Nailing down a premise

November 12th, 2012

Developing a Comic Strip: The Premise

by John Lotshaw


This is the second of a series of posts by NCS member John Lotshaw, detailing the development of a new comic strip, from start to finish. In this series, John will guide us through the creation of “Ray Blaster in Blazin’ Phazers”, giving insight into the creative and business processes involved.

They say that all successful entertainment properties can be summed up with what’s known as the “elevator pitch”. The idea is to distill the concept down to a handful of sentences that can be delivered during the span of an elevator ride with some high-powered entertainment industry executive. For example, Star Trek was famously described by creator Gene Roddenberry as “Wagon Train in space”.

Ray Blaster in Blazin’ Phazers really started with an elevator pitch. I had been musing about the classic strip Thimble Theater and got to thinking that it was the first webcomic. Segar had many elements that are present in many of today’s internet comics: large ensemble casts, on-going continuity and story arcs, plus a heavy reliance on the backstory. I was thinking that Thimble Theater and Popeye would be great if relaunched as an internet comic.

That’s when it hit me. “Popeye in space.”

Okay, that’s good. But you need more than an elevator pitch.

A TV Guide cover by Jack Davis. Why? It's by Jack Davis. What other reason do I need?

What I need at this point in the development is a TV Guide description. We’re going to turn those three words into a two or three sentence paragraph not unlike what you used to see in TV Guide.

Fleshing it out

Stories don’t just come out of nowhere. They form from characters interacting with their environment. The strength of this new property will be determined by the intermix of characters. Knowing our setting is going to be outer space, we can begin to assemble the character archetypes, and thus see what kind of adventures they can get into. In Thimble Theater (at least initially), Popeye’s occupation as a sailor (and his ownership of a boat) were the gateways to adventures.

I’ve already established Popeye and Thimble Theater as the starting inspiration for where to take the premise. Most people are only familiar with Popeye from the Fleischer animated shorts from the 1930s and 1940s. Thimble Theater, where the character originated, was vastly different from his animated dopplegänger. The comic strip (which predated the Popeye character by ten years) was originally a spoof of melodramas popular at the turn of the century, and the arrival of Popeye was triggered by the strip’s main character’s need to travel across the sea. Hmmm… an itinerant sailor who helps the characters voyage to a far off place to carry out some sort of a quest… Where have I heard of this before?

'Ja think I'm a cowboy?

Nah. That can’t be it. Keep going.

Okay, so, I have a central character, who’s a space pilot, with a crew and ship that go around having adventures as they travel around the galaxy. I need to flesh them out a little bit, but that’s going to be in another posting. My premise is now up to a full sentence—certainly more than just “Popeye in space”. I still can’t help thinking that this has some sort of resonance with something I’ve seen before.

I'm not a Whedon fanboy. Really.

Well, it’ll come to me.

Pertinent questions

At this point, I start asking myself some questions about the characters. While I don’t have them fully fleshed out (or even definitely named) at this point, I can outline a few broad strokes that will help flesh out that premise. The question that must be answered—the one that will form the basis for every character and premise decision to come: Who are they and who do they work for?

Sorry, but you're just not going to be a good fit with our organization. Good luck with your job search.
Signed, Starfleet Command

This one question opens up a whole bouquet of related questions. They have a ship, so who owns it? It it the (for lack of a better word) the Federation? Is it the central character? Does he own the ship, or is he just a hired pilot? If the ship and crew are part of some kind of Starfleet, what is their position in it? Are they the flagship, like the Enterprise, or are they a garbage scow? What is the condition of the ship? Is she a shiny, new, still-in-the-wrapper plastic starship, like the Heart of Gold in “Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”, or is she a decrepit, broken down, almost-to-be-scrapped hulk, like the reimagined version of the Galactica? The ship is going to be as much a character in the comic as any crew member, and in fact will determine the archetypes that we employ for the cast. For example, the Starship Enterprise—the pride of the Federation Starfleet—is not going to have a scruffy nerfherder and seven-foot tall walking carpet in a bandolier as crew members.

Decision time! To keep with our original inspiration, let’s say that the central character owns his own ship, and it’s a bit of a rust bucket. In fact, it’s amazing that she’s even able to get out of a planet’s gravity well, much less jump to warp speed.

