The S.P.I.N.E. of Good Comics

Previously, I’ve written about the characteristics that make up a good story, at least from the point of view of the audience, and how the writer has five key things they offer their audience in a story, which can be summed up by the acronym S.P.I.N.E..

  • Skills – the audience learns how to do something.
  • Perspective – the audience gains a new view of the world or has their current one confirmed.
  • Information – the audience gains information.
  • Novelty – the audience is presented with something they haven’t seen/known before.
  • Emotion – the audience is made to feel some emotion.

Today, I want to look at a more specific application- how these characteristics are what helps to make comic books interesting to read, and can make your comics or manga even better.

First, it’s important to understand that those five things apply on both the macro and micro level, so for example, a book might be a historical adventure set in Medieval England, and thus taken as a whole story (the macro level) it gives the reader Information (about the culture and history of England). However, even on the level of individual sentences (the micro level) each sentence in the book might be providing Information about people, dates, food, customs, events, clothing, or any other number of historical details. Taken as a whole, they inform the reader about the greater history and culture, but as usual, that information is actually presented in a bunch of tiny pieces that make up the whole.

So then, understanding that the S.P.I.N.E. covers everything big and small in a story, it should come as no surprise that they also cover the pages of a comic book- which is where I want to focus today.

In short, through the writing and art every single page of a comic book should offer at least one of those five key things to the reader. Preferably, it should offer more than one, but the minimum should be one thing if the writer/artist wants to keep the audience interested. In fact, the really skilled comic creators make almost every panel contain one of those elements.

Let’s look at some pages from the hit manga Dr. Stone by Inagaki Riichiro and BOICHI. (Remember that manga is read right to left, the opposite of American comics.)

(You can keep reading the story here to find out what happens next.)

As you can see, each of these pages (and panels) is packed full of the key five elements, as the writer and artist team make use of them to keep the reader interested and push the entertainment quality of the comic to new heights.

If you want to learn a lot about comic creation and writing, do what I did with the sample pages and analyze your favorite comics panel by panel and page by page. You’ll be surprised just how much information the best creators are packing in there in even the simplest looking of pages that take you seconds to read. (But filled with elements which your brain catches almost all of.)

Also, as you’re planning your next comic, or revising your current one, always be looking for the S.P.I.N.E. elements and chances to add them to your comic- in dialog, captions, panels, and pages.  It’s this focus on the reader, and these elements that have made manga a worldwide success, and which comic creators around the world (knowingly and unknowingly) have been using to produce works of comic art.

Rob

The Duel Plot

Summary: The Duel Plot is one of the most common types of Battle Manga plots, as the majority of stories in a Battle Manga are based around it. In its simplest form, it is two characters dueling against each other, usually for some (to them) high stakes prize.

Required Characters:

  • A main character
  • An Opponent
  • Commentators the duel (optional, but useful, see below)

Plot Structure

Introduction

  • The main character(s), the situation (place/time), and their abilities are introduced. Any strengths and weaknesses which are relevant to the story will also be introduced here.
  • The reasons for the main character to be involved in the duel plot are introduced, usually in the form of their story goal and motivations.
  • The main character(s) may (or may not) take an action which triggers the duel while trying to accomplish their goals. (Sometimes they’re just minding their own business when the duel is thrust upon them.)

Development

  • An opponent is introduced for the main character(s) to duel against. (They may also be introduced during the Introduction phase, depending on the story.)
  • The stakes are introduced.
  • The key rules (official or unofficial) that the audience needs to know to understand the competition (and any twists in it) are introduced (or re-introduced if part or a larger series of duels.)
  • The reason the main character doesn’t run away is introduced. (Arena Principal in action.)

Event

  • The duel will play out in a series of “rounds”, which may be official rounds/turns/phases, or it may be simply a series of back and forth plays built into a single duel. Typically, there will be three rounds to any duel, with a maximum of five rounds depending on the story length. (Any more than five rounds will start to bore the audience.)
  • The first round will generally go well for the main character to show that they are capable and to give the audience a sense of hope that they can win.
  • In between rounds, there will often be a “break” in the form of timeouts, dialog, flashbacks, commentary, or other cut-aways from the action to balance out the duel’s intense moments with slower and more emotional material. This both acts to inject tension and emotion into the fight while extending it to meet the author’s pacing needs.
  • The second round will go against the main character, thus putting everything at risk, and making things even again. Usually the opponent will also display overwhelming and unexpected power/ability at this point, making the main character’s victory look highly unlikely.
  • There will often also be an additional twist at this point, which might be an unexpected upping of the stakes, or the main character(s) developing a weakness that will make things even more difficult. (Equipment starts to fail, weapons run low on ammo, the main character’s loved one is revealed to be held hostage, focus/concentration is lost, extra penalties come into play, etc.) This is often the result of something the main character did during the Introduction or Development phase coming back to haunt them, but not always, it can be pure Murphy’s Law or sabotage coming into effect for drama’s sake.

