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Comics Writing

Did Spider-Man just commit suicide?

A Dark Reading of No Way Home

I need to start this by saying I absolutely love No Way Home. Not only was it a spectacular and amazing movie on it’s own, it expertly walked the tightrope of delivering on our expectations, exceeding them, and deftly set-up a new era for Spidey which sees him stripped back from all the Stark Tech and able to embody the wall-crawler we know and love from the comics. So why am I going to a dark place in this post?

Tom Holland in Marvel/Sony Spider-Man No Way Home

The Oscar nominations were just announced and a few people were disappointed not to see the Marvel juggernaut get a nod. With big budget action blockbusters dominating cinema for all of recent memory, it does seem like there is some snobbery in the divide. Kevin Smith thinks Spider-Man should have gotten a nomination for best picture. So, I started to wonder if he was right. Should Spider-Man be up for best picture? What was the theme of the film, what message did it have for the world? And the answer I got was dark. Spoilers ahead.

The Plot

No Way Home picks up where Far from Home left off. Peter Parker has been outed as Spider-Man by Mysterio and all the consequences you can imagine are coming crashing down on our hero’s head. The authorities are pursing charges against him, against Aunt May for child endangerment, against Happy for stealing Stark equipment, his friends are refused admission to university because of their association to him. It’s a nightmare.

In desperation, Peter turns to Dr. Strange and asks the Sorcerer Supreme to work his magic and make it so the world forgets who Spider-Man is. Only things aren’t that simple as Peter soon discovers. It’s a set-up similar to It’s a Wonderful Life with Peter wishing he’d never existed instead of George Bailey.

James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life

That sets the film up to be about suicide. While It’s a Wonderful Life is more explicit with the connection, No Way Home plays its cards closer to its chest, but the connection is there. Peter is going to erase himself from the world, the life he knew will end and he will be gone.

Suicidal Spider-Man

Despite his heroics, Peter is still a high school student, and this sudden attention, pressure, and drama is too much for him. He definitely scores high in the risk factors for suicide.

Loss of a loved one. Even before the movie starts he’s already lost Uncle Ben, his parents, and Tony Stark.

Physical abuse. He is Spider-Man, he’s taken more than his share of hits.

Emotional abuse. Mysterio has betrayed his trust, tricked and manipulated him before destroying his entire world. He’s been tricked and abandoned by fake Nick Fury. The first movie had him go up against his girlfriend’s Dad.

Bullying. This is a defining trait of his childhood with Flash Thompson making his school life hell but now the entire world seems to have turned against him and the abuse is constant with J Jonah Jameson’s giant head screaming round the clock vitriol at him.

Spider-Man #33 (Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Marvel)

It’s not surprising then that things have become overwhelming. Given all his trauma, the reaction of wanting everything to stop is understandable as well as his first instinct to reach for the nuclear option. As Dr. Strange jokes, Peter resorted to erasing himself from existence even before appealing to the university admissions board.

However, on the cusp of his first attempt, a rush of thoughts snap him out of it mid-way through. His mind drifted to MJ, and his Aunt May, and Ned, and Happy. This reminds me of Ken Baldwin who survived a suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge and said “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought unfixable was totally fixable – except for having just jumped.”

The Hidden Antagonist

That thought seems to drive the rest of the movie. Peter talks about his problems, he leans on his excellent support group and he sets out to undo the mistakes he has made. Even though this film has the Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, Electro, Sand-Man, and the Lizard battling Spider-Man, death is the antagonist. It’s the inevitability of these villains’ deaths that Peter is fighting against. He is determined to save them from it, even if that puts him at odds with Dr. Strange.

The villains shift back and forth from enemy to ally but death remains the constant threat. It’s the motivating decision that drives every villain’s action. The Goblin’s fear of death causes him to override Norman and take back control, fear of death convinces Otto and the tentacles to allow Peter to install the chip enabling him to be on the right side of the end battle, it deals the toughest blow to Spidey and the audience when we lose Aunt May, and death is the villain that lingers heavily over the Spider-Man support group of Tobey, Andrew, and Tom.

