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Jesse Hamm

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Why Comic Book Writers Oughta Mind Their Own Business. [Mar. 30th, 2007|11:40 am]
Jesse Hamm
I've noticed that comic book writers have an alarming tendency to include visual direction in their scripts. You, the artist, are reading through the script, making notes about how to stage the scenes visually, and along comes a comment like this:

Panel 4: We see Jan in close-up, over Gary's left shoulder.

Presumably, that image happened to pop into the writer's head at that stage in his writing -- and, against all common sense, against all the rules of decency, against every civilized fiber of his being, he wrote it into the script.

The problem, of course, is that visual narrative must be built chronologically, step-by-step, each panel relating sensibly to the one preceding it. So the odds against our writer's piece of ad-libbed direction actually fitting into our shot list are staggering. We'd be as likely to improvise a suitable line of dialogue to inject into the middle of his scene as he is to invent a suitable visual to inject into ours. With one stroke, his piece of direction has inadvertently destroyed whatever sequence of visual narrative we have constructed until that point.

Two obvious solutions to this problem occur to the inexperienced artist:

For one, why not just ignore the writer's direction and go on with our own plans? Unfortunately, in comics, most writers have greater authority than most artists, so the artist isn't often in the position to ignore directions in the script. And the writer tends to see every word of his script (not just the dialogue) as "my baby," so to ignore any of it is to insult His Artistry -- even if what you're ignoring is some pedestrian visual idea he included without planning or reflection. Now, most writers are willing to "compromise" by letting you depart occasionally from their visual direction, but even then they'll keep score, and if you stray too often they'll throw your past departures in your face. In essence, every time you ignore a writer's direction, you're borrowing a cup of sugar. You may be safe the first few times, but eventually the writer will put his foot down. "I think I've been flexible QUITE ENOUGH with you, Buster." And then you're sunk.

The second obvious solution would be to construct each scene around its occasional piece of visual direction. If, in a three page scene, the writer has specified that the fourth panel of page 2 needs an over-the-left-shoulder shot, why not accommodate him by building the scene in either direction from that shot? Well, one problem with this approach is that even that single shot may be incompatible with the rest of the scene. The writer may essentially be asking you to construct a jet engine around a Tootsie roll center. Another problem is that, two panels later, the writer may include yet another piece of direction, which will no doubt be incompatible with the previous piece of direction, and with whatever visual narrative you might construct around that. Even if you are ingenious enough to design a dessert recipe around Tabasco sauce, God help you when you are then ordered to include anchovies.

So. There are really only two workable solutions to the problem of visual direction (apart from chucking a mainstream career altogether and writing your own darn comics):

The first -- and by far the most preferable -- solution is for the writer to MIND HIS OWN BUSINESS and limit his writing to plotting, characterization, and dialogue, leaving any visual narrative to trained professionals who will actually think it through. Suggestions are always welcome ("I'm picturing a close-up, here, but do what you think best"), but the astute writer will remember that the artist is juggling countless details that are beyond the writer's purview, and will allow that process to happen unhindered.

The second workable solution is for the writer to actually thumbnail the scene himself, beginning to end, to see if his direction actually makes sense in the broader scheme of things. Once he has drawn the scene out, hopefully he'll notice any problems in his direction, and adjust it accordingly. This isn't a great solution, since even problem-free direction may be uninspired in the hands of a non-artist, and in any case it waltzes all over the artist's toes. But some writers (such as Alan Moore) have been known to make it work. To this end, here's a list of pitfalls for the self-thumbnailing writer to watch out for:

*FIRST SPEAKER ON WRONG SIDE

In comics, it's usually a good idea for each speech balloon to appear above the head of its speaker. This helps readers keep a straight idea of who's saying what. To this end, the first speaker in a scene is usually placed on the left, so that the resulting reading order throughout the scene will maintain this balloon-above-its-speaker convention. The writer should be sensitive to this convention when deciding the speaking order and point of view of each panel.

*BROKEN 180 RULE

This rule states that the readers' point of view shouldn't jump across the line of action in a scene. The line of action is a lateral space through which the scene's primary action occurs: if two characters are conversing or fighting, the line of action extends through them both; if a character is running toward a mailbox, the line of action passes through him and the mailbox; if a character is staring at a street sign, the line passes through him and the sign. The readers' POV can move anywhere in a semi-circle (180 degrees) around the line of action, but to cross that line from one shot to the next is to break the 180 degree rule.

This rule exists because readers construct imaginary space for each scene to occur in, and they pretend to occupy that space as they read. This imaginary space is generally built around an axis created by the line of action (due to the action's prominence in the scene), so the reader will relate everything to that line. If the reader is suddenly 'teleported' to the unfamiliar side of that line, his imaginary space will lose its axis, and he'll be disoriented. He may continue to understand the scene's events, but his sense of the scene's space will begin to disintegrate, along with its reality.

Another reason the 180 rule is important to comics is that it supports the balloon-above-head convention described above. If we always see the characters in a scene from the same side, it's easier to keep their speech balloons straight.

If the line of action must be crossed, the visual storyteller can 'pivot' the line by creating a new line, such as by a character at one end of the line shifting her attention -- which constitutes the line -- to a new person or object, or by a character at one end of the line moving across the reader's fixed POV.

The storyteller can also pivot on the line, with a bridging POV shot (facing from a character or object at one end of the line to the character or object at the other end of the line), followed by the new shot from the far side of the line.

While this second solution works fine on film, it sometimes poses problems for comics. Which leads us to...

