On Writing Spectacles

If you’re a comic fan, like I like to pretend that I am, you’ve heard or seen about the hubbub that happened this past week in both of the big two players in the industry. If you haven’t, here is the quick version – Marvel “revealed” that Captain America has been on the side of the people he’s been fighting for so many decades all along (Hail Hydra) and DC “revealed” that something big is going on with the Watchmen, that property that Alan Moore created to critique the very superhero mythos that it is now being stitched into.

Both of these are established as giant spectacles that have people yelling into the void of the internet all over the place. There are campaigns going on with memes galore about decisions from both companies, with members of the audience trying to get the company to change their minds. The thing is, this is exactly what both of these companies want, and exactly why they have to have these spectacles over and over again. If you listen to the podcast I’m on pretty regularly, I complain about the big events that both companies keep doing.

But that’s the truth – they keep doing these events in part so we all get mad and take to the internet and podcasts and other forums to talk about it. That builds hype. This sells comics; people are going to be willing to buy these comics to figure out what the big deal is about.

I think it is an addiction though, and is holding them back. Writing a spectacle is pretty easy in terms of the established continuity that exists in comics. Asking what if Bruce Wayne was no longer Batman? Sounds like a clever idea, except it has been done. Quite a few times actually. But every time the audience is willing to read it, you lose something larger. There’s a certain kind of person, the collector, who is going to buy these spectacles every time. But doing it turns off a larger part of your potential audience. There are so many people I talk to who have no interest in reading an Iron Man comic if it is going to be undone without a moment’s notice.

Every time they create something new, it tends not to get the support that it probably deserves. The Midnighter by Orlando was phenomenal, but is apparently going away. There’s that lack of innovation there, going for big spectacles instead of trying to do things that are really new.

Marvel has some of that going on right now – Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and Spider Woman for example – are some really interesting developments going on in that part of the industry. And those are the very comics that I can convince people who don’t already read comics to check out. But growth doesn’t happen overnight, and people keep falling back on old habits.

So what does this mean for your writing? Well, spectacle is a tricky thing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have spectacle in your writing, and it can certainly be an amazing way to get your audience excited. Marvel’s cinematic universe does this extremely well – promising spectacle but building up to it. Each spectacle needs to be earned, and failure to do so is going to quickly fatigue your audience unless you’re able to keep delivering bigger and better every time. 

Tied to that, you’re going to need to build things up slowly, and to do some real development in the areas in between. People resonate with powerful characters, and we don’t all have the history behind our work to make it into some mind shaping archetypes like both of the big two in comics are able to.

Keep that in mind with your writing, and remember that even though you have to sell, you need to look to the long tail. Cutting off your nose to spite your face benefits no one.


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