Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Creating Comic Characters That Last

You are single, and can't find the right mate. You wish, and a fairy appears. The fairy offers to lead you to him or her, under one condition.

"You can either know all about their life for the last three months, including the lives of all their friends. Or, you can know the only important details from their whole life," says the fairy.

"And beware," says the fairy. "The important details are not always what you think."

How you answer affects what kind of webcomic you are likely to make, and whether it will be remembered as an important detail in people's lives, or something that just seemed like one.

Choosing the recent details will give you shallower characters and leave you with a sense of pop culture events as being disproportionately important. You may know what reactions the characters will have, but you will have to invent why.

The second option will tell you what drives a person. Seeing important past experiences will reveal how episodes changed them, and since change is hard, they will be essential for explaining how they came to be who they are. Trends will come and go, and your person may participate in many, but in the end they are sensations of kiddy pool depth, like nostalgia and sentimentality.

The hidden part of a great short story is the character's history, distilled to a portfolio that collides with events and leads to change. Great novels that unfold over a short time period, like The Catcher in the Rye, offer fragments and episodes that drive the protagonist, and the challenge to the reader is to decipher the rest. It took me years to conclude that Holden Caulfield is having a mental breakdown, clutching to ideas and events that ground him as he loses hope and reason. (Other interpretations abound.)

I'd describe this as more of a tendency than a rule, but I think comics that take the long view, where the creator understands the protagonist's life in much greater detail than is discussed, have a better chance at achieving lasting recognition and readership.

Any mention of a current phenomenon, like Twitter or iPhones or NASCAR, instantly places the comic at a point in time for those who know the reference. For those who don't, it's a bump in the narrative. As time passes, the percentage of potential readers able to identify with the comic shrinks. Bumps increase.

Chester Gould, creator of Dick Tracy, was fascinated by technology and police procedure, and worked what he learned into the comic. His first three decades include some of the finest newspaper strips made. But by the 70's, when Dick Tracy was going to the moon and chasing crooks in an anti-gravity "trash can," an aging Gould was erasing the Tracy history readers had come to love. When his son marries a moon alien, it's all too much, and the strip never recovers. Pop culture invaded for the worse. In those innocent days, when all advances seemed like progress, an old cartoonist embraced too much.

"Minimalist writers" like Raymond Carver tried a highbrow version of pop culture, and though I find things to admire in his work, the gimmick of mixing strong but narrow characters with weird situations didn't hold up as a major literary style. One critic mocked it as a character walks into a supermarket and finds himself staring at the giant Tide detergent display and realizing he feels despair.

The best characters are usually based on real people, or composites. The bulk of people living in developments and working in cubicles are not promising as characters, and many younger people have possibly never encountered a living character and realized it. Wealth has led to an increase in artistic production, but lack of intimacy with unsheltered lives and authentic people has caused a decline in the amount of authentic art. Alienation has inspired many people to express their feelings through artistic media, but without the essences that breathe life into art, alienation, like nihilism and hedonism, is only a cry for help.

If you hope to look back on your comics as real art many years from now, your characters must have a historical life that bulldozes fads and trends in favor of defining moments, depth and complexity. It is not until you locate the astonishing transcendency, artistic realization greater than you hoped, that you can start winding up the story and bringing it to conclusion.

I'd rather let our own work reveal itself day by day, and I'll avoid talking about more examples from yesteryear you can't click over to see. I think, in the end, it does not reach its full potential, but minus is a good comic to study for its relationships to philosophical and and artistic standards. Anyone wanting to continue with the ideas just raised could do worse than to visit that comic and give it another reading. The fact that it is a major achievement despite some flaws in execution gives you a chance to sniff out both, and see what I'm talking about.