Tagged: Writing comics

John Ostrander: No Trespassing

My Mary will sometimes pop into the office to chat a bit. If I’m just goofing off (a lot of my work day consists of goofing off), that’s fine but if I’m actually working she has to leave. She understands and doesn’t take offense; she can get the same way when she’s creating.

I don’t want anyone looking over my shoulder when I’m working, especially with the initial draft. I get self-conscious and everything freezes up and goes away. Oddly enough, Kim didn’t always understand that. It bothered her that there was a private place inside me to which she was not invited. She felt a couple should share everything and, for the most part, I agree – except when I’m writing.

I suppose that, with most couples that’s also true to some degree. Perhaps it’s even desirable that the person with whom you’ve spent a good long time can still surprise you, hopefully in positive ways. I once wrote a Wasteland story in which the husband challenges his wife when she claims she knows him completely. He suggests that he could, in fact, be the serial killer they’ve heard about. The claim that he could be eats away at his wife and, by the end of the story, she’s ready to leave him because she realized that the doubt she is feeling indicates she doesn’t really know her husband at all.

It is a big question. How much do we really know another person – even someone that we know intimately? We start off the relationship by being attracted to someone which may lead to falling into what we think of as love. I would suggest that, in fact, what we’re really falling in love with is our construct of the person. Someone we’ve invented that’s based on the other person but is as much or more really based on us as it is them. Hopefully, as time goes by, our perception deepens as we see more of the actual person and, again hopefully, fall into more of a true love.

That gets chancy. As you wind up really seeing more of the other person, you have to let them see more of the real you. Brrr! Pretty scary, boys and girls! It does necessarily involve opening up.

However, when you’re doing something creative – writing or art or what have you – the process can be very private. It’s a mysterious business to begin with; you don’t always know where the initial impulse comes from and you may not want to know. For a long time, I resisted any idea of going to a therapist because I felt that, if I knew more about my creative instinct, it would vanish. In reality, therapy turned out helping quite a bit. I understood why I did or thought some things and that understanding actually helped me creatively.

Still, I don’t want someone watching me create. I may need to dig around in parts of my psyche that can get a bit dark. (Those of you familiar with my work can probably appreciate that.) Nietzche said in Beyond Good and Evil: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Kim and I used to describe the creative process as bungee jumping into the abyss and pulling out something. Usually it’s squirming.

I don’t need observers when I do that.

I do wind up revealing aspects of myself in my writing; you have to. Every character you write must in some way be you. However, you’re in disguise; you can always claim a given aspect of a given character is that character and not you. Keep in mind, as I’ve warned some people in the past, that I may appear to be a nice guy but GrimJack comes from somewhere in me.

And visitors are not welcomed there.

Marc Alan Fishman: Shameless Promotion

Marc Alan Fishman: Shameless Promotion


For those playing at home, DC Comics is looking for new talent to join their team. Artists had their shot last month, and now writers are able to apply until the end of this month. One of the requirements asks of the would-be employee: “[Provide] a short composition no longer than the space provided, which is equivalent to about a page, double-spaced and in size 12 font, or 2000 characters (with spaces). It should tell us why you want to be a DC comic book writer and how your background will add a unique perspective to our publishing portfolio.” Over the last week or so, I’ve noted a handful of my indie comic compatriots seeking advice on how to complete that request.

My advice? Feh! They wanted a quick and shameful ego boost. I’m not kidding, kiddos… I saw over a half dozen posts all resembling the following:

“DC wants to know why I want to write for them… and why I’d be good at it. Wah! Wah! I’ve never been good at promoting myself. So, please, tell me why you think I would be good at it.”

Underneath their cry for help came the long comment threads that promote stomach churning. Oh you’ve always been amazeballs dude! one cousin would chime in with. I love your stuff. Just tell them about your thousands of fans! a probable co-worker retorts. They should be so lucky to have you sweetie! would prattle from the keyboard of their parents in Arizona. And then, across those threads the original poster – people who I consider at least professional friends – replies to all: Oh, thank you everyone! I’ve always hated this kind of stuff!

Gag me with a spoon.

I read over DC’s submission guidelines like every other would-be hopeful. To be clear: I don’t mock anyone for applying. Lest we forget Mark Bagley broke into comics via a submission contest not much different than this one. But I certainly cry foul – a flagrant foul – against any writer who coyly dismisses their ability to self-assess. Same as I would for any visual artist, musician, filmmaker, photographer, or graphic designer. Because like any job offer we eventually compete for, self-promotion is an absolute requisite skill. And seeking peer review never includes panhandling for praise amongst those who can’t offer constructive feedback.

