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Writing Comic Books

by Barry Lyga

In recent years, comic books (and their heavier siblings, graphic novels) have once again captured the public imagination, thanks to a slate of movies based on their characters (Spider-Man, X-Men, Ghost World, Academy Award winner Road to Perdition, etc.) and a recent flurry of activity in the literary world. Publishers Weekly and Entertainment Weekly (two polar opposites if ever there were!) have both instituted regular sections on comic books. In 2001, the prestigious Guardian First Novel Award was granted to a comic book. Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer for a novel about, you guessed it, comic books. And bestselling author Brad Meltzer not only credits comics with teaching him how to write, but he also wrote a six-issue run of Green Arrow!

So, comics aren't just for kids any more and they've definitely broken out into the larger culture. With their unique mix of static images and "anything goes" attitude, comics are a very attractive medium for writers. You may be interested in tackling this art form, but you may also be wondering how exactly one goes about writing a comic book.

Look no further.

What Comics Writing Is Not

First, we need to clear up a couple of very popular misconceptions about comics. One is that writing comics is easy. After all, a look at a comic book page shows that most of the heavy lifting is done by the art, right? No need to write "John ran across the field" when the artist has drawn John doing precisely that! This misconception goes hand-in-hand with another: namely, that all comic book writers do is write the words that go into the word balloons.

Both assumptions are dead wrong. Together, they're the equivalent of saying that if a prose writer were to write nothing but dialogue, she would still have written a complete story.

The fact of the matter is that as a comic book writer, you are responsible for everything that goes on the page, just as if you were writing in prose. The artist is your partner, not your substitute. Think of writing a comic book as a collaboration with another writer, one to whom you must give very good instructions!

What Comics Writing Is

Comic book writing is just as challenging, interesting, difficult, and rewarding as writing a play, a poem, a novel, or a movie. But just as those media have certain rules that proceed from their forms, so, too, do comics.

When you write a comic book, you need to think visually and then you need to communicate those visuals in such a way as to spark the artist's imagination to present them the way you see them. This is both powerful and frustrating! On the one hand, you are giving up some of your authority -- rather than "speaking" directly to the reader, you use an intermediary, who interprets your story, and whenever you use an intermediary, there's always the chance that something can be lost in the interpretation.

But like a serendipitous game of "Telephone," there's also the chance that so much can be gained! A good artist will take what you imagine and make it more powerful and more accessible for your readers.

Take the example from above: "John ran across the field." If you were writing a novel or a short story, you could start with that sentence and maybe add a detail or two: "The wind whipped a tear from his eye, but he ran anyway, terrified and angry all at once." Nothing wrong with those sentences (though they are a bit pedestrian, they suffice for our purposes). Any reader who reads them will immediately know what to think, feel, and imagine in this scenario.

But the emotion of the scene loses some of its impact because the reader first must process the words in order to digest their content. If the same scene were being done in a comic book, it could happen wordlessly: The artist draws John racing across the field and by judicious use of angle, color, shading, balance, perspective, and degree of closeness to the character, communicates what the prose above does... immediately. Rather than imagining John running across the field, the reader sees it happen. The reader sees John's expression, that intermingling of fear and rage, the solitary tear wicking from his cheek, the strain of his muscles as he runs, the set of his jaw. A really good artist will pull in the environment, too, giving us trampled wheat in John's wake, maybe some straw blowing around him, maybe even ominous clouds overhead that mirror his mood.

Could you just write all of that instead? Sure. But it would be a lot for a reader to assimilate and some of the immediacy of the moment (to say nothing of your flow) would be lost. A comic book can show it in an instant.

And that's what comics writing is.

How to Do It

The act of writing a comic book is unlike writing in any other media. Some have likened it to screenwriting, and while it does share many characteristics with that medium, it is a unique form that stands on its own. When sitting down to write a comic book, a writer must be able to hold two mutually exclusive dictums in her mind at once: "Show, don't tell" and "Tell, don't show."

"Tell, don't show?" Yes! Even though we've all been taught over and over to write "Jane clenched her fists under the table until she thought her nails would cut into her palms" rather than "Jane was angry," you need to unlearn this when writing comics. You now have two audiences -- the artist and the reader -- and they both need different things from you. Your reader just wants a good story; your artist needs instructions that will lead to that story. Don't expect your artist to divine the subtext and hidden meanings in your stories the way a reader would. Your artist is your ally; don't hold back information or try to play coy: "Jane is angry in this scene." If you like, suggest to the artist ways to get her anger across, but realize that it's your job to decide that Jane is angry; it's the artist's job to show it. Give clear, unambiguous instructions, along with suggestions for visuals, and your artist will not let you down.

