A couple installments back I did a long diatribe on the odds that those who choose to submit their to us have in breaking into the industry through the "blind submissions" route. As I anticipated, the mail I've received has included several of the "how dare you stomp on our fantasies of becoming a pro" and the "well, if that's Marvel policy, then I'll bet you're letting the next Frank Miller or Todd MacFarlene slip right by unnoticed" variety. To answer the first type of letter, I'd like to reiterate what I warned pretty admantly in my previous column-- don't read on if you're the easily discouraged type. To respond to the second type of letter, let me say that I truly believe that those "destined" to toil in the fields of professional comics will find a way to do so no matter what obstacles the uncaring, unfeeling, insensitive, powers-that-be may throw in their paths. That is to say, I don't believe we're letting a single Miller- or McFarlene-level talent get away. Part of what makes a person Miller- or McFarlene-level is perseverance and drive, the need to create, to storytell, to do comics-- against all odds. And if I'm wrong, if indded an M and M-level talent slips through unencouraged and unhired, we're never going to miss him or her because there's only ten other guys or gals who do have the perseverance and drive to take that one's place. I really feel strongly about this, folkds. While I'm discussing the mail, let me thank those of you who took the time to write me notes of appreciation for telling you the truth of the submissions situation.
Ahem. Now then...the second half of the aforementioned column discussed a specific plot submission. And after giving it a once-over-lightly critique, I invited the plotters to give plotting another try, and I would do in this space just the thing that none of Marvel's staff of fifteen-odd editors has the time for in real life: to develop and work with an utried newcomer in an attempt to make his or her story publishable by Marvel's standards. Submitted for my approval is a 5-page Captain America story by Jean-Jacques Dzialowski and Louis DeRoys of Paris, France. I invited the guys to do a Cap story since it's a well-known Marvel hero with which I have a good deal of familiarity.
Without further aod, the plot submission...
Plot for 5 pages featuring CAPTAIN AMERICA
"Dreams and realities"
1: Splash: In the subway, CAPTAIN AMERICA is standing motionless, brooding, oblivious to the flabbergasted and surprised New Yorkers around him. He is looking toward the windows on his right, therefore on the left hand side of the page. He seems rather sad, depressed. Various people, adults and kids, are standing and sitting beside him, each one of them adopting a different attitude toward the super soldier. For example, on the far left of the picture (at the bottom of the page) and right in front of him is a kid who is hesitanting to ask for an autograph also, on the far right (still at bottom) is another kid, partly off panel, running toward the hero. There are as well a tourist (behind Cap) who is looking at him with interest and admiration, an older man who seems a little bit absent-minded, a young man looking with envy and amazement, a black man, contemtuous and distrustful and finally, a beautiful young girl, smiling winsomely.
2: Horizontal panel across the top of the page of Cap, looking at the reflection of his face in the subway windows, still brooding. The tunnel's lights can be seen outside. This picture gives way to another one, still within this first panel, on the right side, as Cap's dark thoughts take him back to the moment that triggered all his present questioning of the American Dream today: A tired Cap is chasing a street thug somewhere in the streets of Manhattan; the pursuit, which takes place in the evening, is sort of short duration as the thug-- on whom we have a close in as he looks timidly behind, scared and sweating-- soon joins an entire street gang which was apparently prepared to welcome the hero with "all the due honors." A close up on Cap's moderately surprised face-- he was expecting some kind of trap all along-- enables us to see a sneaky gang member behind him, bearing down on him with a club. Now we hurry up the action as the man stands ready to make his move (close up on uppper body part), he is frowning and his eyes are filled with rage and scorn. Another front view shows Cap losing his balance as he receives the blow on his neck (though we don't see it yet, his shield has just fallen down and rolls on the pavement).