Shameless self-promotion is one of the first and most potent tools in the bag of a budding writer. In my own life, long before I walked the walk, it took a bit of talking the talk to act as means to an end. Had I not convinced the first publisher to take a chance on Unshaven Comics’ abilities, we may still be sitting around wondering when someone would give us a chance (and in that alternate reality, we don’t come to the realization we should be doing it on our own anyways). We never lied about what we could do. But we certainly took no shame in being able to #humblebrag our way through the first interview.

But more to the point, I reread what DC is asking for. Not unlike those silly first questions on a job interview, the powers that be want to know what their prospects consider to be their best quality. And they only want 2000 characters worth of said self-aggrandizing.

For those who need a reference as to how much actual content that is, re-read this very article to the middle of my paragraph citing Mark Bagley. Yeah. That’s a heap of personal praise, is it not? Thank god for our Facebook fans, lest we ever figure out what makes us tick!

I can’t shake the simple truth of it all. I think on literally any writer worth their salt, and I know there exists a bit of inner id that allows them to be the cock of the walk. I’m not saying writers need to outwardly exist as blurting blowhards. Heck, being in the presence of a living legend here on ComicMix, John Ostrander, belies a man who would be barely audible if he was plugged into a Marshall stack. But you better bet your left nut or ovary that John knows his worth, and as long as I’ve known him I’ve never seen a single appeal for acclaim from his admirers. But I digress.

Admittedly, like my bashful blatherskites, I did take a step back when it came time to fill out that particular question. To distill my personal brand in the eye of a major publisher, is to place my neck as far out as possible… and be willing to defend my position with my professional life.

And after brief consideration, I closed the form and went back to writing The Samurnauts. Ironic as it may be for some to read it, I freely admit I am not ready to write for DC. Or Marvel. Or Boom!, IDW, Avatar, Image, or Dark Horse. Because the truth of the matter is not resting on my talent, no. It’s just that I have far more to capture on the page on my own, then under the thumb of corporate masters.

And I came to that conclusion without having to ask a single person on Facebook.

John Ostrander: You/Not You

You : Not You

One of the interesting facets of talking about writing is the contradictions you find in the craft. For example: All your characters are you. All your characters are not you.

All of your characters are you.

Every character you write must have some of you in it. All of them. Not just the ones you like to identify with. All of them. The large and the small, the good and the bad, male and female, no matter what age, race, or nationality. If you’re going to write honestly about the character, you must be in the mix.

This can get uncomfortable. Once, when I was writing a white supremacist  in an early issue of Suicide Squad, I had to look into myself and ask, “What in me is like this man?” Look, I’m an aging white guy; there’s going to be something there. No matter how much I’ve worked at freeing myself from that, and I have, there’s going to be something there.

I found it. It’s not enough to understand such a character’s point of view; it’s necessary to find what is in you that is like that. However much I dislike that aspect of myself, it is there to some degree and it can be used. It was.

We all have multitudes within us. We are slightly different people depending on who we are with; with our parents we’re slightly different than we are with our siblings than we are with our friends than we are with our lovers and partners. Each of them know a slightly different aspect of us. That’s one of the purposes of supporting characters; they bring out different aspects of the protagonist.

We play so many different parts in our own lives on a daily basis, we should be able to find some aspect of ourselves – good or bad, laudable or disreputable – that will allow us to identify, to be, the character that we are writing.

I’ve often said that writing dialogue between several characters is the writer having conversations with his/herself. We are all our characters.

All of your characters are not you.

You have to have some perspective on the characters that you write and that requires some distance. The differences are important.

There is, mostly in fandom, a form of criticism pertaining to a “Mary Sue” (among female characters) or a “Larry Stu” (among male). Generally, it means a character is an idealized and unrealistic version of the author. For the most part I dislike the term; it’s too easy, too lazy, and too pat a critique. The person using it generally only has to accuse the author of either having a Mary Sue or Larry Stu and that’s it; no further discussion is needed or, often, allowed. The accusation is made. End of story.

However, as with most stereotypes and clichés, there is a germ of truth. A good character can be very seductive. Few people believe themselves to be evil; even Shakespeare’s Richard III, who describes himself as a villain, believes he has a right to do what he is doing. I met someone once who believed that if he could take something that you thought was yours, he was within his rights to do so. “You only have a right to what you can hold onto,” he would claim. Not someone I wanted to spend any time with, but an interesting idea for a character.

