Issue #185

Oh, yes. Creating Comics Step By Step, Step 4.

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

The term "plot" is often misconstrued, and just as often segregated from "character," especially by critics who subdivide fiction into "character-driven" and "plot-driven" stories, by which they generally mean either the character's behavior and responses determine the direction of the plot (and wherein plot is sometimes invisible) or the requirements of the plot predetermine a character's responses. The distinction is largely overblown, and often used to separate "mainstream" fiction from "genre" fiction and imply an innate superiority of the former over westerns, detective stories, horror stories, science fiction, etc., all of which do have their own content requirements before you can join their club. But that's really smoke, obscuring a simple fact:


Character and plot, in practice, are indivisible.

Character without plot is a painting, a static persona: Mona Lisa, the corners of her mouth slightly upturned, eyes lightly dancing, hands crossed just a bit unnaturally in her lap as a storm seems to gather over a landscape behind her that's cultivated but still seems to suggest something of the wild. Her hint of a smile has captivated viewers for centuries, but its meaning is lost, unknowable. She's only a moment in time, trapped there forever, and while we can judge her character by what daVinci left on canvas, that's all we'll ever have. She projects a character, but we can't even know what of it is real and what we're projecting. She has no story moving through time.


She has no plot.

Story, loosely defined, is character in motion through time. Plot is the shape of that motion. There's a concept in physics called the Heisenberg principle, which says that in order to truly understand sub-atomic particles you have to know two things - the nature of the particle and its movement - but if you slow down or stop a particle in order to determine its nature, it no longer has any movement to know, while if you don't interfere with its movement you can't discover its nature. You need both, but in getting one you lose the other. Fiction's a lot like that. If you fixate on character, you lose a sense of plot. If you fixate on plot, it's easy to abandon your character. It's not as complicated or indeterminate as nuclear particle physics, but you've got to keep your eyes on both elements at the same time.


Like I said, there has been a longstanding tradition of being dismissive toward "plot-driven" stories, and it's not a wholly inaccurate presumption, but the distinction is unnecessary: a better term for a story where the plot overwhelms and dictates a character's behavior is "bad story." But there's no reason to stigmatize plot or character during development; some writers are naturally more attuned to thinking mainly in terms of plot and others in terms of character, and more often writers will generate some stories from plot and start plugging characters into it and other stories by wrapping a plot around some character(s) they've conceived. I've done both; I suspect most writers with any sizable output have. The process of getting to the story is unimportant. Only the resulting story is important. The reader will only care how you got there in retrospect, if then.

So you've got your general idea, and you've whittled down the many possibilities it suggests to a general theme. At that point either characters that can carry and personify the theme are starting to occur to you (if the character wasn't already part of your original idea) or you're getting an idea for a plot. Start loose on either, and, again, don't get so in love with any concept that you won't throw it out to make your story better. Take whatever you've got and start working out the other.

Since we've already covered character, let's start with that. I mentioned the three most basic questions to ask about your main character:

What does he want?

What is he willing to do to get it?

What's he afraid of?

Answering those three questions brings you not only to the rudiments of character but to the rudiments of his plot. Goal is plot. Determination is plot. Fear is plot.

A spoiled girl wants to keep her family home. She's willing to lie, cheat, steal or kill to keep it. She's afraid she's going to lose everything that ever meant anything to her if she doesn't stay singlemindedly focused on her goal.

That's the loose plot outline to GONE WITH THE WIND. As soon as you know what your character wants, that's the beginning of your plot. And of your character. You just ask different questions of both.

Character: why does he want it?

Plot: what's he going to do to get it?

Plot is really problem solving. Initially, you present yourself with a series of questions/problems, and then you answer them. The answers you choose determine the direction of both plot and character, and those in turn (not to mention where they come into conflict with each other) generate other problems/questions, and the process recurs. And both plot and character develop.


