I recently read an interview of Stan Lee by journalist Eric Spitznagel. In it, Eric asked Stan whether he ever runs out of ideas.
Stan replied: “Coming up with characters is the easiest thing in the world. You just sit down, take a pencil in hand or sit in front of your computer, and you ask yourself, ‘What has nobody done yet?’”
Now, I don’t think Stan meant that literally, but if he did, it’s not the best piece of advice the great man’s ever given.
The House of Ideas?
Firstly, let’s look at the evidence:
- The Human Torch – based on the 40’s android superhero, The Human Torch
- Invisible Girl – inspired by The Invisible Man
- Mr. Fantastic – based on DC’s Plastic Man and Elongated Man
- The Thing and his girlfriend, Alicia Masters – a modern-day version of the fairytale ‘Beauty and the Beast’
- Hawkeye – Marvel’s version of DC’s Green Arrow, who was himself based on Robin Hood and an Edgar Wallace novel ‘The Green Archer’.
- Ant Man – inspired by DC’s Atom
- Quicksilver – based on The Flash, who was himself inspired by the Greek god Hermes.
- Hulk – a modern-day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (whose name was also used for a Marvel villain)
- Iron Man – basically a riff on the hero of the 1949 movie action serial ‘King of the Rocket Men’ (see pic)
- Thor – um…
I could go on. And on.
Here’s my point – if Stan has created heroes that were 100% original, Marvel Comics may never have been as successful as history shows.
Stan’s mission for the Marvel comics line, basically ‘Our superheroes are faced with real-life problems’, was original for the times. But he was adapting a tried and tested formula, mixing it up and making it relevant.
There’s always the chance that a never-before-seen idea can make its creator millions, but the road to success is littered with the bodies of failed inventors. It’s much easier to adapt something that is already popular, changing it to an extent where it’s not a blatant copy.
The Seven Basic Plots
As for storylines, it’s said that there are only Seven Basic Plots, and that every story ever told, or will be told, uses one of them. They are:
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
“It’s a homage to…”
But some of the most successful series of modern times are still inspired by older works. One of the most popular comic series around today, ‘The Walking Dead’, is basically a serialised version of the George Romero ‘Dead’ movies.
The best TV show of last year ‘American Horror Story’, is a direct descendent of any number of Haunted House flicks.
So what’s the reason these comics and shows are so successful?
It’s simple – people find it easier to ‘buy in’ to a title when they know they are on familiar ground.
A major factor of entertainment is definitely surprise and shock, but those emotions are felt deeper by the viewer when the environment and/or the characters have their roots in the familiar. That’s not necessarily a ‘real life’ familiarity, just ideas that the person has come across before.
Riffing off a familiar theme it makes it easier to create a ‘hook’ that attracts an audience. How many times have you heard ‘My comic is basically <Movie A> mixed with <Comic B>’? It’s a well-used tactic, but very, very effective at helping a potential audience to buy into the concept.
It’s no wonder that Marvel have never launched an ongoing series based entirely in The Negative Zone (a freaky, otherworldly dimension). It may have appealed to LSD users, but it would be difficult for the average reader to connect with the storylines.
So before you decide to create your truly original masterpiece, with an aim to appeal to as many readers as possible, it may be time to rethink who it’s actually going to appeal to.
Anyway, gotta go. I’m off to write my magnum opus about a genetically-mutated Venus Fly-Trap that becomes US President.
Sort of like ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ meets ‘The West Wing’.
All the best,
The Comic Academy
Phil Hampton founded The Comic Academy to help and inpire comic creators and publishers to market their work effectively. Download your FREE exclusive report ‘The 7 Steps to Comic Creator Success’ at http://www.TheComicAcademy.com