TWO HEADS TALK is brought to you this week by Christopher, all trademarks, copyrights and other rights to the art 2005 Christopher. (check out his comic THE GHOULY BOYS). Thanks, Christopher.

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

Okay, you've got your idea, but idea's just the first tiny step. Before you start working up a framework for the story, though, you first have to ask yourself:

What is the story about?

Ask most people that and you'll get something along the lines of, "okay, this guy, he's mad about being passed up for a job, so he steals the secret technology his company was working on and -"

Okay, but what's the story about?

"Wait, I was just getting to that, see, he's tired of everyone ignoring him when he's the one doing all the work so he's going to make them notice him and realize he's better than they -"

Yeah, but what's it ABOUT?!!

The plot isn't the story. The plot is what happens in the story, but it's not the point of the story. It's not what the story's about.

The theme is what the story's about. It's the point you want to get across, and, if you have a solid grasp of your theme, it's the guiding light by which you can select and shape the events - the plot - of your story for best effect. There are a lot of different definitions and interpretation of theme, but skip those for now. (Independent reading on the subject is nonetheless encouraged.) For our purposes, let's stick with a simplistic but practical question:

What do you want to use the story to say?

Right about now you'll be thinking of the comics you've read, and you'll be saying to yourself, "Most of them don't have a theme." Which isn't quite true, but the vanilla theme, so common and bland it's now a virtually invisible part of the background, can best be summed up by Wally Wood's aphorism, "There are good guys and there are bad guys and the job of the good guys is to kill off all the bad guys." That's a theme. It's a shallow and flip theme, but it's a theme. "He saw his parents gunned down, so now he hunts down criminals for revenge" isn't a theme. It's a high concept. "Criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot" is a theme. "With great power comes great responsibility" is a theme. "A teenage boy learns the value of personal courage" isn't a theme. What's the value? "Life without personal courage isn't worth living" is a theme. "Personal courage is overvalued and dangerous, and must be tempered with intelligence and mercy" is a theme. Greed, revenge, jealousy, etc. are often presented as themes, but they're not, not really. They're topics. It's not greed as a concept that matters to your story but what you have to say about it. When I was writing WHISPER, I used to say betrayal was the theme, and it was. But it wasn't. The theme was what I wanted to say about betrayal: that life consists of betrayals, large and small, inadvertent and intentional, and those betrayals, committed by us and committed on us, become an inescapable web, and that's just the nature of the world. You may like it, you may vehemently disagree with it, but it's a theme.

Theme provides spine and direction for your story. If you know the point you want to get across - love conquers all, great accomplishment requires great risk and great sacrifice, it doesn't matter what you do the bad guys always win, live and the world lives with you but die and you die alone, whatever your chosen theme is - you know how your story needs to end, and if you know what your ending is, you can always figure out how to get there. (On the other hand, if you don't know what your ending is, you don't really know what your story's about.)

A couple caveats about theme:

While it's important to know your theme, it's generally preferable not to wear it on your sleeve. Most people don't read fiction to be preached to, they read it to have an experience they wouldn't have otherwise. Like plot, theme isn't story. Theme is an element of story, one of many, and a good story keeps its elements in balance.

And you may start out with one theme and end up with another. Writing, particularly fiction writing, is a fluid, mercurial process that, like an iceberg, is often 90% out of view. A lot of writing, and a lot of the preprocessing necessary for writing, is done in the unconscious mind. (Which is why ideas sometimes seem to explode out of nowhere; chances are you've actually be working on them for some time without being aware of it.) It's not usual to read your story as you're creating it and realizing you're actually trying to say something other than what you thought you were trying to say. Like maybe love doesn't conquer all, but it's because love is so fragile and fleeting that it's so precious and important. In developing the story, at minimum you're going to nuance, refine and, hopefully, strengthen your theme. Don't be afraid to recognize when your theme has changed and adjust accordingly. You have to say what you have to say; there's no point in trying to say something else just because the other thing was the first thing you thought of. It's okay to change direction in midstream, but the smart writer also revises what's already written, if prudent, to align it with the rest of your story.

Creating's a process, not a steamroller. But it's better to have a theme in mind and change it midstream than to not have any theme at all in mind and end up with a story full of sound and fury, as Shakespeare put it, and signifying nothing.

Last week I came up with a story idea:

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.

