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.