The Great American
                Novel Act 1:
                the danger Act 2: rising action Act 3: the ball Act 4: crisis Act 5: triumph the Franklinverse part 2, act 1:
                the new danger

How to make great comics: step by step

Stan Lee told us the secret to his success, right back at the start:

incredible exploits and down to earth realism make
                this the world's greatest comic magazine


Other theories about great comics

Today's comic creators suggest different formulas for success:

The formula needs real time

Why aren't all comics great? Because the formula contains the seeds for its own destruction: "down to earth realism" means characters grow older and motivations change. But change is scary for publishers! If a character is selling well they say "don't change it!" And if a character's sales go down they say "go back to how it used to be!" So in Marvel comics change was slowed down (starting in 1968) and was eventually put into reverse (in 1989). The formula was broken, so quality and sales declined.

The only way to guarantee the formula is to run comics in real time. That forces change to happen. Yes, change is painful. Yes, change is risky. But change is what makes a story. Change is life.

It may be possible to create exciting stories where nothing ever changes. But you have to do it without any meaningful events. If you want meaningful events then you have to make every event stick. Setting a story in real time is simply the easiest way.

You also need to pay your staff

This should be obvious, but it deserves stating. If your writers and artists are pouring their heart and soul into creating billion dollar stories, pay them accordingly! Read the first chapters of Sean Howe's "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" to see what happens when you short change talent. Kirby left. Ditko left. Other writers noted that new ideas are not rewarded. The flow of new characters ended. Sure, there were big creative differences, but creative differences are normal when you get geniuses together. If you pay them well then they stay, and keep on doing their very best, working together. (After his bad experience with Marvel in the 1960s Kirby refused to let others touch his worked: teamwork suffered and the results were worse.)

You also need basic business sense

This should also be obvious. You need to distribute your product to where new customers can see it (not hidden in a comic shop). You need to price the product competitively (not at $3 or $4 for a ten minute read). This is just basic "Business 101." We should not need to discuss this. Let's get back to discussing how to make great stories.

Steps to making a great story

By common consent, the greatest comics include Fantastic Four 44-60. These illustrate Stan Lee's formula: incredible exploits and down to earth realism. We can break down the writing process into very simple steps.

  1. Step 1: what's the most incredible thing you can imagine?
  2. Step 2: what's the most down to earth thing in those circumstances?
  3. Step 3: what's the most incredible thing in those circumstances?
  4. Step 4: what's the most down to earth thing in those circumstances?
  5. etc.

"That's one of the factors that made the Fantastic Four work. Quiet moments of contemplation opposite world-devouring antagonists. The ultimate man of high science working alongside one of the most down-to-earth men on the planet. The main villain vacillating between science and sorcery. Trying to have a simple, family life but also having the most fantastic powers imaginable. The book resonated with readers around these (and other) contrasting elements. The moments of high energy, excitement and drama in a book are all well and good, but only when put in relief against the slower, quieter moments. Creators shouldn't need to 'shake things up' so much as just not keep resorting to the same tropes (both with regards to story and art) all the time with nothing for readers to balance it against."  - Sean Kleefeld

Finally the writer will add the dialog: give it humor, and make sure it's easy to follow. Job done.

What makes a truly great comic writer

Each step must follow naturally from the last. It has to be totally believable, so you care. And you also want enough variety so you never get bored. That means the plotter and writer need a lot of experience! That's the skill of the great comic writer, right there.

Does this need great planning? No!

Notice that at no time does the writer consider anything other than the present. The writer does not plan ahead, and does not consider the past. They simply arrive with massive experience of stories in general, then immerse themselves in the present and then the story writes itself. It's simple really. The more you do this, the better the result.

After this, the characters write themselves

Some of the best ideas just appear out of the ether, against the intentions of the writer. For example, Stan Lee did not like the idea that Galactus ate planets, he wishes he had changed it to something more subtle, but at the time he was up against a tight deadline and it was the first thing he could think of. (See "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" page 19). He did not plan for the Silver Surfer at all - Jack Kirby thought a god-like being should have a herald, and drew him in. (At this stage Stan would give Jack just a few lines of plot, Kirby would do the rest, then Stan would add captions.)

John Byrne, the second most prolific FF writer after Stan, refers to "one of those Stan Lee moments when the characters start writing themselves." (John Byrne, "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" page 105.)

