Four Reasons Why (Even Fairly Good) Modern Print Comics Can Seem A Little Bit “Generic”

A few hours before I prepared this article, I ended up reading an actual honest-to-god paper comic (since it was included with a music magazine as a free gift). Not a trade paperback or a manga paperback or a webcomic, but an actual comic book (issue one of “Legacy Of The Beast” to be precise).

The surprising thing was that, although the premise of the comic is really really cool (it’s a comic from 2017 featuring Iron Maiden‘s mascot Eddie), my first thought was something along the lines of “this is a standard modern comic“. Since Iron Maiden are my favourite heavy metal band, I really, really wanted to love the comic but my reaction was just a muted “this is a good, but standard, comic“.

Yes, some elements of the comic’s premise were absolutely brilliant (eg: the hilariously subversive decision to make the comic’s devil-like villain use bland, conservative mainstream conformity as a weapon), there are some cool song references and some of the art looks really cool. But, so much of the comic just seemed… well… generic.

This is something that I’ve noticed often in what few modern print comics (from the past 15 years or so) I’ve read. So, I thought that I’d look at a few of the reasons why modern print comics can sometimes be a little bit on the generic side of things.

1) Lettering: This is a really small thing, but it makes a big difference. Simply put, it often seems like lettering in modern comics is a little bit too “perfect” – almost like it has been done using a computer font rather than by hand.

With lettering, the handwritten imperfections are what really gives it character. The occasional illegibility or “non-standard” characteristics of “imperfect” handwritten lettering show the audience that someone actually wrote the dialogue.

To show you what I mean, here’s a comparison of the “imperfect” lettering from a ‘Tank Girl‘ trade paperback from 1996 and the lettering in part of the “Legacy Of The Beast” comic I mentioned earlier.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] A comparison of the lettering in Hewlett & Martin’s “Tank Girl” with the lettering in “Legacy Of The Beast” by Leon (et al).

When lettering is too good, it often just looks like it has been typed quickly on a computer rather than written by hand. Yes, it’s possible that the lettering has been painstakingly written by someone who has spent years honing their craft, but lettering that is too good will often look like a standard computer font of some kind.

2) Humour/Attitude: What few modern comics I’ve read seem to have a fairly similar “attitude” to them. It’s kind of like they’re trying to be “cool” or “edgy”, but not too much. It’s like a sort of “PG-13” edginess. It adds a bit of attitude to the comics, but it often means that the emotional tone of many comics is at least mildly similar.

I understand why mainstream western comics do this. They need to be suitable for a general audience, not to mention that the legacy of the American comics code probably also plays a role too. Likewise, as similar as the sarcastic humour can often be, it does at least stop the comics from becoming too “grim” or “depressing” or anything like that.

But, at the same time, it also means that mainstream episodic print comics don’t really get as much of a chance to express their own personality in the way that things like webcomics do.

For example, take a look at a webcomic like Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“. The writing style and emotional tone of this comic are fairly unique – Rowntree writes dialogue in a way that seems both realistic and novelistic at the same time, with the dialogue often being slightly more slow-paced and conversational than the average mainstream comic:

This is a panel from “muZeM” by Winston Rowntree (2015) which contains slower-paced and more realistic dialogue.

The comic’s emotional tone is also a strange mixture of serious introspective drama, quirky eccentricity and occasionally hilariously subversive rapid-fire sarcasm.

Even a more “PG-13” version of Rowntree’s narrative style would still stand out from the crowd. Just because a comic has to be suitable for a general audience without being blandly inoffensive doesn’t mean that personality has to go out of the window too!

3) Tools and style: First of all, there’s nothing wrong with digital art. It’s an art form like any other. I mean, most of my own art includes digital elements. Digital tools are quick, versatile and practical. There is nothing wrong with digital art.

But, if it isn’t combined with a highly distinctive and unique art style, digital art can look a little bit too “perfect”. A lot of what makes traditional art so distinctive and unique are the small imperfections inherent in things like paints, inks etc..

