How to Crash the Comics!
By Abner Sundell, 1942
Only the professional writer knows what the other
half reads. There are several million who don't read at all; they
only laugh at the pictures.
Every large newsstand is a cross section of America, and there, for
anyone who is interested, is the effect of all our repressions, our
hopes, and fears. We read not only to learn but to gratify our
As the son is father to the man, so the literature of our childhood is
the father of our future.
Several million people, most of them children, buy a comic magazine
every month. Over 100 comic magazines represent, in paper, printing,
engravings, salaries to writers, editors, and artists, and income to
new dealers, a huge multimillion dollar business. The comics today
are influencing the reading tastes of tomorrow, just as surely as
Horatio Alger influenced the thinking of every adult today.
Any intelligent writer who tries can make a living writing for the
comics. Let's examine their stories, beginning with the hero.
Comic heroes are the apex of heroism, with all the prerequisites of
strength, brains, handsomeness, and appeal to women, that are
incumbent upon juvenile heroes.
All comic characters live in their own world to the complete exclusion
of all other comic characters. Consequently, Batman, in his strips,
is the total of heroic qualities; however, if Batman were to be
compared with Superman, in the same story, Batman would immediately
become a subservient character. Therefore the writer must create his
own world for his heroes, a world in which the hero is the only
Comic heroes must be treated by their writers with respect. Too often
a writer thinks, "Well, he's just another comic-mag hero, the
kids have seen hundreds of them." This type of mental reaction
results in the breakdown of character and was responsible for the
failure of Samson, one of the early comic magazine successes.
Samson and David, clad in lion skins, would stroll the streets,
casually, looking for trouble, waiting for things to happen. This
casual attitude was reflected by response of people in the streets to
Samson and David and was carried to the readers. The reaction was,
"Well, if the people in the story aren't impressed by Samson and
David, why should I be?"
For contrast, note the treatment of Captain America or
Batman. Whenever these characters appear, panels are spent
with crowds drawing back in amazement, with people cheering. The
reader feels the importance of these heroes and his reaction becomes
Since the hero is the smartest, the strongest, the most excellent of
all beings, his appearance upon the scene of the story should mark the
end of the villain's worst crimes. From this point forward the
villain feels the pinch of opposition, and he changes his actions to
remove the hero. Therefore any violent killings, all crimes in which
the villain runs rampant, should occur before the hero becomes
involved with the plot. Consequently we allow the villain to run wild
in the opening of the story. From the time that the hero takes
over, however, all crimes are the responsibility of the hero.
The villain can plot actions that allow him to accomplish a murder or
two with the hero on the scene, but these must be clever enough so
that the reader feels there are extenuating circumstances, and the
crimes were not the fault of the hero. Careless writing results in
situations, as in "Magno and Davey," where these two heroes
go to a masked ball to protect it from the Cobra, and while they are
there standing around being useless, the villain strikes and kills
sympathetic characters. Magno and Davey failed, not because they were
captured or rendered helpless, or even because they were sidetracked
by the villain, but through sheer inability.
Too often the hero walks down the street and something happens,
whereupon the hero jumps in and is involved in the plot. Cut this down
to essentials and the hero is just minding someone else's business.
For a few stories this may be acceptable, but after a while the
reaction sets in that the hero has no real motivations for his entry
into the plot. The reader vicariously pictures himself as the hero.
Consequently, if the hero has a strong personal reason for entering
the plot, then the motivation becomes so much stronger. Even in the
instance where the hero is a detective assigned to a case, the plot
should develop so that the hero has more than just a duty
For example, The Flag, who is a symbolic character, becomes deeply
involved in a story because anyone whistling "The Star-Spangled
Banner" immediately sets up a call within The Flag himself. A
blow at the flag or the things it represents becomes a blow at the
character The Flag. Or the Lone Warrior must fight not only to stop
the Nazis, but to clear his own name as well, thus giving increased
motivation to his actions. It also adds suspense. The thought
arises - will he be able to clear himself? We know he's not
going to be killed or badly hurt, but will his good name be injured?
