6. Make a bad guy into a good guy. Want to cause conflict and drama? Switch relationship roles. I’m not talking about when Two-Face gets rehabilitated and goes back to work. We all know he’s going to turn evil again just as soon as his plastic surgery gets ruined *again*. What if Two-Face fought for good? He is a former D.A. after all. It’s still in him. The Penguin doesn’t do much. What if he became the new Alfred? Can you imagine if Bane became a vigilante in the name of justice a la Casey Jones? Villains are so in right now. It worked for Megamind, and Darth Vader’s got more Facebook fans than anyone else in Star Wars.
It’s not going to work for everyone. You can’t make the Joker into a good guy because his motivations are purely to be the villain. He knows he’s a bad guy and that’s the role he wants to play. He doesn’t want money. He doesn’t have a conviction or thirst for vengeance. But most everyone else does. And the best villains’ strength comes from the conviction that they are right. Which leads to…
7. Make a bad guy into a good guy who’s a bad guy. Every man is the hero of his own story. Mr. Freeze is trying to find a cure for his wife. He’s not trying to kill everyone, but he needs money to do it. More money than he can make honestly in a lifetime. Batman’s the only one interceding who’s capable of stopping him. He’s the asshole. And Superman turns into a whole different story when you think of Lex Luthor as attempting to rid the world of dominance by an alien god.
Show the villain’s perspective. Batman’s put so many henchmen in the hospital and jail. Someone’s got to have a grudge on him for that. All those henchman don’t want to be there. Maybe there’s one that needs to feed his drug habit, but he’s got a wife and kids, so that he needs money. And then there’s characters like Solomon Grundy and Swamp Thing who are chaotic neutral. Don’t forget about Morpheus, from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Is he bad guy? A good guy? No one knows, he’s simply a force. Half the plotlines in that series don’t even star him, they involve the characters affected by him, in both present day and mythology.
8. Superhero Groups When my uncle died, one of the things he left behind (I’d say left to me, but really, this was just junk he left at my grandparents’ house) was a box of comic books from the 70’s and 80’s, all DC. I don’t know where he got them. I don’t know when he bought them. But I’m reading them.
There are a lot of army ones like Sgt. Rock and Unknown Soldier (he was in the Air Force), and some really terrible ones like Eclipso and Matter-Eater Lad. And a hell of a lot of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen” for whatever reason. It’s hard to read a lot of them — they’re so dated and cheesy. Seriously, Superboy, how many times are aliens going to visit Earth? Jimmy, stop visiting that lab scientist. And everyone, just keep a big box full of Hostess twinkies in the closet. Seems to stop just about anyone.
But the series I found most interesting was the “Legion of Super-Heroes”. This was a team of Super-Heroes consisting of (for the most part) Superboy, Ultra Boy, Mon-El, Sun Boy, Duo Damsel, Phantom Girl, Karate Kid (not the Ralph Macchio one), obvious Marvel knock-offs like Timberwolf & Shadowlass, and other B-listers who could never have been in a comic on their own. All this took place in the 30th century (Superboy periodically time-traveled to get there, then wiped his memory each time afterward with a post-hypnotic suggestion. Plausible.).
But the thing was, none of them worked alone. When they were together, it was awesome. They worked together, they played off each other’s powers, they fell in love, they debated about new entrants, they had fights, they tooled around the headquarters goofing off, they argued over politics. That’s what led to fun characters I could believe and interesting plot lines. And it’s natural to believe that heroes would want to pool their resources. Union Dues is a great modern example of such a thing done well.
The relationship between a superhero and the people he’s trying to protect is like that of an adult and child. You respect them and attend to them, but you don’t pay them a lot of heed because they are inherently inferior. (“You are like a BAY-BEE! Making noise, don’t know what to do!”). If the humans get saved, so much the better. But there are always more. They’re like Pikmin. But superhero and superhero, beings on equal terms, that’s where the legitimate drama arises.
One caveat to this. Do not simply invoke crossovers. Those are always lame, contrived, and ridiculous. They either fight for no reason or forget about each other as soon as the comic’s over. (See Linkara’s review of Batman vs. Spawn).
9. Experiment, experiment, experiment. You know why there was so much great music in the 70s, and not in the 80s, 90s, or today? Because people were willing to take risks. They were trying new things, experimenting with sounds, and daring to break away from what others had already done. They didn’t play it safe, they didn’t rely on what worked in the past. They were willing to put new stuff out there and see how people reacted. There were no focus groups. There were no “creative executives”. There was just “the people”.
And thanks to “the people”, we got hard rockers like Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath, singer-songwriters like Billy Joel and Don MacLean, Country rock from Bob Dylan and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the creation of genres we still use today, like progressive rock, power pop, R&B, rap, and punk.
But what people forget is that for every Jimi Hendrix there were dozens of Hall & Oates’s, a few hundred Hocus Pocus by Focus, and thousands of Abracadabra. And those were the money-makers. There will be plenty of money-losers in that group.
Stephen King put it best. There are bad artists, competent artists, really good artists, and geniuses. Geniuses are not made, they’re born, and there are few of them. Then the numbers fan out from there. But the fact is, you never know who the geniuses are. Do you think anyone in their right mind would even touch something called “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” today?
You need to be less concerned about presenting returns to your shareholders and more about making art and taking risks. The greatest stuff in the world was almost always found by accident, but only after a long period of trial and error. And the key to creativity is by not repeating the past.
And here’s a bonus comic for making it so far: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal