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Friday, July 28, 2006

I ran a comics pitch o'mine past my comics artist friend-I've-never-met Kody Chamberlain, asking if I'd successfully adapted my thinking to the medium of comics. He had some really smart points to make about comics in general, which deserve reprinting:
The usual conversion problems from film scripts I've seen adapted for comics is the subtle stuff and the times a screenwriter might rely on acting or direction to bring something new to the words. For the most part, subtle things don't work well, unless it's a still image. A photograph of a moment instead of a subtle motion. An easy example that comes to mind is something like a head nod. It just doesn't translate to comics well. So instead of a head nod, it might be a wink, because a wink doesn't require motion. We can just show one eye closed in the panel with a little bit of a smile. Stuff like that.

But on the writing end, I'd say try to avoid leaving anything up to the acting to tell the story. Depending on the artist, some can do acting and some can't. Most are able to do talking heads and maybe a hint of emotion in the faces and body language. I do try and pride myself on being able to do some acting in the comics since I try and use photo reference of myself whenever I can. I get up in front of the camera and act out the scene when I shoot the reference. Body language, facial expression, etc. I think it helps a bit in the final product.

I also try and control lighting and color for mood when I can. As a safe bet, it's probably smart to assume your art may come in as nothing more than stick figures with no faces. As long as your dialogue and panel descriptions hold up (and your artist actually follows those) you're in a pretty good spot. You've covered the story and it works. Hopefully your artist will bring in some new things, that's his job, fill in the blanks and pull that reality that directors and actors and sountrack bring to a film or TV, or add some unexpected angle to a panel that makes it come alive.

But they may not. Your artist may see something different in the panel, or miss some emotional beat you expected. Most things are open to interpretation. A lot of the Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore stuff has incredibly well written dialogue and pacing. I imagine they mostly write for the balloons and detailed settings instead of putting too much guesswork in the hands of the artist. They could probably use stick figures in their comics and the stories would still work great. Not as well, but they'd still work.

In your books you talk about how we have the internal in novels that we don't have in film. We have to see or hear everything, or it's not there. I suppose this is the equivalent in comics. From what I've seen working with writers like Niles and Giffen, they put the important stuff in the balloons and the setting. When they get the art, and I've done my job and made it come to life or hit the emotional beat they intended, they'll sometimes remove that part of the dialogue in the final rewrite of the page. If I suck, they might leave it in.

But the advantages of comics make up for a lot of that. We can be very personal, very direct, and not have to rely on a committee, egos, and the whole set of problems that come with that. The storytelling vision is very direct, and can usually be presented in the exact form you intended it to be without creative limitations or bullying from outside forces. That's really one of my favorite things about comics. It's very direct from the creator to the reader. But we can also hold a moment in time longer since the page turn controls the pace, not the projector. We can hide a million clues in a single panel and hold the reader's attention for as long as we'd like. We can show them something on page 9 that makes them flip back and study page 2 again. Something they missed and we point it out later on. It can be interactive. An often overlooked storytelling device in comics.

Alan Moore and Warren Ellis write a lot about these sorts of things and have some amazing insights into the storytelling advantages in comics.


Couldn't agree more with Kody. If you don't the capabilities [and quirks] or your artist [hell, you might not even know who the artist is going to be when you start], it's safer to over-write, if you've got the chance to edit your script after the pencils/finished art is done.

Warning: personal anecdote follows!

I once wrote a rather bad story for 2000 AD about a lone gunman preparing to assassinate President Richard Nixon from the Texas Book Depository building in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Yes, you guessed it, the lone gunman was JFK. [Told it was rather bad, didn't I?]

Anyway, I thought the artist should have no problems rendering a likeness of one of America's most famous presidents, so I didn't bother to include a caption box in the final panel when the assassin's face was seen for the only time.

I didn't get to edit my script once the artwork was submitted, either.

When I got the published comic, I turned to the final page. The lone gunman? I don't know who he looked like, but it sure wasn't JFK.

Never assume anything in comics.

By Blogger DAVID BISHOP, at 4:24 PM  

Great advice, Kody. I'm new to comics (as a reader, not writer) and am amazed by how much innovation and talent there is.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 6:36 PM  

Factoid: Neil Gaiman learned how to write comics scripts from Alan Moore. I don't remember where I read this, but I'm pretty sure Gaiman has said that their scripts contain far more detail and direction (and are therefore a lot longer) than is standard.

By Blogger Katya, at 12:44 PM  

Yes. The Alan Moore's are considered mini-novels. When Joss Whedon was about to write his first comic - Fray, which I highly recommend - he'd been given a sample script of Moore's. Then he met Warren Ellis:

I met him by chance years ago. I walk into [the Hollywood comic-shop] Golden Apple, which is not my usual store because I don’t live there. And he was there doing a signing and they’re like, “Oh, it’s so good you came out for this.” And I was like, “For what?” I had no idea he was even in the country. And he was so sweet because I was just about to start “Fray” [a Whedon-authored comic-book series set centuries after the events of “Buffy”], and I had never written a comic. And he said, “Well, have you seen any scripts?” And I was like, “Uh, they sent me an Alan Moore script.” He’s like, “Oh my God, you poor thing!” I’m like, “He does describe things … a lot.” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, he’ll do three pages on one panel. I’ll send you a script and you can see how little you can get away with.”

Another way of looking at Moore's prolix scripts is this other Ellis quote: "he's got his own hole in a forest somewhere, and it's a mile across and denuded of anything that can be pulped into paper."

By Blogger R.A. Porter, at 1:56 PM  

Perhaps the kind of scripts people write is inspired by the first example they're exposed to?

Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis both credit their terse style to the first script they ever saw, a Judge Dredd story by John Wagner published in a mid-80s annual as a 'how comics are created' feature.

Wagner is the anti-Moore in terms of brevity. Dave Gibbons once memorably described a Wagner script as being 'like a series of exciting telegrams.'

By Blogger DAVID BISHOP, at 3:04 PM  

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