THE FIGHT SCENE
People complain all the time about comics that are nothing but fight scenes. All the clichés have it that comics are nothing but good-looking muscular men in spandex fighting each other, veins popping, teeth gritted together, and eyes squinted as they pummel each other.
But underlying all of that is the single most important element of fiction writing: Conflict. That’s what it’s all about. Think about it. What’s the most boring part of any story, whether in a comic or in a novel? Exposition. That’s the point at which one character explains to the other everything that’s going on. Why is it boring? There’s no conflict. It’s necessary to explain the plot to a reader, and truly great writers can handle exposition within the confines of an action scene, or a scene with some sense of conflict.
Now there are all types of conflict. Classical structure has it something along the lines of man versus nature, man versus man, or man versus himself. (I’m doing this off the top of my head. English teachers out there — please don’t be angry with me.)
So the fight is almost a necessity in a comic book. Why? Well, it’s the best way to visualize conflict. Mind games are great in a novel, which can contain plenty of in-depth explanation and analyses interwoven in the text. You can get into the heads of the characters better. But even there the old saying still holds: “Show, don’t tell.” So it is with comics, also. But you have these colorful characters with flamboyant powers. Take advantage of that. Let’s see it all get used. We need those fights.
In addition, super-heroic comics are a power fantasy. The power is shown in a fight scene. The writer does part of the job and, in this unique storytelling format, the artist does the other half. When the two halves work together well, it’s magic. When they don’t, it’s a complete mess that nothing can save.
However, those of us who are long-time comics fans get jaded fairly easily. Part of it is that the uniqueness is gone. The other half has to do with maturity. Most of us started reading comics as teenagers or younger. After years of reading comics, we’re out of that stage and more mature. Big slam-bang fights don’t necessarily do it for us anymore. There has to be something more to it than fisticuffs and massive structural damage to the immediate surroundings.
And so it is that our fights get more cerebral, and we begin to be able to tell the difference between a well constructed fight scene and a couple of creators just filling space between covers.
It is my contention that the best fights and the ones that make the most sense to me hold several characteristics.
The first is that they work as a natural outgrowth of character. There needs to be a reason to fight, or a lack of a reason not to. From the hero’s side of things, fights are generally done in protection or prevention. Anything else lessens the protagonist’s role as a “hero.” If he goes around picking fights, we don’t find him very heroic. If his first solution to anything is to throw the first punch, he becomes less of an admirable person. That might be the point, though. If you have an anti-hero, that can very easily be suggested by acting contrary to the actions just described. Superman, on the other hand, would strictly adhere to these rules. And an angry, vengeful, suicidal character would throw all of the rules out the book. So, you see, fights are expressions of character. At the very least, they’re the best examples comics have of “show, don’t tell.”
Once you have a fight, you need something to make it interesting. There are a couple of ways to do this, too. The first is derived from powers, while the second comes from character.
One of the problems of serialized characters is that in order to come up with something new month after month, you have to lose a certain amount of integrity. Does it make much sense for Captain America to stand up to Thanos? No. (Granted, it made for a terrific moment of character for Steve Rogers in the INFINITY GAUNTLET, but that was a bit of genius on Jim Starlin’s part.) Should Spider-Man be on another planet? No. Spider-Man is a city creature. Why should Wolverine face every single other character in the Marvel Universe? He shouldn’t. The interesting fights are against opponents who shares something in common with him, or who are polar opposites from him. Sabretooth is a good opponent because he has the potential for bezerker rage as well as an adamantiumized skeleton. Cyber’s admantium fingertips make for a good opponent.
Aside from conflicts of sheer power, there is the conflict of character. When Wolverine fights Cyclops, it’s interesting because these are not just two “good guys” fighting, but also two teammates. Feuding lovers’ tempers flare up and a fight ensues. Or the third angle of a love triangle vents his frustrations in an outward manner. Two characters fight out of ego because one thinks he’s “the strongest there is.” The other thinks the same.
Finally, there’s one other kind of fight that’s a lot of fun. That would be the classic match. The best example of this is the Thing versus Hulk. It’s a sure-fire crowd-pleaser every time. It happens over and over in the Marvel Universe, but it’s not one of those things we just roll our eyes at. And I think the answer to that comes from everything else I outlined above. The combatants are evenly matched protagonists, under usual circumstances. It’s a pure power play to watch the two go at it.
Likewise, a book like ZOT! can be a lot of fun. The point of some fights in there is to “out-Kirby Jack Kirby.” Over the top. Wild. Creative. Stretching the boundaries of not just our imaginations, but also the limitations of the medium.
So next time you read a comic book and the fight scene sucks, take a look back at some of the things I’ve outlined here. There’s a very real possibility it didn’t follow many, if any, of the guidelines I laid out here.
A couple of notes to cover my ass on this:
First, for simplicity’s sake, I just used the masculine pronoun in all my examples above. I didn’t feel like cluttering the column with tons of “he or she”s. Sheesh
Second, yes you can have a superhero comic without any on-panel fight scenes. Heck, in capable hands, such stories can be better than your best story which does include a slug fest. Take a look at those last 8 pages of KINGDOM COME by Mark Waid and Alex Ross in the trade paperback collection. There are exceptions to every rule. And I make no pretense that the preceding column is a set of “rules.” I think they’re solid guidelines for today’s standard super-hero comic.