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Comic Book Writing
How to get started and learn the craft
by Terrance Griep, Jr.

What, exactly, is comic book writing?  That's a question people often ask me.  Just what is it that comic book writers do?

Unfortunately, most of the people who ask me this are comic book writers.  

One thing we don't do is put the word balloons into the pictures, though we do write them internally.  Confused?  Well, get comfortable, and I'll try to explain.  Slip your shoes off.  If it helps, you can read in your underwear.  I won't mind.

Seeking a Definition

The craft is a difficult one to define, for it varies from publisher to publisher.  According to Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art (Kitchen Sink Press)--for years the only serious examination of medium--the definition of comic book writing is as follows:  "The conception of an idea, the arrangement of image elements, and the construction of the sequence of the narration and the composing of dialogue.

My opinion is that writing is writing, and comic book writing differs from most other forms of literary expression in that the writer guides the efforts of the other creators (artists).  Because the images on the printed page are usually fairly detailed, the readers' imagination comes less into play; the artist is, in effect, imagining for the reader.  Since my opinion isn't incongruent with Eisner's definition, it will serve as an amiable guide to the strange and wonderful territory of comic books.

Conceiving an Idea

This aspect of comic book writing is usually broken into two components:  plotting and scripting.  Plotting is simply coming up with a page-length summary of the story you want to write.  The plot is sent to the editor, who considers and, usually, approves it.  (This, of course, assumes that the writer already has an amicable rapport with the editor.  Getting this rapport is the hard part.)

Sometimes this summary is sent on to the artist, who draws the entire comic book from the one-page plot.  The finished pages of artwork are then submitted to the editor, and, if approved, go back to the writer for captions and dialogue.  Although this antiquated agreement saves the writer time, he or she loses control over pacing and presentation, so this method of storytelling is dying a slow and much-deserved death.

Arranging the Image Elements

These days, the writer usually produces a script.  Often compared stylistically to that of a screenplay, a comic book script is much more elaborate.  With it a writer describes to the artist the general layout of the page and the specific appearance of each of the panels on that page.  The writer ascribes captions and dialogue here as well (see Adding Narration and Dialogue).

The writer provides directions first to the penciller, the person who divides the page into individual panels and sketches the story's progression within them.  This person's sketches are embellished by the inker, who, through careful application of black India Ink, adds considerably to the final look of the panel.  This ink is used to better reproduce the work.

The colorist's job, as one might guess, is to apply hues within the lines of the artwork.  Usually, little communication takes place between the writer and the colorist, although sometimes the story dictates specific instructions from the former to the latter, such as "The injured monster's blood is green.  And it's a clever metaphor for greed, doggone it!"

Adding Narration and Dialogue

Lastly, the writer directs the efforts of the letterer.  Onto this creator's shoulders falls the task of integrating the conversations and captions into the artwork.

In the script, the writer must differentiate between narration and dialogue.  Further differentiation occurs when the writer reveals the sort of dialogue taking place, telling specifically whether a given character is speaking conversationally, whispering, shouting, or thinking.

Each of these modes of communication has its own specific kind of word balloon.  (Shouting balloons are favored by editors since those denote the tones that they themselves most often use in their dialogue with the members of their creative teams.)

Seeing Inside the Process

bulletWriting visually is most important.

Remember, comic book writing is, in part, "the arrangement of image elements."  This means you need to make a story that is both interesting to draw and interesting to view.  A psychological thriller that contains little more than people speaking probably won't adapt well to the comic medium.

I once wrote a story where the hero, an outer-space adventurer visiting a far-away planet, caused an avalanche in a suicidal last resort to destroy his enemies, blood-sucking aliens.  My editor suggested the scene was not "visual enough," a situation I rectified by having the hero crawl from the detritus to find that he was the only one to have been buried in the avalanche; the aliens had leaped clear.  Now, badly mangled, he had to fight his enemies anew, only to discover that the planet's sun was about to explode (which represented the culmination of an established plot thread).  It's amazing how a picky editor can ruin not just a writer's day, but that of the main character as well.

bulletThe story must be fast-paced.

Scenes featuring "talking heads" are always interspersed among those that move the plot along through conflict.  This conflict can manifest itself in a Homeric battle between powerful armies of noble wizards and evil ogres, or it can simply show in an animated argument.

Pages with few panels are generally read faster, and they are planted strategically throughout the story.  It is an over-arching, if tacit, rule that the last panel on each page will leave the peruser wondering what will happen next and eager to read on.  Ideally, any given page could end with the ever-popular comic book adage, "To Be Continued."

Click here to read part 2

Copyright 1995-1999 Terrance Griep, Jr.  All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission. 



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