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These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

Comic Books

Cliches all the way: A writer’s 10 favorite comic book tropes

These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

In a feature about cliches, how cliched would it be to start with the very definition of a cliche? And is it somehow even more cliched to try and skirt around said conundrum/dynamic by instead starting with just how boring and tired such cliches really are?

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If nothing’s clear by now, cliches represent an endless battle across all mediums. As much as we might buck them to try and provide as original of a thought or observation as possible, their use is part of a larger, deeply important lingua franca. We can’t escape cliches, try as we might.

So, why not instead embrace them fully and completely? What follows are long-running comic tropes, which are basically a series of tried and true cliches we accept with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some of these have to do with character development and storylines, while others address the visuals and creators’ shared habits. Either way, they’re all part of a rich history of comics, one that isn’t always perfect but is worth celebrating for the things they tell us and the connections they help sustain.

At least I didn’t start out with a quote, amirite?

10) Every Team Battles A Giant Lizard

In all fairness, it’s not always a giant lizard (even though it totally is in books like Nextwave, Batman/Superman, and Astonishing X-Men). Sometimes it’s a massive space squid (The Terrifics), or Uncle Larry (Fin Fang Four). Regardless, these monstrous fiends serve a singular purpose: a team- and morale-building exercise for a new super squad, a brisk challenge often before that arc’s Big Bad. Of all the tropes on this list, “Mega-Lizard” is the most boring and repetitive, and seems to be code for “we couldn’t imaging a better bad guy to pummel.” But then that’s perhaps the point — they’re supervillain fodder meant as a stand-in for larger issues of mistrust or miscommunication. In that sense, these throwaway baddies are a pillar for all the best teams.

These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

DC Comics

9) The Science Mostly Works

OK, I get it: comics aren’t real, and thus any science that they might present doesn’t have to be at all realistic. But, then, that dynamic’s shifted since the ’50s/’60s, back when a story could say “quantum radiation” and we’d all blindly accept. Science in comics nowadays feels more authentic, even if it’s referencing abstract concepts like string theory to explain evil multiverses or multiple overlapping dimensions. Comics creators are just savvy enough nowadays to have a solid foundation, even if that leads to even more wacky stuff that makes ’50s comics all look like Archie. It’s nice that creators at least pretend we’re all smart enough to grasp extreme science and theories — so long as we don’t develop an over-reliance on “It’s the multiverse.”

These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

DC Comics

8) Every Team Is A Gaggle Of Misfits

I defy you find a team that, at some point in its history, wasn’t the result of unlikely allies coming together in the name of justice (or evil, depending on said team). And, much like the lizard trope, I get this one too: it’s all about some hope for ourselves. We want to believe that, as different as we all are, there’s a chance we could come together and find the balance necessary to make the world a better place (or, again, a living hell). This trope is the clearest reflection of our own desires to be better than we really are together, and thus it’s probably one of the easiest to excuse. The one thing I can’t ever fully except, though, is how quickly these complete opposites agree on costumes or sleeping arrangements.

These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

Marvel Comics

7) There’s A Dog (Somehow)

As a lover of all dogs everywhere, I could gleefully ignore this trope forever. But then, in the last few years, both Doctor Strange and Thor got dogs (Bats and Thori, respectively), and it just became too much to not mention. Everybody needs a loyal and loving companion, but what makes a dog special is that they’re not for everyone. It takes a certain breed of hero or villain, and not every character fits the mold of dog owner. Sure, Black Bolt has the stoic nature and penchant for loyalty that works well with a dog (the trope’s VIP, Lockjaw). Yet Thor having a dog feels like you’re forcing something onto this specific hero. Still, this trope holds a special place because the world needs more dogs (and by the world, I mean almost exclusively myself).

These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

Marvel Comics

6) The Fastball Special

For those unaware, the Fastball Special is the signature move of Colossus and Wolverine, in which the former tosses the latter like a hairy tennis ball into the heart of the action. It’s become so over-used there’s even a Comic Vine wiki page. Literally everyone has pulled out this move at some point, and that includes Howard the Duck and Falcon and Squirrel Girl and an actual squirrel (I won’t tell you who was the ball and who was the pitcher in either scenario). Much like the lizard trope, this one’s an obvious pick, especially given how cool it always looks and the percentage of folks with superstrength. But the reason I love it remains true across all versions: throwing adults like hacky sacks will never not be the dumbest and funnest thing ever.

