Dan Butcher is the creator, artist and writer of the acclaimed British independent comic Vanguard, which can be read for free at VanguardComic.com. He’s also one of the hosts on the Awesome Comics Podcast. Here, he offers some thoughts on independent superhero comics and some pertinent advice on the genre and major tropes for aspiring creators…
First off, this list is subjective. It’s not “set in stone”, nor has it been written to make you feel bad for having any of the things listed in your comic.
Rather, read the list and take a moment when writing your next scene or upcoming issue to consider if any of these feature in your comic and maybe… maybe consider changing it?
This list is only five points long. It could have been much longer, but I tried to keep it to the main offenders. I get to read and look at a lot of small press/indie comics. I’ll read pretty much any genre but I have a special fondness for the Superhero one. Many whine that ‘Urgh, superheroes have been done to death!’. Having seen so many examples of what I’ve listed below, I can see how they arrive at that conclusion.
So, here we go!
This list is in no particular order, but if it were, this one without a shadow of a doubt deserves the top spot. I see it in so many comics. Too many!
It’ll play out something like this:
Young lady decides to take a short cut down a dark alley [insert reason here]. Off panel, from the shadows, she’s catcalled or similar. The woman spins to see about half a dozen street gang members bearing down on her! They all have a look – a look like they’ve stepped right out of a 1990s Capcom side-scrolling beat ’em up game. Vague sexual threats will usually follow before… Dun da-da!
Off panel, a gruff voice says some bad-ass line. The thugs turn to see our hero, wreathed in shadow, framed by the moon (usually). He then proceeds to beat the snot out of the thugs, sometimes doing some (sigh) Spider-Man style quipping (see Point 2).
I understand the point of this scene. It’s an introduction to our hero, what they do and how they do it. But does it have to be the same cookie-cutter scenario all the time? Why not a have the hero stop a bank heist? Foil an kidnapping of a visiting foreign ambassador? I just came up these two in the scenarios whilst I typed this column. Maybe make the scene relevant to the themes of the series. Is the hero all about helping those in need? Have them tackle some thugs trying to illegally evict tenants on the behalf of a slum lord. Will it be about Government? Have them stop a terrorist attack on a political target, etc. You get the idea.
Subverting the ‘Alley Attack’ cliche is totally cool. Playing on readers expectations to deliver a refreshing, surprise twist is what us writers should be aiming for, after all.
2: “Think SPAWN meets DEADPOOL”
This was a comment made by a creator when asked to describe their “new” superhero character. Spawn meets Deadpool? Really?
When I read a web/indie comic starring a new superhero creation, more often than not it’ll be a straight rip-off or hybrid mix of either Batman/ Spawn/ Spider-Man.
The shadowy vigilante types are invariably a straight Batman swipe, usually with ‘dark’ or ‘black’ or similar in their names. They boast gadgets and hang about on rooftops, etc. The same with SPAWN. Characters who have been given a chance at redemption by the devil (or similar) to bring down the naughty-naughty earth-bound sinners. I’m sure SPAWN wasn’t the first to do this (Ghost Rider,, maybe?), but I’m laying the blame for the rafts of knock-off characters firmly on his shoulders. Again, there are a lot of them. And they all try to out ‘edge’ each other (see Point 5).
As I mentioned in Point One, creators love to have their characters quipping as they fight their opponents, yet rarely (if ever) is it in any way amusing. It seems to be in the comic purely because they have seen other writers have their characters do it, with no real reason to do so.
So, in short – don’t make your character too similar to a pre-existing one. In fact, strive to minimize potential parallels. Your audience will be as familiar, if not more so, with the character you’re aping.
People might be quick to say ‘oh, just like so-and-so!’ when you introduce your new superhero character. Your writing and storytelling must/will show them otherwise. Trying to go head to head with the big two with your cloned superhero is destined to fail. Instead, offer something they’re not.
Sadly, knock-off characters aren’t limited to just indie comics.
3: I Swear To Uphold All Justice!
This point ties in to the previous point. “A loved one is lost through tragic circumstances and our hero swears an oath to justice or similar”.
Come on. This has been absolutely done to death.
At this point, it’s pretty lazy to use this kind of thing as character motivation. Having an “Uncle Ben”-style tragedy as your character’s motivation to fight evil will once again draw unwelcome parallels to pre-established characters that have been around since before a large portion of people reading this would have been born. Try to come up with a fresh angle. It’ll make your character instantly more interesting than to have a motivation other than a boring, over-used cliché like a loved one perishing.
4: Stow the SPLASH PAGES and get some feedback
1990s Image Comics! Splash Page! Splash Page! GASP! SPLASH PAGE!
Chill out with the splash pages!
I can only speak for myself, but I think new readers will enjoy your comic a lot more if it’s essentially not just a pin-up book, full of splash and double-page splash pages of your character. I’ve bought and read comics in which the entire first issue compromised of little but snarling muscle dudes and splash pages that added zero to the narrative. After finishing it, I had no interest in picking up issue two.
Sure, good art will bring readers into your comic but good writing is what will keep them there. (This is where I highly recommend you get someone who knows a thing or two about the art to look over your story… and, by the way, this should come waaaaay before you consider putting pencil to paper. This individual needs to be someone who can tell you ‘this ain’t working’ and rather than you get huffy about it, consider it and change if needed to make it better).
Small press, Indie and webcomic production values are at an all time high right now and are only getting better by the day. For your comic to have a chance at being considered by a reader, it has to be well put together. Spelling mistakes must be spotted and corrected. All these little errors, although they don’t seem like much, will turn your reader off big time.
That said, splash pages are extreme effective when used correctly. And by correctly, I don’t mean over half of the comic.
5: Anti-HeroesIf every hero is an anti-hero, then none of them are.
Oh, your character is dark and edgy and kills people without a moment’s thought? How original.
There are absolutely loads of comics I see being produced with ‘blood’, ‘kill’ and ‘death’ or similar in their names. Packing pounces, guns and a rip-off Deadpool mask (see Point 2), they invariably try to be edgier than the competition.
I can’t say “stop doing this” as it seems there is an audience for it, but would suggest that at some point, the market might get saturated with one too many Gunstryke-style characters.
So, that’s it really. Let me emphasise again: this was never about attacking those that do what I’ve listed above, rather i hope it will get creators to re-assess and consider what they’re doing and make it better.
Keep making those comics – and keep having fun doing it.
• Dan Butcher is the creator of Vanguard, available to read for free online at. He’s been producing webcomics for around about ten years or so and you can read Vanguard for free at http://vanguardcomic.com. You can follow Dan on Twitter @VanguardComic
• Dan has set up a Patreon account to help him keep Vanguard, his Brit-based superhero comic, running, working to a point where he’ll be able to produce comic books full time. Every contribution helps him take a step nearer to that goal.
• This article was first published on the Vanguard site here and is republished here with Dan’s full permission
The views expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of downthetubes or its many regular contributors
The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. He is currently editor of Star Trek Explorer, published by Titan – his third tour of duty on the title originally titled Star Trek Magazine.
Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Babylon 5 Magazine, and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War” and “Dan Dare”.
He’s the writer of “Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies” for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.