Issue #181

This is a continuing series on making comics step by step, from conception to post-publication.

The idea is both the most under- and overrated part of the creative process. Ideas can be as elaborate as "a man works in an insurance office believing he exists in 20th century America only to discover he really lives in a future where machines have conquered the human race and control them through the use of virtual reality while a number of humans have escaped to become hi-tech freedom fighter and theorize the insurance salesman is a prophesied hero come to free mankind when he exhibits unexpected powers" (THE MATRIX) or "Thor fights the Hulk and we finally find out which is stronger" (what Eric Larsen originally wedged his way into Marvel with). Or even simpler: "a girl with big breasts who beats people up" has probably launched more comics, certainly in the last fifteen years, than any other. Though not a good idea, it still an idea. "Zombies destroy civilization" is a very simple idea, albeit not an original one, but that hasn't stopped it from underlying two very good recent properties, Robert Kirkman's THE WALKING DEAD and Danny Boyle's horror film 28 DAYS LATER.

There are all different sorts of ideas. There are the Grant Morrison/Warren Ellis "mad ideas" spat out machine gun fast. There are terribly simple, down to earth ideas, like the "adolescents trying to figure out how to be adolescents in a pressure cooker society" core of Miki Iahara's HOT GIMMICK, which is nonetheless one of the best mangas ever done. There are ideas no one else could ever have thought of and ideas someone else should have thought of but didn't.

It doesn't really matter whether the idea is simple or elaborate, original or derivative. It doesn't matter what the project is.

All projects begin with an idea.

That's principle #1.

Principle #2:

Ideas come from anywhere.

DC editors Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz used to have covers drawn with striking images, like the Earth being towed by a gigantic claw coming off a space trawler, or Superman encountering an alien dinosaur with a prophetic TV for a head, then hiring a writer to come up with a story incorporating the cover image, which, if nothing else, led to a flow of intriguing covers. Those covers did feature ideas (Weisinger, according to legend, polled children in his neighborhood to find out what they wanted to see in SUPERMAN comics, then developed covers and stories based on the answers) albeit not ideas originated by writers. Ideas can generate from pictures, random observations, conversations, anything, but in most cases they're the result of the assimilation, juxtaposition and extrapolation of existing ideas the writer has been exposed to. (cf. Sir Isaac Newton's famous quote, "If I have been able to see this far, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.") None of us work in a void, though some are more conscious of the idea-generating process than others. The great myth of creativity is that ideas are rare and precious mystical objects, and that's only partly right; good ideas are rare and precious things, while there are millions of bad ideas. Success doesn't come from generating ideas. Success comes from being able to tell the good ideas from the bad ones, which is a much, much trickier thing.

The myth is usually held most dear by (and perpetrated on by writers who know better) people who don't write, the ones who, in awed tones, ask "where do you get your ideas?" and in the next breath reveal the idea they've been quietly nursing for years, that would be worth a lot of money if only you'd write it up for them.

Principle #3:

Everyone has ideas.

A classic (true) tale of Hollywood: a producer calls a young screenwriter into his office to involve him in a project that the producer will own in full but the screenwriter will develop, for scale. When the screenwriter asks the producer what the idea is, the producer, a bit nervous about unveiling his masterpiece without paperwork protecting him against theft but too proud of the idea to withhold it, beams ecstatically and, framing the words on a fantasy marquee with an upraised hand, says, with just the right amount of revelatory awe, "Rock Man!"

That's it. The entire idea. Rock Man. No characters, no concept, no story. Just a name. Rock Man. Which the screenwriter is expected to convert into a movie franchise. (The lack of paperwork fortunately makes it simple for the screenwriter to walk away, which he does.

Yes "Rock Man" is an idea. A bad idea, which only execution might save.

Principle #4:

Ideas, in and of themselves, mean nothing.

It is possible to save a bad idea with great development and execution. It's very possible to bury or kill a great idea in terrible development and execution. The idea is the first step in any project, but it's only a baby step, with dozens of other steps to follow.

Here's where it gets tricky: what's the difference between a good idea and a bad idea? That can only be answered in the specific, not the general. "Vampires attack a town" sounds like an adequate idea at best, and wholly derivative of dozens of similar stories. Even the mention of vampires now sounds clichéd. But add a little twist - vampires attack a town isolated near the North Pole that's beginning a month of total darkness under the midnight sun (Steve Niles & Ben Templesmith's 30 DAYS OF NIGHT - and it becomes one of those headslappingly great ideas so obvious everyone else kicks themselves for not thinking of it first. TEN LITTLE INDIANS-style murder mysteries were clichéd from the moment Agatha Christie wrote the novel decades ago, but until Greg Rucka & Steve Lieber's WHITEOUT, no one thought to apply the concept to spies stranded at research stations in Antactica.

