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Monday, February 16, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, Part 2: Nuts and Bolts

by Henry Vogel

Last week I tried to give you an idea of what it's like to be a comic book writer. Today I'm going to start on the actual nuts and bolts of writing a comic book.

Writing a comic book has more in common with writing a screenplay than it does writing a novel. In both cases, the writer is providing descriptions of the action that will be created by others. Where a novelist has to describe everything to his readers, the comic book writer merely has to describe things to his artist. If he and the artist tend to think alike, those descriptions can be fairly minimal. There are two methods comic book writers use to present their stories to the artists: full script, and plot first.

Full Script
Back in the old days, this was also called "DC style" as DC Comics required full scripts from their writers. These days I suspect most comic books are written using this format. In a full script, the writer describes the scene for each panel then follows the description with the captions, thoughts and dialogue that are to appear in the panel. I'll provide an example in a later column, but if you want a quick look now, go here.

The advantage to writing a full script is that you're finished with that issue of the comic book once you finish with the script. The next time the writer sees his work is when the completed issue is delivered. That's also the disadvantage to this approach.

If the artist failed to draw something you felt was important, you won't know about it in time to request any changes. You may also have written a caption or some dialogue that describes what is plainly evident through the artwork. A panel might end up with artwork showing Superman flying out a window and have a caption that reads, "Superman flew out of the window." Describing the artwork is very bad form in modern comic books. It was more common in the past when action descriptions were not very detailed and writers included captions like that just in case the artist failed to draw what they expected. Full scripts, at least the ones from the high-stature writers, tend to be much more detailed these days, avoiding such issues.

Plot First
Back in the old days, this was called "Marvel style." To the best of my knowledge, Stan Lee developed this approach because it allowed him to write faster than the full script approach. "Plot first" is just what it sounds like. The writer prepares a plot for the artist, describing the action in brief terms. If dialogue is included, it's just to give the artist the gist of what's being said so the artist can better convey emotions. As the artist completes pages, he mails them to the writer in batches of six to eight pages (or whatever number of pages you and the artist agree upon). The writer then prepares the script—captions, thoughts and dialogue—using the completed pages as a guide. Back when I was writing, the artwork and script were then sent to the letterer, who would write the script directly on the pages. Now that lettering is handled by computer after the pages are inked, full-sized photocopies of the pages are sent to the writer while the actual pages are sent to the inker.

The advantage to this approach is that the writer gets to see the comic book pages before scripting them. In the rare case where the artist missed something, it's not too late to have some changes made. More importantly, the artwork can inspire the writer's script. Sometimes that's because the artwork evokes emotions that really spark the writer's imagination. Sometimes that's because the artist left a lot more white space than the writer anticipated, forcing him to fill that space with text to avoid having a page of the comic book look nearly blank. I've faced both of these situations numerous times and produced some of my best scripting as a result.

The disadvantage to this approach is that there's an extra step in the process. That means there's an extra chance for something to go wrong. If the writer is working on another project, completion of the script may be delayed. Back when the artwork and script went to the letterer and then to the inker, any delay in completing the script would also delay the completion of the comic book. Now that artwork can go straight to inking, with lettering added by computer, the writer has a little more breathing-room to complete the script.

So, which approach should you use? If you're writing the comic book for a publishing company, that decision will likely be made for you by the company. These days, most comic book companies prefer full scripts. Full scripts are much easier for editors as they can deal with the writer's entire contribution to the comic book at one time. If you're working on your own, either to self-publish or web-publish, use the system that works best for you and your artist.

For what it's worth, I have always preferred the plot first method, writing full scripts only when working for a comic book publisher who required it. My reasoning is simple; I'm lazy. It's much easier for me to write up a plot and then write the script as artwork arrives than it is to write a full script. But I also prefer the plot first method because I have been inspired by the artwork to produce better scripts than I would have produced otherwise.

Next week I'll cover some things every comic book writer must consider and we'll actually begin the job of writing an issue of a comic book.

Any questions?

Part Three, coming Monday, 2/23/09

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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