Zendaya as MJ in No Way Home

Each Spider-Man laments and connects over the losses they have suffered. Three Uncle Bens, Gwen Stacy, Aunt May, Two Harry Osbornes. Tobey’s Peter regrets taking lives, Andrew’s Spider-Man admits he has given up life as Peter, while Tobey’s acknowledges being Peter is a struggle and that his is taking it day by day.

The Spider-Man support group and the final act seem to help each Spider-Man overcome their trauma, acknowledge their pain, and envision a path forward. Tobey is further along, being the oldest and having been working at this the longest. He gets to embody the greatest ideals Uncle Ben instilled in him. By the end he’s helped mentor Tom into avoiding a deep regret, given hope to Andrew, and gathered the resolve to make things work with his MJ.

Andrew has further to go but you feel he has gained the courage to be Peter again, redeemed his mistake, and saved Tom from knowing the greatest trauma he ever suffered. The comradery and shared experience with his “brother” Spider-Men definitely seems to heal him. But what about Tom?

The End

Heart-breakingly Tom’s Spider-Man can’t fix his mistakes without the ultimate sacrifice. He gives in to the inevitable, to the force he has been battling the entire movie, and he asks Dr. Strange to erase him from existence.

A tearful goodbye follows with Dr. Strange declaring that he loves Peter and that many love him and will miss him. Ned and MJ force Peter to promise he will find them and make them remember. Peter agrees and honors half his promise. He tracks down Ned and MJ where we cycle back to the Wonderful Life set-up.

Peter gets to see a world in which he was never born just as George Bailey does. We can see the hole Peter’s absence has left, we know, even if they don’t, that they miss Peter and are poorer for having lost him. But, unlike George Bailey, Peter Parker decides to stay dead. Suicide remains his decision and the MCU Spider-Man is gone.

Spider-Man No More (Stan Lee, John Romita, Marvel Comics)

Should No Way Home have been up for best picture?

That was the question that started me thinking this and looking for depth I didn’t appreciate was there. It’s rare we see the trauma of being a hero explored in a blockbuster and rarer we see that there isn’t an easy answer to recovering from it.

Each Spider-Man copes in his own way and moves through their own avalanche of trauma differently despite them being as close to identical as possible. They may all show traits of wanting to withdraw from those who love them, but while Tobey and Andrew come to realize that the isolation has harmed them, Tom can’t shake the idea that his world would be better off without Peter Parker.

We get to see ways of coping, the importance of support networks, talking through problems, especially with those who can relate and empathize with them. We get to see Tobey and Andrew healing, and we get to see it help Tom, but Tom still chooses death. At the end, we understand his decision, even if we, or one of the other Spidey’s may have chosen a different path.

Without romanticizing, glorifying, or fetishizing it, No Way Home offered us insight and understanding of suicide. It showed us how to cope with the trauma that might lead to it. It showed us that there is hope to heal from pain. And, it also showed us that sometimes, even if we do everything right and support those we love, they might still decide to leave us.

So, in my opinion yes! No Way Home is a movie worthy of recognition. Not only did it expertly play with nostalgia, fan appreciation, excitement and spectacle, it also gave us a deeply profound story worth telling.

What next

This is heavy stuff and a dark take on a fantastic movie. If you are in a place where this is speaking to you more than you thought it would, remember there are people out there who want to help and support you, even if you haven’t met them yet.

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Art Comics

Using FACS to create emotions

The 64 movements a head can make

If you’ve read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics you’ve probably seen his awesome guide on how to create emotions in your art by mixing and matching six base emotions.

It’s a brilliant guide and there’s even an app now that lets you fine tune the mixtures, dial the intensity up and down, and create a simple base template to draw off. But what if you want to take things a step further? Then you need FACS.

What is FACS?

Originally developed in the 1970s by Carl-Herman Hjortsjö, FACS is the Facial Action Coding System. It’s a breakdown of 64 unique movements that the muscles in your head are capable of making. Things like puckering lips, raising eyebrows, blinking. Similarly to McCloud’s guide, it offers up a template on how to mix in these movements to create the emotion that you are looking for. And, more than that, it allows you to create any shape or action you would want a face to do. Here’s how it works.