*INTER-PANEL TANGENCIES

In film, each shot is seen by itself, with nothing on either side of it. As a result, film can get away with shots that pose problems in comics. Since prior and subsequent comic panels remain in the readers' peripheral vision, oddities can occur there which are invisible to writers who only imagine their stories in filmic terms. For example, suppose a script says the following:

Panel 1: Square panel. We see Jan in profile from her left side, knees bent, hands on her knees, smiling. In front of her we glimpse the bars of a baby's crib.

Panel 2 : Same size panel, same angle, same pose. Jan is reaching off-panel into the crib.


The artist reads this description and immediately emails the writer, begging to alter it. The writer can't understand why the artist is being such a prima donna. "I'm picturing the scene in my head and it works perfectly," thinks the writer. Unfortunately, he's picturing it in filmic terms, one shot before the other:



On the other hand, the artist is picturing the sequence in comics terms...



...and the problem becomes obvious.

A similar problem occurs when we switch POV -- even along an axis, in accord with the 180 rule. Back to the script:

Panel 3: Same angle. Phone rings in background.

Panel 4: Opposite angle, same pose. We see Jan from where the phone is as she turns her head toward the sound.


Notice what happens when we cut to Jan's reaction. In filmic terms, it looks fine:



But in comic terms...



...it's as though she grew a twin, or is standing by a mirror.

Opportunities for such tangencies are common, and they multiply when visual direction is being given by someone who hasn't thumbnailed the scene.

*WIDE EVEN PANELS, TALL ODD PANELS

Consider the following direction:

Panel 2: a broad panel, stretching clear across the page.

or

Panel 5: a tall panel, stretching two or three tiers.

The comic artist groans when he sees direction like this, because it fails to consider how space is divided on a comics page. In the first example, no room is left for panel 1. (That is, unless panel 1 is also stretched across the page. But a panel that wide is a cumbersome waste of space, unless its subject is uniquely suited to that shape.) Similar trouble would result if panel 4 had to stretch across the page: panels 1 through 3 would have to be narrow, and panel 5 would have to be broad.

Likewise, a tall panel on the right usually means you must stack panels on the left, and stacking on the left causes the reader confusion: "Do I read the panel below, or the panel to the right?"

So panels' shapes and sizes shouldn't be dictated unless the writer has thumbnailed the page to determine how they'll fit.

*MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE EMOTIONS IN ONE PANEL

I've even seen this from Eisner Award winning writers -- a character's two opposing emotional notes are summed up in one panel:

Panel 1:
Jan: "Man, I'm bored...I've been sitting here all day with nothing to -- oh NO, I forgot to deposit that CHECK!"


It looks fine at the script level, and it would look fine on film... but how is an artist supposed to draw this panel? Either Jan's distress looks like boredom, or her boredom looks frantic, or you're stuck with that corny Archie Andrews dual-face convention:





Bleh. The dual-face is admittedly workable in cartoony contexts like the one above, but when you're dealing with subtler shades of emotion in a more realistic context, it's atrocious.

As a rule: there should only be 1 emotional beat per panel. Split dialogue into multiple panels if it communicates mutually exclusive emotions.

*INCITING ELEMENT ON WRONG SIDE OF REACTION

When a character reacts to a noise or a piece of dialogue or action, the inciting element should appear on the left side of the character, or above the character, to reflect our reading order. It's disorienting to see a character wince and THEN read what bothered her. So writers should thumbnail where the dialogue or inciting element is likely to be placed in the panel, ensuring there's enough room on either side of the reaction for any pre-reaction and/or post-reaction business or dialogue.

What NOT to do:

Panel 1:
(Narrow panel. We see Gary and Jan from the waist up.)
GARY (elbowing Jan in the arm): "Better bring up those grades; I don't want to attend the prom alone when your parents ground their prodigal daughter!"
JAN: "Ow! Cut it out; I just bought a sleeveless prom dress, and I don't want any bruises to ruin it!"


Jan's "Ow" should occur to the right of -- or below -- Gary's elbowing, but a waist-up shot probably won't grant us enough space down there for her ensuing dialogue. Also, we don't want to see Jan's facial reaction to the elbowing before it has occurred. So, ideally, this panel would show us the couple from their knees to their shoulders, with Gary's dialogue to the upper left of his elbowing, Jan's to the lower right of it. The elbowing is the panel's key visual element, so that takes precedence over the faces -- one of which we don't want to see anyway, since it would precontextualize Jan's reaction.

(There's room for a certain amount of achronology in comics, since the readers must imbue the still images with flexible timeframes to carry the story comfortably. But generally speaking, the more chronological sense a panel makes, the stronger its spell over the reader.)

*VISUAL CLICHES

Usually when an image pops suddenly and fully formed into a writer's head, the ease of its conception is due to one thing: it is a visual cliche. The fastest idea is the most obvious idea, and the most obvious idea is the most tired idea.

Unfortunately, the writer often interprets ease of conception as a sign that he has been struck with a blessing from Heaven, an inspired creative vision which Must Be Recorded. He fails to suspect that this dime-a-dozen image has simply been engraved on his cortex by years of comics-reading and TV-watching. Pitching such images to an artist would be tantamount to the artist suggesting phrases like "See you in hell!," or,"Don't look now, but we've got company!," yet the writer -- who would never dream of using such cliched dialogue -- happily burdens his artists with one visual cliche after another.

