17 February 2010

On Creating Characters & Comic Books

by guest columnist Anthony Schiavino.  Follow him on Twitter.

Last week when I was talking to Tyler about what to do for a column he mentioned that I should write on how I came up with the idea of my comic book SERGEANT ZERO.  As fate would have it, a spam comment was posted on my site this morning for a 2008 entry talking about the very same thing. It’s an old post but the ideas behind it, now in 2010, still apply.

Before I talk about how or why I created Sergeant Zero, I need to talk about my thoughts on how I approach a page. To paraphrase myself, I come at it like watching a good movie. You’re locked into every look the characters give you. The slight nod of their head in dark shadow and snappy dialogue. It’s their chemistry on screen, or lack thereof, or the way a scene is framed by the director. I come at it realizing that if I wouldn’t shell out my hard-earned dime for this story, then odds are nobody else will.

Most of the war comics I read absolutely bore me. I love the World War II time period, the 1940s, the swing era of music, and the romanticism of it all. But that’s all apparent in my This I Believe column.

The 1940s weren't a walk in the park. Perhaps there was much more uncertainty then there is today, even if our boys knew they were going overseas in one direction or another. Their loves back home - be it wife or girlfriend or mother - continued on and took it day by day... for years.

Regardless, there’s just something that appeals to me.  I always thought I was born in the wrong era. While others listened to punk rock, I was listening to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. While others were hanging out at the skate park I’d much rather be home with a good crime book. This might not sound like much to you, but the fact that I’m only 30 should speak volumes. I was born a good 30 years too late.

Maybe its because the war comics of today stick to the confines of realism too often. They’re so true to the source material that they’re locked in to the point where the book not only writes itself but it’s also been written before. There’s a reason why people - most of whom are not Tarantino fans and in their senior years - loved INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS so much (ed. note - it's my favorite Tarantino film! -TW). It deviated from history and it gave Hitler his just due. We can’t change history, but we can tell a story that isn’t tied to the confines of it trying to be something it’s not.

Most times the dialogue is wooden and stale. We’re told because history was A, B, and C, then so should anything written about the time period. It just bores me. We get four panels of nothing more than staccato notes rather than realistic haphazardness. I’ve always gravitated more to personal stories on the front lines or the homefront more so then the straight historical texts. If there’s no emotion behind what I’m reading - and this goes for movies as well - then my eyes will roll back in my head halfway through.

While most of the comics I read happen to be super heroic, when it comes time to put down words on the page I’m locked into the confines of my own mind. There’s only so far I can push my characters (for now). What I like to read is not so much as what I love to write.

Sergeant Zero is somewhere between the two. It’s based on the books and novels I read, be it the pulps, crime fiction, or fantasy more so than any comic book influences I have.  Come to think of it,  I could tell you I have favorite writers in comics but none of them actually influence me. Everything comes from outside. More old movies have influenced this comic and my writing then anything else.

For me comics is the medium I’m writing in. Not the aesthetic of how I write. That’s how comics will progress, and how it will survive. It’s not about intent of what will be done with the comic itself. It’s about the intent of the writing and how I approach a page.

Sergeant Zero harkens back to the old days, the old comics (and more importantly old black and white movies), when you could let your imagination run wild believing in the absurd and the unbelievable...and more importantly have fun. At the same time I write in grit and cynicism of the less romantic side of the era. The part that isn’t on the radio or in the pulps. The part that you didn’t see on the war posters.

Except what he wanted you for was a warm body on the front lines, dodging bullets on the threshold of hell itself. That’s not putting down our country or the men that fought. War is hell. It can’t be romanticized no matter what anyone thinks. When I write a soldier on the front line he’s human. If he gets shot it’s bloody and if it comes to it he will die.

Writers often use the death plot point too often. More so in comic books then anything else. It’s become an inside joke of sorts and has actually started to backfire marketing wise. But how can I not write about it? It’s the reality of war and it’s the greatest fear of every loved one that watches their son or husband go off and fight. Their fear of never seeing them alive ever again. I’m about to tackle such a story and if I don’t make you cry then I didn’t do my job.

Every man wanted to be there, but when they got to the front lines it was a whole other story. That’s not to say our soldiers were turning tail and running but they were afraid nonetheless. They’re human after all. To deny such a fact is absurd. Nobody WANTS to be there for the sake of killing people. They’re there because they have to be or want to be for something bigger than themselves. Anyone that’s seen Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers when they stormed the beaches of Normandy, at least had a glimpse of the fear I’m talking about.

