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New stuff coming soon...
It's been quite a year, huh? We're just halfway through and it already feels like it's been dragging on for an eternity. In 6 months mired in controversy from the political realm to the entertainment industry, the one that's been discussed the most for us in the comics world is diversity. By now we've all read the various articles like this, this, and this in regards to comments made by Marvel's VP of sales. All of those articles have sparked some real interesting debate and discussion about the industry but I feel like none of them really painted a clear picture of what we're talking about when we discuss diversity. So let's discuss.
For starters, what do we really mean when we say that word? Are we talking about race, gender, sexual orientation, all of the above? Are we speaking in terms of creators, characters, editorial and management? When I think about diversity, I'm thinking about diverse stories told by diverse creative teams, diversity reaching up into editorial and management, and of course diverse characters represented on the page.
So breaking that down further lets start with a top down look at the industry. Tracking down editors online can be a bit tricky by design. They're busy people who I'm sure love reaching out and talking to fans but also have to keep the trains moving on time. Both Marvel and DC have public Twitter lists for editors but those are kind of out of date. Needless to say, unless you go to a comic shop and literally go through each book and search for the editors (and I might just do that later for my own amusement) it can be tricky. So while there are diverse heads of both DC and Marvel, as well as plenty of editors of color, varying genders and sexual orientation, it's hard to say just how many. So instead lets talk about what makes diversity at this level important. For one, it's a fact that in this day and age, most jobs are gained via networking, not just skill. Basically people hire who they know, or who people close to them recommend. Having those connections is key, and it's not to say that non-white straight males don't have connections, but the fact that it took until this very year, 2017, for Marvel to hire a black female writer is a bit telling.
Editors and management are the real change makers in this equation. They are the ones who have the power to hire creative teams, launch new books, and help to promote diversity both on the page and behind the scenes. Having a more diverse editorial staff means you'll have more reach in different communities, and the ability to tell more diverse stories. For example, look at Ms. Marvel, which is written by a Muslim woman (G. Willow Wilson) and edited by a Muslim Woman (Sana Amanat) and tells wonderfully rich and fully realized stories about a teenage Muslim superhero. It's not to say that only people from a certain background can tell certain stories, but having those two working on that book really gives it an added dimension, because their stories are coming from a lived experience. Basically if you're looking to tell more authentic stories about LGBTQ, Latino, Black, Asian, (etc.) experiences, why not go to the source?
Which brings us to that source. I recently went through the latest issue of Previews (basically a phone book sized magazine that lets you know about all the comics, collectibles, etc. coming out for a certain month) and did some numbers. Here's what I came up with. *Note that this list is for single issues and original graphic novels only and also that these numbers are not 100% exact as I couldn't verify every name I found but I'd say each total is within about 4 or 5.
In July 2017 Marvel is putting out 66 books. Of those books 4 are written by people of color 9 by women. 23 of them feature art by people of color, 7 by women.
DC is putting out 54 books. 4 are written by people of color, 10 by women. 16 of the artists are people of color, 4 are women.
Dark Horse is putting out 23 books. None are written by people of color, 4 are written by women. 3 are drawn by people of color, and 3 are drawn by women (although one book is written and drawn by the same woman.)
IDW is putting out 54 books. 3 are written by people of color, 5 are written by women. 6 have art by people of color, 5 have art by women.
Image is putting out 54 books. 4 are written by people of color, 3 are written by women. 11 have art by people of color, 5 have art by women.
Boom is putting out 23 books, 2 written by people of color, 8 by women. 7 of those books have art by people of color, and 7 by women.
So that means out of the 274 books these publishers are putting out, 17 (6.2%) are written by people of color, and at least two or three of those books feature the same writer. 39 (14.2%) are written by women but only 3 of those are women of color. On the art side there are 66 (24%) books drawn by people of color and 33 (12%) are drawn by women. Those are some stark numbers right there that really show you that as much as people talk about diversity, there's still a long, long way to go.
Naturally the conversation then moves into, "well what's the magic number?" That's a bit of a catch 22 because there shouldn't be a quota for stuff like this. No one is out here saying it should be 50/50 because that's unrealistic, but if comic companies are really looking to increase diversity behind the scenes, these numbers are completely unacceptable, specifically when it comes to women of color.
When it comes to the characters themselves, there has definitely been an uptick in bringing more diversity to the page. What needs to be discussed now though is the handling of these characters. Is it enough for them to just exist? What is the responsibility of the creators and companies behind them in telling stories with these characters? There's been a lot of talk, whether it's the Mark Waid and J.G. Jones mini-series Strange Fruit, Nick Spencer's Captain America: Sam Wilson, new Marvel characters like Riri Williams or the recently retconned Ice Man.
For my part, I'll say there's nothing more frustrating then reading what I call diversity bingo, where a book is just throwing a bunch of different kinds of people in there, mostly for them to be seen rather than heard. Or to have them there to serve the plot of the main character and nothing else. It's also frustrating seeing so many books dabble in topical subjects, but instead of fully engaging them and saying something, they just feel tacked on. I've read way too many comics in the past year where police are pointing guns at black heroes and it's treated as either a throwaway gag or a strange non-sequitur that doesn't really do or say anything. The violence black people face at the hands of the police is very real and very emotionally draining so if you're going to reference it, there better be some follow through, because to have those encounters end with a joke is pretty insulting.
Equally frustrating is the fact that sometimes these characters just feel like DLC skins in a video game instead of actual three dimensional characters. They might look or identify a certain way, but they don't go through any recognizable challenges for the people they represent. It's not enough to just have a person of color or a female lead or a queer character, they need to engage with their culture on some level or it all rings false. Women face very different challenges then men do, women of color doubly so, and queer or trans women of color even more. And that doesn't just go for the challenges they face, but the beauty of their backgrounds as well. African-Americans have had a very well documented hard road in this country, but there's also a real beauty and pride in our culture. As hard as it can be to be black in America, there's a lot to love about it too, and these characters should reflect that.
So what are some answers to comics diversity problem? Well for one, publishers need to make a concerted effort to seek out and work with talented creators of all kinds to bring their stories to wider audience. For instance, the recently released Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore is an incredible book that more people should get a chance to read. Just a cursory online search will turn up tons of awesome webcomics by all kinds of amazing creators. Comixology, the Amazon run digital comic service, is teeming with great indie books. Publishers need to have a form of self mandated affirmative action and really take some time to look at what's out there, because I'd bet they'd be surprised at the sheer amount of untapped potential. And let's be clear about what affirmative action really means. It's not hiring for diversities sake. No one's asking for a hand out, just a seat at the table. But referencing those numbers above, there's clearly a large amount of room to grow.
When it comes to diverse characters on the page, we as creators need to really look at fleshing these characters out more. Even with the growing number of diverse characters, there's still a great need for representation. For some people, these characters are some of the few times they see themselves reflected in media, and they deserve something they can relate to. As I've said on here before, gay is not a character trait. Neither is Latino. If I ask you to tell me about your friend Brad and you say "oh, you know, he's gay" that tells me almost nothing at all about Brad. Is he lactose intolerant? Does he ride a bike to work? Where is he from? Even what kind of men Brad likes would tell me more about him than the simple fact he likes men. Take the time to craft diverse characters that feel real and lived in, that have different experiences to share and stories about their world to tell.
But when creators actually do this, like with Moon Girl and Devil Dinasour, or Nighthawk, or Silk, it's up to the publishers to get behind these books and give them a real push. Spider-Man is going to sell. So is Batman and X-Men. While it's important to continue to sell those big names and give fans stuff to look forward to, the books that need the marketing push are the ones with these new diverse characters. While a lot was made about Riri Williams when she first debuted, there hasn't been much about her from Marvel since. DC similarly is doing almost nothing to push Cyborg or Batwoman. Recently Marvel cancelled Black Panther and The Crew after just two issues, but it seems the real problem is people didn't know the book existed.
Now not all books are created equal. Some books are just bad books or are going to reach a very small market, and with hundreds of books coming out each week, it's a dog eat dog world out there. It's not enough to just keep throwing diverse characters out there if you aren't going to put the effort into marketing them. You can't blame sales on the fans if you don't make an honest effort in letting them know what's out there and why they should care about it. It also doesn't help when people's pockets are being stretched thin by $4.99 event books and the like. When readers are forced to choose between the new and the familiar/book you're telling them is so important, it's very likely they'll just drop the newer book to accommodate.
You're also doing yourself a disservice by not fully embracing the way a lot of people read comics these days. Instead of canceling a book outright, why not make it a digital only book? Why not do more original graphic novels that tell complete stories to tap into the trade market? Why not launch a line of webcomics that can help build up a character before giving them their own series? I get that at the end of the day it's a business but there are so many different ways to go about it, it can't hurt to explore all your options before going with the nuclear one.
