by Xavier’s psychotic and powerful son, slapping Wolverine on the cover would be weird.
So when does the rest of the X-Men rate the cover in their own title?
EIGHT volumes before it’s even hinted that more than one character features in this comic – or four years worth of comics collected. Even the guest stars Capt. America, Spider-man and Daredevil rated the cover ahead of the main characters. It is accurate in that Wolverine is the centre of 90% of the stories I guess. The only thing worse than when a character becomes a smash hit is when a villain becomes a fan favourite…
4. Cool Villains
When a hero blows up in popularity it only means they get a few dozen shelves to themselves at the comic shop. When a villain becomes popular something much more frustrating occurs. They get the same over-exposure and their own spin-off series, but get crowbarred into a more heroic role. It happens like this: the character gets given their own title and as a result they have to fight some enemies. Their usual enemies – namely the heroes – won’t do because they can’t be cast in an evil light so villains who deserve to be beaten by the new main character are created. Because the main character is fighting an evil bad guy they are now in the role of a hero.
When a villain is suddenly turned into a hero it’s going to change their personality, their motivation, their edge and pretty much everything else that made them interesting in the first place. Sometimes you get interesting characters who toe the line between good and evil such as Catwoman, but it’s rare. The most obvious example of a villain being turned into a hero is Deadpool, but there’s a surprising number of good guys who started out as villains who became popular. Wolverine, Gambit and Rogue from the X-Men were introduced as enemies, became cool and were turned good. Sabertooth, Mystique and even Magneto followed suit at one time or another.
I could write about clones being a gimmick, how writers think it adds weight to a conflict by default if the bad guy is a clone of the hero, but all any comic fan needs to be shown is this:
Moving right along.
Sometimes comic writers like to push the envelope a little, and sometimes a story or line can gain some attention outside of the normal comic reader circles and the wider media. Suddenly one particular comic is thrust into the spotlight and sales skyrocket. At this point the writers need to taken to a small but comfortable room, be locked in and wait patiently for things to die down before writing any more.
There are two possible responses that come out of controversy in comics. First option for the writers is that they panic at the attention and turn things around faster than a Star Wars Fans loyalty after seeing Episode I. Let’s take for example the time when Superman renounced his allegiance to the USA. Not because he was suddenly anti-American, but because he didn’t want his actions construed as part of US policy when the values of truth and justice should be implemented on a global scale. Good thinking, big guy – way to live in a global economy. It’s almost like the writers are aware of a world beyond their borders.
But then some right wing media outlets (yeah, Fox) had what can only be described as a shit-fit. They claimed that Superman’s new-found global outlook was ‘anti-American’ and demanded boycotts of the comic. Because anyone who isn’t putting their own nations interests ahead of the needs of a global community is obviously a TERRORIST. It was clear that they were going of a very stretched interpretation of what Superman had done instead of reading the comic themselves. Nonetheless, the writers were quick to back down.
The second option available to writers is to try and make themselves MORE controversial! Anyone familiar with the Kick-Ass, the movie or the comic, can attest to the high level of violence and crude language, much of which is perpetrated by a character who is TWELVE! and a GIRL! in what some people laughably referred to as ‘underage swearing’. When the follow up comic series Kick-Ass 2 hit shelves there was an expectation that writer Millar would up the ante a little. He went a bit further. When we’d thought he’s gotten his shock moments out the way with a dog biting of a guys nads, he then wrote a single sequence featuring Red Mist, now known as The Motherfucker, and his gang the Toxic Mega-Cunts murdering a group of children for fun before gang raping a girl under the mistaken impression she was dating Kick-Ass.
It was distasteful to say the least, and interest in the title waned.
It’s not just the sex and violence crowd who like to mine the controversy seam – Archie comics recently jumped on the bandwagon (yes, it turns out Archie comics still warrant enough sales to have several titles running). Meet new character Kevin Keller.
The new guy caught the eye of man-eater Veronica who rather aggressively went after the young man. Imagine her surprise when she found out that he liked dick as much as she does, and the surprise of everyone else when they learned that homosexuals could exist in the time-locked Riverdale. As expected, right-wing media went ape-shit that children may learn that such a thing as homosexuality can exist. The writer’s response? Flash forward to the future to show Kevin getting legally married.
That’ll calm things down.