I saw a TV interview with a guy who was doing time because he was a hired killer for the Mob. Coldest son of a bitch I’ve ever seen. Literally would just as soon kill you as look at you. “My life doesn’t matter to me, so why should yours?” was what he said. Again, not a person I would ever want to meet, but it became part of my core concept for my version of Deadshot in the Squad. Lawton doesn’t have a death wish; he just doesn’t care if he dies – or if you do.

The whole “You are your character/you are not your character” thing is a dichotomy and that’s fine by me. I think that most often you find the truth in contradictions. It’s what Del Close taught in his Second City and iO improv classes. Del held this contradiction as a rule: it’s not either/or; it’s and/both.

Finally, don’t try to reconcile or explain the contradictions. State them and trust to your reader to dope it out. Do your job right and the reader will think that the character is them… and not them.

John Ostrander: Through The Years


I recently was talking to my friend and frequent (and upcoming) collaborator, Jan Duursema, about just the technological changes I’ve seen in comics over the course of my career. It must be getting close to thirty years since I began all this.

When I first started, I wrote my plots and scripts on a manual typewriter with a carbon copy for me. For you boys and girls who don’t know what a carbon was, it was a black inked piece of paper that you placed between the first and second pieces of paper. As the typewriter key struck the first page, the force of it would penetrate the carbon and leave an identical letter on the second page. If you hit it hard enough. In theory.

When I began, I wrote out my plots and scripts in longhand on yellow legal sized pads of paper from which I would then transcribe to the typewriter. It was easier to make corrections on the yellow pad than on the typed page. There, if you even made a spelling mistake, you had to haul out the Wite-Out (sic) or Liquid Paper. These were small round bottles of white paint with a cap with a small brush in it and it was a pain to use. If you didn’t seal it up properly, the liquid would dry out and become unusable. Some inkers who use it to this day either for corrections or to create effects.

When I worked at First Comics, I lived in Rogers Park which is on the far north side of Chicago. The First Comics’ offices were originally in Evanston and I could walk there or take a quick elevated train trip and drop off the plot or script. It got more complicated when I started working for DC Comics as well. Their offices were in New York City and I couldn’t easily walk my stories there.

If I got my work done soon enough before deadline, I could use the U.S. mail but, as my good friend and oft-times editor Mike Gold could tell you, that is usually an unlikely occurrence. Mike once called me on a script I was doing for him and informed me I had gone past deadline and was approaching funeral line.

More often I used Federal Express and usually their overnight delivery service. DC and Marvel both provided pre-paid shipping labels in those days but, still, there were too often the mad dashes to the FedEx office. The closest one to me, by odd happenstance, was in Evanston near the First Comics offices. The key was to get there before it closed (promptly at 5 PM as I recall). If you missed it and you had to get the script in the next day, it necessitated the late night run to the central FedEx office out near the airport. When I finished the writing really late, it meant a mad dash to try to get to that FedEx office before it closed at midnight. I remember one especially hairy run with my wife, Kim, driving and running red lights while I stuffed the pages onto the envelope and completed the shipping label. Some nights it was like a gathering of the local comic book fraternity of both writers and artists as we all tried to slip in under our respective deadlines.

I thought I had graduated to technical nirvana when I traded the manual typewriter in for an electric one. This one had a correcting ribbon built in! However, this was also soon replaced when I bought my first computer. Mike and others in the industry had been pressuring me to get one but, as usual, I was resistant. I am usually not the first to embrace a new technology. I may not be the dead last to do so but it’s usually a near thing. I got a Mac because that’s what most of the people I knew in the industry had.

Side note: one of the beefs I have with the movie Independence Day was that, at the climax, the alien mothership is destroyed by a computer virus introduced into its systems by a Mac computer. Macs couldn’t talk much with other computers on Earth; it can talk to an alien computer? Bah!

Working with a computer enabled me to quickly correct mistakes and, as I went on, I discovered spell-check. An even bigger discovery was the Internet and email. With email, I could simply send my work in and the offices would get it the next second. Which of course enabled me to push the deadline even harder.

With the Internet, I also discovered I could do my research when I needed it without setting foot outside my door. Previously, I had to go to the nearest available library during library hours, hoping they would have something. That wasn’t useful when I was working on something in the middle of the night. With the Internet and search engines, I could look up anything at any time.

