Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Everything I Know About Storytelling I Learned from STAR WARS

The original Star Wars trilogy is the primary cultural touchstone for an entire generation. Like a billion other people my age, I've seen them enough that I pretty much know every frame of all three movies. Because of its familiarity, its simplicity, and its specific brilliance, Star Wars has excellent lessons to teach those of us who like to write and draw stories.

Lesson 1: Update a Classic to Suit your Era

Star Wars is said to have many influences, from Joseph Campbell to Akira Kurosawa, but the one I'd like to focus on is Flash Gordon. Alex Raymond's space fantasy comic strip and the movie serials based on it from the 1930s and 40s were one of the first to capture that vibe of "using science like magic" that Star Wars brought to the forefront.

But by the 1970s, Flash Gordon as a hero was becoming something of an anachronism. He was designed like a lot of old depression- or war-era heroes like Doc Savage in that he was a shining paragon of humanity and essentially had no flaws (other than, perhaps, that he cared too much). Despite the fact that Star Wars was meant from the outset to be a throwback to that simpler time, audiences that were used to more serious, adult films would probably have rejected a hero that uncomplicated. So rather than trick out a Flash Gordon-like hero with conflicting emotions, the movie splits that one character into three heroes, each embodying one of the three main traits that Flash had. I call them: The Strategist, The Moral Compass, and The Instrument of Justice.

In the old Flash Gordon comic strips, Flash not only knew what to do and how to do it, he knew why, and what's more, he was the one to go out and get it done. In Star Wars, we see that it's Princess Leia (The Moral Compass) who knows what must be done and why, Han Solo (The Strategist) who can figure out how, and Luke (The Instrument of Justice) who goes out and does it. Because of that division of roles, the world of Star Wars can appear to be slightly more emotionally realistic and nuanced than that of Flash Gordon to movie audiences in the 1970s.

Other Flash Gordon cast members appear in Star Wars, of course. The wise Dr. Zarkov becomes Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ming the Merciless becomes Darth Vader, and the beautiful but helpless Dale Arden becomes Princess Leia again, because Princess Leia still gets captured all the time--she just has more to say about it. 

R2-D2 and C-3PO are versions of characters from a different story -- Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, in this case -- and they serve as a way to ease the audience into this new style. But they themselves are an update of a very old type of character. Like Rosencranz and Guildenstern from Hamlet, they are largely observers and commenters, and their viewpoint and interplay allow us to jump into the middle of a great war, knowing that they will keep us up-to-date.

Lesson 2: Make the Fantastic Familiar

One of the things that Star Wars did that was new to viewers was that it presented fantastical ships and wondrous places and then had its characters move about and around them as if they were completely ordinary. Luke Skywalker's landspeeder, a fast, sleek hovercraft that anyone even now -- much less in the 70s -- would drool over, is sold, presumably for scrap metal, without a second thought. The Millenium Falcon, one of coolest, most iconic spaceships in all pop culture, when revealed for the first time, gets the following comment (say it with me now): "What a piece of junk!" To the characters, a landspeeder is a pickup truck, the Falcon is a rusty old 18-wheeler, and a city of robots, monsters, clone soldiers, and weirdos is no more than "a wretched hive of scum and villainy."
Beyond that sort of atmospheric dressing, what made Star Wars stand out was that these situations that the characters found themselves in, as fantastic as they were, are familiar to us. Even here, on Earth, we can sympathize with the boy on the moisture farm who has to stay another season instead of do something interesting like join the rebellion. We can recognize the type of cocksure wise guy who spends all his time fixing up his old ride, hanging out with a hirsute buddy, and thinking he's smarter than everyone else. The things we find familiar in these alien worlds allow us to think that the events that we're seeing are more than just thrilling and strange, they're important. They impact us, because they're disrupting something that we understand. We have a stake in this story.

Lesson 3: Make the Characters Distinctive, Both by Color and Shape

Perhaps no other movie in history did this as well as Star Wars. Every single important character in the Star Wars trilogy is instantly recognizable both in silhouette and in color. 

Recognize these people?

How about these?

Even the spaceships, as complicated as they are, with thousands of panels, vents, turrets, and engines, can be drawn from memory by a 5-year-old (or a 39-year-old). 

That kind of elegant simplicity meant that the characters, ships, and locations can be used in scenes in many different ways, and the story finds it very easy to keep viewers up-to-date. When something is iconic, we remember it. When we remember it, we remember what it does. When we remember what it does, we know what significance it has when it shows up. There is never one moment of confusing one character -- or one ship -- for another. We know that it seems risky for Luke to travel by himself to another system in an X-wing fighter because we know that that ship is usually used for short-range dogfights. We believe that the Millennium Falcon can hide in a bunch of space garbage because it’s constantly breaking and being repaired. We can see at a distance that it’s Chewbacca emerging from a scout walker rather than an Imperial Soldier because he’s so darn hairy. And we jump with the characters when the doors open on Cloud City to reveal Darth Vader: huge, black, iconic, and evil. We don’t even have to cut to a close-up; Han Solo can pull his gun and blast him right away because we’ve already gotten all the information we need in one second.