There are all kinds of ways that could go, and any dozen people would come up with a dozen different themes that fit it. Me, I'm strongly aware of the economic and cultural war between fossil fuels and alternative energies and how those who make their money on the former have traditionally used their influence to limit the spread of the latter. Any story springing off the idea above would, in my mind, have to take on economic and social significance, and deal with how we, as a society, cope with our energy demands and the consequences of the way we use energy and how we're largely willing to overlook the ill effects of anything we perceive to be to our benefit. That would have to form the germ of the theme to my story: use of any power (however you want to interpret that; political and economic power can just as easily be represented metaphorically by "power" as in what comes from consuming petroleum or Chthulic energy) presents unforeseen risks and consequences, and willful ignorance or cover-up of those is dangerous and foolhardy. A cautionary tale, as most horror stories are.

That's a good enough starting point; I can hang a thruline on that. In the course of creating the story the theme will be refined and focused, and that's part of the process too.

Now we get to the fun part.

Much as I generally like DEAD@17, all the mini-series so far have the same problem: they slow to a crawl in the third part, as if writer-artist Josh Howard has to pad to ensure the climax comes at the right place. Here nothing much happens except heroine Nara's new allies talk a lot while her friends mount a search for her. That said, this third part plays better than the others, as Howard's touch and sense of character has become defter with practice. The usual good art and dialogue, and I dig the faux-Stalinist covers on this series, but there seems to be an awful lot left to resolve next issue.

DEAD@17: ROUGH CUT #2 by various, 64 pg. b&w comic (Viper Comics;$4.95)

A decent anthology, better than the first volume, alternately featuring pisstakes on the DEAD@17 mythos and filling in the corners of the series. Nice work overall, from a variety of talents.

ELK'S RUN #1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Noel Tuazon, 32 pg. color comic (Hoarse And Buggy Productions;$3.00)

On a technical level, ELK'S RUN is really nicely done. Hale is adept at creating interesting characters in quick, broad strokes, and Tuazon's art is pleasantly reminiscent of Val Mayerick's, confident and expressive, with a human quality that makes his people very real. The story is potentially intriguing, involving teenage boys feeling the limitations of growing up in a remote West Virginia coal town. And that's partly the problem with this opening segment: it's mostly potential, one long faintly creepy ellipse that introduces the characters but only suggests the town has some dark secret. I like the characters, I like the way they quickly set up the community and the family conflicts, without any hyperactive explosions of emotion, but it's really just not enough in this market for the editor to tell you on the letter page that the story "is going to suck you in." Sorry, but this is the modern reality of comics: if you have to be told the story will suck you in, it's already too late. It has to do it, and damn quickly. It's hard enough to get a first chance, let alone a second. Which is too bad, because this book has tons to recommend it. It certainly has a lot of talent, quality and ambition, and it's one of the best looking indie books I've seen in some time. The only thing it doesn't have is a story, at least so far. I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, because I want to see what these guys can do, but I wouldn't be surprised if the market didn't.

DR. CHAOS PRESENTS AMERICAN IDYLL SUPER MEGA POP STAR #1 by Kirk Kushin & Diego Barreto, 32 pg. b&w comic (Forcewerks Productions;$2.50)

So they took my advice and dropped B.A.B.E. FORCE from the title; can't wait to see how that affects sales. As you probably got from the title, this is a wacky send-up of TV talent shows from AMERICAN IDOL to STAR SEARCH, and, as usual, villainess Helga Chaos plans to use it as a cover for Dr. Evil-style evil schemes while her clueless, good-natured one-eyed brother gets the blame for it. It's a mildly entertaining romp, with lots of action, mistaken identities, complications, etc., and good, if somewhat congested, art by Diego Barretto. The B.A.B.E. FORCE comics have settled into sort of a predictable formula, though. Decent.

PANEL: HOME #3 edited by D. Tony Goins & Matt Kish, 32 pg. b&w comic (Ferret Press;$?.??)

I'll say one thing for publisher Dara Naraghi's comics: he views them as physical artifacts as well. This one comes in a tasteful "folder," surrounding a half-dozen stories by divers hands (very) loosely involving the "home" theme, from space fantasy with religious overtones to slice of life to humor. Overall, much better than the first volume, with esp. good work from Andy Bennett, who provides a lovely character study of a cat, and Tom Williams.