3: Another horizontal panel across the top of the page of Cap lying down seemingly unconscious. In truth, he is shamming because he wants to know the reason why a mere street gang planned his capture. Some gang members start gathering around him, but we can only see their feet and boots. Cap listens to them celebrate their easy victory over what they think was an unsuspecting prey, stupidly heedless of the trick. We (and Cap) then realize that we are dealing with true amateurs, at least as far as super hero capture is concerned. We are introduced to the gang leader, a young man who is not too happy about the course of things. Afterward, we turn our attention toward the still rolling shield, on which go closer and closer till we reach a full shot of the star, after which is falls down with a bang. "Half an hour! I've been playing with them for almost half an hour and now I've had enough!" Cap thinks, slowly opening his eyes, distinguishing before him three persons (among whom is the gang leader) surrounded by many blinding spotlights.
4: "They've chained me to a chair!" Cap thinks. "They've chained me and gagged me! What kind of amateurs are they? I could break free anytime I choose to! What's their game anyway?" The gang leader (back to us) approaches him while the two others remain behind, and it gives us the opportunity to have a first look at the place in which we are, that is, a warehouse. A lamp sheds light upon Cap, who is front of the leader. We then focus on the leader's face, watching Cap with cold and awfully clam eyes. Two radiant spotlights behind him blind the star-spangled hero. "This time, that does it!" He think. "I'm going to--" "How do you feel?" the leader says suddenly. "Powerless perhaps?" "Only in your mind." Cap thinks. We have a full front shot of Cap, chained and gagged, a spotlight pointed at him; he does indeed look powerless and ticked off. He wants some answers and he wants them now! The leader unleashes violently at Cap, grasping his costume (side view). "Just who do you think you are, man? Making big bloody speeches 'bout doos and don'ts, 'bout what's right o' wrong, 'bout so-called American Dream you pretend to stand for?!!", the leader says. Cap is visibly taken aback. From then, we will proceed to a slow zooming in on Cap's face and then on his left eye (right for us). Each focus will be alternating with the leader's interventions. "Do you know," he says, "do you know kids kill for a candy bar here?! Do you know there are still countless homeless who die each day in your great dreamy country? Do you know all that?!!" Now, Cap starts realizing what is going on. He is livid.
5: The leader gets more and more infuriated. He clenches a fist in front of him and points a finger at Cap. He tells us that Cap recently went to an orphange to warn kids about the danger of drug addiction and to ask them to be true to the American Dream. "Only, does it still exist?!", the leader shouts out. "Are you blind or what? You just have to open your eyes in the streets to see your blasted values are forever lost in your blasted past! Unless, maybe you're still livin' in the 40s? They say you save butts time and again, that you're sooo powerful...so what are ya waitin' for to save us?! Or p'rhaps the big hero is helpless...helpless to change his precious flawed country...Sometimes things are better forgotten, uh? So don't tell me to respect your bloody inexistent ideals!" Cap is as paralyzed, his mind has gone blank, there is no spark in his eyes. "There's no place for the likes of you here today, anyway! Your time is up!" The leader now tries and gets ahold of himself, he speaks calmly, searching for a way out of his world of violence and anarchy. He says he never wanted this but for him and his gang-- as for many others-- there was no choice. "Your government loves challenges so much," he says, "so instead o' spending money on wars, what 'bout spending money on us?! You know, some of us would like to go to college..."
"They say you stand for justice, for the rights of men...p'rhaps we ain't worth the effort..." Cap('s eye) is completely beleaguered. "Remember," he continues. "we've nothing but a choice, to live, with all that entails, or die." The leader eventually takes his leave and an hour will go by before Cap decides to burst his shackles and go away, still reeling from the shock. We then return to present time mode as Cap, still in the subway, swears to give back the grandeur to his Dream, to make it come tru. Literally. For as long as he will live, he will remain true to it. Looking forward to achieving his goal, a moment long overdue, Cap starts planning measures...
Okay, I'm back. Now...where to begin? Well, first let me say that five pages is not a lot of space to tell a story in, and the limited space factor has to be taken into account in plotting such a tale. It is by no means an impossible length to tell a story in-- I do five-page stories in the back of a certain Marvel super hero's magazine (no plugs allowed) on a regular basis, and even though many of my five-pagers are continued, I introduce the characters, set up some conflicts, and resolve at least one of these conflicts every episode. So it can be done. What a five-pager forces one to do is be extremely economical and throw out every single element that does not demand to be there.
