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Thursday, July 20, 2006

I'm working on a comics idea, and I'm wondering if a thought I'm having holds up. Let me know your thoughts.

It seems to me that movie heroes generally start out ordinary. Comics heroes generally start out odd.

Your basic movie hero starts as a common guy with some sort of problem, who rises to extraordinary because he's put in extraordinary circumstances.

Your basic comics hero starts as a hero, and once we're interested in him, we find out his human side. By "starts," I mean, we first see him beating the crap out of bad guys, and many issues later, we might find out his origin story. There, we find out, he wasn't always a crimefighter.

Comics seem better at plunging you into an alien society. If you make a movie about elves, or Martians, you are practically obliged to have the central character be human, so we have someone to identify with. If you were to make a comic about elves, or Martians, or demons, or the Endless, or vampires, or people from the planet Krypton, you can start with an elf, or J'onn J'onzz, or Hellboy, or Dream, or a vamp, or Kal-El.

When you look at adaptation of comics into movies, they seem to me to reinforce this theory. Superman comics started out with Superman in a cape, flying around. Superman Returns starts with Lois and Earth; the 1978 Superman starts (I think) with Superman landing on Earth. Batman Begins, as well as the first Batman movie, both include the origin story. The origin story starts with an ordinary person and turns him into a hero. A History of Violence starts with someone you think is an ordinary guy until you find out his past.

1. Am I talking out of my hat, or does my theory strike a chord? Do comics heroes tend to be fundamentally odder than movie heroes?

2. If you agree, you think this is a function of the audience? Or of the medium? That is, are comics heroes odd because comics readers identify with them, feeling odd themselves, while movie heroes are normal because moviegoers are mainstream? Or does it have something to do with how comics tell stories? Or is it just that until recently it was prohibitive to animate a non-human or post-human character such as Hellboy or the Hulk convincingly, and therefore really odd characters stayed in the realm of comics not movies?

(Silly, I know, to ask this question during Comic-Con, but I'm sure you comics boys will read this some day.)

16 Comments:

Some comic heroes have origin stories from the get-go, like Spider-Man, but generally I guess you're right.

By Blogger LeperColony, at 5:21 PM  

Working on a comic idea myself, I have to agree. I think that its that way because the characters are drawings on a page, rather than humans pretending to be fantastical creatures.

Its easier to accept a drawing, then something founded in reality (like a movie), so it doesn't require that whole 'origin' story, and has the ability to jump right into the action.

By Blogger Jason Sanders, at 5:44 PM  

I see more comic heros being with their origin stories rather than not.

Especially today, back when Supes and Bats came out, they weren't really trying to set up characters as much as tell a specific story in a short span of time. Later they were given the opportunity to really go back and flesh the 'origins' out.

Today, origins are so much of the character that you rarely find them saved until later unless, as in the case of A History of Violence, holding it back is crucial to the story.
I could, however, be wrong. Don't quote me.

By Blogger Scott, at 6:16 PM  

It sounds generally reasonable. Even with what I think of as the reverse-formula movie ("extraordinary person in ordinary circumstances"), such as My Super Ex-Girlfriend, the actual hero of the plot still has to be a character easily identified-with. There are always exceptions, but I think your logic is sound.

By Blogger glassblowerscat, at 7:00 PM  

Spiderman wouldn't be Spiderman without Peter Parker - an ordinary high school kid who gets bitten by a radioactive spider.

Batman is the most ordinary hero of all - a young kid who witnesses his parent's murder and deals with that by dressing up as a bat and fighting crime.

I can't see your distinction between the movie versions and the comic versions.

And to further punch holes in your theory, Superman started as a simple orphan boy on another planet who survives its destruction and goes to live on Earth where he becomes a hero. His is a common story - a Horatio Alger tale in a scifi context. Moses from another planet who yes, performs miracles.

(oh and the 1978 version starts on the planet Krypton where we see life destroyed by the explosion of the planet)

The Spirit started out as a normal police detective until he was 'killed', and then became a masked hero.

You're not obliged to have the character be human either to comment on society. J'Onn J'Onnz is a great character in DC's FINAL FRONTIER - a martian who comments on human society.

Daredevil is a character who was normal until he lost something - his sight. In fact all of these hero characters lost something. Part of their journey is finding something to take away the pain of loss.

Yes, it's psychologically 'screwed up' but true. Does that make them odd? Yes, it does.

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 7:35 PM  

Okay... so you do see comics heroes as being a little odder than movie heroes (except when it's a movie about a comic hero)?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 7:43 PM  

Well it is kind of hard to get around the whole mask and cape thing don'tcha think?
;D

I think that since we're just talking about the comparison between 'superhero' characters and 'movie' heroes - then yes, the supers are odder, more colorful, and disturbed than most movie hero characters. No doubt. Never has this been more aptly described than in WATCHMEN.

