The Basement Tapes: Issue #59

Tue, November 1st, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

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Sometimes, this is what happens when two writers e-mail each other:

An ongoing conversation behind closed doors, equal parts experience, opinion, critique, and outright rambling, THE BASEMENT TAPES are an attempt to present somewhat serious discussion about the somewhat serious business of comicbooks between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

How to Make Comics THE BASEMENT TAPES WAY! In which Casey and Fraction go on and on about the Mechanics of Writing Comicbooks. Part One of God Knows How Many-- collect and trade 'em all, True Believers. Or just read on and weep…

FRACTION: You're writing GDLAND in the Marvel Style-- meaning you do a page by page breakdown with minimal dialogue, you send it to your erstwhile counterpart, Mr. Tom Scioli, then he draws it up and sends it back for you to add dialogue, page by page. I was thinking, at first, that that would be a good topic for a TAPES-- "Joe, what the FUCK are you doing and how the FUCK can you let go like that?!?"-- but realized, four issues and two sell-outs down, the proof is in the pudding and it works. So who am I to tug, pardon the cliche, on Superman's cape?

That got me thinking, too, that you run a healthy chunk of script in the back of FULL MOON FEVER. GDLAND is the exception to your method, since FMF was done pretty much In the "standard" method of comics scriptwriting... which, combined with conversations with a few friends ramping up to write their first comics, and several conversations on The Engine as of late regarding technique made me think-- maybe we should do a How I Write A Comics Script column, just for curiosity's sake. There are script examples out there, if you look, but not too many nuts-and-bolts tab A slot B style things.

So. Let's go blow by blow, step by step. Do you start with a blank sheet of paper? A blinking cursor? How do you write a (standard) comics script, Joe?

CASEY: Well, the beginning of the process is the most nebulous part of the whole thing. That moment where inspiration crosses wires with the motivation to actually fucking do it and put something down on a piece of blank paper.

But I generally start with simply scribbling notes. Random ideas, scenes, characters and their actions, conflicts, maybe a cool visual image or two. That can be the most exciting part, because it's creation without limitation. From there, I start to get some sort of intuitive feeling about what the shape of a particular story or issue. Y'know, at some point, you have to put chisel to marble block and start chipping away.

It gets tougher to talk about the actual process for me, because after dong it so long, it does become very much automatic writing to a certain degree. At least, at the beginning. I mean, I've probably burned through most of my most obvious style influences, so I'd like to think the ideas are coming from a more pure, personal space.

From there, I go to the outline stage. Steve Seagle taught me this technique... take a piece of paper and number it down the side from 1 to 22 (or whatever your page count is). Then I break down what occurs on every page. What fits on one written line is generally what'll fit comfortably on the page. Weird how that works out, isn't it...?

FRACTION: I start with doodles, lines, lists. Scene ideas, plot points, lines of dialogue, images. Random genetic goo. A sketch of Magritte's SON OF MAN and an idea for a business card? There's a plot right there.

I was stuck on the first issue of CASANOVA for a couple weeks. I knew everything that needed to happen in the book; I knew the plot and all the pieces I needed to put on the board, but I didn't have the first scene. Specifically, the first page. I just needed that "And-a-1-and-a-2-and-a-3-and-a-4" lead-in. It's not a particularly brilliant opening page by any stretch of the imagination-- but it's the opening page I needed and it got me moving along. I had the book broken in the next couple nights.

So I guess I'm saying I need to know at least the big points of a story first, in broad strokes, and then find a thread to start pulling on. Song lyrics-- the opening for the second CASS came from the intro track of The GZA's LIQUID SWORDS. The last issue of JUAREZ came from that line in ALPHAVILLE, "All things weird are normal in this whore of cities." LOTI came from some hysterical douchebag predicting Al Qaeda Death from Above on HARDBALL. Whatever it is, wherever it comes, I need to have it somewhere in my head-- some landmark I know I'm heading towards.

