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Monday, February 23, 2009

Writing for Comic Books, Part 3: Starting to Write

by Henry Vogel
Part One | Part Two

Welcome to part three of writing for comic books. This is the part where we actually begin to do some writing. But before we do, there is one other thing to consider. Once you're actually writing a comic book, you'll already know the answer to the question I ask below, and once you've gotten into the writing, you'll automatically take it into consideration with every issue you write.

What kind of comic book are you writing?
This question is not about the genre you're writing for. It doesn't matter whether you're writing a superhero, fantasy, romance, or mystery comic book. It does matter whether you're writing an ongoing series, such as The Amazing Spider-Man, or a limited series, such as The Watchmen.

If you're writing an ongoing series, chances are you'll have first-time readers for every issue. You can't count on those readers knowing anything about your characters or your setting. What does that mean to you? It means you have to briefly introduce your characters in every issue.

If you've ever read The Amazing Spider-Man for any length of time, you've probably noticed that Aunt May was always referred to as "frail" either in a caption or one of Peter Parker's thought-bubbles. Far more often than not, you'll find a quick reference to Uncle Ben being killed in a robbery attempt. On the splash page of every issue you'll find an abbreviated recap of how Peter became Spider-Man.

If that kind of thing is considered necessary for a character as well-known as Spider-Man, you'll definitely want something similar for any original, ongoing series you write. In part one I mentioned writing The Southern Knights. If you haven't known me for a couple of decades, chances are you have no idea who the Southern Knights are. That's why we added the following text on our splash pages very early in the series:
David Shenk - alias Electrode - Atlanta's first and foremost protector. Connie Ronnin - wielder of the psychic sword. Dragon - the last of his race, able to assume the human guise of Mark Dagon. Kristin Austin - petite, but endowed with incredible strength. Together, they are the Southern Knights!
It's a fairly short bit of text but it gives a new reader a surprising amount of information that will make following the story easier. Just by reading it you learn the setting, Atlanta; the names of the main characters; and the aliases of the characters who have them. You also learn a bit about their powers. You may not know what a "psychic sword" is but the first time you see a woman wielding a sword, you know it's Connie. If you see a small woman picking up a car and throwing it, you know it's Kristin.

What if you're writing a limited series? Chances are the people who pick up an issue have also picked up any previous issues. Like most people, comic book fans want to read a story from the beginning. That simplifies things, as you don't have to keep introducing your characters each issue. On the other hand, you do want to make sure your readers remember what was going on in previous issues. In this case, a handy Our Story So Far bit on the inside cover will take care of things just fine. It's not unheard of to use this approach in an ongoing series if the series has a long and complex storyline. One of my favorite comics, Fables, uses that approach.

To answer my own question, we're going to be writing a story for the Southern Knights, meaning it's expected to be an ongoing series.

What are we going to write?
Considering where this column is appearing, you're probably already a writer. You know that coming up with story ideas is generally the easiest part of writing, so I'm not going to try to give you any tips for coming up with good ideas. I am going to explain where the idea for my story came from.

This idea was for a planned return to print for The Southern Knights. It didn't happen, but that's another story. Most ongoing comic book titles, and certainly all superhero titles, start off with an "origin" issue in which the heroes gain their powers or meet each other for the first time. This gives the writer the perfect excuse to explain a lot about the characters to the readers without having a lot of sentences that begin with "As you know..."

That wasn't going to work for the Knights. Their origin issue came out in 1982 and their last appearance in print form was in 1993. And, as the "big" thing to explain about a superhero is his or her power, the obvious way to start things off was with a big fight scene. Starting with a big action scene also gets your story off with a bang and sometimes helps attract new readers to your comic book.

So, who are the Knights fighting? I needed something that would allow each member of the team to show off his or her powers. After a bit of thinking, I chose a couple of big human-controlled robots—battlemechs for those who are fans of the Battletech universe. They are big, strong, not very mobile, and come with lots of different weapons I can use to show off powers.

