Shelf Life: The Seven DOs and DON'Ts of Writing Comics

Thu, February 25th, 2016 at 3:58pm PST | Updated: February 25th, 2016 at 4:43pm

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist
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The comics business is a social one. Yes, a great many of us creators sit in a room alone all day, by ourselves, doing what we do. Maybe that's one of the reasons it's such a social industry; we're all starved for human interaction. So when creators do get together -- at restaurants, at bars, at conventions, even over social media -- talk turns to craft and credit and complaints.

I guess that's the same as almost any other business. But a constant thread running through comic conversations is how do we get better. How do we, as individual creators, improve our game? Those conversations, as well as recurring questions about writing I get at conventions and signings, prompted this list: seven DOs and seven DON'Ts for writing comics. These are, by no means, the only things you need to know. But it's not a bad place to start.

DOs

1) DO hit your deadlines. This seems an obvious one, right? It's really the biggest necessity of the job, especially on a monthly series. It's a deadline-driven business, and if you can't turn in your work on time, the editor will find someone who will.

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Alan Moore understands, better than most writers, what fits in a comic page. Dave Gibbons was a perfect partner for "Watchmen."

But more than that, the writer is the first person in the creative chain. Nobody else can do their work until the writer does his or her work. The artist is dependent upon having a script in hand so pages can be drawn, and vouchers can be handed in. The writer is directly responsible for the ability of artists (including colorists) to generate income. Rule Number One for Writers: never leave your artist without pages to draw.

2) DO turn in clean copy. Your dialogue in particular should be, no pun intended, letter perfect. That means no misspellings, no punctuation errors, everything should be just as it's supposed to appear in the printed book. It's the writer's responsibility to hand in exactly what should be lettered onto the page. It should never fall to the editor to fix your shortcomings.

Some years ago, while I was on a writers panel at a convention, someone asked me, "I want to be a writer, but I'm a horrible speller. Does spelling count?" I explained that yes, spelling absolutely counts. The guy countered with, "But I heard Bendis can't spell." I told him, "You're not Bendis. Learn to spell."

3) DO tailor your dialogue to the art that's on the page. Scripting a comic is not, or at least should not, be a one-step process. Once the art is in hand, you have a responsibility to go over your dialogue and revise it as needed. Make sure the dialogue fits comfortably in the panel, without covering integral aspects of the art. If you have too much dialogue, start cutting. Your words are not more important than clear visual storytelling. Make sure the speaking order in the dialogue matches where characters are positioned in the panel. In other words, the character on the far right of the panel should be speaking last, not first. If that's not the case, tweak your dialogue for proper reading order.

You can always tell when a script was written full-script method without the writer going back in to tailor the dialogue. You see too much dialogue in one panel, too little dialogue in another, crossed balloon tails, balloons covering necessary aspects of the art. Your dialogue should serve the visuals, not the other way around.

4) DO understand how a comic page works. I always liken the writer-artist relationship, in terms of page construction, to that of an architect and a builder. The architect comes up with a blueprint, but the builder actually makes it a reality. The detail of that blueprint will vary depending on the writer and the artist. Full script, plot style, or a hybrid that lies somewhere in between, there's no "right" way, only what works best for that creative team. The writer suggests, the artist makes it concrete. The artist's interpretation is part of the creative process.

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Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is stay out of the way, as with this Claudio Castellini image of Galactus.

But with all that taken into account, a writer still has to understand the real estate of an individual page: how much fits onto a page, how much fits into a panel, avoiding multiple actions in single panel. Don't ask an artist to show a vast alien armada in detail, and then put five more panels on the page. Anyone writing comics must have a visual sensibility, even if you can't draw it yourself.

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5) DO remember that the artist has to live with these pages for a month, minimum. Most writers will spend up to a week on a script, give or take. The next person in the chain, the artist, has to spend at least a month with those pages. It's writer's job to make those pages are as interesting and fun to draw as possible. Make sure the artist has something to look forward to every morning when he or she sits down to work.

One time I asked an artist friend how his current gig was going. He rolled his eyes and said, "You mean 22 pages of talking heads?" The assignment was ultimately pretty easy to draw -- page after page of people standing around talking. But it wasn't any fun.

6) DO let the art team do the heavy lifting. Comics are a visual medium, a show-don't-tell medium. If you as the writer are not interested in the visuals, please go write a novel. Let the art team do its job, and whenever possible, stay out of the way. There's no better "writing" in comics than when the picture conveys everything that needs to be said.