The main movements

Inner eyebrow raise

1

Inner Brow Raiser

Frontalis, pars medialis

The inner part of the eyebrows raises and the forehead wrinkles

Single outer eyebrow raiser

2

Outer Brow Raiser (unilateral)

Frontalis, pars lateralis

The outer part of one eyebrow raises and the forehead wrinkles

Outer brow raiser

3

Outer Brow Raiser

Frontalis, pars lateralis

The outer part of the eyebrows raise sand the forehead wrinkles

4

Brow Lowerer

Depressor Glabellae, Depressor Supercilli, Currugator

The eyebrows drop and pinch inwards slightly towards the nose

Lid raiser

5

Upper Lid Raiser

Levator palpebrae superioris

The upper eyelid raises and the eyes widen

Cheek raiser

6

Cheek Raiser

Orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis

The cheeks raise and wrinkle the eyes slightly

Lid Tighener

7

Lid Tightener

Orbicularis oculi, pars palpebralis

The eyelids tighten

Nose wrinkler

9

Nose Wrinkler

Levator labii superioris alaquae nasi

The muscles in the nose pinch around the area between the eyes and along the bridge

Upper lip raiser

10

Upper Lip Raiser

Levator Labii Superioris, Caput infraorbitalis

The upper lip raisers and lines appear on the cheeks beside the nose

Nose deepener

11

Nasolabial Deepener

Zygomatic Minor

Nostrils flare

Lip corner puller

12

Lip Corner Puller

Zygomatic Major

Mouth bends into a smile and lengthens

Cheek Puffer

13

Cheek Puffer

Levator anguli oris (Caninus)

Cheeks expand, mouth bends into a smile

Dimpler

14

Dimpler

Buccinator

Cheeks dimple and tighten at the corners of the mouth, lines appear on jawline, mouth bends into a smile

Lip depressor

15

Lip Corner Depressor

Depressor anguli oris (Triangularis)

Lips bend downwards into a frown

Lower lip depressor

16

Lower Lip Depressor

Depressor labii inferioris

Lower lip thickens

Chin Raiser

17

Chin Raiser

Mentalis

Chin becomes more defined and ridges appear on it, lips tighten and become smaller

Lip pucker

18

Lip Pucker

Incisivii labii superioris and Incisivii labii inferioris

Nose narrows, lips get tighter, ridges appear like a tighened purse string on the upper lip

Lip stretcher

20

Lip Stretcher

Risorius

Lips get longer and narrower

Lip funneler

22

Lip Funneller

Orbicularis oris

Lips get shorter and thicken, cheek skin tightens

Lip Tightener

23

Lip Tightener

Orbicularis oris

Lips get thinner, cheeks get added definition

Lip Pressor

24

Lip Pressor

Orbicularis oris

Similar to 23, lips get thinner, cheeks get added definition

Lips part

25

Lip Part

Depressor Labii, Relaxation of Mentalis (AU17), Orbicularis Oris

Lips open, teeth visible

Jaw drop

26

Jaw Drop

Masetter; Temporal and Internal Pterygoid relaxed

Bottom jaw drops, face lengthens

Mouth Stretch

27

Mouth Stretch

Pterygoids, Digastric

Face gets longer, shape changes, cheeks stretch, nose widen

Lip Suck

28

Lip Suck

Orbicularis oris

Lips narrow and slightly pucker, lines appear around the jaw and cheeks, nose narrows

Lid Droop

41

Lid Droop

Relaxation of Levator Palpebrae Superioris

Upper eyelid drops and eyes narrow

Slit

42

Slit

Orbicularis oculi

Eyes narrow, outer edges of eyes wrinkle

Eyes closed

43

Eyes Closed

Orbicularis oculi

Upper lashes meet at the bottom of the eye

Squint

44

Squint

Orbicularis oculi, pars palpebralis

Eyes narrow, outer edges of eyes wrinkle, defined lines under the eyes, area around the temples gets more defined

