This week’s theme is on comics, and tights versus existential angst. It’s a topic I feel especially qualified for, as writing superheroes is rather my day job, having written two or three hundred comics in the past few years, including all of the “big” heroes, such as Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, the Hulk, the Avengers, Wonder Woman, and so on. I know me some angst.
In many ways, it’s superhero angst that drove me to write my Prepare To Die! novel. Comic books are normally twenty-two pages long. That’s not much room. In fact, recently, many comics went down from twenty-two to twenty pages long, and I can tell you those two pages make a huge difference. That’s suddenly 10% of possible storytelling vanished, and that can make the difference between a well thought out scene and a jumbled mish-mash of happenstance.
Because of this lack of room, there’s not a lot of space to develop a character, to get into what is making a character tick… into just why he or she is doing what’s happening on the page. Comics tend to take to the school of “action and reaction” storytelling, even more so because comics are very much a visual medium, so it’s important to have visually interesting action. This is why Spider-Man is often thinking about his relationships, or having deep inner thoughts, even as he’s bouncing over rooftops and fighting a horde of ninjas. You wouldn’t think that a man who’s dodging 30,000 arrows and shurikens would be considering if he should take a date to a certain club, anxious over worries that his girlfriend might be there… but that’s what Spidey has to do, and for a very good reason. That’s the only place where the writer can put it. And, anyway, it makes for better copy than “Holy crap! I sure do hope I can dodge all 30,000 arrows and shurikens!”
Because of the need to establish characterization (whether it be angst, or any kind of development / insight at all) and the lack of available space, I personally turned to novels to be able to really delve into a character’s thoughts and motivations.
That’s really what my Prepare To Die! novel is all about… a deeper look into humanity, seen through the superhero lens.
Of course, superheroes are only a genre of comics, not (as so many people presume) the whole of the medium itself. There are lots of comics that delve right into the angst. Optic Nerve by Adrian Tomine, all of the work of Daniel Clowes, and the excruciatingly painful (and just as excruciatingly wonderful) works of Chris Ware in his Acme Novelty Library, where even the angst has angst. Hell, most of Robert Crumb’s works are about angst, too… just angst from a sexual viewpoint. Angst is really one of the prime tools of storytelling, of course. There isn’t single genre where it doesn’t play a central role. Romance. Crime. Even comedy is often about turning angst on its pointy little head.
I think there are two central points to consider when dealing with angst as a writer.
1: Turn that dial to eleven! Crank it!: Don’t write a story about the angst of being late returning a library book. That’s boring. Nobody wants to read that. And… as you read this, I know you’re thinking, “Ahh, but that COULD be an interesting story!” Well, yes… it could. And all you’d have to do is turn up the angst. Concoct situations where it’s more important to get that book back to library in time. Maybe it contains a secret code, and a certain mobster needs to have that book TODAY, but he’s tracked down that the main character has the book. So he kidnaps a woman’s husband, telling her to get that book back to the library, but rival mobsters are doing all they can to stop her from returning the book, and so on, and so on. Just keep piling on the angst. You want to have a towering amount of angst, keeping readers on that edge of “How the hell is she going to get out of THIS?” Of course, you also want to avoid readers going, “Okay… that’s just too much. The mobsters who want the book are supernatural ninjas who have nuclear bombs in the children’s hospital on the day of their big parade with the President?”
2: Mix up the angst: Another reason that I expanded into writing novels was that, in comics, angst often stands too much on its own. It becomes the only emotion that a character has. And this isn’t always a writer’s fault. Sometimes, it’s just all that can be done in a short form illustrated medium. A superhero comic needs at least 12 pages of action per issue, and it needs set-up, story development, and so on. This leaves precious little room for asides, and angst usually comes out as the winner in the “emotion” derby. It’s simply first in line, and sometimes that’s all there’s room for. In longer formats, of course, there IS room to play, and a writer SHOULD play, a writer SHOULD develop a fully realized character. A character with humor, joy, rage, serenity, fear, love, etc, etc. The central reason on why to do this is because if a character is just made of angst, it’s hard to get behind them as a character. It’s why I always fought (and will continue to fight) for lots of characterizations is my superhero comic writing… because when Captain America goes into battle, it’s important to want him to win not just because he’s Captain America, but because you believe and trust in him as an individual.
All in all, angst really is the friend of any author, in any medium and any genre. It’s just that it’s important to remember that, while it IS your friend, it WILL be calling you up at two in the morning to listen to all of its troubles, and it’s never going to buy you a beer.