The list grows-- I've never done the Numbers List with any great dedication. I'll do it when I'm into the writing to negotiate a certain sequence, but I don't usually do it at the start.

So, then, okay-- you have a list of stuff that happens. Your list is profound and long and precise, mine looks like a grocery list made by a retarded librarian. Then what?

CASEY: When I'm really about to dive into the actual script, I simply need to know the shape of an issue. That's where the one-sheet/page number list comes from. It's a form of outlining, but a little more detailed. Once I'm done with that, I've got the entire issue on one page. In one physical space, so to speak. I can see it all at once. Again, getting to that page is completely intuitive, but once I'm there, the more mechanical part of the process takes over. The physical act of typing the script into Microsoft Word.

I've gotten into this weird method of typing out the panel descriptions first. I'm basically transcribing my own outline and making it readable for the editor and the artist. Typing in English, basically. But, yeah, it's all panel descriptions first. The whole thing. By the time I'm through with the first pass, it looks like a comic script with no dialogue. A silent comic.

It's a little odd that what I do is just another version of the plot-script method that Tom and I do on GDLAND... only at this stage, I'm acting as both writer and artist, because the next step is to go in and "script" my own panel descriptions, adding the dialogue and other lettering text. The flexibility is there because if I have to rewrite scenes to make things work better, I can just go ahead and do that on the spot. But it's a bit of a left brain/right brain scenario... because I want to get the visual side out of the way first, then go in and attack the dialogue.

Hmmm... doesn't sound so organic when I lay it out like I just did. But, hell, that's what I do...

FRACTION: Wow, what a great idea.

I think the first silent comic I --and a lot of people close to my age, probably-- ever encountered was a GI JOE issue by Larry Hama and Steve Leialoha. I mean, I was 8, but it blew my mind. I was just dumbstruck by a narrative driven solely by pictures, you know? I guess that book was actually victim to a production screw up and was never intended to be silent, but anyway...

To write a script with a deliberate eye towards that first and foremost almost seems like it should be a requisite but it's the first time I've ever thought about doing it that deliberately.

Something I've really started to think about lately, I think in the passing of Will Eisner, but as I've gotten more and more pages under my belt is "directing performances"-- that, in the past, I'd write these tremendously internal stage directions that were near impossible for an artist to execute. Eisner's sense of drama, of Vaudeville and the Yiddish theater culture of the Lower East Side never left him, and, when married to his cartoonist's instincts, created comics where interpreting what the characters were thinking or feeling is completely unmistakable. Broad, sweeping emotions articulated almost like a caricature... you always know what an Eisner character is thinking or feeling.

The lesson being that, you know, instead of saying "So and so's eyes fill with suspicion"-- which calls for a subjective illustration at best-- "direction" of characters in comics needs concrete action to be successful. Seems like doing a script pass in your manner might could help sharpen that...

Anyway. I digress.

I like to stay on paper as long as possible; I'm in front of a computer so long each day that when I get home to write I want to try and reconnect with a physical process. Once I have my best guess of a list, I'll draw across the spread of a notebook 6 squares a page of 8 lines each-- a map of 3 spreads, 8 lines per spread representing at least 8 panels for however many pages the story has. I'll start translating the list to that format so I'll have a physical map. I really get into trying to see the physicality of the page here, the layout of the panels themselves.

From there, either I'll write the script longhand or I'll start typing, depending on how fast I need to get the script turned around.

CASEY: I should point out that, if the comicbooks I write were subject to that kind of production error and printed with no text whatsoever, I think 99% of the time, it would end up being a pretty one-dimensional comicbook, not to mention downright boring in places. Believe me, it's not a deliberate method to strengthen my "visualization chops" (although I think I don't suck at that).

What you've got there is not much different than what I do, I just keep it all on one page. I also write extremely tiny (which might be considered a bit of a cheat, but who's paying attention at that point, right?).

