This has been bugging me for a while. That’s probably not the best way to start a post, but there it is. It’s not something new, and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, but it was recently brought to the front of my brain again by the big changes in comics, namely DC comics reboot/relaunch of their new 52.
Overall, I’m a big fan of what they’ve done. It was the right thing to do, rather than a piecemeal approach which they’ve tried in the past, and it has reinvigorated their sales and the interest in their characters. Some of the new comics didn’t succeed, which was bound to happen as they launched 52 ongoing titles, and those that didn’t connect with an audience have been cancelled and replaced with new titles. We’re currently onto the 3rd or 4th wave of titles being cancelled and replaced and there are some new titles very due, but I think only one of them appeals to me. There again, that is not a dig at them. Not all of the comics are meant for me. I’m not the target audience for every title and therefore won’t enjoy all of them. There is something about the latest wave that made me question some of the decisions made, but I’ll come back to that. I’m highlighting DC because they’re at the front of my mind at the moment but this is actually a more general question for all forms of creative writing.
Ok, but what is it about? This is a question I’ve asked a thousand times before about films, TV shows, books and more recently comics. There’s often the tag line, or blurb on the back of a book, or listing and preview on a website, which gives you the highlights, it might even give you the story, but my next question is always, ok so what is it about?
I should preface the rest of this post by saying not everything has to have a deeper meaning and be a rich tapesty that is speaking to you on multiple levels. Sometimes it’s just about scaring people or blowing things up. Sometimes it’s just there to make people laugh or to entertain them. Sometimes you just want something light after a heavy or busy day at work, a screensaver for the mind is a phrase I recently heard that comes to mind. I should also point out that I’m a big fan of action movies. I loved The Expendables and I’m a huge fan of Stallone and Arnie movies. That being said, when I read something, I usually (not always) want there to be more than the tag line. I want it to have meaning, or purpose, or at least to be about something with engaging characters. The back of a book tells you something about what to expect. The inciting incident, the characters, the world, and it might offer you a few clues as to the what, but most often that comes in the reading, which for me is part of the enjoyment.
Also, the what can be different things to different people. Readers see beyond what the author intended and the printed word. They read between the lines or they see something that sits on a parallel to what was presented and it reflects something in their own life creating a special connection to the material. Maybe it reaches them on some emotional level and they feel something. There are many books that are just good rip-roaring adventures with clever characters outwitting the villains, but my favourites, the ones that stick with me, are those where the characters feel so real I wouldn’t be surprised to see them walk past me in the street.
This brings me back to DC’s newest wave of comics. Rob Liefeld is a well known figure in the comics industry, mostly for his art and for being one of the founders of Image comics, but also for being a very outspoken individual. I respect him for his accomplishments, but more recently I really like the way he asked DC difficult questions about some of their new titles. They asked him to take over and reinvigorate some of their flagging titles and he basically asked them – ok, so what is this character about? All of the characters he was asked to look at had been around for decades but the characters, their stories and their purpose were not clear.
Because of the age of many comic book characters their back stories are often complex and muddled, but with the best of them you can still pinpoint the why. Batman’s is a story about vengeance and justice. Righting wrongs and protecting the innocent. Stopping tragedies from occuring like the very incident that created him. Superman is about hope, inspiration, the human spirit and (to me at least) a message that we’re all the same regardless of our skin colour, religion, gender etc. Equally I can point at specific titles from the 52 and I know what they’re about once you strip away the costumes, the fighting and the gadgets. The latest incarnation of Batman and Robin is really a story about fathers and sons, about bettering yourself, about living up to expectations, about absent parents, and so on. Most of those points are from Damian’s point of view and there is also the other side, with Bruce trying to reform his son and prove to him that people are worth saving, rather than destroying, as his grandfather would have him believe. It’s a fascinating and quite unique dynamic, and that is what would make me come back rather than a new Batmobile or to see them fighting the Penguin or the Riddler.
Comics that feature teams, where several well known characters work together, are sometimes less complicated and more about entertainment and facing bigger enemies, but they can be about family, duty, honour, responsibility and so on. The problem, for me, comes when there are five or six or seven team books from the same publisher and they all start to look the same. Some DC comics team titles are very distinct. Suicide Squad is a disturbing and dark team book. They’re lifers, people who will never be released from prison, getting a chance to make some small amends. The stories are about redemption and very grey, where they go on missions the heroes wouldn’t be able to stomach. Justice League (or JLA) is the blockbuster movie of team comics. It includes the biggest heroes and they go after the biggest villains, and so on with a couple of the other team comics.
One team book was recently cancelled (Justice League International) and in the latest wave of replacements comics, another team comic is taking its place (The Ravagers). Even more recently another team book was announced (Team Seven). In both instances I asked the question and didn’t know the answer. Even from reading the blurb, looking at the characters and knowing quite a bit about their background (because I’m a DC fan of old) I kept asking, so what is it about? And I don’t think they really know. I’m happy to admit that I could be proven wrong and will say so in public. I’m also willing to admit I don’t know everything about the new books and all of this is from an outsiders perspective, but at the moment I just don’t see the appeal of these new titles. And by that I specifically mean, as a fan and potential reader, I’m trying to find a reason to pick up these new titles and am not motivated to because I dont know what they’re really about. I like some of the characters involved, but that’s not enough for me.
DC are trying lots of new things, they’re experimenting, they’re taking risks and throwing characters together that don’t normally interact to see what happens. All of these things are great and to be commended, but for something to have any kind of longevity, I don’t think that’s enough, especially when there are lots of other team comics out there. And that’s not even taking into account titles published by other companies and then all of the other titles in different genres. Rob Liefield asked DC similar questions about the titles he was asked to work on (Hawkman, Grifter, Deathstroke) and he is now trying to give a definitive answer in each case. Whether or not he succeeds, and whether or not the stories are good, is irrelevant. Someone is asking the right questions and is trying to give a clear answer and provide a reason to make you interested and pick up the comic.
I’ve ended up focusing more on comics than I anticipated, but that’s only because I have more info about it than other areas but it’s all still relevant. All of this made me look more closely at my own work and think about the dreaded synopsis. I actually think it’s the worst part of writing a novel. After spending months (or possibly years) of working on something, of immersing yourself in a world and breathing life into the characters, it feels like a hideous betrayal of all that invested time and effort to then condense it down into a sentence, soundbyte or a couple of paragraphs. But you have to do it. You have to scrape away the top layer, and dig below the surface and then keep digging until you can answer the question. I’ve yet to see a publisher or agent’s submission guidelines that want a one line hook, so it doesn’t quite need to be Ocean’s Eleven meets The Godfather, or whatever, but you do have to pare it down. And that doesn’t mean just a list of the main plot points because that list should bring you back to the original question.
Am I closer to writing the synopsis to my novel? Well, a little bit, but I am now thinking about the project in these terms and once the first draft is finished (and I’ve revised it a lot thereafter) I’m going to sit back and see if the actual novel that I ended up with is the same as the one I started out planning to write.