Writing Powerful Comic Book Characters


In his extraordinarily insightful and funny book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, author Scott McCloud states that comics is (yes, the verb is used in the singular!) a 3000-year-old sequential art form. More precisely, he defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” In modern times, however, the medium has mostly been used to combine pictures and words in the telling of stories.

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Since we are in the realm of storytelling, we must necessarily allude to the seminal works of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey) to advise writers on how to go about creating strong characters. Given the limited space of this blog post, we will not be covering the visual aspects of comics here.

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Comics – sometimes called graphic novels, when not serialized but released as a standalone volume – is a medium, not a genre. As a writer, you must therefore stick to the set conventions (again, beyond the scope of this post) of the style of the work you are producing: be it romance, satire, horror, sci-fi, fantasy or superhero story. The guidelines for character creation that follow apply to all of those genres.

The Characters

Writers who populate their stories with archetypes resonate a lot more deeply with their audiences. Archetypes – as defined by the famous psychologist Carl Jung – are characters or energies that represent mental functions common to all human beings. They are part of what is known as the collective unconscious and are projections of the different parts that together constitute a complete person, though they tend to appear as individual characters in a story. Let’s illustrate our analysis of the main archetypes used in graphic novels with examples from Marvel’s popularSpider-Man: Season One.

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The Hero

The hero is the story’s protagonist. It is through his/her eyes that the audience experiences the story. It’s therefore essential to create engaging characters that the reader can identify with. An effective way to do that is to make the character well-rounded. Popular heroes tend to balance noble qualities with major flaws. It’s essential to avoid passivity in heroes. They are more appealing when they proactively conduct their journey.

In Spider Man, this is, of course, the part of Peter Parker.

The Herald

The herald is the character, institution, or event that announces the upcoming adventure; he/she anticipates the need for the hero to leave his normal world (or the stable situation he finds himself in) and go on a mission. The herald is the bearer of disturbing news. Wrongs must be righted and only the hero can take on this responsibility.

The article on the Vulture’s sightings in New York, featured in the Daily Bugle, sets off the action in Spider-Man: Season One.

The Mentor

In Joseph Campbell’s words, a mentor is usually represented by the wise old man or woman. But, of course, any character, of any age, can perform this function in the story. The mentor helps the hero out, by example or advice. He plays the hero’s role model.

Uncle Ben plays the mentor in Spider-Man.

The Shadow

Here we have the enemy. The hero’s arch nemesis. The personification of the hero’s worst fears. It’s said that the shadow may also reflect what heroes don’t like about themselves, their dark side.

In Spider-Man: Season One, this function is obviously performed by The Vulture.

Threshold Guardians

Threshold guardians are gatekeepers who are always testing the hero on their progress towards their goal. They guard the doors that will allow the hero to enter a more evolved phase. They might be confronted head-on or have their energies tapped into by the hero. Sometimes they happen to turn into allies.

Flash Thomson, one of Peter Parker’s bullying schoolmates, is undeniably a gatekeeper in Spider-Man: Season One. The editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, is another formidable threshold guardian.

The Trickster

These characters challenge the status quo; they provide comic relief (which is necessary to break the otherwise unbearable tension of a suspenseful story). Tricksters put things into perspective.

Peter Parker himself can be thought of as a trickster hero in Spider Man.

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It’s important not to forget that the archetypes listed above perform key dramatic functions in any story. Therefore, two or more of these masks can be worn by the same character at different points in the narrative.

This is all we have time for today. Good luck with the creation of powerful characters in your graphic novel. Let us know if the advice above is useful to you.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

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All About Batman’s Fiercest Enemies


Batman, The Dark Knight, is one of the most iconic graphic novel characters of all time. Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill finger in 1939, Batman’s secret identity is Bruce Wayne, an American billionaire whose parents were murdered when he was only a boy. As a consequence, Bruce Wayne swore revenge on all the criminals of the corrupt-ridden Gotham, the fictitious city he lives in.