Apex

  • In the final round, the main character will gather all of their cleverness, courage, skill, or strength and find a way to win despite the odds. This will usually be accomplished in the most dramatic way possible, and will normally involve a display of cleverness or a surprise sacrifice on their part to achieve the greater goal. If possible, this ending should be set up or foreshadowed in some subtle way during the Introduction or Development phases.
  • The main character will receive the rewards that come with victory, while the Opponent will pay for any underhanded or treacherous means they used during the competition.

Notes:

  • This plot is more commonly used in the short form version of Battle Manga. Longer form versions will use a proper Battle Manga structure as described in Write! Shonen Manga, but will have similar characteristics.
  • You can do a longer-form version of this plot where there are multiple duels happening simultaneously in different or similar locations and the action jumps between them, thus extending the fight.
  • There is variant of this plot where the main character loses the first round, makes a comeback in the second round, and then the additional twist at the end of the second round ups the stakes as the duel plunges into the final round. In this case, the Opponent will generally have the upper hand for the first part of the third round, and then the main character will pull the fat from the fire at the end to win.
  • There is another variation of this plot where the first third is told from the main character’s point of view, the second third is from the opponent’s point of view, and the last third is told from the main character’s point of view again. (See the manga/light novel Kaguya Wants to be Confessed To – The Geniuses’ War of Love and Brains for a brilliant version of this in action.) This version is useful for creating purely dramatic battles which largely take place internally as opposed to externally.
  • There are often other characters present to serve the role of Commentators- people who are commenting on the duel as it happens. These Commentators can be allies, enemies, or neutral third parties, but they serve three important and useful purposes. First, they act as a dialog based way to convey information about the events unfolding to the audience (extremely useful in visual mediums like comics and film). They can inform the audience about rules, background information, and anything else the writer needs the readers to know. Second, their reactions act as emotional cues for the audience, making the duel feel more exciting and letting the audience know how they should be feeling about what’s occurring. (Hopeful, worried, scared, shocked, etc. The audience will feel what the Commentators tell them to feel in their reactions.) And third, Commentators can help to control pacing, as every time we cut away to the Commentators it slows the action down and makes the audience wait to find out what happens next, building dramatic tension. (Or relieving dramatic tension if things get too intense, with a little comic relief!) See the short YouTube video titled “What if UNO was an Anime” to see an almost perfect use of Commentators in action doing all three roles.
  • The Opponent can also act as a commentator, and so can the main character. This is often done in the form of internal monologues and used to add commentary to a one on one fight with no-one else present.
  • In duels which are heavily rules based, and the rules will be part of the plot, there will often be a judge or referee. They will normally act to make sure the rules are enforced, but can also be acting against the main character in support of their opponent in the case of corrupt judges or biased ones. To maintain the judge’s appearance of neutrality, they will often not be Commentators on the duel unless things get so dramatic even they can’t help it.
  • In order to heighten the tension of a duel plot, the presenter often relies on extreme visuals and reactions from the characters to make the audience more excited as the story goes on. This can easily fall into self-parody levels if they overdo it, but how much the creator can push it will depend on the style and tone of the story and art. (More cartoonish stories allow for more extreme expressions of emotion.)
  • The “God of The Duel Plot” is Hirohiko Araki, the creator of the manga Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and the classic Stardust Crusaders arc of that series is a collection of non-stop variants of the duel plot in action that has yet to be beaten. However, almost all Battle Manga lean heavily on duel plots and you can find them everywhere in manga and anime.

For more on writing manga and anime plots, see my book Write! Shonen Manga. Available on Amazon and wherever online books are sold!

