Title of Work and its Form: Issue 1 of Cryptozoic Man, comic book
Author: Story by Bryan Johnson (Twitter) and Walter Flanagan (Twitter). Written by Johnson, pencils by Flanagan. Inks by Chris Ivy. Colors by Wayne Jansen (Twitter). Letters by Marshall Dillon.
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The comic can be found at all fine comic book stores. Why not consider making a trip to Oswego NY’s The Comic Shop? If you don’t know where your local comic book shop is, you can find it here. The fine folks at Dynamite Entertainment will be happy to sell you a copy, too.
Bonus: Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan are stars of the AMC program Comic Book Men. As of this writing, the show is available for streaming on Netflix. The gentlemen are also responsible for the Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave podcast.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Mythology
Cryptozoic Man is an interesting comic book that had an interesting genesis. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan pitched Dynamite with the concept…and you can see what that looked like. Why? Because it was included as a scene in Comic Book Men:
I usually write my own summaries, but I think that Dynamite says it best:
Alan Ostman, a middle-aged husband/father, sees his life quickly unravel when his daughter goes missing on a camping trip in the Pacific Northwest…Bigfoot country. After Gray aliens abduct him from a roadside bar, he learns that the fate of the world is dependent on trapping the world’s most legendary cryptids…not to mention defeating a psychopath in a pig-shaped leather bondage mask, Alan knows he has his work cut out for him.
Yes, Stan Lee may have been practicing a little hyperbole when he said that there’s never been a story like Cryptozoic Man, but he’s not too far off the mark. The book is a mélange of references to monster movies, mythical creatures and science fiction literature. In only the first few pages, I see the following:
- The alien from Alien
- The Loch Ness Monster and similar cryptids
- Alien “grays”
- The scary three-color things from War of the Worlds.
So the authors have made it clear that they are playing in the same sandbox as countless other writers. People have told stories like these for thousands of years; they sit around a campfire and offer an explanation for that feeling of paralysis when you’re almost asleep. Why, it’s an incubus (male) or succubus (female), of course, sitting on your chest and preparing to have sex with you.
How do you explain when a person’s behavior changes once a month. The person is a sane and reasonable human being…but will turn into an absolute monster every twenty-eight days, striking terror into the hearts of everyone around.
You know, like a werewolf. (What else could you have been thinking?)
Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan tap into our primal fears by borrowing all of these concepts. None of us believe that we’re going to transform into a half-monster, but don’t we fear “changing” into something that we don’t want to be? These stories are a part of us; Cryptozoic Man benefits because we can all relate on some level.
As I understand it, Cryptozoic Man is intended to be a short-run series. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan, therefore, don’t have much time to waste. The first page is illustrated in sepia tone. Mr. Johnson offers a hint that the suburban paradise in the art is now gone:
“Thin veneer of pretense lends readily to delusion. In the rippling currents of the rueful stream, regard exists…that somehow, an adulteress would be favored above the flotsam of humanity.”
Then you turn the page and BOOM. A two-page spread in which the transformed Alan fights a number of scary, weird-looking monsters. Turn the page again and Alan tells you about the daughter that motivates him to kill the pig man bad guy. You have a responsibility to set everything up for your reader, no matter the length of the work. If you’re writing War and Peace II: Good God Y’all, you can take your sweet time. In a limited comic series, you better be snappy.
Think of it this way. You get home and can’t wait to tell your significant other a funny story. One of your coworkers, in their early morning funk, accidentally brought the wrong lunch bag to work. Their child went to school with a yogurt and an orange and your coworker has a Lunchables and a Fruit Roll-Up. This is not an earth-shaking anecdote. This story should not take forever to tell. How should your significant other begin their story?
“Forty years ago, food scientists at General Mills created a pectin-based fruit-flavored snack that they decided to package in a manner that they felt would appeal to childrezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…” See? You already fell asleep.
What about: “Guess what? Vanessa brought her kid’s lunch to work by accident. She had to eat a Fruit Roll-Up at her desk.”
See? The amount of time you have to get to your point is directly related to the power of the idea and the length of the work.
What Should We Steal?
