Permanent Damage: Issue #269

Wed, November 8th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Spent much of the last week re-working on a project. In 2002, I wrote a graphic novel that sat around and sat around and sat around the publisher's drawer without being drawn until this summer, when the strategy was reformulated: rather than publishing graphic novels, they're now going to run mini-series. I don't know why the change (though I have my suspicions). I didn't ask. Push comes to shove, I don't really care. What I did care about was that something designed for one format was now being wedged into another.

Which wasn't as bad as it sounds. I did have to whittle it down some, but it came out much tighter, though it might have cost some of the mood I originally tried to build into it. And they paid to have it done, which is novel; most publishers, when they want something re-molded to another format, don't. They consider it just another rewrite.

This isn't the first time I've done something like this. I once wrote a 46 page SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN that never saw print, because I was told, after the fact, to convert it to a 22 page CONAN THE BARBARIAN story. I don't remember for sure, but it seems to me the 46 pages had already been drawn. Needless to say, an awful lot was lost in translation. The worst time I ever had of it was compressing a four-issue mini-series into a single 12 page story; though in this case the art wasn't done first, it wasn't pleasant. I wanted to do the idea enough that I wanted to do it in any case, but there wasn't enough room to put across much more than the mere plot; everything was so compressed that the emotional content - and, ultimately, there isn't a story in the world that doesn't live or die on its emotional content - just didn't come across properly. (The art didn't help.)

It's not unusual to have a project accepted for one format, to develop it with that in mind, and then to be told they've decided to put it into another format instead. These decisions are mostly economic; projects in the original format have done less spectacularly than predicted and the company wants future project in what's perceived as a more profitable format, or some other company has put out a new format that the company in question wants in on, or some executive has a whim. Or any other number of reasons. Moments like these remind you that comics are commercial in nature. With a handful of exceptions, whenever an artistic consideration hits a commercial one, commerce wins. (Even then, when artistic considerations win, it's usually because the publisher decides it's ultimately more commercial to let the creators have their way, as when the publisher believes that a less profitable project by that creator/those creators now will lead to more profitable other project by the same person/team later.) But this does highlight the common schism of comics: by and large, publishers aren't in it for art and talent isn't in it for commerce.

It seems to me, though, that once a publisher has committed a project to specific format long enough for a script to be written for that format, the best course is to either let the format stand and leave adaptations to a new format for the next project, or pay the team for what is, essentially, a new project. Keith Giffen likes to work in the nine panel grid (the page broken down into nine equally-sized vertical panels) popularized by Steve Ditko's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons' THE WATCHMEN. Say Keith has written a 22 page full script for the nine panel grid format. "But wait!" the publisher decides after the script is complete. "I read a blog this morning" (and, of course, we know this is impossible because publishers don't read blogs) "that praised the six panel page. Keith, I want you to turn your story into a 33 page story with six panels per page, because people will like that better." This seems like a simple cut-and-paste job: take the first six panels from page 1 to make the new page 1, the last three from page 1 and the first three from page 2 to make a new page 2, the bottom six from page 2 for a new page 3, etc. But creating comics isn't mere mathematics. Theoretically, the script is peppered with Keith's dramatic decision. Maybe page 2 panel 3 is a breather panel, or someone making a long-winded but necessary explanation that doesn't push the action but is necessary for understanding the story. Maybe page 2 panel 4 is someone getting a sip of water at a bubbler. These are perfectly adequate expository or transitional panels for mid-page - but in theory the last panel of every page should be a hook to pull the reader to the next page, and the first panel of a page should be a mini-payoff to reward the reader in some way for taking that action. Likewise, the opening panel of a story should be a reader's mini-reward - something to draw him into the story - for opening the book and turning the page, which means that right from the moment your story draws breath it should be encouraging the reader to play along, and the last panel in your story is the reader's invitation to your next outing.

