Monday, April 16, 2018

The Continuity Dumper

When creativity is lacking, many comic writers will begin crafting a very specific kind of superhero story. It's a poorly written story. An ugly story. And it hides in plain sight.

Readers don't care for this kind of story, but it sells comics because it promises big changes. That's the first lie, and you shouldn't be fooled. What I'm about to share is a deep dark secret lurking in the bowels of every major comic book company. A bad stock story that has been re-told countless times...

And I've given it a name: The Continuity Dumper!

The "Continuity Dumper" is an ugly beast of a story that promises so much, and delivers absolutely nothing. It's a poorly written scam designed to collect your hard earned money, that could be better spent on quality comics.

The best way to expose the "Continuity Dumper" is to show you how it works through story. We're all familiar with comic book solicits - They're advertisements, often featured on comic book company websites, that show the cover art for future comics, along with short blurbs that describe what will be happening in the issue. Put simply, they're previews.

Below, you'll find solicits for a fictional upcoming Tessa Faux Adventure, written to expose the "Continuity Dumper."

So without further ado, I present:

*****

SPACE TRUTH
A "CONTINUITY DUMPER" STORY

Tessa Faux:  Issue 235 - "Space Truth - Part One"

Tessa Faux has a simple origin: Watching the world crumble around them, society elites Myles and Sarah Faux vowed to turn their daughter into a powerful crimefighter.  Everything changes in this thrilling issue when we reveal the truth of Tessa's past, and her shocking new origin that begins in space!!!  This issue will be released with five special glow-in-the-dark variant covers!

The Fan Reaction:

"Are they seriously changing Tessa's origin?  This is huge.  I have to get this comic the day it comes out, and you better believe that I'll be buying all five variants!"

The Truth about this issue:

Due to a lack of creativity, the writer has chosen to tamper with an established origin, and changed the character for the sake of change, rather than writing an original adventure with a popular pre-established superhero.  Should these changes be a hit with readers, they'll be permanent.  More likely, readers will hate the changes.  This comic sells, not because the story is good, but because it promises change.

 
Tessa Faux:  Issue 236 - "Space Truth - Part Two"

Tessa Faux - The Space Phasing Vixen!  Tessa's new status quo creates ripples throughout the PWC universe.  After learning that she is truly a Space Phasing Vixen, with the ability to phase through solid matter, Tessa must break the news to her sister, Apple Orchard.  How will Apple respond to Tessa's shocking reveal?

The Fan Reaction:

"Oh no! They completely retconned Tessa's origin. Now she's a genetically engineered warrior from space, and not the down to earth vigilante we all knew and loved.  And why on earth did they give her the ability to phase through walls!?!"

The truth about this issue:

Tessa's new origin is shocking, poorly crafted, and without a doubt it won't last. But for the moment, the comic is seriously selling, which makes the writers think their work is a hit.


Tessa Faux:  Issue 237 - "Space Truth - Part Three"

Still in shock from Apple's sudden departure from "Team Faux," Tessa decides that the best way to move forward is to embrace her new identity with an all new black-leather costume. Great timing, because Tessa Faux - The Space Phasing Vixen - is needed when an all new super-villain comes to Boston.

The Fan Reaction:

"With such a great origin, I don't get why they're pushing this whole "Space Vixen" angle.  And No, no, no!  Tessa's new costume is terrible!"

The truth about this issue:

The new costume is terrible, and fans will hate it. But it will sell issues, and tie-in toys will be sold, featuring Tessa in her new duds. The fan-response is already proving that this retcon is a disaster. While it was selling great in the beginning, the comic is now losing readers, so restoring the original status quo will need to happen soon.


Tessa Faux:  Issue 238 - "Space Truth - Part Four"

Tessa Faux investigates a series of grizzly murders. Can the Space Phasing Vixen find the killer lurking in the shadows? And who is the mysterious shadow woman who seems to be following Tessa wherever she goes?

The Fan Reaction:

"I hate Tessa's new status quo since the retcon. She was never supposed to have superpowers, and her new ability to phase through walls is stupid. If things don't go back to normal soon, I'm done reading, but I'm going to continue to be very vocal about my dislike of the new direction."

