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Monday, May 11, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, part 12: Setting & Milieu

by Henry Vogel
Cackling his insane laugh, the Hobgoblin flew east over downtown Raleigh, lobbing pumpkin bombs at the web-slinging hero who was hot on his tail! Gripping his amazing webbing, Spider-Man swung around the Hanover Square building, never taking his eyes from the Hobgoblin. Another few swings and Spider-Man knew he'd have the Hobgoblin!

Now past Hanover Square, Spidey released the web attached to that building, ready to fire a web at the next building in line. Suddenly, his Spider Sense was buzzing like it had never buzzed before. Turning his gaze away from the Hobgoblin, Spider-Man immediately realized his mistake. The next building in line was no where near Hanover Square's forty stories! It was six stories tall at best! Worse, some city planner had put a park between Hanover Square and the next building! Frantically looking for place to anchor a web, Spider-Man plummeted toward the ground.

In his final seconds, Spider-Man just had to time to think, "I should have turned down the scholarship to NC State and enrolled at Empire State back in New York!"

Consider the scene above featuring Spider-Man in my home city of Raleigh, NC. With a few seconds of online research, I discovered that Raleigh has a grand total of 13 buildings that are at least 100 feet tall. None of them top 400 feet. Among those 13 buildings is NC State's football stadium, which is miles from downtown Raleigh.

If Marvel Comics' offices had been in Raleigh back in the early '60s, it's a safe bet Stan Lee would not have selected his home town as the setting for Spider-Man! The web-slinger just doesn't work without large numbers of very tall buildings. Conversely, there is no reason the Fantastic Four couldn't have been set in the Raleigh area. As "high tech" heroes, they'd have fit right in within the fast growing Research Triangle Park. The nature of the FF's adventures are usually such that they regularly travel outside of New York City, their actual base city.

In all honesty, there aren't that many superheroes who would suffer Spider-Man's mobility problems if they lived outside of a large city. Daredevil, who uses a grapnel-hook-firing billy club to get around New York, requires lots of tall buildings, too. Most superheroes could operate just fine out of a small city such as Raleigh.

If most superheroes could operate out of places other than huge cities, why don't they?

Large cities, such as New York, have familiar landmarks every reader will recognize. Toss the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty into a comic book panel and you cement New York as the setting. Every other scene and building could be entirely made up and it wouldn't matter because everyone knows the Statue of Liberty is in New York's harbor.

It's also easier to populate large cities with a wide range of "targets" to attract the criminal element. Do you need a super secret research laboratory? Just invent a corporation, put it's headquarters in your city and bury the laboratory deep under ground, beneath the headquarters. Or invent a small college, Peter Parker's Empire State University is an example, and have a faculty member performing secret research late at night. Now, you can do both of these things in a city the size of Raleigh, but you'd really be stretching credulity if you had more than a two or three such targets. With a population of over eight million -- more than 30 times the size of Raleigh -- it's much easier to accept the existence of all sorts of interesting, enticing targets for super villains.

But there is another, even better, reason to select a large city as your setting.

Aren't setting and milieu the same thing? Not entirely. I think of "setting" as referring to the physical surroundings for a story. That's why movies are filmed on a set. Milieu primarily refers to cultural and social surroundings. It's because of milieu that many comic books are set in large cities. Because of their size, the milieu of a large city provides more fodder for stories.

Here's an easy example. Most comic fans know Batman's home, Gotham City, right? The setting is dark and brooding. The milieu is corrupt and rife with crime. What better setting for the Dark Knight? Now, try to imagine Batman operating in Honolulu. It doesn't matter how hard you try, you just can't wrap your mind around something like that. Sure, Batman might be able to have one adventure in Honolulu, but he could never operate there full time. Without other psychopaths to battle, Batman would probably go from heroically insane to criminally insane and start giving the Joker some serious competition as the most disturbed villain in the U.S.

The good news about milieu is that, within reason, you can make it up. Way back when I was creating the Southern Knights, I knew I was going to set the book in Atlanta. It was the largest city I was actually familiar with. Audrey and I made several trips to Atlanta each year; attending conventions, baseball games or just to get away for a weekend. Atlanta has a fair-sized crime problem, but even if it didn't, I could easily make enough of a problem to justify having a team of superheroes in the city. Remember, superheroes don't battle "regular" criminals that often, so you really just need a city large enough to support a reasonable number of petty criminals. Just don't a pick a city that regularly appears on the annual "Cities With the Best Quality of Life" lists!

The surefire way to get the milieu you want is to make up your own city, as is done with DC Comics. The thing is, everyone knows Metropolis is New York and Gotham is Chicago. The real city's characteristics have been exaggerated, particularly with Gotham, but the only made up part of the city is the name. Unfortunately, by making up the city name, DC can't use the familiar landmarks I mentioned earlier. Putting the Statue of Liberty in Metropolis' harbor would just be wrong because we all know it's in New York's harbor. That's why I recommend against inventing a city just to get the exact milieu you want. By doing that, you'll lose the familiarity of the setting.

Wrap Up
Selecting the proper setting for your hero isn't all that hard. Selecting the proper milieu is a bit trickier and something you should consider as part of the process of creating your hero. And, unless you actually live in New York City, I'd avoid it as a setting for your hero. There are so many superheroes roaming around that city that only the most desperate of super villains should go anywhere near it!

As usual, please post any questions in the comments section.

Once again, I have run out of ideas for future columns. Please feel free to pass along topics you'd like me to write about. If it turns out no ideas are forthcoming, I appreciate all the support everyone has given to these columns. Rest assured I'll find something else to write about on this site. After all, I can't leave all the work piled on Bruce!
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