Archive for the 'Making Comic Books Feel Realistic' Category

Jan 26 2012

Another Plausible Superhero Origin?

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

“Think of a person watching a computer screen and having his or her brain patterns modified to match those of a high-performing athlete or modified to recuperate from an accident or disease. Though preliminary, researchers say such possibilities may exist in the future.”

31 responses so far

Sep 18 2011

Which Crimes Do Most Superheroes Commit?

Assuming that the hero is a vigilante and the district attorney is furious, which felony charges might apply under U.S. law?


1. Assault and battery, probably aggravated if superpowers are involved.  The superhero will claim that he was acting in self-defense or the defense of others.  That’s fine if he was just responding to a crime in progress.  However, if he initiated the action (like attacking a gang stronghold or hunting down a supervillain), self-defense is probably off the table because the only imminent danger was created by the hero’s actions.  In particular, a self-defense claim is awfully tenuous if the hero was breaking-and-entering.


2. Felony murder, if anybody dies (criminal or bystander).  Assault is a violent felony, and any deaths caused even indirectly by a violent felony are deemed murders even if the superhero didn’t intend to kill anybody.  If a superhero breaks into a hostage situation and a criminal kills a bystander in the crossfire, the superhero can be charged with murder unless he was authorized to be there. As far as the law is concerned here, it doesn’t matter that the superhero was fighting against the shooter and that the superhero did not intend for a civilian to get hurt. Also, if a vigilante causes a criminal to die (either intentionally or not), that would also be felony murder.


3. Reckless endangerment, if any bystanders get hurt.  In severe cases, this could be a felony. (E.g. vehicular manslaughter if Batman happens to hit anyone while driving several hundred miles per hour through Gotham traffic).


4. Obstruction of justice.  For example, breaking into a hostage situation while the police are still trying to negotiate with the hostage-taker would be a felony in some states.  (Note: if nobody gets hurt, the DA might knock this down to a slap on the wrist, particularly if the superhero is extremely popular).

Continue Reading »

36 responses so far

Jul 16 2009

Cover Your Plot Holes… It Could Be Funny

Plot holes are a point in a story where something happens for no believable reason. Indeed, sometimes the plot hinges on a plot hole.  For example, why would a criminal put snakes on a plane rather than kill the witness in a more conventional way?


1.  Plot holes are an opportunity. Most plot-holes can be explained– often humorously!– with a few lines.  Aren’t there easier ways to kill someone than putting snakes on a plane?  “You think I didn’t exhaust every other option?  He saw me!”  This hand-waving helps readers suspend their disbelief.  It isn’t logically air-tight, but it doesn’t have to be.


2.  Readers are generally receptive to your explanations, even if they’re flimsy. Not offering an explanation is almost always worse because it makes it look like you don’t see the problem.  That ruins your authorial credibility.  It also makes it hard for readers to suspend their disbelief.

Continue Reading »

18 responses so far

Jul 08 2009

The Ridiculously Implausible Escapes of GI Joe Characters

Cartoon shows aimed at kids usually have tight restrictions on violence: usually drawing blood, maiming, shooting and killing are off the table.  Sometimes this merely forces writers to get creative.  For example, TMNT’s Leonardo tends to use his sword more as a tool than a weapon and he’s usually the first turtle to get disarmed.  However, GI Joe raises the “no real violence” restrictions to an art-form.  Never before has there been so much warfare without any injuries.  Slate has more.

No responses yet

Jun 25 2009

Don’t Bury Your Story in Science and Realism

I’d only delve as deeply into science as much as the story and audience warrant. For example, if a villain shrinks the hero, 99% of readers don’t care that a shrunken human body couldn’t function because human cells are designed to function at a particular size. Unless you’re deliberately targeting a technically savvy audience (such as in hard sci-fi), your readers probably don’t care much about surface-to-volume ratios and the like.  Similarly, most readers don’t need elaborate explanations for superpowers. You don’t need to explain where Spiderman keeps all that webbing.

However, if you’d like go off on a tangent to satisfy the few readers that do care about these elements, I’d recommend trying to make it interest readers that don’t care so much. For example, one recurring implausibility with the Hulk is that the character’s pants stay on even though his size fluctuates so much. Real pants would burst off if you got twice as big, right? The latest Hulk movie addressed that rather hilariously by showing the character buying elastic maternity pants in Guatemala. (“¿Tienes más stretchy?”) That’s intuitive, simple and clever. In contrast, if the movie had made up scientific mumbo-jumbo like Pym particles or whatever, it probably would have confused or annoyed many viewers.

Finally, I would recommend taking with a grain of salt any reviewer concern that you expect would be limited to a tiny, tiny fraction of the potential readership.  In particular, my rule of thumb is that if you need college-level coursework to know that something is implausible, it won’t probably won’t create a major problem for most readers (unless you’re writing something like hard sci-fi). You can still address the concern if you’d like to–maybe you feel that addressing a scientific implausibility will make the story feel more believable–but don’t feel like you have to. Fiction doesn’t have to be realistic.

Professional communication tip: When you have a philosophical difference with a review (for example, if the reviewer cares a lot more about scientific plausibility than you do), I think it really helps to be polite. Coldly dismissing someone’s writing style is not a great way to make friends or win new reviewers. One possible approach would be something like “Thanks for your advice. I know this story may not be 100% scientifically plausible, but I think that most of my readers will be okay with that.” For one example of dealing with different artistic styles, I think I responded pretty courteously to a Marvel artist that was concerned the coloring on a mutant alligator protagonist wasn’t realistic enough.