Now, to diverge a bit - there are many comic book characters that have absolutely nothing to do with capes and masks. TORPEDO, XENOZOIC TALES, MAGNUS - ROBOT FIGHTER, ENEMY ACE, SGT. ROCK, THE CREATURE COMMANDOS, THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, et al ad infinitum. Are they odd? Yes - but no odder than some movie heroes. Is DRACULA odd? Yes. THE MUMMY movies jump you right into the action as did VAN HELSING. Are those heroes weird? STAR WARS jumps you right into the action...with odd characters, then we start to learn the backstory.

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 9:05 PM  

Oh, and the pilot of ALIAS jumped us right into the action and then we went back to the origins of Sydney Bristow...or what she thought were her true origins.

For every example where you say it's odd that we have characters in costumes who leap into the action, and then we fill in the origin later - I can name a counterpart in tv, film and literature. The costumes are a motif...

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 9:11 PM  

Hmm. Guess it depends what you mean by "start". Sandman actually starts by introducing the a few very normal characters, shows how Dream is captured, then shows how all these people are affected. We don't actually meet Dream himself until page 39. Mind you, 39 pages isn't much compared to the 10 whole books that followed. To me it seems that Gaiman was interested in showing the interaction between the normal and the weird (and perhaps demonstrating that the distinction isn't as clear as we'd like to think).

In the Nexus comics, Horatio and his girlfriend are the only "normal" people in the universe (except, of course, for the curse of his superpowers)... the whole comic takes place in a futuristic world of freakazoids.

Now I don't know if this is relevant, but it seems to me that TV would be a more appropriate medium to compare comics to: As you've pointed out, movies are a one-shot deal, while tv (and comics) can go on and on and on (I'm pretty sure I read this somewhere). That could explain a lot of differences between movies and comics right there. In your book you talk about how important it is in television to not reveal the backstory at the beginning; it's one of the things that's fun to slowly reveal to the audience as you go along. The same probably holds true in comics.

By Blogger Katya, at 9:28 PM  

Part of the issue has to be that it's much easier to front-load exposition in a comic. A lot of comics have HUGE amounts of expository text in the form of narration, which doesn't work as well in a comic.

This means that, when landing the audience in a real world, you don't need the human character to orient them. You don't need to ease us into the weirdness. You just throw us in and use expository narration to catch us up to speed.

In a movie, lots of expository narration often takes us out of the story and feels clunky, so you need to ease into the story in a way which lets you give the exposition in passing.

By Blogger Hotspur, at 12:10 AM  

I think comparing a comic to a movie is fundamentally flawed. A movie is more like a graphic novel - you're constrained by the medium. You have only a certain amount of space / time to explain your character and his reasons for wanting what he wants.

A comic is more like a TV series (but less likely to be cancelled), and so reveals the characters' backstories in a more relaxed timeframe. IMO that's why comics are great, because each new exposition of character can shed light on some previous unexplained action - something there just isn't time for in a movie.

By Blogger Adam, at 5:57 AM  

This might help in the discussion:

http://www.newsarama.com/SDCC06/heroes.html

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 12:47 PM  

Heroes looks like it's going to be an awesome show. I'm already a fan.

By Blogger Kelly J. Compeau, at 1:50 PM  

I think you're right. I have a script ready to go out that I call an action/thriller with a sci-fi twist, when in truth the genre should be called comic book action. I have seen some prodcos and writer friends using that, and I think you've hit on the reason.

Comics depict extraordinary people in ordinary situations as well as extra-extraordinary situations (like battling Green Goblins or orbiting the planet). So this is a new genre of sorts.

By Blogger cvcobb01, at 2:12 AM  

I think you have to consider the differences in medium as well. Live-action characters must be conveyed by human actors, while ones that are animated or illustrated on the page are conveyed by the artist. Superheroes aside, look at Disney films. The protagonists are typically animals who aren't even anthropomorphic.

And it's not just that non-human biology is easier to draw than it is adapt to an actor (with prosthetic make-up or whatever), there's also the exaggeration that comics and cartoons are allowed. There's only so much emotion that Tobey Maguire can convey under the Spider-Man mask, while in the comics and animated series, you can make the eyes on Spidey's mask downright expressive.

And it goes both ways. There are adult comics (like "Omaha the Cat Dancer" and "Hepcats") that populate their mature storylines with "funny animals," because the cartoonists feel that cartoon animals are more suited to the comics medium than human characters are.

By Blogger Corey Bond, at 3:58 PM  

I think there's something to be said about the way Comics are viewed compared to Movies - I mean, as huge as Comics are, they're still pretty Niche when compared to the Cinema. You wouldn't believe how many people I know who've never read Sandman or The Watchmen or Maus let alone Superman, Batman and Hellboy (to use your examples).

Essentially, and maybe I'm the one talking out of my hat here, comics aren't taken 'seriously' by the viewers in comparison to Movies - Perhaps comics don't have the same expectations levelled on them as
a movie of the same name and thus - for whatever reason - we're more than willing to accept main protagonists that are not human.

Interesting thought tho': Can you think of any (successful) comic characters that while not 'Human' are not Humanoid in nature? Even Bone, as toon as he is, is still Humanoid. Maybe it's a lesser version of the same expectations?

Cheers,
DD

By Blogger DefiantDragon, at 7:25 PM  

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