DNA Podcast 025 – The Kevin Doak Comedy Hour

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In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with comedian Kevin Doak to discuss comedy and the nerdly arts. The trio debate which superhero you want to have over for dinner, why the Walking Dead needs more laughs, and the depressed turnout of Batman v. Superman. All this, and why Shawn of the Dead is the most realistic zombie movie ever, is waiting for you in this, the 25th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA Podcast 018 – Edd Vick and MU Press

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In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with Edd Vick, founder and publisher of MU Press and Comics F/X magazine, to discuss Edd’s history in comics and the independent comics scene of the 80s and 90s. Former guest Jeff Wood, one of Edd’s friends and contributors also stops by, and the four of them discuss comics culture, convention culture, and what they see as the future of comic books. All of this, and the real story of why the comics industry collapsed in the 90s are coming to you in this, the 18th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

DNA PODCAST 014: TALKING 80’S INDEPENDENT COMICS WITH JEFF WOOD

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In this episode, Rob and Don sit down with former Comics F/X magazine founder and editor Jeff Wood to talk about the West Coast independent comics scene of the 1980’s. The three discuss the origins of Comics F/X magazine, MU Press, the small press black and white comics explosion, and how “three adjectives and a noun” comics and anthropomorphic smut crashed the industry. All this and the story behind Jeff’s own legendary comic Snowbuni are waiting for you in this, the 14th episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

Fan-Translated Manga I’m Reading at the Moment

One of the great things about the Internet is that many things which aren’t considered considered commercially viable are distributed online by people who have a passion for them. This can be people sharing recipes, fansubbing their favorite TV shows from other countries, or fan-translations of Manga.

There are a couple Manga that I really enjoy which don’t have a strong enough English fanbase to actually publish for profit, but which fans have translated for fun. All of these titles can be around on sites like Mangafox or Manga Reader.

Black Joke- An action manga about the enforcers who work for a Casino in the future, and the dirty jobs they have to do. I wasn’t sure about this one at first, since it’s a bit odd and gory, but the more I read it the more attached to it I became. Now it’s one of my favorites, although it is definitely not for everyone!  (Rated Hard R)Black Joke 1: Odor at MangaFox.me

 

One-Punch Man– A superhero-action-comedy about a Superman-level superhero who can literally defeat any opponent in one punch, and how incredibly boring this makes his life. It’s a Japanese take on American superheroes, kind’ve like The Tick, but with more gore and nice art. (The whole thing seems to be an art experiment by the creator.) It’s gaining quite a following in American fan circles.Onepunch-Man 1: 1st Punch [One Punch] at MangaFox.me

 

Gamble Fish– Tomu Shirasagi is a young gambler who travels to the ShishiDo Academy (Japan’s most elite prep school) with the stated goal of making $100 million through gambling and betting with the school’s students. But the school and Tomu both have dark secrets, and these spiral out of control in a series of ever-escalating “games” based around a combination of wits, bravery and deception. It starts serious, gets more than a little over-the-top and silly, but is always fun an interesting.Gamble Fish 1: Truth and Lies at MangaFox.me

Killer StallIn this action Korean Manhua, Choo is an elite killer for an organized crime outfit who decides to start a new life because he falls in love. You can probably guess how well that works out. A well told tale of gangsters and assassins.

Killer Stall 2: The Legend of Dan-Gun at MangaFox.me

Liar Game- A young woman is drawn into a game of deception called the Liar Game. Similar to the manga Death Note, but based around psychological warfare and deception. It was on a break for a while, but new ones have come out recently. Not a breezy read, but worth the effort to follow.

Liar Game 18: Revival Round at MangaFox.me

Robot KeijiOldschool (like 1970’s oldschool) manga about an old police detective who is assigned a new partner- a robot. Surprisingly serious and dark, it has an edge to it that newer manga tend to lack. The characters are a little cartoony, but the story and presentation really draw you in. I didn’t think I’d like it and read it on a whim, now I really want to read more!

Robot Keiji 1 at MangaFox.me

Heroes of the Spring and AutumnIn this Chinese Manhua (comic), a Chinese prince is attacked by a group of mysterious martial artists and receives a head injury that leaves him with amnesia. However, that’s just the core story of an epic conspiracy surrounding the end of the Qin dynasty. Not a great comic, but nice art and a very different approach to storytelling.

Heroes of the Spring and Autumn 1 at MangaFox.me