Video games owe a lot to comic books, not just because they’re both part of nerd culture but because they’re both visual mediums doing storytelling.
Comics have affected every creative industry to become one of the most influential sources of stories and intellectual property. But comics do more than that, they also speak to us as the fairy tales, fables, and epic sagas of our time. So in honor of Stan Lee who recently passed, it occurred to me that I should do a follow-up to a previous episode — Soap Opera Antics.
And here it is — Comic Book Antics.
“The pleasure of reading a story and wondering what will come next for the hero is a pleasure that has lasted for centuries and, I think, will always be with us.” — Stan Lee
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Comic books as a form are diverse, crazily so. So what we discuss here is hardly likely to hold true for all of them. In part because the structures of comics ranges from the daily strips found in newspapers and webcomics, to serialized releases more commonly associated with the medium. But then there’s also mini-series, limited runs, one shots, and of course graphic novels. Some of these have a consistent storyline throughout. Some do not. Variety abounds in the comic book realm which is fantastic, because like novels they show a versatility in their form.
People new to the medium have to be taught how to read them, just like in video games. Because it isn’t immediately obvious, all the time, which order the panels go in. Traditional comic strips from newspapers were always quite clear given their left to right, or if the language calls for it right to left, format.
Writers of comic books should be concerned with the gutters because it’s their story being told and if the progression isn’t clear then information is lost. It’s the same issue in games and plot relevant information — did it only occur during a cut scene or in an off-hand remark by some minor NPC that the player likely wasn’t listening to? Or was it hidden in some book that only one in a hundred players find?
More than that they’re both visual mediums, and ones where the images have to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Games have the added benefit of music, sound effects, motion and voiced lines, but each is still heavily dependent on the visuals to impart their meaning.
These are all the simple lessons one can learn from comic books. But the same could be learned from movies, plays and TV just as easily. For now, let’s leave those concepts aside and look at what we can learn from writing a comic book and how that applies to writing a video game. It would be fair to say that a lot of what comic books do, soap operas also do. And so if you haven’t watch or listened to the episode on soap opera antics then I suggest you do so now. In part to save me repeating some of those very points.
One of the greatest differences between the soap opera and the comic book, and something shared by the latter with video games, is the poetics of the art. Or as wikipedia describes it, “[the] understanding of how a text’s different elements come together and produce certain effects on the reader.”
Austin Walker, the editor and chief of Waypoint recently spoke about this very aspect of games in comparing Red Dead Redemption 2 and Assassins Creed Odyssey. In that case it was the difference in how the games treat the player in relation to the game world.
Other games mentioned were Fire Emblem, X-Com, The Missing, Dark Souls, Demon Souls and Bloodbourne. In each of these cases the issue at hand was whether or not the story being told was something representational of larger issues. Something comic books have been great at addressing. As mentioned by the Waypoint crew Fire Emblem is about people dating set against a war. X-Com is about a squad of soldiers in a war. The Missing is about accepting oneself and one’s sexuality and gender, while the From Software series are about history.
Superheroes in comics are often telling very personal stories, similar to those in soap operas, but with world-ending consequences. For all that hullabaloo, the trappings, they are often stories concerned with smaller more intimate odds. The poetics in this case point to something other than the world ending. In Spider-Man’s case it’s the responsibility that comes with power. For the X-Men it’s about discrimination, overcoming and accepting differences. And Batman is about the responsibilities the wealthy have to society.
Shawn Coyne writes about this in The Story Grid. It’s never couched as poetics as that’s concerned with the final creation. Rather he speaks of external and internal genres. The former being what the protagonist wants. The latter being what they need. Comic books are great at visualizing the conflict between the wants and needs of the characters. Spider-Man in particular with his desire to protect and his need to be a normal person.
The writer has to think visually when writing comic books, they have to describe static moments where the action is captured to get all of that across. In effect the writer has to be concerned with the poetics of the comic book, much in the same way a writer should be concerned with the same when working on a game. Of course writers aren’t always able or allowed to be that concerned when working as part of larger teams. In that case it’s likely something for a creative director to be concerned with.
The beauty of comic books and writing them is the versatility of their form. As mentioned before comics can be anything from a single image to a multi-volume historical account. Experimentation is rife within comic books. For the same in video games we have to look to the Indie scene. And yes comic books have their own indie scene but even the big players experiment. Take Matt Fraction’s run on Hawkeye and doing an entire issue from the perspective of Pizza Dog. Or Scott Snyder’s Batman Metal. That’s Marvel and DC respectively trying new things without relying on imprints to test things out.
Video games are weird in their relationship to Indies. In part because the flagship AAA titles we’ve come to know and love or loathe were all pretty indie at the beginning. Assassins Creed, Far Cry and Call of Duty weren’t always the big standardized productions we know today. Games like The Stanley Parable, Virginia, The Magic Circle, JazzPunk, and Getting Over It with Bennet Foddy are in turn reflections of the AAA space and what’s become so standard and accepted. Yet in turn have become instructive to the very types of games they’re commenting on because of what they’re doing with both story and mechanics.
