Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Headline: Writing and Comic Book Writing NOT "same thing"

Now, undoubtedly you've thought this at some point, but I'm here to say there is a difference between writing and comic book writing. However, it may not be what you think.

Now, popular myth has it that comic book writing is a lesser form of writing. To begin with, I'm opposed to the idea of "lesser forms of writing". Try and write a cookbook well, that junk is hard. Anyway, in my experience people who seem to write "normal" things like novels well don't always do so well at comic book writing. For example, let's take Laurel K. Hamilton. She no doubt thought that turning her Anita Blake books into comics would be easy and help her capitalize on the Buffy crowd. Not so, Ms. Hamilton! I made a long desperate attempt to read Anita Blake: Guilty Pleasures, but had to stop after three chapters. I will read almost any comic book, it has to be really bad to make me stop.

There are two crucial elements Ms. Hamilton missed in the transition here: 1)timing and well...for lack of a better term...2)graphic storytelling understanding.

1)Let's start with the easier one to explain: timing. Comic book, graphic novels, and whatever else you like to call the same medium have a unique sense of timing to non-visual fiction. You can't draw everything that happens in a story, so you have to plot the pictures in such a way as to tell the story smoothly, clearly, and at an appropriate pace. Passage of time is an extremely difficult skill to master. My best tips for someone having trouble with this are: A)note light quality for your artist, B) intersperse story, and C)don't be afraid to date.

A)Noting light quality is self explanatory. Let your artist know whether it's morning, afternoon, twilight, or night. You can't just expect them to know. You will get what you put in.

B)Interspersing story may be something that comes naturally to you. Most comics will have more than one thing going on at a time. You can use this to your advantage or detriment. If you keep tabs on all these stories, you can intersperse them. Say that Story A has two characters who are catching up with one another. Assume we've already heard the story that Character A is telling Character B. At this point you can cut to story B where two other guys are robbing a warehouse. When we get back to Story A, the conversation has been had, time has passed, and we can continue with the story.

C)Don't be afraid to date. Your personal life aside, you should never be afraid to make your self a timeline of your story. When it doubt about the flow, this timeline can make a physical appearance in your story. It's okay to tell people things happen on a certain date or at a certain time, as long as your methodology is consistent.

2) Alright, that leaves us with the puzzle that is graphic storytelling. Where a lot of people screw this up is trying to adapt books directly. Even if you like the way something sounds or is written, that doesn't mean it has a place in the comic. In Creative Writing class in college (and most everywhere else) you are hammered with the maxim "show not tell". The idea is that rather than saying someone is happy, you can say that "a smile teased the edge of her lips. He had never seen her smile" or some such. With comics you have to take it a step further to "show not 'show'". What's that you say, that doesn't make any sense, let me explain:

The hardest thing for a writer to do is to put faith in the artist to get their meaning across. Writers are, by nature, solitary. They craft their own work from beginning to end. Comics, however, are a team sport. You have to have a picture of the person smiling just a little and perhaps your caption can say, "He had never seen her smile". The text of the comic should always relate to what's in the picture but should never tell the reader what's in the picture. It is hard to strike the balance, especially when writing from a P.O.V., between storyteller and narrator. The easiest thing for me to do has been to really think in terms of stream of consciousness. Not that you should write everything the character thinks, but that rather than writing "I jumped to avoid the laser" you should instead write "That almost hit me! She's getting better." A great place to see this in action is almost any spidey or Batman comic.

Well, until next time, show by showing not by "showing"!


  1. Love this post! As a person who is a writer and a lover of comic books, I have to say, you're on to something...

  2. There is a difference! Comic book writing is nonsensical and stupid. Pure journalism for online news websites/blogs, print magazines and newspapers all depend on content but in most cases are much higher forms of writing than any comic book. Even Kids preschool books are more highly regarded than a comic book, especially Marvel Comics.

    Comic books are a thing of teenage fantasy and nostalgia for adult men and sometimes women. The stories are nonsensical, have bad narrative, no continuity, lack exposition, sexually exploit women and are made to sell thousands of copieas to rake in profits with before eventually translating to a movie franchise if popular enough. This is the holy grail of all comic books. Unless you are Alan Moore, as a writer of a comic you will not win the Nobel Peace prize. The character on the cover is what sells and gives the major companies what they need (Disney for Marvel Comics and Warner Bros for DC). Its is disposable entertainment and a print/digital medium that can be trashed like any issue of an old newspaper or magazine in metal waste paper basket or you're digital desktop's Recycle Bin. Cheap, lo-fi garbage form of entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less.