THE PROSE OF COMICS
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice has taken in some $420 million worldwide. But comic books and graphic novels -- comic books being what are called the floppies like you used to find on spinner racks at the corner drugstore and graphic novels with more pages and produced in tradepaper and hardcover -- are more than just the slam bang of costumed heroes leaping from tall buildings or driving cool tricked out cars…not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Comics cover a lot of territory. There’s the upcoming English language graphic novel by Nicolas Otero Who Killed Kurt Cobain? based on the French language prose novel, Le Roman de Boddah by Heloise Guay de Bellissen; Mat Johnson’s Incognegro (illustrated by Warren Pleece) based in part on the actual ironically-named Walter White, a light-skinned, straight-haired black man who in the 1920s would go to Southern towns passing for white to investigate lynchings; to Special Exits by Joyce Farmer (writer and artist), a fictionalized account of her taking care of her ailing parents over the course of four years as they declined. There’s also a goodly amount of miniseries and ongoing crime and mystery comics including the retro spy vibe of Velvet, Thief of Thieves, Uncanny, 100 Bullets and Scalped.
Comic books are unique in their joining of pictures and words and when done right, work seamlessly in delivering the story. A comic book script is not long form prose but has some of those elements nor is it exactly a film or television script, but has some of those elements too. The best advice I’ve received for writing a comic book script was to keep in mind each panel on a page is frozen action Each panel leads us through a given scene as well as builds toward the unfolding overall plot and subplots. Your job as the writer is to communicate to the artist what’s the (usually) single frozen action happening in each panel, and frankly, not have your dialogue and captions get in the way of the art, the sequentials. Just as there’s no one way to write a screenplay, there’s various ways I’ve seen comic book scripts written – sometimes in film script form.
My scripts are done flush left and I try to be succinct in communicating to the artist what’s happening in each panel, to keep it to the essentials yet still convey some sense of the characters. Keep in mind the artist is a storyteller too. And believe me, they will let you know if what you’ve indicated on a given panel in your script doesn’t work or is too busy. Artists will often have an alternative idea in mind and unlike a prose book, the comic book script is very much a collaborative process. Panels, even ones that use overlapping images, are finite real estate. Not only do the words and pictures need to have synergy, but those words are physical entities on the page, lettered in word balloons and captions. They take up space too and the letterer might also have a say in what was written.
Here’s an example to give you a better idea. It’s from a miniseries called Bicycle Cop Dave that was drawn by the talented Manoel Magalhães in serial form for the now defunct FourStory webste. BCD has been collected with another strip, a spin off called Brand and Reese in Beat L.A.
Medium shot inside a modern high rise office. This is the office of STROTHER MORLAND, head of the massive Harkspur conglomerate. Among the company’s interests is real estate. We see Sylvia Silversmith, dressed nicely; arms folded standing before a large window. The window overlooks the downtown area.
CAPTION: ELSEWHERE. THE OFFICE OF STROTHER MORLAND, CEO OF THE HARKSPUR CORPORATION.
MORLAND (off panel): SURVEYING YOUR DOMAIN, SYLVIA?
SILVERSMITH: PEOPLE SAY YOU DON’T HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR, MORGAN. HOW WRONG THEY ARE, HUH?
Close in shot of Morland. He looks a little like the late German actor Klaus Kinsky – skull-like face, trim and fit, in his early sixties, with old-fashioned round type glasses on his face. He sits at his big desk, is in shirt sleeves and a tie. He is clipping off the end of a cigar with a cigar cutter.
MORLAND: YOU HAVE TO HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR IN THIS BUSINESS.
SILVERSMITH (off panel): AS LONG AS YOU CAN ALSO WAIL A BIG THORNY STICK WHEN YOU HAVE TO.
Mediums shot as Morland now stands near Sylvia before the large window. The two stand in profile, looking at each other. Morland has his head back a little, puffing on his cigar, his hand holding it.
MORLAND: IN THESE GLOOMY ECONOMIC TIMES, MY DEAR, SYLVIA, WHAT WE DO WILL BE SEEN AS A GOLDEN RAY OF LIGHT.
(second balloon): WE ARE DOING AFFORDABLE HOUSING SET-ASIDES, JOB TRAINING FOR URBAN CORE RESIDENTS SAND SPONSORING APPRENTICESHIPS IN THE BUILDING TRADES.
SILVERSMITH: NOBLESSE OBLIGE FOR THE 21ST CENTURY.
Closer on Sylvia’s face. She smiles ironically as some cigar smoke drifts past her face.
MORLAND (off panel): AS THE HOMEBOYS WOULD SAY NOT TOO FAR SOUTH FROM HERE, ‘AIN’T NOTHIN’ WRONG WITH THAT, PLAYER.’
SILVERSMITH: LIKE I SAID, YOU’RE A REGULAR CUT –UP.
Exterior shot of the modern Larkspur highrise.
SILVERSMITH (from inside the building): I JUST HOPE THAT THE JOKE’S NOT ON ALL OF US.
Various script samples are available on the web. Like with a teleplay or movie script, try to read a script where you can also read and see the finished product. There are also several published books combining scripts from a given series you can buy that will be useful too. I don’t have any particular “how to” book to proscribe, but you can’t go wrong with those by seasoned pros such as comics writing superstar Brian Michael Bendis’ Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics, Will Eisner’s (the creator of the Spirit) Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, Dennis O’Neil’s DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, and Drawing Words and Writing Pictures: Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels, and Beyond by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden.
Gary Phillips is writing an upcoming miniseries for DC Comics, and out now in prose from Down & Out Books is, 3 the Hard Way.