Heroes Never Rust #72 by Sean Ironman
Fattening the Story
When I took Introduction to Creative Writing when I was an undergraduate in college, I was taught that everything in a story had to be there for a reason. I had to interrogate each word, and every one had to characterize and move the plot along. Stories had to be tight. I was taught to start as late into the scene, as close to the climax, as I could. Now that I am a writing professor, I teach my students the same lesson. But, I have my doubts. Students are too quick to get to the next scene, to get to the point or the meaning that they are working toward. Perhaps it’s because I mainly write creative nonfiction, which contains a lot of searching and meandering instead of a strict, tight story, but I find that there’s a lot of fat on good stories. I read students’ stories and essays and I find that one of the main problems is that they don’t allow a story to breath. The world doesn’t seem real, even in nonfiction. In my opinion, adding details that may not be crucial to the story allows the story to seem more real.
By the third issue of Ms. Marvel, the general idea has been set and the characters have been introduced. Kamala Khan has gained superpowers and has difficulty controlling them, which causes her to transform into Carol Danvers, the ex-Ms. Marvel and current Captain Marvel. Now, the comic must expand on Kamala’s world. Unlike a short story or a novel, most comics from Marvel or DC are designed to exist for years with more and more stories. Even if Ms. Marvel were cancelled tomorrow, the characters could appear in other comics because most of what Marvel publishes exists in the same universe.
One way a comic book could add details about the world is by placing those details in the background. Years ago, I read an article by an editor at Marvel Comics (I have since forgotten which editor), and he gave tips on artwork in a comic. One of the big tips was to not forget about the background. Many beginner artists keep background details to a minimum, but the background can help strengthen world-building and choreography in action scenes. In Ms. Marvel #3, background details are used for humor and for characterization. On the opening page, Kamala eats breakfast and watches a news story about her rescue of Zoe Zimmer in the last issue. The world thinks Carol Danvers was there, not knowing of Kamala. The cereal box in the corner of the page is GM-O’s: Tasty Cereal. On the side of the box is a blurb that reads, “Listen to your gut not the lawsuits.” The cereal box is completely unnecessary. It never comes into play, but it’s a little joke to help set the tone. In comics, creators can get away with details like this one because a reader who is interested in just the plot can read the dialogue and turn the page. Readers who want to take in everything the comic has to offer can meander on the page and catch the background joke.
The background can contain elements other than jokes. In the first issue, the Terrigen Mists transformed Kamala and gave her superpowers. While the mists are a part of other comics, in Ms. Marvel, they are given very little explanation. Basically, it’s foggy and Kamala gets superpowers. The story, rightfully so, focuses on Kamala rather than the mystery of the mists. But, it would be odd to never mention the mists again. So, the mist mystery is mentioned through the background elements. On page two, a bare-footed homeless man, holds up a sign on a street corner that reads, “Fear the mist.” Then, on the third page, Kamala types on her computer, and in the background are newspaper clippings on her wall about the mist. “Dr. Shinoz: Manhattan Mist Poses Medical Risk.” “Mist takes Manhattan.” “Mist 2014: Public Seeks Answers.” By making the mist a mystery in Kamala’s world, the creators get to have their cake and eat it too. They show the readers that they haven’t forgotten, that it is intentional and they are in control of the story, while not having to spend most of the first story arc on the mists. Characters receive the focus, not the plot device. Intentionality is everything. Writers can do pretty much whatever they want as long as it’s intentional. Years ago, writer David James Poissant taught me that each story obeys its own rules, and it’s the writer’s job to set up the rules for the story at the beginning. In creative writing, there aren’t really rules, only things that work and things that don’t work. But, readers want to feel that the writer is in control. By placing information on the mists in the background, the creators of Ms. Marvel show readers that they are in control of their story, lay the groundwork for a possible future story arc, and show readers that Kamala is interested in what is happening to her body.
Details can go much further than just background information, of course. At the end of the issue, Kamala gets back out there being a superhero and tries to stop a robbery at a convenience store where her friend, Bruno, works. Like in many superhero stories, the superhero fails or gets hurt when starting out. Kamala gets shot in the gut by the thief. While the issue leaves off with her on the floor and holding her stomach as she bleeds out, I think I can safely say that the main character will not die three issues into the book. Her injury is a learning experience. But, what makes the scene more complicated than the usual superhero injury scene is that the thief is Bruno’s brother. He needs the money to pay someone named the Inventor. Earlier in the issue, Bruno’s brother asked Bruno to just take cash from the register, but Bruno wouldn’t. His brother didn’t know Bruno would be working at the time he robbed the place. He didn’t even know his gun was loaded. Of course, he still shot Kamala, but the thief not being random and just being a high school kid in a tough situation allows the reader to feel empathy for the boy. It will also add a layer to Kamala learning to be a superhero. Not all villains are evil.
I heard long ago that there are only seven basic plots to all stories. Someone once told me it was only three. But, there aren’t that many, regardless of whether it’s three or five or seven. The details change the readers’ experience. It’s not enough to just focus on what’s crucial to the plot. The world and its characters need to breath, need to feel real. To do that, sometimes it takes meandering and giving details that aren’t entirely necessary, at least to the plot. I agree that everything should have a purpose, but that purpose might just be in the meandering. In order to create character-driven stories, writers need to let those characters interact with the world and move away from stripping details away. Hopefully, those students beginning their careers can understand that.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.