The truth about this issue:

The actual story about Tessa stopping a killer is unimportant because readers can't get past the changes made to Tessa's character. Surprised by the lack of interest in the new direction being taken for Tessa Faux, getting Tessa back to her old self is top priority. An explanation will be provided in the next issue.


Tessa Faux:  Issue 239 - "Space Truth - Part Five"

Tessa Faux meets Tessa Faux!?! Doppelgangers run wild! What is happening!?! Have we gone mad! The mysterious shadow woman reveals herself to be the original Tessa Faux. But if she's Tessa, who is the Space Phasing Vixen we've all come to know and love? Do not miss the thrilling penultimate issue of "Space Truth!"

The Fan Reaction:

"I'm so happy that the Phase-Tessa is actually an imperfect duplicate of the real Tessa. Now the real Tessa needs to take out her doppelganger and bring an end to this lousy story."

The truth about this issue:

The cloning story was a last minute editorial decision to facilitate the return of Tessa's original origin and costume. Had the "Space Phasing Vixen" idea been a hit with readers, the new status quo would have remained in effect.


Tessa Faux:  Issue 240 - "Space Truth - Part Six"

It's Tessa VS Tessa: Who will win? And which Tessa Faux will be left standing?

The Fan Reaction

"Epic! The real Tessa is back! Loved, loved, loved this issue! And you know, it's pretty cool that "The Space Phasing Vixen" will be getting her own title. Knowing that she's not really Tessa makes her kind of cool. I'll check out the first issue!"

The truth about this issue.

The end of a disliked, but profitable storyline. A trade collecting this adventure will soon be released with an introduction by the author. The "Space Phasing Vixen" is getting her own title (which won't last 10 issues before being cancelled) and a new adventure featuring the original Tessa Faux is on the horizon.


Tessa Faux:  Issue 241 - "Jungle Woman - Part One"

After the riveting conclusion of Space Truth, we go back to basics... Literally! Why is Tessa Faux living in the Jungle? What is with her new forest costume? Who are the mysterious Forest People and where is Apple Orchard? All these questions and more will soon be answered.

The Fan Reaction:

"WTF!?! First she's in space, and now she's in the jungle? Why do they keep messing with Tessa's continuity!?! If these changes are permanent, I'm going to be seriously angry."

The truth about this issue:

The Continuity Dumper begins again...

Monday, April 9, 2018

Read, watch, repeat.

As someone who works in the comic industry, I make it a point to read and watch as much comic & sci-fi entertainment as possible.

It's a definite job-perk, but I don't like everything that I read and watch. In-fact, there are some things that I absolutely loathe... I won't name names. That would be cruel.  I watch it all because it helps me to be a better writer and director.

For most comic creators, their love of the medium begins with a single character. It's a great start, and it's certainly the reason that I got into the industry. But I quickly realized that if I was going to be working in this business, I needed to know about everything that came before and everything currently being released.

I suppose I'm bringing all this up because, yesterday, I found myself organizing the shelves that house my comic and sci-fi movie/television collection. I had to smile as certain titles caught my eye, because there are some really great selections on that shelf, as well as some really terrible selections. But I know them all, and it's given me a deeper understanding of the entire genre. 

My musings this week are simple. If you're looking to become the next big comic sensation, knowing your industry is a must!

Monday, April 2, 2018

In Defense of Mary Sue: Part II

Last week, I wrote about Mary Sue.  I defended her.  I talked about how invoking her name to describe poor characterization has been done to death by critics, and how doing so is limiting a writer's creative possibilities.

This week, I'll be talking about the occasions when writers do create a "True Mary Sue," guilty of everything the name implies.

To begin, the "True Mary Sue" (TMS) is not the same as a well written "Smart, Strong, and Attractive" (SSA) character.  Many well written and popular characters, especially in comics and sci-fi, are SSAs.

It takes more than being just smart, strong, and attractive to be a TMS, but with so many people shouting "Mary Sue" left and right, it can be hard to know when a TMS might just be surfacing in your writing.  As a guide, I've put together the five defining traits of the TMS for easy reference.

*** 

The five defining traits of a True Mary Sue:

1.  The TMS never makes mistakes.  A well written SSA rarely make mistakes.  It's a subtle, but important, difference.  The SSA isn't perfect.  Eventually, they'll screw up.  That's what makes watching them learn from their actions and grow so compelling.  The TMS never grows because they're already perfect.

