Monthly Archives: October 2019

My favorite westerns, Mike Baron

MY FAVORITE WESTERNS

In the interest of comity, I shall not call this the Ten Greatest Westerns. This is simply a list of my favorite Westerns, in no particular order.

THE WILD BUNCH—Sam Peckinpah’s violent elegy to the closing of the West is filled with indelible images and lines, and provided career-defining roles for Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Edmund O’Brien and Ben Johnson, and launched the career of Bo Hopkins. A bittersweet drama of aging outlaws with no place to go.

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE—my favorite Ford, with the Duke as an aging gunfighter who comes to the aid of naive lawyer Jimmy Stewart. Lee Marvin at his most despicable.

SHANE—the legend of the lone gunfighter has never been better, with Alan Ladd in his finest role, and Jack Palance, every bit as despicable as Lee Marvin.

THE PROFESSIONALS—Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode saddle up to rescue kidnapped bridge Claudia Cardinale from Mexican outlaw Jack Palance but—surprise! She doesn’t want to be rescued. Filled with exciting set pieces and crackling dialogue, a Richard Brooks masterpiece. Brooks also did Bite The Bullet.

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY—Peckinpah’s first feature is a romantic ode to the dying west, with career-capping performances from Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. Introduced Warren Oates. Begins with a camel race.

HOMBRE—Paul Newman as a blue-eyed Indian comes to the aid of ungrateful banker Fredric March, menaced by the sinister but likable Richard Boone. Why did Richard Boone, Jack Palance, and Lee Marvin never make a Western together?

RED RIVER—the Duke as a rigid father figure intent on a cattle drive, dealing with rebellious adopted son Montgomery Clift. Colleen Grey finally straightens them out.

UNFORGIVEN—Clint Eastwood’s last Western is a sprawling revisionist epic where the West is not so glamorous, nor the heroes so heroic. His aging gunfighter, Will Munny, does what he must, leading to a showdown with brutal sheriff Gene Hackman. It always bothered me that Munny simply abandoned his children in order to provide for them.

TRUE GRIT—both versions are brilliant.

VALDEZ IS COMING—Burt Lancaster as Mexican lawman Bob Valdez fights the system to bring justice for the widow of a man wrongly killed. Based on an Elmore Leonard story, this is hortatory story telling at its finest.

ULZANA’S RAID—Burt Lancaster again as a wizened scout trying to tell a naive young Army lieutenant about the Apaches’ true nature. But will that lieutenant listen? No he won’t. He has to learn the hard way.

On Writing, Mike Baron

ON WRITING

Writers are people who have to write. They write every day. They don’t talk about it, they do it. People who don’t write every day are not serious writers.

You must know your craft, the rules of grammar, how to conjugate a verb. Don’t get nervous. Most of you already know this without the fancy labels. I see, you see, he sees. It is part of your instinctive grasp of English. Everyone needs a little book of rules. For the writer, it is Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This slim volume has been in continuous publication since 1935. It takes an hour to read and is quite droll. Buy a used copy. Do not get the illustrated version. It has been bowdlerized in the name of PC.

All good fiction, whether comics or otherwise, is built around character. We humans are mostly interested in our own kind. The more interesting your protagonist, the better your story. Stories start with people. The TV show House on Fox is a perfect example. Hugh Laurie’s character is so thorny and unpredictable people tune in week after week out of fascination with his personality. Same thing with Batman, since Denny O’Neil straightened him out. Prior to O’Neil, Batman wandered from mood to mood, often “humorous,” seldom entertaining. Denny made Batman a self-righteous obsessive/compulsive. Obsession is always interesting.

While it’s possible to grow a great story out of pure plot, sooner or later it will hinge on the characters of your protagonists. “Character is destiny” holds true in fiction as well as life. Know who your characters are before you start writing. Some writers construct elaborate histories for each character before they begin. It is not a bad idea. Start with people then add the plot. Get a bulletin board. Write each character’s name and salient characteristics on a 3 X 5 card and tack it to the bulletin board. You can do the same with plot points. You can move characters and plot points around to alter your chronology.

