Jan 05 2009

What are some common mistakes of comic book and graphic novel teams?

We’re compiling a list of common mistakes of first-time comic book teams. I’ve got 40 so far, but I’d love to know what you would come up with.


  1. The writers rely too much on exposition (especially narration but sometimes dialogue) to tell the story.
  2. The heroes are so powerful it’s hard to challenge them.  If your heroes can only be challenged by a supervillain or a team of supervillains, it will make it harder for you to write fight scenes.
  3. The cast is too large.  If you’re writing a new series, I’d recommend against using more than 5 heroes.  We probably won’t be able to remember them and you probably won’t have time to develop them at all.
  4. The story does not establish in the first three pages that the character is interesting.  The easiest way to do this is to show a likable character facing a serious problem.  It doesn’t have to be life-and-death danger, but it helps.
  5. The premise/world are not consistent.  If your story starts out as sci-fi but later introduces magic, it’ll probably feel disorienting.  For example, it feels really tacky when Spiderman fights a magical character.
  6. The story rewinds, undoing something significant that happens.  (IE: Someone coming back from the grave).
  7. Heavy flashbacking.
  8. The characters don’t get enough opportunities to mix things up.  If the hero solves all of his problems in the same way, it will probably get tedious.  For example, if your character is a hard-boiled tank, occasionally place him in a situation where he has to solve his problem peacefully.  Separate Tony Stark from his powersuit for a scene, etc.
  9. The characters lack any distinguishing traits.
  10. The characters’ traits are inconsistent.
  11. The world has an inconsistent level of weirdness.
  12. Characters that aren’t fresh enough.
  13. Poor power selection (particularly time travel, telekinesis, resurrection, mind-reading and prophecy)
  14. Political propaganda in an otherwise nonpolitical comic.
  15. Lack of a clear target audience.
  16. The plot lacks urgency.  A character walking from his door to his house is not very interesting.  Running to his car to make it to work on time is better.  Running to his car to avoid bulletfire?  Even better.
  17. Padded pages where nothing much happens.
  18. Names that end in Boy, Man, Lad, Girl, Woman, etc. or use a military rank are very outdated.  Unless you’re going for comedic effect, I’d recommend leaving these to the Golden Age.
  19. Make sure that the names work well for conversation.  If your character’s name is something like the Dark Sorcerer, what will you do if/when somebody needs to name him in conversation?  “Hey, Sorcerer, give me a hand” sounds awkward.  Marvel got around this with Dr. Strange by making Dr. Strange the name and “the Sorcerer Supreme” just the title.
  20. The story spells out something that should be obvious from the graphics.  “Agent Orange is a reptile.”  Ya think?
  21. The dialogue tells us something that should be shown in a visual.  “I am angry!”
  22. The characters have powers that are too complex or require too much introduction.
  23. The characters (or perhaps the plot) are too close to existing heroes.
  24. The series title should sound flavorful and interesting to prospective readers.
  25. Characters that are stone-silent are hard to characterize.
  26. Overreliance on thought bubbles instead of dialogue or ideally art (actions, body language, expression, etc).
  27. Chosen One heroes.  If possible, make your hero work for what he has rather than just be born super.
  28. Try to avoid using more than 175 words on a page.  That includes dialogue, narration, thought bubbles, etc.
  29. By the end of the first issue, something major needs to have happened to the superhero.  If he hasn’t gotten his superpowers and had at least one super action sequence, the story is probably paced too slowly.