Cliches are hard to identify in the abstract; usually it's just a case of "I've seen that a zillion times." But it's a safe bet that if an image occurs to you without a moment's reflection, it's a cliche. You, the writer, may not recall having seen it before, but you aren't paid to recall such things. Likely your artist will be able to identify it: "Oh yeah...the Blade Runner 'elevator' shot -- still doing good business on the straight-to-video market." Defer to his nose; it always knows.

Another hint that your brilliant image is a cliche is if the panel would look good all by itself on a T-shirt. A shot that ably survives decontextualization probably isn't strong in context. This includes close-up & straight-on shots of dramatic reactions, key characters or objects occupying the center of a panel, characters seen in full-figure when they're not doing anything, and any shot with the moon in the background, a ceiling fan or a stripper's legs in the foreground, or the shadows of a window frame or Venetian blind falling on anything in the middle ground.

Also cliched: any facial expression that the man on the street would automatically associate with a given emotion. Don't dictate to the artist that the angry character must grimace or the happy character must smile; allow him to explore less conventional ways to visually communicate those emotions.

*INCLUDING/DISINCLUDING BACKGROUND

It often behooves the artist to leave out background detail. This may be a scheduling consideration (he won't have time to draw a second angle of that shuttle launch after he's spent the afternoon drawing the first one), or a dramatic consideration (he doesn't want background details to interfere with what's happening in the foreground). The writer isn't obligated to consider the artist's schedule -- a page is a page; sometimes the artist gets off easy, and sometimes he doesn't. But dramatic considerations should concern the writer, and he should avoid writing scenes like this:

Panel 1: Our couple is sitting near the front row of a theater, and looking between them we can see a magnificent play unfolding on the stage. Let's make it CATS.

Panel 2: Same angle. Gary and Jan turn to look at each other; Jan's eyes are wet with tears.


Panel 2 is not going to come across well if we can still see all those dancers cavorting around in cat costumes between our principals. Better to let the artist shift to an angle which disincludes the stage.

Also bad, but in the opposite way:

Panel 6: close-up on Gary and Jan as they and everyone else in the theater get up and file out.

It's hard to cram background details (such as everyone filing out) around the edges of two principals in close-up. Unless the close-up is Absolutely Mandatory for some reason, let's pull back for a comfortable shot of everyone filing out. The reader can surely stand to be several yards from our beloved heroes for a few seconds.

*CHEATING OUT FACIAL EXPRESSIONS

"Cheating out" is dramaspeak for artificially turning a character's face to the audience to show the audience her expression. It's occasionally useful, but it can become a crutch in the hands of storytellers who don't trust context or body language to communicate a character's inner life. To wit, borrowing from the scenario above:

Panel 3: We see Jan staring wide-eyed as the lead cat begins his dance.

The artist could cheat Jan's face to the side here, to give us a glimpse of her eyes, but this will look fake, as though she's looking to one side of what she's supposed to be seeing. Better to just indicate her stare through her body language, from behind. Perhaps she's sitting erect, leaning slightly forward, gripping Gary's hand, etc.

If we must see her eyes, that should be worth an extra panel, one which doesn't attempt to include the onstage dancer.


More could be said, but these tips should be a good starting point.
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[User Picture]From: andrewfarago
2007-03-30 07:37 pm (UTC)
Good stuff, as always.

Scripting for another artist always presents a unique set of challenges. You might be working with an old buddy who'll call you up to hash out anything that needs clarification, or can be paced differently, or staged differently, or any number of little things that you can change without insulting each other. Or you might be working with each other for the first time, in which case you don't know whether to tread lightly or just stomp all over your collaborator's suggestions. Or you might have no idea who's going to be drawing your story until it sees print, and you'll just have to keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best.

Generally speaking, I think it's best to leave as much as possible up to the artist, with the assumption that he'll get in contact with you if he's got any questions about the script, plotting or pacing. If you're working with someone who's been drawing professionally for more than a decade, chances are that he doesn't need you to tell him anything about page layout or how to fit two talking heads into a single panel, or other equally challenging aspects of comic storytelling.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-03-30 09:52 pm (UTC)
Yeah...my policy, even when writing for myself, is to include no visual directions in the script. After all, Shakespeare got away with it. And I find that there's no way I can anticipate what the scene will need, visually, until I've hashed out all the thumbnails during the art phase. Until that point, I'd just be shooting in the dark.
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[User Picture]From: quirkybird
2007-03-30 08:30 pm (UTC)
Every freaking time I work with an inexperienced writer, I get the inevitable "wanting two emotions and three actions in a single panel" trick. STOP IT. STOP. STOP. NO. GO AWAY.

It's extra offensive when you write comics as well as draw them to see somebody get lost in screenplay land.
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From: bothwill
2011-01-07 11:11 am (UTC)
Shouldn't be a school for the beginner comics? Sure it's best if each writer has his own style but then many beginners don't know where to draw the line between what's comic writing and what's not. You guys would make some great teachers. Remember, the comics that sell are always the best comics.
Bothwill - blair rewards encore marketing
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[User Picture]From: shaenon
2007-03-30 10:06 pm (UTC)

I thumbnail everything before writing a script, so I do have some idea of what it'll look like as a comic. But I still generally avoid detailed visual descriptions unless I know exactly what I want and I absolutely don't want the artist to do anything different. Usually, the artist knows best.

And if he doesn't, it's time to sic Alex Toth on his ass!
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-03-30 10:45 pm (UTC)
Alex's ghost would make a rockin' Scooby Doo villain.
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[User Picture]From: purvision
2007-03-31 12:18 am (UTC)

[*spurts soda out nose*]

Brilliant. Spot. On. Thank you.
I've been thinking about putting together a little pamphlet along these lines, but you're funnier than I am.