What is plot? It’s a dynamic narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s like a good pop song. It has to have a hook. Sometimes that hook is simply the narrator’s voice. Huckleberry Finn succeeds mostly on the strength of Huck’s voice, by which I mean the way he presents words. In other words, it’s not the meat, it’s the motion. It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it. Huck comes alive through his words, which are fresh and immediate. We feel we know Huck. Same thing with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. It’s that world-weary, cynical with a heart-of-gold voice whispering in your ear. “He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” Chandler also said, “A good story cannot be devised, it has to be distilled.” In other words, start with character and let character find the plot.

Comic writers think visually. No matter how bad our chops we can pretty much describe what we see in words. Some of us can even draw a little bit. I used to write comics by drawing every page out by hand—everything—all the tiny details, facial expressions, warped anatomy, half-assed perspective, all word balloons and captions. Editors and artists loved it. Why? Because they had everything they needed on one page instead of spread across three pages of single-spaced type. Some of the most successful writers in the industry write very densely. Each script is a phone book.

While drawing I became so immersed in the story I gave myself a spastic rhomboid muscle. Friends! Do not do what I did Learn to draw properly. That means a drawing board, an ergonomically correct chair, and applying the pencil lightly to the paper. So much for art advice.

There is another advantage for writers who would draw each page. It forces you to confront issues of pacing, camera placement, and editing. It teaches you the natural pace of a story, when to break a scene, when to zoom in for a close-up, and when to pull way back for a two-page spread. Archie Goodwin and Harvey Kurtzman both used this method when writing comics for other artists. I’m not advocating such. Most of the best writers in this industry do not draw. If they do, they still write full script.

Even though you are only providing words, it is up to you to SHOW, DON’T TELL. This is the prime directive. What’s the dif? Tell: “The assassin drew a bead on Mac’s back and pulled the trigger.”

Show: “Mac stared at the wall. He thought he saw a face there, maybe his ex-wife, damn her. He was still staring when a thirty foot giant slammed him in the back with a titanium driver. As he slid to the ground, his face gathering granules from the brick, a creeping numbness radiated from his right shoulder followed by the gush of warm blood and the scent of sheared copper.” We don’t have to mention the assassin because obviously someone pulled the trigger.

When writing for comics, try to show as much as possible. A finicky man entering a public phone booth might pull out a handkerchief to wipe the receiver. Maybe he’s obsessive/compulsive. Maybe he carries a box of Sani-wipes with him everywhere. By showing this man wiping down the receiver, you have established something about his character.

Never describe what the reader can see for himself.

There’s no established format for comic scripts. You can’t go wrong by doing it as a film script. You don’t necessarily need a screenplay writing program, just write it like a play. What does a play look like? Brush up your Shakespeare. There are a lot of books out there on writing comics. I’ve contributed to some of them. It never hurts to read about writing. We’re all curious as to how other writers do it. Many aspiring writers have recommended Robert McKee’s Story as the way to go. While Story contains good advice, it is also egregiously padded and never uses a nickel when a fifty cent piece will do. Joe Esterhaz’ The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood is the anti-Story. If you read one, you must read the other.

There’s also Denny’s DC Comic’ Guide to Writing Comics, a no bullshit primer by one of the best.

There are no writing schools but there are many writing programs. College level courses on comic book writing are a bull market. I’d advise any struggling writer with a Master’s degree to head toward the local college. Run don’t walk. Nobody can teach you how to write. You either got it or you ain’t. But a good teacher can help you improve your writing. Famous novelists in residence offer a career shortcut to those who are determined to become novelists or screenwriters. Same old adage, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

James Hudnall has an essay on writing that comes and goes on James’ homepage like a mirage. Go to www.hameshudnall.com and say James, where’s that great column on writing at? Elmore Leonard has a few choice words on writing:

http://www.elmoreleonard.com/index.php?/weblog/more/elmore_leonards_ten_rules_of_writing/

It is the narrator’s voice that draws you through the story.

Mike Baron has written many novels. Wordfire Press has published Helmet Head, about Nazi biker zombies. Whack Job is about spontaneous human combustion and alien invasion. Skorpio is about a ghost who only appears under a blazing sun. Banshees is about a satanic rock band that comes back from the dead. Liberty Island Press has published Biker and Sons of Privilege and will publish Not Fade Away, Sons of Bitches, Buffalo Hump, Bloodline, and Disco.