Where are they fighting? I wanted something iconic to Atlanta and capable of putting lots of innocent people in danger. Anyone who has ever driven south into Atlanta on I-85 would recognize where I-85 and I-285 intersect. It's one of those modern-art-looking interchanges with a half-dozen overpasses crisscrossing all over the place. At rush hour, it's also 12 lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Why are the big robots attacking? I don't know nor do I care. This is an intro fight that is probably never going to figure into any future stories. It's like the opening gambit in a Bond movie, in that sense.

Okay, I've got the gist of the fight scene, but that's hardly a story. I was actually on a business trip when all of this came up. That meant I was staying in a hotel that shoved a newspaper under my door every morning. It just so happened that the sports page that morning had featured a story about professional sports franchises threatening to move to another city if their current city didn't cough up big bucks for a new stadium or some other stupid concession. Since the economic impact of a sports franchise on a city is minimal, keeping the franchise is always about a city's image. But why limit that to sports teams? If even a crappy NFL franchise helps a city's image, what would a good superhero team do for it? And if cities would line up to offer all sorts of concessions for a sports franchise, wouldn't they be even more interested in a superhero team that could make their city safer?

Okay, so I've got a warped imagination. But I really liked the idea. What would Atlanta do if they thought the Southern Knights were looking to relocate to another city? And what would other cities offer to get their own superhero team?

So, we've got the basics of our story: a big fight that segues into a lot of cities bidding against each other trying to land a superhero "franchise."

Now we're ready to write that plot or full script, right? Not quite. This next bit of advice is something that I learned from one of my editors. It's not a required step, but I found it helped a lot. It's sort of like a story outline, although specifically aimed at the comic book format. The idea is take a regular sheet of notebook paper, number the lines from one to whatever the last page of the book will be, and then write a single sentence summarizing what happens on that page.

Most comic book stories are 22 pages long. The publisher who wanted to bring back the Knights published 28-page stories. Here is the 28-line "outline" for the story:

1. The Knights are fighting two battlemechs at I-85 and I-295.
2. Some Knights fight, some work to get bystanders to safety.
3. A missile is launched, Dragon and Kristin save the day.
4. Flying circles around a mech, Electrode shorts out some controls.
5. Connie uses her sword to deal with the pilot of the damaged mech.
6. Aramis under Electrode's guidance, levitates then drops the other mech.
Note to column readers: Aramis joined the team long after the intro blurb was written. He's a sorcerer.
7. The other mech is overheating so Kristin throws it far from the highway.
8. Electrode causes the mech to overheat and explode.
9. A bystander whose car was trashed in the fight blames Kristin for the loss.
10. Kristin stalks away muttering about what Atlanta would do if the Knights left.
11. Kristin's comments turn up on the nightly news as "Knights leaving Atlanta?"
12. Reporter gives brief overview of the Knights time in Atlanta.
13. Overview continues, includes more detailed character introductions.
14. Reporter editorializes about how Atlanta has welcomed the Knights.
15. Scenes of post-fight destruction are shown as reporter hopes Knights do leave.
16. Story is front page news, Knights figure it will blow over.
17. Representative from Miami pitches his city as a great place to fight crime.
18. Charlotte representative shows up and pitches for his city.
19. Raleigh-Durham offers high tech facilities and great basketball.
20. Orlando arrives with Disney characters but Knights have had enough.
21. Knights make everyone leave and Bryan (grounds keeper) puts up "Keep Out" signs.
22. Morning newspaper reports "Knights Favor Denver". Huh? Bryan got irritated and blurted out first city that came to mind to a reporter.
23. Denver mayor calls, delegation is being prepared. Knights realize something must be done.
24. Knights meet Atlanta city officials who think Knights want "concessions" to stay.
25. Kristin literally shakes some sense into a particularly angry councilman.
26. Big news conference to announce Knights are staying.
27. Reporter who started it all badgers Knights to find out what city is giving Knights to stay.
28. Knights put reporter in her place. Everyone is happy except the reporter.

So, that's the general story. And here's a quick confession; the story is padded. I'm used to writing 22-page stories. What you've got up there is a 22-page story padded out to make 28 pages.

Next week we'll turn the outline into the plot I was going to send to the artist. The week after that, we'll turn parts of it into a full script.

I hope you all learned a bit more about writing comic books this week. As usual, please don't hesitate to post any questions you have.

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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