I’ve had a busy week, with some exciting snippets of news regarding my comics and art, but they aren’t ready to publish yet. And I’m also very happy to be back to work on Universe Gun after a break of over a month to knock off an anthology strip. Its good to be back with the characters I love the most.
For the second time in my creative activities as Dr Mike 2000, I’ve designed a team of 7 to 10 characters that I really like, and hope that other people will like them too. What’s the best way to do this?
There should be some kind of tension between what the reader knows and what they don’t know. Ideally, they don’t know something, but would like to know it, and thus keep on reading the story or playing the game. If you give out too much information at the start, it can be overwhelming, and leave the reader glazing over. Too little, and too slowly drawn out, and the reader ceases to care. Its a bit like fishing, keeping tension on the line, wearing the potential reader down until they decide to spend their hard earned time on your product.
Public speaking books call it Gap Theory – keeping an audiences attention by highlighting the gaps in their knowledge and then filling them.
Here’s a couple of ways of introducing a cast of characters.
The Snowball Method
In both The Strangers and Universe Gun, I used the snowball method, where we start with one character, follow their thread, and add new ones in as we go. This builds the team up gradually. You start of with a single character’s worth of information, and keep mixing in new ones with the now familiar ones, and establishing relationships as you go. This has been used well in the original Freedom Force game, and in some comics like Sailor Moon or Invisibles, and in other fiction like Harry Potter. The question is how much information to give away in advance?
Freedom Force did this brilliantly (and I did it less well in the Strangers) by having character biographies on the website before the game release. Before I played the game I knew, for example, that there was a character called “The Ant”, that he was a lonely kid called John Miller depicted staring at an anthill through a magnifying glass, and he now had ant powers like superstrength and burrowing. This was the particular character I fixated on in the promo material, because I’ve always liked the weedy little insect guys with low self esteem. When he appeared in game it was awesome, like I already knew him.
In the Strangers, I teased the reader with mysterious silhouettes of the next team member on the previous mission’s loading screen. It was a terrible idea – aside from the fact that I placed a black outline of King Zero on a dark blue background, where it gets kind of lost, it also doesn’t raise any really interesting questions. Who is that man pointing the the left? Who cares!
When King Zero shows up in game he’s a complete unknown to the player, and I have to work to build up attachment from nothing. For this reason, I later added a group of character bios to the website, which you can see here. I still held back a couple of characters (Ms Amazing and Ace) because of potential spoilers, but I’ve since relaxed on that issue. Spoilers are not a big deal unless you have a really pivotal twist in your story. Even Ace turning from a NPC villain to a playable hero didn’t justify leaving him off the character’s page, as this move is telegraphed from quite a distance in the story.
I feel like I still haven’t learned, in that my character bios for Universe Gun are merely images and names (with one name missing for spoiler purposes that don’t even exist) on the characters page. I thought about captioning each one with a teaser line, eg “The most powerful warrior of her universe in the 30thC, and maybe the most powerful in ours. If she can get out of bed and stop playing games!” I’ll leave it to you to figure out who that refers to. Hopefully, someone is dying to know more about Moon Girl or Prince Cosmic out there, just from the pictures. I did provide some minor spoilers in the “settings” images, so I’m improving in that respect. The recent “Amazing Garbage” strip featuring Venus was a nice character introduction, and hopefully has a reader or two anticipating her arrival in the main strip.
I have been thinking of covering individual characters in future blogs, looking at their influences and sources. Minor spoilers be damned!
The Bomb Method
On the other hand you have the bomb method, where you introduce the whole team at once and let the player pick up the pieces. X-Force (later X-Statix) used a very cool technique to do this, via in-story “press-packs” that are given out. Each character gets a well written, often quite funny, single page origin story, like the one for Mr. Sensitive here. Prior to these pages, Coach actually says it will save time getting to know the new guys! You can mess around with this in many ways as Milligan and Allred did. In the first issue they bomb you with a new team, then they add another member and kill off most of them, and then bomb you again with their replacements in the second issue using these press packs.
These press packs were especially clever, since its soon revealed that they may not be entirely accurate – Phat’s background was played up a bit to give him more street cred.
I bombed the player with Amazanauts – the introduction level and cutscenes sketch out each character, and the playable levels each flesh out one character and their world further. That was a deliberate exercise in origin stories, and seeing how concise I could make them, and I think it worked rather well in that regard.
Egos (a rather cool Legion of Superheroes style comic from 2014) uses Legion dog tags to introduce its teams a few times, like here.
An image like this gives a lot of succinct information, but also asks a lot of questions. Each reader can ignore what they want and choose to focus on who interests them, and extra info on the character can be dished out further down the track. There’s also the uncertainty in any modern comic as to which characters will survive, and who turns out to be a disposable cypher used to fill the image. I hope no-one finds Espero very interesting…
These are the titular “Legion Dog Tags”, little captions with name and power (and optionally homeworld), which were first used in the Legion of Superheroes due to its massive cast, as demonstrated here on part of the main narrative and then a splash page devoted to dog tags.
I used them in Universe Gun in the Virtual reality sequence that introduces Coriolis Boy and Star Girl 3000‘s old “Teen Titans” style team, Gamma Ordnance. I used the tags here, where they could feel like they had some in-story relevance, along with the green Courier-font captions that represent the Life Star balancing the narrative as it goes. I also welcomed the dog tags since I had to introduce five new characters in a sequence which I only allowed two pages for. Readers of the website, or even people who look at the cover image, would have a fairly good idea of who’s important here, but this sequence in isolation still manages to service all five characters.
Another common trick is the “point of view” character – where you drop a character into the world with as little clue as the new reader and let them figure it out together. The rest of the team get bombed on the PoV character and reader, and can then get spotlight moments or stories as we go. I don’t think I have ever done that, which is a pity because its a great technique.
There’s obviously no right or wrong way to do this, as you can’t predict what the reader will do. Some read the website notes or blogs before the comics, or even to the exclusion of the comics. Others will only read the comic. I read Mark Millar and Frank Quitely’s Authority backwards, buying the last trade first and so on, for reasons that escape me now, and it was a lot of fun. I often read Wikipedia entries on comics before the actual comics (or movies or TV shows) themselves.
Approach Universe Gun in your own way. The comic is the main product, but I’ll produce more ancillary material as I go.
See you in seven, snowflakes and superfriends! Dr Mike 2000, 27 Jul 2014