Our Fascination with Comics by Mike Baron

OUR FASCINATION WITH COMICS

Why do comics attract such intense fascination? Much of it has to do with the form. It’s all there in your lap. It takes fifteen minutes to read. This makes everybody an expert. For those of us who grew up with comics, they are among our nearest and dearest entertainments. We all have our favorites and opinions on what constitutes a hero.

The art grabs your eye first, especially when you come across the shock of the new. Kirby, the first time you saw him. Steranko or Neal Adams. You read the words. There aren’t that many, but usually there are too many. Many writers can’t abide a wordless page. They’re the writer, it’s their job to add the words! So add words they must, whether they advance the story or not. A comic is not a novel. Words have greater significance in a comic because there are so few of them. Who reads a comic and skips the long-winded passages? Nobody.

Because they’re so simple, everybody thinks they can do it. And they can. Comics are the most forgiving of all art forms. You will believe a man can fly. Flaming Carrot. The Tick. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These concepts would have a hard time gaining traction in other media without first launching as comics. It took sixty years for movies to present these concepts convincingly. In comics, they gain instant acceptance.

The underground explosion of the sixties, seventies, and eighties brought fresh writing to comics. The autobiographical musings of R. Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Dori Seda and Sharon Rudahl have an immediacy and freshness often lacking in mainstream comics, because they are unique to that individual, untethered to continuity or tradition. Many of these creators have continued to do groundbreaking, often literary work, such as Bill Griffith’s memoir of his mother’s affair, Invisible Ink.

Too often, mainstream comics have fallen back on cliches. How often have we read, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore?” “We have to talk.” “Move it, people.”

You can only read so many novels a week, but you can read twenty-five comics in a day. Now you’re an expert. Because the form is so simple, it’s easy to imagine how you could do it better. Everybody has their favorites. Everybody has strong opinions on what constitutes good story. Some writers understand the medium better than others. Carl Barks. Alan Moore. Chuck Dixon. The explosion in comic-based movies has not resulted in an increase in readers, but it has fired up the comic fans.

Movies require vastly greater resources than comics and because the stakes are so high, the level of professionalism is also much higher. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is better written than ninety per cent of the Captain America comics. When you grow up loving a character or book, you feel a proprietary interest. When the movie deviates from canon or just falls on its face, many readers feel betrayed, that the movie makers don’t understand the character, or pervert its intent.

While comic sales shrink, the obvious solution is to sell comics in movie theaters. But there is no communication between the comic book publishers and the theater chains, and even if there were, they couldn’t agree that the sky is blue. Comics aren’t important enough to occupy space in a modern cineplex, never mind there is plenty of space.

Comics are on life support for a number of reasons. Poor writing. The rise of video games. Most comics can’t compete with a good video game in terms of entertainment. The rise in illiteracy. The collapse of the distribution system. Take your pick. But they will never die because of their simplicity. Anybody can produce a comic. It is a labor of love.

Cliches, Mike Baron

CLICHES

There are certain phrases that permeate the zeitgeist like low-hanging fruit. The moment you read one, your eyes glaze over.

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

“We have to talk.”

“Move it, people!”

“I know, right?”

“I can’t even…”

Comic book writers feel pressue urge to add words. There’s all that space! For what are we being paid if not to add words? The habit is especially egregious during fight scenes. A real fight is physically demanding. Even the best fighters, who train for months, run out of gas and simply don’t have the energy to talk to their opponents. There are always exceptions, like Muhammad Ali and Nate Diaz. But most of the time, you’re out there panting trying to outguess your opponent.

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. I too have added unnecessary dialogue to fight scenes. And I just used a cliché! You see? It’s everywhere!

Show don’t tell is among the most important lessons a writer must learn. This applies to prose as well as comics. Comics are a visual medium, and anytime you can advance the narrative by showing, you should. This doesn’t mean a wordless comic. Dialogue can advance plot too, but it must arise naturally from the narrative. Use dialogue to reveal character or add a touch of humor. Shakespeare understood the importance of humor, which provides brief flashes even in his darkest tragedies. Even Schindler’s List has a few jokes.