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B&N Week 19: Superheroes–FIGHT!

| May 3, 2011 | 0 Comments


It’s Tuesday! I know a lot of you are sick and tired of the rain, but me, I’m liking it. It didn’t rain that much in Tucson—we basically had a monsoon season, and that was it. Lots of rain, thunder, lightning, hail, flooding, and tree fires. My idea of a good time. And if it happened on a Tuesday? Even better!

We’ve been talking a lot about superheroes. Remember at the outset, I said that we’d more than likely be here for a while. I’m just following through on that.

Now, besides the soap opera that are the long-term superheroes, there is a single reason we come back, time and again. The fights! That’s what we’re going to talk about this week. Superhero fights, and the tedium of writing something cool.

(Steven, I read superheroes for a lot more than the fights.) No, you don’t. Not really. You like your fights peppered with things such as drama and character arcs, but really, you’re there for the fights. These are adolescent power fantasies, remember, and the reason our characters have these strange abilities goes back to our two most basic responses: fight or flight. What’s the point of a power fantasy if you’re not lording it over someone? You want to beat the ever-loving crap out of the bully who gave you an atomic wedgie, stole your lunch money, or embarrassed you in front of the entire school, including the pretty brunette you’ve had your four eyes on since puberty.

Your fantasies are violent. Superhero comics are violent. They can be no other way. The sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be. Actually, here’s what I want you to do. You know whom I’m about to reference. Go watch the Spider-Man movies. Whenever he’s in costume, fighting a villain, they’re beating the snot out of each other. These movies are violent. The cartoons aren’t as violent as the movies—they’ve been sanitized because cartoons are seen as a children’s medium here in the States—but the movies are deep with violence. Get used to that.

Now, as writers, hell, as geeks, we’ve probably never been in a fight that we won in our lives, if we’ve had a fight at all. And you know what? That’s okay. Fighting isn’t glamorous, no matter how it looks in the comics and the movies. You’d probably end up hurting yourself as much as the person you’re fighting, because you don’t know how to hold your fist, throw a punch, or where and how to hit a person.

Hand to hand combat doesn’t have to be your forte, but you cannot rely on your artist to choreograph all of the fights you’re going to be going through. Let me say that again: you cannot rely on your artist to choreograph all of the fights. You have to be able to choreograph some of them yourself. This means you have to learn something about fighting.

Hand to hand combat isn’t as simple as most would believe. Not in the real world. A lot of it is stripped down and straightforward for comics, but when you start talking about things such as martial arts, the complexity of explanations go up. (Huh?)  Don’t worry. You know I like giving examples.

We’re going to talk about two heroes: Captain America [because you were expecting Spidey] (Caught me!) and Iron Fist.

Let’s put this in script form. To set the scene, Cap is fighting Wolverine [because Cap/Logan fights are always fun]. We’ll put this in the Danger Room, just because.

Panel 1: Cap has his shield up, catching a raking blow from Wolvie’s claws full on his shield.

Panel 2: Cap has sidestepped Logan, and is throwing a punch with his shield arm. The punch has connected, hitting Logan in the side of the neck with the shield. This is a vicious blow, and it should look like it hurts.

Panel 3: Close on the Logan, who looks enraged with pain. This isn’t the berserker rage, but if you were a sane person, you’d back away quickly from the look in his eyes.

See how simple and straightforward those are?  Hand to hand combat. Like I said, stripped down and straightforward. Martial arts, however, can get complicated.

If you happen to have an artist who has studied martial arts or who has worked on a martial arts book, then you’re in luck! You can relax just a bit, because they’re going to help you a lot. But the likelihood of it…I wouldn’t hold my breath for that set of circumstances. You’re going to have to learn some terms. Let’s look at it first. Iron Fist, fighting Daredevil. This is in an alley, at night.

Panel 1: Iron Fist is standing in a classic cat stance, left hand fisted and chambered, right hand extend and bladed. Daredevil is across from him, looking bloodied and bruised and definitely worse for wear, compared to the fresh-looking Fist. Daredevil’s stance is a mirror of Fist’s, but much sloppier. There isn’t a lot of space between them.

Panel 2: Iron Fist has closed the space with a reverse punch to DD’s solar plexus, which has connected and has DD bent over.

Panel 3: Fist has now spun backwards, doing a crouching sweep, knocking DD off his feet.

Fun, right?  Now, how many know these terms: cat stance, chamber, blade, reverse punch. A show of hands, please. Mm hm. As I thought. Not many of you. Nope, not going to explain it, because it’s outside the scope of this column. But you know what you need to study when you create your martial artists. (What about you, huh?  Are you just throwing these terms around, or do you know martial arts?)  [I’ve studied martial arts, yes. I want to get back into it, but I lack the time and money. Besides, if I got back into it, I might not have time for this column.]

Now, that’s just hand to hand combat, barely throwing punches. That’s not really that complicated. The explanations can get a little deep when you extend the fight, but that’s to be expected. The real fun begins when you start using powers.

Most powers are ranged attacks, meaning that they aren’t up close and personal. Notice, I said most. Even your indirect powers, such as super strength, can be used to perform ranged attacks. The Hulk slapping his hands together to create a high wind, or a loud clap; the Thing tearing up the street in a wave; Superman using his super-breath [after eating garlic pizza!] to blow someone away. So, like I said, most powers are ranged attacks. Adding powers to a fight can be either simple or complex, depending on what you want to do.

