By David Seidman
Hi. This is the first in a series of articles with practical advice on how to do things in comics.
What gives me the heft to throw around advice? I’ve written comics for Bongo and Marvel, edited comics for Disney, marketed and publicized comics for NBM, Papercutz, and other companies, and written about comics for the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. I even married comics; my wife, Lea Hernandez, has written and drawn comics and graphic novels for Image, Marvel and other companies, and currently draws Teen Titans Go! for DC.
So let’s get to work. This is the introductory column, so it’s about introducing characters.
You can introduce a character in lots of ways, but one that virtually always works is showing the character doing something that defines him or her.
The Godfather begins during the wedding of the Godfather’s daughter — but he’s not at the wedding. He’s holding court in his office. This introduction reveals that wielding power is the center of his life, more important than even his daughter’s wedding.
On the other hand, Ariel in The Little Mermaid first appears by not appearing: She’s missed her royal concert debut because she’s hunting curios from the world of dry land. Her fascination with that world and its people will lead to everything that she does throughout the movie.
And so it goes. Gone with the Wind reveals Scarlett O’Hara’s frivolous immaturity in her first line, when she dismisses matters as serious as civil war with “This war talk’s spoiling the fun of every party this spring!” Citizen Kane begins with the dying Charles Foster Kane uttering “Rosebud,” a crucial key to understanding him. In Hamlet, the main character’s snarky first words describe his uncle — “A little more than kin, and less than kind” — and show his resentment of the man, which will drive his actions throughout the play.
Here’s how this approach applies to comics.
Wolverine makes his debut in Incredible Hulk #180, by Len Wein, Herb Trimpe, and Jack Abel. He starts by issuing insulting threats in “a voice that is more like a snarl.” He’s on the attack, claws out. And a caption describes as “a living, raging powerhouse who’s bound to knock you [i.e., the Hulk] back on your emerald posterior.”
Wolverine’s first appearance tells you that he’s tough, he’s violent, and he’s got a lot of anger. Those characteristics are central to his personality, even now. (He also has a weird fashion sense, but it got better.)
Now, let’s meet John Constantine, from The Saga of the Swamp Thing #37, by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben.
Constantine appears as a mysterious man surprising Abby Arcane in the back of her car. He keeps everyone off-balance: He presents himself as dangerous (“I’m a nasty piece of work, chief. Ask anybody.”), arrogant (smoking when the Swamp Thing has told him not to), and filled with crucial knowledge that other people need — but he’s not about to hand it over easily.
Constantine’s readiness to manipulate people more powerful than him by wielding (and withholding) knowledge is still one of his defining traits.
Finally, take Deadpool, from The New Mutants #98, by Fabien Nicieza and Rob Liefeld. Deadpool is violent enough to knock Cable off his ass and chatty enough to add, “When I frost your sorry old mechanical butt, don’t take it personally, okay?”
In other words, Deadpool’s behaving as the merc with a mouth from his first panel.
Nicieza and Liefeld could have introduced Deadpool by having him talk about how he got to this point in his life. Moore, Bissette, and Totleben could have shown John Constantine angry or worried or drunk. Wein, Trimpe, and Abel could have shown Wolverine carefully plotting his attack on the Hulk or silently sneaking up on him. Those activities would have fit the characters.
But the writers and artists chose activities that went beyond just fitting. They revealed the characters’ most central traits, frequent feelings, and typical actions.
Introduce a character by showing him saying something — or even better, doing something — that shows how he usually feels and behaves, and you’ll help the reader understand the most important things about him. And you’ll help yourself tell the character’s story.
David Seidman has written, edited, and marketed comics. For more from him, visit his blog, https://davidleeseidman.wordpress.com/.