Sometimes, however, you can get lost in research. I remember on an early Suicide Squad story I spent a lot of time looking up Soviet train schedules to see if my team could possibly get to certain places I said they got at the times when I had them doing that. Was that strictly necessary for the story to work? Well, no. But I think I hit my obsessed button and I couldn’t get out.

Another advantage of working with computer was that I could work more efficiently and could take on more assignments. OTOH, it also offers many more ways of goofing off. Hellooooo, Facebook!

These days I no longer write my stories out long hand; I compose right on the computer. However, I do use a written journal with which to work out the stories and characters. That still feels more natural. My thoughts seem to flow from my brain down my arm through my pen and onto the page. It’s more organic, more creative, for me that way.

The point of all this is that while I have had a good long career it hasn’t been that long since my days with the manual typewriter and the Liquid Paper. I’ll probably be getting another computer fairly soon; I’ve had the one on which I write this for more than a few years and it’s time. I suspect I won’t fully understand everything the new computer does; I doubt if I really understand even half of what my current one does. Technology has made me a more prolific writer – but has it made me a better one? Actually, I think it has. Re-writing has become easier, for one thing.

However, I don’t think it has made me better on my deadlines. How close am I to the funeral line, Mike?

Dennis O’Neil: The One Right Way!

Sound Effects

Splat! Splibble! Ghosh!

Uh oh, here comes another one.


Okay, let’s close the metaphorical door…no, let’s slam the door on my cutsey way of sneaking up on an answer to the question I posed last week, which was something like: If I can’t teach writing — and I admit that I can’t — why do respectable institutions pay me to teach writing?

We’ll get to that gibberish at the top of the page in a bit, but first, let’s make a distinction between writing and creativity. I don’t know of anyone who has sussed out a reliable procedure for teaching creativity and I’m sure multitudes are trying. So let’s just drop the subject.

But writing? Different thing, and that brings us to the gibberish, which is supposed to be the noise information makes when it strikes a student because that, dear companions, is what I have done while standing in front of whiteboards. No, not fabricate sound effects, but hurl information at the eager faces: give them everything I know about the subject of the day, hoping that they will remember some of it and that what they remember will be useful. I’ve found that I can talk for… oh say twenty hours over the course of a semester about facts pertaining to writing – left-brain stuff that will fit into English sentences. Then, if I allow myself a little blue sky, or bring in a guest, or have responsive students willing to enter into dialogues voila! job done and where’s the nearest Starbucks?

Note: When imparting information, I never claim to be teaching the way to do anything. We have a mantra: There is seldom any one absolutely, inarguable, unimpeachably right way to do anything. There is just what’s worked for a lot of people a lot of times and maybe you’ll benefit from knowing about it.

Can I hear an Amen?

The matter of script format is sure to arise in any comics writing discussion and at first glance this seems like a no-brainer. I mean, a format is a format and all the instructor has to do is show one to the class and then take a bathroom break, right? That would indeed be the case if the subject were writing for television and/or movies. There is a widely accepted format for screenwriting and you’d best adhere to it. (But fear not: your friendly neighborhood software dealer will supply you with all you need.) Comics, though? I can’t show you the standard comics script format because there isn’t one. Every prolific writer seems to find, or evolve, a format that suits them and these range from the minimalist to the dense and detailed and I say blessings upon all. If it’s okay with your editor and with your collaborator(s), it’s okay.

We’ll probably revisit this topic, maybe not next week, but soon. For now, another amen and I’m off to play hooky.

Dennis O’Neil and the Mighty Marvel Method!


Back in the leafy days of yore, when I was freelancing as a journalist, short story writer and… what am I forgetting here? Pornographer? Something like that, something skeevy and disreputable – oh, of course. Comic book writer! A long time ago. Something north of a half century ago, in fact.

Anyway, in the mid-sixties, in Marvel Comics’ midtown Manhattan offices, I never heard the word “pitch,” nor was I ever asked to execute one. I was sometimes asked for a document that looked like a pitch, smelled like a pitch, tasted like a pitch… (Okay, maybe not that last. I don’t know. I never tried tasting one. Is it too late?) What these were, these pitchy rectangles of paper, were what we called plots. We’d bat one of these plots out on a (probably manual) typewriter, give it to an editor who gave it to a pencil artist who rendered the events mentioned in the plot into visuals – a whole lot of pictures…

Still with me? Okay. Deep breath and –

The pictures were returned to the writer who added words to the images and sacrificed a virgin at midnight and by golly, sooner or later all that effort resulted in a comic book. Millie the Model greets her fans! Kid Colt faces low-down ornery varmints!