12 responses so far

Feb 10 2009

A minor quibble with X-Men

One of the many things that annoys me about X-Men is that mutants are sometimes referred to as a separate species (which is sometimes called “homo superior”).

  1. As far as I know, mutants and humans are sexually compatible.  If mutants and humans could produce sexually fertile offspring, by definition they would be part of the same species.  (So, umm, yeah… if the kid shown in Superman Returns grows up to be sexually fertile, that would mean that Superman and humans are also part of the same species).
  2. Even if mutants were a distinct species, no self-respecting biologist would ever use such a loaded term for a phylum name.  Ok, Magneto uses the term because he’s a scientific racist.  But what’s Dr. Richards’ excuse?

5 responses so far

Sep 24 2008

Which Origin Stories are Plausible?

One of our Google queries today was “can radiation give you superpowers?”


No. However, if you’re writing a superhero story, that doesn’t matter! Your readers will accept that tropes like radiation can give someone superpowers, so radiation makes for a completely plausible origin story. Except for intense training, it’s not like there’s any better alternative.  (In real life, one drug addict put his brain under so much neurological stress that his sense of smell sharpened to canine-like levels, but he died a few weeks thereafter.  Also, for obvious reasons, narcotics do not typically work well for superhero origin stories).


Here are some other origin stories that readers have generally come to accept.

  1. Cybernetics (Bionic Woman, Cyborg).
  2. Genetic engineering (Spiderman).
  3. Chemical enhancement (Green Goblin).
  4. Powersuits and/or exoskeletons (Iron Man, Steel).  I think that the Iron Man suit will be mostly scientifically viable within 30 years (but too expensive to be practical).
  5. Other technological hardware–for example, three-dimensional invisibility and technopathy (a mind-machine interface) will be viable within 30 years.
  6. Neurosurgery.  At the very least, we’ll probably be able to surgically enhance reflexes within 30 years.   Suppressing pain is a distinct possibility, although pain serves an important biological role (alerting the brain to danger–for example, if you’ve been in a car accident, pain is the clearest indicator of whether you’ve injured a limb and will help you know how far you can push your body without causing lasting damage).
  7. Ridiculously tough training (Batman, GI Joe).
  8. The hero belongs to a tougher-than-human species (Superman, possibly X-Men).
  9. Mutations, probably (X-Men, Heroes).
  10. Miracle operations (Kick-Ass).
  11. Stimulating the visual cortex so that skills can be learned extremely quickly (The Matrix).  There’s been some exciting work on this front recently.


Typically, plausible origin stories tend to be scientific.  Fortunately, you don’t have to have a strong grasp of scientific research to write a compelling origin story. Generally speaking, modern scientific research in fields like genetics is conducted by large teams of scientists that spend years on each project and have access to large budgets.  If you’re writing a superhero story, your readers will almost always accept that a single supergenius can perform unimaginable feats of science.  Reed Richards is apparently a world-class researcher in every branch of science, and he’s able to instantaneously solve problems that would probably take a real team of scientists decades.


Here are some other (incorrect) assessments of modern science that readers will usually accept.

  1. Superhero scientists rarely keep good notes.  When the doctor that created Captain America got killed, the formula for the serum was lost forever.  Whoops.  In real life, researchers keep exhaustive notes so that their experiments can be replicated.
  2. Superhero scientists rarely fail.  In real life, scientists would test hundreds of variations of a drug, which tends to make the process inordinately laborious and expensive.  But readers will accept that a superscientist tends to get it right almost immediately.
  3. A super-scientist can accomplish anything if he’s desperate enough.  Tony Stark built a powersuit in an Afghan cave and Norman Osbourne became the Green Goblin because he was willing to subject himself to premature tests.
  4. Every scientifically gifted high school student will be the best in the world if the plot calls for it.

349 responses so far

Aug 13 2008

When Spiderman ties up a criminal, what do the police charge him with?

One of the tropes of superhero stories is that the superhero ties up the bad guys and leaves them for the police. This helps readers feel that Spiderman isn’t a vigilante trying to replace the police, he’s just helping them. But when the police find a criminal tied up somewhere, what do they charge him with? Unless they have enough evidence to make a case, the police have to release him.  Here are a few ways you can use this to create dramatic situations…

1) The superhero comes across several criminals he tied up the day before. If this happened repeatedly, it may make him cynical about his work as a superhero.

2) Your hero blathers about how much he loves police officers (“they do all the things I do but without superpowers!”), but cops hate him because he never gives them anything they can use to secure a conviction. He never shows up to testify or deliver depositions. If the hero ever comes looking for leads, expect the police to give him the cold shoulder.

3) The police department gets sued because they’re complicit in the superhero’s abuse of the civil liberties of alleged criminals. Look at this from the perspective of a defense attorney or the ACLU. The police department gets easy arrests because Batman savagely beats confessions out of suspects. Batman regularly assaults criminals. Not only has the police department failed to arrest Batman or freeze his assets, but he sometimes meets with police officers in the station. If a defense attorney can’t convince a judge that’s police-sponsored brutality, he should be disbarred.

4 responses so far