That being said, having a framing device so that the thrust of the story takes place in flashback is an incredible waste of space. I believe that one has to have an extraordinarily compelling reason to invert chronological order in a story, and in the plot at hand, to give Cap a page and a half of space to passively brood is not what I deem a compelling reason. In a five-pager you have to get into the meat of the story fast-- in fact, trimming away all excess story fat, you virtually have to start already in that meat of the story. Or as Cap himself might say, "You've got to hit the ground running." In this case, it would be Cap already in the midst of the street fight where we are (almost) introduced to the central conflict of the story.
A note on introducing characters in comics. Characters, even those in a 96-page story, should be introduced in such a way as to maximize the amount of information you can get in about them. And since the comic book is a visual medium, that introduction to each character demands to be visual. Figure out the essential things a reader has to know about Cap in order to understand a story about him, then find something-- an event, a situation, an activity-- that enables you to show and tell the most number of things. Let's boil down Cap to the irreduceables and see what traits we have: 1) He's a man of action. 2) He represents the ideals of America. 3) He wears a costume proclaiming his connection with America. 4) He's a man of honor. 5) He has no astounding superhuman powers, he's simply one of the world's most capable combatants. 6) He carries a shield that can be used both for defense or offense. 7) He's a brilliant strategist with an indomitable will to succeed. All right then, so how many can we work into our very first glimpse of Cap, and how many will we have to save for later? Well, in the splash page in question, the only thing we have introduced of these seven is that he wears a costume proclaiming his connection to America. I think we could have utilized one fifth of the entire story to give more than one-seventh of Cap's essential characteristics. Cap, in characteristic action, would go a long way.
Many novice writers belive that action and characterization are at odds-- you can either do one or the other. Frequently we'll see a plot that says in effect, "time out from the action to do a character scene." I believe that's wrong, that characters show their characteristics through action. Put Cap, Spider-Man, and the Punisher in an identical situation-- say, in the midst of a street fight scene like the one here-- and if we are true to their characters, we will see them react in three completely different manners. Whenever possible, characters should act their characterization, not think it!
Okay, so after trimming the clutter and cutting straight to the chase, we get Cap in the middle of a street gang somewhere in Manhattan. At this point, as much as the order-monger in me would like to deconstruct the story page by page, sequence by sequence, I'm going to have to address matters pertaining to the whole of the story here, since it affects virtually every other panel after the splash page. My first question to the story's authors is: What is this story about? If I may be so presumptuous as to answer my own question for Messers. Dzialowski and DeRoys, I'd venture that the story is about Cap learning about the plight of the homeless in Manhattan. This to me is a worthy theme for a Captain America story. Cap's character naturally lends itself to the examination of certain issues prevalent in modern America, and I myself have frequently used such issues as springboards for my stories.
Okay, so the story is about Cap and the homeless. Permit me to ask (and answer) a few more questions pertaining to the content of the story as it applies to story structure. In these questions and answers, story and character requirements will be made evident...How is Cap introduced to the central theme of the story (homelessness)? He meets a gang of homeless people... What is it the homeless people want? They want, or least their leader wants, Cap to acknowledge the homeless people's situation and for him to get the government to spend money on the homeless... How do they go about trying to get what they want? They capture Cap and give him an impassioned speech on the righteousness of their position... What does Cap want in the story? At first he wants to capture a thug (who did something Cap apparently doesn't approve of although it's not specified). Then he wants to know why this thug is part of a street gang... How does Cap try to go about getting what he wants? First by chasing the thug and then by surrendering to the street gang, feigning unconsciousness, and listening to an impassioned speech... How is the situation resolved? Cap breaks free after hearing the speech, profoundly affected by it, and apparently decides a) to let the thug he was chasing go, b) to not inform the street leader that violence and intimidation is an inappropriate, ineffective, or illegal manner to get one's point across, and c) go to Washington to ask for the monetary appropriations the street leader demanded. I'm assuming these things since the framing device interrupts just at the point where some of this would be made clear... What is preventing Cap from giving the street leader what he wants? Apparently nothing. Cap has the blinders lifted from his eyes and agrees to it unflichingly.