  1. Wasted splashes.
  2. Cheesecake (grossly oversexing women characters).
  3. Visuals that don’t tell a story.
  4. Characters that lack a visual theme.  (What impression are we supposed to get about the character?)
  5. Bland angles.  (The characters should almost never be looking directly at the camera.)
  6. Forgettable poses.  Don’t have the character just sit down in a chair, have him fold a leg over the armrest.
  7. Excessively ornate costumes.
  8. Mismatched costumes.  If your comic is aimed at older readers, it probably shouldn’t have capes and bright, gaudy colors.
  9. Awful anatomy.  OK, it’s “stylized” but after a point the style is probably going to feel hard on the eyes.  As a rule of thumb, if you want to stylize the anatomy, I’d recommend altering the proportions of a human body by no more than 33%.  Anything more than that is likely to look painful.
  10. Cluttered shots, particularly on the cover.
  11. Expressions and poses in a dialogue that don’t fit what the characters are saying.  The writer really needs to coordinate this with his artist.
  12. Please don’t make characters ludicrously muscular.  It doesn’t actually look attractive.  For example, if your character is twice as muscular as a Navy SEAL, he’s probably going to look like he’s overdosing on steroids.
  13. Scenes that lack a setting.  Give us enough to know where we are.
  14. Try to avoid using more than 8 panels on a page or 3 panels on a row.  It has been done well before, but only rarely.

Lettering & Bubbles

  1. Bubbles that are too small.  See this article for more details.
  2. Crappy font selection (Comic Sans, Time New Roman and Arial, especially).  Comic Sans is so bad that it gives editors nightmares.  If you use Comic Sans, please slap yourself in the face and randomly select a new font.  It’ll be better.  
  3. An illegible font
  4. Changing fonts too often.  Don’t give a character his own font unless his voice sounds really different (Tony Stark vs. Ironman or Thor vs. everybody else).
  5. A logo that’s insufficiently stylish/legible
  6. Inconsistent default font & size.  Readers are perceptive and will notice that the text does not look the same from one page to the next.   Don’t change fonts or the font-size unless you have a good reason to.  (The characters are whispering or otherwise speaking unusually, or one character has such a different voice that he needs his own font, etc).
  7. Don’t use quotation marks in speech bubbles.
  8. When you’re bubbling, try to avoid having bubbles that are too long and narrow.  For example, if your sentence has ten words in it, it would probably look much better to put a linebreak so it’s two lines of around five words each.

32 responses so far

32 Responses to “What are some common mistakes of comic book and graphic novel teams?”

  1. Mia.xoxoon 06 Jul 2009 at 9:29 am

    When writing about a group of characters that act like a team (sort of like in Heroes), is it okay to have the members constantly changing? I know Heroes created a bit of frustration for me since some the characters felt underdeveloped, but it would be against some of my characters’ personalities to keep them working in groups for too long.

  2. B. Macon 06 Jul 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I’d recommend keeping the core team more or less consistent, but you can always work in side-characters on a temporary basis. The team’s objectives coincide with the side-characters from time to time, but generally the side-characters aren’t with the team.

  3. ShardReaperon 13 Jul 2009 at 7:48 pm

    B. Mac, I like how you pointed out that superhero names that end with Boy, Lad, Girl, etc. are cliche and how the characters might be close to preexisting heroes. You’ve read my thing, Project Hero, right? I literally had to go through a superhero/supervillain name lexicon to find names that weren’t taken or obscure enough. Are Megawatt, Arsenal, Leech, and Deadeye okay?

  4. Marissaon 13 Jul 2009 at 11:22 pm

    I love Megawatt. Wished I’d thought it up myself. 😛 Arsenal is great too.

    I can’t promise they aren’t taken. Leech is, I’m almost positive.

  5. B. Macon 14 Jul 2009 at 12:09 am

    Megawatt is already taken. Maybe try Gigawatt instead?

    Arsenal has been used by Marvel and DC Comics. These characters aren’t exactly A-list, but since they’re used by companies with a propensity to sue, I’d recommend coming up with a variant or alternative.

    Leech is a recurring character in X-Men. He played a really important role in the third X-Men movie. I think he’s too visible for Marvel to let go.

    Deadeye is one of the Exiles, I think. Possibly obscure enough that Marvel won’t sue.