I may do it anyway and quote you copiously.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-04-02 07:01 am (UTC)

Re: [*spurts soda out nose*]

Thanks. Quote away!
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[User Picture]From: ebess
2007-03-31 12:50 am (UTC)
See, this is why I like to give purvision my scripts for the once-over before I hand them over... so I don't make a complete fool of myself.

I write full-script, but I like to always make it clear to the artist that it's as much, if not more, for ME than it is for them. It's the only way I know how to do it and helps me get a handle on things like space and the laws of physics (ie, how much will physically fit on a page). Just about everything is up for discussion -- there ARE always one or two things that I get really attached to, and I'll go to bat for them if need be, but most of the time it's "this is how I worked it out, lemme know what you think and please tell me why."

I find that I reap the most benefits from this approach. I've worked with quite a few people who know their stuff now, and I always, ALWAYS learn some really cool visual storytelling trick that I can put in the toolkit for later. They'll come up with something and I'll go, "fuck JEAH!!" because it's always better.

This is actually something I feel really passionate about -- the whole "I'm the writer and you must do what I say" bullshit. I talk about it a little bit in this interview/rountable thingy here:

"SCHEHERAZADE wouldn’t be what it is without Boorman; working with him is a pleasure and I trust him implicitly. I’ve noticed, on message boards and whatnot, that many fledgling writers are hesitant to give up control. I think that’s misguided. Working with an artist, rather than acting the control freak, is an infinitely better way to go. Find someone suited to your story whose skills you trust and who you can communicate with, than trust them to do what they do. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t take an active role in the process (far from it), but an artist — a good artist — knows things that you, as a beginning writer, can never know because you probably don’t sit around thinking about the mechanics of visual storytelling all day. They can help you, and you can learn a lot from them. Turn it into a discussion. A — dare I say it? — collaboration.

Like any relationship, it’s about respect on both sides. The relationship part of making a comic is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process for me. And then there’s getting back all those gorgeous pages…"


Anyway.

This post is really helpful, thank you.
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[User Picture]From: bremxjones
2007-04-03 12:34 pm (UTC)
"This is actually something I feel really passionate about -- the whole "I'm the writer and you must do what I say" bullshit."

I'll admit to extreme cynicism on this front. I just think it's bad policy to bully the artist. People do their best work when they're happy and feel involved. Making them feel like a tiny cog who exists only to further your vision is bad psychology.

(I'll demure to almost anything an artist requests, and try to leave a lot of space for artist interpretation. But if I ask for a specific shot, of course I think I'm right. That's why I wrote it. I just don't think it'll generally help the work to go to war over most things, and take a joy in seeing alternative approaches to the same narrative problem.)

Of course, it shows how conflicted I am on this blatant mind-gamery that I'm happy to confess it.

(Regarding the main post - obviously, all right. But I think anyone who does extravagant page descriptions of panel-space and angles without thumbnailing or other form of planning is being stupid. The most damning criticism of the position is... well, the best Artist/Writer comics ever have all been done with the Writer taking more of the artist's job than the post would allow. Which says something...)

KG
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From: tomix
2007-03-31 03:36 am (UTC)
Thank You!
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From: simonfraser
2007-03-31 04:24 am (UTC)
Choosing a Writer is often like choosing a lifepartner, it's very difficult to find the right one and you probably stick with someone longer than you should because it's become so easy.

This is good stuff and all writers should be forced to read it ( at gunpoint )

Having said that though, the pages I'm most proud of were the difficult ones. John Wagner JUDGE DREDD is never an easy job, but at the end you seem to arrive at something that looks exactly like a John Wagner JUDGE DREDD story. Some writers do push you and that can be a good thing.
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[User Picture]From: david_porta
2007-04-01 09:36 am (UTC)

GDB tight Dell scripts not written in stone

"the most preferable -- solution is for the writer to MIND HIS OWN BUSINESS and limit his writing to plotting, characterization, and dialogue, leaving any visual narrative to trained professionals"

Ideally, a writer's skills INCLUDE visualizing each panel. As a prose write paints word pictures, so a script writer gives stage directions. You make much of comparison to film, and why that doesn't work. Caniff said that his work as an actor in a repertory company in his early 20s involved staging, and that it translated very well to designing panels and sequential narrative. Shakespear included stage directions. However a comics scripter comes by his visualizations for each panel, if they don't work, then that is on HIM, not on scripters as a tribe, nor on scripting as a craft.

Gaylord Du Bois describes how he writes comics scripts...

"I think up the best plot (or plots) I can, and write the plot details out in longhand. I go over it, visualizing each picture that is to be drawn by the artist. I mark off my longhand rough story in pages. Then I start writing. Each panel: FIRST I DESCRIBE THE PICTURE THE ARTIST IS TO DRAW, IN DETAIL, WHICH INCLUDES COLOR, ACTION, EXPRESSION, BACKGROUND, ANGLE OF VIEW, etc. Then I write out the dialogue for balloons, and finally I write the caption or narrative line.

I have nothing to do with choosing the artist, as he is chosen by the Art Editor.

THE ARTIST IS FREE TO USE OR NOT TO USE MY INSTRUCTIONS FOR EACH PANEL. SOMETIMES HE CHANGES THE PICTURE I DESCRIBED, TO SUIT HIS OWN IDEA or that of the Art Editor. USUALLY, THOUGH, THE ART DEPARTMENT FOLLOWS MY SCRIPT FAIRLY CLOSELY.