Byrne realized it was happening with issue 236 (Byrne took over with issue 232):

"I had some distinct ideas of where I wanted the characters to go, and if you read the first couple of issues now, they don't read like themselves. That's because I was trying to put something different into them, but they ultimately told me, 'no, that's not who we are.' I sort of let go right around the time of 'Terror in a Tiny Town' and did Stan's trick of letting the characters write themselves." ( John Byrne, "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" page 95)

An example: issue 44 in detail

Fantastic Four 44

(copyright note)
For copyright reasons this web site usually shows just a few isolated frames from each issue, not whole pages like this. These are shrunk down to encourage you to buy the full story. If you have even the slightest interest in story telling then you owe it to yourself to own this issue. You can get all of these issues really cheap in Essential Fantastic Four volume 3 (in black and white). Go and order it now. I'll wait. OK, you now have the comic open in front of you? Then we shall begin.

We start just after the previous story, the most incredible event of all: a gigantic battle involving almost every Marvel character, in Fantastic Four annual 3. According to the formula, after the most incredible exploit we need to look for the most down-to-earth realistic thing that could happen.

The marriage is followed by the couple at home, cleaning the house.

[ Note that the final stage in making a great comic is to add some humor and make sure it is understandable. The humor is there in Mr Fantastic inventing a vast, complicated invention that looks like a cosmic cannon mixed with an atom smasher... to wash dishes! This also serves to introduce the characters to new readers: every issue is somebody's first. So we see each character "do their thing" within the first three frames. Stan also noticed that the new character, Gorgon, might be a little confusing (we only see oddly shaped feet at first) so he adds a splash page with a clear, dramatic image of the guy. Now back to the story. ]

An explosion! WHOMM! Then somebody bursts into flame and flies!

The boys get told off for making a noise and disturbing the house.

One of them storms off! OK, that's maybe not so incredible, but it's dramatic, both for new readers (this guy can burst into flames and fly, what will he do next?) and for long time readers (we care about this family, we hate to see them divided). Plus we are still on page 1, and still need to establish their personalities for new readers (and remind old readers).

[ Note how this naturally fits the pattern of Campbell's "The Hero With 1000 Faces": the hero (Johnny) needs some catalyst to make him leave his safe home, so the story can begin. This structure just comes naturally to expert story tellers like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Other writers would probably benefit from reading Campbell's book. The relatively tame first page also establishes a strong anchor and contrast for the crazy stuff that's about to happen, which demonstrates the realism->incredible switch on a larger scale. ]

Johnny unlocks his car, and thinks about the wedding.

A giant foot suddenly stomps on the ground and the car falls over! Now the action has really started!

[ Note that there is no need for the writer to know who this is at this point. Leaving unanswered questions provides rich fodder for future stories. All that matters is that the events make sense right now, and long term continuity will naturally arise without any effort: people will naturally be born, date, marry, grow old and die, new people will naturally appear, interact, evolve, and so on. All that matters is realism in the present, then continuity arises naturally. Contrast this with later years (especially after 1989) when realism was abandoned: characters de-aged, came back from the dead, acted out of character, etc., and long term continuity became impossible. ]

The car is still drivable, so he turns the car round to see what happened.

There is somebody hiding in the back seat!

Meanwhile the rest of the team would have noticed the earth shaking

They see somebody climb up the wall!

Reed reaches out. The climbing being steps on his hand!

The climbing guy steals their helicopter!

Go back to the person in the back seat, hey, it's somebody you know.

She points a gun and hijacks the car!

She takes the car to a forest. They walk normally in the woods.

Johnny would fight her with his flame of course!

a)She kidnapped the Torch she would be prepared: knockout gas.
b) his flame warms the ground.

It wakes up a sleeping dragon!

The dragon is not just one dimensional: he has feelings! He remembers how humans hurt him, but he also remembers one woman who was kind to him.

[ Note that this detail is the obvious obvious to anyone who is widely read: the sympathetic dragon is an old trope. But if your experience is only with regular comic books then the obvious choice, what you would expect in a modern comic, is a multi page spectacle of savagery and hell fire. However, centuries of storytelling reveals that the more powerful story is to give the dragon a inner conflict: a tortured soul, to give him tragic sympathy. ]

just when you think you have hope, the original mystery danger, the hunter they all fear, explosively appears!

And so on! Incredible exploits and down to earth realism make it the world's greatest comic!