What you're doing, whether you're conscious of it or not (and I suspect that you are), is finding the "shape" of the comicbook story, just as I named it before. Especially in your method of leaving more space for the bigger panels... if that's not conceptualizing shape and what can fit on a given page, I don't know what is...

FRACTION: And part of it is just being a control freak and frustrated artist that wishes I never put the brush down, sometimes. But yeah-- being able to see the whole thing helps.

Even then, it's not until I'm down in it that the final shape really takes hold-- maybe it's lack of preplanning or whatever, but a lot of times when I get into the actual scripting it's still changing. Scenes take or leave more space, or a plot bit I thought could and would fill a page ends up being a panel instead. So it stays grow-y.

One thing I get asked when someone wants to know about the mechanics of writing the script is what a panel description actually consists of. I think it probably changes for me from project to project, artist to artist-- but I'll get into the specifics after you. How do you write panel descriptions?

CASEY: These days, I've generally boiled it down to shorter expository descriptions, like "Angle on Tony Stark. Gesturing off-panel." Or, when describing action moments, I get in there and describe what's happening, maybe suggest a particular angle or shot, maybe throw in a key piece of detail description because I think it helps set a tone. It's about painting the picture with words, which is not always easy to do.

I've described screenwriting as "seeing the movie in your head and simply describing what you see and hear on the page". Well, comicbooks are the same way for me. At the very least, I have to be able to see the finished comicbook in my mind -- or as close to finished as possible -- then simply write down what I see.

And, I'm the same way you are... a script isn't "locked in" at any one stage of the process. It's constantly morphing and evolving as I'm writing it, mainly because the sheer act of writing it is constantly bringing the piece into clearer focus.

FRACTION: Here's the one part of my process that falls back on repeatable, replicable formula-- which I've always called Moore's Formula, but I know he got it from, I dunno, Mort Weisinger or somebody. That each page should have about 210 words on it, so divide that 210 by however many panels you've got on your page to see how much you can put in a single panel before it gets overwhelmed, and that a balloon shouldn't have more than 27 words in it. All rules-of-thumb, of course, and a half-page panel can have more words and balloons in them than the formula would suggest and that, but still-- I go through and count all that stuff before I send a script away.

But with regards to the panel descriptions themselves-- when I got started-- and, I'm sure my collaborators would insist that I do it still-- I compulsively over-wrote panel descriptions.

So, in terms of actual panel descriptions, I try to write everything in E-prime-- meaning no is, am, are, was, were, etc. It's a dumb little language game, and it's not like I go all William Buckley in the proofreading, but it helps me keep everything really active in the writing and the descriptions.

It's the difference between "Bob is standing by the door" and "Bob stands by the door;" the latter of which, to me, reads more actively. The other thing is almost every panel starts with ANGLE ON or just ON-- whatever the essential visual beat for that panel is, that's my lead. I used to go over the top with angle descriptions; now I'll only bring up specific angles if there's a scene or a shot I'm really convinced of in my head.

CASEY: In that respect, I guess I follow Alan Moore's lead (in philosophy, not in practice... I can't imagine writing the amount of wordage he puts in his scripts). But I try to give the artist enough direction so that, if they have absolutely no idea how to approach a particular panel or page layout, I've at least given them a jumping off point to start with. If they only do what I ask for in the script, the comicbook will at least be readable and tell the story. But the best collaborations are a bit telepathic, in that the artists I've worked best with happen to share a sensibility with me. Meaning, what I'm picturing happens to be how they draw anyway. Does that make sense...?

And, obviously, I get a little more militant when there's a very specific effect I'm trying to go for. I've faxed artists thumbnails of all kinds of stuff, designs, panel layouts, etc. All for the sake of giving them everything that's in my head about a particular issue. When they can take my shit and make it look even better -- which happens almost every time -- that's when it's cooking.

Kinda' like this fucking conversation, right? How about this: To Be Continued…

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