Writing Comics: First Points

Comics is a very versatile medium that’s got possibilities that people have not even begun to touch…

Alan Moore, interviewed in the fanzine Zarjaz #3

I take the same approach to writing a comic as writing a script; I flesh it out panel by panel, page by page, rather than doing a plot and letting the artist break it down. Not because I don’t think the artist can or should, but because I just don’t know how to write it any other way. I need to see it in my head, shot for shot, or I can’t follow or create the narrative.

J. Michael Straczynski on writing comics, March 2000

Writing comics is not easy. It takes determination, perseverance and lots of practice, whether you’re an aspiring writer or artist.

 If you didn’t already know it, there are one heck of a lot of people out there who think they have what it takes as a writer or an artist to make it in the industry. The fact that 95 per cent of these people haven’t got a clue is neither here nor there. These 95 per cent are the ones who bombard editors both in the UK and the US with their work, without undertaking the basics that every comics editor wants to see.

If you want to shine in the unsolicited slush pile your work must be polished, take on board the current trends in the market and particularly those of the company you’re aiming at. It has to be something the editor wants to see, be they working on Thomas the Tank Engine or 2000AD. And on that subject, be prepared for the inevitable possibility that you’re more likely to get work on a junior title than the dizzying heights of the titles your regularly read.

Many an artist and writer I worked with on Marvel UK titles such as Death’s Head II, Warheads and Overkill etc. learnt their trade writing or drawing The Real Ghostbusters and Thundercats. Grant Morrison started his career by writing Zoids, among other things. If you’re self-employed and still learning, nothing should be beneath you.

COMIC STORYTELLING TIPS THAT WORK…

1) Write or draw anything. Practice. Read and watch things that aren’t action adventure or comics. Go to the theatre. Watch movies. There is often more characterization in one episode of a good episode of the British TV soap Coronation Street than 20 episodes of X-Blobs from Mingo.

As for classic fiction, it’s as good a place to start as any. Novelist Orson Scott Card once wrote: “I don’t know how anyone can be a writer of fiction in any genre without being deeply immersed in the lives of real people as recorded by historians and biographers.”

That said, if you find a comic and style you like, don’t be afraid to ask yourself “Why?” – What made the characters interesting? What made the artwork stand out above all the other comics you might have bought in the last month?

Like books, 90 per cent of comics are rubbish and like those books, just as unmemorable. But the best drawn, best written comics are always those that stand the test of time – and keep a writer or artist in work in a very competitive market place.

2) Self publish if you can afford it. Much easier these days now you can publish online! Good editors like to see published work, even published work in fanzines. I started my career in comics by publishing my own fanzine. It never made any money and we only ever produced 200 copies every issue, but several people who started with work in it have gone on to work in comics, including myself. Dave Jones now works on Viz and Nick Miller has drawn for many comics, as well as occasionally continuing to draw The Really Heavy Greatcoat just for the heck of it. (My co-editor, Matt Bingham, has worked for magazines like FHM but that’s another story).

Many top name comic authors have done nothing but publish their own work, to considerable success. Dave Sim’s Cerberus is the archetypal example, Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore’s From Hell, Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright or Paul Grist’s Jack Staff or Kane. There are others, such as the delightful Strangehaven, but they are sadly still few and far between. Comics are still dominated by the big publishers such as Marvel, DC and Dark Horse, each with their own very different attitudes towards storytelling, creator’s rights, royalties and the like. These major companies are where most of the work is and probably your first targets when it comes to trying to get work.

3) When you get work, be prepared to revise your astonishingly brilliant storyline or art when the editor asks you to. The nature of mainstream comics is that a comic is created by more than one hand — mainly the writer and artist, but also the editor, editor-in-chief etc. Be prepared to compromise but learn your own tolerances when it comes to resisting the ‘suggestions’ of those above you, especially if you feel the the suggested changes are wrong and alter the basic essence of the story you’re pitching. If it was good enough to be accepted, it’s good enough to sell elsewhere if things are going horribly wrong for you. And when an editor changes the names of all your characters without consulting you, I think you have every right to blow a gasket!

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a “freelance comics operative”, currently working as a freelance editor for TITAN COMICS, as Creative Consultant on the new DAN DARE audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the LAKES INTERNATIONAL COMIC ART FESTIVAL and LANCASTER COMICS DAY.

John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years, starting out at Marvel UK, where he edited a number of the Genesis 1992 books with Paul Neary. His numerous credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines, where he was Managing Editor.

He also edited STRIP Magazine and worked as an editor on several audio comics for ROK Comics, including TEAM M.O.B.I.L.E. and THE BEATLES STORY.

Most recently he is writing CRUCIBLE as a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and DEATH DUTY and SKOW DOGS with Dave Hailwood for the digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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