- Contribute your own ideas to the mythologies that have always been a part of the human experience. What new ground can you break while playing with the idea of the vampire or sea monster or ghost?
- Match the pace at which you release exposition to the length of your work. If you’re doing a five-minute comedy set, get to the point. If you’re talking to the person sitting beside you on a flight from California to India…take your time. You have eighteen hours.
2013, Bryan Johnson, Cryptozoic Man, Dynamite Entertainment, Kevin Smith, Mythology, Walter Flanagan
Title of Work and its Form: Stuffed, graphic novel
Author: Written by Glenn Eichler. Art by Nick Bertozzi (on Twitter @NickBertozzi.)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was published by First Second and can be found at great bookstores everywhere. If you’re in Reno, Nevada, ask the fine people at Sundance Bookstore to get the book for you if they don’t already have it. (You’ll also enjoy their frequent poetry readings and other events.)
Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Eichler did in which he discussed Daria. Here is an article in which Mr. Eichler describes how he came up with the idea for Stuffed. Mr. Eichler currently writes for The Colbert Report; watch it on Comedy Central if you have cable.
Here is a very cool video in which Mr. Bertozzi introduces himself, sketches a self-portrait and shows off the comic books he created as a child. Writers will appreciate the video, but it’s a must-watch for cartoonists and artists.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Dealing with Controversial Issues
I’m mildly jealous of Mr. Bertozzi because my artistic ability tops out at stick figures. I have tremendous healthy jealousy for Mr. Eichler because he wrote for Beavis & Butthead, co-created Daria and now works on The Colbert Report. In 2009, the two gentlemen collaborated to create Stuffed, a graphic novel about Timothy Johnson, a health care administrator whose father dies, leaving him, among other items, the items in the “museum,” a collection of oddities. The most notable of these items, of course, is a stuffed human being. The “Bloodthirsty Savage,” as his father called it decades earlier, caused a lot of trauma in Timothy’s childhood. Whenever he misbehaved, his father would say that the Savage would “cut him into pieces” to be thrown into a cooking pot. Timothy can’t bear to have this preserved human being thrown away, so he takes it home, determined to figure out the proper way to deal with the man. The matter is very complicated; Timothy’s hippie brother is a fan of trepanation, making it hard to reason with the guy. Even worse, international diplomacy is such that neither Kenya nor Tanzania will repatriate the body. It’s not giving too much away to say that the situation is resolved; Timothy works very closely with Dr. Bright, a curator at the museum he originally hoped might take the body.
It bears mentioning that Mr. Eichler is an admitted literary thief. (The good kind.) In one of the bonus pieces above, Mr. Eichler explains that he got the idea for Stuffed when he
read a story in The New York Times a while ago about a Spanish museum that nixed an African country’s request to return a stuffed human skin to its motherland.
A very sad real-life story can often become a worthwhile fictional story, even one with as much comedy as Stuffed. Yes, we’re talking about a stuffed human being. Is it okay to insert such an object into a comedy? I contend that the dark humor of the piece is strengthened by the VERY HIGH STAKES involved. Both comedy and tragedy require us to CARE about what is going on and to whom. The humor in the book is never really directed at the man who is eventually called the “Warrior.”
While Timothy is scared of the Warrior (thanks, in part, to his father), the whole point of the book is that Timothy and Dr. Bright are jumping through many hoops to try and give the man the dignified burial he deserves. The humor isn’t directed at the dead man. Timothy drives through the streets with a stuffed African man in his back seat; we laugh at onlookers shooting him angry looks. (How are they supposed to know that Timothy is trying to right a wrong?) There is humor in the racial tension in the book. Both Dr. Bright and Timothy are good people, and the hippie brother adds some tension with his somewhat less-than-enlightened views. Mr. Eichler wrenches comedy and drama out of the situation as he talks through big issues. Isn’t this how life works? Different kinds of people actually have contact with each other and come out on the other side with a new understanding.