This is basic storytelling, and storytelling's what's usually left out of these equations. Besides, almost certainly the publisher would have asked Keith to transform a nine-panel-per-page 22 page story into a six-panel-per-page 22 page story, with the unconscious implication that a third of Keith's panels would be superfluous, if the publisher thought a straight conversion were possible. (Keith Giffen tends to be a very tight storyteller. Very little in his stories is superfluous.) We have this perfunctory notion of story in this business as something completely plastic and malleable, but the fact is that when you change the format you change the story. The surface elements of a story may stay the same, but the underlying mechanics change considerably. An eight-pager has stricter demands than a 22 page story. A mini-series has requirements and restrictions that a graphic novel can evade. A continuing series needs different elements than a mini-series. Very little of which is ever taken into consideration.

Optimally, once publishers have committed to a format, that decision should go unchanged regardless of shifting circumstances, certainly once work past the plotting stage has been completed. As this is unlikely to ever become a standard for the business, on the flip side any time a publisher shifts formats for material, the talent should be paid to alter their material, because it really is something new they're putting together, regardless of a superficial resemblance to the original version of the story.

But that's unlikely to ever become a standard for the business either.

Decided to try an experiment a couple weeks ago. Seems to me that many people still don't quite get the relationship between writing and art in comics, especially in situations where one person handles one element and another handles the other. (Even many writer-artists I know write out their stories in full script first and then draw them, rather than piece everything together on the fly, which seems to be the common perception.) Particularly among new writers eager to see their work in print, there doesn't seem to be a lot of understanding of how art affects the story. But part of the problem is thinking of art as separate from story, simply because the functions are handled by different people. Art is not simply the vehicle for the story. In very real ways, the art is the story, just as the writing is the story. But in comics neither are the story on their own. They are only the story at their point of intersection.

The artist working on the story palpably affects the story. Frank Miller got his rep first as an artist, but only really came to prominence when he started writing DAREDEVIL as well. The seamless mixture of his writing and art was electrical, turning him into a superstar and granting him a new rep as one of comics' top writers as well as artists. But dig up a MARVEL TEAM-UP ANNUAL from the same era, written by Frank and drawn by Herb Trimpe. Same writing, but in the context of Trimpe's art it seems plainer, more leaden. More traditional. It wasn't that Frank became a bad writer for that project or that Herb Trimpe's art brought him down. It was that the combination mooted whatever strengths they had as individual talents, and both had a lot of strengths.

So: a little demonstration. I wrote up a synopsis for a comics page -

Plot fragment:

(SETTING: Modern day; a very bad part of a major city, though the streets are apparently deserted. CHARACTER: A pretty if tense woman in her 20s, in good shape, nicely dressed; short jacket with side pockets, and whatever else she wears is up to you.)

WOMAN walks briskly down the seemingly deserted street, leaving her abandoned car (the hood is up, the driver's door wide open) haphazardly parked, and she speaks into a cell phone in her left hand while she keeps her right hand rigidly in her right jacket pocket. She continues to speak on the phone, tersely, as her eyes shift warily to take in her surroundings as best as she can and she keeps walking briskly. A shadow has fallen over her at an odd angle, but she has already reacted, spinning toward the shadow's off-panel source and aiming at it the .38 she has pulled from her right jacket pocket. She gasps in shock and panic as her eyes settle on whatever it is. Then she's bolting down the street in utter panic, firing randomly behind her, the cell phone left lying, open, in the middle of the street in her wake.

- and several different artists volunteered to draw it.

The first example is my very, very rough layout.

I don't do layouts. I describe scenes for artists but as much as possible I try not to try to do their jobs for them. Sometimes if you want specific effects you have to be very specific in your scene directions, but more often than not you get better results letting artists interpret things in their own way. You don't need to be able to draw to write comics (obviously I can't) but you need to be able to envision. You have to be able to visualize what you're proposing in your directions as an actual drawn page. No matter how complete your directions, unless you're providing pencil roughs for your stories, an artist is never going to give you exactly what you envisioned. This is because both art and writing are expressions of personality, and the artist's personality won't be your personality unless you're the artist. You have to allow for that; with the wrong artist your story's going to be less than you wanted, but with the right artist it'll become more than you imagined. But the general rule of thumb is if you can visualize a page, that page can be drawn. Maybe not how you saw it. Probably not how you saw it. But it can be drawn.

