“Wolverine & the X-Men,” which launches in October, will be my first ever attempt at writing a team book. There’s something I had always assumed but can only now confirm: writing a team book is much more challenging than writing a solo book. And it’s a challenge I’m still in the midst of figuring out. Here’s my battle report.
I’ve written books with multiple characters before. “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine” was a pretty big and crazy book, and actually pretty close in tone to what I wanna do in the new “X-Men” series. But it was a team-up book, focusing on just a couple of characters, not a true team book. I’ve always juggled a huge cast in “Scalped.” Over the course of 50+ issues I’d say “Scalped” has developed a main cast of at least 13 different characters. But rarely have I ever had to write a scene featuring more than three of them on stage at the same time. In “Wolverine & The X-Men,” I’m already routinely writing scenes that involve six or seven characters on the page together.
The closest I’ve previously come to doing a team book is probably the currently unfolding “X-Men: Schism” mini-series, which is certainly the biggest thing I’ve ever done in terms of scale, featuring dozens of different characters with speaking roles. But at the end of the day it’s still pretty much a story about just two guys: Cyclops and Wolverine.
So “Wolverine & the X-Men” is without a doubt my first true team book and I’m learning as I go just what all that entails. The main cast for the series numbers at least 14 and that’s only including the human ones who talk (wait, what?). Though the book will actually be a bit more focused than that, for reasons I can’t quite reveal as of yet. Let’s just say that even within this team, there will be a couple of different smaller groups of characters. So, I likely won’t have to write a scene featuring all 14 characters on the page together (which series artist Chris Bachalo will no doubt be relieved to hear). Still, that’s a lot to juggle in one book, certainly compared to my work on series like “Wolverine” or “PunisherMAX,” where I’m writing about one guy on his own adventures, and one guy who doesn’t talk much to boot.
The first concern is juggling all the various plot elements. You want all the different characters to have their own stories, their own beats, but you want it all to intertwine as well. That’s more a challenge of mechanics, of advance outlining, though it’s one that will only grow more complicated as time goes on. The first big challenge for me upfront has been in defining 14 separate characters. Putting meat on their bones, so to speak. Making them substantial, beyond just an individual costume or power set. Crafting for each of them an original perspective and a voice that’s clearly distinguishable from one another.
In a good team book, you can recognize the characters just by dialogue. If someone was reading to you from an issue of Claremont and Byrne’s “X-Men” or Grant Morrison’s “JLA” or Rick Remender’s “Uncanny X-Force,” you’d know which character was speaking without having to see them. Because the characters are so carefully defined and unique from one another, their voices are easily discernible.
Now compare that to a badly written team book. I won’t name names, but I’m sure you can find one. The characters tend to blur together. They speak with the same voice. While they may sometimes fight about things, their perspectives aren’t always discernible. They’re not substantial enough to stand apart. They’re built on fluff, not bedrock.
So that’s what I’ve been working on. Fleshing out my cast of characters and giving them unique voices. And when I say a unique voice, I don’t mean just a dialect or quirky diction. With all due respect to Chris Claremont, without whom the X-Men would obviously not be the X-Men we know, I must say that as a born and bred Southerner, I’ve always found Rogue’s faux-Southern speech patterns to be rather annoying, and as a writer I’ve avoided using them when scripting her. While giving a character a specific way of talking can indeed help them stand out, that obviously shouldn’t be the only thing that differentiates them from the characters around them. If so, it’s simply a crutch. It’s a hollow distinction. Thanks to Claremont, Rogue is a great character and can have a distinctive voice even when you don’t have her saying “ah” instead of “I” and calling everyone “sugah” all the time. It’s ultimately more about what a character says, not how they say it.
You also don’t want that character’s voice to be one-note. You don’t want a character who’s just “the guy who always disagrees with everyone else” or “the kid who’s always morose” or “the woman who just doesn’t like that one other woman.” You want these characters to have a specific perspective, but that doesn’t mean they should always be stuck in just one emotion or one attitude. They’ve got to be richer than that, more nuanced. And I say that not as someone lecturing from on high, but as a writer who is struggling with this very challenge as we speak. Whether I’m successful or not obviously remains to be seen, but this is what I am striving for.
You should always know more about your characters than is initially discernable on the page. There has to be more to them than their initial appearance, than what the characters themselves are telling us when we first meet them. Just as a general rule of thumb when writing dialogue, remember, no one ever says outloud exactly everything that’s on their minds every waking moment of the day. You can maybe have one character in a book who always says exactly what’s on their mind. That might be their thing, but even that will get old. If all your characters are like that, then I’d say you have a problem.
Good dialogue often talks around things. Good dialogue hints at what’s left unsaid. Good dialogue gives the pieces with which you the reader must put together the puzzle of who a character is. Good dialogue isn’t the writer speaking directly to you through the character, telling you exactly what they want you to know. When have you ever met someone in real life and learned everything you needed to know about them from your very first exchange? I’m gonna go with never. Same should hold true for writing. A character shouldn’t just pop up out of the blue and then proceed to tell you exactly who they are and where they’re from and what their deal is and what their hope and dreams are and why you should care about them and everything else the writer wants you to know. Good characters have to grow and unfold over time. You figure out who they are based on things they say here and there, on specific touchstones, on their actions. They show us who they are, little by little. They don’t stop the story to stand around and tell us point-blank.
With “Wolverine & The X-Men,” I’m working to make my cast an eccentric and intriguing one, featuring characters from several different eras of X-Men history, stretching from the original Lee/Kirby days, through the classic Claremont era and legendary Morrison run, to the most recent Fraction/Gillen incarnation. There are also a few new characters thrown into the mix. So, I’m working to nail down voices not just for old favorite characters, but for ones I’m creating from scratch, as well. I’m not sure which is more challenging. With the new characters, I obviously get to define their history and background myself. With a character that was created 50 years ago, that background has been defined and redefined by countless different writers. I’m merely trying to boil things down or to sort through everything and find a hook I can relate to. I’ve written issues for two different arcs with all these characters at this point, so the work continues. And come October, I hope you’ll judge the results for yourself.
And just like that, I won’t be a team book virgin anymore.
Now if only I could tell you about the issue of the thing I wrote this week, which provided a whole new set of challenges.
More on that in the future, perhaps.
As always, thanks for reading.
Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series “Scalped” for DC/Vertigo and “Wolverine,” “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine” and “PunisherMAX” for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter (@jasonaaron) or his blog. His beard is bigger than yours.