This is extremely important in an industry where some of it's biggest icons are now 75 years old. It's not to say that having another dude writing Superman would result in the same old thing, but wouldn't it be fascinating to read a Superman comic from a woman's perspective? Or The Punisher from the viewpoint of a queer POC?
If comics is finally going to grow that healthy and steady readership it's been trying to reach for the longest time, than having a more diverse output is key. Look at the success of Get Out, a story about blackness in modern America written and directed by a black man. Look at the success of Wonder Woman, the first female lead Superhero film with a message of love and empathy, directed by a woman. Look at the success of TV shows like Atlanta, Underground, Dear White People, Broad City, Insecure, and Jane the Virgin, all by a very diverse group of creators. Hopefully comics can follow suit, because that audience is clearly out there, you just have to give them a reason to look forward to Wednesdays.
First things first, this is going to be spoiler heavy, so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want major plot points spoiled, stop here. If you have seen it or just don't care, then join me below as we try and salvage some good from this film.
So first off, as you can probably tell, I wasn't a fan of this movie. But instead of listing all the problems I had with it( watch this, it sums up my thoughts pretty well), I decided it would be more constructive to point out all the things you as a storyteller can learn from Suicide Squad's mistakes.
Off the bat, one of the biggest problems of Suicide Squad was tone. Whether it was studio meddling, poor editing, or just a basic misunderstanding of the source material, the movie was all over the place. It also didn't help it was a PG-13 movie, trying hard to have an R rated edge. Things would switch from zany, to action thriller, to Lifetime movie in the span of a scene. It could have been a dark comedy, a high energy action flick, or other worldly superhero fantasy, but instead they tried to mash a lot of disparate ideas together creating a center that couldn't hold.
Lesson Number One
Choose a tone and stick with it. And don't misinterpret that as your story can only be one thing, but more so that your story can't be all things. You can't really make a dark comedy if it's filled with bright images and peppy banter, nor can you make an edge of your seat spy thriller using the style of My Dinner with Andre. Pick what you want as the core of your story, and build everything else around that. Now if you want parts to have a slightly different tone, that's fine. The Killing Joke has a whole Joker song and dance number, but it works because of everything that comes before. Case in point, everything you need to know about the tone of Being John Malkovich can be found in this one scene:
After tone, characterization was the second biggest problem. Not only did they do more telling than showing, insisting time and again these were the worst criminals around while we watched them do heroic act after heroic act, but they failed to really sell them as a team. On top of all that, they rushed in an unreasonable amount of backstory for certain characters while leaving others with almost no explanation for why they where even there. Finally, in the case of Will Smith and Margo Robbie's characters, they left you almost no choice but to like them, while never really giving you a chance to get to know anyone else.
Lesson Number Two
So first with the telling over showing. That works in a novel because you literally can't show, but even then, allowing the reader to get to know a character via their actions rather than having someone describe that character is always the more effective route. You can tell me how many people Will Smith's character Deadshot has killed, but that isn't nearly as effective as actually showing him in action. In the one scene we actually see him being an assassin, he kills a person we have no reason to care about nor have any information on. He's an informant, that's about it. Instead, why not show him doing something that lets us see just how bad he is, like killing an innocent person or providing back up for other villains. Same goes for every other character. Why was Killer Croc even in jail? Because he was a crocodile man? What about Slipknot? Surely he wasn't using his ability to climb anything for crime. For shame Slipknot, for shame.
A good example of showing over telling is this scene from Guardians of the Galaxy:
Now admittedly there's quite a bit of exposition in the beginning of this scene, but it's paired with some visuals showing off the personalities of the different characters. Following the opening bit, we have Star Lord trying to fight a guard for using his tape player. They could have had him say It's his last connection to his mom and Earth, but instead we come to understand all that through his reaction. Makes for a better scene right? Finally, there's a small moment where we see Rocket Raccoon's back. Earlier the guard mentions he was experimented on, but seeing the aftermath of those experiments, and the reaction Star Lord has when he notices it, tells us a whole story. We don't really need more than that to understand why Rocket is the way he is.
This scene does more to establish it's characters in 4 minutes than Suicide Squad does in it's entire running time, which is both impressive and depressing.
Suicide Squad also tries to skip a lot of the team building elements and get right to the family part. We're supposed to believe this team of dysfunctional and anti-social bad guys are suddenly a close knit family after spending less than 48 hours with one another. They never fight or argue, and even worse, they barely talk to one another. No one speaks directly to Killer Croc until basically the end of the movie, and it's really nothing of substance. Same goes for Captain Boomerang and Katana. We also have to wait until nearly the end of the movie for Diablo to string more than a few sentences together. I might buy Harley and Deadshot getting somewhat close, but everyone else seems too busy trying to find a good spot to fall in for all the slow motion walks they do.
Want to see how to build character relationships:
How long have Vincent and Jules known each other? Who knows? Are they just work friends? Possibly? None of that matters though, because by the end of the scene you get a sense that there's a strong bond between the two that doesn't really need an in depth explanation.
That leads to the final character problem of the film. There's too many characters, and because of that we only really get a chance to know and like 2 or 3. There's nothing wrong with Harley or Deadshot being the stars of the film, but with so many other characters just walking around, you begin to wonder, what are they even doing there? The movie is called Suicide Squad yet, and let's be honest Slipknot doesn't count, only one of the team dies during the mission. If you want to bring back some of these characters for other movies, that's fine, but why not fill the team up with a bunch of expendables? Whittle down the cast over the course of the movie and give us the impression that no one is truly safe. Instead we got several characters wandering on and off screen with seemingly no real reason to be there, until the movie comes up with one. Compare this to Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, which also had a bunch of characters that seemingly came and went, but each of them had a unique purpose and helped move the story along.
So to sum this section up, let your characters speak for themselves through their actions, instead of having others tell us repeatedly how cool/dangerous/crazy/funny they are. If you're creating an ensemble, let your characters interact in a real and believable way. Good examples are movies like Oceans Eleven or The Usual Suspects, and comics like The Runaways or Young Avengers. And finally make sure each character is there for a reason, otherwise they're just taking up valuable space that could be used for the development of other characters or general advancement of the plot. So if you find you don't need 'em, probably best to ditch 'em.
3.) Villains and plot
This fucking guy, am I right? Again, I'm not going to go into the reasons why Leto's performance didn't really work for me, but he's symbolic of the third biggest problem of Suicide Squad; the villains and the plot that revolved around them. I'm willing to give everyone in this film a slight pass in the sense that this script was a mess, and no one really had much to work with, especially poor Cara Delevinge who was basically thrown to the wolves. That being said, the biggest problems with The Joker in this movie, purely from a structural point of view, is you could have taken all of his scenes out and really lost nothing. Secondly, his presence is mostly just distracting, and takes away interest from the main villain of the film. As annoying and all over the place as I found this Joker, it's still the Joker. It would be like having Darth Vader show up for a few minutes in The Force Awakens to ask Kylo Ren for the Wi-Fi password to the new Death Star, then leave. These kind of characters don't really work as cameos. Their presence, especially in a film with a bunch of lesser known characters, is too big. So either make them the main villain or just leave them out entirely.
So that leaves us with the actual villain of the film, Enchantress, and the plot surrounding her. What was she trying to do? Why did she have to teach a Zumba class to make her machine work? And why did Amanda Waller think a guy with guns, an unstable woman with a bat, a guy who throws boomerangs, a guy who can shoot fire, but refuses to, and a crocodile man would be enough to stop a 6,000 year old, all powerful witch?
Simply put, she's boring. Everything she says feels like a bad Ghostbusters rip off, as does her world ending portal. The film posits her as an all powerful being, until it deems it necessary for her not to be. She's not really scary, nor is she sympathetic. It's just more destruction for destruction's sake. Because of this, the movie doesn't really know what to do with itself.
We spend a majority of it following our anti-heroes from destroyed building to destroyed building, without any real idea of what they're meant to be doing. There's even an attempt to center the plot around no one knowing what's going on, which is already a bad idea, but it's even worse when we've spent so much time without any actual plot beyond Task Force X needs to stop something.
Lesson Number Three
First, your main villain or antagonist should have a clear motive. Second, your heroes should be within punching weight of said villain. If one side is too powerful, then you'll have to do some extra work explaining how your rag tag group was able to stop an omnipotent alien god or why the president of a large corporation had such a hard time dealing with some intern. Third, make sure your main villain is your best one. Don't introduce a character that's ten times as interesting (Dart Maul), only to have them disappear or get killed off halfway through. And finally, any plot is better than no plot. Introduce the main idea early (stealing a precious artifact, protecting a diplomats daughter, winning the super turbo grand Prix) and then find a way to get us there. As long as we have an idea of the characters objective, you can take whatever road you like.
First of all that above picture (and video that spawned it) is the best thing that came out of this movie. Anyways, for the sake of brevity, here's a list of other wrongs to watch out for in your own work.
