Cliches. Things that crop up with such frequency that an alert person can spot them coming a mile away. While cliches can be found in all walks of human endeavor, this month I'm going to talk about comic book plot cliches. My inspiration for addressing this topic comes from one of my favorite correspondents, Dean Shomshak of Gig Harbor, WA, who out of the blue sent me his list of candidates for the five biggest cliches found in Marvel Comics. I'm going to quote him verbatim now, then I'll be back with my own list. (Who says writing a monthly column has to be hard?) Take it away, Dean...
'1. The U.S. government is up to no good. Okay so the government really does do a lot of bad stuff, but it does good things, too. Some of the bad things are done from good (if mistaken) intentions. Why can't a government agent or agency be in the right once in a while? Even Sikorski, the most sympathetically presented government employee I can think of, keeps being forced into duty playing the heavy.
2. When mystics and technologists disagree, the mystics are proved right in the end. Alas, no matter how much I like Dr. Strange and other magical heroes, the plain truth is in real life mystics are often lunatics or fools. Several Nazi leaders were mystics. The dehumanizing Hindu caste system is based on mysticism. On the other hand, every improvement the modern age can claim over the Renaissance can be traced to solid scientific investigation. I would love to see a mystic be shown up by a scientist or technologist, just once.
3. Anyone who doesn't hate mutants is a latent mutant, or has a super-powered relative in the family. None of the mutant heroes has a human friend who's appeared more than twice in the last four years. The senator who disaproved of the Stryker Crusade turned out to be a latent mutant. The Power parents have super-powered children though they don't know it yet. Fortunately Chris Claremont, who built this cliche singlehandedly, may now be dismantling it. I'll be watching to see if he wimps out with Alistair and Alysdane Stuart in EXCALIBUR and X-MEN.
4. Mutants always talk about themselves as a separate species. 'Mutants and humans must learn to live together'-- not 'people with and without weird powers must learn to live together.' Talk about letting the opposition control the dialog.
5. Amerindians always call on the Great Spirit. Never mind up to 400 years of missionary work. American Indians are never ordinary Catholics or Presbyterians or Baptists-- and these do exist in real life. (Wyatt Wingfoot may be the exception, since I can't remember him showing any religious inclination at all.'
Okay, I'm back. Neat list, huh? My second reaction after I read it (my first being 'Neat list, huh?') was didn't I make up a list of comic book cliches I wanted to avoid once? So I dug deep into my closet, skimming through idea notebook after idea notebook until I found it, a list of cliches I swore to avoid as a comic book writer. It's dated May 1976, the year I moved to New York, and two years before I was to write my first professional comic book. Here's what it said:
'As a comic book scripter, I vow to never write comic book stories that contain the following cliches:
1. A time travel story that undoes itself; where reality twists about such that at the end of the story nobody remembers doing any of the things in the story. Why do a story that doesn't make a difference?
2. A story where the villain is defeated when the hero or heroes somehow harness emotions, 'goodness', or some abstract value and bombard the villain with it. I hate that stuff. I don't really believe these values exist as literal, objective energies so they shouldn't be employed as if they were.
3. An alien invasion story where the aliens waltz down and want to: a) steal and deplete Earth's natural resources, be it animal, vegetable, mineral, plankton, water, etc. Any alien culture with the technology to transport billions of tons of whatever back to their world should be able to come up with an easier solution to whatever shortage they have. b) colonize, apparently unaware that four billion inhabitants already live here and have done a number on Earth's resources. And if they intend to exterminate the population first, what a stupid, messy, time-consuming job. Wouldn't it be easier to terraform Mars? c) destroy Earth for its energy. As if Earth were the only possible fuel source in the tri-planet area...!
4. Poorly motivated hero vs. hero battles. Poor motivations include simple misunderstandings, 'just testing to see if you were all you're reputed to be', and 'just wanted to make sure you were who you say you are'.
5. Stories where good triumphs simply because it is 'better' than evil. I don't think that's the way the world works, and it's a bad message to put in comics. A better message would be the one who works or tries the hardest wins.
6. Stories where villains don't take into account past defeats and haven't solved whatever shortcoming it was that allowed them to be defeated last time.'
And that's my list. While this isn't particularly a list of Marvel cliches (hey, I didn't know what company I might write for at the time), I have read stories employing these cliches published by Marvel as well as by other companies. Looking back over them thirteen years later, I still stand by them all, though I just might have violated my 'poorly motivated hero vs. hero battle' cliche once or twice somewhere. Go ahead, somebody, make me a list of poorly motivated hero vs. hero fights in stories I've written-- I challenge you! What I'd like the rest of you to do is send me your list of annoying comic book cliches like good ol' Dean did. If I get enough good ones, I may devote a future column to the topic.
Now I'm going to leave you this time with a quote I found scrawled in the inside front cover of the idea notebook I cribbed my cliche list from. I have no idea where I got it from since I didn't list the source. For all I know it may be original. Anyway, till next time, ponder this sentiment: 'A mutant deliberately creates conditions for himself so severe that he must either transform or become extinct.'
-- Mark Gruenwald