The elementary method of tying the hero's role in the story is one
that depends wholly on the strength of the villain. The Joker
plans a whiz-dizzer crime; a honey. But he has been around before and
he knows that Batman and Robin are always gumming up his parade. So
he makes his plans. When this story starts he plots a fiendish method
getting our heroes out of his path. He takes the first swing at
them. From there on it's their fight. This method is very simple and
easily overdone; and if your villain is not the strongest possible,
his actions consequently are not the strongest possible, either. So
handle this type gently.
Another method is to utilize the powers of the hero in a manner that
brings him inadvertently into the case. The Clown has just
murdered a man in public view without anyone realizing what has
happened. He can't get away, but he can get rid of the swag which
would be evidence against him. He places the money in a toy dirigible
with a magnetic motor and sends it directly (at least he thinks so) to
his hideout. But Magno and Davey, who know nothing about this crime,
are in another part of the city amusing themselves by playing magnetic
tug of war. They set up a wall of magnetism that crosses the path
of the toy dirigible and bring The Clown's swag directly to them.
They're in the story now and due to their own efforts.
The Hero Must be Human
A hero must represent to the reader an image with which he can
associate himself. Therefore he should be constructed as to be
recognizable as a human being. He should have a home, or at least a
setting. He should have characters to which to tie himself, friends,
a father influence that makes him more understandable and sympathetic
This explains the double identity formula adopted by most
superheroes. Because once in uniform the hero becomes too perfect to
have any human frailties, he adopts another character, much more human
and understandable, so that the readers can know him better. In
uniform Superman is far too perfect for one to associate himself
directly with him. But as Clark Kent, a nearsighted guy who can't get
to first base with Lois Lane, the readers can see themselves, and
gloat in the secret that they, too, are really Superman.
Captain America is a potato-peeling buck private who gets constantly
bawled out by a top-sargeant. Capt. Marvel is a newsboy. The Shield
surrounds himself with odd characters, since out of costume he is a
G-Man and must still be a pretty austere person. Therefore the odd,
or "comic," characters are his friends, which makes him a
pretty good sort of egg.
A successful comic character needs more than just good action
plotting. He needs constant character development that will keep him
as interesting to the readers two years hence as he was in his first
A good method of obtaining constant characterization is through the
Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates formula of creation of
sympathetic characters, from story to story, dropping these characters
for three or four months, and then at a later date involving them in
another story. In this way the constant reader feels that he has been
rewarded for his faith in the magazine, and the transient reader feels
that he has missed something, and perhaps this would be a good
magazine to read steadily.
Super-villains are a breed of their own. On the strength of good
super-villains, comics have changed from mediocre sellers to smash
hits. With the introduction, or even the re-introduction of a villain
into a story, from 2 to 5 pages should be devoted to
characterization. Most stories would stem from this characterization
of the villain. He should create the situation into which the hero is
Villains should be fearsome individuals, visually. Gangster types
should be avoided, since for the most part they do not represent
sufficient opposition to a hero. As much thought should go into the
creation of a villain as goes into that of a hero. Villains must
think and act in a spectacular manner, since if they are ordinary, all
actions stemming from them are ordinary, and consequently the more
cunning and clever they are, so the action of the story becomes more
clever and cunning. As in all good writing, action stems from
response of character to situation - so it must in comics.
Conceive a good villain and drop him into a mediocre situation, and if
the writer is sincere, this well-conceived villain will develop a
well-rounded story from his reactions to the mediocre situation. A
comic lead story which depends on melodrama can be no stronger than
its most melodramatic figure - therefore the importance of strong
Avoid deductive mysteries in which the villain does not appear.
Deduction can be used to find out who the villain is or what he is
attempting to accomplish. Best villains are super-villains -
Clown, Skull, Penguin, Red Skull, Camera Fiend, Vulture, etc. -
men who can repeat from story to story, and who may adopt ordinary
costume as a disguise, but who are essentially super.
A super-villain must never be subservient to any other character as in
the Mastermind, who receives orders from a German spy who in turn
receives his orders from Hitler. This results in weakening the
character of the villain, in making him secondary in importance to the
one from whom he gets his orders.
Just a tough looking character is not sufficient. The villain must
represent all vices, all that is evil, at a glance. Artistically he
is a charicature of "bad." The juvenile mind will thus
identify at an immediate glance the battle between good and evil.