Let’s face it: if everyone agreed on every big issue, life would be super boring. Mr. Eichler is smart enough to have Dr. Bright’s wife disagree with him slightly. After the hippie brother acts in an unpleasant manner, Dr. Bright goes home to talk with his wife. If Dr. and the Missus agreed wholeheartedly, the scene would be boring. Fortunately, there are meaty issues to discuss. Mrs. Bright points out that the field of anthropology was used to justify racism in the past. Dr. Bright (who has an advanced degree in the subject) defends the field. Mrs. Field points out that her husband changed his name from “Hussein” to “Howard” instead of something more explicitly African. Dr. Bright explains that he didn’t want to be associated with Saddam and that their child is named Jamal. While the arguments over race and colonialism in the book are heated, the characters treat each other like human beings.
Most importantly, these discussions are not boring. There are plenty of works about BIG ISSUES that are super duper boring. (I won’t name any, but I’m thinking of at least one.) Your characters should not be treated like clashing ideologies. Mr. Eichler makes the right choice; each of the characters remains a real person who simply has strong convictions.
I can’t end this essay without pointing out a little something that we can steal from Mr. Bertozzi’s art. I love the section near the end when Dr. Bright makes an impassioned speech about why it is so important to bury the Warrior in Africa. The speech is beautifully written, but it’s clear that Mr. Bertozzi understood this was a crucial moment in the story. He breaks format; instead of planting comic book boxes on the page, he set Dr. Bright on one side of a double-page spread and allowed himself to draw/paint three beautiful images of the African savannah and its starry sky. Mr. Bertozzi understood that this was one of his showcase moments in the piece and allowed himself to demonstrate his skills. The same principle applies to opera singers who know when their big aria is about to begin. To ballplayers who step to the plate one run down in the bottom of the ninth with a runner in scoring position. A writer must understand the parts of his or her work that are most important and give them a little more TLC; those moments allow you to really show off what you can do!
What Should We Steal?
- Equip your comedy with the same high stakes as you give your tragedy. Great comedy, just like great drama, is born of personal pain and must have consequences.
- Ensure that your discussions of BIG ISSUES are also entertaining, either dramatic or comedic. Arguments are had between people, not ideologies.
- Indulge yourself in your showcase moments. Put extra attention and care into the most crucial parts of your work.
2009, Dealing with Controversial Issues, Glenn Eichler, Graphic Novel, Nick Bertozzi
Title of Work and its Form: Issue 1 of “Jupiter’s Legacy,” comic book
Author: Written by Mark Millar (on Twitter @mrmarkmillar). Art by Frank Quitely. Colors and letters and design by Peter Doherty.
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The issue was published in April 2013 and can be purchased at any fine comic book store, including Oswego, NY’s The Comic Shop.
Bonuses: Here is the official Image Comics listing for the issue. Here is a Comics Alliance analysis by David Brothers with which you may or may not agree. Here is an interview Mr. Millar did with Comic Book Resources in which he discusses the series.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Perspective
It’s 1932. Sheldon Sampson lost (almost) all of his money in the stock market crash and is desperately looking for a way to improve his own prospects and that of the whole country. He has been seeing an island in his dreams and charters a ship to take him there. He and his wife acquired superhero powers on that island; Sheldon doesn’t talk about how. Sheldon is an idealist. A good man. Cut to March 2013. Sheldon’s children aren’t so great. Brandon and Chloe Sampson are socialites who live in the shadow of their parents’ accomplishments. The young people party and indulge in sex and drugs, lamenting that “the great battles are well and truly over.” The older generation debates what must be done to help the country, but Sheldon and his brother have opposing ideas. (Source of conflict!) At the end of the issue, Chloe has overdosed on some particularly potent drugs.