"Throughout this stratospheric era of cosmic spectacles and intergalactic space- gods, one might think the series would lose some of its old flavor of being grounded in reality. But that never happened. Issue #54 opened with the FF playing baseball. Ben still had trouble finding a parking space for his jet-cycle. Reed used his scientific genius to develop a dishwasher. Johnny and Wyatt sipped coffee from a thermos while searching for Crystal. And Sue designed a mini-skirted FF uniform to attract the attention of her often-preoccupied husband. These tender moments gave Fantastic Four a warmth and humanity that made it both heartfelt and authentic. It was a stunning juxtaposition of the commonplace and the incredible world of superheroes." - Mark Alexander, "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years"

Points to note:

1. Contrasts matter:
Excitement is built through contrasts: endless shocks would become dull, so the master story teller contrasts every shock with a scene of relaxing hope. Then WHAM! Another shock! For every mundane image, Kirby creates a down to earth familiar image. Other artists don't understand this, they think just an occasional ordinary image is enough. This is why Kirby is King are other artists are not. Kirby spends time on the ordinary street scene, the ordinary forest, the brickwork, the carpets and cabinets. He knows that the mundane stuff makes the extreme stuff more real, more exciting.

2. Writers only need three things:
The good writer only needs three things:

  1. A knowledge of literary tropes from every genre, and the conventions of pulp fiction. E.g. all dialog is packed with danger: "I'm being chased, What can it be"; "only X could do this"; "I've searched too far to fail now"; "have I lost my mind?"; "nothing can stop X"; "whatever the danger, I will share it with you" etc.
  2. Knowledge of the the current state of the Fantastic Four (e.g. that Medusa has a mysterious past, and that Dragon Man was lost in some caves somewhere near New York.) At no time does the writer think about more than 10 issues previous, or plan ahead for more than one issue.
  3. The formula: incredible exploits and down to earth realism.

3. Occam's razor keeps the story under control
Realism implies Occam's Razor: do not multiply elements unnecessarily: E.g. if you have two new characters in the same scene, then link them, as with Gorgon and Medusa, then Medusa and Dragon Man. this both simplifies the story, and gives the reader a structure to hold onto: it prevents the constant surprises from becoming a confusing mess. And "incredible exploits" means the links must be dramatic: so one person is chasing the other, or loves another.

Testing the formula on issue 51

FF 51: the first 6

Does the realism - action - realism - action pattern only work for high action stories like FF41? What about a story based on a depressed character's feelings, like the classic FF51? FF51 was created in exactly the same way, and the incredible depth of emotion was just a natural result:

This story follows from defeating Galactus, and the discovery of the silver surfer!

At this point, after the events of Act 2, Ben Grimm has a long term problem with self esteem. In the previous issue he saw his girl reject him for somebody more handsome, as he always thought she would. Only this guy is stronger than The Thing, pure hearted and noble. How do you think Ben feels?

[ Note that Stan and Jack did not have to say "let's make a powerful emotional story," they just took the existing situation and asked what would naturally happen next? ]

Note also that you need experience of a wide variety of stories before you can make a story based on depression. There is no outward battle in this story, but a story of despair and sacrifice and mistaken death is more powerful. These tropes are well known from other stories but you won't often find them in comics.

[ Finally, note that "Ben Grimm is depressed" is only powerful because this event grows naturally from other great stories, so we care about this character. Stories about characters wandering around with depression are not normally big sellers. ]

Here is where story telling experience comes in. An explosion might be more dramatic, but that would distract Ben from his depression. A good story teller does not just drop a developed theme, but will lead it to a satisfying conclusion. So this incredible event has to be more subtle: some random stranger invites Ben in off the street. It still counts as incredible because it's not what you would expect, and makes the user wonder "what will happen next?"

The stranger offers Ben sympathy: he too knows what it is to be lonely and sad..

He's plotting something! While Ben could win any physical fight, an attack on his weakened emotional state is far more dangerous!.

The stranger just offer Ben coffee..

The coffee is drugged! The stranger uses a deadly looking scientific device on Ben!

Ben is just returned to human form. Hey, that's what he always wanted! Now we can have stories about normal Ben!

Ben is asleep, so let's return to Reed and Sue: Reed is hiding some deadly danger from Sue!

[ Note that this danger, the Negative Zone, arises naturally from the previous issue, a danger from a being who can travel faster than light. Stan and Jack did not have to think "what's the most amazing thing Reed can invent" they just ask "what would naturally happen next? Reed would try to stop any cosmic threat like Galactus appearing again. How would he do that? Try to understand how they get here." ]

Ben shows up and says hello. But is it the real Ben or the impostor?