The experimentation of comic books and how it pervades the medium affecting everything from the writing, art, production and sales demonstrates that the fear of the unknown, or too much change, is unfounded. One doesn’t have to do just a small twist on a proven formula to be successful or rely on old tropes. Of course you’re bound to encounter that cadre of fans that despises any changes. But without change we don’t get stories like Logan, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, or Persepolis which all started in comic form and went on to other mediums. The other thing to remember is fan is short for fanatic. And there’s no reasoning with a fanatic.
Comic Book Bullshit
Comics are without a doubt the best at justifying utter bullshit. Science, mythology, geography goes completely bananas especially in the mainline stories of the big two. And yet… we buy it. We eat it up. We believe a person can gain the abilities and proportional strength of a spider, or with enough training and preparation can have a plan for all occasions. We’re presented with a meticulously thought-out universe in which there’s a clear delineation of what’s possible and what isn’t with relevant justifications and classifications. There’s a whole taxonomy to the abilities present in comic books.
This is both good and bad, more on that in a moment, because it has had a clear impact on games — namely in our incessant search for balance and justification for the abilities players are given. Brandon Sanderson has also been a major influence in this regard as he clearly sets out magic systems that are gameified.
Back to the issue of explanations. Comic books wholly own their absurdity. They recognize that things aren’t always going to make sense but they try to justify it anyways. And that’s admirable. That’s a lesson to be learned from them, because too often games don’t do this.
Their tone veers wildly — part of that is the player’s fault. But it’s also tied to how consistent the gestalt of a game is with the writing, story, art and mechanics all conveying the same thing. Something I seem to be endlessly repeating throughout this series. So moving on. Or more accurately, back to Stan Lee. He’s a man who told a lot of stories in comics and always had some interesting ideas in regards to them.
Stan Lee’s Rules
The first and probably most famous, is that every comic is somebody’s first. So you always have to introduce everything — the characters, the world, the powers, the causes. Even how to read the comic.For games this really isn’t anything new. It’s why even sequels have tutorials.
Lee’s second rule, as it were, is that every character needs a backstory that justifies their actions. It’s why Uncle Ben or Martha and Thomas Wayne need to die. There is value in knowing what motivates your characters. However, that doesn’t need to be shown or explored to the extent that the movies like to do. How many times have we been shown the death of Batman’s parents at this point? Or what about the origin of Spider-Man? The move to just have a superhero in their element. More on backstories in a future episode.
The need for a backstory or a cause also extends to villains. Comics are great at villains in part because they take the time to explore the villain and make them the hero of their own story. They’re not always some maleficent force, unseen but acting to hinder the protagonist. That cause extends to every aspect of a character and their actions. If they’ve got a cape, or rocket boots, or a million pockets there needs to be a justification for such designs. It’s not enough for something to sound or look cool. The Stan Lee Owns video is proof enough of that.
That video is courtesy of hbomberguy on YouTube.
The Anthology Approach
Canon is one of the things that’s often the hardest elements of a work for creators to grasp. Everyone’s a critic and everyone has their own idea of what is and isn’t part of what makes that universe or characters so interesting. Comic books are of course one of the oldest battlegrounds for this sort of fight. It’s here that games should look to for additional inspiration. Comics take risks. They reboot entire universes, wipe out past histories, or simply shelve something as a one-shot in its own mini-verse. Comics respect canon but know not to always let it get in the way.
To some degree we see this in anthology style games like those of the Assassins Creed, Far Cry and Final Fantasy series. Granted the first tries to have a connected world, the second it’s only minor elements or characters that are shared, and the third is wholly independent from one another.
The anthology approach can spawn whole sub-cultures dedicated to figuring out how each game is connected. The Legend of Zelda or the Mario Bros. timeline theories. Each involves meticulous examination of the game’s events in relation to all the other games in the series. And in researching this little tidbit I found out there’s an official timeline for the Zelda theory that confirms much of what fans speculated.
The anthology approach also allows for new configurations of characters, timelines, plots and more. It allows teams to vary their membership, for enemies to become friends, for characters to switch genders or sexuality or ethnicity. The last statement is not meant to dismiss Iceman coming out as gay nor Kate Bishop as Hawkeye nor Miles Morales. Rather it’s to illustrate that these ideas can transcend the original conception. That the characters can be so much more and more inclusive. Of course those are best when they happen in the mainline comics and not just one-shots or mini-series. But that versatility of characters is something that games can and should adapt more readily.
Write A Comic Book
The last thing I can say about comic books is to try writing them. The very act of working in a different medium is educational. Comics though require you as the writer to freeze moments and figure out what’s the most visually appealing. All while maintaining the pacing between those moments and interpersing them with limited dialogue.
The constraints of comic books are fantastic rules by which to get writing. And this series, if it’s about anything, is about finding those constraints that get you writing. Of course in this episode I didn’t even touch on manga or non-American comic books. They will have their own lesson and maybe I’ll do an episode on them in the future.