For eons to come, humorless fan-folk of various persuasions and weight problems will stand nose to nose and shout each other down regarding their love of all things super-heroic. They will duck and pivot the others solid argument that the Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special is, in actual fact the greatest comic book story ever told, whilst their opponent will simply wave copies of Eightball in front of their sweaty, veined face.
Truth is, it’s all subjective. You like what you like and whilst one may look for the ultimate tale of heroism, another might look for pages soaked in realism. No one is wrong. Everyone is right.
Good night and thanks for playing.
What’s that? I promised to tell you how to write the greatest comic book ever???
You’d have to be some kind of lunatic to promise something like that! But for the sake of an article which goes for longer than 145 words, let’s start by taking a look at those stories which are universally hailed as being ‘great.’
A cursory look around that wacky invention I like to refer to as ‘the information superhighway’ will reveal a number of ‘greatest’ lists when it comes to comic book tales. None of them are definitive, yet when you tally them up, there are a number of titles which tend to lurk around the same top spots in all. From a selection of twenty of these lists, I was able to whittle the contenders down to the following ten: Watchmen, Maus, The Dark Knight Returns, V For Vendetta, The Killing Joke, Dark Phoenix Saga, Marvels, Kingdom Come, Sandman and All Star Superman.
I think that very few could argue with the quality of the stories that leaves us with. Obviously, there is a populism inherent in these types of lists which means that they tend to focus on the Big Two. What can I say, there is a lot to be said for market penetration, but for the sake of argument, let’s put our personal preferences aside and just go with it.
So what secrets in the creation of a great comic book story does a quick glance at this list give us?
Well, firstly, it helps to be British. Out of the ten listed, six were written by a Brit. So if you were born in Iowa or Wollongong, then you might want to have some stern words with your parents and start working on that cockney accent. Second secret to creating a great story?
Be Alan Moore.
Out of the six great stories created by British born writers, three of those are by Moore. Other titles which could just as easily be included by Moore would be From Hell, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Top 10, Swamp Thing, The Ballad Of Halo Jones... the list could go on.
But before you go and grow a beard, a crotchety disposition, adorn your hands with eldritch rings and buy a one way ticket for Northampton, what is it that ties all these classic tales together? What common thread, besides a love of pork pies help us to write the great comic book yarn?
One of the more common themes is a sense of ‘gritty realism’ which clearly delineated the Modern Age from the previous Bronze Age of comics. Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns both epitomized the new tone of realism introduced into comics at the time and V For Vendetta pre-dated the introduction of the complex themes and anti-heroes which would dictate the direction of the four color landscape. The Dark Phoenix Saga also embodied the darker tone of all the titles mentioned even earlier and, arguably, had just as much of an influence on the medium, especially in mainstream comics. An antidote to the bright and sometimes vacuous story telling of the late 70’s and early 80’s, this tonal shift in comic stories is what gave the medium something many felt it had been missing; maturity.
But is that all it takes to get your magnum opus comic book script into the top ten? Realism? Grit? Sordid tales of sordid people? Is the comic book reading community so vapid, so shallow as to vote a story the greatest simply because it’s dark?
Not quite. Maus takes a different tact and highlights a far more important trope; subversion. Maus takes a fairly straight forward retelling of a story set during the Nazi occupation of Poland and changes it in one seemingly small but significant way; it represents the Jewish race as mice and the Nazi’s as cats. This slight anthropomorphic shift might seem like a small change, but it does something very important; it subverts expectation. It allows the reader to engage with the core of the story in simplified, broader strokes due to the simplicity of the art. It makes clear the core of the beautifully told tale. The same could be said of Marvels or Kingdom Come, both illustrated by Alex Ross, which places its familiar archetypes in unfamiliar surroundings to modern readers; Marvels the past and Kingdom Come the future. This allows the creators to view these archetypal characters, Superman, The Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman, etc. all through eyes unfamiliar to them, enabling the writers and artist to distill the essence of the characters down to their core. The same might be said for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which created an entire new universe of characters and concepts behind a title formerly familiar. Yet what Gaiman did was so much more than simply subvert a character.
He created a wholly original one, he subverted the idea of what a comic book could be, which brings us to the most important element shared by all of these stories; characterization.
Sure, they all share epic moments (with the possible exception of Maus) which would make Michael Bay look like Fellini, but it is the characters at the hearts of these epic tales which really make them stand out. Sandman presented a new degree of nuanced story telling, a higher form of literature to many who were conditioned to ‘wham bam thank you ma’am’ dynamics. Morrison’s All Star Superman perfectly encapsulated the wonder and joy of the Man Of Steel. Claremont was a master at clearly defining each of his characters from the other with deft use of language and tone. Miller’s noir Batman, frazzled but still hopeful Commissioner Gordon and psychotically dense Joker breathed new life into the characters, just as he marched them all towards the (seeming) end of their stories. Moore’s characters feel like they could just walk off the page and constantly astound with their complexity.
Across comics, even outside of the aforementioned titles, exciting, deep and loving characterization of character is what makes a good story great. Saga. Bone. 100 Bullets. Hate. Love And Rockets. Y: The Last Man. Strangers In Paradise. Planetary. Persepolis. Preacher. American Splendor. Mage. Animal Man. Ultimate Spider Man. Ghost World.
All so different from the other. All master classes in characterization.
Although Superman revolutionized comics with his conception, it was Stan Lee’s take on the archetype at Marvel which ensured that comics still exist today. His characters, though perhaps seen as clumsy in their characterization now, were dynamic and interesting; nuanced carefully to mirror the times in which they were conceived. The best of stories follow this, embellish upon it and create something wholly original; characters you can genuinely care about.
All the explosions in the world can not compare to one’s heart strings being pulled. Of course, as in many of the titles we’ve mentioned, in deft hands combining the two is always a possibility.
So you want to write the greatest story ever told? Start writing. Really writing. Start creating characters that really matter, that live and breathe within your story. Know that there is a high benchmark to meet, that great stories have been told and told beautifully, but that there will always be more, always greater and that someone has to write them. That someone might be you.
It’ll probably be Alan Moore, but it might be you.