The Top 10 Mistakes Comics Make
Comics can be a fantastic doorway into another world, they can be a tool for telling compelling visual stories, and they can be a plodding pedestrian mess, of less interest than a documentary about beige paint drying.
Once you’ve read a few of these text-laden pictograms, you’ll spot the same kind of missteps made over and over again. For instance:
1) They don’t have an end
This is usually more of an issue with monolithic mainstream titles, but indie offerings can sometimes suffer from this too. Most comics have a beginning – an origin story for superheroes, maybe a start of darkness for a brooding gothic tale, perhaps an amusing comedic premise for a farce – and almost all have a middle, but many never end.
Without an end, character arcs never truly get resolved, and there’s no final pay-off. We know that some comic stars are effectively immortal. Many characters can’t die – or won’t stay dead long – because they are too popular. This is also known as the NERD principle – No-one Ever Really Dies.
Stories without all three elements are unsatisfying. Without an end, stories fizzle out, and audiences lose interest. Creators need to take risks, they need to be able to surprise us, or otherwise, there’s no drama.
Series without an ending in mind can sometimes work by reinventing themselves once they’ve explored all the story ideas they can, or by focusing on something else other than supposedly life and death stakes – introspective storylines perhaps, or supporting characters in peril – but satisfying stories need to finish. What’s next?
2) They worry too much about continuity and ‘shared universes’
The big comic companies, Marvel and DC, are particularly guilty of this. Obviously, it’s important that things are internally consistent within the confines of a single story, but always trying to make different comics crossover and fit perfectly into a ‘shared universe’ isn’t necessary, and in many cases, gets in the way.
In some cases, characters have histories stretching back years or even decades, have very different tones, and just don’t mesh well together. It’s silly trying to force it. Done well, character cameos from other stories can be fun, but taken too far they become a straightjacket. And too often, they’re used as a means of cross-promotion – promising that you won’t see the whole story unless you buy other titles – which is just a cheap tactic to boost sales.
Just tell a good story, stay true to the characters your audiences are following and care about, and worry about the wider continuity later, if at all.
When the big comic companies do make continuity mistakes, they often use a retcon – retroactive continuity – to explain away the inconsistencies. Sometimes this is a good thing if the ‘reveal’ actually explains a lot. But done too often or too clumsily – ‘a wizard did it!’ – ‘a superpowered boy shattered the fabric of the universe!’ – it’s often worse than the original mess it was designed to address. Retcons can feel like creators attempting to fix a botched job as they go along, until the whole tapestry becomes like badly written homework, full of crossings out and clumsy add-ins.
Sooner or later creators will decide to reboot their shared universe entirely and start again – the etch a sketch approach of shaking everything away and doing over from scratch. All of this results in audiences realising that nothing is set in stone, and therefore, nothing matters. Just commit to the story you’re telling, finish it, and move on.
Related to shared universes, next on the list is:
3) Overusing crisis crossover events
Oh, dear, where to start? Mainstream comics have been flogging this particular horse until it is long since dead and just wants a decent burial.
Crossover events, done well, can be a fun way of reminding readers that there is a bigger world beyond your story and characters, and make things feel epic and operatic. Done poorly, they are another cheap ploy to drive sales. ‘Event’ comics are often hyped around the idea that a major character could die, a fundamental change is about to happen, and that ‘nothing will be the same!’
It’s funny then that most crossover events are pretty much exactly the same. Characters are killed off. There’s a big fight. Retcons and reboots abound. They are rarely, if ever, about telling a decent story. And shortly after they’re over, the comic will probably:
4) Resurrect dead characters
Want to have your cake and eat it? Kill off a beloved character, so that you can exploit the emotional drama, and then bring them back to life again! Marvel, and especially DC, love this one.
The effect is to cheapen death and lessens the impact when a character bites the dust, as we know it won’t be for long unless the character is unpopular. There is apparently a revolving door between the world of the living and the deceased.
It’s fine to have characters thought dead to make a surprise return appearance (although this has also been done to, ahem, death) and sometimes, very rarely, a resurrection can work, but usually, it just turns mortality into a joke.
For the drama and tension of ‘anyone can die’ stories to be effective, death has to mean something, and have some impact.
What do you do if you have a long-running comic, but sales are starting to drop? If you’re lazy you could try:
5) Fundamentally changing who characters are for the sake of it
It’s fine for characters to develop, grow and change. This entry isn’t about that. It’s when a fundamental principle of who a character changes just to surprise us, that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
Take Superman. It his core he is, fundamentally, a good person who always tries to do the right thing, and inspires hope in those around him. Anything that moves away from that core principle is fundamentally changing who that character is. It’s fine to tell a story about a morally grey superpowered being, but if that’s the story you want to tell, either don’t use Superman or explain what cataclysmic event has created such a dramatic shift in the character.
Creators are sometimes guilty of assuming that we care as much about their characters as they do. We have a plethora of different choices, and, unless you’re a die-hard fan, usually only a passing interest. Those characters that are compelling, are compelling for a reason – creators give us reasons to like them and feel invested in them, as we understand who they are, and empathise with their point of view. Suddenly throwing all that out of the window on a whim for the sake of shock value feels like a betrayal of trust.