- Pacing. Momentum is key in any story, and any break in said momentum should be purposeful. You can't go pedal to the metal from start to finish. Sometimes you need to come up for air, and that's fine. Suicide Squad however starts off basically as a music video, transitions into standard action fare, and then bounces back and forth between sci-fi fantasy and a series of flashbacks. This all ties into tone and plot, but the point is every scene should build on the last in someway. Too many scenes in this movie just start and stop abruptly with no context to what came before or after. It's as if they decided that because it was in the trailer it needed to be in the movie somewhere.
- Flashbacks. Speaking of, there's a right way to do them and a wrong way. Memento is literally all flashback when you think about it. Flashbacks can be used to deliver a twist, or give us context for something that happens later in a story. They're good shorthand when you need to deliver a lot of backstory in a short amount of time. Then there's the wrong way to do them, like say having a 10 minute flashback to squeeze some characterization into the last 30 minutes of your movie. Or having multiple flashbacks back to back to back. Or just having characters randomly break into flashback like Family Guy. They need to have a purpose. You can't just use them as a lazy way to add depth to cardboard characters. Flashing back to what Katana was doing before she joined the team with no context or follow up doesn't really add anything to her as a character, because it never answers the question on everyone's mind; why is she there in the first place?
- Women. A lot has been made on the treatment of women in Suicide Squad. Some have argued that Harley was sexed up in the comics so she should be sexed up in the movie. Others have wondered why so many women needed to be used as literal punchlines. Or why they couldn't wear actual clothes. Here's a surefire way to make sure the women in your stories avoid stereotypes. Write them as people. Give them the same treatment and the same story lines, not that you would even give a male character, but just any general human being. It's not the punching women that's so much the problem, as it's the fact that the actual violence is what we're supposed to find funny. It's not that women can't be sexy or sexual in nature, it's that their sexuality needs to have roots in something. Some people use sex to take advantage of others, for other people sex is how they make emotional connections, and some people just enjoy sex but that's only a small part of who they are as a person. It only becomes a problem when you reduce female characters to objects of desire or give them stories that solely revolve around their relationship and standing to men.
- Action. I know Suicide Squad had various action scenes in it, but honestly I don't really remember any of them. They all just kind of blur together in some combination of bullets and decapitated vegetable men. If your going to make an action movie, you should have some memorable action set pieces. Case in point:
Not really much to add to that, the scene pretty much speaks for itself. You want to create your own Dark Knight tunnel chase. Something unique that jumps out at the audience, grabs them, and makes them say "I need to see that again!" Whether it's film, TV, or comics, always think about how you can visually tell a story using all of the different tools at your disposal. One of my favorite action scenes from the last couple of years is from Captain America Winter Soldier.
The whole scene, starting from the shootout on the bridge is great, but this last bit with Bucky and Cap going one on one is what really sets the bar high for me. Just watch the back and forth between these two. It feels like it could really go either way. Look at how they each have little wrinkles in their fighting styles that make them unique. Cap is a bit more agile, while Bucky is all about precision (peep the nifty knife work). And then finally there's the big reveal at the end. It's a terrific sequence that manages to be thrilling and also moves the plot forward in a major way.
Alright, I think it's best I end this here. Hopefully you'll be able to take something from this and apply it to your future work. And by you I mean Warner Brothers.
Congratulations, it's a script! And just like any proud parent, you feel like you've just given life to the greatest thing that will ever be. Sure, it's a little misshapen, and is making a weird noise, and is constantly secreting all kinds of mystery fluids, but dammnit it's yours, and it's perfect. So now that you have it, what the hell are you supposed to do with it?
Well do you have somebody who's willing to draw it? If yes, continue on. If not, then that's probably the first thing you need to figure out. Wooing an artist to work on your project is tricky. For one of your first projects, I highly recommend trying to find someone local. For one, you'll actually be able to have a sit down talk with them about the project, which is always nice. For two, if this is a project you're paying them for or have a tight deadline, you know where they live and go knock on their door and say "hey, how's that thing going?" Hopefully you'll never have to, but it's a good option to have. If you can't find anyone near you, then it's time to turn to everyone's best/worst friend, the internet.
Finding an artist on the internet is basically like online dating. You do your best to make yourself seem presentable and worth taking a chance on, and every once in a while you'll get a bite. Then there's a bit of back and forth before you both agree to get together, and then you just have to cross your fingers and hope they don't murder you (metaphorically or literally). Sometimes it works out great, other times you talk once or twice and they completely disappear on you. Such is the modern world we live in. I will advise doing a few things to hopefully increase your chances of finding someone good to work with:
- Make sure when pursuing through portfolios that you only reach out to artists with sequential work. That Batman sketch might look Jim Lee quality, but that's not the same as doing 22 pages with at least 5 panels a piece. Comics are visual stories, and you need a visual story teller, not a pin-up artist (no offense to pin-up artists).
- Following that thread further, look for elements that match your story. Again, that giant robot fight sequence might look amazing, but if your story is about a supernatural lawyer. How good is this artist at drawing smaller moments or doing tense character drama? Can they draw cars? That would help if your story is about a getaway driver. Not everyone is going to have every element of your story in their portfolio, but if you can't find anything that resembles your story either in practice or in tone, they might not be the one for you.
- Check and see if they have any completed projects. You'll often find artists with several pages of Spider-Man or Batman stories, but no actual completed work. This isn't necessarily a crimson flag, but maybe a burnt orange. Making comics is a time consuming process, and you want someone who will see it through. An artist who has at least one completed book under their belt is definitely a good sign.
- If your still not 100% sure about an artist, give a link to their work to an artist friend and ask for their opinion. You'll be amazed at what your untrained writer eye can miss, and it always helps to have a second opinion on things from someone you trust.
Other things to keep in mind. Are you doing this in black and white book or color? This might require multiple artist, so be sure to keep that in mind. Some artist already work with a colorist which is nice, but it's not always the case. Can you pay? There are certainly artist out there who will work for backpay or just to get some experience under their belt, but there's often a huge quality jump between them and working artists. Rates vary widely depending on the length of the project and the artist, so make sure you say upfront how much you can afford to pay, and make sure you can actually pay it. It's not fair to an artist to agree to a certain amount thinking you'll have the money by the time the work is done, but because life happens, you're a couple hundred dollars short.
Once the art starts coming in, you'll need someone to do the lettering for it. If you're self-publishing your project, I highly recommend learning how to lettering. There's a bit of a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, it's an invaluable skill. For one, that's less money coming out of your pocket. Secondly, it can really help you see how much text can fit on a page. It's one thing to type it out and send it to another person, but when you have to try and figure out where all these balloons go, you'll quickly learn what's going to work and what won't by just looking at it. Finally, it will make last minute changes much easier to do, not that you should make them a habit. Just be sure you take the time to make it look as good as possible. Lettering often goes overlooked, and that's because good lettering seamlessly fits in with the art. Bad lettering on the other hand sticks out like a bad thumb. See the following:
And then compare that to this
The last person you'll want to find is someone to do the cover of your book. Covers, like lettering, are often very overlooked and undervalued part of comics, but they are literally the first thing people see when they look at your book. It's the very first impression you'll make on a reader, so if it's not something that pulls them in, and something that also conveys a bit of what your story is about, then it's hurting your book. I've had several people come over to my table at a convention just to look at my books because they where pulled in by the cover.
Take a look at some of these covers and see if they don't make you want to at least see what the comic is about
So lets leave off there for now. I'll leave you with a few good places to find artists, letterers, and cover artists. Digitalwebbing.com, tumblr.com, deviantart.com as well as the forums of places like comicbookresources, millarworld.tv, and comixtribe.com. Good luck, be nice, be patient, and make some comics!
And now we come to every writer’s favorite and least favorite part of writing; dialogue. It’s always the most fun to write, and it’s the stuff that actually makes it into the finished comic. It’s also the thing you’ll fret over the most, and will having you banging your head against the wall when you can’t find that perfect line. So what makes good dialogue? How do you slip exposition in seamlessly? How many of those balloons can I fit in a panel? I don’t have the answers to all those questions, but I’m happy to tell you what I know, and what works for me.
The first you need to realize about dialogue is you’re going to wind up doing a lot of cutting. A lot. Even typing this out now, I’ve done several revisions. Is that joke funny? Am I just repeating myself? The things you like the most you’ll probably have to take out at some point for the greater good of the story. It doesn’t matter how funny, scary, or emotional it is, if it doesn’t fit the character or the plot, you have to dump it. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it somewhere else later, so write it down, but the sooner you stop thinking every word you type is precious, the better your work will be.