Much of Star Wars was filmed as if it were a silent movie; visuals do a great deal of the heavy lifting in terms of relating relationships (the Blockade Runner fleeing the Star Destroyer), character types (C-3PO’s posture and walk says as much about his personality as his words), and mood (the swamp planet in the Dagobah system is the perfect place to find out some mysterious secrets). A film or comics storyteller could learn a great deal from that.

Lesson 4: String Together Great Scenes, Each with a Definable Goal, in a 3-Act Structure

I think I was actually an adult before I really looked at the logical progression of events in the Star Wars movies, as in: who wanted what, in what order did things happen, and why. Part of it was because I had seen it as a child and didn’t care about that kind of stuff then, but the other part was that Star Wars never delivers a scene just to move the story along. There is always a definable goal that the characters have to accomplish: escape, find runaway droid, hire a pilot, rescue the princess, turn off the tractor beam, blow up the Death Star, etc. Each scene is entertaining, each scene has a sub-goal that serves the greater purpose of the plot, and each scene makes sure you know everything you need to know to enjoy it. When Luke, et al. get to the Death Star, we’re not wondering about what the rest of the rebellion is doing. We’re not worried about anything other than finding out what’s on this station and rescuing the princess. 

Similarly, the trilogy itself is a helpful reminder about 3-act structure in the broadest sense.

A New Hope

A more-or-less self-contained story that introduces the time and place, as well as all of the main characters, and gives them all an opportunity to show what they can do.

Empire Strikes Back

More of a downer, in which the heroes, despite finding some secrets to help them achieve their ultimate goal, encounter strong obstacles that put them in their darkest place, defeated and licking their wounds.

Return of the Jedi

The heroes bounce back and defeat the villains after re-strategizing.

Keeping the Star Wars trilogy in mind allows us to understand what the 3-act structure means and why it works to keep us interested. When it becomes hard to remember how a story should run, having the Star Wars movies memorized, like many of us do, helps keep it all organized. 

An analysis of A New Hope shows us the perfect way to end each act. 

  • Act 1 ends when the Millennium Falcon departs the Mos Eisley spaceport, just ahead of the Stormtroopers. By that time, we have introduced all heroes and villains and their goals, introduced all important locations, and set the protagonist on a path from which he can’t turn back.
  • Act 2 ends with the escape from the Death Star. By this time, we have accomplished several of the sub-goals, but also killed off the protagonist’s mentor, and now have the trio of heroes at loose ends, set to break up.
  • Act 3 ends with the destruction of the Death Star. There is essentially only one long scene, in which the final goal is accomplished. No new information is introduced except for Han Solo’s sudden return right at the climax of the story. The third act is all resolution; simple, straightforward, and satisfying.

Because Star Wars takes hardly any risks whatsoever with its structure, it comes across as a very familiar story to us, despite the fact that what we remember are the brand-new, never-before-seen effects, aliens, and worlds. The familiarity means that we can more easily enjoy what is new.


In school I was frustrated by the fact that I was continually referred to very old, very complex classic novels as having the lessons necessary to make me a good writer. Aside from the fact that I wanted to be a cartoonist and therefore incorporate visuals into my story, these novels were long, complicated, old-fashioned, and frequently not very fun to read. Generally the lessons I absorbed from this line of study was to make my stories as arcane and difficult to parse as possible. This seems a shame since at the same time, I was absorbing stories via movies and comic books at a prodigious rate. If I had turned a more critical eye toward their structure, I might have found ways to understand story and story-telling all the more quickly. 

As mentioned above, Star Wars’ ubiquity gives the lessons held within it a resonance that is seldom felt in analyses of other works. Because most aspiring comic book writers (not to stereotype, but prove me wrong if you can) know the Star Wars stories backwards and forwards, pointing out their structure allows them -- us -- to very quickly internalize it. Knowing the rhythm of a story is the key to keeping it on track, and so a structure around an example is always the best way keep it all in mind.
Star Wars is by no means the best movie that has ever been made. It is derivative, simplistic, and even clunky in places. But it is enjoyable throughout, it is very efficient in its storytelling, and everyone on Earth remembers every single thing about it: the very mark of a perfect story template.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Double Barrel Issue No. 11 Sneak Peek

Yes, that's right, today marks the publication of the PENULTIMATE issue of Double Barrel, which our lawyers tell us means that it's the second-to-last issue.