But neither project is made or broken by the underlying idea alone.

How do you tell a good idea from bad? Experience, guesswork and luck. The real trick is to not get so attached to any idea, good or bad, that you're unwilling to jettison it if necessary. (I've mockingly said of a number of writers that you can tell they truly love ideas because when they finally get their hands on one they refuse to let go of it.) The way to get ideas is to keep having ideas. Loving one idea too much makes you obsessive. Obsession as a creative technique is also highly overrated, and most often highly counterproductive.

There's only one true dividing line between good and bad ideas: success. But success, as I said, is the result of much more than simply the idea. The best test of any idea is a simple, difficult question:

Where do you go from here?

By way of illustration, I've decided to experiment by trying to take a concept step by step as I describe the steps here. No title yet, no story, just an idea so far:

A horror comic. With irreplaceable natural energy resources like coal and oil dwindling as demand and prices rises, as is happening today in our own civilization, the stability of society and the economy are both threatened, and alternative energy sources become critical. But nuclear power has its own great dangers, while there's a general lack of confidence in solar power, wind power, hydroelectric and geothermal power to meet energy needs. Until a company exploring for undersea oil deposits makes a discover of another sort and becomes the provider of an apparently endless flow of very cheap, apparently pollution free energy. Estimates are the energy source, a carefully guarded company secret, can provide for all the project energy needs of the planet for the next 275,000 years.

With only one secret downside: the energy source is one of Lovecraft's Old Ones sleeping in the ocean's depths, and the pollution isn't physical but spiritual.

To be continued.

It's obvious the administration has targeted Syria for "regime change," though it's a bit difficult to figure out why. The answer is probably Israel, which has viewed Syria as an enemy pretty much since Israel's inception and has resented the Syrian presence in Lebanon since Syrian troops entered that country in 1989. I can understand Israel's position, but Syria has never been any particular threat to the United States, and our current efforts to humiliate and destabilize the country, and Lebanon, don't make any particular sense.

Unless you embrace the concept that the only good Muslim government is a dead Muslim government. Or, as the neo-cons (or Phil Ochs) might put it, "like it or not, boys, you're going to be free." The problem's this:

While Syria has been active in Middle Eastern politics (as you might expect a country in the Middle East to be), it hasn't exactly been exhibiting ambitions of conquest. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Syria was more than eager to join forces with the USA to force them out. (Which is neither surprising nor particularly noble since, sharing a border with Iraq, Syria was certainly a potential target for conquest should Saddam have decided the Kuwait invasion was so successful it was worth invading somewhere else.) Neither is Syria's relationship with Lebanon a matter of conquest or the dominance of Islam in the Middle East: the Lebanese government asked them in to be a stabilizing force in 1989 when peace was finally brought to the country after a decade and a half of civil war, and the main result of the Syrian interference was the salvation of the Israeli-backed Christian Phalangists, who were on the verge of extinction. (Not coincidentally, this also prevented Muslim dominance of Lebanon.) The resulting constitution, which turned Lebanon into a more or less democratic nation, called for standing important roles in government for Christian factions and both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims and established a peace that has lasted for 16 years. Pretty impressive, considering what the country was like before the Syrian army stepped in.

Lately our government has been calling for the immediate and total withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, attempting to project the very strong impression that Syria is in Lebanon as an occupying force. In fact, at the height of their involvement, c. 1995, 42,000 Syrian troops were in Lebanon, and they were already beginning withdrawal. Today there are about 13,000 Syrian troops remaining in Lebanon, and, at least according to the Syrian plan, those were in the process of being phased out as well, in coordination with the desires of the Lebanese government as the Lebanese take over more and more of their own security functions. Again, Syria's presence was in no way to maintain Muslim hegemony in the country, since Lebanese Christians have gained the most benefit from their presence, and the Syrian army has generally stayed virtually invisible to the population, except when called upon to act by the Lebanese government.