When comics feature digital art that doesn’t really contain imperfections, then this has to be compensated for by adding uniqueness and personality in other ways.

This brings me on to the fact that a lot of the (relatively few) modern mainstream comics I’ve seen often use a vaguely similar “realistic” art style.

Yes, this allows for movie-style “immersion” and it allows for visual consistency in comics that may feature several artists. But, one of the things that really makes a comic stand out from the crowd is a more unique (and stylised and/or “unrealistic”) art style.

4) Heroic characters: I think that one of the reasons why I had a somewhat lukewarm reaction to the Iron Maiden comic was because it was basically a superhero comic in disguise. Yes, the comic contained a lot of fantasy elements and a few mild horror elements…. but it was still a comic about one powerful character fighting villains.

This style of story is popular because it’s relatively easy to write. Likewise, if you buy a comic in this genre, then you know what you’re going to see. So, there’s a certain level of reassuring standardisation. But, at the same time, this gets boring.

Many of the best comics I’ve read aren’t about one powerful hero saving the world or anything like that. For example, Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics may revolve around seven ancient deities – but they’re often background characters who appear in more novelistic stories about an assortment of other characters. Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics may focus on one character (and his assistants) trying to stop a corrupt politician, but he’s a hilarious drug-addled cyberpunk gonzo journalist who is at least slightly more likely to use words, gadgets or ingenuity than generic mindless violence to solve problems.

So, yes “heroic character fights the bad guys” storylines are probably one reason why many modern comics can seem a little bit generic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Three Basic Tips For Coming Up With Good Settings In The Horror Genre

Well, I thought that I’d talk about storytelling, settings and the horror genre today. This is mostly because I happened to re-watch an absolutely amazing horror movie recently, where a large proportion of the film’s scares come from the location that the film is set in. This reminded me of how important settings and locations can be in the horror genre.

So, I thought that I’d offer some basic tips for coming up with good settings for your horror novel, comic etc….

1) Isolation: I’ll start with the really obvious one. One easy way to make the settings in a horror story even scarier is to ensure that the main characters are cut off from the world, and therefore have to rely on their own wits to survive.

When setting horror stories in the present day, it’s also usually obligatory to point out that the setting in question has no mobile phone reception (in fact, this has been done in horror movies for almost two decades. See the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill” for an older example).

By setting your horror story somewhere isolated, you not only increase the level of danger that the characters face but you also give your story an instant sense of direction and suspense too, since the characters have to find a way to either summon help or escape the location in question.

And, yes, the horror genre is one of the few genres where running away from danger is actually realistically presented as a sensible and heroic thing to do.

2) Symbolism and/or history: The best and most memorable settings in the horror genre are not only eerily mysterious (so that the characters, and audience, don’t know what to expect) but they will often reflect a deeper symbolic and/or historical horror in some way or another.

For example, the classic horror videogame “Silent Hill 2” (major plot SPOILERS ahead!) is set in an abandoned, fog-covered town that is filled with monsters. Every now and then, an air raid siren will sound and then the town will transform itself into a much creepier version of itself – with rusty walls, gloomier lighting and even creepier monsters. These monsters include things like a giant executioner-like character called “Pyramid Head” and creepy undead nurses.

In addition to this, there are lots of other creepy, but meaningful, details scattered throughout the town – such as an abandoned shop that contains creepy graffiti on the inside of the papered-up windows (which changes, depending on when you read it) or a mannequin that is dressed like the main character’s late wife.

All of these details might initially seem like they are just there to scare the audience, but they hold a deeper meaning for the game’s main character – they are all symbolic reflections of his own feelings of guilt about ending the life of his terminally-ill wife. For example, the undead nurses symbolise (amongst other things) hospitals and illness, Pyramid Head’s executioner-like appearance symbolises the main character’s judgment of himself, the evil version of the world represents the main character’s tormented psyche etc…

But, even if the setting of a horror story isn’t a direct reflection of the main characters, it is still important to include some kind of deeper horror too. Going back to the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill”, a lot of the film’s horror comes from the fact that the film takes place in a derelict mental hospital that was run by a cruel doctor during the 1930s.