(The corollary is that the way you envision a page being drawn isn't necessarily the right way to draw it.)

I had a few rules for this experiment. Artists weren't to discuss what they were doing with anyone else. They were to draw one page only, and as they would naturally draw it, so if they needed more than a page they were to draw only as much as they'd normally fit on a single page and no more. If they would normally fit that much material in less than a page, they were not to stretch it out to fill a page, but leave the normally unused portion of the page blank. And that was pretty much it. To the extent possible, I wanted to simulate what the page would look like if it were part of an actual story.

Here's what different artists produced, in pencil rough. (Because this was gratis, I didn't want them spending too much time on it.) Note how the choices the artist make affect the emphasis of the story, and subtly change the story itself.

Versatile English transplant to Brazil Sam Hart has worked on STARSHIP TROOPERS, CIVIL WARDROBE and the forthcoming ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW'S PRIDE. His work can be found online at Sam Hart Graphics.

Sam downplays the background to, paradoxically, play up the claustrophobic atmosphere, which is oddly amplified by the glow of the streetlights. Subdividing the action a bit more than the plot calls for, the art freezes more moments in time, emphasizing, via the fallen phone having its own panel, not only the woman who's the main character but whoever's on the other end of the phone.

Marvin Perry Mann's first comics work was inking The Trouble With Girls back in the early '90s. After nearly a decade's hiatus, he returned to comics using 3dsmax animation and modeling software to produce a 240 page silent comic strip and related flipbook animation for PAUSE AND EFFECT: THE ART OF INTERACTIVE NARRATIVE (Meadows), followed by a flurry of mini-comics, a year's stint illustrating Lisa Jonte's ARCANA JAYNE at Girlamatic and two of Dara Naraghi's "Lifelike" stories at Komikwerks. His graphic novel with A. David Lewis, THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS (Archaia Studios Press, received a Howard Day prize and was nominated for three Harveys. Upcoming are the graphic novels INANNA'S TEARS with Rob Vollmar, HIGH WATERS with A. David Lewis and THE GRAVE DOUG FRESHLY with Josh Hechinger.

Martin starts with an overhead shot that produces a specific sense of milieu, then moves us closer and closer to our subject, emphasizing the idea that she's being watched by something closing in on her, and focusing the story on the woman's responses to developments in her circumstances. It's more about emotional states than physical action.

PJ Holden has worked for 2000AD for the past six years, mostly on Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper. He's currently working on "The 86ers" for 2000AD and another title for another publisher which he's not at liberty to talk about. He has a blog at www.pjholden.com and a UK small press forum at Pencil Monkey.

Likewise, PJ starts with a high angle shot but almost directly overhead and farther away, producing a sense not only of the environment but of the heroine's physical place in it, suggesting isolation and potential danger. There are a couple little storytelling twists as the action progresses: the phone has been abandoned not, apparently, from fright, but because the heroine needs both hands to properly fire the gun - which suggests something about her training - and, as revealed in the final panel, because the phone has become useless, which can be used to heighten the scene's tension, reinforcing and extending the heroine's isolation.

Tim Eldred has been bouncing back and forth between the worlds of comics and TV animation since 1989. His current projects are GREASE MONKEY (www.greasemonkeybook.com) and STAR BLAZERS REBIRTH, while his most recent TV work includes storyboards for XIAOLIN SHOWDOWN and SCOOBY DOO AND SHAGGY GET A CLUE, both airing Saturday mornings on Kids' WB.

