Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Hard Time

Comic books are a mongrel medium. They’re not purely literature, though words are, more often than not, a crucial part. They’re not entirely visual, but without the images, then they just wouldn’t be comics. It’s a mutt.

For us, the reason why writing one was so friggin’ hard was that we’d never thought about that before. Writing comics (at least writing a full script, as we did, instead of a mere plot) demands that you retain control of both of those worlds, the textual and the visual.

Screenwriting, prose writing, poetry, frankly, every other kind of writing is different. You look to use the word to evoke something in the mind of the reader. How that reader turns those words into images is up to him or her.

But comics dictate that the writer decide exactly what the reader will see*. Writing comics is the discipline of choosing moments in time, the right moments that will most effectively tell the story. (In screenwriting, the director—your penultimate reader—is the one who decides how to most effectively tell the story. It’s not up to the writer to say “This needs to be a 3/4 shot from the rear, because that’s how we’ll get the most emotional resonance.” Put that in a script and see if anyone ever calls you back.)

And choosing those moments is hard, especially if you’ve never done it before. Neither Adam nor I had ever thought about the conceptual work it would take to simply get a character across the room to open a door. How many panels for the walk? Two? One to turn the knob? Another for the door opening? And yet another to see who’s behind it? That’s a whole page of a comic book, lost on a mundane movement. In a screenplay, you can just write: “Yakima walks across the room and opens the door. He didn’t expect the hormonal grizzly on the other side.” In comics, that’s a whole other proposition.

Then, figuring out how many panels would comfortably fit on a page, how many word balloons would fit in a panel, how many words you could fit in a balloon, keeping track of where the spreads fall, establishing a rhythm, a pace, that suited each scene, learning how to use the size of panels to convey speed... This is stuff that just washes over you as a reader, because the worth-his-salt-and-hence-already-published writer knows what he's doing.

The first few weeks of writing Monster Island hurt my brain real bad. Remember that scene in Rocky III (really, the best of all the Rockys, I don't care what you say. The Goldfinger of Rockys.) when Apollo, Rocky's new trainer, has the Italian Stallion start swimming “so he can learn to use muscles he never knew he had?” Bingo.

I told a friend that the experience was a little like playing Seven Minutes in Heaven (you remember this high-pressure high school game, right? Locked in a closet with a member of the opposite sex? Jeez…back in time with you, then. You clearly don't have enough shame in your life.): I’m in the dark. I’m a little giddy, but also a little afraid of embarassment. I know that what I want is around here somewhere. If I keep stumbling around, hopefully I’ll find it.

* For the purposes of this post, I am ignoring the artist’s vast contributions to comic book genesis. The artist is, in a way, the first and most important reader: How he interprets the words on the page will have a massive impact on how every subsequent reader will experience the story. But that’s for another time.


Michael said...

Looking forward to reading Monster Attack Network. Sounds like a hoot.

I do find it strange that you're omitting the artist (purposefully as you note) when you talk about what the reader sees in a comic.

I believe some comic writing styles (notably the traditional "Marvel style") don't rely heavily on the writer providing scenes and then you have Alan Moore, spelling out what's on the posters on the fourth building behind the prostitute standing beside the protagonist. And everything in between.

So the artist (as you fully acknowldge) can potentially impact a great deal what is seen - not that you, as the writer, aren't thinking about that - but you do have the option of giving up some of that control. (And aren't you forced to give up some of that anyway unless you are say the status of Alan Moore - and even then...)

Looking forward to more of your blog and your book!

marc bernardin said...

Thanks for the kind words, Michael. And you're right, some comic-writing styles do just ask for the writer to provide a general plot, leaving the artist to decide how to break down that plot into panels.

But most of the writers I know, most of the ones I follow, don't work that way because they want a bit more say in exactly what happens in their books and, more to the point, how it happens.

When I first talked to Larry about doing a book I asked him in what format I should write--full script or Marvel-style plot. He recommended that, since we didn't know at that point who the artist would be, a full script would be, from a storytelling point of view, safer. Less margins for error.

But I'd be lying if I didn't say that at some point during the writing, Adam and I weren't kinda wishing were were doing a plot...