Sunday, October 28, 2012

Using Creatures from Myths

We have all wanted to take a creature from mythology and warp it to our own needs. There have been good ideas and bad born from this, and so I suppose I should mention some of the considerations of making this work.

The first is finding the creature. You need something that fits your comic, and adds to it. The usual temptation is find something really unique and go from there, but that usually doesn't work as well as you would think. There will just be something wrong about your use of it that strikes readers as wrong, and so the creature somehow just work as well as it should. On the other hand, using a variant of an established creature will also usually fail if you try to make it unique; you are trying to cash in it on its brand, but wanting something unique, which is just really weird. Either create something unique, or strive to get the creature right; this is one of those areas where there simply is no real middle ground.

You then want to research the creature. You want as much information as possible on it, both to make sure that pre-existing fans of the creature will not be too mad at you and for the sake of the illustrator. You want something that the illustrator can sink his teeth into while at the same time making sure that you are doing right by the creature. Although I can understand that iconoclasts would prefer to just wing it, you'll find that nine times out of ten your research will give you some additional inspiration, usually some minor bit of trivia that is incredibly interesting, making it easier to get your mind around the creature, and making it really come to life.

You also need to get the iconography of the creature right. Just like in an ecosystem mythological creatures fit a niche, and by staying in their niche they can add a lot to your story. This applies from something as simple as werewolves and people's fear of change and predatory animals to school ghosts and kids' fears of the unknown. Obviously they can come out of that niche once in a while, but using a monster in a non-traditional way needs to be seriously debated, and should be avoided if it is just for the sake of being cutesy. If you need to, do not be afraid to come up with something new just to feel a niche in your story if it looks like a bad fit.

Lastly, just have fun with the critter. If it isn't something you can have fun with, then either create something new or go with something else. If you are having problems breathing life into something, then the problem is either that it doesn't fit with your plans, or it just isn't something you like. Keep in mind that it does not need to have a unique personality; sometimes a monster just doing what it does is more than enough. Sometimes you do not need a new character so much as you need a plot device, and plot devices just do.

Make sure your monster fits the strip, and you should do fine. Don't just pull a creature from the encyclopedia, but summon it from your imagination and it should work out fine.

The Importance of a Good Bible

Organization is key to setting a comic universe. No matter how whimsical or random it is, having a good basic underlying skeleton can allow you to accomplish a lot. It allows you to decide on what is happening next, see what holes exist in your organizations, and get inspired by connections you would not be able to see otherwise. All told, laying it out gives you insight into the big picture of your universe.

A good bible should have three parts. The biggest part is how your universe works. This means that you will need to create a quick history of the world, especially if it is substantially different than our history. You also need to define how science and/or magic works, pointing out major advances and interesting anomalies. You also need to show how common it is; if everyone has a watch that doubles as a supercomputer or magic items are common, this is the place to note it. This section should also detail any major organizations and their rivals, especially if they are important to the story. In short, this should be the biggest section and one that is constantly being added to as you discover new things about your world.

The second section should be character descriptions. This should include not only brief descriptions of the characters, but also artwork showing them in static and dynamic poses. Characters with smaller roles can get briefer descriptions and single pictures, but major characters will need as much space as you feel comfortable giving to them. In general, the more history a character has, the more space that character should get, especially if that history is important to the comic. Yes, there is always the possibility that a character with an incredibly detailed backstory may not get so much a mention, but it's always better to have a lot of information rather than too little. This section should also include any important places or items; that really cool mecha or sword deserves to shine, and this is the section for that.

The third section should be for your plotting. Consider this a continuity dump; any strip you do should get a brief synopsis and tat synopsis put here. This section allows you to plot ahead, and see where your plot has already been. It also helps you keep things straight for when you start getting complex, and that will happen. Better yet, it can also act as inspiration for when writer's block happens; you can comb through looking for loose ends or small threads that can be further developed. It can also allow you to make major changes in the plot, as you have a jumping off point and can easily link it to events that happened in the past.

In short, a bible may seem like an awful lot of work. But it has a number of advantages, not the least of which is that it can serve as inspiration when you need it the most, and it can help you decide if a plot thread is worth it or not. As long as it is properly maintained, you'll find plenty of use for it. It can serve all writers well, especially if you are looking for a great new toy to play with.

Writing A Mood....sorta

A writer has problems establishing the mood of a piece. That's all on the illustrator. If you doubt that, track down some Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and then visualize the dialog as if it were being said by normal cute and furry animals. Or super-heroes. Or as part of a soap opera. The dialog still works, but the tone has changed; it has gone from being basically morbid to being fluffy, or serious, or even angsty. In order to establish mood, the writer has to be able to communicate that to the illustrator. To get a really good feel for this, track down the movie "Poison", where three entirely different film crews took on the same 30-minute script and came up with three entirely different movies.

The problem with communicating how the mood of the piece should be is the limits of the script format. The writer is limited to defining basic actions, dialog, and captions, and sometimes panel lay-out beyond the number of panels. If he's lucky, a writer can also define camera angles. That's a lot of information, but it provides little more than a skeleton on which the illustrator can hang any skin he wants, making it up to him to decide what the mood will be like.

I point this out because writers sometime forget how collaborative comics can be. When writing a script, it can be easy to forget that the way you are visualizing the script can be radically different than how an illustrator can visualize it. Not that it's necessarily a bad thing, just that the writer can really be put off when what was drawn is too different from what he wanted. There are some ways around this, but they all take actually talking to the illustrator in order to get the right mood across. This is why there are so many different meetings set up before a comic is really started; the entire crew has to be on board with whatever is going on.

Another way to do this is to set up a bible. A good comic bible comes in three parts. The first pat will be a description of the universe in general, along with any notes on physics, such as whether or not magic works and how, as well as important things to note, such as large organizations and a general history of the world. The second part should contain character descriptions and sketches, along with how they interact with the world and each other. The third section should be the continuity section, a brief history of the comic itself with notes on where the plot is going, acting as a road map for the action.

By setting up a bible, you can have a lot of input into how the world feels. Once you have set things up and things are going, you can have a lot of fun with the world. It is just a matter of setting things up right. And we all know how important those establishing shots when it comes to creating just the right mood.