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This world-famous DC Comics’s superhero has had his adventures turned into a popular TV show in the 1960s and numerous successful movies ever since. Bats, as he’s oftentimes called by some of his friends and foes, is up against a huge gallery of rogues – most of them mentally-disturbed individuals who develop idiosyncratic theme-related personas with corresponding crime styles.

We have selected six of Batman’s most dangerous enemies to discuss in this post. We cover their main personality traits, objectives and modus operandi, highlighting a couple of prominent quotes and naming famous actors who have portrayed them in movies or television.

The Joker: one of the Cape Crusader’s scariest villains. A sadistic clown, with a disturbing grin, the joker was responsible for the murder of Jason Todd, Batman’s sidekick Robin, and for crippling Barbara Gordon, Batgirl, who became a paraplegic. In the movies, the Joker has been played by great actors such as Heath Leger, Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero. One of his quotes: “In my dream, the world had suffered a terrible disaster. A black haze shut out the sun, and the darkness was alive with the moans and screams of wounded people. Suddenly, a small light glowed. A candle flickered into life, symbol of hope for millions. A single tiny candle, shining in the ugly dark. I laughed and blew it out.”

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The Riddler: Edward Nigma wants, more than anything else, to prove his intellectual superiority over Batman. He challenges the Bat by throwing in riddles, puzzles and word games as clues to the crimes he’s either planning or is already executing. The Riddler has been played on the big screen by Jim Carrey (Batman Forever, 1995). Two of his riddles:

Q: What is the beginning of eternity, the end of time and space, the beginning of every end and the end of every race?

A: The letter ‘E’

Q: What belongs to you, but is used by others?

A: Your name

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Two-Face: Harvey Dent was a close friend of Bruce Wayne’s and a former district attorney, defending Gotham City against its criminals. His life changed radically after being assaulted by Gotham City’s infamous mobster Sal Maroni, who cast acid into Dent’s face, disfiguring half of it. The incident heavily affected Harvey Dent’s mental health, causing him to develop an obsession with duality and the number two. Of course, this makes for a very interesting and sophisticated character, always torn between good and evil. Two-Face has the habit of flipping a one-dollar coin, with one of its sides suitably defaced, to make decisions about the conclusion of his crimes: eg. to kill a victim or not. Actor Aaron Eckhart offered a very convincing rendition of the rogue in the 2008 movie The Dark Knight. A quote by this fascinating villain: You have broken into our hideout. You have violated the sanctity of our lair. For this we should crush your bones into POWDER. However, you do pose a very interesting proposition: therefore, heads, we accept, and tails, we blow your damned head off!

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Poison-Ivy: Pamela Isley, a student of advanced botanical biochemistry, is an eco-terrorist. Her aim is to protect plants at all costs. She won’t hesitate to kill humans to protect nature, using all her knowledge of poisons and toxins to achieve her goals. Pamela has a love/hate relationship with Batman. Actress Uma Thurman portrayed the hot red-head in the 1997 movie Batman and Robin. A couple of quotes by the villain:

  1. So many people to kill… so little time.
  1. It took God seven days to create paradise. Let’s see if I can do better.

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Catwoman: Selina Kyle is a lover of felines and their protector. She is sometimes portrayed as a burglar and jewel thief. In most stories, however, she is more of an antihero than a typical villain, as her love/hate relationship with Batman tends to blur the lines. Actress Michele Pfeiffer infused the role of Catwoman with a powerful dose of sensuality in the movie Batman Returns (1992). A quote: Meow!

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The Penguin: Oswald Cobblepot uses his nightclub, the Iceberg Lounge, as a front for his criminal activities. His ultimate goal is financial gain, as it suits a businessman. Always smartly dressed in a tuxedo and top hat, the Penguin makes use of his collection of umbrellas as deadly weapons. The character has been unforgettably portrayed by actor Burgess Meredith in the iconic TV series of the 1960s. One of the man-bird’s quote: [to Catwoman] You’re Beauty and the Beast in one luscious Christmas gift pack.

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In the comments section below, please share with us your thoughts on Batman and his rogue gallery.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette