Writers Block #9: A note for the artist.

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.