Wink

46

Wink

Levator palpebrae superioris; Orbicularis oculi, pars palpebralis

A mix between eyes closed and squint for the closed eye

Head turn

51

Head turn

Muscles in the neck activate

Head lift

53

Head up

Muscles in the neck relax, feature lines on the face bend downwards

Head down

54

Head down

Neck isn’t visible, feature lines on the face bend upwards

Head tilt

56

Head tilt

Mucles in the neck activate, head turns slightly

Head Forward

57

Head forward

Muscles in the neck activate, head gets bigger

Head back

58

Head back

Head gets smaller, double chin

Look left

62

Look to side

Irises and pupils move to the side of the eye and become more elipsical than circular

Look up

63

Look up

Irises and pupils move to the top of the eye and become more elipsical than circular

Look down

64

Look down

Irises and pupils move to the bottom of the eye and become more elipsical than circular, upper eyelid closes over top part of the eye

Combining movements to create the base emotions

Happiness

6 eyes on 12 face

Sadness

Sadness

1 eyebrows at 4 height with 15 mouth

Surprise

1 eyebrows at 3 height with 5 eyes and 26 mouth

Fear

Fear

1 eyebrows at 3 height with 5 and 7 eyes and 26 mouth and 20 cheeks

Anger

4 eyebrows with 5 and 7 eyes and 23 mouth

Disgust

Disgust

9 nose with and 15 mouth

What next

Try creating a few of these by drawing the individual components, e.g. the eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, mouths and wrinkles, then mix and match them to create different moods and expressions.

Try creating the actions in a mirror too to get and figure out which movements you use when feeling an emotion. Do your cheeks raise when you smile? Do they dimple?

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Comics Writing

4 ways to make a good Superman story

Saving the Man of Steel

Superman is hard to write. He’s faster than everyone, stronger than everyone, sees everything, hears everything, and he is practically invulnerable. If it weren’t for the seemingly endless supply of kryptonite on the black market, no-one would even stand a chance against him, and even then he always has an extra gear.

When you can’t be beaten, nothing is at stake. There’s no peril, no tension, no danger. Even world ending catastrophes are little more than an inconvenience and that is boring. Just ask Saitama from One Punch Man. In fact, the greatest danger that faces Superman isn’t Kryptonite, it isn’t Lex Luthor, or General Zod, or Brainiac, or even Doomsday. It is being boring.

Superman v Clark Kent in Superman III

You can count on one hand the number of great Superman stories out there but they do exist. In this article we will break down what makes them work and what it takes to make the Man of Steel interesting without taking away his powers.

Make him the villain

Two of the greatest versions of Superman currently in the zeitgeist are excellently executed villains. Omniman in Invincible and Homelander in The Boys. Both are the Man of Steel nudged slightly onto the path of darkness and result in a terrifying menace that oozes tension anytime they arrive in a scene.

Omniman in Robert Kirkman’s Invincible

These aren’t the only times this has worked either. The Plutonian, and Brightburn are two others, even Kal-El himself has gone rogue in some his best stories. Mark Millar and Dave Johnson’s Red Son is the story of a tyrannical Superman who landed in the Ukraine instead of Kansas. Injustice is another. Both are critical and commercial successes. Then there are the times he has gone up against Superman like in Hush or the Dark Knight Returns. Here, he is the embodiment of danger, the ultimate threat.

It works because all the negatives around him being unstoppable and invincible suddenly become strengths for the story. Everything is at stake, there is constant peril because the protagonists need to somehow do the impossible. It’s not even that they have to beat Superman, it’s that even surviving to the end of the story seems like a victory beyond their grasps.

Superman doesn’t need to be evil for this to work either. Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Luthor is the greatest Superman story no-one seems to talk about. This is the film that Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice should have been.

Mild spoilers ahead. It follows Lex Luthor as he tries to conquer the business world, the crime world, and bring down the Man of Steel. He convinces Bruce Wayne that Superman is a threat leading to the Dark Knight trying to unsuccessfully take on Superman and narrowly escape. He manufactures a new hero to steal the spotlight and love from Superman, and he sets into motion a series of events that threaten to turn the public against Superman.

Superman is still objectively the good guy throughout. But he is also the antagonist and a fear inducing force of nature that Lex Luthor has to use every ounce of wit and scheming to keep at bay.