  6. Tomon 14 Jul 2009 at 2:02 am

    Christ, are there any names that AREN’T taken?

    Also, I had a minor character called Leech, I’ll have to rename him.

  7. B. Macon 14 Jul 2009 at 2:20 am

    Tom, if the publisher (or TV station in your case) is interested in the book or series, it will probably pick it up even if it thinks the names need to be changed later. Changing a name is simple. In contrast, if I submitted a novel script that pretty much ripped the plot off from Harry Potter, publishers would reject me because the necessary changes would be enormous.

    Also, it’s entirely plausible that the editors and publisher’s assistants involved in the acquisitions process might not have heard of someone like Deadeye. Particularly if you’re writing a novel or a TV script, the people making the final decision will generally not have a strong background in comic books and comic book characters. So… just make sure that you stay away obvious ripoffs (“and then Goku slapped Harry Potter!”) and you should be fine.

  8. Davidon 14 Jul 2009 at 4:57 am

    well how about thse for names Everest,Deathrose, Genrel bloodclaw, Heartsnap,
    Coldbite, Darksho, Lightstreak, Teawig, thats all i can think of currently

  9. Wingson 14 Jul 2009 at 11:51 am

    I’d like to ask the same for mine – Sparks, Gabriel, Mindwave, Titan, Nimbus, and Nightshade. I can afford to replace Nimbus, Mindwave, and maybe Gabriel.

    – Wings

  10. Wingson 14 Jul 2009 at 11:53 am

    I think I’ll be okay on the costume front – there are none in book 1, and in book two the active heroes (excluding Jazz, as a shapeshifter) only wear masks.

    – Wings

  11. NicKennyon 17 Jul 2010 at 12:05 pm

    How many is too many characters in a team for a first novel.
    I have eight heroes:

    Angel (worried about that but it’s the only name that’ll fit the character. Or Archangel but guess what? That’s taken too!) He has wings and can absorb other people’s superpowers by touch.

    Arc Lightning. He generates and controls electricity

    Ghost and Shadow. Male and Female twins. Superspeed.

    Peacemaker. He can remove people’s abilities and/or knock them unconcious by touch.

    Siren. Controls minds through her voice.

    Vixen. A Werebeast. She can turn into animals. Preferred form is a fox. Loses control of her body during the full moon to a sinister alter ego. Will become permanant when she’s an adult.

    Pulse. She can omit auric pulses which overload the aura of living things causing unconciousness, death or, in some extreme cases, explosion.

    Am starting to think that may be too many for one book. I think I might give Ghost and Shadow a small role until one of the group dies and the inevitable happens to Vixen. Any thoughts?

  12. B. Macon 17 Jul 2010 at 12:51 pm

    For a first time author, I’d recommend no more than 4-5 action teammates. (If there are characters that only work behind the scenes or in a logistical capacity, I think they probably wouldn’t gunk up the works during fight scenes or steal too much screen-time).

    “Angel (worried about that but it’s the only name that’ll fit the character.)” If the ONLY thing that can be said about the character is that he’s an angel or looks like one, I’d recommend developing him a bit more. Depending on his personality or origin story, the easiest fix would probably be something like “[UNEXPECTED ADJECTIVE] Angel.” Or something else entirely. For a lofty feeling, maybe something like Victory or “[UNEXPECTED ADJECTIVE] Glory” or Triumph or whatever.

    It sounds like Ghost and Shadow are redundant, so you could probably merge them into a single character. Pulse sounds redundant with Siren (how many sound-based heroes do you need?).

    What are their personalities like? In terms of having enough powers and strong fight scenes, you can get by with 1-3 heroes. The only reason I’d recommend any more is if you have something interesting in mind for the additional relationships/conflicts or if you are a major conglomerate trying to create more opportunities for toy sales*.

    *See Transformers, GI Joe, the Smurfs, Thundercats, etc. In particular, Hasbro series are notorious for this.