2.  The TMS is considered perfect in the eyes of the other characters within the story.  The TMS is never second-guessed, or questioned.  Unlike the TMS, a well written SSA is surrounded by characters willing to question his/her decisions and actions.  More importantly, the SSA will question himself/herself.  The TMS is never questioned, and never questions himself/herself, because he/she is never wrong.  Characters in the story who would normally disagree with a particular opinion or action will change their views if it is coming from the TMS.  In extreme cases of poor writing, the TMS makes questionable or outright bad decisions that are blindly supported by the other characters in the story.

3.  The TMS lacks evidence of greatness.  While the SSA can often be loved and praised, it is the result of specific "in-story" actions and events that show why other characters would love and praise them.  The TMS needs no in-story evidence.  Their greatness is a birthright.  They're great because they're great!

4.  The TMS is never challenged.  The SSA, despite his/her greatness, struggles.  The SSA requires the help of others to make the right choice, and requires the help of others to assist in the win.  The TMS requires no outside assistance, and the win is easy.  Without any conflict, there is no story.

5.  The TMS develops spontaneous abilities (mental or physical) to solve problems.  Because the TMS requires no support from anyone, spontaneous abilities are often required to secure the win.  Nobody has the ability to do everything, but it's a requirement for the TMS.  That's why they need spontaneous abilities.  Without them, there's no writing them out of a jam.

***

So there you have it, the five traits of the True Mary Sue!

As you refer back to your own character, be advised that the TMS needs to have all five traits to really be a TMS, so don't judge your character too harshly.  But if you do think your character fits all five, just remember, a TMS can be transformed into a SSA with some minor adjustments.

Happy Writing!

Monday, March 26, 2018

In Defense of Mary Sue

Lovers of comics, sci-fi, and fantasy are all familiar with Mary Sue.  Well, at least they're familiar with her name...

But if you're not, here's a quick recap:  Mary Sue is the central character in Paula Smith's comedic ultra-short story "A Trekkie's Tale" originally published in Menagerie #2.  It's only a few paragraphs long (shorter than this entire blog entry) and it focuses on fifteen-year-old Mary Sue, a Starfleet cadet, perfect in every way.  In the story, Marry Sue is stationed on the Enterprise, immediately propositioned by Kirk, and after refusing, earns his respect.  After that, she is given command of the ship, beams down to a planet for an away-mission, saves the away-team, beams back on board, runs the ship, wins awards, gets sick, and eventually dies, surrounded by the Enterprise crew, who mourn her death, and celebrate her birthday as a national holiday for all time.

My recap might makes it sound like this story is longer than it is, but truth be told, I had to gloss over all the plot points because if I used more words, I'd be in danger of exceeding the original story's word count.

So why is something so short so bad for the comic and sci-fi genre?  Well...  It isn't.  Not in and of itself.  I'm fairly sure that Paula Smith had no idea Mary Sue would become the poster-girl for bad characterization.  The piece was originally written as a comedic look at bad fan-fiction, where the author inserts himself/herself in the story as the ultimate hero, as a form of wish fulfillment.

But it makes sense.  If you're going to write yourself into an already fictional world, why not make yourself the star?  These stories aren't meant to be well crafted.  They're meant to be fun, and they offer a fantasy where the writer and reader are the unquestioned heroes, loved by all.

To this day, fans of so many comic and sci-fi franchises have fun writing these kinds of fan-fiction pieces.  We live in a complex world, where life is rarely easy.  What's the harm in taking some time every now and then to escape to a different world where you make all the rules?  If the author is having fun creating their own adventures, and readers are having fun living the adventures with the author, I say let them continue.  And if the popularity of fan-fiction is any indication, they are.

Okay, enough recap...  If Mary Sue's legacy ended there, I wouldn't be writing about her.  Unfortunately, comic and sci-fi fans turned Mary Sue into a weapon.  Her name became the term to describe any character deemed "too perfect," not just in fan-fiction, but in original fiction, too.  If a reader disliked a particular character, they'd say "Oh, he/she's such a Mary Sue."