Comic sub-characters should always be simple enough for the juvenile
mind to grasp their basic qualities at one glance. They must be
either weak or strong, good or bad. There must be no in-between
characters unless these middle characters are the subject of the story
and the plot depends on the change from good to evil or vice versa.
These are characters who are vulnerable. These are the friends, and
consequently the weak points, of the hero. While a hero himself
cannot be hurt by bullets, these same bullets can kill his
sweetheart. Thus suspense grows from danger in which important
sub-characters are placed, not upon the dangers which threaten the
hero himself - except how these dangers threaten him in relation
to the accomplishment of his task, which very often is the rescuing of
Boy and Girl Assistants, and generally uniformed super-assistants to
lead characters, should be treated in the same manner as heroes.
These characters must be written into the plot. It is insufficient to
have Davey tail along with Magno and merely swing in on the action as
just another fist. The story must be written that Davey serves a
definite purpose. Each character must serve in some way to further
the story. A character who is merely an appendage is useless, and
while they may not be detrimental to the story, they certainly do not
help it. Very often, while the hero is invulnerable, the boy or girl
assistant is otherwise. Consequently, if properly used, the assistant
can serve as an Achilles heel. Too much stress on this point only
succeeds in making the boy assistant a millstone around the neck of the
hero, and instead of being an heroic figure in the eyes of the reader,
he becomes a bothersome one. (Example, Samson and David.)
Too often characters are introduced into a story by an incident and
then allowed to drop out entirely. This is wasteful writing. In the
April issue of Lightning Comics, the Eel destroys a ferryboat.
For a panel or two we see a mother who has lost three sons in the
action. She speaks a piece and a character is born with a strong
motivation for disliking the villain, in fact a far stronger motivation
than the hero has. But she is not utilized from that point on. This
is a perfect example of bad writing.
Due to this characterization of the woman, we create human interest.
The readers waits expectantly through the entire story for the woman
to reappear, and when she does not, he is disappointed. Also, this
scene having no direct bearing on the plot becomes unfunctional and
A good comic story is a simple and tight story in which there is no
wasted character. Any person, action, or statement that appears in
any comic story should be vital to the furtherance of the plot or the
characterization of the main characters.
The simplest form of plotting must be followed in the writing of
comic scripts. The villain should attempt one major offensive, run
across some obstacles to this major offensive, and finally be
frustrated by the hero. All happenings, all actions, all
characterization that arise in a story should be related to plot. Too
often, the writer starts the story on one theme, runs out of ideas
halfway through, and, with no real relationship, launches a new idea.
For example, Magno and Davey run across a plot of the Cobra's to
barricade all the schoolhouses in the country and hold for ransom all
the children. The idea is good. But watch the development. Magno
and Davey enter into the plot, and the story shifts to a brass city
off the coast somewhere. This in itself is theme enough for another
story. Magno and Davey are captured, the villain forgets completely
about his conquered schoolhouses, and launches an all-out army of
conquest on the United States, which is still a third story.
Use any one of these three themes, develop the possibilities in any of
them, and you have a good story - but run the three together into
one story and the result is a story that fails to hold interest. The
writer should take one theme, develop it along the oldest of short
story formulas - characterization, suspense, action, climax,
Suspense in comics is not attained by placing the hero in mortal
danger. The reader realizes that the hero will not be injured.
Suspense is attained by creating a situation in which the problem is,
not whether the hero will be killed, but how he will escape in
jeopardy. Or how he can escape in sufficient time, to save those
vulnerable beings who are also placed in jeopardy. Or how he can
escape in sufficient time to frustrate the villain's plan, which is
drawing to its culmination.
False suspense is attempted very often by the capture of the hero, and
then the weak excuse - "We'll kill you three hours from now,
after we go out and rob the bank." Allowing the hero or his aide
the time, for no logical reason, in which he succeeds in making his
escape, is foolishness. A foolish villain is a weak one. This
procedure, and it happens very often, is called "suspense."
In reality it is nothing more than lazy plotting.
Pictorially, action is the highest point of interest in a comic
magazine. Very often, well-written action is spoiled by poor
artwork. A writer should take into consideration who the artist is,
and how well he can conceive action, before writing it into a script.