Again, a nice high angle shot to begin with. Tim's version more strongly emphasizes the underlying action. The heroine's positioning in the second panel suggests something following her simply because the panel's off-balance otherwise; our minds fill in the threat in order to balance it out. The insert close-up of the eyes is effective, as it segments the main emotional moment of the page - the heroine's sighting of the unknown threat - from the otherwise orderly flow of the action, even as the tightness of the shot masks what's going on. Whether it's intended or not, the final panel puts another twist on the action not specifically called for: it suggests that whatever the threat is, it has snatched the heroine's phone and now discards it. That it does so in the face of gunfire tells us something about the threat even though we don't see it.

Heisenberg theorized that, at least in sub-atomic physics, the act of observing a phenomenon alters the phenomenon, and, likewise, whether any one of these pages is better than the others depends on shifting factors, like personal taste and the author or editor's specific intentions. My only intention here is to demonstrate how no two artists will generate the same page given the same story. The pages have similarities, of course - how could they not? - but vast differences - in tone, style and approach - as well. Artists simply aren't interchangeable, no matter how much editors and, sometimes, readers would prefer it, and in many cases it's the choice of artist - when you're given a choice - that will make or break a story.

Election day's just starting for me; for you it's over. No idea what will happen. Democrats keep talking about how they're going to sweep the House Of Representatives, with the possibility they'll take back the Senate too, with some Dem Representatives talking about starting investigations into things like who knew what when pre-Iraq invasion and how it all jibes with The Official Story, while self-imagined Speaker Of The House-to-be Nancy Pelosi has already vowed that no such investigations will happen and current Vice President Dick Cheney has already stated that if subpoenaed to testify before Congress they can kiss his ass, and for some reason he chose this week to go hunting for the first time since he shot up a lawyer. Maybe it's just his way of underscoring his message to Congress. But even though many polls have many Democrats ahead in their respective races, and historically/statistically a president doing as badly in opinion polls as the current one sees major shifts in Congressional makeup at his mid-term, it still comes down to whether voters think Democrats can do a better job of running things than Republicans, and there hasn't been much in many campaign ads I've seen to indicate Democrats are even trying to put that message across. As usual, the polls have been tightening in the last few days. Meanwhile the stories keep flowing of voting machines in Florida and Texas that register a vote for the Republican candidate no matter who you vote for, and ones in California that will register multiple votes from any single person if they know what fairly accessible buttons to push. Today voting machines in Ohio - is it just in Democratic districts or widespread? - aren't working properly, delaying the vote there, and in Indiana they're going to court to prolong Election Day to make up for voting machines that aren't working and election workers who aren't trained to work them. It is interesting that the USA has reached the point where outside observers are necessary to prove that elections are fair. Remember when they only used to do that for former dictatorships?

Speaking of former dictators, is it pure coincidence that the verdict came in on Saddam Hussein right before the American elections? See? We are accomplishing something in Iraq! Hopefully, I'm sure the White House feels, something to convince Americans to forget about all the American soldiers getting shot up over there. Of course, everyone knew from the moment he was caught that Saddam's conviction was inevitable, barring his suicide, so his trial has been largely a dog-and-pony show to demonstrate how Iraq is now ruled by law and order. The sentence did conjure up the old clich joke about Wild West justice - "first, he gets a fair trial, and then we hang him" - and under the circumstances the term "western justice" becomes a macabre double entendre. In any case, hanging him can't be a good idea, given the multiple possibilities for executions now available. As anyone in the Old West or Victorian England knew, hangings weren't really about execution. They were about spectacle and humiliation, for public consumption, a demonstration of how weak the condemned really was, a dangling warning for anyone else daring to transgress the boundaries of official morality, a show for everyone else. Not that Saddam Hussein isn't worthy of execution if anyone is, and I'm sure only a precious few would ever care to see him returned to power, but in the current tinderbox of Iraq that kind of display can only amount to throwing a large quantity of kerosene on an already raging fire. Executing Saddam is one thing; while it's true that any execution is likely to get a reaction, executing him in the most humiliating way still considered to fit with common decency (as opposed to, say, being drawn and quartered or crucified) will likely only escalate Iraq's civil war, which the White House (pretty much in denial of virtually all news reports and even reports from our own generals) still claims is only an "insurgency," into a civil war that even the White House can only call a civil war. Which may affect American policy over the next couple of years than any change of power in Congress. (Now they're taking Saddam back to trial on other charges. I wonder how many times they plan to hang him.)