It's a derogatory term, and now people use it so frequently, that writers are becoming nervous about writing characters without radical flaws.  If they create a character that is, for the most part, smart, strong, and attractive, the Mary Sue label is easily slapped on by those who dislike the character.  It's a problem because smart, strong, and attractive characters can often be interesting, and due to an author's fear of being called out for writing a "Mary Sue," they are changing their characters in ways that might not work for their story.

What makes a character being called a "Mary Sue" so hurtful to writers is that it goes beyond simply saying that a character is poorly written.  It implies that the character is being used as a proxy for the writer, and that not only is the character uninteresting, it's also the writer  As a writer, all my characters are crafted with specific traits.  None of them are me, but some of them share certain traits.  For the most part, readers won't know what is, or is not, me.

Haters...  Yes, I'm going to use that term...  Haters love calling out characters as a "Mary Sue" because they think that using the term makes them sound like critical thinkers, and that the term offers evidence for their dislike of a character.  It's no longer an opinion.  It's a fact.  The truth is, the character could be perfectly well written, and a particular reader may not care for them.  It's when that opinion is twisted to appear as fact that things go south.  It puts the writer in an uncomfortable position, having to defend their character to a hostile reader, and also explain why it isn't them.  Something that isn't easy to do without getting personal.

Even worse, re-writing characters to be more flawed to avoid being called a "Mary Sue" is limiting creative possibilities.  Most leading comic and sci-fi characters are smart, strong, and attractive.  Superman, the world's oldest superhero, might just be the world's oldest Mary Sue, too.  The wish fulfillment fantasies of two boys from Cleveland.  Going seventy years strong, I think it's hard to argue that Superman has been an unpopular character.

To summarize, I think readers need to be more selective when using the term "Mary Sue" to describe a character, and writers need to stay true to their original visions, not altering characters to avoid the "Mary Sue" label.  But before I sign off, I thought I would mention that there are times when a character can be a "legitimate Mary Sue."  I'm going to talk about that next week, and how as a writer, you can avoid this...  Until then...

Monday, March 19, 2018

How dark should a story be?

Lately, there seems to be a debate about how dark a story should be. There isn't just one correct answer. There are some absolutely amazing Comic & Sci-Fi stories that are light, and there are some absolutely amazing Comic & Sci-Fi stories that are dark.

It's less about tone, and more about how well characters are crafted.  If they're fully realized, the story can be light or dark, without missing a beat.  Personally, my favorite superhero stories have a mix of both light and dark, and to show you why, I'm going to tell you a story.

Below, you'll find an ultra-short superhero adventure starring Ember, the fiery superhero who can transform into fire and water.  In this version, I'm writing the story in a neutral tone.  Not overly light, or overly dark.

So, here we go...

***
Chip Ember
"The Tremont Street Showdown"

A rainy night in Boston.

Chip Ember turned up the volume. He had to hear every word.

Tara Wellword: "This is Tara Wellword, reporting live from downtown Boston. Police have Tremont Street blocked off, attempting to keep crowds away from the violent scene. Massive casualties have already been reported, and unless Poison-Wraith can be stopped, the numbers could climb exponentially."

In a wave, Chip was gone. He arrived on Tremont Street, in a rainstorm of water, directly in front of Poison-Wraith.

Poison-Wraith: "Chip Ember... I'm not surprised."

Chip Ember: "Nobody else gets hurt tonight, Wraith. Drop the plasma swords."

Poison-Wraith: "You really are a fool, Ember. Not even you can stop me."

Out of control, Poison-Wraith lunged towards Chip, swinging his swords wildly. The fight was intense, as Chip dodged one swinging sword after another. As Poison-Wraith lunged forward with a final thrust, Chip flew upwards, into the rain, and then back down, behind Poison-Wraith.

Without time to react, Poison-Wrath crashed into a side-wall, knocking himself unconscious. As quickly as it began, the fight was over.

Chip turned back, towards the end of the street, where he could see the lights from the police cruisers blaring.  And then, in another wave of water, he was gone.

***

And there you have it, a perfectly neutral story.  Not too light or too dark.  Also not too interesting.  Want to see what it would it look like if we lightened it up?  Let's find out.

***

Chip Ember
The Tremont Street Showdown

A rainy day in Boston.

Chip Ember turned up the volume. He had to hear every word.