7. VS Matches
Taking two characters who are usually on the same side, or from some reason or another wouldn’t cross paths and pitting them in combat with each other is something all comic fans like seeing. Wolverine vs Captain America, Wolverine vs Batman, Iron Man vs Captain America. All of those, and more, have happened.
As awesome as all these awesome stories could awesomely play out, I can predict how every single one of them ended: with a stale-mate. Because writers don’t want to alienate any of their readers the writers always go with a cop out ending where one or both of the competitors see the error of their ways, learn something about themselves and throw in the towel. Or they’re under mind control.
I’ll still be using Hush as definitive proof that Batman could beat the crap out of Superman though, even though Supes was under Poison Ivy’s control.
Here’s one I’ve written about before. Characters in comics outlast characters in almost every other form of entertainment. When the story ends another begins. When the writer moves on another takes their place. Readers and fans grow pretty attached to their favourite characters and when one of them is killed off. At least, it would if they thought for a second that they were really dead. Death in comics is handled with all the importance of a stubbed toe – a minor inconvenience. Regardless of how thoroughly someone is killed odds are that they’ll be up and kicking before long.
All the drama and tension created by a characters death is practically null and void in comic book land, even if the character has just bravely sacrificed to a loved one that act will become meaningless the moment some ‘regeneration beam’ (it happened) brings them back. Check out this Wikipedia entry to see just how many characters have been killed and brought back (pretty much all of them). For extra silliness count how many times the ‘Method of Resurrection’ begins with “Revealed to be clone/illusion/different timeline/trapped in time/whatever” in a row.
2. Jeff Leob
Seriously, keep this guy away from comics. His reputation was built after a string of successful ‘Batman’ and ‘Daredevil’ stories, and having discovered a niche decided to spend his career hammering out pointless, ridiculous comics and laughing all the way to the bank. His work on ‘The Long Halloween’ and similar titles is extremely good, but anything recent has been shockingly bad. Take for example ‘The Ultimates 3’. Following on from Mark Millar’s first two books, which rebooted the Avengers as more modern heroes and brilliantly melded together superhero fantasy with realistic characters, the third volume did everything that over-marketed comics can do wrong.
Suddenly half the characters were ‘gritty’, with Hawkeye being especially grating having given up his bow for a pair of guns and flippantly throwing himself into danger. The characters become over-sexualised with a Tony Stark/Black Widow sex-tape given the none-to-subtle first page and the previously implied relationship between Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch being slowly spelled out for everyone. Then we have cross-overs from other popular comics when Venom and Spider-man come literally swinging through the window. After all the characters were so well introduced and grounded in previous volumes we have Valkyrie and Black Panther having joined the team in the intervening time with ‘she just showed up with powers’ being the explanation.
The real nail in the coffin is Loeb’s obsession with turning every single page into a giant twist revelation. The man could put Shyamalan to shame when it is revealed that a robot who was incidentally mentioned several years earlier turns out to be the villain, having secretly replaced Captain America with a cyborg double while the Captain himself has disguised himself as Black Panther and has just been hanging around base and yadda yadda yadda. This kind of nonsense is how every Loeb story plays out. For another prime example – watch Heroes Season 2. Remember how quickly it went downhill? This is the guy.
1. Big ‘Event’ Stories
Sometimes writers have an idea…an idea that is just to big for a single hero to tackle…to big for one comic line to publish…so they make the decision to join everyone together for an epic, game-changing, nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-again, not everyone is getting out of this one alive, cross over EVENT.
And then two months later they’ll do it again.
These ‘game changing events’ are now happening with the predictability of a Green Lantern character looking idiotic.
They happen so often that it’s become predictable. There’s an inter-stella/dimensional threat that every one must team up to destroy, or two major factions go the knuckle with each other. The promised universe changing events turn out to effect maybe one character unless they just completely undo them in the space of a few issues (Spider-man undoing time after ‘Civil War’, X-Men all getting their powers back after ‘House of M’, etc) and the much publicized deaths of major characters will, as always, turn out to be a fake-out (Batman after ‘Final Crisis’, Professor X and Cable after ‘X-Cutioners Song’, etc) unless it’s a background character who no-one remembers any more.
Even if a genuinely interesting and original story, such as ‘Civil War’ does turn up the massive consequences when turn out quite minor when half the side give up for some reason and everything goes back to normal. These ‘events’ can only been viewed as marketing ploys these days – an easy way to squeeze extra bucks from their readers by forcing them to by titles they don’t normally buy in order to get the whole story.
And they wonder why we’re cynical.