Comic creator Warren Ellis – author of Trees, Injection, Ministry of Space and whose fanzines I bought back in the 1980s when we met at the Westminster Comic Mart days, publishes an entertaining weekly newsletter, Orbital Operations (subscribe here), covering all manner of subjects – and not just about his own work. This week, he offered this great advice to comic writers that I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing…
You learn to write from reading books, and living your life, and investigating the inside of your own head. Next, you learn how to write comics by pulling them apart and studying their innards to see how they work. This is how you end up as a 24/7 comics writer and also a terrifying shut-in who will eventually go nuts in a very public way and conclude your career as a figure in a newspaper photo captioned FOREST CREATURE SUBDUED BY POLICE TASERS.
But I’m serious. You are going to learn how to do this – learn your own way to manage the difference in pacing between eight pages and twenty-two pages and one hundred and twenty pages, learn how to achieve effects in timing and drama and emotional nuance, learn when to talk and when to shut up – by studying the best comics you can find, and tearing them apart and seeing how they do things and then stealing the tools you can use and adapting them into your own style.
You are going to want to read broadly. Make yourself read things you wouldn’t ordinarily look at. If superheroes are your favourite, then make yourself read Carla Speed McNeil or Dan Clowes or Marjane Satrapi. If you only read science fiction comics, then force yourself to look at Hugo Pratt and Eddie Campbell and Svetlana Chmakova.
Growing up, my favourite comics writer was Alan Moore. But I learned just as much, if not more, from studying Eddie Campbell, Philippe Druillet, Bryan Talbot, Glenn Dakin, Carol Swain, Will Eisner and a hundred other people.
Read comics. All comics. And then cut them open to steal their power.