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Cronin Theory of Comics – Don’t Compete With Your Readers

I will be honest, I really do not care what writers think about their readers. For instance, you can adore your readers and you can hold them in contempt, it really doesn’t matter to me. The one thing I think you should not do, though, is to compete with your readers over how you write your stories.

“What do you mean by compete, Brian?,” you might ask. Well, here’s what I mean…

I recently spoke about how I thought that killing off Tech 9 in Blood Syndicate was a major mistake, and I think that the reason it occured was due to writer Ivan Velez, Jr. competing with his readers. To wit, it appeared as though he was approaching the book from an angle of, “What would the readers never expect? THAT’s what I’ll do, to throw a curve ball at them!”

That way, I think, lies madness (and doesn’t do well for the quality of stories, either).

Joe Casey once said

Who cares if readers guess a mystery beforehand? Does that somehow invalidate the first idea you might’ve had before the public guessing games began? Is it really about proving that you’re smarter than you’re readers? That you’re always thinking ahead of them? Aren’t you supposed to be doing that anyway? Isn’t that a primary mandate of writing comicbooks… especially superhero comicbooks?

I heartily endorse this way of writing.

Just write what you want to write. Do not concern yourself if it will “shock” readers. Do not concern yourself with how different your story is from “typical” comic stories, especially as qute often, there’s a very good reason WHY a certain style of story is “typical.” It is often because it just plain WORKS. So just concentrate on writing a good story. This is especially applicable when it comes to “shocks.” Here’s a truism – there are more readers of a comic book than there are writers of a comic book. The odds are not in favor of the writer pulling one over on the whole audience, and that’s okay!

Don’t get me wrong, if a story is BUILT around a “secret” that is extremely obvious, then that’s silly, but that’s not a problem having to do with the secret, but rather the idea of building a story AROUND the secret.

It is easy to shock your readers, if that’s your goal. You can always just come up with some crazy thing out of nowhere.

It is difficult to shock your readers while writing a good comic book.

I don’t think the expense of a good comic is worth the benefit of a surprise and/or shock.

18 Comments

And also, if you don’t mind my adding a coda: They will never be surprised the second time they read it if you’re going for surprise; they will enjoy it the second time they read it if you’re going for enjoyment.

(Oh, and the king example of this isn’t ‘Blood Syndicate’, it’s ‘Armageddon 2001′, where they changed the identity of the villain mid-way through the story because the truth “leaked”, resulting in one of the most nonsensical finales ever. That one’d also be a good ‘Urban Legends Revealed’, since rumor has it that a drunken DC staffer let it slip at a con.)

I may have said that, Brian… but I’ve never done it.

Others have, though. Many others.

Joe

Hello. Short-time reader, first time poster.

I’m glad I’m not the only one who has felt this. What you have described here is one of the major things that has turned me away from mainstream superhero comics even though my love for the characters and the genre still remain. (Yes, I decided I didn’t like it and *stopped buying it*! It’s easy kids!)

I mean hey, maybe I don’t want a huge gore filled crossover presented under the pretense of “defining these characters for a post-911 world”. Maybe I just want to read a good Superman or Spidey yarn? Okay, so we’ve seen them save the day hundreds of times but silly me I thought that was part of the fun. ..and besides, since when have they done that lately? They’ve spent so much time breaking the toys seeing a writer just play with them would be downright refreshing.

I agree wholeheartedly.
IMO the last couple of years have been about nothing but trying to outwit the fanboys, at least with one publisher.
What has come from it has left me cold.
I am in favor of quality compressed storytelling and even “thought balloons” though I admit I am a minority.
Jonah Hex has proven you do not have to write everything for a trade release, it has been a breath of fresh air.
Cobb: Off the Leash is one of the most overlooked gems out there. I doubt Beau would ever write anything other than to entertain.
Outside of these two most everything else has felt lacking. with guys like Brubaker and Busiek being exceptions grading on a curve.
At least DC: Showcase and Marvel Essential’s keep me having non-stop fun.

I may have said that, Brian… but I’ve never done it.

See, Joe, that’s why I need someone to find me the interview! Because I’m going strictly on memory here, and all I remember for sure is you making some great points on not getting caught up in trying to “beat” the reader.

I just want to point out that there are other ways to “beat” the reader besides just shocking or outwitting them. For example one of the problems I had with Busiek’s Avengers that made me drop it was that I felt like he was trying to compete with the reader on encyclopedic knowledge of continuity. As a reader that only followed Avengers occasionally in the 80s when Stern wrote it, I was lost half the time and didn’t enjoy it. I felt like he was engaging in a trivia game with a handful of fans and I was the odd man out.

I agree completely. This is kind of what happened to M Night on releasing the Village or really any of his movies after Sixth Sense. If the viewers all know that Mnight is gonna try to have this crazy cool mindboggling twist at the end, then where’s the fun in that? Don’t sacrifice a neat concept just to make people scratch their heads for a minute pondering “That was it?”