These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

Marvel Comics

5) Villains Have The Best Capes

Sure, I’ll admit that Superman’s cape is among the most iconic pieces of clothing in all of pop culture. But every villain beats it hands down. I’m thinking the extra sharp cape of Magneto in the early ’90s, or the pure majesty of Doctor Doom’s emerald adornment. And a good cape just makes sense for a villain: there’s something equally alluring and terrifying about a really solid cloak. Sure, great heroes need a solid cape (they’re sort of like angel wings in a way, right?), but big, flowy capes aren’t about transparency — they’re about mystery and disguising bad intentions. And, yes, I’m fully aware of what Freud might say about my cape-based interests, but I stand by this trope now and forever.

These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

Marvel Comics

4) Cyclops Is An Uber Dweeb

OK, perhaps this isn’t an actual trope, like “Batman never smiles,” and is something I just maintain to the point of trope-dom. No matter the book I read, I can’t ever take Cyclops seriously, even in Joss Whedon’s mostly great Astonishing X-Men run where he’s the head honcho. To an extent, it’s because he’s got a fairly solid history of bad behavior. It’s also a combination of my love for Wolverine, my desire for better Jean Grey story arcs, and a deep obsession with the ’90s X-Men cartoon. Regardless, Cyclops is a dweeb, someone to poke fun of as a ceaseless representation of underwhelming white dudes everywhere. I want this trope to change, and there’s certainly been hints over the years (ironically, Young Cyclops in Champions felt like a proper balance for the character). Yet I think part of me needs Cyclops as a focus of how to go about proper character development. And for an easy chuckle, of course.

These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

Marvel Comics

3) Plastic Man Terrifies The World

Sort of like with Cyclops, this trope may also be just something I’ve noticed over and over across several different titles and teams. Plastic Man’s whole M.O. is not just stretching and bouncing but transforming himself into different items. But as we saw in 2018’s The Terrifics book, it’s no longer, say, a bounce pad or a handy parachute, but complex devices like a gas mask or an actual grenade launcher. Part of me always assumed we were working under T-1000 rules here, and every time I see ol’ Eel become, say, a still mostly human catapult, I feel more queasy than watching every David Cronenberg film back-to-back. But I follow this trope with glee if only to see what terrible new lows creators might achieve.

These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

DC Comics

2) Everyone Owns A Diary

Even more than a reliance on the Fastball Special, all comics characters seemingly have a diary. Again, I totally get it: it’s a great device for creators to share the heroes’ deepest thoughts and fears, and to give us real insight without mucking around with the narrative. Still, even if it’s a literary device, we’re also left to believe a not insignificant amount of people (heroes and villains alike) take time from their day to write down some quick thoughts. Like, after blowing up a squad of drug runners, The Punisher busts out his black Moleskine and scribbles out his current headspace. This isn’t a knock against a rich interior life or even the ridiculousness of that scenario — this is one silly element that speaks volumes about what makes comics the right kind of coping mechanism.

These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

DC Comics

1) Muscles Remain A Significant Issue

I’ve given Rob Liefeld and other creators (but mostly Liefeld) more than enough crap over the years for their ’90s output, mostly because of these sinful abominations. As much as I think these are the sort of artistic crimes that no one should ever truly escape, I have to say I don’t think comics would be the same without these, um, “interpretations.” Not only because we learned a valuable lesson about the importance of realism and balancing fantasy, but also these pectoral muscles like steel plating are a pillar of comics. In a world where image is everything, the idea of heroes with 34-inch biceps feels like both a perverse celebration and a firm middle finger to those out-of-wack standards. That feels like comics to a tee: silly and subversive, offensive and enlightened.

These may be silly and involve giant lizards, but these tropes also reveal how we tell stories.

Marvel Comics

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