Your character does not exist in a vacuum. He's part of a world, whatever world that happens to be. Choice of world is what determines genre, and once you choose a world you play by the rules of that world; in a story set in the wild West your character can't suddenly haul out an Uzi unless you intend it to be a very different kind of genre. Presumably he's not going to be the uncontested lord of his world, unless he's either going to be brought low or you're writing a very boring story, so there will most likely be other people and at minimum other forces in his world whose goals will at least temporarily align or conflict with his. I spoke of primary and secondary characters; every time you introduce one, and answer those three questions and then start to answer new questions the answers generate, each character develops their own plot. Where the plots intersect is the soil where your larger plot grows.

Traditionally every protagonist has an antagonist. In the simplest stories, common in comics, either both are after the same goal (known from Hitchcock as the McGuffin, the something the characters have an excuse to fight over) or the protagonist's goal is to keep the antagonist from attaining his goal (The Shocker wants to rob a bank because that's what he does; Spider-Man wants to stop him because that's what he does). Those are plot-driven stories: in either the structure of the story determines the overall arc of the character's behavior, and, window dressing aside, any character used in them is basically interchangeable with any other character used in them.

On the other hand, it's how the characters play in them that distinguishes one story with that framework from the next, which is why one story may be far more memorable than another with basically the same overall plot. It's all in the details. It still all comes down to character in the end. How your characters act on the worlds they exist in, are acted on by those worlds, and the reactions of each to the actions of the other are your story. This can be as simple as a superhero fight where a villain hits a hero and the hero hits back or as complex as a political chess game between opposing sides of a major public issue, or two expert generals on either side of a war manipulating whole battlefields.

The main thing to remember is that conflict is drama, and, as mentioned before, there are three kinds of conflict: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. Adversaries need not even be traditional enemies; loved ones in adversarial relationships are the stuff of many stories. Breaking away from traditional concepts of hero and enemy can increase conflict, as Akira Toriyama plays with consistently in DRAGONBALL: no matter how much martial artist respect and admire each other, only one can win the title of The Strongest Under The Heavens, and it's the emotional complexities of the players, and their struggles against their own perceived weaknesses as exposed in combat, as much as the fight scenes that makes DRAGONBALL a success.

As you develop your plot, which can simply be understood as the string of events that carries your story from start to finish, or the sequence of obstacles and resolutions that a character or characters experience on the way toward the achievement of their goal, a number of things must constantly be kept in mind. Unless you're writing a story that calls for random action - they exist, but they're tricky - all events added to your plot must serve several elements of your story simultaneously: in addition to pushing the story forward toward the ultimate resolution, they should also develop your characters, reflect your theme and highlight the story's milieu.

And that's only the broad overview. More on plot next week.

"I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful words on the use of rape of female characters in comics.

I was absolutely disgusted by IDENTITY CRISIS, and not because those characters mattered for me. I just thought it was a nasty, cheap story. As a gay guy, I certainly don't get off watching women being forced to have sex. I have to wonder if, at least unconsciously, there's something of that in the mind of straight readers who enjoy that kind of stories.

Your example of Moore's use of rape in MIRACLEMAN was on the spot: rape was shown as horrible, and it didn't make the character pathetic, but tragic. He's a victim who becomes another rapist/killer.

I'm seriously disturbed by the Marvel and DC current big storylines, even I don't really read them (I've read IC because a friend of mine bought it), and I've been told "Avengers Dissassembled" was far less horrid than IC (meaning, it's a better, less gratuitous story). Two big stories, two women who kill and get mad. What's wrong with all the comics creators who worked on that?"