As I noted in my previous GWS essay about a comic book, I love graphic storytelling, but time constraints have prevented me from sending out scripts. I’m not sure the connection between the literary and comic book worlds is strong enough. Oh well; that’s what the future is for. Speaking of the future, Jupiter’s Legacy seems to straddle different time periods. Sheldon acquires his powers and helps the country recover from the Great Depression. He and his group are facing the aftermath of the problems that happened in the first decade of the twenty-first century. And if you want to be picky, we have to mention the titular Roman deity. If you’ll recall, Jupiter is the king of all of the gods; he hurled lightning bolts from the sky. He was worshipped most by the upper class of Roman society, who believed his intercession explained their supremacy. No matter the time period, Mr. Millar is using each situation to reflect on the others. Jupiter was the savior of the Romans, Sheldon, et. al. saved the United States in the thirties and the next generation…well, what will they do? Mr. Millar is playing with big, classic themes here! This is a very powerful technique; when you examine the same situation through several different angles, you gain a lot of perspective. Think of Citizen Kane; the reporter is trying to figure out what Kane was all about by talking to a number of people about the man’s life. Think of Rashomon. The same event is examined from different perspectives; the similarities and differences in their accounts lend characterization and advance the plot in a way that creates suspense. In the case of Jupiter’s Legacy, societal problems are being engaged in a time of optimism and a time of apathy. As the series progresses, Mr. Millar will no doubt continue to juxtapose the two time periods. In doing so, we’ll learn a little bit about what he thinks of our society.
Another part of Jupiter’s Legacy that I admire is the way that Mr. Millar focuses on the conflict between the characters. He could easily show us how the Sampsons gained their powers—and perhaps he will—but he chose to plant several big conflicts in the first issue:
- How Americans responded to the Depression in contrast to how they have dealt with recent struggles
- Celebrity society vs. meaningful existence
- The moral obligations of the individual to the society
- How the child of a very “successful” person can “succeed” on their own terms. (Success is a subjective term, of course.)
Now that Mr. Millar has set up all of these conflicts, he can play with them throughout the rest of the series. Indeed, there is a battle sequence that takes up several pages, but Mr. Millar doesn’t include it only for the “fun” of it. Remember, we’re much more curious about the WHY than the HOW.
What Should We Steal?
- Examine the same idea through different lenses and different perspectives. If you want to get a good idea of what a person is really like, you might ask several of the people they know. The same principle can apply to story.
- Focus on the conflict instead of the spectacle. (Most of the time.) The big reveals in your story will mean more once we care about your characters.
2013, Frank Quitely, Image Comics, Mark Millar, Narrative Perspective, Superheroes
Title of Work and its Form: Issue 2 of “Atomic Robo Presents Real Science Adventures,” comic book
Author: Written by Brian Clevinger (on Twitter @bclevenger). Art by Ryan Cody, Rob Reilly, John Broglia and Zack Finfrock. Colors by Matt Speroni.
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The issue was published in April 2012 and can be purchased at any fine comic book store, including Oswego, NY’s The Comic Shop.
Bonuses: Here is the title’s entry in the Comic Book Database. This is the official Atomic Robo web site.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization
In a different world, I would have written a lot of comic books. (Yes, yes, there is always the future. We’ll see if I ever write another script for one.) While I’m not what you would call a “comic book person,” I love all storytelling media, especially one that has such strong roots in the United States. From time to time, I have assigned students to read and write about comic books because it’s the kind of thing that you need to do at least once. How do you know whether or not you like comic books unless you read one?
I picked up Issue 2 of “Atomic Robo Presents Real Science Adventures” on a whim while at my local comic book store. Please forgive me, friends, if I get some details wrong. Part of the reason for this essay, I think, is to demonstrate the effect of serialized writing on someone who doesn’t quite know what is going on? What does Mr. Clevinger do to capture the interest of an Atomic Robo virgin?
The issue contains installments from four adventures, who of which are self-contained: “To Kill a Sparrow,” “Monster Hunters,” “Leaping Metal Dragon” and “Atomic Robo vs. Rasputin’.” Atomic Robo is a robot who was (in this fictional universe) created by Nikolai Tesla, the super genius scientist guy. The titular Sparrow is a British spy. Bruce Lee even appears in the third story!