So, the additional horrors inherent in this setting include things like torture, outdated attitudes, psychological suffering etc…. Which are reflected in many of the locations within the hospital (eg: rooms containing scary-looking medical equipment that has been left to rust etc..).

The easiest way to add a deeper horror to the settings in a horror story is simply to give the location in question a creepy history. However, this alone isn’t enough. The design, style and notable features of the location must also be some kind of symbolic reflection (the more subtle, the better) of this horrifying history.

3) Unreliable locations: Another way to come up with terrifying locations for horror stories is simply to make the location itself a creepily unpredictable thing. If the main characters don’t know what to expect, or cannot even trust reality itself – then this will make the audience feel even more nervous.

The classic horror movie example of this is in “A Nightmare On Elm Street“, where almost all of the film’s horrific events take place within the main characters’ dreams. Not only does this setting give the horror a sense of chilling inevitability (since no-one can stay awake forever), but the focus on dream-like settings also means that the audience never quite knows what to expect. After all, literally anything can happen in a dream….

Likewise, a good comics-based example of this is Raven Gregory’s “Return To Wonderland”. This is an extremely disturbing (and grisly) horror comic that is based on ‘Alice In Wonderland’ (and is even creepier than a classic computer game with a vaguely similar premise called “American McGee’s Alice).

Since the main character in “Return To Wonderland” is plonked into an evil version of a familiar fictional location (Wonderland) – this comic’s setting also plays on the reader’s expectations too. Because the readers think that they know what to expect, they soon discover that can’t even trust their own memories of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ when horrific things start happening. So, the story is a lot less predictable, and a lot scarier, as a result.

So, the less predictable a location is, the creepier it will be. If the main characters cannot even trust the world around them, then your story or comic will be a lot scarier.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Basic Tips To Avoid Making “Bloated” Creative Works

Although this is an article about making art, making comics and writing fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games briefly. As usual, there’s a (vaguely) good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

The day before I wrote this article, I ended up buying a modern re-release of a classic computer game (Quake), since it contained a couple of extra level packs that I didn’t own. But, I was genuinely shocked at how much larger the system requirements and file sizes were when compared to the original mid-1990s version of “Quake”. Although there are probably good reasons for this, when compared to the lean system requirements and file size of the original game, the modern re-release just seemed bloated.

This then made me think about how to avoid the same type of problem when it comes to making things like art, comics and writing. So, here are two basic tips:

1) File formats: One way to save memory, reduce loading times etc.. is simply to do some research into file formats. When saving digital copies of your work, choose the file format that works best for the practical purposes that you want to use it for.

For example, if you’re an artist or a photographer, then saving your images in a file format that includes less compression is probably only useful if you plan to make professional prints of them, or use them in professional settings. Likewise, if you’re making digital art, then keeping a higher-quality copy (since you don’t have a physical original) can also be very useful too.

But, if you’re just posting them on your website, posting them on social media, attaching them to an e-mail etc… then making a copy of the images that uses a more compressed file format (such as “.jpg”) will probably be much better. Yes, there will be a very slight loss in image quality (which will probably only be noticeable if you look very closely at the image), but the smaller file sizes are much more suitable for these practical purposes.

Likewise, some image editing programs – such as an open-source one called “GIMP” – even let you control the level of image compression when you save a file as a “.jpg”. But, MAKE A BACKUP COPY before you start experimenting with things like this. I cannot emphasise this enough!

These are the JPEG compression options in “GIMP 2.6” that appear when you save a file as a “.jpg”. You can change the level of compression by moving the “quality” slider.