The most interesting election of the week may not even be ours, as it looks like Daniel Ortega's heading back to the Nicaraguan presidency. A CIA-manufactured smear campaign (under operative Miles Copeland, they flooded Nicaragua with manufactured reports that Ortega was a pedophile) helped drive him from power in 1990, but Nicaragua's pathetic economy under its current government seems to have put him back - no final count as I write this - despite (maybe because of) unusually overt White House efforts to sway Nicaraguan voters in other directions. Ortega's election would amount to another defeat for the White House, as Ortega's almost certain to swing Nicaragua out of the U.S. sphere and into the growing Latin American alliance most visibly including Venezuela (which the U.S. claims bought Ortega the election by selling Nicaragua oil cheap) and Bolivia; any successes that new bloc has, particularly economically, will only encourage other Latin American countries to shift from the U.S. bloc as well. Despite lots of observers down there too, the U.S. ambassador in Nicaragua is already charging fraud at the polls. On the bright side, once they've conquered the Muslim world, the neo-cons will know where their next demons are coming from.

Even in America, the most interesting question of the political season isn't who'll be running Congress in January. It's how much the price of gas at the pumps will go up by Thursday.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Seems researchers have found a dolphin with rear fins they claim are vestigial legs. The theory goes that millions of years ago dolphins and other seagoing mammals were land animals who evolved into sea animals, and this is considered to be major support for that theory. I wonder if maybe something else might be going on. Maybe the "legs" aren't so much vestigial as mutations, and dolphins are evolutionarily preparing to return to land as the oceans become less and less inhabitable.

Just in time for the advent of a Democratic congress (all other things being equal today) the FBI has announced re-activation of their previously moribund political corruption investigation unit, complete with the promise of running stings on greedy Congressmen.

The Register of Copyrights has decided that ringtones have the same relation to music that piano rolls (from old player pianos) do, and therefore developers of ringtones don't have to pay the artists who created the songs being converted to ringtones. Good news for the telecommunications industry, I guess. I'm reminded of Pete Townsend's story about how he paid his licensing company (I forget whether it was BMI or Ascap, but they're companies that collect royalties due composers when their songs are played on radio or TV, in clubs, etc.) a huge sum for the right to perform his own songs while on tour with The Who, and then got a fraction of it back, for fuzzy reasons apparently having to something to do with Nashville. (As songwriter, the money Townsend paid to the collection service should have come back to him as songwriting royalties, minus reasonable handling fees.) If there's a way to keep from paying songwriters, someone will find it. No wonder so many songwriters are unconcerned about music sharing; even if all the money the record companies complain they're losing to file sharing came in, most songwriters would see next to nothing of it anyway.

For those following the National Book Award brouhaha brought up here last week, nominating author Gene Yang weighed in on the matter himself over at Wired News.

Due to competing illustrations, no Comics Cover Challenge this week. (Also influencing the decision was my desire to get to sleep at a decent hour for a change.) However, Brian Hughes was the first to correctly identify last week's Cover Challenge theme as "ghosts" (equally appropriate to both Halloween and the Day of the Dead). Brian wouldn't mind at all if clicked here and tried out his "Again With The Comics" blog, so give it a shot just to let him know that nice guys sometimes finish first. And from the week before last, winner Nicolas Juzda has a different blog in mind: Written Word. Check it out.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

A blast from the past next week - but not a reprint.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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