JOKESTER #1 edited by Mike Arnold & Marten Jallad, 48 pg. b&w magazine (Tool/Thwak/Jokester Publications;$2.99)

An outlet for gag cartoons of all sorts, in the tradition of magazines like HELP!. Editor Martin Jallad cut his teeth on CRACKED magazine, but this is less sophomoric and formulaic. (I particularly liked the faux-Charles Atlas ad, "The Insult That Made A Mess Out Of Iraq." But I would.) As might be expected, quality varies considerably, but while there's little here that's gut-bustingly funny, at least the vast majority of it's amusing, which puts it heads and tails above most humor magazines, and certainly there's room for a magazine like this. Not a bad first issue

PROJECT: SUPERIOR edited by Chris Pitzer, 288 pg. trade paperback (Arthouse Books;$19.95)

Alt artists take on superheroes. I'm of mixed minds about this. On the one hand, the overall quality is very good, and the contributor list is a who's who of alternative comics. Got no quibbles about that. On the other, if superheroes are bad because they're silly and repetitive, as is often argued, why do a book that wallows in it? It's like the same three jokes over and over throughout the book. As good as the talent is on the book, there's barely anything in it that hasn't already been done by Bob Burden or the Hernandez Brothers, and you can only read of so many characters named Cycloctopus or The Green Ray or One-Page Filler Man, or who walk away from any crimes that involve guns or suffer from impotence or wear goofily impractical costumes or whatever before you just want to scream. The sole exception is Paul Rivoche's genuinely touching and effective "The Last Stand Of Bomb Boy Benton," an entire compressed saga that's beautifully drawn and plays it straight, which is not to say humorlessly. I'm not saying don't buy it - like I said, there's a lot of good talent working at the top of their game here, at least visually - but I'd recommend reading it in small, non-consecutive doses.

"OK, now this is just weird. Not two weeks ago my gaming group was in a alien space-ship in the midst of a clichéd "Alien Tech provides impetus for Superheroes" campaign. So to make it more interesting, we started joking that the alien bio-tech was actually Elder Gods. And the government was less interested in creating super-agents as mining Yog-Sogoth as a fuel source.

As you say, everyone has ideas. (Or perhaps, everyone has "idea".) It's the execution that matters. (So damn you for having a bully pulpit, you mind reading freak.)

Speaking of which, even the ideas that you kick yourself for not thinking of first have rarely been thought of first. One of the female authors with a vampire series - I thought Yarbro, but can't find it - had a book set in Alaska for the same reason as 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. Though there it was during last centuries Gold Rush. And the '80s TWILIGHT ZONE revival had a bit on vampires in a Russian gulag, north of the Arctic Circle. By Sydney Sheldon, of all people. Similarly, what is Carpenter's THE THING (itself a remake of a movie based on a short story) if not a very graphic "Ten Little Indians in Antarctica"? (With the same ending, too.)"

The ending of TEN LITTLE INDIANS has the sole survivor deducing he might be the killer?!! (I've never read it, I only know the concept.) For some reason, I remember THE THING taking place at the North pole...

"I wondered if you've checked out any of the old time radio sites featuring free mp3 downloads of old shows like Pat Novak, The Saint and Philip Marlowe. The stories are largely original and tell a complete short story in 20 to 25 minutes, something which seems to be a bit of a lost art in comics. The characters are broadly drawn but engaging giving just enough to make then work within the format. I don't have any links I can pass on, I'm at work and the links are on my home pc, but just googling old time radio brings up a wealth of stuff. Anyone who appreciates your work or the sort of material being put out by companies like Moonstone really ought to take a look."

I don't personally have a lot of tolerance for old time radio shows, but someone was kind enough to provide me with a CD-Rom full of PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE broadcasts in MP3 when I started the project. (Thanks again. You know who you are.) Bear in mind, though, that a 20-25 minute radio show still generally covers a lot more ground than a 22 page comic. Break one down - with full dialogue and action - on a six panel grid just for the fun of it, and you'll see what I mean.

"Your latest column is a must-read for all aspiring creators. I'm saving it on disc and will pass it along to people who ask me advice in the future.

I'm going to give HOT GIMMICK a try based on your recommendation. As someone else on the CBR forums has commented, "too much manga, not enough money."

I trust you're doing well."

Mmmm... good enough for a town this size. Thanks.

"As a resident of Florida, I have the unenviable position of living under two Bush brothers. I was wondering if you were at all following the current situation involving the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) which is given to all Florida public school students.

Back when I was still in school the FCAT was given every couple of years, and basically was a simple measure of students' progress. Under Jeb Bush it has become a means of measuring school quality, with schools being given a grade based on FCAT scores. Students who fail to meet a minimum score on the FCAT are held back that grade. Even worse, schools who get a poor FCAT grade are subject to decreases in state funding, while schools that excel are eligible for funding bonuses (because clearly schools where students perform poorly on standardized testing need LESS money than they're already receiving).

Recently a company called Ignite Software received permission to provide free copies of their FCAT teaching software to schools in the Orlando area, as part of a pilot program to test the effectiveness of the programs. Ignite hopes to secure a contract with the state of Florida that could ultimately net them $30 per student per year here (we have about 1.5 million public school students here in Florida, a number that keeps increasing year by year).

