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Why Comic Book Writers Oughta Mind Their Own Business. - Oodles of doodles. [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
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.
linkReply

Comments:
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:

(Reply) (Thread)
[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!
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: wyldemusick
2007-04-03 07:50 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

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

See, here you completely destroy ANY argument you're setting up (aside from the fact that it's really gauche for an author to come in guns blazing in an attempt to rebut criticism; you end up with two assholes for the price of one that way.) In what fucking universe is it kosher to threaten violence against someone for being bitchy about your work?

Who the fuck do you think you are, Mark Waid, Jack fucking Bauer?

Look, here's the long and short of it for you, and I hope you take this in and think about it (I don't expect it, frankly; I'm rather expecting you'll rise up and offer to punch me in the face instead.) You're prone to offering violence at the drop of the hat, spewing venom all over the Internet and mouthing off when something irritates you. This isn't the first time I;ve seen you post a message about clocking someone, punching their lights out, kicking their asses, and so forth.

One of these days one of your targets is going to take you up on it, and you're going to be someplace when, BAM, trauma, pain and confusion. Now, I'd hope this occurs when you're actually verbally threatening somebody, rather than you being ambushed by an irate artist, writer, editor, member of the public, whoever; it's about the justification and the witnessing and the fact that I find ambushes immoral, illegal and fattening.

Keep up with the physical threats, thoiugh, and one day it'll come back at you, right in the kisser, and you're going to be one very unhappy fellow.

As for the remainder of your screed...after seeing the threat right up front, I haven't much interest in reading the rest. That's not my loss, but yours.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-03 09:55 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

Good tip! Thanks for weighing in. Very valuable insight.

By the way, later on in my response, when I said something tends to "send me into orbit"? I'm not actually physically circling the Earth, so no danger to my lungs. You might have misunderstood, so I wanted to set that straight.

--MW
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: wyldemusick
2007-04-03 10:11 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

Ah, a heartily disingenuous response that avoids the particular point I was making in favor of sarcasm and an attempt to imply that I'm an idiot.

Not budging from this spot, I'm afraid. You've a history of violent threats made on the Internet; your tendency towards testosterone-fueled hypercompensation approaches that of Harlan Ellison. In either instance (and many others), I am left unimpressed. Smug thuggery from a talented writer is still thuggery. I suggest anger management training to help cope with these ongoing issues.

That's entirely up to you, however.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-03 10:48 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

"Not budging from this spot, I'm afraid."

Oh, NO!

"You've a history of violent threats made on the Internet..."

No, I have a reputation for making violent threats on the Internet--which is, as we all know, an irrefutably reliable source when it comes to "I read once where this guy said that he read a post where Comics Creator X said he hates gays." Apparently, I also go around blacklisting artists! I mean, someone said so just yesterday--ON THE INTERNET!--so it MUST be true!

"That's entirely up to you, however."

WHEW! Boy, THAT'S a relief! You really had me going for a minute.

Again, thanks for your heartfelt concern!

--MW
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: wyldemusick
2007-04-03 11:07 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

Well, a reputation too. The point being that this latest is but one more transgression wherein you demonstrate your aggressiveness and apparent lack of control.

It comes around to haunt you, you see, and no amount of bluster and wild dancing and sarcasm will help you to escape that. The point that Fish Stories do indeed develop in the wilds in the Internet serves only to suggest yet another reason for being better behaved and more controlled when sallying forth into the world. In short, you might have only had such outbursts on a few occasions; the eventual public legend will have you beheading opponents in Times Square in the finish.

Your behavior was ill-considered, as it has been in a number of other instances. You've been called on it before, obviously to no avail, and likely to no avail in this instance.

Behaving in this manner does not, in any way, shape, or form make you a Bad Ass Mofo. What it does for and to you is quite unfortunate.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-03 11:48 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

Got it! Thanks! Be well!

--MW
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: wyldemusick
2007-04-04 12:08 am (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

I certainly hope you have "got it," but my instinctive reaction is that you are far from comprehending the point of what I've said. Which is well and good, of course; it's your life, not mine. I entered into this well aware, as the saying goes, that one can attempt to teach a pig to sing, but the outcome will usually be frustration for the teacher, and the profound annoyance of the pig.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-04 12:27 am (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

Again, thanks for the flattering comparison! Be well!

--MW
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: wyldemusick
2007-04-04 12:32 am (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

Alas, you miss the point, but that's expected.

To close, then, I shall endeavour to be well, and I do hope that you endeavour to be better.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2007-04-04 01:34 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

I hope Waid punches you in the face.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: wyldemusick
2007-04-04 01:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

Gosh, such a brave statement to make, anonymous troll type creature.

I do so love the gutless amoebas that infest the Internet.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: apiphile
2007-04-04 04:30 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

Y'know, I have no idea who you are and no great fondness for Mark Waid, but reading your humourless whining in this thread and seeing all the times you could have just let it drop instead of both waving your dicks around ... kind of makes me want to knock your heads together. And then punch you in the face.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: wyldemusick
2007-04-04 04:45 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

Ah, thank Christ for the bomb. I was afraid that matters were going to go against the grain here and we wouldn't see the surfacing of the Internet Cat Piss Men to leave their smelly prints all over things.

I have no idea who you are either, and this brainless comment from you makes me very glad of that fact.

How about you punch yourself in the face? That should help with the violent urges and make a positive contribution to the world at large.
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(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2007-04-04 05:31 pm (UTC)

Re: Waid rebuttal, part one:

OK, further posts to this particular branch of the threads will be deleted. Take it outside, folks!
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)