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Monday, February 9, 2009

Writing for Comic Books - Part 1

by Henry Vogel

Last summer I wrote a short comic book script for my entry in ~brb's "Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor meet" Friday Challenge. I received some questions about writing comics in general and ~brb asked if I'd be willing to write a column or two for The Ranting Room on the subject. Of course I said "Sure!" and then never quite completed a single column. This time, I've committed to a schedule of a column each Monday for the next several weeks. Welcome to the first column.

So, who am I to be offering advice on writing comic books? During the 1980s, I co-created and wrote two independent comic books, the Southern Knights and the Aristocratic Xtraterrestrial Time Traveling Thieves (X-Thieves for short). Back then "independent" meant that the book wasn't published by Marvel or DC. I also landed some other writing, including two issues of a three-issue run of Voltron and several issues of a spy series from a publisher who folded before a single issue was published. I also have a very small claim to fame as the first comic book professional to show up online. Back then "online" meant the Usenet and my fame now resides solely in an online FAQ for rec.arts.comics. If you're really curious, follow the link and search for my name. It's not on par with coining the word "cyberpunk" but what is?

Before we take a look at the nuts and bolts of actually writing a comic book, let's consider why you would even want to be a comic book writer. Strange question from a guy who wrote comics, right? Not necessarily.

First and foremost, comic books are a visual medium. Unless your name is Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman or someone else of their stature, that means the artist will get most of the credit for the story.

True story 1: David Kraft, who was my publisher for the majority of my comic book writing career, had a long run as the writer of The Defenders for Marvel. During that run, there was a six-issue extended story that was quite popular. If you look up that six-issue run in the Overstreet Price Guide you'll find the six issues are worth twice what the issues before and after them are worth. The Price Guide attributes the increase in value to the artist, Keith Giffen. Since Giffen was the artist for the dozen or so issues both before and after the extended story, why aren't those issues equally as valuable?

True Story 2: I've lost track of the number of times I would say, "I write comic books" or "I used to write comic books" and immediately be asked, "Oh, you draw comic books?" This happens at least eight out of ten times the subject comes up with someone who doesn't read comic books. I always correct them gently (it happens a lot during job interviews), saying I can't draw beyond basic stick figures. Half the time, the person then says, "Hmph. I didn't know anybody wrote those."

If you don't think your ego can handle this kind of benign neglect, stay away from the comic book field. So my very first bit of advice for budding comic book writers is this:

If your story idea will work as a novel just as well as a comic book, write a novel. Even superhero stories, which once appeared solely in comic books, are appearing as novels. While some of those books feature Spider-Man or Batman, meaning you have to have connections with Marvel or DC to be assigned the novel, more and more original titles are showing up. A recent example is Soon I Will Be Invincible, which I quite enjoyed. If you fail to sell it to a novel publisher, you can always consider comic books again.

As I'm not sure how much my audience knows about creating comic books, I'm going to close this column by listing each contributor to a comic book along with a brief description of what they do.

The writer writes the plot and the script. Sometimes plotting and scripting are separate jobs, sometimes not. I'll be going into that in more detail in later columns.

The penciller draws the actual comic book pages based on the plot sent by the writer. Despite the arrival of high-end computers for artists, this is still done almost entirely on bristol board specifically designed to match the dimensions of a comic book. The artist I've worked with more than any other says he doubts this will ever change. It's also worth noting that artists can't sell original comic book pages if they only exist in a virtual sense. A page featuring a popular character in action can bring a quite high price.

The inker, also sometimes called a finisher, completes the artwork by applying ink to the penciled artwork. The inker also adds texture to the artwork and corrects mistakes made by the penciller. Some people think an inker does nothing more than trace the work done by the "real" artist. Those people are badly mistaken as a talented inker can salvage a poorly drawn book and greatly enhance a well-drawn one.

The letterer used to write the comic book script directly on the comic book pages. This is one task I'm certain is done almost exclusively on the computer now. Lettering used to take place after pencils and before inks. No longer. Now the artwork is scanned and the lettering added virtually.

Finally, if the comic book is to be published in color, the colorist adds color to the finished product. Even before computers came on the scene, the colorist's work was virtual. I can't claim to know anything more about coloring than that. I expect the job is a lot easier with computers, though.

I realize I haven't actually described how to go about writing a comic book yet. This column should serve to set some expectations about what it's like to have written comic books. Next Monday I'll get started on the nuts and bolts.

Part Two: "Nuts and Bolts,"coming Monday, 2/16/09

Henry Vogel is a former comic book writer who currently makes his living as a software tester and storyteller. He posts his writing, entirely fictional, at Tales and Telling. He's also one of the prime movers behind The Curse of the Were-Weasel. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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