And so on. The story of FF51 writes itself: it follows naturally from the events of FF50 if we follow the formula, care for the characters, and have experience of storytelling.

FF44-60 in brief: each is a result of the formula

The secret behind the Fantastic Four's greatest run is a simple formula. There is no grand plan, no analysis of the past: each story flows naturally from the one before, as follows. Let us start with FF44 as above.

What would naturally happen next?
FF45: Johnny is a young man, so he needs a love interest! Occam's razor says combine it with the "Medusa's people" plot.

What would naturally happen next?
FF46: Now you care for one of Medusa's people, start to see thing from their point of view.

What would naturally happen next?
FF47: Now you know about them, why not visit their home?

What would naturally happen next?
FF48: The story is going nowhere, so what's the most exciting out-of-left-field thing you can think of? A giant alien comes to eat the Earth! How to make him more exciting? Give him a huge build up: he is feared by all the cosmic beings that we already know, he has a herald, etc.

What would naturally happen next?
FF49: The guy's really important, so how would he act? He'd be all noble and god-like of course! But now you have a problem, how do you defeat him? The only being who has close to his power is his herald, so turn him around.

What would naturally happen next?
FF50: He's still super unbeatable though. Aw to heck with it, use a deus ex machina and quickly move on. What's next? Well we have a lost cosmic guy, maybe Alicia would take pity on him like she did Ben?

What would naturally happen next?
FF51: Alicia's acts would make Ben depressed. And hey, that would make him vulnerable. And we want a break from the crazy pace, so have a small villain. And we just had a guy switch sides, it would be neat to do it again - but what then? He's small, and the usual ending to small stories is a noble sacrifice.

What would naturally happen next?
FF52: That reached a natural break, so we need a new idea. Look at the news - civil rights is big. How to make that a story? Black people normally feature in Tarzan-lie adventures, with lost cities and mighty warriors. But for a civil rights angle we should make the black guy super advanced, smart and heroic.

What would naturally happen next?
FF53: We're in the jungle: what's exciting? Wild animals and mad white hunter. But that's no threat to the Fantastic Four, so give them a high tech edge. What energy have we not used recently? Solidified sound. (Not the most inspired choice, probably the weakest of the classic issues, but still amazing, and it illustrates the formula.)

What would naturally happen next?
FF54: Johnny wants his true love. And she is trapped. Obviously he will go to her. Wait, they're in Africa. So Johnny will fly over Asia. What incredible thing could happen? Think Asian plains... Egyptian deserts... middle east... sands cover secrets... it all says ancient... hey, we'll do Prester John! Note that this would not occur to most comic or sci-fi writers. but Stan and Jack have wide interests in every genre, so they are familiar with many old stories.

What would naturally happen next?
FF55: By now letters are coming in, saying people love the surfer. We left a surfer-Alicia-Thing triangle, so let's expand it into a battle! Note that Stan and jack are not looking to past stories for inspiration. That is the modern way, and he kiss of death for creativity. They brought the Surfer back simply because fans asked, and he is still fresh in their memory.

What would naturally happen next?
FF56: There are a lot of loose ends, so let's tie them up. Klaw has some unused potential, and Johnny is hunting Crystal, so the rest writes itself.

What would naturally happen next?
FF57: the surfer surfs over mountains... hey that gives me an idea, who do we know who lives in mountains? Doctor Doom in Latveria! What would naturally happen?

What would naturally happen next?
FF58: Since we have the two greatest threats combined (surfer + Doom) then we can build this up to an awesome level, with a whole issue of rising tension, the team defeated but never giving up, and dramatic Kirby visuals.

What would naturally happen next?
FF59: The Inhumans sub plot has dragged on for long enough, so what is the obvious way to resolve it? We examine the available tools and notice that Black Bolt's voice will do the job. As for Doom, we haven't dropped in on the surfer for a while so should do so.

[ Note that once again a wide knowledge of stories is needed. Just dropping by on the surfer is not dramatic, until we remember stories like The Prisoner of Zenda or the Man in the Iron Mask: this now becomes a good opportunity for drama and pathos between evil usurper and noble prisoner in a filthy stone cell. ]

What would naturally happen next?
FF60: the Doom saga has also gone on lone enough: tie for a dramatic big battle ending. The solution arises naturally from examining the characters: one is trapped on Earth and the other has unlimited arrogance.