Tara Wellword: "This is Tara Wellword, reporting live from downtown Boston. Police have Tremont Street blocked off, attempting to keep crowds away from the dastardly Poison-Wraith. Can anyone save the city from this unimaginable foe?

In a wave, Chip was gone. He arrived on Tremont Street, in a rainstorm of water, directly in front of Poison-Wraith.

Poison-Wraith: "Chip Ember... I'm not surprised."

Chip Ember: "You picked a bad night to cause trouble, Wraith. Drop the plasma-tomatoes."

Poison-Wraith: "You really are a fool, Ember. Nobody can stop me!"

Out of control, Poison-Wraith lunged towards Chip, throwing plasma-tomatoes wildly. The fight was intense, as Chip dodged one tomato after another. As Poison-Wraith lunged forward, he made a terrible error, stepping on one of his very own tomatoes, and slipping backwards, into a trash can, knocking himself unconscious.

As quickly as it began, the fight was over.

Chip Ember: "Now that's what I call stepping in it!"

Chip turned back, towards the end of the street.  A crowd of people were rushing towards him, eager to meet the hero of Boston.

Police Officer: "You did it, Chip!  You saved us all."

Chip Ember: "All in  day's work, Officer!  All in a day's work!"

***

That was the light version.  Let's go the other way and darken it up something serious.

***

Chip Ember
The Tremont Street Showdown

A rainy night in Boston.

Chip Ember turned up the volume. He had to hear every word.

Tara Wellword: "This is Tara Wellword, reporting live from downtown Boston. Police have Tremont Street blocked off, attempting to keep crowds away from the violent scene. Massive casualties have already been reported.  What remains of Tremont Street looks like battle-zone.  Unless Poison-Wraith can be stopped, the numbers could climb exponentially."

Crushing the remote in his hand, Chip stood up.  In a wave, he was gone. He arrived on Tremont Street, in a rainstorm of water, directly in front of Poison-Wraith.

The reporters were not exaggerating. The devastation was beyond anything Chip had ever seen. Standing directly in front of him was Poison-Wraith.

Poison-Wraith: "Chip Ember... I'm not surprised. Ready to die like so many others?"

Chip Ember: "Nobody else dies tonight, Wraith. Nobody but you. Now, drop the plasma swords before I burn you to a crisp."

Poison-Wraith: "You really are a fool, Ember. You can't stop me."

Out of control, Poison-Wraith lunged towards Chip, swinging his swords violently. The fight was intense, as Chip dodged one swinging sword after another. As Poison-Wraith lunged forward with a final thrust, Chip flew upwards, into the rain, and then back down, behind Poison-Wraith.

Without giving Poison-Wraith time to react, Chip locked his arms around the monster's neck, and then, slamming Wraith head first, into the wall, knocking him dead.

As quickly as it began, the fight was over.

Chip turned back, towards the end of the street, where he could see the lights from the police cruisers blaring.

Chip Ember: "Spineless cowards!"

And then, in a bolt of lighting, he was gone.

***

So, now you've read the same story three times. What's the takeaway?

While we had the same exact villain doing the same exact thing three times, they were all very different.

The first version of the story, which was neutral, played it safe. In that version, there is nothing exceptional about the hero or the villain. It's not terrible, but it's not an overly interesting story, lacking both intensity, and humor.

 The light version of the story is no better. While it amps up the humor, it took away all the danger and, more importantly, all the important decisions away from the hero.

In the light version, the villain isn't a credible threat, and he was ultimately subdued by his own clumsiness. Ember, while involved in the fight, watched as Poison-Wraith subdued himself.

This story isn't light because of the silly weapons and bad one-liners.  (Though it doesn't help.) It's light because the element of danger has been completely removed, and because the hero does nothing brave or heroic to save the day.

Conversely, the dark story over-played the danger.  The villain was overly dark, to the point of absurdity, and the hero used excessive force subduing the enemy when he didn't have to, making his actions wrong. It concluded with Ember showing contempt for the people he just saved. All in all, not a great read.

***

That's why I go back to my original point.

A good superhero story should have elements of light and dark at the same time.  The villain needs to be a credible threat, absolutely dark, with a clear motive, and cruel plans. The hero needs to hold strong to his moral values, or risk becoming the villain, but make tough choices that lead to victory.