My hero, Sergeant Zero, is afraid. Not for the sake of having to write fear but for the sake of human emotion. He’s not a coward but we may see it through a glance on the printed screen, in his determination not to fail, or inner dialogue talking about writing home. He misses his once great love but isn’t able to write her because his letters...well that’s in the story.

Sergeant Zero may be portrayed in his pulp and on his radio serial as somewhat of a super god without fear pounding the Nazis back to Hell. But the reality of it all isn’t just a snap of his fingers. It takes a little more elbow grease.

I have a fascination with the 1950s as well. Most people think of malt shops and going to the hop, but the 50s I’m writing about is much earlier. In fact, we could call it the late 40s. We’re just coming out of the War and still have those influences of the prior decade in all aspects of our lives. It’s more so The Wild One then Grease in my approach. At the same time a new cold war is brewing with Russia. It’s not out in the open on any front line. How does a trained soldier deal with that?

At this point my hero is back in the States, trying to make a living after all the promises given, and just not succeeding. He’s living in a tenement of sorts and works at a soup kitchen trying to redeem himself for what’s happened during the War. He also has no idea that he’s this “super” soldier. A friend of mine described this aspect of the book as Street War. You can bet on serial killers, bar brawls, and black market kidnappings. Definitely nowhere near poodle skirts.

Most people don’t realize how similar the 50s were, at least the early years, to the 1940s. Life and our country didn’t progress during the War. Life just went on. We continued on with what little we had after the fact.

But why did I choose a patriotic pulp hero? Sure some people are going to think Captain America right from the start but outside of slight homages as a fan of comic books it’s nowhere near Cap. Anyone that has read the first issue and subsequent scripts say as much.

The patriotic pulp hero is nothing new. Cap wasn’t the only one of his kind during his heyday. He was just the most successful. Sergeant Zero is more of a soldier. Most of the story is the man behind the goggles, the soldier, and how he deals with life be it on the front lines or at home. It’s a comic book so you have to have a hero. It’s set in World War II and the Cold War, so for me the biggest hero is the soldier. I happen to be American so when you put two and two together it’s a no brainer. My love of the pulps and noir comes through in a gritty realism that isn’t romanticized or “comic book,” yet at the same time I have Zero battling monsters of all kinds. Not just human or of this world.

For those that don’t read comic books...that’s the hook. You come in for that old time Hollywood grit and stay for giant monsters and Lovecraftian horror or computer controlled gorillas in the deserts of Africa.

It could just be my personal life reflecting on this but I feel our country, the world, needs a hero now more than ever. We’re in two wars and the economy is in the toilet with millions upon millions out of work. But we’ve become so cynical of everything. We need a hero we can relate to that isn’t a politician or a religious figure. One that can lead us into the fray but isn't afraid to shed a tear. More importantly we need somebody that can give us true hope in these horrifying times.

That dear readers, are just some of what I put into Sergeant Zero. That’s where I’m coming from when I write a scene. That and a thousand other things.

RECOMMENDED READING: Over Here! New York City During World War II by Lorraine B. Diehl. I just happened upon this recent release a few weeks ago. Like I mention in this column it’s about the realism of the War in times of the romanticized view we’re used to reading. We get to hear about the Nazis in America as early as the mid 1930s and their plans to take over the country. Jewish immigrants came to the United States seeking refuge but weren’t welcomed with open arms. They were called Nazis because they happened to be German. All before the United States entered the front. The book is chock full of old photographs and memorabilia. I’m still in the process of reading but so far I highly recommend it.
From the halls of Marvel Comics as a mutant editorial intern to the heights of the Flatiron designing book covers and straight on through newsrooms as an art director, Anthony Schiavino has seen action and then some. Pounding away at the keyboard, working well into the night, he mixes his love of old hard-boiled stories, hopeless romance and black and white movie dialogue like a good stiff drink. A writer and designer from New Jersey, Anthony’s work can be seen on a wide range of pulp and comic book publications such as “Ghost Zero,” “The Phantom: Generations,” and the “Black Forest.”

He can be found talking comics, movies, television, and all things pulp on Facebook and Twitter

Sergeant Zero © 2010 Anthony Schiavino


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