The Challenge of Writing Legacy Comic Characters

With some comic characters over 80 years old, how do writers find a fresh take? Longtime comic book writer J.M. DeMatteis gives us insight.

Superman just turned eighty years old. Batman will be hitting that next year. Many of the most popular characters in comics are well over fifty years old, including Spider-Man, The Hulk, Aquaman and many others. To say their backstories are convulted and difficult to figure out sometimes is an understatement. Not even a Wikipedia page can catalog their thousands of adventures.

For any writer coming in to writing a legacy character it can be daunting. How can you possibly catch up on that much material? What happens if you violate continuity in an issue from forty years ago? 

For J.M. DeMatteis, a writer who’s worked on all the above characters along with dozens of others, it’s a constant challenge. When he first started working in comics he wanted to get every little detail right.

“If I got an assignment for Aquaman, I thought I had to go buy 500 back issues of Aquaman and read them,” DeMatteis says. “Although it was really just an excuse to buy more comics.”

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As he began to write more he realized he would never have enough time to read that much material. Instead he would read just enough of the material to get the essence of who the character is. 

“You have to know enough. You can’t just go in blind and make stuff up,” he says. “You have to be grounded and read enough back story but a lot of hardcore comic book fans when they get into the business get obsessed with that thing that happened between panel two and three in that issue seven years ago. Eventually you sort of drop that and you start following the story.”

No matter what that story may be, DeMatteis still stresses that you still need to respect the tradition of that character. “You can’t suddenly turn Batman or Constantine into something they’re not but if you’re just writing the way they’ve always been it’s pointless. It’s boring.”

The best way DeMatteis finds new stories is drilling into character’s psyches. “It’s nice to have great plot mechanics happening, but it really has to be a story that matters to the character and is kind of revealing about the character.”

For the perfect comic book story, and just a good story in general, DeMatteis points out the plot moves have got to tie into the theme of the overall story. 

“You have three threads,” he says. “Hopefully you have a theme. You want a really nice plot engine moving forward. You want character. Whatever’s going on outwardly with the violence and the buildings exploding and everything else, hinges on character. The characters are changing and growing and learning in that moment, so all those elements have to come together to make a great story.”

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Those things are far more important that violating a panel or two from an issue over twenty years ago. And even if you do?

“That’s what your editor is there for.”

Shamus Kelley is a pop culture/television writer and official Power Rangers expert. Follow him on Twitter!