The following is a guest post delivered to me by Curt Pires, a fellow comics writer.
THE WRITE STUFF: Writing Comics, by Curt Pires
So you want to be a real life bonified comic book writer? Great. Welcome to the club. There’s lots of us. We have tee shirts. And debt. Lots of it.
All kidding aside, comics can be one of the most rewarding mediums to both read, and write. When something works it works. There is nothing like the well-oiled machine of a well produced, strongly written comic. Nothing. Comics can take us places, make us feel things, and pull things out of us that we didn’t even know were inside of us in the first place.
The reading and writing of comics are fundamentally intertwined. If a comic is written poorly, it will read as such. If a comic is overwritten and filled with word after word of useless dialogue, it will read as such.
The idea of a comic being too wordy is a difficult one to wrap one’s head around. As is the idea of a comic not having enough words. This is simply because this is such a subjective thing. There is no barometer for the proper structure of a comic, the proper amount of words to put in a book (some people will tell you there is, but that is BS in my humble opinion, my friends). There is no engrained historical document, written on a piece of parchment with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Simon and Schuster’s signature’s on it saying “ There shall be no more than …. Words on the page”.
The thing is, we don’t need such a document. You know. You just know. When you read a book, and you have that feeling in the pit of your stomach that wow, that was totally not 3.99 worth of comic. We’ve all had that feeling. Sometimes it’s a really good comic too, and it just is so stretched out, so widescreen that we feel like as cool as it is, not much has happened.
Other times though, wow. We find that comic, that comic that you read, and think, “ Wow, this was a steal”. This was more than 2.99 0f comic. This is theft under. This is magic.
It’s all in the structure. Which just happens to be a key part of writing and constructing your narrative!
LETS TALK ABOUT STRUCTURE. HYPER COMPRESSION VS. DE-COMPRESSION
Fundamentally, on the spectrum of comics we have the ideas of what I refer to as “Hyper Compression” and “ De-Compression”. Imagine them on a scale like this:
With all other comics falling somewhere in between these two end points.
A Hyper compressed Comic, is one that is “dense” one that is a read and a half, these comics often employee a higher panel and word count. You don’t typically see splash pages in these comics, and they often feel like you’re actually reading something.
An example of this, perhaps the quintessential example of this working, is Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbon’s “Watchmen”. Moore utilizes a 9-panel grid for the majority of the work, with heavy amounts of both narrative, and conversational dialogue.
Comics such as this serve as big, meaty, enjoyable chunks of media when done properly, and force their creators to stretch their respective storytelling muscles. If Moore weren’t as strong of a writer, this page would have been an utter mess. It would have been an absolute chore to read. If Gibbon’s weren’t the great storyteller he was, and had not figured out the composition of these shots and to tell the story in an effective manner, whilst leaving room for Moore’s rather meaty amount of text, it would not work. When this works, boy does it work. But when it doesn’t? It’s probably one of the most tedious reading experiences you can subject a reader to.
Side note: I’d feel horrible if I didn’t mention another brilliant comic that makes use of this 9-panel grid structure frequently. The brilliant “Fell” by Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith.
Hyper compressed style storytelling doesn’t strictly limit itself to a 9-panel grid. There are many other ways, and methods to achieve this style of storytelling, many of which in fact utilize splash pages, and various layouts.
A prime example of a title employing this style of storytelling is Matt Fraction’s CASANOVA. Originally (similarly to Fell) CASANOVA was part of Image Comics’ “SLIMLINE” imprint of titles. Basically these Slimline titles were 1.99 16-page comics. 16, pages !!!??? How can sixteen pages of comics be satisfying, you ask?
It can. See what Fraction does here, is he makes EVERY word, EVERY panel count. There is literally zero fat in these books. Every bit of text, every piece of information is here because it pulls you further into the world that Fraction is trying to build, and moves the story forward. Fraction is taking the reader further in these sixteen pages then some writers do in 40.
He uses Dialogue as a weapon. Each caption, each uttered syllable is conveying the essence of what CASANOVA is, whilst pulling them forward. So while the book is rather caption and dialogue heavy, it never becomes a chore to read, like some other titles that employ similar word counts.