As for writing – when writing drafts of these daily articles, I always save them as “.rtf” files. Since they don’t really include any seriously fancy formatting, this simpler file format keeps the file sizes a bit smaller and also means that, if I ever decide to use a different text editor, then all of my drafts will be compatible with it (since “.rtf” seems to be compatible with almost everything – unlike, say, formats like “.docx”).

So, do some research into file formats and choose one that works well for the practical purposes you’ll be using it for.

2) Planning and limitations: One of the best ways to stop art and comic from gobbling up too much time and effort when you are actually making them is simply to either plan it in advance or set yourself some limitations when you are actually making it.

For example, when I’m making my daily paintings, I almost always make sure that the paintings are the same size (18 x 18 cm, if anyone is curious). This small size means that, regardless of how detailed my art happens to be on a particular day, it’ll only take me 1-3 hours to fill an area of that size with art.

Likewise, when I’m making webcomics, I almost always try to plan them out in advance. I also usually set myself an informal limit for how long each comic will be (eg: most of my current webcomic mini series tend to be six comic updates in length). This stops my comic projects turning into bloated, unfocused open-ended things. The additional planning also allows me to refine the dialogue, panel layouts etc.. at an early stage, whilst also ensuring that I won’t be troubled by writer’s block when I’m actually making the comics too.

With prose fiction, the best way to reduce bloatedness is – of course- editing your fiction after you’ve written it. But, setting yourself an informal word limit or making some basic plans when you’re writing short stories etc.. can sometimes be a good way to keep the narrative focused in your first drafts.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How To Avoid Your “Inspired By..” Creative Works Turning Into Rip-Offs

The night before I wrote this article, I had a rather interesting experience that made me think about the difference between inspiration and rip-offs again. This was mostly because I happened to watch two episodes from season three of “Sliders” called ‘The Dream Masters’ and ‘Desert Storm’.

Both of these episodes have been inspired by different movies. ‘The Dream Masters’ is a genuinely creepy horror-themed episode that has clearly been inspired by the “Nightmare On Elm Street” films and ‘Desert Storm’ has clearly been inspired by the “Mad Max” films.

This is a screenshot from the episode “The Dream Masters” from season three (1996/7) of “Sliders”. As you can see, it takes some inspiration from ‘Nightmare On Elm Street’.

This is a screenshot from the episode “Desert Storm” from season three (1996/7) of “Sliders”. As you can see, it takes some inspiration from ‘Mad Max’ (and this is even referenced once in the episode’s dialogue too).

However, both episodes are also at least mildly good examples of how to take inspiration well. Although both episodes take fairly heavy visual and stylistic inspiration from their respective films, they also add a lot of original stuff too.

For example, the horror in “The Dream Masters” doesn’t just come from the nightmare scenes but from the fact that a small group of people with magical powers wield an enormous amount of power over the world (a horror further increased when one of these people takes a rather stalker-like interest in one of the main characters). Likewise, “Desert Storm” also includes quite a lot of New Age-themed stuff too.

Yes, the horror in “The Dream Masters” doesn’t come from one monster but from a secret society of evil magicians who wield absolute power. Likewise, note the use of scary red/blue lighting to signify that they’re the villains.

Likewise, the story in “Desert Storm” also includes a lot of New Age-y stuff, like magical crystals and psychic visions.

But, although these two episodes still tell original stories, they still almost fall into the trap of being “oh my god, this is just like…” rather than “hmm… this seems to be inspired by..“. In other words, their inspirations are a bit too obvious, even though they still avoid straying into the realm of plagiarism.

But, how do you avoid this in the things that you create?

The simple answer is to have lots of inspirations. The more inspirations you have, the less obvious each individual inspiration will be and the more “original” your work will be.

For example, for Halloween 2015, I wrote an interactive online novella called “Acolyte!” which can be read/played for free here:

Although the original inspiration was the old “Fighting Fantasy“/”Choose Your Own Adventure” books I read when I was a child (Steve Jackson’s “House Of Hell” especially), my interactive novel is distinctively different from these for several reasons.

