Five storytelling lessons from graphic novelists and comic book writers

Graphic novels and comic books have achieved worldwide mass appeal, but as marketers we have yet to grasp the storytelling potential within these original scripts and visionary formats. This article will share five lessons from the most successful graphic novelists and comic book writers of our time. Their creative guidance on differentiation, simplicity, thematics, research and opportunity are hugely relevant to our daily marketing challenges.

Limitations are an opportunity

Just like us marketers, graphic novelists and comic book writers go through a commissioning or pitching process. Commissions come with the familiar limits of time or money. Instead of dwelling on these blockers, both graphic novelists and comic book writers see these limits as creative opportunities. Working with these restrictions in mind forces the writer to come up with ideas that they otherwise may not have thought of.

The most well-known example of this is Stan Lee’s commission for a brand new superhero team, after his Spider-Man and Hulk successes. This new team became the X-Men. Despite his recent successes, Lee was faced with a limited run to simultaneously introduce the new characters to readers and impress Marvel Comics. He made X-Men a success by doing something radical. He didn’t explain where the mutant’s got their superpowers from – bucking the trend of gamma-rays and radioactive spiders – they were simply born with them. X-Men has gone on to become one of the longest-running comic series’ of all time, with additional novels, films and video games to its name.

This approach is beneficial to us as marketers as it shows us that if we adopt a different mindset, we have the capability to come up with ideas that are truly groundbreaking.

Learn from the past

The graphic novel and comic book community are big readers. In order to inform new worlds in their day-to-day, they study the historic worlds of classic novels from a number of different genres. Both novelists and writers see great importance in studying the evolution of storytelling, paging through the classics that turned writing into a desired art form. Within those works are a number of tools and tactics that aid them in becoming better storytellers.

One of the more obvious users of this retrospective analysis is Alan Moore. Moore cites multiple Victorian works of fiction as his inspiration for one of his most popular series’ – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – which went on to become a Hollywood film, starring Sean Connery. In each page, it’s possible to see explicit references to novels such as H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

As marketers, this means we should look at the past as a way of informing the future.

Focus on meaningful themes

When a graphic novelist or comic book writer comes to pen their masterpiece, they don’t focus on what is popular or trending at that point in time (although you can bet they’ll want to address it implicitly). Instead, they focus on core human emotions or themes that have stood the test of time. For both novelists and writers, the ‘latest craze’ serves as a distraction and is often referred to as ‘selling out’. Instead time-honoured themes that are deeply cared about are focused on and adapted.

An example of this would be Neil Gaiman’s revival of the Sandman series. Instead of focusing on what was relevant in the current climate, Gaiman focused on larger themes such as responsibility and rebirth – all concepts that are an integral part of the human condition and are likely to resonate with a reader at any point in time.

With this in mind, not only should we as marketers delve into channel analytics, audience insight and current trends, we should dig a little deeper and think on what makes us human to give our work longevity, meaning and purpose.

Practice due diligence and differentiation

When a graphic novelist or comic book writer begins their story, they accept that what they are about to do has probably already been done before. They focus on how to differentiate their story from those before it. To do this, they go back through decades of related work, comparing what has been done before in order to adapt or build upon what they have seen. This ensure two things; 1. that they don’t repeat the past and 2. that what they create is accurate, if it needs to be.

When Frank Miller took on the iconic 60s Batman series in his alternative The Dark Knight Returns, Miller aged a well-known character. He became 55 years old and had returned from retirement to fight off the villains of Gotham City. Miller did this in order to differentiate the character from its earlier, campy representations. He needed to create something that middle-aged comic book fans could personally relate to. The series went on to become one of the most iconic in the Batman canon, inspiring a whole movement within the comic book community – The Dark Age of Comic Books.

For marketers, this means doing due diligence to an acceptable level. If you’ve got an idea, then it’s always worth checking whether it has been done before and how you can build upon it. Work done without due diligence is always a risk, especially in a digital ecosystem.

Keep your ideas simple

Graphic novelists are incredible script writers. In order for an artist to sit and develop a novel or a comic book, they need the key information at the outset. To do this, every panel has to be conceived as a singular thought or an action that can be depicted. Ideas have to be distilled in order to move the story forward and keep the reader engaged.

Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim, is a brilliant example of simplicity in action. The series was inspired by Japanese shōnen manga, created for young adults (ages 10-18), so had to be simplistic to meet a young reader’s needs. Not only that, O’Malley purposefully chose to focus on the points in the story that mattered the most as he had limited time to create it. The series was so successful, that it has gone on to become a blockbuster hit and episodic video game, featuring Michael Cera.

This tells us as marketers that simplicity can often be the key to success. Over complicating a project or campaign can cause it to lose focus in the long-term and even be detrimental to ROI.

Need help telling your brand’s story? Get in touch to find out how we can help.