As for the question of what makes dialogue good, it’s totally subjective. Some people love Tarantino’s dialogue, others hate it. Same goes for Aaron Sorkin, Brian Michael Bendis, Keiron Gillen, Kate Leth, Grant Morrison, and on and on. The point is, like most things in comics (and writing) there’s no right way. On the other hand, we all know a bad line when we hear one. Something about it just sounds wrong to the ear, or is super cliché. So how do you get it right? It’s honestly just trial and error. This is the fire in which you find your voice as a writer.
I realized very early on that I wasn’t going to be Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman. Anytime I tried to write some flowery or long form kind of prose, it just sounded wrong and forced. I soon found that I write more like Dan Slott or Peter David, more straight forward, simple even. And simple is far from a dirty word, especially when it comes to story. It’s all about clarity and being able to express ideas/emotion to the reader. My favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut, who used plain language maybe better than anyone. His books feel less like novels, and more like someone telling you a story at a bar. And he’s able to express profound ideas about life, love, death, the universe and more, using short, simple sentences. And so it goes.
Building off of that idea, comic book dialogue is for the most part pretty brisk. There are numerous “rules” in place for how many words or balloons you should have on a panel/page. Alan Moore has suggested only 210 words max per page. Warren Ellis suggests no more than 3 word balloons per page. The point being, you want to try and distill everything down into its purest form. If you can take that joke from 25 words to 10, do it. Sometimes “I’ll kill you” sums everything up better than three panels worth of villainous threats ever could. So whenever you see an opportunity to tighten things up, make the change. Your book will have a better flow, and the art will have more space to breath.
Here are some more things to keep in mind. Your characters are going to be shaped equally by what they say as well as what they do, which means you’ll have to use your dialogue to make each one distinct. It can be easy to fall into the trap of having characters sound too much alike, as well as unrealistic. So make an effort to show off each characters unique personalities in conversation. Your gruff giant should sound different from your jokester elf, and your slacker wizard, and your book smart gnome, and so on. But at the same time they should sound like you…which is confusing, right? Think about it like breaking down different aspects of your personality and spreading them throughout multiple characters. Matt Fraction has written a variety of characters, each of them different, but his sense of humor shines through in each one. Same thing with Brubaker’s crime stories. It would be very easy for him to write a variation of the same character over and over again, but he’s created a number of distinct characters that inhabit the same shady criminal underworld.
Next let’s focus a bit on exposition. It’s a dirty job, but it’s what makes your story go. Fitting exposition into a story is a bit like cooking for a picky eater. You can’t just serve them a plate of mushrooms and expect them to eat it up like the rest of the steak (or vegan soy bean substitute). So try your best to hide it in the good stuff. Fight scenes, jokes, sex, car chases, wherever you can find something interesting. Even then, you can’t just rattle off a bunch of facts or plot points, so try and make it sound as natural as possible.
And just how do you sound natural? Well think about how you and your friends talk. Better yet, go to the mall or the park or any busy public place you can think of and just sit and listen. You’ll hear all kinds of stuff. And no, I’m not saying go eavesdrop on strangers, I’m talking more about trying to pick up on the way people talk. Speech patterns, phrasing, rhythm, vocabulary, all that stuff. Now there is such a thing as being too realistic, which can be equally off putting. Characters say all kinds of things people would never say in real life, and vice versa. I know I catch myself saying “uh” or “um” a lot, as well as repeating words like definitely or phrases like “well you know, I mean…” and there’s probably more stuff I’m not even aware of. Unless you’re trying to show a character is nervous or has been caught off guard, there’s no reason to have filler words in your dialogue. Same goes for repeated words. Repetition can be used to hammer home a point, but if you’re not doing it intentionally, try and avoid it.
One of the best ways to see if your dialogue sounds right is to do what crazy people like myself do and read/act out your scripts. It feels a little silly at first, but the more you get into it, the more you’ll be able to get into your characters. Just make sure you warn your roommates/neighbors before you go into a long villainous monologue.
Finally, one of the toughest things to do when it comes to dialogue is to simply get out of the way. The work disparity between artist and writer is pretty steep. Like I’ve said before, we can knock out a script in a week, but your artist is going to take a month or maybe more to draw it. And while that might make you want to fill up every panel with balloons so it feels like you’ve done your part, sometimes you can do more by laying out, and letting the art tell the story. When I got the art back for part of a project I’m working on, I decided to get rid of all the dialogue I wrote and make it silent. I just felt like I was getting in the way of a story that was already being told so well visually. Obviously it won’t always be as dramatic as scrapping everything, but if you feel like the art is already saying all that needs saying, then maybe consider leaving that panel without dialogue. For example, don’t feel like you have to add some quips to your fight scene just because it’s expected.
That’s all for now. Hopefully you can put some of this to use in your own writing. If all else fails, just remember this is supposed to be the fun part, so don't be afraid to take a few chances. I leave you with some examples of good dialogue. Look them over, and then go make comics!
If there's one thing that can be hard to get a feel for early on, it's pacing. Knowing when to go full steam, when to ease up and let a story breathe, when to reveal a big twist, and when to just end on a cliffhanger. You're going to screw it up, no doubt about it. But, as with most things in life, you learn by doing. Each story is different, but here are a few basic things to keep in mind to help the flow of your story.
What is your story about? What are you trying to say? What do you want out of your characters? These are all questions you should be asking yourself when you plan out a story. Once you have the answers to these questions, you can begin to get a feel for the pace. You'll probably have a few key scenes in your head, and you can start figuring out where you want to place them. Try shifting them around a bit and see how things flow. Sometimes your first instinct is right, and sometimes something that might feel wrong to you, might actually be the best thing for the story. It's just trail and error. You can always change things back.
I'm sure this isn't news, but that first page is really important. It sets the tone for the rest of your story, and hooks in readers. Now depending on your story, sometimes this means starting out with a bang, and sometimes it means setting a certain mood. So make sure you put a lot of thought into how you open things. Again, if you don't like the start to your story, try swapping it out for another part and see how that feels.
A trick a number of writers use is to end each page with a mini cliffhanger to make the reader want to see what happens next. This could be someone asking a question, or maybe a character makes a shocking discovery, or a fight is just about to break out. So take a look at how you're ending each page. If that last panel doesn't make you want to keep reading, you might want to change it to something with a little more punch.
Sadly, the cure for exposition still hasn't been found. It's something you just need to work around, and that means like a parent trying to get a picky kid to eat, you'll have to make it more fun than it seems. Going back to Brian Michael Bendis and his work on Alias, there's this running gag of Jessica sitting and listening to a client as they tell her the details of a case. These where often two page spreads with the same image of Jessica repeating at the top, and the client going on and on the bottom of the page. Here's another example:
Having this as a running joke in the series helped spoon in a lot of that exposition, but a lot of it comes down to how well your artist does with acting and subtle emotions/body language, and not many are as good as Michael Gaydos. So instead, if you have a scene that you need to get in with two characters just talking, try and think of exciting things they could be doing or places they could be. Different medium, but on The West Wing, Aaron Soarkin would often have characters do "the walk and talk." Having important conversations happen on the move would convey a lot of the energy and sense of urgency going on in the White House. So if you can have your characters moving, flying, fighting, driving down a spooky highway, hanging out in a funky bar, anything that isn't just two people sitting down talking in a vacuum, do it, because nothing can kill the momentum of your story like a long and static conversation. No matter how pretty or dramatic your words are, it's still a visual medium.
Speaking of visuals, this is when that panel discussion comes back into play. There's something about having a similar panel count on each page that gives your story a good rhythm. Again, most people try and keep it somewhere between 5 to 6, but there are plenty of stories that obviously still work breaking out of that mold.
A quick reminder here about how the panel count can effect the reader. A page with a low panel count tends to move a bit quicker, although it's possible a reader will linger on the bigger panels. A higher panel count will slow a reader down, having to take in more information.
So lets begin with the Miracle Man story "Skin Deep" By Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham works almost entirely on a two panel grid, like this:
This gives the images plenty of room to breath, and Gaiman plenty of room to work his usual magic. The advantage is obviously the space for you and your artist to tell a story, the con is that you then have a limited number of panels to tell your story, so you have to choose carefully.
Then there's also the 9 panel grid which was most famously used to great effect by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in Watchmen:
This is definitely on the opposite end of the spectrum from the last example. 9 panels gives you a lot more space to deconstruct a story and pace things out. The trouble you run into with this is the amount of work for an artist, and can give your book a bit of a static feel. Not every can pull it off well, so make sure you have an artist comfortable working with 9 panels.
Finally we have comics that don't really fit into either of those categories:
How many panels would you call that? Again, you don't run across many J.H. Williams III, so artist like him and Marco Rudy fall into a category all their own. The key is to make sure the reader can still follow what's happening and not get lost navigating the art.