  13. Wingson 17 Jul 2010 at 12:56 pm

    If I remember correctly, B.Mac said that four or five is a managable number, with six and over being harder to utilize.

    I’m also pretty sure that most of your superhero names (Angel, Ghost, and Shadow are all definitely taken by at least character, Vixen’s DC, and there was a Siryn in Marvel) are unusable to due to copyright laws. I also find it a little difficult to take Arc Lightning seriously as a superhero name (maybe just make him Arc instead?). When I saw the names Shadow and Ghost, my first thought was an umbrakinetic (shadow manipulator) and a necromancer. I can see why the names would make sense for characters with superspeed, but superspeed is not a power that comes to mind when I hear those names.

    I hope this helps.

    – Wings

  14. B. Macon 17 Jul 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Yeah, you’d probably have to change some of the names after getting published, but the copyright issues by themselves would not scare away a publisher that was otherwise interested in the story. I would worry more about the effectiveness of the names than about legal issues at this point. (In particular, Angel is rather forgettable*). If you need to change them later, your editor and/or the legal department will let you know.

    *Is it REALLY that important that the character has feathery wings and/or looks like an angel?

  15. NicKennyon 17 Jul 2010 at 2:59 pm

    I’ll go into their personalities now.

    Angel, real name Adam Lawless, is the main protaginist. He’s Irish. His parent’s went missing a undecided amount of time ago. He’s reluctant to be a superhero and just wants a normal live, causing some of the other characters to believe that he’s a coward, particularly AL (real name Eric Justice). However, once he realises that he can’t keep running from the villian he becomes more heroic, taking charge of the team. He does well as the team’s leader and although he does occasionally take reckless chances, the only life at stake is normally his. By the end of the book he’s gained the respect of the whole group, even those who originally doubted him.

    Eric Justice (superhero name formerly Arc Lightning. I agree, the name’s not great.) American, egotistical and born into money. Possibly working in the tv industry. Supplies a lot of the comedy within the group and is the butt of the rest. Thinks that he’d do the best job in charge despite all other opinions.

    G and S. Black French twins. Quiet but very loyal to Angel due to him saving their lives. Thinking about only mentioning Angel saving their lives in the first book. They’ll only really come onto the scene in the second book.

    Peacemaker. Nationality undecided. The backbone of the group. Originally working as Siren’s bodyguard, he keeps the team together and becomes Angel’s right-hand man and his best friend. Tough, unstoppable but believing in using the smallest amount of force neccesary to get the job done.

    Siren. Possibly British. An internationally known singer. Uses her ability to gain this reputation. Considers the whole superhero thing as a bit of a laugh, even after the villian almost kills her. Becomes more serious nearer the end of the book.

    Pulse. Italian. Older than most of the group apart from Peacemaker being in her early twenties, formerly a teacher, now and working in politics. Intelligent, self-confident and serious she is on the team to keep an eye on them for the Grand Council, the twelve most powerful mutants in the world.

    Vixen (probably would be a good idea to change her name, shouldn’t be too difficult.)
    On the team because she believes that Adam will discover a cure to lycanthropy as his parents both did a lot of work in that area. Constantly worried about the future as she will eventually succumb to it. Vicious at times and sometimes loses control in battle to the lycantrope in her dna.

  16. NicKennyon 17 Jul 2010 at 4:01 pm

    B. Mac “Pulse sounds redundant with Siren (how many sound-based heroes do you need?).” Pulse is not a sound based heroine. Her ability is similar to iron man in the movies. You know, sticks out hand… charging noise… boom. Sort of like that.

    “*Is it REALLY that important that the character has feathery wings and/or looks like an angel?” Unfortunately yes. It’s vital to much of the plot.

    Wings thanks for the word “umbrakinetic”. I’ve got a minor villian who is such a person but I’ve been using the term shadowmancer.

  17. Wingson 17 Jul 2010 at 9:42 pm

    You’re welcome.