The Script Editor reviews and approves or changes the dialogue and the captions I have written; usually the changes are few and minor"

Jesse Hamm sez:

"Unfortunately, in comics, most writers have greater authority than most artists, so the artist isn't often in the position to ignore directions in the script."

Well, not in the case of Whitman, apparently.

Jesse sez:
"And the writer tends to see every word of his script (not just the dialogue) as "my baby," so to ignore any of it is to insult His Artistry -- even if what you're ignoring is some pedestrian visual idea he included without planning or reflection. Now, most writers are willing to "compromise" by letting you depart occasionally from their visual direction, but even then they'll keep score, and if you stray too often they'll throw your past departures in your face. In essence, every time you ignore a writer's direction, you're borrowing a cup of sugar. You may be safe the first few times, but eventually the writer will put his foot down. "I think I've been flexible QUITE ENOUGH with you, Buster." And then you're sunk."

"is to insult His Artistry"?

"Most writers ... keep score"?

Jesse, are saying that's the kind of writer YOU are going to be, once your scripts get assigned to other artists? Or are you just venting wrt your own experiences as a free-lance illustrator? What about when you achieve Alex Toth -like status as an illustrator? Will you be more charitable in your attitude toward scripters, then? Will scripters fear you, and say, "Feel free to improvise." GDB did his job with diligence, and once the script left his hands, he was done; on to the NEXT script. He didn't have time to worry about how the comic turned out. That was the editor's job, to worry about how the comic turned out. GDB wrote the script, and was done with his end of the job. But he was a hard worker who was diligent about providing as complete a script, including all "stage direction," as possible. It wasn't his job to worry about whether the artist took his direction. He was aware of it, as his words indicate, but according to him, artist deviation from his panel instructions was rare.

I like your pictures: Jan Panel 4 "in comic terms" She is squishing her butt against her own butt in the next panel. Ha hah! It looks funny!
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-04-02 07:09 am (UTC)

Re: GDB tight Dell scripts not written in stone

"Ideally, a writer's skills INCLUDE visualizing each panel."

To some extent. But there are some things that are impossible to anticipate until you've wrestled with drawing the sequence on paper. Like doing your taxes -- you may have a rough idea of what you made and what you owe, but some facts won't emerge until you've actually done all the math.

"Gaylord Du Bois describes how he writes comics scripts..."

Or how he wrote comics scripts, when he was active decades ago. The industry is much more competitive and celebrity-oriented now. Things were surely more pleasant when writers weren't hyper-concerned with how artists interpreted their stories. On the other hand, in defense of today's writers, they have much less job security than guys like Du Bois had, so it may behoove them to micromanage the art somewhat.

"Jesse, are saying that's the kind of writer YOU are going to be, once your scripts get assigned to other artists?"

Nope; quite the opposite.
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[User Picture]From: shadowofsummer
2007-04-02 12:07 am (UTC)
I've been doing a webcomic for three-and-a-bit years now, the first two on my own as writer and artist, the remaining time just as artist, since I brought my then-girlfriend, now-wife onboard as writer. And it's a learning curve. It always was a learning curve, it still is. It probably will be for as long as we carry on, or, at least, the day I cease to feel like I'm learning or improving should be the day I start doing something else.
The fun part for me of doing it was that the first strip is pretty much the first comic page I ever put together -- so my entire workspan, mistakes and all, are up on the archives. Which is kind of daunting when I realise anyone reading from the beginning might think it's a load of wank and stop reading, but it's also reassuring in that anyone reading from the beginning will see a marked improvement over time.

I think part of the big problem with switching from writing my own to drawing someone else's scripts involves a lot of what you're talking about in this post -- my wife isn't an artist herself, and hasn't even read that many comic books to know what works. The process mostly involves her handing me scripts and then me going through and telling her what doesn't work, and why; and then her sulking for a bit; and then both of us working out some sort of compromise that lets me have some creativity while also not having me piss all over what she's written.
The biggest problem I've found is with dialogue: there's almost always too bloody much of it, or two or three emotional beats in the same panel. And I don't know if this is a common problem, but it's almost impossible to get a silent/minimalist panel except in the most 'big dramatic moment' shots.

Though having said all that, which - as usual - makes it sound like I'm bitching about her work, Mary's actually improved wonderfully as a writer since she first started writing scripts. At first she was incredibly protective of every last word she wrote, including random visual directions that drove me crazy, especially when I couldn't convince her that visual cliches look lazy when used badly and derivative when used well. But to be fair, since I'd just stopped writing scripts, I was a dick myself about trying to have huge control over things. Even to the point where I'd zealously defend artistic decisions that either had no thought behind them or, even worse, were made purely out of artistic laziness.

Anyway, enough rambling: bottom line is, I really like this post. It's got a lot of the things I learned the hard way, and a lot more things I hadn't even thought of. Definitely a keeper.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-04-02 07:28 am (UTC)
Thanks for the feedback. Sounds like yours is an ideal situation, in which there's genuine collaboration occurring.

I think a problem mainstream artists face is that they're working "with" writers who don't know them and who frankly don't care to hear from them. It's like,"I finished writing this story, it's perfectly fine, I got paid for it, and any more time I spend thinking about it is a money-loss." They won't earn any extra by discussing it further with the artist, and if he's pointing out problems with how they've visualized it, they only stand to lose face. The only possible benefit they could gain from letting the artist make corrections is that the story may read better... but unless readers have been astute enough to identify glitches in the visual narrative, such improvements won't seem urgent enough to risk losses of time and ego. And few readers pick up on glitches in visual narrative; those flaws tend to affect us on a subconscious level. So the writer thinks: if it ain't broke, why fix it?