Forms

So, how exactly do you get these "clear, unambiguous instructions" across to your artist? There are a wide variety of forms for writing comic books (far too many to go into in this article, but see the sidebar "Further Reading" for more help). Two in particular have stood the test of time and are used by the majority of professional comic book writers: full script and plot-art-dialogue.

The full script method is exactly what it sounds like: the writer assumes the maximum level of control over the story and the page, writing a script that establishes how many panels per page (and sometimes how and where to place those panels), who is in each panel, what they're doing, and what they're saying. It's a more time-consuming, meticulous method, but it provides a high level of control. This method is preferred by writers such as Alan Moore (From Hell, Watchmen).

In plot-art-dialogue, the writer gives more control over to the artist. She writes a basic plot synopsis of the story, giving an idea of pacing and movement, usually adding character descriptions and setting as appropriate. Often she adds bits of dialogue to help make the story come alive for the artist. The artist takes the plot and breaks it down into panels and pages, making decisions about pacing and structure along the way. The finished art is handed back to the writer, who then writes the dialogue based on the flow of the pages. The legendary Stan Lee (co-creator of Spider-Man and the X-Men, among many others) used this method.

While both methods have their strengths and weaknesses, neither is inherently superior or inferior. Different artists will respond to each method in their own ways, and many writers go back and forth depending on the artist or the story in question. I personally used both methods when I wrote comic books, and the following samples are from my own work:

FULL SCRIPT SAMPLE (from Andromeda Press's Battlestar Galactica comic book)

PAGE 1: This page is divided into five panels, with the fifth panel taking up the entire bottom half of the page and the first four arranged however works best on the top half.

Panel 1: We see Muffit from above, at an angle that makes it seem as though we must be an adult human looking down on him. He is sprawled out on the floor of Boxey's room, but at this point, all we can see is him, in semi-darkness, alone.

BOXEY (off-panel): --have to say goodnight to Muffit!
APOLLO (off-panel): You're already tucked in...

Panel 2: We're close in on Boxey's bed now. Apollo is gently pushing Boxey back into a laying position, as his son tries to sit up in bed. Clearly, Apollo is fighting the age-old foe of all parents: That one more excuse kids have to stay up past their bedtime.

APOLLO: He doesn't need you to say goodnight to him.
BOXEY: But he gets lonely without me!
APOLLO: No, he--
APOLLO: I mean, he's right over there. He, uh, he knows where you are.

Panel 3: Boxey is laying back now, but he looks defiant.

BOXEY: Then YOU say goodnight to him!
APOLLO: Boxey...
BOXEY: Da-ad!

Panel 4: Imagine that this shot is seen as if from a camera mounted on Muffit's neck, peering over his head and between his floppy ears. Apollo is looking back over his shoulder at Muffit, who is in the immediate foreground, lying on the floor within a line-of-sight of Boxey's bed. If we can see beyond Apollo at all, we would see Boxey's bed, and the reader should realize that Muffit is positioned such that Boxey is directly in his line of sight (if only Apollo weren't in the way... ). Apollo has a look of resignation on his face.

APOLLO: All right. If it'll make you shut your eyes...

Panel 5: This is a large panel that takes up the entire bottom half of the page. The panel itself is presented as if through Muffit's eyes, so it's broken up into "panes" that each serve a different function for the robotic "dog." In the largest, master pane we see Apollo crouching down, his face huge and looming at us. His left hand is outstretched and vanishes out of our sight above, only the wrist visible as he pats our head. The expression on his face is one of adult obligation--he is clearly indulging his son, humoring him by petting this drone, though he would never allow this expression to be seen by Boxey. Just slightly to the left and above the master pane, a Status Pane reads: "WAITING... " Below it, the sensory readout panel reads "CONTACT: Skull perimeter."

DAGGIT CAPTION: property PressureDynes: 16
RunSub PressureDetect (PressureDynes)
PressureDetect Return Wag Tail
APOLLO: Goodnight, Muffit.
TITLE: THE CARE AND FEEDING OF YOUR DAGGIT

Notice how there are really two dialogues going on here: I am communicating to the artist and, at the same time, telling a story to the reader. The artist gets all of the information he needs to draw the story and still has some leeway to add his own personal flair and style.

