[Editor's Note: With the premier of Dark Horse's relaunch of "Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom" coming this July, CBR News reached out to legendary writer Jim Shooter to offer his thoughts on the basics of comics scripting using his "Solar" #1 script as a springboard. Take it away, Jim!
How do I approach writing a script?
Archie Goodwin used to say that every time he sat down to write a story he couldn’t remember how he had ever done it before. I know what he meant. When I write a story, I hope that maybe I’m learning more about how to write as I go along. But, later, I realize that what I learned was how to write that story. The next one’s a whole new, all different set of problems, unless you’re one of those formula guys who just turns the crank and makes the widgets come out.
Okay, there are things you can learn, like basic structure and mechanics, but the fact is that once you’re out of the abstract realm of story architecture and in the thick of it with characters who have complex personalities, motives and failings; once you’re dealing with specific locations, exigencies of the world you’re mucking around in, time and clime – it gets beyond calculus. Infinite, interdependent variables, interacting in waves. In the introduction to one of his books, Mark Twain wrote: “There will be no weather in this book.” Anything to simplify it a bit, I guess.
I know that some writers can just roll out of bed in the morning and start typing. They must be very gifted. Good for them. For me, I have to work at it. Put in twice the effort just to keep up.
It’s hard for me to contain all the stuff I need in my mind at once. Even in this “paperless” age, I go through notebooks and legal pads by the gross. I have paper full of notes spread out all around me when I try to write.
I start out by “freewheeling.” Just thinking about Doctor Solar and all things related. Even unrelated. No rules.
Eventually, I get some vague thought to start with. Could be anything. A bit of action that might be cool. For instance: “I wonder if Doctor Solar could separate his quantum-field conscience from his body…? Keep his mind over here and send his body over there?” I play what if…?
Once I get any glimmer at all that seems to have possibilities, I write lists of everything that comes to mind that’s related. “Out of body experience.” “Golem.” “Remote control,” even. I bet you can think of two dozen things right now, effortlessly.
Then I start researching things from the lists, online, mostly. More stuff comes up. More lists.
Then, I pretend. I play Doctor Solar in my mind, like a little kid playing super-heroes in the backyard, only without wearing goggles or red clothes, unless the blinds are closed.
Once I have some good ideas, I start applying the aforementioned structure and mechanics and organizing. Which leads to more playing. I make notes. Snippets of dialogue. Ideas for scenes.
Then, in the middle of a pile of notes, I start two-fingered typing.
I understand that excerpts from my "Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom" #1 script are presented below, so you can see what the results look like.
On "Full Script" Vs. "Plot First"
When I created my first submissions for DC Comics way back in 1965, I had no idea what a comic book script looked like, or even that there were typed scripts. So, I provided a sketch for every panel, lettered in the balloons and captions and made my “script” look as much like a printed comic book as possible. I designed every character and every costume, with very few exceptions. I even made a cover for each issue, in color, with blurbs and traced logos.
Even though my drawings weren’t great, the artists I worked with loved them. Since I had already done the conceptualization and visualization for them, it saved them a lot of time. Even if I made a mistake – like choosing a poor angle, or making an awkward transition, it was easy for them to fix. It’s usually easier to fix a sketch than to make it up entirely.
One of the reasons the editor bought those first submissions and hired me as a regular, he said, was because of my visual thinking. At age thirteen, I wasn’t exactly a polished writer, but with the added value of the sketches, apparently, I was good enough to make the cut. I kept working that way. By the way, almost all of my cover sketches were used.
Years later, I started working for Marvel. The standard way of doing things there, to which I reluctantly acquiesced, was “Marvel style” – the writer writes a plot, the penciler draws the pages – making sort of a “silent movie” from the writer’s plot. All right, it’s more of a “silent slide show” since it’s a series of still pictures, but you get the point – then the writer writes dialogue and captions to go with the pictures.
It’s a strange way to do things, but it saves the writer time by shifting part of the storytelling burden – the cinematography, sort of – to the penciler. It works pretty well if you’re working with a Kirby, Ditko, Ayers or some other genius. It’s a disaster when you’re working with a guy who can draw but has no story sense, storytelling sense or sense of drama. Then you find yourself trying to shoehorn into the words things that should have been there in the pictures – because there’s seldom time to get things redrawn.
Different writers handled the challenge different ways. Chris Claremont wrote long plots, with detailed descriptions of everything, down to the faded logo on the frayed tee shirt worn by some incidental character. Some writers wrote sparse one-page summaries, leaving a lot to the artist. Roy Thomas used to sometimes tear a chapter out of a Conan paperback and send it to John Buscema, so said John. Marv Wolfman used to do page-by-page plots, and basically, every sentence was a panel, so it was pretty well broken down. The old plots I’ve seen of Stan’s were generally two to four pages, single spaced, and pretty thoroughly developed. When I had the time, I did very detailed, panel-by-panel plots. If not, I tried to write plots that focused on the dramatic beats, explained what we were trying to accomplish dramatically, what was important to get across, and why.
