Monday, February 13, 2006

What we talk about when we talk about comics

You may not know this about me...but sometimes I post short comic book scripts on the Writer's Forum at Is it weird for me to do this when my first published comics story was at Marvel Comics mumble-mumble years ago? Well, maybe so, but I had to drop out of the business for a good long time...and now that I'm getting back in, I'm totally back to being a novice. Especially given how radically the industry has changed since my last go-round.

Anyway, I've never been able to just write for practice and stick the results in a drawer. I can only write at all if I'm reasonably sure someone else will read it. And since raw comic book scripts are not really all that entertaining to the general public, the online forums are a great help in that respect.

I posted my latest script on and got a couple of comments about the sparseness of my descriptions, which led me to write the following musings. I share this with you because all the people reading this are comics fans -- and comics fans tend to want to become comics creators -- and this is the stuff we obsess about. It's not all "I've got a great idea for Ultra the Multi-Alien if only DC would let me write it!" It's more about "if I make this page a nine-panel grid instead of a six-panel grid, how does that affect the pacing of the dialog?"

(And by the way: I really, really do have a great idea for Ultra the Multi-Alien.)

A quick note for the younger folks: "Marvel style" refers to a method of comics writing devised by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby when they were inventing Marvel Comics. It consists of a plot outline without any dialog or individual panel descriptions -- it might say "Black Panther sees his foe. The baddie zaps him with a laser beam. Panther's arm gets cut." -- and the panel-by-panel development of this plot is left to the artist. Then the pencilled art is sent back to the writer, who composes dialog and captions to suit the drawings the artist has created. It was unique to Marvel, and now even they have switched to using full scripts.

With that out of the way, we present a comics writer's plaint...

When I first started learning about comics writing, Marvel was still using the "Marvel style" and the sample they gave aspiring writers to emulate was one of Jim Shooter's later issues of THE AVENGERS. Not the best example to give newcomers for a variety of reasons, not least because Shooter was just knocking them out without a second thought at that point. But it illustrated one extreme approach to hypersimplified writing: he covered all the story beats of a 22 page issue in something like 800 words. Lots of stuff like "they fight for a couple of pages" and just leave the details to the artist because I'm too busy being Editor In Chief to break that down any further.

When I tried to do Marvel style, I took 300 words to describe each page. No way was I going to compress things as much as Shooter had.

At the other extreme, there were Alan Moore scripts. I saw a single SWAMP THING script that was literally thicker than the telephone book of the small town where I grew up. There's no point in anyone else trying to emulate that: being longwinded won't make you Alan Moore.

A much bigger influence on the way I think of comic scripts has been reading film scripts and books on Hollywood techniques. I don't have trouble thinking of myself as equivalent to the screenplay author and the artist as the director...except unlike Hollywood, the comics writer can and should expect that his words and situations will be regarded as relatively inviolate and not subject to rewrites by thirteen other writers and improvisation on set.

Now here's the catch: immediately before I started posting here, I had a really talented artist bail out on a project I'd written especially for him. Honestly, I was more upset by that than I was when my ex-fiancee broke off our engagement! One of his complaints -- um, this would be the artist; my former bride-to-be was female -- was that he felt he was just drawing MY story, that I was dictating to him how everything should be drawn, and that he wasn't getting enough freedom to consider it a collaboration. So it's more than likely this bad experience is now causing me to list too far in the opposite direction: maybe I give the artist too little direction. Like, you know, a guy who gets dumped by a girl and then lets the next woman in his life walk all over him just so long as she please won't leave him...

By the way, do any other writers here have a problem with artists starting out all enthusiastic about a project, calling it brilliant and promising you the moon, only to flake out and not get any work done, then moving on to someone else? Or is it just something I inspire in artists (and girlfriends)? Do I have bad breath? Does this hairstyle make me look fat?


  1. I may be the sole non-comic-reader (in general) reading this, so I hope this is helpful....

    Concerning artists, well part of that may be the nature of being a freelancer speaking to another freelancer. If an artist were to get an offer from someone working at a company, they might put that ahead of all freelance writers almost automatically. It wouldn't be anything personal I'm guessing, but a result of not being involved with any big names at the moment.

    Does this make sense? What kinds of artists are we talking about here? Established guys, or people looking to become established?

    (Concerning Ultra: Wow. I imagine it took the guy three months just to learn to walk in a straight line, and that's not even taking into account the whole lightning thing. Does he immediately fall over if he steps on a surface that's a really good conductor? Could there not be some kind of fatal interaction with the arm and leg on that side? If someone binds the tiny wing on his foot, does that halt flight, or is the wing ultimately vestigal?)

  2. "I may be the sole non-comic-reader (in general) reading this..."

    Not so. And for all that you profess ignorance of the topic, you have nailed a big dilemma of newcomers.

    If a prospective artist got an offer for paying work conflicting with a project we'd have to shop around upon completion...I'd insist he or she take the better offer. What a comics writer can do in hours takes a comics artist vastly longer to complete. A working fulltime comics artist with no other day job typically creates a single page of comic book art a day. So when the money is being handed out, it's much more important that the artist sees his or her share.

    In the case I described, money or a better offer was not the issue.


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