Comedy can be inserted, but not in a poorly executed, one-liner-kind-of-way, but in a dramatic, character specific way, more subtle in tone.

Perhaps the best way to explain is to tell this story one last time...

***

Chip Ember
The Tremont Street Showdown

A rainy night in Boston

Chip Ember turned up the volume. He had to hear every word.

Tara Wellword: "This is Tara Wellword, reporting live from downtown Boston. Police have Tremont Street blocked off, attempting to keep crowds away from the violent scene. Massive casualties have already been reported, and we're getting word now that Poison-Wraith has taken a hostage!"

In a wave, Chip was gone. He arrived on Tremont Street, in a rainstorm of water, directly in front of Poison-Wraith, who had his back turned towards Chip.

Poison-Wraith: "Chip Ember... I'm not surprised."

Chip Ember: "Nobody else gets hurt tonight, Wraith. Drop the plasma swords."

As Poison-Wraith turned around, he revealed his hostage, Monica Tello... The only woman Chip Ember has ever truly loved.

Chip Ember: "Oh no!"

Poison-Wraith: "You really are a fool, Ember. You think I would come unprepared?"

Monica Tello: "I'm sorry, Chip, I had to try to stop him."

Poison-Wraith: "And she was doing quite well, too. At least for a little while. She managed to disarm all but one of my bombs.  This one!"

Poison-Wraith revealed one final tomato bomb.

Monica Tello: "Don't worry about me! You need to stop Poison-Wraith. The entire city is in danger."

Chip Ember: "Let her go, Wraith."

Poison-Wraith smiled demonically before violently throwing Monica into the side wall. In a rush of water, Chip materialized on the other side of the street, catching Monica before she fell to the ground.

Chip pressed his hand to Monica's head, which was cut on the corner of the wall.

Chip Ember: "I'm getting you out of here."

Monica Tello: "No, Chip, it's just a scratch, you need to stop Poison-Wraith."

Without warning, Poison-Wraith threw his final tomato bomb into the sky, where it quickly picked up speed, shooting higher upwards.

Poison-Wraith: That bomb is programed to detonate over the city, radiating everything.  Try to stop it, and I gut your girl. Stop me, and the bomb goes off. Your call, hero.

Monica Tello: "Chip, you need to stop that bomb."

Chip Ember: It's not an either/or choice, Monica. Not light or dark...

Chip picked up Monica, and into the rain, they flew up, grabbing the tomato bomb before it could explode and dropping it into the Atlantic, far away from everyone.

Then they were back, standing in front of Poison-Wraith.

Chip Ember: "You're finished, Wraith!"

It a fit of rage, Poison-Wraith lunged towards Chip.  The fight was intense, as Chip dodged one swinging sword after another. As Poison-Wraith lunged forward with a final thrust, Chris electrically bolted upwards, and then back down, behind Poison-Wraith.

Without time to react, Poison-Wrath crashed into a side-wall, knocking himself unconscious. As quickly as it began, the fight was over.

Monica Tello: "Nicely done, Chip.  Now, how's about you take me someplace far away and fun!

Chip Ember: "I was thinking more like the hospital."

Monica Tello: "You must be joking, I told you, it was only a scratch. Now scoop me up! If we're not on our way to breakfast in the next five minutes, I'll be pouty all day.

Chip smiled, and in a rush of water, they were gone.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Divisions of Medium

Let us, for a moment, consider all art without the divisions of medium.

The ancients did it naturally. Effortlessly. At least, that's how it appears when you study their art. The spoken word, the written word, theater, paintings, pottery, music, fashion, it was one and the same. An expression of a single set of characters, stories, and ideas.

We do that today, but the divisions of medium sometimes stifle the creative message behind the work of art. It's a book. It's a movie. It's a TV show. It's a comic. A good story effortlessly crosses from one medium to the next, and nothing does that better than the modern mythology we somehow confine within the narrow medium of comic books.

For so much modern mythology, comics are considered to be the original source, and all extensions of a comic are adaptations, and nothing more.

But what if they weren't? What if "adaptation" is the wrong word? What if we consider, as I first stated, all art as a single unified thing?

It would change everything!