The key point I’m trying to make here, is that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to write a wordy book, as long as those books are engaging, mean something, and keep your reader interested.
When writing a piece of Dialogue it sometimes helps to ask this question:
Do I need this? Does the reader?
Sometimes when writing comics the best thing to do is pull yourself out of the writer’s chair, and into the headspace of the reader. Imagine yourself reading this peace of work you are writing, and your honest to goodness critical reaction to it.
We’ve all turned out rough early drafts, in which we look at and shutter in utter dismay, before we sanctimoniously toss them into the embers of a freshly lit garbage can to help wipe the stench and shame out of our minds. It’s okay. We all suck sometimes.
The important thing is being able to realize when you are sucking, and stop it.
Your words need to mean something. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to be wordy, wanting to unleash your inner Sorkin, and just overwrite dialogue.
But guess what? You’re not as good as Sorkin. (Neither am I.) So rather then trying to wow your reader with your conversationalist zing, and witticisms, tell your story!
Just tell it! Use as many words as you need, but don’t get so overwhelmed by the physical process of creating the comic, that you undermine your core goal, of creating an enjoyable and consumable comic.
DECOMPRESSED COMICS: Or The Dawn of Widescreen
During the late nineties early two thousands, a new style of comic storytelling emerged. It was big, bold, extremely decompressed and referred to as: “Widescreen Comics”.
The pioneering comic of this movement that some people would even credit with the creation of this movement was Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s “ The Authority”.
Interesting thing about the Authority, and many of other of Ellis’ work is that while the comic retains an inherently widescreen structure, they are strikingly good. There is a definite validity to this style of comic, as it is comparatively similar to attending a popcorn movie in the summer.
The movement of these “Widescreen” style comics absolutely took off, and lead to a more standardized decompressed approach to comics (at least at the Big Two). Comics such as The Ultimate’s, JLA, New Avengers, Wolverine, Fantastic Four, all took on this approach, to varying success.
Here is where I feel the problem arises in this approach to comic structure. Collectively this approach has been so whole-heartedly embraced, that we are writing with the trade in mind as opposed to the issue.
Instead of writing comics that read great on their own, we are reconstructing them as chapters in a trade, slices of a big, “real” story that we want to tell.
This again has to do with that feeling that as a consumer you are not getting your 2.99 or 3.99 worth of comic.
Again, I think books like this can absolutely be done well, but to achieve this you have to really flex your creative muscles. Balancing widescreen action with character development, dialogue, and story progression is a hard task. It’s a task that even the pros have trouble doing within the confines of 20-22 pages (notice how almost every book Bryan Hitch draws is JUMBO sized.) Think about the books like this that worked: Millar’s Ultimates (just Ultimates, Ultimate Avengers falls into the category of being too decompressed) Ellis’ Authority, Bendis’ Avengers, Morrison’s All-Star Superman. They work because they tow the line. They are not afraid to spend 5 pages showing you an intense, nutty, action sequence. However, they are also not afraid to spend time showing you character moments, and conversational pieces.
If you want to write a book like this, you need to recognize this. The book isn’t going to work if it is just 22 pages of Splashes devoid of any genuine emotion, truth, or character building. However, by the same token, your book may not work if it is just 22 pages of conversations.
I could honestly talk about the structure and mechanics behind comics forever. I could fill Adam’s site up with more posts than anyone would ever care to read, and it wouldn’t be enough. So I guess if you’re going to take one thing out of this let it be that writing comics is about finding BALANCE. It’s about being able to call yourself out on your own bullshit and finding a way of making your book, your story, worth spending the time to look at. Making it enjoyable for whoever takes that chance.
What more can you really ask for?
Curt Pires is a writer based out of Calgary Alberta, Canada. When he is not busy growing a mustache or walking his dog Mojo, he writes and reads comic books. You can connect with him on Twitter @CurtPires, or send your hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org . Check out his webcomic POPTRASH at poptrashcomic.wordpress.com