    Why is the fact that Adam Lawless/Angel has powers of white-winged flight plot important? Is is important enough to justify the angel parallels?

    Off topic: Oddly enough, I too have a male character with white feathered wings who also was after the name Angel (I ended up using the name Gabriel). I can relate…

    – Wings

  18. NicKennyon 18 Jul 2010 at 3:13 am

    Wings “Why is the fact that Adam Lawless/Angel has powers of white-winged flight plot important? Is is important enough to justify the angel parallels?” Unfortunately it is. It’s kind of central to the plot. Although, now that I think about it, James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series were about teenagers with wings and one of the main characters were called Angel. I think I’ll leave it as it is for the time being.

  19. NicKennyon 18 Jul 2010 at 3:32 am

    Wings. I don’t really won’t to go that deep into the plot but Angel having wings is REALLY important particularly in the early chapters when he’s on the run. Later on in the series it will have an important impact in the feel and whatnot. I just don’t think I can write the story without it…

  20. B. Macon 18 Jul 2010 at 7:01 am

    If his being on the run is critical, what would you think about Fugitive or Outlaw?

    For a less criminal feeling of someone on the move or out of place, maybe Transient, the (adjective) Wanderer, Nomad*, Vagabond, Drifter or the (adjective) Drifter, or maybe Stranger or the (adjective) Stranger, etc.

    Unless the religious connotation of the word “Angel” is terribly important (because, say, he is actually descended from heaven), I don’t think that would say all that much about him except that he has feathery wings. At the very least, I’d recommend adding some sort of adjective to differentiate him from other characters named Angel.

    *Might have to be changed after getting published.

  21. NicKennyon 18 Jul 2010 at 7:48 am

    The problem is that they’ll be seen by the public. They won’t be operating in the shadows like Batman. And the first thing people are going to think when seeing a person with feathery wings is, well….

    However using an adjective alongside would work so thanks B.Mac. Am just going to have to give it a lot of thought.

    Anyway I’ll be offline for a few weeks though I’d any advice or opinions that any wants to offer.

  22. Tesson 28 May 2012 at 9:43 pm

    You guys are taking trademarks too seriously. There are many names that have been used by multiple publishers. If the name is a standard, single English word(Siren, Pulse, Vixen, Arsenal, etc.), and your character is distinct (powers, background, personality, appearance) you are unlikely to have any problems. The reason names are purposely misspelled or more than one word is often as much for ease of trademarking as flavor.

    That said a guy named Angel with wings will look like infringement and frankly it wasn’t even that creative when Stan Lee invented Warren.

  23. B. McKenzieon 28 May 2012 at 10:53 pm

    “If the name is a standard, single English word (Siren, Pulse, Vixen, Arsenal, etc.), and your character is distinct, you are unlikely to have any problems.” Before responding, I’d like to offer the huge caveat that I’m not a lawyer and haven’t handled legal issues for any publisher. However, if a publisher thought that a name was likely to lead to a lawsuit (even one it thought it could win), I suspect it would probably change the name because fighting a lawsuit (successfully or not) will probably cost more than changing the name. Most publishers (especially relatively small publishers) would not readily choose to spend $10,000+ fighting a lawsuit over a story unlikely to generate $10,000 in profits*, ESPECIALLY if the character in question is not critical to the work.

    *The calculations would probably be different for relatively major authors. But let’s assume that the projected profits for the work are less than $10,000.

    There was a case where Disney’s writers for a cartoon initially named a character Rose and her alternate identity Thorn. They ended up renaming the character’s alternate identity because Marvel and DC both had characters with Rose/Thorn splits. If Disney was hesitant to fight Marvel or DC over generic words as names (one of which is actually a common name!), I can understand why a smaller company/publisher without substantial legal resources would make the same decision.