I wouldn't say there's anything wrong with them; part of it's simply the "bigger and better shock" culture of modern superhero comics. Raising the stakes. There's also nothing intrinsically wrong with stories of women who kill and get mad. I'd also say there's nothing intrinsic to the straight mind that enjoys rape stories. Remember that, culturally, "rape" in fiction has tended to have a different meaning than its brutal real world counterpart. Women's romance novels aren't called "bodice-rippers" without reason, yet women continue to read them, but "rape" in those usually means to be overwhelmed by passion to the point of surrendering virtue, which in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the terminology makes it confusing. Rape, in pop fiction, usually has some fantasy element to it; as I mentioned last week, in modern superhero comics it's usually not the act of rape itself that holds the fantasy, but the revenge the rape engenders; it usually functions as a motivational tool, as in IDENTITY CRISIS, which, whatever else you can say about it, didn't encourage readers to enjoy Sue Dibny's rape.

"In James Robinson's STARMAN #16(I think?) the hero, Jack Knight, is rendered unconscious and raped by the Mist, a female villain, who bears his child as a result. I know that you are probably aware of this and that 10,000 other fans have already e-mailed you, but I just felt like bringing it up."

Readers sent in several examples of women raping men in comics - the Starman thing, Tarantula recently raping (it's suggested) Nightwing, Stealth and Vril Dox in L.E.G.I.O.N., whatsername the Nazi she-wolf and Tom Strong - but I dismiss that as a "counterbalance" for this reason: while women raping men in real life does happen and it often has similar psychological effects on the men to what women experience after rape, in fiction it almost always functions on some level as a sex fantasy. Given that most superhero comics are aimed at adolescents, pre-adolescents and often arrested adolescents with imperfect personal experience of sex, what hot women (and who among them in the comics isn't hot?) raping men translate to is: the guys had sex! Hot women wanted them so much they made them have sex! On some levels that's a perfect male sex fantasy: a total absence of personal responsibility for sex. And when it happens to the heroes, those heroes aren't really perceived as lesser for it, as women in comics who get raped often are, they're viewed as... lucky. They got lucky. Furthermore there are never long-term psychological effects on the heroes, which in real life often include depression, suicidal feelings, impotence and other things that don't jibe with the myth of the superhero; the main "effect" of that kind of rape in comics is, as in STARMAN, babies. And more often than not, the point of the rape is neither power nor sex but the desire to have a baby. It just doesn't play out as the same thing.

"I was struck by your question of why male heroes aren't raped. I do recall that Apollo was raped by a Captain America wannabe in THE AUTHORITY. And that it wasn't really addressed much outside of Midnighter's revenge with a jackhammer (which seemed more comedy than coping). And it stunned me now that the reason is that we do associate raped women and men as being powerless - and in comics, being powerless is looked down upon. It's only empowering if they move on despite the trauma and we have perhaps unfairly come to expect that pattern to happen--and to happen fairly quickly. That is, a humiliating degradation is only accepted as a stepping stone to greater power. I believe Black Canary is a better, more grounded character after her ordeal years ago than she was before but why do these women characters need a rape or beating to be proven strong?

Lately I have seen a lot of stones thrown in the name of misogyny. And that annoys me. Sue's rape and murder was the big one. But it goes back to Kyle Rayner's girlfriend and, well, every woman that Bruce Wayne locks eyes with... But really, why wouldn't they be targets? Isn't that what IDENTITY CRISIS was all about? To a degree, comics remain a male-dominated medium in terms of characters and readers. And since most (all?) are written from a heterosexual bent, what is more enraging or heart-breaking that seeing a nonpowered-woman killed or hurt? We expect the male superhero to deal with the loss and make dramatic strides because of it. And even then, I don't believe it is misogynistic. To follow the logic there, it seems that anytime Lois is in danger or the Birds of Prey have a rough day, it's misogynistic. (Torturing men, however, is an acceptable practice.) Women coming back from trauma is a feat of superhuman will and strength. For men, dealing with it is what they are supposed to do - deal and move on. Perhaps that is what makes rape superfluous in female comic characters and unthinkable in male heroes - we only value that plot device when we see women deal with it and supposedly grow.

What I question is if these ideas can be changed. If a main female character had her supporting character bf/husband raped and killed, would readers feel sympathy for the man? I don't think so. I'm not even sure we'd feel sympathy for the woman. And that's probably the biggest tragedy I can imagine."