All right. Looking at this overview of the character motivations and actions, we should be able to see where the story's problems lie. Some of them have to do with character, some of them have to do with the story events. Let's start with story events. Reducing this story to its basic actions, we have Cap meets leader, Cap captured by leader, Cap listens to leader, Cap breaks free and decides to do what leader wants. Even if this weren't about a character who's defined as a "man of action", there isn't a lot of action here. Furthermore, there's no real conflict between the two characters. What is the turning point of the story, the point at which the story is decided in either the protagonist's or antagonist's favor? It's when Cap, tied up and sitting down, mentally decides the antagonist (the leader) is right. I purposely used the expression "mentally decides", despite the fact that it is redundant (all decisions are mental by their nature), to emphasize that the turning point is an inner action-- something that cannot be seen. In a visual medium such as comics, this is one of the closest things we have to a cardinal sin. If indeed a turning point is reached mentally, this mental resolution must be expressed physically --visually-- in some way, in order to meet the requirements of the medium. Boiling down the actions of the story as we did above, my central criticism of the story is...nothing happens in five pages except one guy talks to another guy!
As for character motivations, I'm afraid that this story apparently shows an extremely limited understanding of Cap's character and essential nature (see the seven character traits above). While it is just barely feasible that Cap would feign weakness and unconsciousness in order to get information, I can think of at least three other ways he could achieve the same thing without looking like a pushover and by doing something more visual than losing a fight and sitting around tied up. Furthermore, while no one living in New York City could be unaware of the omnipresent legions of homeless persons, it is possible for the sake of argument that Cap has not had time to give the issue an incredible amount of thought. Yet all the leader does is narrate the plight of the homeless (and orphans), he does not show it in any dramatic way whatsoever. And this is supposed to be so compelling that Cap reorders his career priorities? What I read wasn't, and I'm not the impassioned idealist Cap is.
The leader says Cap told some orphans to "be true" to the American Dream. I assume that means "believe in" the American Dream. As I see it, the American Dream is that there's a place (America) where you have the freedom to better yourself, to make you life what you wish it to be, regardless of your race, creed, sex, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. This is not the American Guarantee, that all people will be able to better themselves-- only the American Dream, that all people will have an equal opportunity to better themselves. Cap believes in that dream, he fights to make that dream possible for others by battling the enemies of freedom, and he may indeed try to foster this dream in others. To "be true" to this dream, you would indeed try to better your lot in life, whatever that lot is. Does Cap know that America is not perfect, that not everyone has the opportunity to pursue the American Dream in his/her particular fashion? I think so. But to paraphrase the words of a former American president, "Others look at the way things are and ask why. I look at the way things should be and ask why not." Cap goes farther, and does what one man with no special powers can to make things in America as they "should be". Sending Cap to Washington to ask for appropriations for the homeless not only misdirects Cap's mission in America but I feel is not the sort of action in character with him. As a child of the streets orphaned at an early age himself, Cap can relate to the plight of the poor already and very probably does not feel that government welfare will ultimately help very many of these homeless individuals learn to be self-sufficient. Finally, having Cap walk away in essence condoning the violent means the street leader used to make his point is woefully out of character. No matter what the leader's message was, the ends do not justify the means, Cap would think. And finally, the worst single element of the story: Cap loses because he's wrong. I'd have a problem with a story where Cap loses to begin with; one where he loses because he's wrong about something so basic as his total belief system is way off the mark. The essence of heroic fiction is to let heroes do something heroic.
Bottom line. We have an unpublishable story here. While Cap encoutering the homeless could make an interesting story (I've been working on an angle for one for several months now), that story would have to let Cap act in character, let Cap do something heroic, and played out through action, not talk. I realize now that Cap is an exceedingly difficult character to write due to his complicated ideals, and he may be even more so for non-Americans to get a handle on. Okay, Messers. Dzialowski and DeRoys, let's pick another character-- Spider-Man maybe--- and take another try at a five-page plot. Please bear in mind the points I made relating to the structure of short stories in general, okay? To be continued.