A few final notes. Don't feel like you need to force a crazy action scene into each book. There are plenty of ways to make your story compelling without fist fights and explosions. So don't panic if you finish a script and realize no one got punched. An issue leading up to a conflict and can be just as compelling as the conflict itself. Also keep in mind the different ways you can structure a page to break things up. A silent panel will cause the reader to pause for a moment. Short, back and forth dialogue will speed things up. Similarly a bigger panel will immediately grab a readers attention, while smaller panels and inserts can be used to get across some quick information. So just keep in mind all of your options when putting together a page.
Lastly, check out a few of these writers for great examples of pacing. Obviously Alan Moore with Watchmen but also From Hell. Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye run. Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's Y: The Last Man. Peter Milligan and Mike Allred's X-Force/X-Statix. And of course Neil Gaiman's Sandman.
I could go on with those forever, but I'll stop there for now. Take a look at your scripts and comics and see what you can do to improve your pacing. Maybe change the way your book starts, or some of the last panels on a few pages. Next time, I'll talk a little about every writers favorite/least favorite part. Dialogue. Until then, go make some comics!
Panel descriptions are tricky. There's a variety of ways to write them, from the notoriously dense descriptions of Alan Moore to the more straight forward style of Garth Ennis. Whatever way you choose to go, there's a few universal rules to keep in mind.
First, someone is drawing this. There are plenty of artists who will draw whatever you write to the letter, so you can only imagine their reaction if you send them something like this:
Panel One: Double page splash! The Gladiator has entered the arena. There's about 50 other warriors in the arena already, and it's packed with thousands of people in the stands.
Now for you that might seem like a perfectly acceptable panel, but think about what you're asking for. That sentence took you less than a minute to type, but to get that level of detail it would take an artist almost a week to draw, if not more. That's not to say that you should never ask for something like that, but you should make sure you understand the amount of work you're asking an artist to put in, and if the scene is really adding anything to the book or is just something that looks cool.
In the same vein, make sure you give your artist something concrete to go on. Again, each panel doesn't have to be a dissertation, but make sure you're telling your artist exactly what is happening. Describe the setting, the characters, the mood, etc. For example, compare:
Panel One: Commissioner Gordon has taken a seat at his desk. He looks worried. Bullock on the other hand, is grinning as he pulls out a pack of cigarettes from his coat.
Panel One: Commissioner Gordon sits down. Bullock starts to smoke.
Both of those are describing the same thing, but one is giving your artist more context and mood, while the other is just general (and boring) information.
Another thing your artist will appreciate is if you call your shots. Meaning if your character is going to hit someone with a bottle on panel five, you should set it up in panel one or two. Otherwise there's a very good chance your artist will get to panel five and say "wait, where did they get a bottle from?" It makes everyone's job a lot easier when you very clearly indicate key plot points ahead of time, so if you know something or someone is going to play an important role, give your artist plenty of notice. Same thing goes for location and time of day. If the scene is supposed to take place at night, make sure your artist knows this or else you might get what is meant to be a dark, gritty street scene set in broad daylight.
If you're just starting out, the key thing to keep in mind is the amount of action that can be done in a single panel. Spider-Man can't swing into a room, land, and walk over to the closet door and open it, all in one panel. You'll sometimes see panels with multiple or after images of a character jumping across rooftops, but that's a technique that shouldn't be overused and is really only effective in certain situations. Instead think of what is essential and cut around everything else. So that above panel with Spider-Man could be; panel one he swings in, panel two he lands, panel three he walks over to the closet. You can really cut out whatever you want, as long as it's a coherent sequence. For instance, Spider-Man shouldn't swing into a room and then in the next panel open a closet door. There needs to be something in between showing us how he got there.
Lastly I would say, if you can help it, at all costs don't cop out of a fight/action scene. I'll admit I've written a script that basically said pages 5-9, the race continues. That was bad and wrong, although me and the artist did talk out the basic beats of the sequence so they could lay it all out. I did it because I feel like artists know better than I do how to work out a fight scene or in this case street race. I still feel this way, but I do my best to add as much context and input as possible. Reason being, it's the least you can do. If someone is going to take the time to draw it, you should take your time to write it. I'll often start with a note that says, this is how I see things going, but feel free to add or subtract as you see fit. It's also just a bad habit to get into. Certain shortcuts are acceptable and probably smart in order to hit deadlines, but never take the easy way out just because you can. Your artist will definitely appreciate having more to go on than, "Page 4-10, big fight scene! Have fun!"
That's it for now. Take some time to look at your scripts and see if you can tweak them with some of the tips listed above. Sometimes all it takes is a slight rewording or maybe a few more details to get a panel right. All in all, the more thought you put in on your end, the easier it will be for your artist. And a happy artist is something you definitely want. Next time I'll talk a bit about panel flow and pacing but for now, go make some comics!
I love hearing or reading about how creators go about making their comics. There's always something new to learn or a different way to approach a problem. And without fail, in all the panels and interviews and Reddit AMA's, there is one question that comes up repeatedly, and that is:
"How do you know how many panels to put on a page?"
It's a problem that's burning in the hearts of every would be creator, and like most things, there's no simple answer. Sure, most people agree that 5 or 6 panels is the most you can fit on a page without things getting messy, but now you're thinking to yourself "but Watchmen - - " Stop. Don't finish that thought. Never finish that thought. Instead let's talk about a few ways we can approach panels.
I'm not going to get waist deep in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, but let's talk about the idea of completion. Basically the way your brain fills in the action between one panel and another. As a writer, your goal should be to fit the most story into the least amount of space. That's because space is limited. Most Marvel and DC comics range between 20-22 pages. Independent books you get a little more wiggle room, but because you have that space doesn't mean you have to use it.
So with that in mind think of a page as a scene of a play/movie/T.V. show. In all those mediums, time is measured by...well time. Seconds, minutes, the like. With comics, time is determined by the the reader, I.E. how fast they read. Now you as a creator can't necessarily control that, but you can dictate it in a way by the amount of panels you use per page. Now this is where completion comes into play. Pull up a scene from a movie or show you like on Youtube, and watch it one time. Now watch it again, this time making note of what you consider to be the key parts of the scene. Now using those key parts, see if you can translate it into a comic page. Now, see if you can remove even more and still make it work. Basically you want to try and distill it down to the most essential elements. This is should be your goal with every page.
I can see the scenes in my comics pretty clearly in my head like a movie, so mentally I'm watching each scene play out, and then "pausing" on the most exciting or interesting or necessary parts. This might not work for you, so instead maybe try acting it out. I know it sounds and will probably feel silly, but you chose to be a writer and sometimes that's part of the job. Whatever way works for you, use that to try and find the most essential parts of each scene. And be honest. You're going to have plenty of ideas that are cool or exciting or "lit" as the kids say, but are they essential? If you can remove it and the scene still makes sense, then lose it, no matter how awesome it sounds.
Let's expand on the idea of time briefly as well, because it's another thing to take into consideration with panel count. The more panels the longer it takes to read, and the reverse is true with less panels. So what's this page about? And how do you want someone to read it? It could be a fight scene or it could be a conversation between two characters. Take a second to look at these pages.
So what do you think? Each of these pages has different intentions, a different number of panels, and different layouts. How long did it take you to read each of them? The Alias page has a lot of dialogue, and is spread out over two pages, and probably took you longer to read. The Moon Knight one is interesting because it's only three panels, but you can read it a couple different ways. Because the last two panels don't have dialogue the reader is free to spend as much time on them as they choose. The Batman page also has some variety. The dialogue is short and punchy (pun intended) and moves along quick, but the action is slightly deconstructed and has a flow to it. You're supposed to take it all in. Each punch and kick at it's own pace.
So right now you might be thinking, this a lot of stuff to keep in mind, and yeah at first it can be. But the more you write, a lot of this will start to come naturally. You'll get a feel of how many panels are needed for certain things. That's why I choose to answer the question of how many panels should you put on a page with "well how many do you think you need?" Just keep in mind that the more panels on a page, the less space for your talky balloons and boxes, so if you're going to write a whole monologue, you'll need to cut down on the panel count. Again, look at how Bendis is able to fit in a whole bunch of dialogue in what amounts to just 7 panels.
That feels like enough for now. Try out the exercise I mentioned above and see if you can start to get a feel for how many panels you'll need on any given page. There's a million articles out there on layout and repetition, rhythm, etc, and I'll be sure to post some of them, but that's a different subject entirely. I'll be back soon to briefly touch on do's and don'ts for panel descriptions as well as pacing and then we'll move into formatting your script. Until then, go make some comics!
Want to know a secret? The secret to writing? Good writing? It's actually not that much of a secret. The secret is, there is no secret. Read any book on writing (and there's plenty of good ones) or listen to any writer talk about the process and they'll all say the same thing. Read and write every day. That's it. Blog dismissed, go make some comics.