A lot of you have been asking if Double Barrel will be closing shop after Issue #12, and the answer is no, we'll only be battening the hatches for a period of time while we work on new content. But in the meantime, you've still got this month's issue to enjoy, as well as the upcoming Issue #12, which will be our biggest and most explosive issue yet!

Zander and Kevin hit the road in this month's intro comic, and reflect on some of the regrets they've had over the past year:

Zander delivers a chunk of Heck so large you'll need to pause midway through just to catch your breath!

The lies and sneaking-around get thicker in Kevin's Crater XV, and a decision by one of CASA's astronauts threatens to sabotage the entire moon mission.

And prepare to give your eyeballs an optical massage with the third installment of Tim Sievert's D&D-inspired THE CLANDESTINAUTS.

Jin is as adorable as ever in this month's TALES OF JIN:

Finally, Zander offers sage advice for all you artists out there in this issue's HOW TO section.

And you can still order special SIGNED & NUMBERED copies of CRATER XV and HECK! These editions are jam-packed with a handful of extra goodies for only ten bucks more!

Here's a look at just a few of the goodies you'll receive with an order of the special edition books. Both Crater XV and Heck have their own signed & numbered bookplates (each bookplate is also individually winked at by its respective author) as well as fun-for-minutes 2-D cut-out action figures!

Thanks everyone!

Friday, June 14, 2013

July 13 Book Signing at Mead Hall Games

Celebrate the release of HECK and CRATER XV by joining us for a book signing at Mead Hall Games & Comics on July 13 in downtown Minneapolis! Swing by any time between 1-3 pm to get one or more books signed by Mr. Cannon or his studiomate Mr. Cannon.

Click for a larger image!

We'll see you there!

Under the Radar Reviews Crater XV

Thanks to Jeremy Nisen at Under the Radar magazine for this great Crater XV review!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Cannon Bros. Interviewed by LA Times

Zander and I recently sat down with Noel Murray from the Los Angeles Times to discuss our upcoming books, our influences, and how this whole "Double Barrel" thing came about.

Read the full article!

Thanks, Noel!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Double Barrel Issue No. 10 Sneak Peek

We can't believe we're already at Issue 10 -- so much so that we forgot to post this sneak preview back when the issue came out in MAY! But if you still haven't downloaded it, or if you did but you're really into reading sneak previews of stuff you've already read, then have we got a treat for you!

First, however, we want to let you know that we, the Cannon Bros., will be signing the HARD COPIES of Crater XV and Heck at Mead Hall Games & Comics in Minneapolis. The date for the signing is currently set at Saturday, July 13, from 1-3pm, but that date is subject to change due to some shipping woes we've been having, so keep watching this space for a firm announcement (or better yet, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for the latest news). Okay, on to the show:

The issue starts off with some typical office shenanigans, thanks to an albeit belated celebration of April Fool's Day:

Zander's Heck follows both Amy and Heck as they find what they're looking for—or do they?

Kevin's Crater XV is very revealing this month, showing off the rocket that Bendrix has built to fly the lost CASA astronauts to the moon, as well as dipping deep into Shanks' and Pravda's past, explaining how their friendship was ripped apart by RCAN at a very young age.

And prepare to dive deeper into Tim Sievert's D&D-inspired universe with Part Two of THE CLANDESTINAUTS:

You wanted more flashbacks, eh? Then dip back in time with PENNY FROM THE FRONT and discover how a plucky teenager from Halifax became a grizzled WWI reporter in the muddy trenches of the Canadian front line.

Jin is as adorable as ever in this month's TALES OF JIN:

Finally, for all of you budding designers out there, Kevin uses the latest HOW TO section to describe some basic design principles that he wished someone had taught him right out of college, including "RGB vs CMYK", "bitmap vs vector", color theory, and a lot more!

And don't forget to pre-order your copies of CRATER XV and HECK! You can order just the books themselves OR a jam-packed special edition, packed with a handful of extra goodies for only ten bucks more!

Here's a look at just a few of the goodies you'll receive with an order of the special edition books. Both Crater XV and Heck have their own signed & numbered bookplates (each bookplate is also individually winked at by its respective author) as well as fun-for-minutes 2-D cut-out action figures!

Thanks everyone!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Army Shanks Mini-Comic Teaser: "Pretty in Drink"

Thinking about pre-ordering a copy of Crater XV? Then consider ordering the DELUXE edition, which comes with a bunch of extra goodies. One of those goodies is an all-new 24 page Shanks mini-comic called PRETTY IN DRINK, in which Army Shanks and his pal Hafley must infiltrate the Devon High School prom in order to save a rare bottle of whisky.

  • Preorder CRATER XV (deluxe edition, signed book + goodies, limited to 150 copies): READ MORE HERE
  • Preorder CRATER XV (book only): READ MORE HERE

Below are the first few pages of PRETTY IN DRINK, for your amusement:

To be continued