Here's a secret: if you write a mediocre script, and a brilliant art team executes it, you get credit for a brilliant story. If you write a genius script and a lousy art team executes it, the resulting story is lousy. Artists bring the story to life. Let them do that.

7) DO work with the best artists you can. Especially on your first work. I constantly tell aspiring writers that their story is only as good as the person who draws it. Your story (and your ability as a writer) will be judged by how good it looks, how successful the storytelling is. That's not exactly fair, but that's reality. The best way to introduce yourself as a writer is have your a great art team breathe life into it.

DON'Ts

1) DON'T disappear. If you're going to miss a deadline, fess up. Better yet, let the people you work with know ahead of time that you're going to be late. Don't duck emails and texts and phone calls from increasingly irate editors. Avoiding a rough conversation is a recipe for disaster. It's the fastest way to gain a reputation as unreliable... which is the fastest way to make certain you're not hired again.

2) DON'T treat the lettering draft as a first script draft. This plays into turning in clean copy. When you turn in a script for lettering, it should be what you want printed. Yes, there are tweaks to be made here and there on a lettering proof, but it should be only tweaks. By far, the most common complaint I hear from letterers is writers and/or editors who use the lettering as a first pass, and substantially rewrite an issue once it's been lettered.

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This sequence is Ron's "John Carter: Warlord of Mars" #1 wove necessary background information in the story itself. Art by Abhishek Malsuni.

Letterers get paid once. If you're making a letterer re-letter the majority of the issue to suit your whims, you're stealing both time and money. if you as a writer can't envision your script lettered on the page without actually seeing it on the page, you're missing an important tool in your toolbox.

3) DON'T bleed in pages. One of the consistent gripes from artists is receiving script pages via drip feed. Delivering four pages of script at a time, sometimes even just one or two pages at a time, hamstrings the process. The artist cannot approach the story as a whole, and thus can't create a cohesive issue from a layout and design perspective. And, to be honest, bleeding in script pages is also kind of insulting, a backhanded way of saying the artist isn't important enough for you to buckle down and finish the script.

Now, to be fair, I've done it myself. Most writers have, at one point or another, when deadlines collide or extenuating real-life circumstance arise. It happens... but shouldn't it be a habit.

4) DON'T forget you're part of a team. This extends to being part of the creative team, as well as being part of the larger effort in a work-for-hire situation. A creative team in comics is like a jazz combo, or a basketball team; the individual players do their own thing, but riff off of each other to greater a greater whole. There's no true success if one player or piece is diminished. Part of doing your job is to help everyone else do their job.

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When you're writing work-for-hire stories, you're playing with someone else's toys, in someone else's sandbox. The characters and concepts are not yours, you're simply being allowed to use someone else's property. That means you must come to grips with the fact that you're not in complete control. The editor, and by extension, the company, have the final say. You're more than a puppet on a string, certainly, but you're not autonomous. There's give and take, there's go along to get along. Pick your battles, but compromise is your friend.

5) DON'T think you're more important than anyone else on the team. You're not.

6) DON'T wallow in cliche, or drown in exposition. Short version: if you've heard it before or read it before, endeavor not to write it. How many times have you heard "Let's do this!" in a movie, or read it in a comic? Avoid cliche, come up with a new way for your character to say what needs to be said, a way that comes from that character, rather than a generic one.

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Dialogue should never overwhelm the art. These pages by Doc Shaner from "Adventures of Superman" balance art and balloons.

On a related note, one of the most necessary aspects of writing craft is the ability to convey exposition seamlessly, how to weave background information into the fabric of your story. The worst line of dialogue you can write is "As you all know..." That means you're using one of your characters as a mouthpiece to explain to other characters what they already know. It's the hammiest of ham-fisted techniques.

7) DON'T forget to mention your art team in every interview you do. Pretty self-explanatory. Also pretty simple from a common courtesy standpoint. But I see it all the time in interviews with writers -- not even a mention of the art team. Artist appreciation and credit lags far behind where they should be, in both reviews and features. The reasons for that, and how to fix it, is another column in itself. But at the very least, always mention the people you're working with, even if the interviewer doesn't ask. You're all in this together. Act like it.


Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "John Carter: Warlord of Mars" for Dynamite, "Skylanders" for IDW, "The Protectors" for Athlitacomics on Madefire, and Sunday-style strips "The Mucker" and "Korak" for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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