For starters, it includes a lot more humour and it positions the main character as a more morally-ambiguous figure (rather than a heroic one). Although it includes illustrations, like in the books that inspired it, these illustrations have a more cartoonish style. Like in this poster I made for it:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE]. This was a promotional poster I made for “Acolyte!” in 2015 which shows off some of the story’s illustrations.

In addition to this, it also included a few other influences such as the classic computer game “Blood“, the horror fiction of H.P.Lovecraft, classic Monty Python, a “Doom II” mod called “Reelism Gold“, classic British sci-fi/fantasy comic fiction (eg: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams etc..), a slight satire on occultism (eg: “ancient orders” that were started in the 20th century), “The Devil Rides Out” by Dennis Wheatley, and the hilariously melodramatic 1960s film adaptation of it.

Thanks to the wider mixture of inspirations, the interactive novella manages to be it’s own thing rather than a rip-off of any one particular thing. So, the more inspirations you have, the lower the risk of producing a plagiaristic “rip-off” (eg: almost a direct copy) of something else will be.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Ways To Make Your Audience Feel Like Rebels

The night before I wrote this article, I ended up thinking about what several of my favourite creative works have in common with each other and the answer was “they make the audience feel like they’re rebelling“.

They’re the kind of things that don’t necessarily aim for shock value, but which just feel “rebellious” when seen, heard, played or read.

So, I thought that I’d look at a few ways that you can do this in your own creative works:

1) The journey, not the destination: A lot of what makes the audience feel like rebels isn’t the content of a work, but how that content is presented to them. In other words, things like your narrative voice, the background details in your art, the art style you use, the emotional tone of your song lyrics etc… matter a lot more than you might think.

In other words, rebellious creative works are more about the “journey” than the “destination”. They’re about the audience having the chance to experience hanging out with a really cool narrator, character, musician, fictional world etc.. than they are about telling a good story.

For example, the actual stories in Hewlett & Martin’s “Tank Girl” comics are bizarrely nonsensical things which, if they were written in a more “serious” way, wouldn’t be that good. Yet, these comics are so compellingly, rebelliously re-readable because of the eccentric characters, the anarchic “attitude” that these stories have, the hilariously puerile comedy and the gloriously detailed and unique art style:

This is an excerpt from “Tank Girl 2” (1996) by Hewlett & Martin. As you can see, it uses a very vivid and distinctive art style and contains some fairly unique characters. Even though the actual “story” of this comic makes literally no sense whatsoever, the comic is still very “rebellious” due to it’s attitude, characters and humour.

So, the journey matters more than the destination.

2) Intelligent writing/visuals: Likewise, just because you want your audience to feel like “rebels” doesn’t mean that you should write badly, draw badly etc.. If anything, having a very good command of the intricacies of language and art can actually make a work seem more rebellious since it gives the audience the impression that they’re hanging out with someone cool, intelligent and/or interesting.

For example, here’s a quote from Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” (1971-2): ‘It was treacherous, stupid and demented in every way – but there was no avoiding the stench of twisted humour that hovered around the idea of a gonzo journalist in the grip of a potentially terminal drug episode being invited to cover the National District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Although the novel that this quote is taken from is a wildly bizarre, satirical, countercultural classic – this quote actually uses rather formal and almost “literary” language. Although this is a novel with a drug-addled narrator, the prose here has the kind of clarity which only comes from carefully-crafted, sober writing. So, craftsmanship matters a lot more than you might think.

Likewise, using copious amounts of profanity won’t automatically make your audience feel like “rebels”. Using a measured amount of profanity in a carefully-chosen, clever and funny way – on the other hand – will. So, be funny, sparing, creative and intelligent with the profanity in your creative works.

3) Politics: Strange as it may sound, don’t get too political. Or, rather, don’t be too “serious” when you inevitably get political.