Take a wild guess what the CEO of Ignite's last name is. Go ahead, you'll never guess... yeah that's right, it's Bush, as in Neil Bush, brother to Florida Governor Jeb and US President George. As you may be aware, one of Neil's previous forays into business was Silverado S&L, a company's who's collapse cost Colorado taxpayers $1.3 billion.

You know, I almost miss the days when corrupt politicians worked tirelessly to hide their evil schemes.

Given the fact that while addressing a class of Florida high school students Neil Bush assured them that calculus was useless (an assertion that led him into a debate with students, who explained to him that calculus was vitally important to fields ranging from architecture to space exploration to economics; needless to say, Neil lost this debate), I'd say that regardless of cronyism and nepotism, this isn't a man I want teaching students in any state."

Well, CEOs have never had to actually know anything about the companies they're theoretically running (which might explain how the Hand Puppet "didn't know" anything about baseball players mainlining massive quantities of steroids when he was owner of whatever the hell baseball team it was he owned, if any reporter ever pitches him the question) - if their last name is Bush. I was wondering where Neil had been keeping himself since he helped precipitate the S&L Crisis. It sounds to me, though, like this is just another extension of the whole "No Child Left Behind" canard - and you don't really expect Neil to sit idly by while every other Bush is peddling influence everywhere they can, do you? And as goes Florida, so goes the nation... or else...

"As a Lebanese male living in London, I can tell you this much, Syria does in fact occupy Lebanon. Syrian citizens enjoy certain privileges that Lebanese citizens don't. Trade into Lebanon is killing the local economy, which accounts for an unbelievable recession in the country, amongst other things.

America's involvement in the region has never and will never amount to anything positive, except for American and Israeli interests.

Personally I'd like to see America not have any say in the matter ever, and the Syrian government to take their hand away from rewriting Lebanese constitution as they did by keeping Lahoud as the President, not 4 months ago.

Unfortunately we all know that this will never happen. I can only hope that level AND smart heads prevail, because I for one cannot handle my country going into another war. Once is enough. Once is too much."

Thanks very much for the correction. Just out of curiosity, what rights do Syrians have in Lebanon that Lebanese don't? I'd appreciate any more information about this.

"Your thoughts on Syria are very accurate. You already stated the reason the US wants Syria to withdraw. You are right, it has nothing to do with American interests. Its all about Israel. Israel occupies part of Syria and Syria is present with Lebanese permission on Lebanese soil. If Syria is forced to pull out from its Lebanese positions then Israel has no reason to pull out of the land that it occupies because any military advantage that Syria had is gone. It's pretty obvious it is the Israeli government which is putting pressure on the US to do what it is doing. You do know, of course, that the neocons are very staunch supporters of Zionism."

I dunno... I don't really think Zionism exists in the sense that the word is used a lot. When it comes down to it, I don't think Israel's doing anything more, from their point of view, than protecting their own interests and attempting to safeguard their security, which is pretty much what any country does. Israel's viewpoint has been strongly molded by being founded and having to survive in the midst of a lot of hostile enemies. Which doesn't mean they've been handling themselves particularly smartly, but I can understand their viewpoint, and there are many in Israel who don't agree with their government's approach and actions just as there are many here who dispute the US government's international behavior. I also doubt Israel's putting any strong pressure on the US government; I don't know they've got the muscle for it. There's an Israel lobby here, certainly, but it's not like the current White House hasn't made a career of ignoring anyone they want to ignore, and I know the Jewish population here doesn't cast their votes strictly on the basis of a candidate's Israel policy. What's really going on is a confluence of the interests of Israeli right-wingers and American right-wingers, which is sort of darkly amusing because anti-Semitism has long been a hallmark of the American right wing. Throw in the lunatic Christian rightists (note: I'm not condemning all Christians, just the ones with the following belief) who think the Second Coming can be encouraged along by fulfilling "Biblical prophecy" by triggering Armageddon in the Middle East, and you've got a potent cocktail for international adventurism.

" Now that I've finished reading your first installment on creating comics, I'm realizing that I haven't anticipated reading anything about comics online more so than this entire series you'll be putting together for us. Fantastic.

One thing from the column. You said: "Obsession as a creative technique is also highly overrated, and most often highly counterproductive."

Curiously, I found myself disagreeing with this. In my experience, obsession with perfection - in my storytelling, and thus in turn with giving my stories their best chance for success - has driven me to really teach myself as much about writing as possible. The by-product of this is that I feel like I've become a vastly better writer over the years, and know leagues beyond what I did when I was just a casual, non-obsessive guy maybe interested in writing a few comic books.

