Friday, August 21, 2009

Breaking the Fourth Wall: Episode 3

For over twenty years, The Haunted Tank was one of DC’s most popular and successful war comics, trailing only Sgt. Rock in both categories. With the entire war genre essentially collapsing permanently in the early 80’s, though, Haunted Tank became a property adrift – no title, no stories, few fans, heck, they weren’t necessarily even in continuity after Crisis of Infinite Earths. In other words, they were pure writing gold.

It’s long been held that second tier characters are the way to make your mark in the industry. No editor is going to hand the reins of Batman or Spider-man to some unknown, but stuff like Haunted Tank is a totally different story. A property that was popular once can be popular again, so it’s ripe for some new creator who wants to make a name and is eager to try a new approach.

With this in mind, when I decided to break into comics back in 1997 I started with the Haunted Tank. The premise behind the series was pretty simple: during World War II, Jeb Stuart, the commander of a Stuart tank fighting in Europe, discovers that he and his tank are being watched over by the ghost of their namesake, confederate General J. E. B. Stuart. And… that’s it. That’s the whole premise. They tool around doing tank stuff and every so often the ghost shoes up, says something cryptic, and then vanishes. Not too complex, really, just a different hook for essentially the same war stories DC was telling in their other titles.

My idea for a revamp was pretty simple as well: have J. E. B. Stuart’s ghost show up in a different, more morally conflicted war (Vietnam) where he has to deal with an African-American tank commander instead of a good ol’ boy. How would the ghost react to the ethos of a conflict very different from either the Civil War or WWII? And how would he react to being the protector of a black namesake? More to the point, how would the new tank commander feel about having a confederate ghost looking out for him?

Overall, I thought it was a good idea and when I submitted my pitch to Vertigo they seemed to agree; I got a nice handwritten letter from an editor encouraging me to tighten the story up and resubmit it. Nothing came of that opportunity in the end, but the idea itself remained viable. Viable enough, in fact, for Vertigo to publish a Hunted Tank mini-series earlier this year with the exact same premise (only moved forward from Vietnam to Iraq).

Now, let me say right off the top here that I don’t think there’s the slightest chance in the world that either the current editors at Vertigo or the author of the series, Frank Marraffino, knew anything at all about my proposal. That is, in fact, what makes this particularly interesting to me, because it raises a few points about how creators create that I’d like to discuss. I’ve learned a few things about writing over the years and the first and most important thing is probably this:

Ideas Are Not Precious

When I was young, if I came up with a cool idea I would horde it. It would go in the Secret Vault of Ideas, where it would be nurtured and suckled. It’s something that I’ve seen other writers talk about as well – the thought that ideas are rare and precious and that if you have a good idea you should hold on tight to it, protect it and be as careful as possible with it because you never know when another good idea might come along.

Well, sorry, but I happen to think that’s a bunch of bullshit. Ideas aren’t precious. In fact, ideas are a dime a dozen, and nowhere is this more true than in the shared universes that populate the comic book world. If you look at the basic facts behind the Haunted Tank, for instance, there’s only so much to work with. The strange thing isn’t that two creators looking at Haunted Tank came up with the same idea, it’s that it hadn’t already been done. Now, it might seem like I’m arguing against myself – if ideas are a dime a dozen, then how can there be such a finite number of ideas – but my point here is this: there’s a lot of incredibly creative people working in comics (and in books, and in movies, and in television…) and they are all constantly coming up with ideas. No matter how great you think your idea is, it’s pretty much a guarantee that if you hadn’t thought of it, someone else would have – that is, as long as it’s actually a good idea.

This is what I think of as simultaneous development. It happens a lot in comics because people are using the same tropes, the same concepts and in many cases the same exact characters and source materials, so of course they are going to sometimes come up with the same ideas. For example, people have noted the similarities between Captain America: Rebirth and the whole Batman in Final Crisis thing with the cave or whatever the hell is going on there. Yes, the stories are similar, but it’s not because these writers are ripping each other off, it’s because they are both referencing the same source material – i.e. ripping off Kurt Vonnegut. And even when creators aren’t overtly referencing the same stuff, they are still working within the same cultural zeitgeist. Sometimes ideas just happen because it’s time for them to happen and who actually comes up with the idea is almost irrelevant.

This Haunted Tank story isn’t the only time an idea I have had was duplicated in comics; it’s not even the only submission I’ve done that ended up getting published by someone else (though it is the most interesting case). But it’s not because anyone is stealing my ideas, it’s just because the ideas were good enough that other people had to come up with them as well. Personally, don’t think someone should spend too much time worrying about having their ideas stolen; in general, I think protecting ideas stifles them and robs them of their energy. Sharing ideas broadens them. I feel like, if someone steals my idea, well, so what. After all, there’s a dozen more where that came from (Note: this is easier to say since nobody has actually stolen any of my ideas, of course.)

Now, this all might seem a bit discouraging, since I seem to be saying that no matter how good your idea is, someone else is going to come up with something as good, better or identical. But don’t worry, because if there’s one other thing I’ve learned, it’s this:

Ideas Are Not Stories

This is true in a couple ways. First of all, there’s the technical sense, which goes back to my previous comments about having your idea’s poached. Legally speaking, as has been pointed out to me a few times recently, you can’t copyright an idea but you can copyright a story. So if you’re really worried about it, getting down to brass tacks and writing your story will take care of half of the issue.

But that’s not what I’m really talking about here. What I mean by this is that having a good idea for a story is not the same thing as actually writing a good story. At best, an idea suggests story possibilities. But it’s not plot, it’s not character, it’s not pacing. It’s just a concept that needs to be fleshed out before there’s really anything to speak of.

Take, for instance, my Haunted Tank idea. So we have a Civil War ghost stuck in the Vietnam War dealing with a black tank commander. Okay. Well, that suggests some things that you would want to explore on the character side (which I mentioned briefly earlier). But it doesn’t tell you how to go about exploring them. What actions take place to bring these interactions about? How do the characters feel? How do they change through their interaction? Where do they start and where do they finish – what’s the conflict and what’s the climax? In other words – what’s the story?

The fact is that if you give 50 writers the same exact idea, they are going to come up with 50 different stories based on it. Some of them may be similar, but none of them will be identical, because an idea is just a starting point; it’s the process of development that turns that into something viable and interesting. In other words, an idea is not a story, and it’s the story that matters in the end, not the idea itself.

In sum, then, my two maxims here equal one basic writing fact: work is more important than imagination. A lot of brilliant ideas turn out to be bad stories, or worse, never turn into stories at all. Why? Because the work isn't done to turn that idea into a viable story. People fall in love with the purity of the idea and it comes at the expense of the finished product. But an idea is nothing more than an ingot that needs to be pounded into a useful shape -- potential in the hands of the right craftsman.

Nothing more and nothing less.

Coming Up: So if the story is more important than the idea, just what was the story I sent in? And what was the story that Vertigo and Frank Marraffino published? Tomorrow we’ll take a closer look at both, comparing them to see what choices were made, why and how those choices ended up making one story or the other stronger or weaker.

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