While the number of stories which can be told is infinite, the number of basic plots is surprisingly small. The exact count depends on which list you consult (or which instructor you had for your college literature course), but it’s generally agreed that the number of basic plots lies somewhere between seven and forty. That’s not a high number but a writer can derive a lot of mileage from just a handful of basic ideas; after all, there are millions of songs but they use varying combinations of just twelve basic notes.
Writers do tend to crib a bit from each other (sometimes unconsciously); early comic book writers swiped a lot from the books they’d read, both pulp novels and classics. Back in the day students were well versed in the classics. You can still find many books for children from the pre-TV era based on myths, legends, and literary classics (I have a decently sized collection of these). By the time a kid was in high school he was expected to read the “real deal”, both major and minor classics. My parents grew up during the 1930’s and early 1940’s, and read extensively in school; years later when I’d bring home a book by Dumas, Bret Harte, Conrad, Kipling, Swift, Bierce, Crane, Sabatini, Wells, Verne, Bullfinch, or any of dozens of others, I was often surprised that my mother had already read it. “I won’t spoil it for you,” she’d say, “but you’re going to love that one!”
Although there are only a few basic plots, a writer’s individual style and choices dress out the plot skeleton and determine whether or not the finished story succeeds. The authors whose works you read have a definite influence on your own writing ability and style. I grew up influenced by Robert E. Howard, who taught me the importance of adjectives and “action words”. In fact, when I later became a writer of technical articles I had to unlearn a lot of Howard to be able to do my job more concisely and effectively. Early comic books writers were definitely influenced by the pulps as well as the classics, and this extensive reading is why quite a few comic book writers (such as Gardner Fox and Alfred Bester) were able to also find success as novelists.
I recently read an interesting message board discussion, one of the ubiquitous “why today’s comics stink” threads, in which one writer made a very thought-provoking point. The writer opined that comic book writers before the 1990’s grew up reading primarily stories and novels (and with early comic writers these books were often the classics), while present-day comic writers grew up with comics as their fundamental reading fare.
That may be a debatable point, but think about it for a minute and you may see the logic. Today’s comics are all about “writing for the trades”, stretching out a story for six to eight issues so that they can be assembled into a trade paperback and be termed a “graphic novel” — while certainly graphic, few deserved to be ennobled with the title “novel”. Instead of having six to eight issues in which to tell a tale, Golden Age writers frequently had just six to eight pages and some pulled off the job quite admirably by compressing their storytelling. While present day comic writers crib from a twenty page comic book story from the Eighties and try to figure out how to stretch it into six issues, Golden Age writers swiped from novels and compressed the plot into a handful of pages.
A classic basic plot centers around righting a wrong. The protagonist is somehow wronged by the antagonist, leading the protagonist to seek a reckoning: revenge, restitution, and/or justice. While tales using this plot may have ended happily in times past, modern interpretations display a variety of denouements: the hero is successful and lives “happily ever after”; the hero dies in the attempt; the hero and antagonist both die in the attempt; the hero is successful but loses something else of value in the process; the hero is successful but finds his victory to be hollow, and his revenge is anything but sweet; the antagonist thwarts the hero by threatening something precious to him and the hero must back down and live with his defeat. The list goes on, but we can see how a basic plot skeleton can have a variety of endings.
When it comes to writing the “revenge tale”, no one did it better than Alexandre Dumas in his classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s an amazingly rich and complex book; when I read it fifteen years ago, I practically needed a scorecard to even partially follow its labyrinthine plot twists. Young Edmond Dantes is robbed of his family, job, and love by a group of envious men. After many years in prison (in which he befriends an old clergyman, who gives Dantes a classical education and bequeaths him a treasure map on his deathbed), Dantes escapes from prison, finds the treasure, then uses the riches to create a new identity for himself and finance his revenge upon the men who stole his life. It’s an amazing book, and there’s nothing else quite like it in the annals of literature. Revenge tales have been around forever (one might classify The Odyssey as a revenge story, but that would be selling Homer a bit short), revenge tales come and go, but no one has ever topped The Count of Monte Cristo for its complexity and imagination, nor for the weird mix of horror and elation the reader receives as he watches Edmond Dantes’ plans come to fruition.
The Count of Monte Cristo has become almost a blueprint for writing a revenge tale. Although it’s not often tackled by today’s readers, the book was well known (and widely loved) three quarters of a century ago; both of my parents were required to read it in school (which blows my mind, because it’s a very difficult book). At least a half-dozen movie versions had been produced by the mid-1940’s, a total which doesn’t include the myriad “spin off” movies like The Son of Monte Cristo, The Return of Monte Cristo, The Wife of Monte Cristo, etc. (Somehow they missed the chance to film Monte Cristo Meets The Wolfman, but they’d likely have done it if they’d thought it would make money.) Believe me, Dumas’ novel was big in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
It’s no wonder, then, that comic book writers often used the “revenge” trope as a basis for their characters. The most famous example, of course, is The Batman, still going strong after all these decades – call it “revenge”, an obsession with justice, a mania, whatever, but it’s the core concept of the character.
Other writers of the period also used the “revenge” angle as well. In the course of contributing to a forthcoming Hideouts and Hoodlums RPG supplement, I was required to read the pre-1942 appearances of many superhero and mystery man characters, and I discovered a lot of interesting rarities. One of them appeared in the pages of Pocket Comics. That title was itself a rarity: a digest-sized comic (which could easily fit into a back pocket) which contained a hundred pages (instead of the customary sixty-four), and which sold for the usual dime. It was a noble experiment which, sadly, didn’t last long: four bi-monthly issues were published in late 1941. The character I discovered in its pages is completely forgotten today but made quite a few appearances in his time, spread over three separate comic titles; in fact, The Zebra was something of a fixture in Green Hornet Comics from mid-1942 to mid-1946.
Now before you go jumping to conclusions about The Zebra’s merits as a character based solely on his name, give this story a chance; it’s certainly not The Ferret (who we met some time back in the Big Blog o’Fun). The Zebra’s origin tale is a nice, tight, well plotted story with a few distinct parallels to The Count of Monte Cristo. The tale begins with a man falsely accused and imprisoned. He escapes and vows vengeance/retribution/justice. I especially like that scene in which he swears his solemn oath:
Like Edmond Dantes, the protagonist adopts a new identity: using the hero’s prison uniform as a basis for his costume (and name) is a clever, neat little twist. The use of the threatened girlfriend as the engine of the villains’ destruction was also quite nice; it allowed the writer to compress the tale into just twelve pages without using some major coincidence to drive the tale’s conclusion.
The Zebra’s origin tale isn’t deathless prose by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a good, exciting story. It seems pretty evident that the writer had read Dumas or at least one of his many imitators; the story uses some of the same plot devices, cleverly compressed into a short entertaining tale (instead of expanded into a terminally dull multi-issue “epic” as would most likely be the case today).
As always, right-click on a page and open it in a new tab for a larger view. Appreciation goes out to The Digital Comic Museum for the page scans.
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.