Advice for Writers


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When it comes to landing paying work doing what you love to do, the old adage is usually true. It's not what you know, it's who you know. Doubtless there are plenty of talented and passionate writers who will never write a Marvel title, not because their stories don't measure up, but because they don't have the right kind of access to Marvel editors. Getting the good gigs often hangs on knowing someone, or knowing someone who knows someone.

Scientific interest in the role of your social network in contributing to your wealth, success, and well-being dates to the late 1800s, but picked up steam in the 1950s and 1960s. One well-known example comes from Stanley Milgram's 1967 "small world experiment," in which Milgram hypothesized that the number of social acquaintances connecting apparently unconnected people is very short, actually about six degrees of separation.

Analysis of social networks is a subject within network theory, which in turn is a subject within applied mathematics and physics. It relies on graph theory, which has a number of applications, including analysis of telecommunications and transport networks, chemistry and physics. In recent years, analysis of a type of social network called a collaboration network has gained in popularity. The study of collaboration networks is attractive because large databases have been built containing vast amounts of data about such enormously popular entertainments as movies, baseball, and football. The availability of relatively complete databases allows scientists to design projects to explore common characteristics of social networks. It also helps them test and refine their methods.

There's a big fat database concerning the Marvel Universe, called the Marvel Chronology Project. In February 2002, scientists R. Alberich, J. Miro-Julia, and F. Rosselló published the results of their study of the Marvel Universe, comparing it to a real-life collaboration network.

Methodical study of real-life collaboration networks of varying origins, sizes, and styles has revealed two common characteristics. The networks are "small world" and "scale-free". "Small world" means that collaborators are connected through a short path (in "six degrees" terminology, they are connected by only a small number of degrees). "Scale-free" means that as the size of the network grows, the patterns of its behavior don't change.

Through their analysis of the Marvel Universe as captured at the Marvel Chronology Project, Alberich, Miro-Julia, and Rosselló concluded that the Marvel Universe does resemble real-life collaboration networks in many respects, but when compared to real-life networks it is more "small world." The paths between significant characters are extremely short.

This raises some very interesting questions about the creation and behavior of real-life networks, but there is also some obvious advice for aspiring comic book writers here. First, since the Marvel Universe is scale-free, your stories must be consistent with established patterns of behavior among heroes, villains, and all the non-super people. There is considerable flexibility in patterns of behavior, of course, in both the real world and in the Marvel Universe. But you can't have Spider-Man suddenly be gay, for example, or have Wolverine marry Barbara Billingsley and move into a hopelessly peaceful suburb to raise Wally and the Beaver.

Since the Marvel Universe is scale-free, you are in an excellent position to invent new characters. But remember, Marvel Universe is more "small world" than real-life collaboration networks. So your new characters have to interact face-to-face with established characters immediately. The smallness of the Marvel Universe invites you to create even more exciting crossover events, since there is a preponderance of significant characters appearing in the same stories. Go ahead and write something even more cluttered than Civil War. You'll fit right in.

In August of 2007, physicist P.M. Gleiser of Argentina published a paper building on the original work of Alberich, Miro-Julia, and Rosselló, challenging their findings. According to Gleiser's analysis, the Marvel Universe appears less like a real-life collaboration network, and more like a network of an entirely different sort: the Internet. In Gleiser's model, the characters appearing most frequently can be compared to the hubs in the Internet. Hubs are nodes with large numbers of connections to many individual nodes with only a single or small handful of connections.

The busiest hubs in the Marvel Universe, that is, the ones who appear the most often with the highest number of other characters connected to them, are Captain America and Spider-Man. These two, and others to a lesser extent, function to connect communities. For example, there are networks surrounding Beast, the Thing, the Hulk, Namor, Spider-Man, and Captain America. But Spider-Man and Captain America also connect the networks surrounding Beast, the Thing, and the Hulk. (See page 3 of Gleiser's paper, and compare figure 3a) to 3b).

Gleiser finds that villains and females, while they may have connections, do not connect communities. He speculates that in the case of the villains, they might be historically limited in the kinds of connections they make by the rules of the Comics Authority Code, which restricted the kinds of successes that evil can enjoy.

While females don't act as hubs in this male-dominated universe, the strongest link discovered in Gleiser's method is the link connecting Spidey and MJ. He concludes that "although the [Marvel Universe] deals mainly with superheroes and villains the most popular plot is a love story." (p. 5)

Gleiser's study uncovered a perhaps previously unknown significance of Captain America. In Internet terms, Captain America is like a busy internet exchange point, and killing Captain America is like knocking out MAE-East. If MAE-East went down, traffic would reroute, thanks to the universal adoption of Border Gateway Protocol (BGP). But the loss of MAE-East would still be keenly felt. Does the Marvel Universe have similar built-in redundancy?

It's probably not necessary. A look at Marvel's current titles suggests that Captain America is as busy as ever. The advice writers can glean from Gleiser's conclusions is to start finding new ways to connect communities. Re-route around Cap. It's interesting to note that Marvel has already published the stellar Marvel Character Cloud.

But while you're at it, keep the references to Cap alive. Or, just ignore the fact that he died. (Avengers Classics, anyone?) Above all, write a love story. Get Cap a girlfriend. I am willing to serve in this role.

Remember, though, the real-life social network of comics publishing is also "small world," so no matter how well you write, don't spend too much time on it. Get out there, instead, and network. Because even the mathematics have proved what we already knew. It's not actually what you know, it's who you know. See you at next year's Comic-Con?


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