Oh, where you looking for a little more? As hokey as it sounds, that advice is actually really the best you'll get. I think for a lot of us, it's difficult to wrap our brains around the slow process that is working on your craft. Even the most talented people had to put in some level of work and dedication to refine their gifts. Malcolm Gladwell coined the theory of 10,000 hours, or the amount of time it takes to become a master of something. That's a lot of hours and the prospect of doing anything for that long seems daunting, especially if you already have a ton of responsibilities pilling up. That's a real commitment. That's true dedication. And, thinking about it now, that might really be the secret of writing. Perserverance.
Writing is a personal and private act. No one can really tell you how to do it, it’s just what works best for you. So from here on out, I’ll talk about the way I go about doing things, starting big and then focusing in on different parts of a script.
So after I’ve done all the circles and mapped out what’s happening on each page along with the panels, I start to type it all out. I just use Word. Other people use various scripting software. You don’t need to spend a lot of money (or any really) on pro writing software, but if you find something that you like, by all means go for it.
Now here comes the psychological/mystical/neuroscience part of this whole process. If you’re like me, starting is the hardest part. That’s another reason why I go through that whole planning process, because it gives me a whole bunch of stuff to refer to off the jump. I’ve already done a lot of the grunt work up front, now I mostly just have to get it all down on the page. Another thing I’m sure I have in common with a lot of writers is the constant feelings of doubt and the frustration of not being able to get what feels so perfect in your head on to the page. All the words just seem to come out ugly, or clumsy. Your brain keeps telling you there’s got to be a better way to phrase that dialogue, but you just can’t seem to think of it. Or you’ve just finished reading an amazing comic and then you look at your work and think, “this is nowhere close to Gaiman/Morrison/Moore/Ware/Clowes/Hickman/Bendis/etc.” But the truth is, when Neil Gaiman is doing a first draft I’m sure he also thinks this is nowhere close to where it should be. I’m not even sure if it’s legal to type what Warren Ellis probably thinks during a first draft.
Two things to always keep in mind. First, writing isn’t a competition. It may feel like it, especially when you’re trying to get noticed, but if you’re focused on trying to best any individual writer or group of writers for that matter, you’re going to find the writing itself to be very difficult. Instead, use all those stories you admire as fuel to make yours better. Just because Walking Dead is super popular doesn’t mean there isn’t room for your own zombie story, and I feel pretty safe in saying that Robert Kirkman would encourage you to write it.
And if you feel like what you’re typing isn’t any good, here’s the second thing to keep in mind. No one is going to read that first draft. Well unless you let them, but why would you do that to someone? As good as writers like Brubaker and Aaron are, I’m sure they’d rather suffer any number of horrible fates than to let anyone read their first drafts. That’s why the less you think about it the better. Just sit down with your notes and start typing. That’s what Stephen King does, and it’s worked out pretty well for him. In his memoir/how to book On Writing, he says writing is almost like being a paleontologist. The story is already out there, you’re job as a writer is to just dig it up. He’ll often times just have a concept for a story (writer is kidnapped by crazy fan), do a small amount of character/story development, and then see where it takes him. Very bare bones (pun gratuitously intended). Obviously I don’t work quite like that, but I do find that just letting go and seeing your imagination takes you can often lead to great things.
Why is that? Well there’s a half scientific, half magic answer for that. The first has to do with the two parts of your brain. Not the left and right, but the conscious and the unconscious. What all that plotting and thinking about the story beforehand does is get your brain thinking about the problem. How are you going to resolve certain conflicts? How are you going to handle certain emotional beats? What’s the big twist at the end? The conscious part of your brain is what brings up all these issues and does the critical thinking. The unconscious part is where the magic happens. In issue #8 of Pretty Deadly, Kelly Sue DecConnick has an essay about what is called “the quantum soup.” This is the place that great ideas seem to come from. Out of thin air. And at least for me, when you least expect it. You hear people talk about coming up with stuff in all sorts of places. A lot of mine come on walks. Yours might come in the shower or driving to work. Now while we can’t directly tap into this, we can certainly feed it and keep the gears turning, in part by consuming other stories, and also by doing some sort of pre-writing. This can be anything from character notes and thinking of basic beats you want to hit, to full on outlining and plotting.
I’d say that’s a good place to stop for now. When working on your story, try just letting go and seeing where the story takes you, you might be surprised, in a good way. Also make sure to feed your unconscious mind with plenty of stories, both fiction and non-fiction. Next time I’ll get into specifics concerning writing panel descriptions as well as just figuring the amount of panels you need. Until then, go make some comics!
I went to school to be a print journalist. I wound up getting a degree in broadcast journalism, but by the time I left school I realized I wanted to try and do something in Film or Television. So I started thinking up ideas, and came up with a webseries. Said series never finished filming an episode (although I had plenty of great outtakes), and I came away with an important lesson; making stuff is hard. Especially stuff you have to film which requires audio, a camera person, a lighting person, actors, a director, and so on. That's when I hit upon the idea of trying comics. It only really takes two people I thought, how hard can it be? This is where I realized that important lesson applies to everything, not just film. I say all that to tell you about the most important lesson any comic writer needs to learn if they want to get anywhere. You're really not that important.
You may think you have the greatest story ever, the most amazing characters and plot twists that will keep readers glued to the page. But let me ask you this, what is that story without an artist? A manuscript? A screenplay or a stage play? Whatever it is, it's not a comic. Comics are visual. Stories and characters come to life through the art. Don't get me wrong, your story and words are still vital, but far more people are likely to read a crap story with amazing art than a brilliant story with sub par art.
A lot of people use the analogy of the comic writer being the director and the artist being the cinematographer, the set designer, costume designer, etc. I used to think this way too, but lately I've found the more apt comparison is this. Comic writer = director/screenwriter, Artist = actor. Reason being, a directors main goal should be to get the most out of the script by getting the most out of the crew, namely the actors. You hear stories all the time of great directors motivating and pushing actors to give incredible performances or creating an environment that allows an actor to experiment and try new things. This is your main job as a writer. Your scripts aren't really stories as much as they are motivational letters to your artist. I've heard some writers say you should even think of them as love letters. Either way, try to keep the following things in mind when writing your script:
1. (Nobody reads your scripts...): Except for the artist, and an editor if you have one. That's where the letter idea comes in. A script ideally should be pretty personal, like a letter to a good friend. If someone else read it, they might not really understand the short hand or the inside jokes you've developed. Some writers like to sometimes include messages (like Neil Gaiman and Kelly Sue Deconnick) before they get to the actual script part, letting the artist know the tone and idea behind the story. This can be especially helpful when working with someone for the first time. Once you've worked up a chemistry with an artist, scripts start to get a bit looser. The main lesson here being, don't think of a script as something the world is going to read, but as more of a for your eyes only kind of document between you and the artist.
2. (...But doesn't mean they cant be fun.): Just because only a few people are going to be reading the actual script, that doesn't mean it should be a dull, lifeless document that only contains the bare bones story. Remember, your job is to get the artist excited to bring this story to life. They're often times your first reader, and you should want to give them something that makes them break out the pencils and pens on the spot. That doesn't mean however you should send them some rambling monologue or an incoherent rant. I'm a firm believer in the clear and concise. Make sure no matter what, you give them the essentials to do their job (the who, what, when, where, etc.) but if you can find a way to make it fun and interesting, all the better. I'm sure any artist would appreciate a script that doesn't read like the instruction manual for Risk.
3. (Play to their strengths.) Countless times you'll hear writers say how an artist made them look like they know what they're doing. An artist can be a real life saver, taking a so-so panel or page of exposition and making it riveting. So with that said, logic goes the better your artist looks, the better you look. Take some time to learn what your artist likes to draw, and what they don't. If you find they don't draw cars well, don't keep putting driving scenes in your book. If they have some trouble with giant robots or monsters, find something else for your heroes to fight. 9 times out of 10 an artist will do their best to draw what you've written, but you can really tell the difference between pages they've enjoyed working on and the ones they kind of trudged through because that's what was in the script. Not every page is going to be dragons or crazy future technology or magical forests, but if you make sure to sprinkle some of what your artist loves to draw every couple of pages, they'll really appreciate it.
4. (Listen to them.) Artists have just as much energy and time invested in making a comic as you do. Actually make that 10 times more than you do. For us writers, we can bang a script out in a week, week and a half at worst. Artist spend day and night putting in the work to draw all our silly ninja fights and talking animals, so the least we can do is listen to them when they have notes or ideas. It can be a little frustrating at times. Your ego swells up and the idea of someone telling you to maybe change this or lose that can make you scoff like an old money socialite. A lot of the times they're right though. Sometimes they may just be on to something and it's up to you to figure out just what that is. Either way, you're partners, and that's where compromise comes in. You may have to fight for certain things you really believe in, and vice versa. Sometimes you'll reach a satisfying compromise, sometimes you won't. But never take what an artist has to say personally. They have just as much invested in the story as you do, so whenever they have some ideas, hear them out. They could have something you would have never thought of.