But before the effort described above, the writer often (usually?) met with the editor and told the story he planned to write. And that meeting was the pitch. Which is?

The story. Spoken or written. Long or short. Plain or fancy.

It works pretty much the same way when one is writing for television, with maybe a tiny bit more emphasis on speaking rather than writing the story, but not much, and probably not always. (And when the writer is done talking, he may still have to write?)

What I just described came to be called “the Marvel method.” It was favored by Marvel’s Stan Lee and his artistic collaborators (especially Jack Kirby) because Stan was one busy dude and working this way saved him a minute here, an hour there.

So that’s the Marvel method and it isn’t much used these days. Current editorial practice seems to favor submitting a written story outline which contains all the pertinent story points, including the ending. And this is the pitch, millennial style. I don’t know that there’s any industry-wide standard format for these written pitches. Maybe individual editors have preferences and so it’s best to have a brief conversation with editor or editor’s representative before sitting at the keyboard and, you know, unleashing your genius upon the world.

I got away from what I first learned, the Marvel method, early in the game, partly for storytelling reasons and partly because when I got a job I wanted to get the damn thing done and out of the house and start on the next one before the guys in the midtown offices realize what a shopworn hack they’re dealing with.

More on this topic next week unless I come up with a really nifty idea between now and then.

Emily S. Whitten: Writing the Long Game

I just returned from a week’s vacation out in the sort-of-middle-of-nowhere, and it was glorious. Being my first long non-family or -convention-related vacation in ten years, it gave me some much needed down time to, e.g., work on my non-journalistic writing (along with spending time with a wonderful friend and meeting new friends, reminding myself anew of how terrible I am at watercolor painting, reading the exceptional journalistic work of Ernie Pyle, getting a tad bit in shape, listening to excellent music really loudly through gorgeously immense speakers, stepping out into the sun more than I usually do in my office-bound work, and, you know, actually relaxing a bit).

A lot of editing got done this past week. And yet, on my return, I’m still not done editing my current project, i.e. the comic I’m co-writing. This is not because I’m just that slow (although on occasion I am) but because with this piece of writing, I’m having to practice a skill I’ve always lacked the patience to hone – playing the long game. (In the sense of building and playing out a long-term storytelling goal, not trying to con y’all. Although maybe the story will do that too. You never know.) It’s a skill I really need to develop if I’m going to execute certain of the ideas I’ve been building in my head over the last few years for both this comic and other stories; and yet one of my traits that is actually sometimes an oddly great virtue in my life, my impatience, is in this situation a great impediment. While impatience, used properly, can make me the person to, say, push forward with getting tasks done as efficiently as I think they should be, when it comes to complex storytelling, it’s my downfall.

Why? Because I really want the first part of this story to be done already, so we can start sharing it with the world (because I’m so, so nerdily excited about it!) and also so we can move on to the next bit of story and get even more of our ideas out there. And yet, patience is key to building the story we want to tell. Since it’s a comic, once an issue is out there, you can’t go back in editing and add a bit more foreshadowing like you can when writing a novel. And since we have built a story that, if done right, could conceivably last for at least sixty issues, there are things that, for it to be as fun and cool and twisty as we want it to be, must be built in from the beginning. And that takes time, and patience, and meticulous care.

That is why this writing vacation has been so great for me. It’s given me the time to do much of the all-important editing (I think I’m on my fourth round now?) that is going to make this story sing (we hope). And it has reminded me that if we want our story to unfold the way we are envisioning it in our heads, patience really is a virtue, and it’s okay to take the time to work it all out. Now that I’m back to the daily grind, I’m going to try my darnedest to hold onto that reminder; and for anyone who’s in the same writing place as me right now (I know you’re out there!), I hope you do too.

And until next time, Servo Lectio!

John Ostrander: Telling The Story

We distinguish “pop culture” from “High Culture” usually because the main objective of “pop culture” is to entertain while “High Culture” looks into the human condition. It can entertain and should. Tragedy should entertain but in ways that are different from, say, Guardians of the Galaxy. But that is not its primary purpose.

That said, pop culture can also look into the human condition, into the world around us, and “hold a mirror up to nature.” That line is from Shakespeare who is very High Culture now but in his day was disparaged by some as being “too popular.” He appealed to the groundlings – those in the cheap seats – and that is part of the reason, I believe, that he is still so playable today. He knew that to reach someone’s mind and heart you first had to get their attention. The best way was to tell them a story.

