The third annual 30 Characters Challenge wraps up this week. This was an online event where creators challenge themselves to create 30 brand new characters in just 30 days, one for every day of November. This year, almost 800 creators registered for the challenge, and nearly 5,000 new characters have been created so far. For all three years of the challenge, the provocative slogan for 30 Characters has been this:
Because the world needs new characters…
But am I right?
Does the world actually need or want our new characters?
A cynic could point to plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise. For example, let’s take a look at box office receipts from last year, courtesy of BoxOfficeMojo.com, shall we?
For the top 5 movies of the year, we have: a three-quel, a retelling of a public domain story, a sequel, a three-quel of a best-selling book, and the sixth movie in one of the biggest franchaises ever. It’s not until the sixth spot where you get to an original idea, and a movie the studios only were willing to agree to because director Chris Nolan shattered box offices with his previous film, a sequel film about a certain 70 year old caped crusader. And if 2010 was bad, 2011 was even worse. There were 27 sequels released this year, a record breaking number. So, clearly Hollywood doesn’t seem desperate for new characters or ideas.
What about, say, video games? Come on, video games are the relative new kid on the block in media. Surely that’s an industry receptive to new characters? Well, if you take a look at PS3 sales from 2010, you’ll see those charts littered with sequels as well.
And comics? How do comics stack up? The local comic shop has often been referred to as a pop-culture incubator. Hell, the LCS had The Walking Dead YEARS before everyone and their fiance’s brother-in-law were watching it on AMC. Surely the world of comics is more open to new characters and ideas? Grrr…Here’s what we have in comics:
As you might suspect, the chart is dominated by the Big Two, and dominated by 50, 60, and 70 year old characters. In fact, you need to go all the way down to #97 before you’ll find a NEW title, with a NEW lead character created in the last five years (Mark Millar’s Superior) on the chart. It could be argued that comics is one of the mediums MOST reluctant to embrace the new.
Frustrating, I know. How do we make sense of this? Well, here are some things I know about people:
MOST people say they’re tired of the same old thing and they want something new, something different.
MOST people’s wallets say something entirely different.
MOST people aren’t big risk takers when it comes to their entertainment choices. They have limited funds for their leisure dollars, and would rather spend them on sure things than risk trying something they’re not sure they’ll like.
MOST people don’t want to go out of their way to be entertained. They assume the really good stuff will find it’s way into their hands, TV screens or iPads. MOST don’t think they shouldn’t have to seek it out.
MOST people want to read, watch, and play whatever everyone else is reading, watching, or playing.
I examine my own consumption patterns, and I am, undeniably, “MOST People.” Look at the show Breaking Bad for example. I’ve been hearing about it getting emmy and Golden Globe nods for several years now. I’ve heard many people whose opinions I respect rave about it on multiple occasions. It’s on a channel that has produced several top quality series that I’ve enjoyed a great deal in the past. But up until three weeks ago, I’d never bothered to check it out. It wasn’t until A) I saw that the first three seasons were streaming on Netflix, and B) A guy requested a Walter White (BB’s protagonist) sketch commission from me, that I finally said, “Alright already, I check it out!”
And in the last three weeks, I blew through the entire four seasons of the show and can hardly stand the wait until the fifth and final season. Once they had me, THEY HAD ME. But damn if it didn’t take a lot to get me.
So, now we have to ask, if a major show, with actual TV stars and marketing budgets, have that much trouble winning over new fans, what possible hope do we, the independent creative types have to do the same?
Why bother creating new characters if the world doesn’t seem all that interested in them?
(Okay, the depressing part is over.)
Why bother? The simplest reason is because we HAVE to. One of the reasons #30Characters has caught on like wildfire is that so many of us have so much creativity and ideas bottled up inside of us, that sometimes all it takes is a simple, focused challenge like #30characters to bring it out.
Another thing to keep in mind is that all of the sequels and legendary characters littering the above charts…they all started out as new ideas at one point. Building a legendary mega-brand hit franchise takes years, sometimes decades. As independent creators, we can’t expect to hit home runs with our new ideas. But two or three well placed singles can still put runs on the board. And with years and years of hard work and dedication…who knows.