This could work over and over. A charismatic and empathetic villain trying to make it in the criminal underworld of Metropolis knowing that any moment Superman could swoop in and undo his work in a heartbeat. Imagine something like Michael Mann’s Heat but instead of Robert De Niro being chased by Al Pacino, he is trying to outwit a literal god.

Put him in the background

Giving more narrative weight and focus to the supporting cast is part of what makes One Punch Man a success. We know that when Saitama arrives the fight is over and the danger is finished, but there are perilous episodes where Mumen Rider or Genos are facing down against impossible odds and being torn apart while Saitama is delayed or distracted. It’s a tool used across anime as well. How many times has Goku been stuck away from the action? Superman might be invincible, but his friends aren’t.

Lex Luthor and Superman in Superman For All Seasons (Jeff Loeb, Tim Sale, DC Comics)

Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale’s Superman For All Season’s is a good example of this in action. It focuses on Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang. They are front and center and the story shows how Superman has impacted their lives. We are invested in their arcs and get the benefit of knowing that they are vulnerable adds much needed tension.

Give him something he can’t punch

If Superman can stop any threat with his strength, what happens when it isn’t a villain, or an asteroid, or crashing plane that needs rescuing? Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman pits the Man of Steel against a threat that none of his powers can help him against. The Sun.

All-Star Superman (Grant Morrison, Frank Quitley, Jamie Grant, DC Comics)

Lex Luthor has sabotaged the Sun, overwhelming the cells in Superman’s body and killing him. All that is left is for Superman to spend the last moments he has trying to make the world a better place while the clock ticks slowly towards his doom.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is another example. In that, Alan Moore has Superman face off against his own morality in the climax. After going against his code, he has to reconcile this fact and decide whether to bring himself to justice. No amount of punching can undo what he has done.

Remember who he is

Cards on the table, I hate Superman but I didn’t always. Once upon a time he was the center of my comic book world. I watched the Christopher Reeve’s films religiously, I watched the Dean Cain TV series, I read the comics every month (and this was during the 90s when he was in his Red/Blue phase). I consumed all things Superman.

Young me when I liked Superman

The reason I loved him, was the same as most kids’. He was a power fantasy. In a world of adults who were stronger and faster than you, who set all the rules, and weren’t always just, here was a character you could pretend to be that could put right all the wrongs and move through the world with ease. The lack of tension was a positive as a young kid. It was safe and secure, the bad guy would get punished and the world would be made right.

But, there are other superheroes who embody that better. There’s He-Man, who can transform from a weak prince into the champion of Eternia. There’s Billy Batson who can utter the magic word SHAZAM and become a better, more fun version of Superman.

It’s pure villainy that Superman survived the golden age and Captain Marvel was almost forgotten. Captain Marvel was the superior product, more suited to that audience, a truer embodiment of the fantasy. Nearly a decade of legal battles destroyed the lead Captain Marvel had over his rival and let DC steal the character from its creator. Thanks to that, Superman was able to whether the superhero cull of the post-war period and the watering down of the Comics Code Authority. He muscled his way into the world of kid’s best fantasy and stayed there, but those weren’t his roots.

Children aren’t the only people who can feel powerless. The very first villain Superman took on, in his very first appearance, was the criminal justice system. Superman kicks in the door of the governor in the middle of the night in order to save the life of a wrongfully convicted woman about to be executed. He has already caught the real murderer before the story starts. The killer isn’t the enemy. It’s injustice.

During Siegel and Shuster’s initial run, he takes on a wife beater, would-be rapists, a crooked politician, a munitions manufacturer, more wrongful arrests and almost executions, evil slumlords. Superman’s villains don’t get fantastical until much later. Early on, he was a champion for the down trodden, the disaffected. The last of his villains that fits this mold is Lex Luthor.

What next

The next great Superman story remains to be written and right now the world needs it more than ever. Superman doesn’t need the flash and the gimmicks. He doesn’t need to be watered down, stripped of his powers, given a new haircut and suit. He doesn’t need an overpowered villain to take him down. He doesn’t even need a supervillain at all. There are enough real villains to be inspired by. What the story needs is to focus on the vulnerable and the weak, have Superman arrive, talk truth to power and deliver justice.

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