The best rebellious creative works have fun with politics. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum they land on, they actively attack pompous over-seriousness and self-righteousness. They often also have a very slightly “apolitical” quality too by actively ridiculing both “sides” of a political issue through showing what unpleasant features they have in common with each other.

But, when rebellious creative works include politics, they will often just quietly lead by example.

For example, they’ll just show characters who are typically sneered at by mainstream society in a more positive light. They’ll show authority figures as being stupid, hypocritical and/or malevolent. Or they might just show characters gleefully breaking petty, stupid and/or unjust rules, without anyone raising an eyebrow (or, conversely, show people over-reacting to said transgressions in a hilariously exaggerated way that highlights the ridiculousness of the rule in question).

4) Emotional satisfaction: In short, the best way to make your audience feel like rebels is to give them something. Whether it is acceptance, belonging, laughter, a different worldview etc… you need to give them something.

Because, despite all of the technical stuff I’ve mentioned, making your audience feel like rebels is an emotional thing. It’s the feeling of “wow” that comes from seeing something that is so different in perspective and tone from mainstream entertainment. It’s the feeling of “Wow! I didn’t know how to put that into words” that your audience get from something incredibly profound that they wouldn’t find in mainstream culture.

A great example of this type of rebellious emotional satisfaction can be found in an astonishingly good webcomic called “Subnormality” by Winston Rowntree. Often, these comics will make some kind of point or express some facet of the human condition that isn’t often explored in mainstream creative works. And, Rowntree’s comics are some of the most emotionally-profound, but rebellious, things that you’ll ever read as a result:

This is an excerpt from “Duel” (‘Subnormality #219) By Winston Rowntree (2014), which contains an example of the kind of profound, emotional introspection that makes this comic surprisingly “rebellious” when compared to more mainstream offerings.

So, yes, give your audience something. Whether you make them laugh, make them think, make them feel better or even make them see the world differently, give them something.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Tips For Adding Some 1990s-Style Silliness To Your Story Or Comic

One of the endearingly nostalgic things about the media during the 1990s (TV shows and computer games especially) is that it wasn’t afraid to be completely and utterly silly at times.

This is one of the distinctive qualities of media from the decade and it was probably caused by a number of factors, such as the fact that the 1990s fell between the end of the Cold War and our current post-9/11 world, so the general mood was a bit more optimistic.

But, regardless of what caused it, media from the 1990s often has a certain joyous silliness to it that modern media often lacks. So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to add some 90s-style silliness to your prose fiction and/or comic projects.

1) Focus on some other element and work backwards: Technical limitations aside, one of the reasons why computer games from the early-mid 1990s were often so gleefully nonsensical was because the story was often something of an afterthought.

Usually, the designers would focus on coming up with a fun game and then add the story at a later point. This, of course, led to some hilariously random – but extremely fun – games.

This is a screenshot of a 2D platform game from 1993 called “Bio Menace”. This scene involves climbing a giant tree and fighting slime monsters, sentient balls of fur etc…. Yes, games were a bit more random in the 90s, since fun gameplay took priority over storytelling.

Even more “serious” games from the time, like “Doom II” (1994) [pictured], would often be considered somewhat “random” or “silly” by today’s standards. Again, this is because the designers primarily focused on fun gameplay, rather than storytelling.

So, one way to replicate this silly randomness in your story or comic is to come up with an interesting idea, find a totally random subject and/or come up with a silly gimmick. Then, once you’ve done this, try to see if you can work backwards and add a story to it. The main thing here is not to come up with the story idea first, but to find some other thing and then try to shoehorn a story into it.

2) Take a concept to the max: One trend that lent the 1990s some of it’s distinctive silliness was the fact that there were relatively fewer “serious” issues in the news. As such, if someone wanted to create a thrilling, scary and/or dramatic story, then what they would sometimes do would be to take some idea or concept (the more random and/or “ordinary”, the better) and then just take it to a ludicrous extreme in order to extract some melodrama from it.