Working Marvel style puts a great burden on the artist, which, as I said, some of them aren’t up to handling, and it also offers the opportunity to hack. Lazy artists find ways to avoid drawing anything complex or difficult. They’ll do lots of close-ups, cropped shots and pin-ups, big foreground objects so they don’t have to draw as much background, and cram the meat of the story into as few panels as possible, or leave it out entirely.
Why not fire such cheaters? Well, sometimes there just isn’t anybody better available. Or there’s some other complication. In one case, I had a long tenured, big name artist, who was hacking like mad because he needed to churn out pages to pay his alimony. If there was a minor explosion in the script, he’d give it a full page, do some quick side-of-the-pencil smoke, and ta-daa! A page done in two minutes. Lots of big head shots. Lots of silhouettes. Few backgrounds. Then he’d cram twelve tiny panels onto the last page of the book that wrapped the story in shorthand.
So, what do you do? It got to the point that most writers didn’t want to work with him anymore. So I did. We worked together for a while, but he hated it because my plots were too demanding and I made him correct the cheat pages. I paid him to make those corrections, by the way. I respected his stature and I wasn’t trying to oppress him, just get him to do the job. He eventually quit and went to DC. He hates me to this day.
Archie Goodwin was one of the few writers at Marvel who sometimes didn’t write Marvel style. He used to do scripts with layouts, just like I did at DC. Artists didn’t complain because he was so good.
At VALIANT, I did panel-by-panel plots for artists, like Windsor-Smith, who weren’t on the premises. Most of the artists, the young guys, worked in the office, so, even though I wasn’t giving them full scripts, or even written plots sometimes, I was there to give direction. Don Perlin helped direct, supervise and school the young guys.
At DEFIANT, I wrote some full scripts and did some stories Marvel style, with mixed results.
At Broadway Comics, we experimented with television writing technique – four people in a room collaborating, producing full scripts. JayJay Jackson, Renaissance woman, Jill of all artistic trades, did apparel designs, floor plans and photography – we’d act things out sometimes, and provide photos to the artists. Joe James, talented artist and creator in general, did sketches of and designs for many things. Pauline Weiss was the scribe – she can type faster than you can talk. Everybody contributed to the writing, though I was the main writer, the head writer. My hope there was to train the crew to the point where each of them could eventually captain a similar team.
At DC again, I wrote full scripts. Even with a full script, the artist has to have some understanding of storytelling, and a few of the artists I worked with there didn’t, however talented and well-intentioned. Then, there are the occasional artists who treat full scripts as if they were plots, ignore instructions and scene descriptions and draw whatever they please. At DC, all of the above was tolerated. Besides, there was never any time for art corrections, so I regularly had to do last minute rewrites to try to shore up art that wasn’t doing the job or was just plain wrong. May I add that Francis Manapul, the main guy I worked with, is one artist with a terrific future.
I write full scripts now because at Dark Horse, it actually counts for something. Senior Editor/Project Coordinator Chris Warner, a terrific artist himself, has been great at working with the artists assigned to my books. He’s helping them understand and fulfill the mission. And he helps me a lot, offering much good input and backstopping me when I have senior moments.
Mike Richardson, Master and Commander of Dark Horse, asked me to do this revival of the great Dell/Gold Key characters my way – to execute my vision. He said, “This will be the most entrepreneurial thing you’ve ever done,” knowing that I’ve founded three publishing companies. That’s going some, and Mike doesn’t say such things lightly – he means what he says.
So, I’m doing full scripts in great detail because I want these books, this line, to be everything I believe they can be. My way. Which is not to say I’m micromanaging everything. The artists have been making terrific contributions, adding in some great ideas and brilliant touches. The guys seem to be into it, and some really wonderful things are developing.
Maybe this time….
On The Opening Splash Page
Once I conceived and cracked the story, and had the pillars set in place, I realized that there was a natural way to open it with action. Seemed like the thing to do at the time. I never saw a rough for this page. Didn’t see it till it was inked and colored and posted in an online preview, in fact. I think the reason was that artist Dennis Calero had to hustle to make the deadline for that preview. It really doesn’t fulfill the requirements of the scene description, and I would have asked for changes given the opportunity. Later, Dennis and I discussed it over lunch, and got a lot of things sorted out with regard to what I was expecting of him and why. I suspect that Dennis hasn’t often worked from full scripts, and probably never from scripts as demanding as mine are. I’ve seen full scripts for 22 pages that are around 3,000 words. Mine run as many as 17,000 words, and they’re not wasted words. When I ask for something in the script, I really mean it. It’s not a suggestion. There’s a reason, sometimes not immediately apparent to the artist, why I’m calling for whatever. The good news is that Dennis’s art is so glamorous that even though the image isn’t exactly as described, it still looks pretty cool.