It's a much more fruitful process when both creators are willing to discuss changes, which it sounds like you two are.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-02 02:28 pm (UTC)

Wow, not much credit for writers here . . .

Jesse,

This article seems to assume that writers are incapable of thinking visually and sequentially and that, conversely, artists are infallible.

Neither is always true.

I've worked with maybe two infallible artists in my life. And I know -- and they know -- when they get my scripts, my job is to tell the story their job is to make it look pretty. And they always do. Some things change, some things don't . . . and it's always great. Unless it isn't. And then I tell them.

I've also worked with a number of artists who are inexperienced and cannot yet tell a story. So as someone who has worked hard to learn to think visually and sequentially (or I wouldn't be working in comics; and just because I can't draw doesn't mean I can't think on that level) I hold their hand.

And numerous artists in between. So, when working with a new artist, I write scripts that are detailed with what I want to see when telling the story . . . and I also actually try taking the time to get to know the artist to find out their strengths and weaknesses so I'm not just sending a script to a faceless schlub, I'm sending it to someone who will feel comfortable communicating with me when they have a problem.

Because sometimes . . . sometimes . . . the writer may know what they're talking about and have a reason for doing it the way they wrote it.

This is really a cynical view of the artist/writer relationship. A great man once said -- was it Dr. Phil? -- communcation is hte key to a good relationship.

Here's a third option: quit complaining and find a mature writer who's open to artistic input from, you know, an artist . . . or just try enjoying yourself with the challenge and thank your lucky stars that unlike so many other people out there, you get paid to do what you love.

~ Ben Avery
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-04-03 12:13 am (UTC)

Re: Wow, not much credit for writers here . . .

Hi Ben,

The problem I attempted to describe isn't really a class problem -- "Writers vs Artists" -- but a task problem. The person with the task of writing a comic, and the person with the task of drawing it, will necessarily have different preoccupations and blind-spots -- even if it is the same person.

For instance, I have written scripts for myself that turn out not to work visually. I only make this discovery after putting on my artist hat and getting up to my elbows in the work of actually thumbnailing and laying out the art. It's not that writers as a class are visually illiterate (though many of them try desperately to prove as much), it's that visual storytelling is too complex a process for any writer (myself included) to anticipate any problems without diagramming everything beforehand.

That's why I proposed my two solutions: the writer should either be open to the idea of an artist altering his stage directions when necessary, or he should work out the thumbnails himself to insure that the stage directions will actually work. (I should add that the first solution is ideal when working with experienced artists, while the second is ideal when working with inexperienced artists.)

The trouble comes when a writer assumes that stage directions can be worked out in one's head, and then chafes when the artist discovers numerous problems which challenge that assumption. Thankfully, you're not one of those writers, and I'm hoping my post will encourage other writers to be more open to artists' input.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-02 08:56 pm (UTC)
Good points, Jesse! I often speak to my Kubert School students about the differences as well as the similarities in comics and film storytelling.

Best regards,

Alec Stevens
http://www.calvarycomics.com
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-04-02 11:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks Alec. Good to hear from you!
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[User Picture]From: purvision
2007-04-03 03:00 am (UTC)

what we really need is Archie Goodwin!

On balance, I think that a number of writers, especially the better and more accomplished ones who *have* developed excellent senses for visual storytelling. It's a Rare writer who can pull off the Harvey Kurtzman method of script-with-thumbnails really effectively. On the other hand, it's often a mark of an inexperienced artist who varys from the script too quickly because they don't yet have the skills to bring off a complex idea.

This is a very different thing from a script-note which says, "Footsteps heard off-panel."

There is an overall tension between the writer, who depends on the artist to realize the vision, and an artist, trying to realize a vision within the confines of a script which by its nature isn't fully self-sufficient.

One of the things that's missing somewhat in comics, is excellent editing. It's an uncommon editor who has a really thorough grasp of page-mechanics. One who reads a script a second time through with an artist's eye. So when the artist phones him up and says, "Page seventeen is going to be near impossible the way it reads now," the editor can say,"Yeah, I saw that and I've been talking to the writer about how we fix it, any ideas?"

Others above have mentioned good communication between artist and writer, and that's absolutely true. Also, though, a good editor can really make a world of difference.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-03 05:57 am (UTC)

Waid rebuttal, part one:

Wow. If you could just re-write that entire post to strip the angry-asshole snark out of it, I'd congratulate you on its insight and usefulness because there's a great deal here that I agree with and that needs to be heard.

Instead, the tone of it all makes me want to settle for punching you in the face.

Since this is probably our only chance ever to actually interact on any creative matter whatsoever--what with me and every other good writer I can imagine taking offense at your elitist, and highly unearned, smug-ass attitude, and all--let's take an opportunity to walk through your rant and clear up some of your misconceptions, shall we?

"along comes a comment like this: Panel 4: We see Jan in close-up, over Gary's left shoulder. Presumably, that image happened to pop into the writer's head at that stage in his writing -- and, against all common sense, against all the rules of decency, against every civilized fiber of his being, he wrote it into the script."

First: Lighten. The fuck. Up.