A good example of this can be seen in a gloriously cheesy mid-late 1990s TV show called “Sliders“. This is a sci-fi show which revolves around the characters visiting a different parallel universe every episode. Often, these universes would be based on some idea or another being taken to a hilariously silly extreme.

For example, in this episode from season 1 of “Sliders” (1995), the main characters end up in a timeline where the American Revolution never happened. Even though it’s the mid-1990s (when the Spice Girls etc.. were popular in Britain) – everyone dresses like they’re from the 1950s, speaks in received pronunciation and drives old cars. There’s also a hilariously silly band of rebels and a few references to “Robin Hood” too.

So, one way to add some 90s-style silliness to your story or comic is just to find an ordinary idea (eg: try looking for some slightly “silly” stories in the newspaper. Yes, in an actual newspaper) and then just take it to some kind of silly extreme.

3) Assume your audience know less: Although people were no more or less intelligent during the 1990s than they are now, there was one crucial difference. The internet was a lot slower, a lot more expensive and a lot less widely-used than it is now. As such, the writers of mainstream things like TV shows couldn’t just assume that their audiences had instant access to all of humanity’s knowledge.

As such, things from the 1990s often tended to rely on much more “timeless” commonly-known references and source material. Likewise, sometimes, TV shows would occasionally spell things out to the audience that modern shows rightly assume that contemporary audiences already understand. This slightly patronising “stating the obvious” element often drains all seriousness from what the show is trying to say and turns it into unintentionally hilarious melodrama.

As great as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is, this screenshot from the season 7 episode “Masks” (1994) provides an example of what I’m talking about. The characters state the obvious sometimes and the episode uses a lot of fairly generic Aztec-style settings.

So, one way to add some 90s-style silliness to your story or comic is simply to state the obvious a few times and to rely more on “timeless” cultural references – however hilariously incongruous they might be with something made in the present day.

4) Chaos and anarchy: One of the easiest ways to add some 1990s-style silliness to your story or comic is just to contrast some “ordinary” characters with some silly and/or chaotic characters.

There are at least two hilariously silly movies from the first two years of the 1990s that do precisely this. So, this type of comedy was obviously a bit of a trend back in the day.

This is a screenshot from “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990). In this film, a state-of-the-art office block is taken over by anarchic, hedonistic Gremlin creatures, after the main characters’ pet creature Gizmo is accidentally fed after midnight. Hilarity ensues.

This is a screenshot from “Drop Dead Fred” (1991), a film where the main character’s childhood imaginary friend (Played by Rik Mayall) suddenly appears in her life again and causes all sorts of hilarious chaos.

This is something that isn’t really seen as often in the modern comedy genre, and it is kind of a follow-on from the comedy horror traditions of the 1980s (eg: movies like “Beetlejuice”, the original “Gremlins” and “Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark” also include elements of this). So, adding some anarchic slapstick humour (involving slightly weird characters) can be a good way to inject some 1990s-style silliness to your story or comic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three More Tips For 1990s-Style Storytelling

Well, it’s been a while since I last wrote about the 1990s. So, I thought that I’d take another look at 1990s-style storytelling today. This is partly because I read a novel set in the 1990s recently and partly because I’ve been thinking about this topic slightly more than usual.

Although I wrote some short stories set in mid-late 1990s Britain and made a “time travel” comic set in early-mid 1990s California last year (and wrote two short stories set in mid-1990s America earlier this year – which can be read here and here), the 1990s is a notoriously difficult decade to tell any kind of stories about. This is, in part, because it’s still a relatively recent decade – so, there’s marginally less popular history and nostalgia about it out there for writers and comic makers to draw on.

So, how can you tell stories set in the 1990s?

1) Early or late 90s?: Generally speaking, the “type” of 1990s setting you want to use depends a lot on which part of the decade your story is set in.

This also varies somewhat from country to country too, but I don’t have time to go into the subtleties of this too much here (and I’ll just be focusing on Britain and America – since I’m British [and grew up in the 1990s/early-mid 2000s] and because I’ve watched a fair number of movies and TV shows from 1990s America).