To Kill a Sparrow
Well, it looks as though the spy is in trouble; she’s being chased by a whole bunch of bad guys. After a nighttime firefight, she and her sidecar passenger find themselves in a dead end and outgunned. Mr. Clevenger makes use of the timeless (and effective) textbook CLIFFHANGER. The hero is in big trouble; several men with big guns are about to train their weapons on her. The “to be continued” is the best kind of tease…what will happen next? Well, you have to wait until the next issue is released (unless you bought the trade paperback. Then you can just turn the page.) There’s nothing at all wrong with these kinds of cliffhangers, but bear in mind the writing advice we received from Annie Wilkes, the hero of Misery. The cliffhanger cannot be a cheat. If the hero is in the car and the car goes off the cliff, you can’t retcon the story (change the previous established events) and tell folks that the hero rolled out of the car just before it went off the cliff. “To Kill a Sparrow” establishes the right kind of cliffhanger: Sparrow is stuck in a dead end and must find her way out of the pickle she’s in.
So Atomic Robo wants to take custody of the “Yonkers Devil.” (I’ve been in Yonkers…it’s not so bad.) A team of tough-looking men agree to help. Three days later, there’s a pretty cool battle as the strike team and Robo attempt to take the Yonkers Devil prisoner. Mr. Clevinger and Mr. Reilly put together a pretty cool comic book battle, but the important part comes at the end. The character we thought was Robo is actually a human. (Remember, I don’t know the series. I’m sure it’s an established character.) The man takes off his fake Robo helmet and tells someone on the phone that, “It’s done.” In the next panel, he says, “No. Robo will think they went without him. He’ll have no reason to suspect Majestic’s involvement.”
Mr. Clevinger is making use of a technique that some folks have problems with, particularly in playwriting and screenwriting. Phone calls can be tough! On one hand, it’s hard to release exposition because most people don’t say every word they are thinking when they have a phone conversation. On the other hand, it can be super boring if your character has a boring phone conversation. “Hello?…yeah…okay…sure…yep…uh huh…that’s right…cool.” Mr. Clevinger tells a newbie like me a great deal. Apparently, Robo is having problems with an agency called Majestic and that Yonkers Devil creature is important to Majestic.
Leaping Metal Dragon
Robo was friends with Bruce Lee! Artist John Broglia uses an old-timey lots-of-dots comic book style to depict a training sequence. Robo wants to learn to fight, even though he’s very tough and is a robot. Robo is beginning to learn that fighting evil and defending good is not just about brute strength.
I’m not ancient, but I miss the way that comics were printed in the seventies and 1980s. The paper was cheaper and the coloring was more obviously provided by the little tiny dots. Mr. Clevinger and Mr. Broglia made a great choice in using the old-time style. After all, the section of the comic takes place in the past. (Bruce Lee, sadly, died decades ago.) In order to create something new in your chosen genre, you need to understand the state of your genre in the past. Mr. Broglia, no doubt, is perfectly capable of creating more creative layouts, but he made the choice to keep the layout of the panels very simple, because that’s the way comics looked in the past.
Atomic Robo vs. Rasputin
This story goes all the way back to 1924 in the Big Apple. Atomic Robo is trying to study and has finals to take in the morning. Unfortunately, the spirit of Rasputin (who died in 1916) interrupts him. Robo uses some kind of device to SKZKOW SKOOOM the spirit, but causes lots of unintentional damage. Other folks plan on pinning the damage on Robo, “Tesla’s infernal atomic robot.”
Atomic Robo seems like an interesting character because he’s not a typical robot. He attempts to understand what it means to be human (yes, like Data) and needs to get an education the old-fashioned way and acts like a young person. There are about eleventy billion robots in fiction. Mr. Clevinger makes his special without removing his robot identity.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ honest cliffhangers. Go ahead and tease your audience, but make sure you make good on your promise.
- Ensure the phone conversations in your work have a point. There should be a reason your audience is hearing or reading one side of a phone call. Exposition, characterization…we need something.
- Educate yourself in the history of your field. Nonfiction writers should know all about Gay Talese. Comic book writers and artists should know all about Steve Ditko. Novelists should know about Jane Eyre. (They don’t have to like that book if they don’t want to.)
- Differentiate characters who might otherwise seem common. What makes the spouse abuser in your story different from the cliché? Why should people care about your dragon protagonist?
2012, Atomic Robo, Brian Clevinger, characterization