There are plenty of mundane things in life to sleepwalk your way through: bill-paying, grocery shopping, housecleaning. If not for some genuine love and obsession for something, then... what do you really have? A note: I do suspect, though, that our ideas about obsession are different, mine quite a bit more positive in terms of defining the word. So: what kind of obsession were you talking about?"

Well, it's like this. Obsession with "perfection" isn't what I was talking about, though I've run into a lot of people who claimed to be obsessed with perfection and I doubt any of them were or they'd be putting out better comic books (my suggestion to most of them is to stop worrying about perfection and just do the damn work because that's how you hone your instincts). The obsession I mean was a fixation on a single "great idea." As I've mentioned before, learning to get ideas is like flexing any other muscle; the more you do it, the better it works. Time and time again I've run into people who have an idea that just doesn't work but they just won't learn to walk away from it and get another idea, and commonly either a mess or "writer's block" results. But anyone who wants to be obsessed with perfection, be my guest, but be warned: once a book comes out you'll see a dozen things you should have done with the material in place of what you did, and if you don't you're either a total friggin' genius (doubtful) or you're doing something wrong. Which isn't to say you can't enjoy what you produce, just that you should always be able to find ways you could have made it better, because they're always there.

Biological researchers at University Of California-Davis have revealed the existence of a peculiar genetic cluster in a small northern California town whose name went unspecified to protect the privacy and security of its citizens. In the last year, the town has seen the birth of fourteen unrelated babies born with a full mouth of teeth and extra thumbs on both hands, on the opposite side of hands from standard thumbs. Aside from these characteristics, they appear physically normal, and all are alert and in good health. Despite the cluster, researcher David Maccabee stated no environmental factors specific to the area could be identified and suggested the cases may not be birth defects but the first known case of spontaneous human evolution. "Their teeth and additional thumbs are fully functional, and the thumbs provide much greater than average dexterity," he said. "We're also aware of identical developments in babies in several other regions around the world with no resemblance to northern California. There are currently 68 known cases in total, which may indicate an evolutionary response to macroenvironmental conditions of which we're as yet unaware," though the California cluster is the first known. "We don't know what other changes may reveal themselves as the children mature. We may be witnessing the birth of an entirely new branch of humanity."

European biotech company Cerebrex, based in Geneva, Switzerland, filed patents last week with the European Union for data storage units for computers based around cloned human brains instead of the microchip and hard drive. "Once the cloning process is perfected, we expect mass produced 'greydrives' to have capacity in excess of 50 tetrabytes and sell for approximately the cost of a current 120 meg hard drive," said company spokesman Philippe L'Oiseau. Each drive will consist of a brain hemisphere suspended in a nutrient-electrolyte bath. Other reported "greydrive" features include immunity to electromagnetic interference and advanced telemetric security features. Asked if it might not be cheaper to take brains from living human beings, L'Oiseau expressed disgust at the concept, noting the company had an elaborate system of moral checks and balances in play to prevent corporate "shortcuts" in drive production and citing studies indicating 'virgin' brains capable of much great capacity than 'pre-written' ones. Despite condemnations from the Roman Catholic Church and the European Council of Science, Cerebrex intends to have the drives in production by 2008.

Democrats have started an online petition against Republican proposals in the Senate to streamline the acceptance of judicial and other appointments by the office of the President by limiting debate on the matters, out of outrage that 5% of his nominees were rejected or are facing rejection, basically eliminating Congress' power to challenge nominations. (Not that the Republicans didn't bounce plenty of Clinton nominees, but that was then and this is now, I guess.) If you want to sign the petition, click here. (While I endorse the petition because the proposals are bad for the country, and Republicans will too the next time a Democratic president sits in the Oval Office, it's a bit amusing to see the Democrats peppering their literature with phrases like " More Americans voted against George Bush than any sitting president in history." It's like hearing Hollywood hype "the biggest box office grosser of all time" without prorating sales of previous films to equivalent ticket prices.)

CSI: SECRET IDENTITY #2 should be out today. All the copies of #1 for last week's giveaway are gone, so please don't send anymore SASEs. Thanks.

Finally, don't forget TOTALLY OBVIOUS - the complete collection of my Master Of The Obvious essays on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, almost 400 pages worth - is available in .pdf at Paper Movies, so head over there to order or for more information. Quick question: someone asked if I'd put together a similar .pdf of my political writings from MOTO and Permanent Damage. Anyone else have any interest?

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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