If your gripe is with writers who ask for things that CAN'T be drawn, I am more in your camp than you could possibly know unless you've taken one of my classes or listened to one of my lectures or were edited by me. Writers who ask for things that CAN'T be imagined, much less put to paper ("Panel One: Establishing shot, the Grand Canyon. A man in a straw hat leans over the edge to take a photo. On the bottom of the canyon is a burro about to step on a yellow daisy"), are, absolutely, a blight on the community and earn from me a more volcanic ire than even you have demonstrated. Yes, that kind of crap is a crime. Yes, writers who routinely ask for impossible visuals ("Panel thirteen: A Presidential motorcade of nine cars comes down the street. Be sure to include a boy in a dinosaur t-shirt in the onlooking crowd") should go work at Burger King and leave artists alone.

On the OTHER hand, suggesting camera angles or illuminating bits of stage business are NOT High Crimes, nor have they ever been perceived as such by any of the roughly NINE THOUSAND artists I've worked with in my career. Here's a thought: instead of trying to pass your own personal demons off as if they're some sort of Universally Recognized Sin, how about instead spending that energy improving your own communication skills so you don't come off as a bitter who-the-fuck-IS-this-guy?

As a writer, my first and foremost task is to COMMUNICATE MY IDEAS with the primary tool at my disposal: words. That means, as I was taught by every good editor you ever heard of including Saint Goodwin, that art directions in scripts are put there to help the writer express himself to the penciller so that, AS YOU COLLABORATE--note that I did not say "as the writer gives dictation," but AS YOU COLLABORATE--he's CLEAR on what the writer's ASKING for. Not "demanding"--ASKING for. And if you'd just put your fucking ego or hurt feelings aside for a split-second, you might have to acknowledge that a writer's attempt at making himself as clear as possible is not necessarily a personal assault on your capabilities. It is, in fact, what we should all be striving for.

Yes, there are writers who cram too much information into their scripts. There are, conversely, also writers who don't give artists enough information to do their job. Upon reading and re-reading your screed, it would seem to me that your problem isn't really with what you're being asked to draw; it's with writers who aren't flexible or collaborative enough to hear you out when you say--as is not only your right but is your OBLIGATION TO THE STORY--that something doesn't work. The latter is unpardonable, absolutely. The former (what you're being ASKED to draw) comes--sorry, princess--part and parcel with the collaborative process. More on this in a moment.

Moving on...

"Unfortunately, in comics, most writers have greater authority than most artists..."

In WHAT? FUCKING? UNIVERSE is this true? Thank you for this statement; as I repeat it to comics pros in the years to come--and oh, I will--it will provide boundless laughter. Let me define "authority" to you:

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[User Picture]From: ebess
2007-04-03 01:47 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

// OBLIGATION TO THE STORY //

See, that's what I'm talkin' about.

For the love of god and the responsibility to narrative, everyone put their egos in the goddamned closet for two seconds.

And yes, I do mean everyone!
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-03 05:59 am (UTC)

Waid rebuttal, part two:

Number of times I, or any writer I have EVER spoken to about this, has EVER been able to talk an editor into having an artist redraw something for any reason whatsoever, even when it makes the story better or clearer, even when it's because an otherwise-excellent artist has inadvertently misunderstood (your fault) or bungled (their fault) something: six, maybe seven.

Number of times I, or any writer I have EVER, EVER spoken to about this, has pleaded for a correction on something that's inarguably the artist's error only to have the editor ask the writer to "fix it in dialogue" because there's no time to redraw, because it's easier for the writer to make an adjustment, or because your timid editor is afraid of pissing off the artist: without one ounce of exaggeration, at least once a month for twenty years and counting.

Tell me again how much power the writers have.

"the artist isn't often in the position to ignore directions in the script."

Well, not without TALKING IT OUT with either the writer or the editor first, no, but again, why are you so goddamned intent on making this a war instead of a collaboration? I honestly don't know any writer worth a damn--or, for that matter, personally know of any writers even not worth a damn--who mind having their art cues reinterpreted if the artist can make the visuals better and still gets the story across without penalty. Not a one. Honestly.

Any given piece of work is not "my" story. It is OUR story. But the price of a decent, productive collaboration is that each party needs to be free to express himself to the other. My job is not limited strictly to plotting and dialogue any more than yours is limited strictly to draftsmanship and design. We're in this together. Stop regimenting the roles and trying to pass it off as wisdom because you're in a pissy mood.

"And the writer tends to see every word of his script (not just the dialogue) as 'my baby,' so to ignore any of it is to insult His Artistry -- "

If this is really, genuinely a recurring problem for you, then you have a unique gift for attracting a very, very small percentage of working writers, because this is a generalization that simply washes out to nothingness when you cast it across the entire medium. It speaks far more to your bad luck or inexperience than it does to reality. Yes, some writers are dicks. So are some artists. Stop working with dicks.

"--even if what you're ignoring is some pedestrian visual idea he included without planning or reflection."

Yeah, you know what? It IS an insult to "ignore" it because--contrary to what you've made your inexperienced mind up to represent "the truth"--every once in a while, gawrsh, us dumb, hick, know-nothing writers actually DO think about what we-all put on the page. It's NOT an insult to question a writer or even grill him about his intent--but it's every BIT as much of an insult to unilaterally ignore his work WITHOUT speaking up first as it is an insult to YOU if, say, an inker or production guy "ignores" something you've pencilled and elects on his own to scrub it.