But, for the early-mid 1990s (especially in America), try to make everything a little bit more “retro”. After all, the 1980s had finished a few years earlier and a lot of trends from that time were still lingering around during the early-mid 1990s.

However, since the decade was starting to come into it’s own, these trends were a bit more subtle, gloomy and understated than in the 80s. So, if you’re including an early-mid 1990s setting, go for a somewhat more “understated”/”gloomy” version of the 1980s.

For the mid-late 1990s (especially in Britain), make everything a bit more “modern”, but in an understated way. For example, compared to the late 1980s/early 1990s, mid-late 1990s fashions were even gloomier and more understated/generic – but also very recognisable as “modern” too.

The main difference between mid-late 1990s settings and the present day is probably the technology. So, just include a few VHS tapes, CD-ROMs, CRT televisions/computer monitors and maybe some very basic “small” mobile phones and your setting will instantly be more “late 90s”.

But, regardless of which part of the 90s your story or comic is set in, try to make your 1990s location designs fairly “ordinary”. After all, buildings don’t change that much over the years. However, if you want to include some more stylised 1990s-style interior design in your comic or novel, go for things like geometric patterns, gloomy lighting, more bookshelves etc… Kind of like in this stylised mid-late 1990s-style painting of mine from last year:

“1990s Office Awesomeness” By C. A. Brown

2) Tell an “ordinary” story: The 1990s is in that weird twilight zone between “retro” and “recent”. As such, it can sometimes be a good idea to make your story fairly “ordinary” (with relatively little “90s nostalgia”) if you’re trying to tell a more dramatic or serious story.

A good example of this can be found in a modern thriller novel (published in 2016, but set in 1996) that I read recently called “Night School” by Lee Child. If it wasn’t for a few references to the Millennium Bug and the fall of the Berlin Wall, then the story could almost be set in the present day. In fact, I got about halfway through the novel before I even noticed that none of the characters were using mobile phones. So, yes, just telling an “ordinary” story (with a few subtle differences) can be a good way to tell a story set in the 90s.

The thing to remember when telling a “serious” story set in the 1990s is that, to the characters, the setting is just ‘ordinary’. It’s just the ordinary, mundane, everyday world. And, aside from a few technological, social and political changes, it isn’t that different from the modern world. So, just try to tell an ordinary modern story with a few subtle changes to the technology, politics, trends etc…

3) Culture and politics: I’ve talked about this before but, in general (more so in Britain than America), the 1990s was also a little bit more of a laid-back and cheerful decade than the present day.

In America, this often manifested itself as a sense of optimism about the future. After all, the Cold War was over and 9/11 hadn’t happened yet – so, the future actually looked fairly bright. Seriously, even the cynical punk music and stand-up comedy of the time often sounds joyously innocent compared to the present day. So, try to reflect this in any stories, comics etc.. set in 1990s America.

In Britain, this often manifested itself in a much more hedonistic way. So, if you’re setting your story or comic in 1990s Britain, don’t do the typical “1990s American TV show” thing of making all of your main characters teetotal, celibate, non-smoking, salad-eating gym members! If you don’t believe me on this point, just watch a few classic ’90s sitcoms like “Absolutely Fabulous“, “Spaced“, “Men Behaving Badly” or “Bottom“.

Likewise, politics in the 1990s were a bit less polarised than modern politics. So, if you’re including politics in your 90s-style story or comic, then try to be a bit more subtle and nuanced about it.

Remember, you are writing about a world where things like Twitter thankfully didn’t exist. You are writing about a world where strong political opinions – of all kinds – were more likely to be laughed at than taken seriously. You are writing about a world where politicians, on both the left and the right, at least tried to appear more moderate. You are writing about a world where it was more ok to be “liberal about this, but conservative about that” etc… In short, you are writing about a very different age to our current one.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