The artist who draws Captain America can be given five panels of
action, one following the other, and all will be interesting.
However, give the same script to the artist who draws The Raven, and
three of these panels may be repetitious and consequently unnecessary.
A writer of action should also consider that good writing style can
often make a chase and a fight interesting in the written story.
However, when translated to pictures, the same chase and fight become
unimportant when buried an a magazine full of chase and fight. In
writing comic action, the writer makes his setting of primary
importance. All action taking place within this setting will be
indigenous to it and consequently different pictorially from action
that takes place elsewhere. In a steel mill, action will be conveyed
through molten metal, swinging cranes, giant machines, etc. Aboard
ship, action all take place in staterooms, engine rooms, around the
rigging of the ship. Too much action loses its importance. In a room
full of shouting men, no one is heard; in a room full of whispering
men, the shouter immediately gets attention. Action therefore should
be played against a background of other elements, humor, mood,
suspense - so that when the action occurs, it is important.
The best climax in comics, as in any action writing, is the
"impossible situation." This is the spot in which the hero
is faced with a predicament which seems impossible to untangle. This
is usually the point where the human interest character introduced
earlier makes his or her reappearance. An example best illustrates the
The Wizard is in one part of the city, Jane, the girl he loves, is in
the hand of the villain at Potters Field at the other end of the
city. She is being buried alive. The Wizard, through his
super-brain, sees the girl's predicament and starts to her rescue. At
this moment Roy, the Wizard's boy companion, at the other end of the
city, leaps from the top of a bridge onto an automobile carrying
another group of villains in order to capture them. The car swerves
and goes off the bridge and Roy's foot gets tangled in the spokes of
the automobile wheel so that it is impossible for him to extricate
The car goes over the bridge into the river and Roy is doomed.
The Wizard, through his super-brain, sees the situation. Here we have
le situation impossible, which must be overcome by the hero.
If the hero saves the girl, Roy dies. If he saves Roy, Jane dies. He
saves them both, through perfectly logical action, which is allowable
within the powers given to him in his particular characterization.
Thus we see a high point of suspense created without the cheap
subterfuge of tying the hero's hands and waiting for him to break
through his bonds, or throwing The Flame into a furnace, or levelling
a machine gun at the Unknown Soldier. The solving of this high point
of action is the climax of the story.
There should be one and only one major climax to a story. All
suspense, all action, should lead directly to his climax. A series of
minor climaxes all running into thin air results only in exhaustion
for the reader, rather than excitement. Again the principle is
basic. Unity in all actions must center in one climax.
This is the most neglected principle of story in the comic magazine
business. Too often a story ends "smack" with the climax
action. The reader turns the page, anxious to taper off his story,
and discovers himself on page one of the next story. The denouement
is the breathing spell, the return to normalcy, the tying up of loose
ends, explanations, coming together of the characters at the end of
the story. It should not be neglected. It does not need to be more
than three or four panels, a page at most.
In the denouement the opening suggestions of the next story can be
planted, so that the reader is instilled with a desire to purchase
that next issue. This means more than just a final caption, it means
that somewhere in the story we allowed one thread to run loose. In
tracing down this thread we find that it is the forerunner of an
entirely new story. Thus we have created a reason for sales of the
How to Submit Material
The freelance writer makes his entree to the comic magazine publisher
by submitting a synopsis of his strip. This synopsis runs from 500 to
1500 words, with a minimum of fancy writing. Just give the skeleton
of your story, its outline. For this you will receive from $5 to
$25. If it is bought, you may then get the next job of writing the
dialogue (the balloons) and the additional captions that fill in the
story to the reader when the drawing cannot tell the whole story. For
this, the payment is $2 a page and up. Be sure that you sell only
"first North American serial rights" when you submit your
synopsis. Reserve all other rights for yourself. Remember the
tragedy of the authors of Superman, who thoughtlessly sold
Your synopsis should let the editor visualize (1) your lead character,
(2) the reasons why he will come into frequent conflict with the
Forces of Evil, (3) your sub-characters, (4) your villain, and then
give an outline of your story that will carry the strip through six to