Now, when you start writing superpowered fights, your fights are going to be rather straightforward. You’re going to have heroes beating directly on villains. Think of it like rapping. When you first start rapping, your rhymes are extremely simple, and you have no flow. You’ll have trouble coming up with rhymes on the fly, which will both sound good and make sense. (Steven, I don’t listen to rap music. It’s crap.)  That’s fine. But you know at least one rap song, probably by heart. There’s a huge difference between the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight and any song by Eminem. Just as rap has evolved, so will your superpowered battles.

Fights, when done well, can have as much drama as two people in a deep conversation. The best way to do this, however, is through the use of strategy and tactics. You cannot go into a superhero fight [especially a team fight] thinking that it’s going to be simple and straightforward. Not if you want memorable fights. You have to think them through. They have to be a part of the storyline. When you’re plotting out the issue, plot out the fight, as well.

What I want you to think about is a semi-complicated means to an end. Your opening salvo has to be able to mean a couple of different things, that only makes sense in retrospect. This, of course, is taking for granted that you’re writing an arc or limited series. If it’s a single issue, straightforward fights are the way to go.

During the arc, the fights should build up on each other. New information should be revealed/discovered/punched out with every skirmish. This will lead to the next fight, and the fight after that, until you’ve reached the climatic final battle for all the marbles! A clash of titans, in a battle for the ages! (Overly dramatic much?)

Another thing I want you to keep in mind when you’re plotting out your fights: the heroes cannot always win. This is especially true when you’re talking an arc, or if you want your villain to be a recurring character. Your hero doesn’t necessarily have to lose, but they cannot decisively win. Not until the end of the arc. The reason?  You’re building drama.

What drama is built if your hero can easily take out the villain?  None. So you need to choreograph the fights in such a manner so that your hero either loses or doesn’t win [and yes, there is a difference], they learn from their mistakes, and the next time they meet the villain, they’re better prepared.

Take Kurt Busiek’s run on Thunderbolts. They didn’t always win, but they always learned—especially after Hawkeye took over the team. You would do well to study the fights during his runs on that book.

Remember when I said that you have to be something of a junior scientist when it comes to superheroes, because essentially you’re writing science fiction? That becomes most evident during fights or ways to overcome the villains. These fights need explanations, and those explanations need to be plausible within the extended realm of science fiction.

Taking that a little further, powers, abilities, and actions generally need to be explained. Take Daredevil and his radar sense. It provides him with something akin to sight, and if you want to do something cool with it, you have to explain it. But you can’t do it in layman’s terms. Oh, no. You have to be a little highbrow when you do it. Why?  Because highbrow sounds so much cooler than an explanation in layman’s terms. And it’s usually much shorter. Remember, space is premium in comics, and brevity rules.

What I’m about to tell you right now is going to run counterintuitively to a lot of dialogue “rules” I’ve talked about. Ready for it?  You can talk during fights.

In a real-world fight, you’re not going to be saying much. Most real-world fights don’t last long—less than a minute, generally. Why? Because most people aren’t in any kind of physical shape to do more than throw a few punches. Reminds me of something that Chuck D of Public Enemy once said: See you running like roaches, black gangsters need track coaches. All that running and jumping and fantastic stuff you see in the movies?  It’s bullshit. Most people are good for one sprint, and that sprint is going to be less than 100 yards. After that, they’ve got a stitch in their side, they’re wheezing, their jaw is tight, and they feel like they’re about to die. That’s less than 100 yards. And in the movies, they’re going for what seems like a long time—especially if they’re trying to get away from someone. It’s bullshit.

Now, do you notice them talking during these scenes? Nothing more than a basic “Come on!” or somesuch. Or if they’re trading blows, they don’t even say that much. However, in superhero comics, you can be relatively long winded while fighting. Don’t ask me why it works. I have no clue. It just does. Just go with it.

Notice, I said “relatively” long winded. Having someone leading a battle from the safety of the rear isn’t what I’m talking about, nor is an internal monologue or a Narrator’s voiceover. I’m talking about actual dialogue and thought balloons between the combatants. Heroes and villains are the most garrulous when fighting, but you still have to follow the basic rules when doing fight scenes. This is not the time to be quiet. Again, counterintuitively, fight scenes are one of the places where some talking is an expectation.

The talking solves two problems at once. First, this is where you get to show off your junior scientist chops. You get to show off how smart/clever you are with applications of the hero’s/villain’s powers. You get to explain. Explanations are a staple of superhero comics, if not the true heart of them. (Huh?  What about the characters and their stories?  Again, I think you’ve lost it.)  [Remember when we started this, in the overview, I said that most people come up with a set of powers for their characters before they come up with anything else? For City of Heroes, an MMORPG, you set powers before you set up what your character looks like. More than likely, it’s going to be like that with DC’s MMORPG, and possibly Champions, too. Powers are first, and those powers need to be explained. Thus, explanations can be said to be the true heart of superhero comics.]

The second problem is moving the story forward. The fight can definitely help to do this, because reveals can be done through exposition. Done even semi-decently, during a fight is the only real time you can do exposition and not have readers mind all that much. Like I said, you’re expected to explain during this time. Use it wisely. It’s very easy to go overboard here. I’m going to urge you to fight the compulsion. Explain what needs to be, when it needs to be, as well as help define your character. You have to be smart when doing this. It can go wrong very easily.

That’s really about it for now. For homework, I want you to start thinking about choreographing your fights, and incorporating the thoughts of your fights into your plotting.

See you next week!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at for rate inquiries.

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