Developing a Comic Strip: The Revenge of Polonius
by John Lotshaw
This is the fifth 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.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
—Hamlet, Act I, scene 3, 78-80
Polonius is probably one of the more tiresome characters that Shakespeare ever created. He’s constantly sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted, giving advice that no one wants (mainly because it’s pretty much common sense—”Neither a borrower nor a lender be”, et al). And he’s not appreciated by those around him: he gets a knife in the belly from Hamlet for his troubles. However, his famous maxim—”to thine own self be true”—should serve as a touchstone for those us creating comics (or any creative endeavor, for that matter).
As proof, I offer this update, which is (to borrow another quote from the Bard of Avon) “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5, 26-28)
Going off the rails
Developing a creative property isn’t like manufacturing a car. You don’t have a set schedule, with timelines that say part X will meet up with chassis Y and be attached by worker Z at point A in the assembly process. Creative development will have many detours, re-routing, re-timing and the occasional derailment.
I was puttering along happily with Ray Blaster. I had firmed up at lot of stuff with the title character, and I was starting to move towards building secondary characters and situations to put them into. All was well and it was looking like I might actually have something here that was workable.
However, there were storm clouds on the horizon. As the story and gag ideas started coming together, I was constantly having to set them aside. The justification for this was “too much like Futurama” or “too much like Hitch-hiker’s Guide the Galaxy“.
So, what do I do? Perhaps a fundamental re-thinking is needed.
Let’s go back to our elevator pitch (remember that?). It was “Popeye in space”. From there, the TV Guide synopsis was developed, which was “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.”
In jumping from elevator pitch to TV Guide, we definitely veered in the direction of comedy. Words like “misadventures”, “motley” and “would-be” are red flags to alert us that we’ll be looking at the more ridiculous aspects of science fiction. What if, instead of focusing on the humor that a “Popeye in space” would create, we go more in the adventure route? After all, Popeye (or, to be more accurate, Thimble Theater… We’re cartoonists here. We should at least honor our history!) was as much about the adventures of Popeye and Olive Oyl as it was the comedy. In fact, the comedy arose out of the adventure in the classic strips!
I also had the problem of trying not to step into the territory of those other properties. I didn’t want this to be thought of as a riff off of Futurama or Hitchhiker’s, or even Brewster Rockit. I wanted to set my own tone and let the work stand on it’s own.
All this was bubbling around in my head when disaster struck me. I blew out my back and ended up with a debilitating case of sciatica. The only position that was anywhere near comfortable was lying flat on my stomach in bed, and even that had to be assisted with copious amounts of ibuprofen and (at first) Vicodin. I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t type… There wasn’t a whole lot I could do. Except think.
The clarity of pain
As I lay in bed, wishing for the release that only death could bring, I began pondering the state of “Ray Blaster”—and I wasn’t pleased with it. It had been almost a year since I had the epiphany that set me down this road, and I was no farther along with the strip’s development than I had been when I came home, dripping wet from the swimming pool with my brilliant idea. Something was wrong with this whole premise. As I thought more on it, I began to realize that the problem was much deeper than just the “going where others had gone before” dilemma that I posed earlier in this blog.
That impasse was only masking a deeper problem: I wasn’t really having any good ideas for stories with this premise. Not only that, I wasn’t so in love with the premise that I could force myself to come up with stories—good or bad.
This is not good. Without story ideas to keep the premise moving along, and more importantly, without the drive to create story concepts propelling the property, then this thing was going to be like a fresh-faced security ensign on his first trip on the Enterprise. (Yup, that’s a “He’s dead, Jim” joke.)
So what do I do at this point?
I’ve invested time and creative energy in trying to develop characters and premises for “Ray Blaster”. That kind of investment is never wasted, as I can put it on the shelf until the time is right. That’s not unusual for me or for anyone creative for that matter. Accidental Centaurs was a set of concepts that sat in my sketchbook for four years before the time was right. Maybe that’s the fate (again) for “Ray Blaster”.
That still leaves me with wanting to develop something new. An idea I keep coming back to is doing a pseudo-semi-auto-biographical strip (which means it’s kinda based on a few aspects of my life, but not really). Several people have been encouraging me to do this for years—calls which I have resisted because (at the time) I wasn’t really interested in doing something like that. But, this idea keeps popping up in my head.
To thine own self be true.
Shut up, Polonius.
Yeah, I know he’s right, but that doesn’t mean I gotta like hearing it from him.