On pulling artist reference.
Having the web at my disposal saves a lot of trips to the library and a lot of photocopying. I can provide a lot more spot-on reference. It’s also great in the development stage – you look something up and that leads you to other things, sparks ideas, opens doors. Yes, it helped with conceiving Doctor Solar’s powers, origin and the visual presentation of same. Thank God for Wikipedia and Google Advanced Image Search.
On letting your artist "call the shots."
I try to provide all information and direction necessary and still leave the door open for the artist to make the story better. If the artist is into it, excited about it, he or she will layer in brilliant things I’d never think of. For instance, when I described Whitmore Pickerel’s cluttered living room [later in the issue], Dennis, who is trained as an architect, not only understood perfectly but added some touches. Also, he put Pickerel’s aging TV on a cabinet in front of the fireplace that he doesn’t use. Perfect. It’s a tiny little touch, but when the artist gets the characters, when he says, “Oh, I know somebody like that. I know just what he’d do,” and starts making the guy come alive, it’s great.
On "getting Kirby" and letting multiple actions in single panels.
If you can show something successfully in the frozen moment of time that constitutes a comics panel, surely you can show it in film, with the advantages of motion and sound. Especially since CGI removed many of the limitations imposed by the laws of physics and other real-world limitations that used to inhibit filmmakers. On the other hand, they can show a man answering the phone and lighting his pipe in a couple of seconds of film, but we couldn’t do that in one panel.
One of the rules legendary DC editor Bob Kanigher imposed was that all guns had to be fired “at the reader.” So the gun was fired in one panel, and the victim was hit in the next. And you seldom knew if the victim was five feet or fifty yards away. Kirby often drew the gun flashing and the victim being hit, or a character in full extension of the follow through of a punch and the punched party sailing backward in the same panel. It’s effective. It’s often what you would see if you were there!
Japanese cartoonists usually keep a strict limit of one action, however slight, per panel. European cartoonists often stretch out moments for pages. I once read a beautifully drawn European comic in which a character took two pages to get up from his desk and answer the door.
Not always, but often, Kirby used action and result in the same panel. Also, he often used foreground and background action in the same panel. Also, in action sequences, he often made the biggest jump from panel to panel that still allowed the reader to easily imagine the in-betweens. This all adds up to what we used to call “Kirby pacing.” It’s fast, exciting. And, as I said, it’s often what you’d see as an onlooker. Not a bad thing to strive for.
When we at Marvel were starting to put together the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, the original idea was to use existing art from back issues to illustrate each character using his powers. No good. Aside from old Kirby, Ditko, Ayers and other founding fathers’ work, there just weren’t many good panels that showed a power being used and its effect. The Kanigher Rule had become pervasive throughout the industry. We had to commission new art.
Remember that great shot of Cyclops driving the elephant from the Blob’s carnival into the ground with his eye-beams? I do. "X-Men" #3.
On crossing fiction and reality in "Doctor Solar" #1.
I don’t think anyone has ever done it quite this way before. Usually, when it’s convenient for the writer, the actualized character disappears in a burst of sparkly bits or something. The created beings in the “Troublemaker” arc are as real as you and me. Well, you, anyway. Some of them will be around for a long while, and be significant factors. No false drama, no faking it. The concept of Troublemaker resonates with Doctor Solar, who in his own way is, shall we say, a self-made man.
On "re-creating" Doctor Solar a second time.
Mike said "all new." Okay. I had to rethink everything and come up with a new take on the Man of the Atom that was still true to the original. It’s only fair to mention that Mike helped quite a bit, by the way, volunteering some really good ideas, which I happily built into the foundations. Thanks, Mike. By the way, I suspect he’s one of those annoying roll-out-of-bed-and-start-typing guys….
Before I started on the #1/2 issue, that is, the Free Comic Book Day Special, or the #1 issue, I wrote a 40-page Zero Issue story. There were no plans to publish it at the time. I wrote it mostly for myself, as a way to work out in detail who this guy is, how he got that way and why I or anyone else should give a damn about him. I think I came up with some pretty good ideas, but that’s up to others to decide.
That Zero Issue story will be serialized beginning in "Doctor Solar" #5, by the way.
Every panel of every page, every day I live with Doctor Solar and the rest banging around in my head, I get to know them better. I have new insights. I see through their eyes more clearly. I think. I hope. You’ll tell me.