Today's escapist storytellers share a rich legacy, from classic TV to great SF novels. But most of us also guzzled superhero comics during our formative years. And the writing of Stan Lee, John Byrne and countless others shaped us, in good ways and bad. Here are seven story pitfalls we picked up from classic superhero comics.
George R.R. Martin wrote fan letters to Marvel Comics. And many of today's most prominent television writers cut their teeth on superhero comics as well. And it's easy to see how people benefited from an early exposure to the work of great comics creators, including a sense of dynamism and a love of escapism. You can learn so much about great storytelling from reading classic superhero comics.
At the same time, sometimes the influence of classic comics can be a mixed bag, and you pick up stuff that could be a hindrance. Including these overused habits:
1. Action scenes just happen, because it's time for one
Especially in older superhero comics, fight scenes just sort of erupt every few pages. When two heroes meet, they have to fight before they can team up, villains just randomly attack or turn out to be robbing a bank nearby, etc. etc. It's kind of awesome and beautiful, but also a smidge random. Like, action happens not because it drives the story or even because it makes you want to pump your fist in the air — but just because there's a need for a few pages of punching here. And you definitely see that in lots of movies and some books and television too. There's nothing wrong with a gratuitous action scene, as long as it's actually awesome and not just obligatory.
2. Ornamental Dialogue
Back in the day, tons of superhero comics were written in the "Marvel style," where the writer would supply a detailed outline, the artist would draw it, and then dialogue would be added last. But even in other cases, often the artist would wind up changing things around to the point where all new dialogue had to be slotted in. (And in some cases, one writer came up with the story, and a different writer got the finished pages and made up dialogue, sometimes just coming up with random jokes to fit each panel.) In any case, one of the hallmarks of comic book-influenced writing, on occasion, is the scene in which the pacing is "off" because unnecessary amounts of dialogue is being thrown in. Or there's a long speech (akin to one designed to fill a splash page). Or — my favorite — people pause in the middle of an action scene to trade quips or barbs.
3. Grim and angsty = tough and sophisticated
Especially starting in the mid-1980s with the new, edgy wave of superhero comics, comics creators took on the notion that "grim 'n' gritty" heroes and copious amounts of angst were a reasonable substitute for depth. By the 1990s, everybody was going "dark," and wallowing in angst was the preferred mode of emotional expression for everyone from the X-Men to the Justice League. And the influence of grim/angsty storytelling on heroic narratives can still be seen today, with fantastic superpowers often portrayed as a terrible burden that weighs down your soul.
4. The Illusion of Change
Stan Lee invented the notion of "illusion of change" to explain how, in his comics, you would be tricked into thinking the story was developing while it actually wasn't. And if you read those phone book-sized Essential Marvel volumes, you really get a sense of this — the story is constantly churning and the status quo constantly seems to shift. But any actual change in the characters' circumstances is glacial or illusory, or subject to sudden reversals. It's not that characters like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner didn't change over time — but if you read their comics month to month, you'd be left with the impression that things were happening at blinding speed, while in fact it took years for real shifts to occur. Lots of people creating serialized narratives nowadays try to create the same "illusion of change," with mixed results — when done badly, or overdone, it can just look like nothing in the story makes any sense, because the superficial changes seem too random.
5. Over-reliance on "Origin Stories"
This one is slightly more of a gray area — origin stories can be a powerful tool in heroic stories, and they can help to make a hero or villain seem clear and relatable. A single story sets up the hero or villain's motivation and explains how they got launched on this path. But not everybody has a single incident that causes all of his or her behavior. And not everybody has a single, clear-cut motivation that "explains" everything — people sometimes are just a product of their upbringing and a constellation of random experiences. So not everybody needs an "origin story."
6. Female characters are just love interests or distaff versions of the men
This is a problem with heroic narratives generally, going back centuries — but superhero comics gave us the stereotypical romance narrative, where Lois Lane loves Superman but spurns Clark Kent, not realizing they're the same guy. And while characters like Lois Lane or Mary Jane Watson are tough and adventurous, they're also usually defined by their relationships to their male heroes — plus superhero comics gave us the weird trend of creating female versions of male characters, like She-Hulk, Spider-Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl or Ms. Marvel. Instead of getting to be their own heroes, female characters often got stuck becoming the "girl" versions of the "men." And writers who were influenced by superhero comics often get stuck with this mindset. Supergirl/Batgirl art by Thony Silas Dias de Aguiar
7. Reboots, retcons, imaginary stories and insane redundancy
And finally, there's the big one. Superhero comics really pioneered the notion of retcons — aka retroactive continuity, in which some element is introduced in the hero's past which we're told was "always" true. And then, with stories like Crisis on Infinite Earths, superhero comics also gave us the "reboot," in which a hero's past is completely rewritten by someone punching reality or whatever. And going back to the 1960s, superhero stories also gave us the "imaginary story," like the saga of Superman and Batman's sons — which probably led to the final season of Roseanne among other things. And finally, superhero stories have given us insane redundancy, in which the same stories are told over and over again with the details slightly changed each time. All of this has helped to pioneer the notion that continuity is important — important enough to obsess over — but completely gooey and fungible. You can squash continuity and smush it and stretch it out and warp it back on itself, and it'll bounce back somehow. Hence the years of movies and TV shows (and sometimes even books) screwing around with their own continuity and also endlessly mashing the "restart" button on long-running sagas.