PLOT-ART-DIALOGUE SAMPLE (from Antarctic Press's Magic Priest comic book)

Okay, then, The first page should be a splash page. This is a flashback to the time of the murder of Crowe's parents. We have a tight close-up of an 8-year-old Sebastian Crowe's face, his eyes screwed tightly shut, his lips drawn into a thin line, as he suppresses a scream. We get the impression that he has just seen (or was just about to see) something truly horrific, something bone-crunchingly, ball-shrivelling frightening. "And when he opened his eyes..."

Turn the page, and there's Crowe kneeling amidst the wreckage of the living room. Think about details: the couch is disheveled, with stuffing pulled out from the cushions and pillows tossed askew. A coffee table is tipped on end--several magazines that had been on it are now scattered about the floor nearby, some open to random pages. A vase of flowers had been on it as well, and now lies nearby, flowers sticking from it at odd angles, a water stain on the floor. There's an easy chair that has fallen backwards and a television lying, smashed, on one side. The TV had been perched atop a wooden cart, which now is turned at an odd angle and crushed partly into a wall. Crowe is kneeling in the center of all of this. There's an untouched lamp on an endtable, both of which have managed to escape the tussle. From overhead, we can see a hanging light fixture. It's one of those sorts with a stained glass lampshade. The shade has been broken, and so hangs from the ceiling, jagged. Shards of stained glass lie below it on the carpet. "...it was over."

Another panel, pulling back and turning a little bit to one side. Now we can see, in silhouette, the bodies of Crowe's parents. Both are lying on their backs, still. Crowe's expression is almost passive. He's expected this. The horror is still a moment away. He's caught in a perfect moment of pre-terror. "They were dead."

Now we move in close to Crowe's face again, as his eyes widen in that initial instant of horror. "When he closed his eyes--"

Now a panel of the present, close in on the adult Crowe, who is passive and at peace, his lips drawn together in a stoic line. He is wearing his sunglasses, which blocks us from seeing his eyes. "--will see you now, Father Crowe."

Crowe turns. Now we can see that is in the antechamber to Cardinal Stark's office at the Vatican. Stark's secretary is sitting behind a desk. To her right, we can see an impressive oak door.

Crowe opens the door and enters Stark's office, which is well-appointed, with oak panelling and a fireplace. The Cardinal himself sits behind a large desk, moving some papers around. Behind the desk is a large, arched window, with a view of a beautiful courtyard. "Ah, Crowe. Come in. Come in."

Crowe stands before the desk, ignoring the chair. "Have a seat, Crowe."

Notice how much more quickly this moves along. We've already moved deep into the story, several pages'-worth, in fact. The script begins with specific instructions in order to establish mood, but then becomes looser as it moves along. How many panels should there be as Crowe walks into the office and sits down? The script doesn't say; the pacing, characters, and settings are all in there, only waiting for the artist to evolve them into their finished form. Bits of dialogue help to carry the artist through the story and also serve as "guideposts" for me later, so that when I dialogue the finished art, I'll have examples of how I had originally planned to write this character or that character.

As I said before, neither method is necessarily better or worse. Depending on the demands of the story itself and the preferences (and abilities) of the artist, you might choose on or the other or some combination of the two. But in any case, the result will be a collaboration between two skilled craftsmen -- and that's what makes for great stories and great comics!

Further Reading

If you're interested in reading fuller script examples, seeing the opinions of professionals on the best methods of writing comics, and seeing other methods than those presented here, I recommend About Comics' Panel One and Panel Two, two volumes that present a variety of different scripts from different comic book authors, along with commentary.

I also recommend Write Now from TwoMorrows Publishing, a bimonthly magazine about the nuts and bolts of telling stories through comic books, including interviews with professional writers and editors to give you "both sides of the desk." Available from comic book stores (http://csls.diamondcomics.com) everywhere.

Copyright © 2003 Barry Lyga
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Barry Lyga is a writer/editor with eight years' experience in the publishing trade. He is the winner of the 2002 Mid-Atlantic Horror Writers' Association Short Story Contest, and his short fiction has been published in Glimmer Train, The Florida Review, Into the Blue, and other publications. His non-fiction has appeared in the The Baltimore Sun and Byline magazine. He's also written comic books about everything from sword-wielding nuns to alien revolutionaries.

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