Interesting points. In order: A) the rape of Apollo served two purposes, a shocking moment and a motivation for the Midnighter's clearly comedic revenge, making the rape serve the same function as a woman's rape in superhero comics. Apollo himself never appears to ever have dealt with it, or needed to, and his status as a gay character also makes the rape "acceptable" to the audience, since quite a few people equate homosexuality with both illicit sex and promiscuity. B) Black Canary is "a better, more grounded character after her ordeal years ago" only because the character was lucky enough to have writers willing to play her that way. The need for female characters to be raped or savagely beaten to prove themselves strong is the "crucible" theory, that it's more dramatic to have character reduced to basic components in order to demonstrate character and grit by pulling themselves back up. C) Why on earth would being a hero's girlfriend, especially if no one knew the hero's identity in the first place, naturally make a woman a target? If you're having problems with the school bully, you don't go beat up his girlfriend. Most people don't, anyway. Logically, if, say, Spider-Man pounds you into the dust every time you go up against him, are you really dumb enough to do something that, following the logic of superhero comics, will make him angry enough to cripple or kill you? Rapists are pathological, and we give them too much credit if we start accepting the pathology as common or natural. Besides, there are all kinds of self-defense techniques for stopping a rapist; how come no woman in comics seems to know any of them? What's more heroic to you: a woman who "comes back" from the trauma of rape, or the woman who puts the rapist down before he can get to it? Which would female readers respond most to? Male readers?

"Regarding your comment on the writer who plotted a story where a team's heroine was under the total control of the villain, and your suggestion that it should be the team's main hero who should have been subjected to what used to be known as A Fate Worse Than Death:

When I was a kid, Chuck McCann's children's show on WPIX-TV, Channel 11 in New York showed a chapter a day of the great old movie serials from the 30s and 40s. I got to see BUCK ROGERS in 15-minute doses, with the cliffhanger resolved the next day, or after the weekend. The scene where Buck, captured by Killer Kane and forced to wear a helmet that saps his will, was forced to kneel before the dictator and wipe his boots seriously creeped me out. As an 8-year-old I had no clue about S&M or sex in general, but the idea that Kane enjoyed subjugating his enemies more than he did killing them came through strongly. Given the record of the tyrants of the 20th century - Hitler, Stalin, Mao - and their fondness for prison camps, about which even a schoolboy of the day was aware, Kane's power-fetish marked him as one evil bastard. Crooks who robbed and stole, and who might kill the hero to escape the law were one thing. Really evil foes wanted to enslave you, and add whatever strengths you had to their Evil Empire.

I suppose that a story like the "Buck" serial reinforced my preference for individual liberty and autonomy that I carry with me to this day."

Right, it's all about power. That's why people who are obsessed with showing their power get pretty scary.

"Comics simply aren't "too expensive." Take two people to an NFL game or a NASCAR race or, hell, even the movies with a couple of popcorns and drinks if you want really outrageously priced entertainment options.

Mediocre comics are too expensive. As a retailer, I had/have absolutely no trouble selling massive numbers of something like 1602 or LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN despite the fact that (at the time) they were 20-30% more expensive that 'comparable' comics. The important take-home is that they sold like they did because there were significant numbers of people we had never seen before coming in to buy them, and, being one of those 'bookstore'-type stores, we took the opportunity to turn them onto other stuff they might like.

As someone who makes his living on comics, it may be perverse of me to say this, but I think one of the industry's major problems is that there are still too many people who buy bad comics sheerly out of habit. Until the hardcore fanboys whither away completely, Marvel and DC can still squeak by with just adding another X-MEN or BATMAN book to the roster. In their misguided minds (and you've talked about the same problem with TV) the "risk" of trying new things somehow looms massively larger than the equally dangerous probability that what worked once may not (will not, more likely) work a sixth time. (I'm waiting for CSI BANGOR, starring a salty midlist actor as the 'mentor' and a patrician-sounding Brahmin detective as the relentless crime-bot... their first case involves a body that's been mostly consumed by... wait for it... lobsters!) If you build your whole business model around retelling the same stories with a few different sequins glued on, you're going to eventually fail just as soundly as if you took a "big risk" and flamed out. It'll just be way less interesting to watch.