(Assuming there is an editor in the mix, by the way, it's also an insult to him to alter or ignore the script without the courtesy of flagging it, because he's the one who originally said of the script, "Okay, I like this, as it is, enough to send it to an artist." Just saying.)
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-06 03:11 am (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part two:

So I've drawn all of twelve pages with you, and Ross Richie asked for I think three corrections because he gave me the impression the great Waid wanted them, yeah I screwed up in two but you didn't dialogue to 'fix em and I think my original drawing was better then what you wanted in one of the changes. And your telling everyone that's fifty percent of the changes you've gotten in your career ever? Over 12 lousy pages in two little monster anthologies? Man are you are one wimpy superstar.

I've actually liked most of the writers I've worked with because I always thought it was a collaboration. The sucky scripts have always been from people who didn't want to collaborate and thought they were Alan Moore, I've always felt if you think your shit is to good to change maybe your shit stinks an awful lot.

And for the record Waid's scripts (when he didn't know I was drawing it) were pretty easy to draw from.

Mark Badger
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-03 06:00 am (UTC)

Waid rebuttal, part three:

"The first -- and by far the most preferable -- solution is for the writer to MIND HIS OWN BUSINESS and limit his writing to plotting, characterization, and dialogue, leaving any visual narrative to trained professionals who will actually think it through."

Great. Great idea. I actually agree in principle. Unfortunately, writing as you are from such a staggeringly myopic viewpoint, you ignore a very harsh reality: Jim Lee-wannabes, as well as guys who are employed but are still learning basic craft, outnumber "trained professionals who will actually think it through" about THIRTY TO ONE. Maybe forty. I wish that weren't the case, I'm sad that it is, but it's absolutely true. In my career, I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the very best storytellers in the medium. I have also worked with, in pretty equal numbers, "artists" who are complete fucking chimpanzees and need their hands held on a PANEL-TO-PANEL BASIS. Monkeys who are incapable of doing ANY sort of even basic storytelling because all they can draw are steroid heroes and strippers and have, apparently, never seen a telephone, a newspaper, or the St. Louis Arch, just to pick at random three things that I have seen my artists fuck up JUST THIS MONTH ALONE.

Here's something else you've overlooking: as an artist working off a writer's script, you automatically come to the storytelling process with more information than the writer does--because there's every chance the writer has written his script having no CLUE who his artist will be or what his capabilities are. Romita, Jr. or Sr.: genius. Kuberts all: geniuses. Wieringo, Kitson, Templeton, Hitch, Perez, I could go on, etc., etc.: geniuses all, etc.. The kind of guys who can be handed a script containing a very bare minimum of art direction because they Get It. But it would be stupid or irresponsible or creatively suicidal--or all three--of a writer to give that same sort of direction-sparse script to Joe New Guy if there's no pre-existing foundation for trust there--trust that you're creatively on the same wavelength and telling the same story (which, I reiterate, is neither the writer's nor the artist's but rather both). As a writer, you'd better BELIEVE I'd rather run the risk of giving you too much information than not enough, because only one will make the story WORSE.

"Suggestions are always welcome ("I'm picturing a close-up, here, but do what you think best"), but the astute writer will remember that the artist is juggling countless details that are beyond the writer's purview, and will allow that process to happen unhindered."

See? This is what happens once you work through all your personal snits and get past them to the core of your argument: you start being listenable. From this point on, this is by and large a very good series of well-stated and invaluable observations. Tragically, they're coming from the keyboard of an artist who seems so intent on drawing lines in the sand that no writer in his right mind would have any interest in working with him. As others here have pointed out, "There are really only two workable solutions to the problem of visual direction" is bullshit because it ignores the third and most vital-to-the-process solution: you can pick up the goddamned phone and act like a collaborator.

Nice essay. You sound talented and smart. You might want to rethink the attitude.

--Mark Waid
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-04-03 10:05 am (UTC)

Answer to Waid (1)

Heavens to Murgatroid, Mark.

You hate-bombed my playfully snarky post with the proverbial fuckword after fuckword, along with an "asshole," an expressed desire to punch my face, and a promise to blacklist me... and then you finish by inviting me to rethink my attitude? Was that the sort of open-minded humility with which most writers respond to correction, in your experience?

My post was polemical, yes. But my overreaction to that first innocuous piece of stage direction should have clued you in that my crits were tongue-in-cheek. Do I really believe it violates all the rules of decency to depict Jan from over Gary's left shoulder? If I wanted writers to look bad, wouldn't I have stacked the deck in my favor at the outset with a more egregious example? Is it possible I was lampooning the extreme tone of voice I playfully adopted, alerting readers that What Follows Is Hyperbole?

If any of the above questions are hard to answer, perhaps I should re-write my entire post to strip the snark out of it. But that would be as boring as if you had refrained from calling me "princess." Surely there's room on the 'net for a good poke in the ribs now and then, especially when challenging widespread assumptions. A polite "perhaps one should..." is too often ignored.

I've already said this repeatedly, but the offended "we writers" tone of your post suggests I need to reiterate it:

The problem I attempted to describe isn't really a class problem -- "Writers vs Artists" -- but a task problem. The person with the task of writing a comic, and the person with the task of drawing it, will necessarily have different preoccupations and blind-spots -- even if it is the same person. I have written scripts for myself that turn out not to work visually, but I only make this discovery after putting on my "artist" hat and getting up to my elbows in the work of actually thumbnailing and laying out the art. It's not that writers as a class are visually illiterate, it's that visual storytelling is too complex a process for any writer (myself included) to anticipate any problems without diagramming everything beforehand.

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