That’s a big step towards our TV Guide capsule description. From here, we can extrapolate a few things about the characters and our situations. A ship like this isn’t going to fielded by any government, which would be able to afford more than a spit-and-bailing-wire operation. This means our heroes are freelancers and not part of any formal chain-of-command. In fact, they may have a distaste for structures like that. Perhaps they were once part of a starfleet. Perhaps they’re just constantly harassed by The Man (or would that be The Humanoid?).

Now we can see about defining a few of the characters. At this point, I’m not looking to develop specific character traits, nor am I even thinking about character design. Right now I need to create the broad outlines that I’ll refine in later posts. Everything else will follow from this.

I’ve got the central character, the Pilot. I know his name: Ray Blaster, which informs us as to the type of character he is. He’s supposed to be the “hero”, but with my sensibilities, he’s going to fall far short of that mark. He has his own ship, and has been traveling the galaxy with his motley crew, trying to scrape together a living by any means they can—honest or not. His ship is a broken down, flying death trap that he obtained, probably by somewhat questionable means, a long time ago.

Rounding out his crew, there is an Engineer, who keeps the ship from exploding, sometimes through sheer willpower. There’s a Sidekick, because every hero needs a sidekick (however, in keeping the my sense of humor, he’s not going to be the most helpful or worshipful of sidekicks).

Extrapolating from our initial point of departure, we need to add a Love Interest and Goofball. Since it’s a science fiction spoof, let’s be a little more specific about the Love Interest. Let’s say she’s a sexy alien space princess, so she’s not so much as Love Interest but a Lust Interest. Maybe the Goofball can be someone connected with the Sexy Alien Space Princess—not so much a bodyguard, but a handler. Maybe it’s someone assigned by Sexy Alien Space Princess’ father to keep her from doing anything embarrassing, like showing up in a “Humanoids Gone Wild” holovid.

All of that doesn’t have to go in my TV Guide capsule, but it helps me frame it up. Plus, I’m going to need that groundwork as we begin to flesh out and design the characters.

So what does that give me? Try this on for size:

Ray Blaster in Blazin’ Phazers is a science fiction/comedy comic featuring the misadventures of a motley crew of space travelers as they roam the Galaxy in search of fame, fortune and just enough money to keep the lights on. Led by Ray Blaster, a would-be square-jawed heroic archetype, the crew succeeds against all odds and usually in spite of themselves.

Okay, not bad. Any additional detail would require more in-depth character design or story development, and I’m just not at that point yet.

Danger zones

As I develop this premise, there’s one question that keeps popping into my head: Did they do this on Futurama?

That’s the tricky part. Futurama has set a gold standard for this genre. After all, they managed to snag all the surviving Star Trek cast members for one episode (except James “Scotty” Doohan, who didn’t want to work with Shatner, so he was replaced with “Welshie”). The last thing I want to do is work and work and work and put my heart and soul into a gag, only to get a bunch of emails that read: Futurama did that!!

That’s not to say that I’m going have to drop something just because Futurama was there first. For example, I’m not going to shy away from doing a spoof of Star Trek, even though Futurama has done them. For one thing, everybody does a Star Trek spoof at some point, and it’s only a natural for a comic with this premise. However, if my Trek gags start to take on a resemblance to Zapp Brannigan, then I need to rethink it.

In terms of plot, I’m not concerned about going where Futurama has gone before, as I believe I’ll be going in a very different direction. It’s specific elements that I have to worry about. Like wisecracking, beer-drinking robots.

Those are definitely off-limits.

This is a two-way street

Before I sign off this installment, I want to encourage your feedback on what I’m doing here. My intentions for this column is that we have a conversation, not a lecture.

This is what we in the National Cartoonists Society do—we create. I would not presume to lecture to those who have been doing this longer than I’ve been breathing. I want this to be a place where the veterans can pass on their experience and insight to a new generation of creators. For that to happen, I need folks to chime in!

Until the comment system is available, I invite you to email me at jpl@lotshaw.com. If there’s enough feedback, I’ll do a “Mailbag” column to feature and answer the correspondence.

Please consider chiming in! I welcome the feedback, as it will not only make this column stronger, it’ll make Ray Blaster a better property. (You knew there was an ulterior motive here, right? Right.)

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