So, bottom line: MUTANT RAPE TEAM OF THE BAT is too expensive at a dime. SEVEN SOLDIERS #0 is a steal at $2.95. It's not a calculation that can be made across the board with comics any more than it can with, say, food."

Thanks. Couldn't have said it any better myself.

DVDs have been letting me catch some movies I missed on the big screen (and wouldn't have paid for in any case). CELLULAR, from a story by Larry Cohen, about a kidnapped woman who manages to contact a random stranger on his cell phone and drags him into the heart of an improbably conspiracy, was savaged by critics on theatrical release, but it's not that bad at all. It's way too consciously a latter-day Hitchcock film, with all the manipulative improbability that suggests, but it moves nicely and has some good acting from William Macy and the underrated Jason Strathern. Strathern's got strong leading man potential; I'd like to see Hollywood use him a more prominently. On the flip side, there's SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, a ludicrous exercise in set design: scientifiction (as it was often called in the '20s and '30s) from people who obviously never read any, and it plays like a film written after the fact. The story swerves violently from scene to scene, with a little Indiana Jones here, a little Buck Rogers there, a smattering of STAR WARS and LOST HORIZON, even a taste of IRON GIANT and Norman Spinrad's IRON DREAM. What must have seemed like cute plot twists come off as just stupid (the heroes desperately race to rescue someone who turns out not to need rescuing after all), the "big revelation" about the villain (so clever people who died in the '40s saw it coming) obviates all the story logic that precedes it, and the level of thought put into the thing is just junk. Example: the heroes race to get on a launching unmanned (and apparently never intended to be manned) rocket ship that is somehow - no explanation is ever given, nor any explanation for how the people who inform the heroes knew about it but no time for that when there's a world to be saved - going to incinerate the planet when it gets far enough away. As Sky Captain races to the control panel, a robotic voice regularly updates him on the distance the ship has traveled since takeoff. If he's not supposed to be there, and the rocket's unmanned, who is the voice supposed to be talking to? The one bright spot in the film is Angelina Jolie as a one-eyed quasi-fascist British air commander who's far more ept than the titular hero. I wish they'd made a movie about her character instead.

I did make it to the movies this weekend, to see FRANK MILLER'S SIN CITY. Caveat: I've been friends with Frank a long time, and I like the SIN CITY. I haven't looked at them in a long time, so watching them come alive on screen was a bit of a déjà vu experience. There were a couple squirmy moments - some of the comics dialogue sounded forced spoken aloud, and Marv was enough of a monster that him leaping several stories to the ground and landing catlike was credible enough but when the more human Dwight does the same thing it's jarring - but I applaud its verve and directness, not only unashamed to be sourced from a comic book but willing to rub our faces in it. (I particularly dug how they pulled off what's always been my favorite SIN CITY riff: cars bounding over hilltops with their tires four feet in the air.) Frank's script nicely balances three-and-a-quarter stories (and subtly sets up a sequel) without really overlapping them to make the film seem a coherent whole rather than the anthology film it really is, and though the structure is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's PULP FICTION the film's strong enough that we're left feeling maybe Tarantino stole the structure from Frank. (He didn't.) I've heard complaints about the "violence" in the film, but it's so stylized and well-played I have to think the complainers just don't have any sense of humor. Really good performances from Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, Mickey Roarke and Benicio Del Toro, and I have to think Elijah Wood, Alexis Bledel and Nick Stahl all got down on their knees and thanked the lord for the chance to break their images and play the characters they got. Just a fantastic job of transliteration all around, and maybe the film's box office success will convince more filmmakers they don't have to run screaming (CATWOMAN, anyone?) from their films' comics roots. Maybe.