A classic example of this in TV is the episode of The Simpsons called ‘The Principal and the Pauper’. It is revealed that Principal Skinner isn’t who we thought he was all along. This glaring shift didn’t remain true to the principle of the character and alienated those that had got to know him over many years. A similar thing happened in Spiderman’s clone saga – it turned out that the character we’d been following for years wasn’t Peter Parker after all. Readers left en-masse.
The story is massively important, but it isn’t everything. Creators can sometimes fall into the trap of:
6) Forgetting that comics are a visual medium
Comics have a lot of similarities to films and TV, especially the animated kind. The main difference is time – comics can be read as quickly or as slowly as the consumer chooses. Background details are available for closer examination or can be ignored, as you wish.
You can’t tell a story in a comic form in the same way as you can in a book, or even a movie or TV show. Images need to be selected carefully, and there needs to be a marriage or deliberate juxtaposition between them.
The story is, of course, important, but it needs to be told visually. Two characters talking for a while might work on TV or film, but in a comic, it can get boring quickly. Don’t drown your readers with text – choose those words carefully, and sparingly.
Have a character say something, and then, in the accompanying image, visually contradict it or call it into question. What’s that figure lurking in the background? Is that a tiny spot of blood on his shirt? In this way, comics can become a detective game between the creators and audience, a game that can be immensely satisfying.
Too many comics have boring, over-long, or hackneyed text. You can’t pump out clichéd dialogue without an ironic wink or hanging a lampshade on it. It needs to be funny, artful, and crucially, to the point. Less is more – comics with walls of text can work occasionally, but usually the fewer more well-chosen words the better. Let the pictures tell the story, and use the minimum of text necessary. Some comics work very well without words at all.
That said, it is unforgiveable to:
7) Ignore story
When telling any kind of story, there needs to be a reason to keep reading. Excitement, mystery, compelling characters; anything that makes us want to learn more. It’s a plot which has us wondering ‘why?’ or ‘what happens next?’
If it’s just characters going about their business, or easily resolving obstacles, there’s no tension, and, usually, no reason to keep reading. Not everything needs to be a traditional hero’s journey, but if it isn’t, then at least try and do something interesting and compelling. It helps if it’s not something that’s been done a thousand times before.
What genre is your story? What are new and interesting things to do with those types of characters? Asking those questions, and revealing new things as the story unfurls, will get you thinking in the right way, drive your plot, and make your comic more than just a series of pretty pictures. Although of course it really doesn’t help if you:
8) Have weak artwork
This isn’t necessarily fatal. Having a comic with a good story but the weak artwork is better than having one with good artwork but a weak story. You can get away with poorer art with a strong concept, good storytelling, and great dialogue, but not the other way around. Ideally, words and images need to work in harmony; thinking of them separately isn’t enough. Assuming the writer and artist are separate people, it’s crucial that they work and communicate well together.
If the drawings are weak, that gives your readers a poorer experience. It’s like having a fantastically performing car that looks like a Robin Reliant painted in brown and grey stripes, with the radio stuck on an easy listening channel. Comics like this had better hope that readers don’t judge a book by its cover, or they won’t have any.
What’s the difference between a good story and a great story? Often it’s that the comic creators:
9) Neglect to make us care
If we can’t relate to any of the characters, and none of them are likeable, then we won’t care what happens to them. It’s not enough to have a great story and blisteringly good images – we need to feel an emotional connection.
This empathy is the difference between a diverting read and an excellent comic. We need to root for the main character, or characters, to go through their struggles with them, to cheer them on when they succeed and commiserate when they lose. This is the essence of all great stories.
The best comics do this with their villains and supporting characters, as well as their heroes. Making us care about characters is something that Joss Whedon traditionally does well. And it’s usually just before he kills someone off, the swine.
But sometimes all this pathos can drag comics into another trap, and then they:
10) Get too serious and pretentious
It’s fine to be serious, but a constant po-face tone can make you want to stop reading altogether.
Even stories with an adult theme need some light-hearted or comedic elements now and then, if only to act as a contrast and relief from the major plotline, to break up the tension. Be funny. Have funny characters, use funny dialogue. People love to laugh, and humour draws us into the story. It can also make the serious moments have more punch.
To use a notorious example, compare the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. Marvel has an overall fun and light-hearted tone, which doesn’t detract from the dramatic moments; if anything it makes them more compelling. DC movies, in the main, are grim, dark, bleak affairs. The former is far more popular than the latter, and frankly, are simply better. As a DC fan, that breaks my heart a little, but it is true.
Telling a mature story for adults doesn’t have to mean people dying in the rain, just as stories for children can be more than just wish-fulfillment fantasies or throwaway nonsense. Children are drawn to darkness as well as light, as long as evil eventually gets its comeuppance. And adults don’t want too much dark, gritty, edgy misery. We get enough of that in real life.
So there you have it, 10 things that I think can ruin comics. Have I missed anything out? Comment below and let us know, or Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know, or if you want to send memes to me.