So why are we so determined to ouster them, when there appears no particular need for it? Certainly our government's portrayal of the Syrians is intended to influence Americans as much as Damascus, which suggests a coming "mandate" for war. (That we could crush the Syrian army with our eyes closed isn't in doubt, and even something of a tradition now; the USA has at least since the Reagan administration specialized in attacking countries with little capacity to fight back, like Grenada.) We've seen numerous accusations flying:

- Syria hid Saddam's phantom WMDs for him

- Syria welcomes, hid and aided Iraqi insurgents

- Syria was involved in the assassination of the ex-Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafik Hariri

- Syria is a hotbed of international terrorism

etc. The only problem is: we've never offered any proof of any of this. Maybe the Syrians are doing everything we're accusing them of, but, given the administration's record on its portrayals of foreign governments, their word certainly can't be taken for granted. Syria has, as a matter of fact, very publicly stated that if the United States has any actual evidence of terrorists operating out of Syria, they should turn it over to Damascus and the Syrians will act on it and will go after the terrorists. This may very well be bluff by the Syrians, but so what? If that's the case, why aren't we calling their bluff and fingering any terrorists there? They captured and surrendered Saddam Hussein's brother-in-law, after all, which could have been a shell game, sure, but it could just as easily have been them living up to their word. At the very least, putting them on the spot on terrorists in Syria would very publicly force them to put up or shut up.

Not that the Syrians are saints. The country has very serious human rights violations, including torture. Which is why the US has been sending terror prisoners there for interrogation. So the torture thing we can at least prove, but for some reason it's not high on the admin's list of claims against them.

But it seems more to the admin's purposes to hurl accusations then behave as though they were automatically true, and the rest of us should take that on faith. So what's the point?

The main risk of an immediate and total withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon is not "democracy" but a relapse of the sectarian violence that torn the country apart in the '70s and '80s. The country that seems to think the sectarian destabilization of Lebanon is in their best interests is Israel. (Moshe Dayan and David Ben-Gurion in the '50s considered invading Lebanon to transform it into a Christian dictatorship, only to be thwarted by Prime Minister Moshe Sherett. A similar attempt by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon in the early '80s led to the second Lebanese civil war and the situation that required Syrian intervention in the first place. But if Iraq is indeed the first step in the neo-con reconstruction of the Middle East into an American empire, forcing Syria out of Lebanon could kill a lot of birds with one stone. If Lebanon starts to spin out of control to the extent they want Syria back (amusingly, in a sick sort of way, the factions most pleased to see Syria go are the Muslim factions who wish to get rid of Lebanon's Christians once and for all), and Syria re-enters the country, we have our excuse to paint Syria as the aggressor and claim the high ground in invading, if we've waited that long.

Or maybe this is just our revenge for Syria being able to do what we couldn't: stabilize Lebanon. But the last time we were in Lebanon, it didn't work out too well either.

"I'm sure there are barriers but can't you guys (including John Beatty) do another Punisher graphic novel? Please? As a Punisher fan I don't care if it doesn't fit in with the current series or continuity, I would treasure it like I do CIRCLE OF BLOOD and RETURN TO BIG NOTHING. They are two of the best ever, and looking at the level achieved in RETURN TO BIG NOTHING it seems a real shame not to do another one. Come on, do it for all us fans. Come on, guys!"

I haven't talked to John in awhile, but Mike and I are both game enough, schedules permitting. But it really isn't up to us. Take it up with Marvel, whoever's editing THE PUNISHER these days. I mean, we could do it but we couldn't do anything with it, so...

"Here is an interesting article that a friend sent me about the military's development of robot soldiers.

The moral and practical ramifications are numerous and they are not being debated.

Did you notice how much money Congress is allocating to this? And to private companies that are probably no more competent in delivering helicopters that fly properly or guns that don't misfire.

Anyway, I don't want some machine that can be hacked making any decisions for me. A machine is a tool, not a partner or my boss, and it is certainly not something that should be allowed to terminate a person's life. I guess that 5-10 years from now when there is some horrific accident or incident, then we will have the requisite breast-beating mea culpas. Who would be accountable for war crimes? Meanwhile the Pentagon and contractors will be enjoying the $$$ of their labors.

Also, if I am China or a European country, how thrilled would I be with the U.S. creating a portable weapon like this that would make war-making economical and efficient? A pre-emptive strike on a U.S. factory would be as justified as Israel bombing Iraq a while back or the U.S. invading Iraq. Corporate espionage/terrorism would be increased threats.

Meanwhile, let's continue to detach ourselves from the ramifications of waging war. And, let's make sure that we spend as much money as possible on war-making technology. God forbid the government should have to face the facts (and face the populace) about imperialist ventures -- people on both sides die. As long as Americans are not bleeding, it is all to the good."

I'm presuming from context that last line is sarcastic. Since any nation that launches a pre-emptive strike on America is likely to do it with nuclear warheads, I'd just as soon they didn't follow our example, thanks. But, if military contractors stay true to form, I suspect Congress will come to realize robot soldiers aren't particularly economic or efficient after all...