Speaking of which, finally sat down to watch all of last year's PUNISHER film. As it turned out, I didn't mind it. Thought Tom Jane did just fine as the lead, and the action was decently handled. Liked Castle's Machiavellian attack on his enemy that depended more on psychology and guerrilla tactics than military-style frontal assaults. It was weird and mildly flattering to hear my own dialogue spat back at me here and there. The main problem with the film is the villains: Howard Saint (John Travolta) is just a rich stumblebum. His "Lady Macbeth" wife, ultimately responsible for the death of Castle's family, plays almost no role in the remainder of the story and becomes almost an innocent. His main henchmen, led by the generally effective Will Patton, tear their hair out trying to find Castle but the two hitmen they bring in find him with seeming ease and no explanation, then go in after him solo instead of throwing a bloody army at him. (Cuban drug runners Castle's ripping off, who threaten Saint, just vanish without consequence, as though they were never there.) Saint, in the end, is no challenge; there's no twist or challenge. Still, Jane's performance and Castle's actions were credibly "Punisher" enough that I wouldn't mind seeing both again, with better villains. The movie wasn't really about The Punisher anyway; it's the long death of Frank Castle, and the Punisher is only really born at the end of it. (I did like the t-shirt skull, clearly inspired by Tim Bradstreet's covers on the Garth Ennis run.) Not a great movie, but all right for what it was, and it at least carried some promise for future films about the character.

Next up on the catch up list: THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK. Convert or die, right?

I don't read much science fiction anymore (for those who follow this sort of thing, I'm currently reading Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed (Viking Books); prior to that, I read George Pelecanos' new novel, DRAMA CITY (Little, Brown & Co.), which was a pleasant change of pace from his recent detective novels, though no less interested in his general theme of people trying to escape from their perceptions of themselves) but one author I never tire of is Richard Kadrey, whose work tends to be hard to find. Apparently he's aware of that himself, since he has chosen to give away his latest novel as a .pdf e-book. Get it here. I mean it. Get it. I did.

One interview with Frank Miller you may have missed, on the release of FRANK MILLER'S SIN CITY, the movie, is here at G4TV (which used to be TechTV until gamer channel G4 merged with it). Frank discusses creating comics and specifically SIN CITY, dealing with Hollywood, and other subjects you might expect under the circumstances. Decent interview, though the misspellings of other comics talent names gets pretty funny.

Steve Gerber, looking for a little discipline, has decided to leap into the blogging game (known in some quarters as "Dance, Monkey, Dance!") with Steve Gerblog. Oh, Steve, Steve, Steve. You used to be at technological guru and now look at you: reduced to a blog that doesn't even have an rss feed. Better make up for that with content...

If you're a James Kochalka fan, Comic Book Galaxy has launched a big Kochalka contest giving away all kinds of stuff including a Kochalka hardcover collection and an original Kochalka painting. Go ahead and enter; CBG's too chicken to peddle your information, and somebody's got to win the loot.

The third issue of CSI: SECRET IDENTITY just came in here, and it's looking good. It should be in your comics shop next Wednesday, and if it isn't, let your retailer know he'd better have a good reason why.

A couple weeks back, I asked if anyone would be interested in a .pdf collection of my political essays (or rants, if you prefer) from the back pages of MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS and PERMANENT DAMAGE, and enough people have said yes to make the work of it worth my while, so sometime before the end of the month, look for the new .pdf collection WHAT'S LEFT IN AMERICA? I'm told at least a few of my readers use my comments to drive their right-wing parents to distraction... something for the rest of you to consider...

Finally, the aforementioned Master of the Obvious collection TOTALLY OBVIOUS, which weaves a fascinating mosaic of comics, culture and the creative life, can be got for a song in .pdf e-book form at my PAPER MOVIES website.

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.

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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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