That was a lesson that was also taught to me by our own Denny O’Neil. He has been a large-scale influence in my life. I was a fan when he wrote some seminal stories in the Green Lantern/Green Arrow book. The Green Lantern series had low numbers at that point and he was given an opportunity to write it; I once read that he liked the assignment because it was no fail. If he saved the book, that was great. If it got cancelled anyway, management would assume that the book was in a downward spiral and couldn’t be saved. In a way, he couldn’t lose. So he added Green Arrow, got Neal Adams as artist, and took a new path.

That has also influenced my career path; I liked taking on the B list characters. You could play with them, change them, without too much objections by the Higher Ups. You could take chances you might not be able to do with flagship titles. Don’t get me wrong; I would have loved to get a crack at a regular Superman or Batman gig (I did write some stories with the characters but never a regular book) but I found The Spectre to be wide open and Tom Mandrake and I crafted over 60 issues of which I am proud. It’s been one of the highlights of my career.

While ultimately Green Lantern/Green Arrow did get cancelled, Denny set a standard. He taught me that you could write about important subjects, about the issues surrounding that time, and create something that entertained as well as make you think. He addressed racism, drugs, even the environment (among other topics); that wasn’t being done at the time. He showed me what the potential of the medium could be.

He’s never forgotten, however, that the purpose of Pop Culture is to entertain. We were working on a project together with me as writer and he as editor. The purpose of the project was very definitely to make a comment on the subject of guns and gun violence. His direction was very clear. He told me that, in comics, “You can say anything you want but first you have to tell a story.” This wasn’t a pulpit and preaching isn’t narrative. Our first job was to tell a good story. That’s what the reader was paying to get. That was the job. It still is.


John Ostrander: Choice, Character, and Freedom

GandhiWhich would you trust more – what a person says or what a person does? Almost anyone with life experience would say they’d trust what a person does more. Mind you, although we know better we often go with what a person says: con men, politicians and advertisers (that may be redundant) count on that.

It’s what we do with story – character is built upon choices, good or bad, which the individual makes. That’s why the writer puts them in difficult and even life-threatening situations. My late wife Kim used to ask me how I might react in a given situation. My response invariably was, “I don’t know. Ask me when I get there.” I know how I’d like to think I would act but the reality is, until faced with the given situation, I don’t really know. Nobody does.

I don’t believe it when someone says “I could never kill someone.” I think Gandhi was capable of killing given certain circumstances. The likelihood of him killing might be small, but he was human and any human is capable of the act. It’s part of our common humanity; a dark side of it, I grant you, but still part of it.

It’s not only big choices that we make that proclaim who we are (or who a character is); it’s the small ones as well. The artist in a graphic narrative, for example, must decide what a given character might wear. What we choose to wear projects how we want to present ourselves.

“Hold on there, Horsestrangler,” some of you might be saying. “I don’t care what I wear. I just throw something – possibly clean – on and go.” (Guys are more likely to say this than gals who, as usual, know better.) My response is doing so is a choice of its own and makes it own statement; it says “I don’t think that sort of thing is important. It’s shallow and trivial and doesn’t represent who I am.”

Except it does. It rejects certain values and/or it says you want to look like everyone else and blend in. Do you dress for a job interview the same way you dress for hanging with your homies? If so, good luck getting the job. If you’re going on a date with someone for the first time, how do you dress? How do you present yourself? If you had to go to a funeral, what would you choose to wear?

Different characters in comics will dress differently. Peter Parker shouldn’t dress like Tony Stark. Clark Kent shouldn’t dress like Bruce Wayne. I remember that in an early episode of The Sopranos, the producers dressed Tony in shorts and flip-flops for a backyard party to suggest more strongly the underlying suburban setting. Advisers to the show said that Tony would never dress like that – and he never did again.

Why do people wear clothing emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo or the name of their favorite sports team and turn themselves into walking billboards for that product? Because it suggests a certain tribal affiliation the same way that inner city gangs wear certain colors. It proclaims us and marks us as part of a greater, possibly stronger, whole. At least, we may think it does.

That’s a choice that people make and it’s something that writer and artists working in the graphic medium have to keep in mind. There are hundreds, thousands, of ways of communicating to the reader who this character is, what the setting is, what’s at stake and what’s going on.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Yep. Sure are. There are situations when you have no choice to make. You can’t choose which shoes to wear when you can’t afford any shoes. Choice exists only if there is more than one thing from which to choose. Otherwise, you have to take what is given.

There is no freedom where there is no freedom of choice.