Come In Alone: Issue #13

Fri, February 25th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

The single most frequently asked question I get is "what advice can you give me about writing for comics?" The details vary, sometimes, there's a specific follow-up question. But it's the same opener.

Well, look. There are a few different pieces about writing for comics on my website. Which is http://www.warrenellis.com. Easy to find. The pieces are in the Writing section, and in the Gutters area of the writing section. Take a look at them.

But what I'll do here, just to be a Nice Guy and help out, is give you the Bluffer's Guide To Hacking Out Stories With Few Words And Big Pictures. Which is the technical term for comics that Scott McCloud left out of UNDERSTANDING COMICS. No, really.

"...what I'll do here...is give you the Bluffer's Guide To Hacking Out Stories With Few Words And Big Pictures."

1. PREPARATION

Lock your comics away for a while. You're going to the library. You can't learn to write by reading comics. You're going to read some real books for a while. That's how every writer I know learned how to write; by studying great writers and applying the lessons learned to their own interests and aims. You didn't get Alan Moore without Thomas Pynchon, you didn't get Eddie Campbell without Henry Miller, no Grant Morrison without William Burroughs. Look at the way the serious writers structure their stories. Look at the way they present dialogue. Look at the effects they conjure, and break down how they do it. Drag out Dickens. Yeah, yeah, I know. Shut up. He has special application to comics, because comics are still a serial form, and Dickens is the most effective serial writer in English that ever lived. The point is; understand how the big boys and girls put words together in the real world. Find what you like. Find out what works for you. And bring it back.

Now you can drag your comics out again. Because you are going to destroy the chances of ever deriving simple enjoyment from them again. You are going to sit down with the ones that you think are really good and you're going to tear them apart to find out what's inside them. Frank Miller didn't get to be Frank Miller until he'd ripped open Will Eisner and Johnny Craig and Bernie Krigstein and every other damn thing he could lay his hands on -- and find out how they worked. You are going to read and pick at and annotate and stare at these things until you never want to see then again. (It wears off in about ten years.)

You currently have four extra tools available to you. And you can count yourself bloody lucky you have them, because they weren't around when I were a lad, living in a ditch by the side of t'road. They're books.

[Understanding Comics]

COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART and GRAPHIC STORYTELLING by Will Eisner. Will Eisner is pretty much the Western form's greatest living innovator, and I would say that he's forgotten more about comics than most of the rest of us actually know -- but he hasn't, because he put it in these books. These books will provide you with many theories to consider, and advice for you to take or leave as you construct your own approach, and they will also help you start to learn how to write visually. UNDERSTANDING COMICS by Scott McCloud is a good long look at the entire medium, global scale, crawling around inside it to show you the good stuff. Eisner and McCloud are both writer/artists, so their experience of the medium may not be yours, but they're all fascinating and educational books. WRITERS ON COMICS SCRIPTWRITING is a compendium of original interviews with comics writers, each of which is appendixed by a sample of their writing, shot from the original script pages. It was published by Titan Books in 1999. The interviewees included Garth Ennis, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman and me.

Understand, these are not bibles. These are considered and informed overviews of the medium by people who have been doing it longer than you.

2. THE FORM

There are two generally accepted ways of writing a script for comics. The first is the style developed by Stan Lee for writing loads of bloody books a month. When he kick-started Marvel Comics in the Sixties, he was pretty solely responsible for feeding a fairly large and growing stable of artists on more than half a dozen books a month. FANTASTIC FOUR, SPIDER-MAN, THE AVENGERS, whatever books DOCTOR STRANGE and IRON MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA and all those others were appearing in... he was writing the lot. This was heroic output, a frighteningly sustained burst of creative power. But it will become clear that no human can produce that amount of full script on those deadlines -- and he was editing the damn line too, remember. (I suspect there's a book on those early days of Marvel that needs writing -- it always seems to me to be the Old West of comics publishing, strange mad middle-aged men beating away at keys and boards deep into the night, being able to stand each other for just long enough to produce this prodigious, health-breaking amount of seminal work.) So he developed what we today call Marvel-style. This involves first breaking the story down as prose, fairly roughly, leaving the artist to interpret it, translate it into drawn comics. This phase is called The Plot, and it usually looks something like this:

PAGE ONE

Mad Jack Babymaker hurls open the door of the shack, wearing his stolen police uniform, armed with his nail gun and carrying his bag of severed testicles. Inside the shack, on the makeshift bed made out of crates and Welsh people, his beautiful psychotic assassin wife Silky is violently mounting Kurt Busiek. Mad Jack kickstarts his nail gun -- the barrel spins up to speed with an awful whirring. He is murderously enraged. "Kurt," he says. "I would have words with thee, you dirty beer-stained bastard."

Yes, you're right. This page of plot was indeed taken from Rob Liefeld's new title, YOUNGBLOOD; SHAG ME BACKWARDS, A NEW GENERATION BABY. Sorry about that, Rob.

But you get the idea. You convey what needs to happen on each page to the artist, who then interprets it. I'm carefully using that word, "interpret." Artists are not like you and I. Their brains aren't wired the same way. To use my favourite example, a real-life example -- where you see a two-page scene with characters speaking to each other, explicating crucial plot and building personality, an artist can see an opportunity for a really really big picture of a dinosaur. I mean, if you're working with George Perez, you're covered. George is an excellent storyteller. George will look after you and actually make you look better than you really are, as I've discovered. But let's face it. George is busy and odds are good that you'll get Hillbilly Guy. Hillbilly Guy has got three eyes, is fucking his mother, his cousin and his sister and they're all the same woman, and he thinks logs and dead gophers are real purty.

"George [Perez]is an excellent storyteller. George will look after you and actually make you look better than you really are, as I've discovered."

So eventually your publishing office will send out the artwork for you to complete the second phase of your job on. This phase, confusingly, is called Script. Here, you get to write the dialogue, matching it to the art. This is where the real pain of Marvel-style sinks in. On Page One, you'd budgeted for the revelation that Silky Babymaker was at it with Kurt, microbrew-swilling terror of the seven seas and outside toilets everywhere. But Hillbilly Boy has given you a page of lovingly rendered images of logs with notches cut in them, dead gophers draped all around. Oh, shit, you say. Oh, shit.

But you have to dialogue it anyway. In fact, more often than not, you have to mark on the photocopy of the art where the dialogue should go. It's considered helpful if you number each piece of dialogue sequentially, and match those numbers to the numbers you've placed in the indications on the art. So if the first line is Silky yelling "Oh my God! I just fell on it, honest!", then you've drawn a balloon coming from her mouth with a number 1 in it, and the first line of script for this page reads:

SILKY 1;          OH MY GOD! I JUST FELL ON IT, HONEST!

Christ, over a thousand words already. To Be Continued. Spread the word.

I can be contacted by email about this column at warren@comicbookresources.com. My website, currently undergoing an update, is http://www.warrenellis.com. There is a COME IN ALONE discussion area here on CBR.

[Graphic Storytelling]INSTRUCTIONS: Read GRAPHIC STORYTELLING by Will Eisner (Poorhouse, Press, 1996), listen to THE SUGARCUBES: THE GREAT CROSSOVER POTENTIAL by The Sugarcubes (One Little Indian, 1998) and visit Terence McKenna at http://www.levity.com/eschaton/tm.html. Today's recommended graphic novel is JINX by Brian Michael Bendis (Image, 1997). You can find out more about Bendis, including details on his excellent new miniseries FORTUNE AND GLORY, and http://www.jinxworld.com. Tell him I sent you. Now begone.

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