In my rant above, I talked a lot about what MOST people want, and argued that MOST people don’t want something new…but that’s not exactly it. More accurately, most people want something that’s familar…but with a new twist. How many successful movies and tv shows have been based on hundred- year-old fairy tales? Too many to count. How many comics on the shelves are based on twists on the Superman character? Plenty. How many successful pitches involve the unlikely pairing of two familiar ideas, or the revisiting of old ones in a new way? Well, I just saw The Muppets this weekend, and I’m pretty sure millions of others did, too.
Look at what DC Comics did recently. Before relaunching their entire line of comics in October, they had a Flashpoint event, which basically featured all of their iconic characters, but with unique twists on them. Bruce Wayne was never Batman…he was killed in Crime Alley, and instead, his father Thomas Wayne became a much darker Batman. And The Joker…well, I won’t spoil the great Knight of Vengeance storyline, but it was a hell of a twist. A new take on the familiar, which gave comic fans what they’ve always enjoyed, but kept them on their toes with innovative twists on the familiar.
You can do that, too. My latest book THE RED TEN, is selling very well. My most commonly used pitches to explain the book are:
A superhero retelling of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.”
An Agatha Christie murder mystery meets The Justice League.
This is how I would kill the Justice League if DC Comics was ever crazy enough to let me.
These pitches are INCREDIBLY effective with a particular target market, which is usually the one found in comic shops and at comic book conventions. I’ve also found that one character from the series in particular, THE OXYMORON, (created during last year’s #30Characters Challenge, BTW) visually resonates with comic fans. There was one stretch at the New York Comic Con where co-creator Cesar Feliciano and I simply couldn’t draw artist edition sketch covers fast enough before they were bought up off of the table. Why? I wasn’t all that sure, until a con-goer came up and said, “Hey, I’ll take this cover with the guy who looks like a cross between Deadpool and The Joker.” Well, there you go.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to be saying that with THE RED TEN, I’m doing it right. In fact, there are some people reading this now who are thinking “Not interested. If I wanted to read an Agatha Christie story, I’d go and read an original. If I wanted the Justice League, I’d be reading Johns’ and Lee’s book. If I wanted a super hero murder mystery, I’d go re-read The Watchmen…” and so on. Simply taking two ideas and mashing them together is no recipe for success. For me, I have a story to tell. It just so happens that I’m borrowing a story telling device that I’ve always revered (and one that is PERFECT for the serial comic book storytelling medium) and playing on archetypes that every comic fan is familiar with. It’s my time and my creative energy, and this is how I’m choosing to spend some of it.
The fact is, no story is going to be for everyone. In my rant above, I made a number of broad generalizations about the things MOST people like. Well, nobody ever said you, the independent comic book creator has to pursue creating books for MOST people. Hollywood has painted itself into a corner. To fund 200 million dollar blockbusters, they need to play it safe, and go after the broadest, most general audiences as possible. But you and I do not. We can pick our niches. Hell, being the most read math humor comic strip is going to get you a lot more notice than having the 400th most popular superhero book.
Another thing #30Characters encourages that I believe is a key to success in comics and any industry, is that your need to take plenty of swings. (Again with the sports metaphor?) My pal Seth Godin (been a while since I mentioned him…at least two columns) likes to say that the people he knows who often have the best ideas are also those with some of the worst. The reason is because they simple have THE MOST ideas. You’re going to need to wade through plenty of mediocre, bad, and just plain awful ideas before you find something worth pinning your star to. The more ideas you have, the more characters you create, the more likely you are to get good at figuring out which ones are worth investing in.
And that’s what #30Characters is all about. 800 creators throwing characters at the wall, trying to see if anything will stick. There are going to be plenty of misses, plenty of throwaway characters and ideas that never go anywhere beyond a simple post on 30characters.com. But so what?
All it takes is one Walter White. One Bruce Wayne. One Charlie Brown.
All it takes is one.
Here’s one more thing:
MOST people don’t know what they want.
Not really. At least, they couldn’t tell you. But they know it when they see it.
So show it to them.
Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, and educator residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of superhero murder mystery maxi-series THE RED TEN, EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and Tears of the Dragon, a swords and sorcery fantasy. His past work includes OVER, a romantic comedy graphic novel, and Super Seed, the story of the world’s first super powered fertility clinic. His work has been published by DC and Arcana comics.
Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, a new website empowering creators to help each other make better comics.
Category: Comix Counsel