    And, as always, I’d like to offer the reassuring note that the issue of copyrighted names will probably not cause a publisher to reject an otherwise publishable work. The publisher may subsequently ask the author to change the name, but changing a name is easy enough that this issue would not by itself threaten the proposal.

  24. Dragondevilon 26 Sep 2012 at 9:58 am

    In my graphic novel/comic book,
    I am using thought boxes rather than bubbles,
    (like this one: http://www.gophoto.it/view.php?i=http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_3PLI3Rkxqf0/TTNWJ9RSwaI/AAAAAAAAAvg/UQ-CE5hJ7d8/s1600/Batman_612pg11.jpg#.UGMzWbLibfs)

    As my comic is a first-person narration(i.e hero’s P.O.V),I am thinking of making the hero use the thought-BOXES and the other characters use thought-BUBBLES.

    Should I not show other characters’s thoughts if it is in hero’s P.O.V?
    And is the Thought-BOX idea,OK?

    By the way,
    B.Mac can you answer the question i asked in this one:

  25. B. McKenzieon 26 Sep 2012 at 11:36 am

    “Should I not show other characters’s thoughts if it is in the hero’s point of view?” Generally, I would say it’d probably be best to stay true to the point-of-view. Unless you have more than one of point-of-view, I’d recommend sticking to only what that character perceives. However, I think Superman/Batman successfully used thought-boxes for the two main characters. Both Superman and Batman had different fonts in their boxes, so it was pretty easy to tell which box belonged to which character.

  26. Dragondevilon 26 Sep 2012 at 11:56 am

    Ok ,You are right.Its better to stick to the hero’s P.O.V.

    Do you think using thought bubbles would be a better idea than thought-Boxes?

    Just asking,because I think thought-bubbles are more common than the boxes.

    Thanx a lot~

  27. B. McKenzieon 26 Sep 2012 at 4:00 pm

    Do you think using thought bubbles would be a better idea than thought-boxes? If we’re only seeing them for 1-2 characters, I’d go with boxes, especially if you’re aiming at an older audience. (I think they look less goofy).

  28. DancingCaton 01 Feb 2016 at 9:28 pm


    Does anybody know how to draw a sonic scream/wail without making it look completely ridiculous? I tried and it totally flopped and whenever I look it up, I get weird and/or unhelpful things. (Apparently Sonic Scream is a character of some type. Did not know that.)

    Please help! It’s kind of important in my story plot (Like “the only thing my MC can actually use to hurt the villain so far” important.)

  29. DancingCaton 01 Feb 2016 at 9:30 pm

    Also, is it a good idea to put a little color around the edge of each speech/thought bubble according to my characters? Or is that completely rediculous? (Can’t spell today.)

  30. Andrewon 03 Feb 2016 at 7:32 am

    Having 5+ characters isn’t impossible, just harder. A thing to try would be to do the main story centering around one character doing something while having a side-plot with another character doing something else. It helps with developing more than one character at a time. Though two side-plots are the ideal limit

  31. B. McKenzieon 03 Feb 2016 at 6:22 pm

    “Also, is it a good idea to put a little color around the edge of each speech/thought bubble according to my characters? Or is that completely ridiculous?”

    Ridiculous? Probably not, unless maybe the theme/tone of the comic is very, very serious and/or the strokes look bad. Can the colors you select fit into a variety of your backgrounds without looking garish? I’d recommend testing some palette options. Going with more subdued/neutral colors might be helpful because they’d probably be able to fit into a wider variety of panels and backgrounds without being distracting.

    If it does look distracting, I’d recommend removing the added color.

  32. B. McKenzieon 03 Feb 2016 at 6:56 pm

    “Having 5+ characters isn’t impossible, just harder. A thing to try would be to do the main story centering around one character doing something while having a side-plot with another character doing something else.”

    Channeling George RR Martin, I’d generally recommend starting with relatively manageable projects to practice skills (particularly how to use characters fully) and gain experience before tackling something with more moving pieces.

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