Shelf Life: "Will You Read My Script?"

Thu, June 27th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

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"Would You Read My Script?"

One of the first scripts Ron ever wrote was "Silver Surfer" #42, under the guidance of Jim Starlin.

Virtually every comic writer I know has been asked this question: "Would you read my script?"

Most of us have been asked that question too many times to count. Sometimes it's asked at a convention or store signing, with the script in question held out across the table. In that case, I've pointed out that I'm occupied signing books and talking with other fans, so I wouldn't have an opportunity to read a script. More than once, the person with script in hand has said something like, "Well, then you can take it to your hotel room to read tonight, and I'll come back tomorrow so you can tell me what you think." Uh, gee, thanks.

Even more often now, the requests come via social media; the same question, without benefit of an in-person interaction. It feels like the equivalent of cold-calling someone for a date.

Unfortunately, whether in person or electronically, the answer is almost always going to be "No." Screenwriter Josh Olson put it a bit more colorfully in a now-classic piece for the Village Voice.

A few weeks ago, someone contacted me via social media -- I don't want to say what form of social media, because I don't want to single out or embarrass anyone -- asking me if I'd read his script and then give him a critique. Just so we're clear, this was someone I've never met, someone I don't know in the least. A complete stranger. And yet, that person felt comfortable enough to ask me for my time, and whatever expertise I've gained in two-plus decades of writing comics, in order to further his writing career.

I politely declined, citing my own work schedule, as well as the legal ramifications of being exposed to someone else's story. The next day, the same person contacted me, and asked if I would act as his "mentor." I'm not sure what all he thought that entails, but I politely declined that offer as well, and wished him luck.

These kinds of experiences are equal parts flattering and frustrating. Flattering, because someone thinks enough of my work to want my feedback or guidance. That's no small thing, and truly I'm touched.

I understand the desire for feedback and direction, especially in a medium whose creative nuts and bolts are still more mysterious and alchemical than prose or screenplays. I get it. People want to know, "Am I doing this right?" or "How can I do this better?"

I can at least point you toward a great site, the Comic Book Script Archive, which contains a wealth of professional scripts in a number of different formats. Four of my scripts are currently on the site, along with scripts by great writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Jason Aaron, Matt Fraction and a bunch more.

Believe me, I understand that the only reason I'm in this business is because Jim Starlin took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He showed me how to write a script, and co-wrote my first scripts to make sure I knew how to do my job. So maybe declining to read someone's script makes me a hypocrite. The difference for me is that I'd known Jim for a number of years already. We were friends before we ever worked together. I've certainly read scripts by friends and offered advice, and I expect to do so again. But if I don't know you, it's not likely to happen.

Four of Ron's scripts, including "Witchblade" and "Dragon Prince" are available online.

One of the reasons creators say no is a legal one. If I read your script, and a decade from now something remotely similar appears in one of my stories, there could be a lawsuit. It's a fairly regular occurrence in music and film, obviously; somebody looking to cash in with accusations of "you stole my song" or "you stole my idea."

The legal ramifications of reviewing someone's work honestly provide a handy excuse to decline the invitation. But the bigger factor, for me at least, is the time involved.

An artist can get a portfolio review pretty quickly, whether it's online or at a convention. You can tell within a few minutes -- honestly, it takes even less time than that -- if someone has the chops. Judging a writer is infinitely more difficult and time consuming.

You can read someone's one-page pitch and get a sense of whether they have a coherent story to tell. But a one-pager gives no indication of whether that person has the ability to tell that story in a script. Do they understand the visual aspects of comics? Can they write convincing dialogue? Do they know where a comma goes? Can they even spell?

I've had people ask me if I could read "just a couple of pages" of their script. Well, I guess I could, but what would be the point? How can I accurately judge whether or not your story works if I just see bits and pieces? If you can fly a plane, but not actually land it, the passengers still suffer the consequences. The only way to get a sense of all that is to actually wade through someone's full-length script. For a 20-page issue, that's probably 35 or 40 manuscript pages. Critiquing it means making notes as you go. All of which means time.

And this is where I fear coming off as unsympathetic. Maybe harsh. Even kind of an ass. But my time is precious, just like yours is. There aren't enough hours in the day as it is. Creating comics is more than a full time job, between juggling scripts, writing pitches, doing interviews, maintaining a presence on social media. I detailed a fairly typical day in a previous column. It's a full plate. If and when I do get a little free time... sorry, I'd much prefer to spend it with my family, or reading a book, or seeing a movie, rather than reading a script proffered by a stranger.

At a minimum, it's presumptuous to make demands of a creator's time beyond what you'd reasonably expect at a public appearance. When we're at cons or signings, we're there to interact with the audience. I genuinely love meeting readers (though I'd honestly rather grab a beer and have a conversation with a fan than autograph a stack of books, which can seem a little impersonal). But there are boundaries.

Think of it this way: you meet a plumber, a guy you don't know at all. Would you ask him a quick question about unclogging a drain? Sure, not a problem. Would you ask for an hour or two of his time, so he could explain to you the details of replacing a hot-water heater? Probably not, because that's what a plumber does for a living.

Or maybe this is a better example. The rule of thumb I've always heard is that there are less creators making a full-time living in comics than there are players in the NBA. In case you're wondering, there are 450 players on NBA rosters at any given time. Complete strangers don't approach one of the Boston Celtics and ask for lessons on how to shoot free throws, right?

A crowded convention like C2E2, where Ron, Bart Sears and NFL player Israel Idonije did a signing for Hero Initiative, is not the place to ask for a script critique.

This isn't to place myself or other creators on a pedestal. I think comic pros are generally more accessible to the audience than creatives in almost any other discipline. It's simply a reminder that this is how we make a living, and there are only so many hours in the day. Pondering all this has made me think there's a need for a script-review service, so writers could get full, proper feedback, and creators could be compensated for their time and expertise. Maybe it's something I should consider.

In the meantime, if you're an aspiring comic-book writer, what do you do? You create comic books. The unvarnished truth is that people are much more likely to read your comic book than your comic book script. If you want to write comics, make comics. Find an artist -- deviantArt should be your first stop -- and create. Put it online for everyone, print up copies to hand out at conventions.

One caveat: the success of your story depends greatly on how well it's drawn. If you write a brilliant script, and it's drawn by a lousy artist, you've created a lousy story. By the same token, if you write a pedestrian script that's married to brilliant art, your story is looked upon much more kindly than it deserves to be. Your writing skill will be judged by how well the story is drawn. No, it's not really fair, but that's how it is. So make damn sure you're working with an artist who draws well, and even more importantly, is a good storyteller.

I've been handed plenty of small press or self-published books at cons. Some have been terrible, some have been pretty terrific. But the experience that prospective creators get from actually making a comic, rather than simply concentrating on the components that go into making a comic, is invaluable. That "light bulb going on" moment of seeing your script translated to a comic page will teach you more than any feedback you'll ever get.

So, no, I probably won't read your script. But there's a pretty good chance I'll read your comic.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" and "Ravine" for Top Cow, "The Protectors" for Athleta Comics and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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