5. (Know when to lay out.) Very recently I was working on a story with an artist. I had sent them a script with dialogue and captions on just about every page. When they started sending me back pages, I realized something. I was in the way. This story didn't need me butting in with my words, it had everything it needed with the art. So I took it all out and made it a silent comic, with the exception of the last panel. The sooner you learn this lesson, the better you'll be as a writer. The better the visual narrative, the less writing you need to do. If you came up reading Gaiman and Morrison and Moore like most writers, myself included, you'll find that to be an odd notion. "Look at all the incredible prose they wrote. That didn't make From Hell or Sandman or The Invisibles any less enjoyable, in fact that's what made them so great!" Agreed, but most of us aren't Gaiman and Morrison and Moore. And even they probably did a lot of cutting and editing of text once they got back the art. Ideally your comics should be easy to follow without one word written, your text just acting as icing on the cake. So when writing your scripts make them as visual as possible. Always show instead of telling. If you find your dialogue or captions are getting in the way of the action, take them out. It might hurt initially, but your story will be all the better for it.
And that's that. I could list about ten more things here, but I think those five are the most crucial to keep in mind when starting on any script. Back to the movie analogy, when a film comes out, the person who usually gets all the credit or blame is the director. Even in the creation of a lot of films they get billed as Ridley Scott's this or Christopher Nolan's that, even though they where just one small part of a much bigger process. That's the way it is with comics too. You'll read pull quotes on trades that say "Warren Ellis has outdone himself again" or "Garth Ennis is a sick, sick genius" or even just about how good of a story it is, but no matter what, the artist always gets second billing. But any smart writer knows that artists are the real stars. Our job is simply to give them some room to shine.
And with that I'll direct you here to the Comic Book Script Archive. Give it a look, find your favorite writers and read their scripts. See how they address their artists, and try and track down the actual issues to see what did and did not make it to print. My favorites of the bunch are Brain Michael Bendis: Powers #1, Kelly Sue: Bitch Planet #3, Warren Ellis: Fell #1, Matt Fraction: Cassanova #8, Neil Gaiman: Sandman #24, Justin Jordan: Legend of Luther Strode #1, Ales Kot: Zero #2, Alan Moore: The Killing Joke, Grant Morrison: The Invisibles #1, and Brian K. Vaughan: Y: The Last Man #18.
I'll also throw out some more comics that have scripts in them which are worth checking out. The best script I think I've ever read is Peter Milligan's script for X-Force #123, which you can find in the second X-force trade called The Final Chapter. Brain K. Vaughan also has reprinted scripts in both the first Saga hardcover collection and online at Panelsyndicate.com in the making of Private Eye issue. And finally another Gaiman script which can be found in the Marvel reprints of Mircaleman: The Golden Age #2. So do some reading, show your artist some love, and keep making comics! I'll be back soon to finally talk about the actual writing of a script.
After another lengthy hiatus, I'm back to continue to breaking down the different aspects of writing for comics, which is apt because our next subject is about breaking down your story. Last time I talked about story circles (which where created by Dan Harmon) and showed you a couple of examples. Here's what one of mine looks like (excuse the handwriting):
So with that I've broken down what I feel are the most essential beats of the story. What and who it's about, what motivates the characters, and all the big moments I want to put in. If everything checks out and makes sense I move to the next step which is the page breakdown.
Essentially what this means is, using the story circle I've already made, I make a rough map of what's going to happen on each page. This looks something like this:
Sometimes I include more detail if I want to remind myself of an important element, sometimes I leave it fairly vague. The basic objective is to figure out roughly how many pages you're story is going to take. Right now the point isn't to get it down to 20/22 pages, but to just figure out how long it would be if you were to tell it as is. Sometimes you wind up with 30 and need to cut down, other times you end up with 16 and need to stretch or add certain things. Either way you hopefully start seeing things you didn't in the last step.
Once you've worked out what you need to add or subtract page wise, the next step is to break it all down further into panels. Here's a secret, I'm a terrible artist. Want proof?
So what do all those sticks with circles mean? It's my way of further trying to visualize the story. These layouts are just for me. The artist never sees them, mostly because just look at them, but also my feeling is 9 times out of 10 they can see how to put together a page better than I can. But I like to think by me doing it, it makes their job a bit easier by visually working out if what I'm writing is actually going to fit on a page or just make it a mess. It also helps me figure out if I need some more space. Maybe what I thought would work in one page really needs three to be effective, which means some things might need to be cut, or pushed to the next issue.
Here are some more examples by Grant Morrison and Matt Fraction. They're very different from each other (and mine) but serve the same purpose.
This seems like a good place to stop and review all this. Basically I go from story circle which helps to give the story some shape (pun intended), and then move on to doing a page by page breakdown of those beats, with as much or as little info as needed. Once I've got the story down to around 20 pages or so, I start to figure out how many panels I would need per page, which sometimes means I need to rethink the page count to fit it all in. What you'll find is by the time you've finished all these steps, you've actually rewritten your story about 3 times before you've even typed a word, which will hopefully make the next steps even easier.
Again, you may find that all or parts of this don't work for you at all. Layouts just feel like a waste of time, or breaking down the pages doesn't help you see the story any better. That's fine, forget and it and find something that does work. Either way, the goal is to give yourself some kind of road map before you start typing away, so if you find yourself stuck or lost, you'll have a handy guide to refer to. So start breaking down your story and make some Comics!
So originally I had a lot of grand plans for this site, and I still do, but as the gaps between posts clearly show, I haven't really been keeping up with it. Partially because I've been working on a number of projects, a podcast, and just in general to pay the bills. But the other reason is honestly when I come by to write something, my brain freezes up. I'm not quite sure what to say. So then I don't really say anything. But I feel like I need to change that, and I think I found a solution.
The idea behind the site won't change. It'll still be a place for for all my comic stuff obviously, but the content is going to be a little different. I'm going to continue the Writers Block but I'm also going to use this as a kind of in process journal. A place to write about what I'm writing about basically, to kind of break down my work in progress. Also a place to talk about whatever is on my mind as it relates to comics and storytelling. I really just want to give myself no excuse not to write everyday and help organize my thoughts better. Hopefully this helps to make this a more active and interesting place.
Hey, so I just wanted to let folks know about stuff I'm working on. I know I'm pretty spotty with updates here, but I'm actually not just watching Broad City on a continues loop (that's next week). I'm working on putting out my first graphic novel titled Duality which hopefully will be done and out sometime in January. It's about the ever blurring line between the physical world we live in, and the digital world we're spending more and more time in. I'm working with a bunch of wonderful artists and I wanted to share what I have so far, so check it out!
So here we go. We’ve done all the legwork and it’s time to take the next step and get our hands dirty with some actual writing. Well…almost. The step in the process would be plotting. Plotting can mean a lot of different things. It can refer to the entire story from start to finish, or it could mean each individual story-arc, or even just each individual issue. It all depends on how you work best. Some people make what are called series bibles. Essentially they’re a collection of everything we’ve done so far plus a few of the upcoming steps. So things like the basic plot of your story, character descriptions, locations, etc. It can be as detailed or as basic as you like, and if you’re planning a big project like a long form graphic novel or a 20 plus issue series, it can help you (and whoever you collaborate with) stay on course the deeper into things you get. Here’s Paul Feig’s series bile for Freaks and Geeks.
Other people like to do things as they go, like one of my favorite writers, Mark Waid . He’s done some amazing work like Kingdom Come, Daredevil, and The Flash, and reading his stuff, you’d imagine he’s got to do some pretty detailed outlines and pre planning. In reality he does a little bit at the outset, and then, as unbelievable as it sounds, will end each issue in the most dramatic way he can think of, with no clue of what he’s going to do next. He says this forces him to find a way out of whatever hole he put himself in last month, whether he just killed someone, or made Howard the Duck the most powerful character in the Marvel Universe.
As for me, I use what is called the story circle. It’s what creator of Community/Rick and Morty (which you should watch) and the host of the Harmontown podcast (which you should listen to) Dan Harmon uses to structure his scripts. It’s a tool that helps give your story an arc and shape and helps you hit certain beats along the way. It looks something like this.
Or in more basic form like this
If you go here, you can find all of the wiki’s he’s written that describe the process in more detail, and with better insight than I could ever duplicate here. What I will say about it is having a tool that you can use to check your story against to make sure it’s on the right track is invaluable. If you’re stuck trying to crack a story, it can help you get started. If you’re looking at a story and thinking “it’s missing something,” it can help you find what that “it” might be. There’s nothing worse than writing an entire script and figuring out it doesn’t really work. By having a structure tool to check against, you can work out a lot of the kinks at the start. Here are three more tools to try out (1,2,3) or you can come up with your own by mixing a few of them together.