John Seavey said “‘Armageddon 2001,’ where they changed the identity of the villain mid-way through the story because the truth ‘leaked,’ resulting in one of the most nonsensical finales ever. That one’d also be a good “Urban Legends Revealed’…”

Yes, it would

I think you’re thinking of this column:
http://www.comicbookresources.com/columns/index.cgi?column=tbt&article=2334

In it, Joe Casey says:
Who cares if readers guess a mystery beforehand? Does that somehow invalidate the first idea you might’ve had before the public guessing games began? Is it really about proving that you’re smarter than you’re readers? That you’re always thinking ahead of them? Aren’t you supposed to be doing that anyway? Isn’t that a primary mandate of writing comicbooks… especially superhero comicbooks?

Sounds good to me, L8on!

Wise words from Joe there.

I believe it is now possible to guess “shocks” beforehand based on their “surprise factor”, and not from foreshadowing or logical plot development. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ll take the under for Hank Pym dead in CW#6.

And I’ll have to disagree with you, Brian. I don’t think that it’s difficult to shock your readers while writing a good comic book. It’s all about finding the surprise that’s in the character. You can either
1) pursue action to it’s logical extreme (Doom regains his childhood sweetheart, then sacrifices her for mystical might to pursue Reed-y revenge in FF: Unthinkable)or
B) reverse field based on character aspects other than their primary raison d’etre (I thought Civil War missed an opportunity on this one; how ’bout JJJ, upset at losing his outsider status, the defining aspect of the paper he publishes diluted and co-opted, suddenly comes out against the superhero registration act. His selfish motivations aren’t betrayed despite the seemingly incongruous choice.
A character who can’t surprise you (whilst behaving “in character”) is an under-developed character.

I don’t care what writers think of fans… unless they’re openly contemptuous. Which makes me wonder why they even write comics.

I see what you mean Dan, but in what Brian describes it can cause the story to suffer, even if it’s not meant to be openly contemptuous. In the case of Blood Syndicate they killed the most interesting character of the book just to shock readers.

Well, by “openly contemptuous” I mean what Bill Willingham said in response to Leslie Tompkins being a murderer, Any Devin Grayson interview from 2001-2003, Tom Peyer’s bizarre editorial in Animal Man #50.

I happened to think the death of Tech-9 was a great twist and added to the book. The artwork by ChrisCross, on the other hand… not so much.

And lest anyone think I’m ganging up on DC creators, two words for ya: “Chuck Austen”, who blames all his problems on fan hatred. Yes, when your books aren’t good, fans hate them, they don’t read them, they DON’T SELL, you don’t get hired by anyone.

Kyle, I agree mostly, but I would say post-Unbreakable, not post-Sixth Sense. I thought Unbreakable kicked ass.

Re: M Night

I think that the main reason M Night gets a lot of flak is that the viewer is expecting the twist, and he feels pressure to provide it.

I went into The Village expecting a well done suspence story. I didn’t go into it trying to figure out what the twist would be. And, I really enjoyed it.

My best friend went in with the empowered knowledge that he figured out the twist in Sixth Sense, and felt that he had something to prove, and that he could figure out the twist before anyone else. And, he felt that the movie was weak.

I feel that expectaion has a lot to do with enjoyment, in all entertainment. If you go into a JSA TP (for example) expecting to be disappointed, you can find plenty of reasons to justify disappointment. Or, you can go into reading the Secret Wars TP, expecting a nice nostalgic romp through the most popular Marvel characters of the 80s, and find plenty of reasons to justify enjoyment.

Theno

I don’t know why this one bugged me. I guess because it was the end of my run, and I should have left after issue 30. Dwayne left the book as editor and another totally lame guy (who was an editor who wrangled his way into writing and had previously stolen another writer’s book out from under him) took over. He not only gave a story to the ‘filler’ guy who was supposed to do a fill-in for a couple of issues while I rebooted (I set up Brick’s pregnancy and had a specific story to go with it and then I find that the other writer has Brick give birth and totally disrespected 10 issues of build up…). Things were horrible afterwards with the lame-editor giving me newbie artists totally not fit for the book, and editing the hell out of my dialogue (the element that shines in my stories). I was also told by this lame-editor that I was to no longer receive new character agreements on new characters, and that anything new would not belong to me. That killed it for me. I was ready to leave and was just treading water until I could find an out.\

The last issue ended abruptly. I was allowed 10 extra pages to finish the series on a story I had already written.

Tech-9 was supposed to really be Tech-9. Yes, it was Masquerade … but Mask was POSSESSED by Tech-9′s spirit. Mask didn’t know what was going on. In fact, the end of the story would have ended with Tech’s spirit invading the statue over his grave, and becoming a sort of ‘living gun’.

But instead, we got what we got, and the last few issues of Blood Syndicate unworthy of toilet paper.

Still pissed about it.

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