" Quick note for you. I have a friend who works in 'some place South of New York and North of Miami' who revealed that the current administration is looking at Syria very seriously right now. They are not considering Iran as a target right now, as much as they would love to, as Putin has told Bush that any attack on Iran, where he has teams building atomic power stations, where a Russian national is killed will be construed as an act of war against Russia. Syria is a much easier target and they hope it will shake up the Iranian population while they are in there."

Yeah, I've been getting that idea lately. Thanks.

" Have you read Joe Ezterhas' book HOLLYWOOD ANIMAL? your Oscars article today made me think of it. Obviously he's a master of b.s., but he makes pretty strong claims to how everyone loves his scripts until it's actually time to make the film, at which time everything they loved needs to get changed. And if I remember correctly, he complains about this treatment on films that were successful as well as the notorious flops.

Actually, the personal memoir elements of the book were what struck me -- what a horrible life his family had. And his description of his failed marriage and his new marriage and the awkward circumstances under which they met and fell in love stays in memory as strong parts of the book as well. I don't normally like "Hollywood" tell-alls, but I enjoyed reading this one and would like to see some of his scripts in their original form, just to see how much he really is b.s.'ing about his writing ability."

I've read a couple Esterhas screenplays that were pretty good, and his claimed experiences are close enough to what many writers experience in Hollywood that I have no reason to disbelieve him. (Why do you think so many screenwriters are dying to work in comics, where what they write is generally what goes on the page?) Esterhas captured his youth as a young Hungarian immigrant growing up in the USA in a film that was pretty good, called TELLING LIES IN AMERICA (1997) with nice performances by Kevin Bacon, Brad Renfro, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and others. Of course, I don't know how much of it they changed on him...

Music lovers, particularly lovers of acoustic guitar ala John Fahey and Leo Kottke, will want to check out my pal Scot Snow's new album at his website. Scot, while pretty much unknown here, is an Aussie with a decent little cult audience down under.

IDW sent copies of the first issue of the five-part CSI miniseries I'm doing for them, "Secret Identity," which is on the stands now. But the first ten people who send me a stamped, self-addressed manila envelope at least 7"x11" big at the address at column bottom can have a copy free. (The second issue should be available next week.)

Up top I mentioned Miki Aihara's HOT GIMMICK, and I'd like to reiterate: for my money, it's the best manga ever. The story's straightforward and highly accessible, with a timid teenage girl named Hatsumi coping with relatives, potential boyfriends, family secrets, the challengers of sex and love, school and the Japanese salaryman subculture that inflicts castelike hierarchies on whole social groups. Fascinating storylines and development, interesting glimpses into a fairly alien yet strikingly familiar world, strong and very economical dialogue, striking character development, absolutely beautiful art that never makes who's who confusing, almost operatic yet completely believable emotions, and, in vol. 2, the best double turn I've ever seen outside a wrestling ring. Awhile back I proposed a revival of romance comics, replacing the high-strung "I'll never get my man/I got my man" women's confessional tradition of the old romance comics with a new, more ambiguous style that girls might be able to relate to on something other than a fairy tale. HOT GIMMICK is exactly what I had in mind.

By the way, another of my old pals, artist Matt (BIRDS OF PREY, X) Haley teamed up with one of his old pals, writer-producer Andrew Cosby, to create a series called G.I. SPY. Previews are now available at the G.I. SPY website, if anyone's interested in a look.

Those interested in the subject of creator rights will want to take a look at Tom Spurgeon's meditations on the implications of the new Siegel-Shuster lawsuit over SUPERMAN. If nothing else, I don't recall anyone making his point about tipping before.

For a quick summary of America's true status among developed nations, read this. It's eye-opening.

Out next month: from IDW, more CSI: SECRET IDENTITY. From Dark Horse, THE ESCAPIST, with not only a Spirit-Escapist team-up written by Will Eisner, but a "Weird Date" story Norm Breyfogle and I did, and I'm now working on a second. Plus, somewhere in the next couple months, THE COMICS JOURNAL's tribute to Will Eisner, to which I contributed a short appreciation of THE SPIRIT. And I'm still buried in the midst of several other projects...

By the way, for those in the Las Vegas area or those looking for an excuse to visit here, Bill Willingham, James Hudnall and I are tentatively taking our "working in comics" song and dance act on the road to several libraries in the Las Vegas-Clark County library system again in late June. Details to follow. (And while I'm at it let me thank the people in the LVCC library system again for doing such a great job keeping stocked up on new manga and graphic novels. They're top notch, and just one more terrific reason to live here.)

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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