Next time I’ll be back with breakdowns. Basically it’s what you do when you decide you’re going to do something creative for a living and look back regretfully on certain life choices. Errr, I mean it’s the next step where you breakdown your plot into more detail, going from pages to panels. Until then, try running some of your stories through a structure tool, and see how they fair. Maybe you’re on the right track, maybe you’ve got some work to do, either way keep making comics!
Space and time, two things it seems we can never get enough, especially when it comes to our creative endeavors. As I've poured over all the how to books and articles on writing (comics or otherwise), I haven't found a lot about setting a schedule or creating a space, which is strange since, in my opinion, it's as big a part of the process as all of the technical stuff. So let's take a quick look at making yourself a writing schedule and creating a space to write in.
The one thing I'm sure you've read over and over again is that you need to write everyday. This is true, but it can be hard to carve out space if writing everyday isn't your job. So step one is to look at your schedule and figure out where your free time is. Yes, this does mean that you'll have to sacrifice certain things like TV, video games, going out with friends etc., but it also means you'll be able to make serious progress on your projects.
A key question to ask yourself is, "Am I a morning person or a night person?" I've found that, even though I have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, I tend to have more creative juice early in the day, than at night. Some people don't really wake up until later in the day. So find the time of day that you're typically the most active and plan out some writing time.
The amount of time also doesn't have to be that long. Ed Brubaker, who now is doing a bit of TV work at HBO, still finds time to write for about one or two hours each morning before heading into the office. Michael Chabon, writer of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Telegraph Avenue writes from 10 to 3, Sunday to Thursday. Now of course those are two incredible writers who have been at it for a long time, but it just goes to show, you don't need to lock yourself away for three months at a time to come up with a good script.
Speaking of locking yourself away, take a minute to think about where you do most of your writing. Is it on the couch (like me), in an office, at a coffee shop? What's the mood of the space? Is it loud and busy, isolated, sunny, clean? It's probably not a bad idea to give your full attention to what your writing, but the mood of the space you're in can have a large effect too. Brian K. Vaughan has a little shack with no internet he goes to for a few hours a day to write, because he says he knows he'd never be able to get anything done if he was at home with WiFi. Kieron Gillen basically lives and breathes music, and usually has a playlist going on repeat while he works. I tend to bounce back and forth between a pretty quite space, and some music when I feel like I need a little energy. I also like to get up and walk around when I'm thinking, which wouldn't work that well in a public space.
So think a little bit about what you do and don't need when making your space. Perhaps you work better when people are around so a coffee shop or a library might be a good place. Maybe you have a spare room or a shed that might make a good office with a little fixing up. With the right headphones, even the bus or the train to and from work could be a mobile office where you can do a little work each day. The key is to find a place where you feel comfortable (but not too comfy you don't do any work), you feel energized/motivated, and you can work with minimal interruption. Some sunlight/bright colors never hurt, neither does a (mostly) clean work space.
Lastly before I end, make some time to be a person as well. Writing is work, but all work and no play make Homer something something, so while planning some work time, plan some time to poke your head out into the world and get some air. If you're grinding non-stop, you run the risk of burning out, which means you'll spend even less time writing. Even star athletes have off days where they don't work out, so take some time to read for pleasure, watch your favorite show/movie, or maybe just go for a walk. And here's the trick, even when your not consciously thinking of whatever you're working on, subconsciously your brain is still thinking about it, so when you might even find the answer to something that was stumping you. That's all for now, so take some time to carve out a schedule and a work space, and make comics!
Hey everyone, welcome back to the Writers Block series. Last time we started to get into the idea of world building and the sort of streamlined way I approached it, by breaking things down into tangible and intangible fields. So for example, the tangible field had things like architecture, fashion, and technology. Now we’re going to talk about the other part, the things you can’t see or touch that give your world just as much weight as the physical parts.
In keeping with the Tolkien idea of world building, this is the part where people usually start creating an entire mythology and complex history of the world. Whether it’s how the world got to be this dystopian wasteland or the many battles that have been waged through the centuries leading to the coming war. But just as we did with the physical world, the number one rule to keep in mind is, does this matter to the story? It’s good to know certain things as a writer even if they might never come up in the actual story. The history of certain characters or of the world in general can be key in regards to motivations and how the story as a whole plays out, but try to find the limit of how much you need. Once you know how Globocorp took over the western world, you can put in a pin in it, and if you think of something else you can always come back to it later. When starting out, you just want to nail down the basics, which you can always build on as needed.
So for example, one of the main things you’ll need to come up with is what kind of society your story takes place in. There’s no reason you can’t save yourself some work and just model it off of the society you already live in. It’s easy for the reader to pick up on, and easy for you to write. But if your story requires you to come up with something new, here are some things to keep in mind. What do the people who live in your world value? In The Hobbit, the people of The Shire really cherished their homes and possessions. Hobbits where all about keeping up appearances, being good hosts and guests, and living comfortably. Maybe your society will be one that no longer has need of possessions or currency. Maybe it will be one based on war and physical prowess.
As we go further into the idea of society, and begin to build on politics, start to think of the power structure of your world. Although it may not always play into your story, most societies have some sort of hierarchy. 1984 is broken down by the upper party members (the wealthy), outer party members (somewhat middle class members), and the “proles” (the poor). Although your world might not have a similarly sinister upper class, it will still likely have a group of people who are in control, whether they be politicians, royalty, or just a group of people who end up making most of the decisions that affect the world at large.
Speaking of politics, do your characters live in a democracy? Monarchy? Dictatorship? Even stories that don’t really feature politics heavily can benefit by knowing the general political landscape of the world. Superman doesn’t dabble that heavily in politics, but stories like Red Son where Superman is born in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas, or the storyline where Lex Luthor became president of the United States added a number of layers to those worlds. What would Superman be like if he grew up a communist? How will Superman stop Lex Luthor when he is the most powerful man in the country? Doctor Doom is a ruler of a foreign country and therefore enjoys diplomatic immunity in America and can run off to the Latverian embassy when he’s in trouble.
Futhermore, what are the laws of your world? Again, there’s nothing wrong with making them the same as the world we live in, I certainly do that, but sometimes those laws can make for interesting conflicts in your story. Fahrenheit 451 was a world where books are outlawed and burned. Some worlds ban their citizens from going beyond a certain point, or mandate people be killed when they reach a certain age. So think about what kind of regulations and laws, if any, would add some more depth to your world.
Finally there are two more major points I always like to establish. The first are the rules of powers/magic. What are the limits of the powers certain characters have? In Avatar: The Last Airbender we see all kinds of nations that have control over various elements (fire, water, etc.), but only the Avatar is able to master them all. The rays of a yellow sun grant Superman his powers, while a red sun makes him weak. Because of his increased metabolism, The Flash needs to eat constantly. Nightcrawler can only teleport about 2 miles. By establishing these rules, you give the reader a greater sense of what is, and what isn’t possible. It also helps prevent you from creating Deus Ex-Machina-like characters, who can do whatever the story calls for, which generally creates more confusion.
Magic is much the same way. By creating limits, you can give your characters a lot more weight, which can be important in a fantasy world. A general rule people use, is giving magic a cost, that way making the choice to use it that much more impactful. If people could just do whatever they wanted without any backlash, it wouldn’t be as interesting, but having to weigh the use of magic against, say your sanity, or your soul makes things more intriguing. In the Hellblazer series, names have power, and knowing the name of your opponent gives you an advantage over them. Other series, put the power in magical objects, which too come at a cost, like the ring in The Hobbit, or Doctor Fate’s helmet. So take some time to think about what characters can and can’t do, and what those abilities might cost them.
The final intangible thing I think can really make a difference in your world is probably the most abstract of all, but if used in the right way can really pay off. And that thing is color. You don’t really ever think about the color of your world when writing it, but it’s something that can really have an impact on the mood and tone of your story. For example, the world of Captain Marvel and Fawcett City is bright and flashy. It really gives the story an upbeat and lighthearted feel, and without it, the world would feel slightly off. Same goes with the dark and gloomy world of Gotham, or the neon-noir world of Blade Runner. The color of comics really impact the reader on a subliminal level, and used in the right way can give your world a truly iconic feel. Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye run benefited greatly from the subtle purple color scheme of Matt Hollignsworth. Jeph Leob and Tim Sale have done entire series based on color (Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue), and Vertigo recently did an entire anthology series based on the four primary colors of comics (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black).
That’s a lot of things to consider, along with the physical aspect of your world, so take some real time to sit down and consider each aspect. Again, you might not have a lot to think about in some cases, but there might be others you haven’t even considered, and it might benefit you to really examine them before you move on to the next step. What is that next step you ask? Well after a lot of buildup, it’s finally time to do some writing! The next few posts will be much shorter, and talk about everything from setting up a writing space, schedule, and going over different kinds of story and plot structures. Until then, work on your worlds and keep making comics!