Shelf Life: Show a Little Character

Thu, January 13th, 2011 at 5:09pm PST | Updated: January 13th, 2011 at 5:26pm

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

SHOW A LITTLE CHARACTER

Kyle Rayner, an "ordinary character in extraordinary situations"

If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader. And not simply a reader of comics. Being able to name the complete, all-time roster of the Legion of Substitute Heroes or the Great Lakes Avengers is not a writing skill, just the same way that knowing Ed Kranepool’s lifetime batting average is not a baseball skill. Knowing it doesn’t hurt, I guess, but it also doesn’t help you hit a curveball.

The irony is that most writers I know feel like they don’t read enough. I’ve made my living exclusively as a writer for two decades, and there’s never enough time for all the reading I should do. I try to make certain I read something every day: a comic, a chapter of a novel, a magazine article. But some days of looming deadlines - today, for instance - even that doesn’t happen. And I’m sure my work is poorer for it.

But during the holidays, I did get a chance to burn through Stephen King’s most recent collection, “Full Dark, No Star.” Four well-done stories, each grim in its own way. “Full Dark” is not just the title, it’s a pretty apt description. In addition to the sheer pleasure of reading King’s prose, which fits like a favored, comfortably-worn flannel shirt, it was also a reminder of why I do what I do. Or at least what it means to me.

From King’s Afterword:

“I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction is my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal. I put that in italics, because if the tale is good enough, and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief).”

I’ve spoken or written those exact words – “ordinary people in extraordinary situations” – countless times when asked about writing. That’s what works for me as a writer. That’s what works for me as a reader, or as an audience for film or television or even music. For me, story always comes from character. Superman stopping a bank robbery is a very different story than Lois Lane stopping a bank robbery. For me, the Lois story is probably more interesting, because she would be far more challenged, and in far more danger, than Superman in the same situation. That’s why Superman stopping a bank robbery is worth a page, and Superman stopping Darkseid is worth an entire arc.

Anytime I take on a new assignment, the first thing I do is try to figure out what makes the characters tick, what motivates them. So many comics are single-protagonist stories, you usually end up focusing on, for lack of a broader term, the hero. What does your hero want? What is the hero willing to do to get it?

When I was offered the opportunity to take over “Green Lantern,” with the caveat of writing Hal Jordan out of the lead role, the most enticing factor was the chance to create a new character to inherit the lead role. I knew we were going to have eyeballs initially because of Hal’s fall from grace and the promotional buzz. The trick would be keeping those readers, and in my mind, the only way to do that was to make them care about the “new guy.”

“Ordinary people in extraordinary situations” was very much on my mind when we created Kyle Rayner. One, because it’s what appeals to me in a story, and two, because I wanted create a character who would be, not Hal Jordan’s opposite, but at least a different sort of heroic archetype. Hal is, let’s face, a hero even without the ring. He’s a test pilot, cut from the same “Right Stuff” cloth as Chuck Yeager and the Mercury 7. If Hal was being supplanted, it didn’t make sense to introduce a character who had much in common with him. So I mined the Everyman archetype, embodied by characters like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” and, yes, Peter Parker.

Marz takes the same character-driven approach with his work on "Witchblade" and "Artifacts"

I grew up reading mostly Marvel books. Maybe that’s where a large part of my storytelling sensibility comes from, more “Marvel-style” characters with feet of clay. Peter Parker had to worry not only about the Green Goblin, but paying his rent and getting a date with the girl of his dreams. He seemed more real to me, and I cared more about him, because of it. That’s what I wanted with Kyle, someone in whom readers could recognize themselves, or at least recognize as a “real” person. I wanted what he did out of costume to be as interesting to the audience as what he did in costume. A few years ago I had conversation with Geoff Johns up at the DC offices. He made the observation that he thought Kyle was the only “Marvel-style” character who had really worked in the DCU. That’s still the best shorthand description of what we tried to do with Kyle.

I realize some people aren’t interested in a “relatable” character. Some people want to read about someone they aspire to be, rather than who they already are. It’s the difference between, say, Roger Thornhill and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. And that’s fine. There should be different flavors on the menu. But I think most writers do their best work when writing about what interests them. And I’m more interested in Roger Thornhill than Jack Ryan.

We made up Kyle from whole cloth, with an amount of creative freedom that would be rare today. But not a lot of comic gigs – at least the paying ones – afford you the opportunity to just create a lead character from the ground floor up. More often, you’re taking over a long-standing character whose personality and motivation are long established. But the job is the same: building story from character. The opposite, of course, is building story from story, resulting in the kind of continuity-driven storytelling that wallows in the past and fills the spaces between issues, or even between panels. Those aren’t stories so much as they’re checklists, Ed Kranepool’s lifetime batting average masquerading as a story.

When I was offered the monthly assignment on “Witchblade,” I told Top Cow I wasn’t interested in writing stories that were excuses for Sara Pezzini’s clothes to fall off. But, if we could do character-driven stories that put some flesh on Sara’s bones, and some clothes on Sara’s flesh, we’d be in business. They agreed, and that’s the way it’s been ever since. Even though Sara was an established character, I approached her much the same way I went about writing Kyle: make her three-dimensional, with shades of gray rather than only black or white; show her engaged in the mundane as well as the fantastic; give her believable relationships. Hopefully readers are coming back every month to see what happens to Sara, not what happens to her clothes.

Even in an event-driven storyline like “Artifacts,” with a large cast and big action pieces, the spine of the story still comes from character. Amidst the portents of universal Armageddon, all Sara and Jackie Estacado really want to do is find their missing daughter (as the accompanying page by While Portacio, Joe Weems and Sunny Gho from “Artifacts” #5 shows). That’s what resonates emotionally with me, so that’s what I keep coming back to.

Grant Morrison's work on "All-Star Superman" and "We3" highlights the difference between idea-driven and character-driven stories

My own mantra is “character first.” It’s the way I do what I do, because that’s the way my mind works. But it’s not the only way to approach telling a story. There are a lot of character-driven comics on the stands, but there are also a fair number of idea-driven comics. Superheroes are by their nature iconic, especially long-established ones. That lends itself to painting with a big brush on a broad canvas. The most obvious example of a “big idea” writer is Grant Morrison.

To me, “All-Star Superman” is less about Superman as a living, breathing character than it is about the idea of Superman. It has great character moments – Clark at his father’s grave, for instance – but Superman as concept trumps everything else. The same with Grant’s current Batman cycle (not to be confused with the Batcycle), which feels to me more like an exploration of the idea of Batman, rather than Batman or Bruce Wayne as characters.

My own favorite of Grant’s work is one of, if not the most character-driven of his stories. And the characters aren’t even people. I felt more for the animals in “We3” than I do for virtually anybody in tights and a cape. That doesn’t mean “We3” is a better story than “All-Star Superman.” It doesn’t mean character-driven stories are better than idea-driven stories. It just means that’s what works best for me. And for Stephen King too.

One more note: in the near future there should be a dedicated Shelf Life forum on the CBR boards, incorporating both comments on my column, as well as my creator forum. I’ll be popping in whenever I can, so I hope you take a few minutes to leave some feedback.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts,” “Witchblade” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image, set to debut in May, 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com

TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, grant morrison, green lantern, witchblade, artifacts, all star superman, we3

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