And so on. Each story arises naturally from the one before: a natural result of realism plus choosing the most incredible option each time.

The formula after 1968

After 1968 less effort went into each issue, with the result that the pace of change slowed down. More seriously, fear of change and the stretching timescale ate away at realism. The story still progressed, but at a slower pace and more effort was required to extract the gold.

John Byrne gave the title a sales boost, and this is usually attributed to going back to how the characters were in the early days. However, Byrne's characters were nothing like the early days: his Reed had lost confidence, his Sue was more assertive, his Ben was no longer in conflict with Reed, and of course Franklin was around. The big difference was that Byrne increased the quota of "down to earth realism." His team were often see outside in ordinary streets, they wore wrinkled clothing, dealt more often with ordinary people, and so on.

In general though, nobody could combine the ordinary with the amazing like Jack Kirby, and the pace of change was slower after 1968 so sales were lower. Then in 1989 realism took another hit as long term character development ended, realism became a low priority (see Sue's costume for example), and stories were all variations on old comics rather than being drawn from literature and the real world.

Perhaps the boldest example of what not to do was Heroes Reborn: whatever its claims to "incredible exploits," "down-to-earth realism" was abandoned completely.

Some later writers injected a little realism: Waid, for example, showed Sue and Ben taking Franklin to Coney Island and his Latveria seemed down to earth, but mainly the team was divorced from the reader's reality. Hickman's FF for example, while generally praised for intelligent writing and sensitive character portrayals, features a polished team of wealthy professionals, who spend most of their lives talking, and very seldom interact with any world that the readers would recognize. The Marvel Knights series was an attempt to increase the level of realism, but was only slightly better: it was good to see Reed and Sue driving a normal car, but they still sent their son to a private school with a humanoid robot companion. "Down-to-earth realism" only goes so far. Coupled with the lack of a long term story and high priced decompressed stories, the bang per buck of the average comic is too low to compete with other media, and the long term literary value is even lower.

A dangerous myth: the "defining element"

One approach to writing is to ignore the formula (which asks "where are the characters right now") and instead ask where they should be. In other words, the editor has some idea of the "defining element" or "core characteristic" of a character and works from that. For example:

Q. "Do you have a greater responsibility to your creative team or to the characters?"
A. "To the characters. Always the characters! They're the Bread and Butter of Marvel Comics. The characters are the most important thing we have. Each character has certain core characteristics. If a writer wants to come in and ignore or violate those characteristics, it's the editor's job to stop him or her."
- Ralph Macchio, "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" page 177.

There are several problems with this position.

  1. The best stories came from ignoring this advice.
  2. Marvel's most successful time is when it had no characters (the early 1960s), or characterization evolved (the mid 1960s), or it lets the characters change radically (the New X-Men).
  3. Every novel needs character development: that's kind of the point. The core character must change or nothing really matters.
  4. The 'core characteristics' idea leads to Marvel Time, arguably the the cause of all Marvel's problems.
  5. Finally, we often identify something superficial and unimportant. This is from Tom Brevoort's blog, January 2008:

"Most of the best comic book series are about something--something that may not factor into every single last adventure, but which is the underpinning of the series as a whole. Fantastic Four is about family. X-Men is about prejudice. Batman is about revenge. And Spider-Man is about youth. Youth is the element that defined Spider-Man back in the days when he was created, the thing that separated him from all of the other competing superhuman crime-fighters and made him unique."

And yet...

To simply say the Fantastic Four is "about family" is very dangerous. It leads to terrible stories. It implies that Ben, once the greatest fighter of all and a tragic hero, should live as either a man-child or a kindly uncle. It further implies that their lives revolve around having dinner together. Those are precisely the two weaknesses that have destroyed the title since 1989.

Characters must be allowed to grow naturally, so the "defining element" is the enemy of the great story.

The need for character development

The formula for success is realism, and this means character development. Here are three examples:

The fans noticed these fundamental changes and it made them care. This is from issue 99, ear the end of Stan and Jack's historic run:

      and bulletins

Deep change is essential if we are to deeply care. Novels pretty much demand change to a character's defining features. The hero must change: Scrooge must repent, Jean Valjean must cease hating the world, Edmund Dantes must grow cynical, and then finally become wise. Elizabeth Bennett must lose her prejudice.

If we follow the formula for great comics then change like this change comes naturally. It's not rocket science.

Back to realism

The Great American Novel