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11/20/2008: Feverish Comic Book Thoughts
I promised a very long time ago that I would talk about the process of comic book writing. I've already mentioned that comic book scripts vary enormously from author to author and publisher to publisher, so it's possible that the process I'm going to describe is only one way that these things are accomplished, but this is how I've experienced it.
First, I come up with a story, remembering that it generally has to be quite simple. You can't get a lot on a page, so you have to keep that in mind. I also try to make the story more action-packed than I normally would do in a similarly long stretch of television. It's worth thinking, too, about things that would be hard or expensive to do on TV, since this is your chance to, say, make a character shrink or fade away or turn inside-out, or make a city burn, crumble or float. You can think big on the comic book page. (Although some things stay the same -- huge crowd scenes can still sometimes be problematic, I was told, since you're burdening the artist with a very complex drawing.)
Next, I try to carve my story up into roughly page-sized pieces. I will find out during the writing process (every darn time) that I've overestimated the content of each page and I'll have to simplify the story. Presumably, a better writer would learn how to anticipate that.
It's a good idea to look for act-break like little moments of suspense at the end of each odd-numbered page so that the reader is compelled to turn the page. But, honestly, I don't sweat these too much. If I can make it happen, great. But I don't want to twist the story around to the tyranny of the page break.
Some parts of comic book writing are incredibly specific to the genre, like sound-effects words. You get to figure out how (and where and when) to suggest the sound of a body hitting the ground or a bullet being fired, or a blob of taffy flying through the air. (Answer key: k'thumph, blamm and fweeee!)
My scripts give pretty detailed descriptions of what I imagine for each panel, so when I'm writing the script I have to think visually. I picture an action, and then have to figure out if there's a single snapshot that would capture that action, or if I'll need to spread it out over multiple panels. If there's a conversation, I have to boil it down to its essentials so I don't have pages of nothing but drawings of two people on a park bench. It's a challenge. If you read a lot of comics it will undoubtedly come easier to you. As in all writing, there is no need to re-invent anything. Others have worked out a lot of this already and you can learn a lot by studying how other writers have tackled these challenges.
Once the script is turned over to the artist, I get to communicate back-and-forth with him or her. Artists are, of course, uniquely equipped to tell you what will and won't work to communicate your idea visually, and they have loads of creative ideas of their own. Let them run with it! I find it's best to just make clear what I was HOPING to convey and then let them convey it, because their ideas about this are always better than mine. (On my most recent effort, I got to work with Georges Jeanty, who is a genuine genius -- fantastic.)
I got to weigh in on preliminary drawings and even colors during the latest issue I wrote, and it's fascinating, seeing it all come together. Comic books feel both very autonomous and very collaborative at the same time -- it begins entirely under your control, without the limitations of a filmed production, and it ends entirely in the hands of others. It's one of the most satisfying final products, too, for a TV writer, since it's both a physical object and a lot faster than a novel.
Lunch: juice and Tylenol (home sick with flu)