So on twitter @benrankel just asked me a question that I need a lot more than 180 characters to answer!
When writing a comic script for yourself do you follow a standard comic scripting format or do you have your own process?
It’s true that most of the time I work off a script- and I’ve been really lucky to work with some amazing writers like Steve Seagle, Jhonen Vasquez and my long-time collaborator Brian Wood. But let’s travel back in time a bit, to a time before I had anything published, to give you a look at where I am coming from:
Highschool. The 90’s. I dreamed, with my best friend Jen Quick (who is drawing comics again, woo!!), of being a comic artist. And here I am now, but not by the path I had imagined for myself. Back then I yearned to create our own epic fantasy and adventure stories, ten— no, ONE HUNDRED BOOKS LONG! :D Of course none of these ideas got off the ground, and I never even made it more than a few chapters in before turning my attention to a new story.
College. Things started changing for me, with my art and stories, influences and inspirations- I think I was about 19 or 20 when I realized that I’d never get anything done if I kept starting and stopping- I had to actually sit down and FINISH A COMIC. So I started with short stories, many of which were one, five, or ten pages. A few were 22 pages. I had short stories in a bunch of the old Meathaus anthologies, and published a ton of mini comics. The idea was to work up my stamina- after all, you can’t finish a marathon without ever having ran before. Baby steps!
Most of these comics didn’t make any sense. I was experimenting, approaching each short story in a different way. Some I’d write first, some I’d draw first then fill in the bubbles- once I even drew a comic all out of order and cut it up like a collage to make something completely new! Not that any of them made any sense, but I didn’t care. I was making comics for me.
Truthfully, I never had any intention of working with writers at this point, but apparently Brian Wood had other ideas. He asked me to work on Jennie One with him, my first collaboration with a writer on a large scale! And by god, I think it worked! Working off a script was when I started realizing that I wasn’t making comics for myself anymore- I was here to communicate an idea, a story to people. It was my job that they understood what I was trying to get across- and it changed my perspective completely! I wasn’t an art student anymore, I was trying to make a career. I guess that’s how my career started. I learned a lot about writing by working with Brian, and he was coming at it from a very visual sense, being an amazing designer and having drawn comics himself. We worked together easily, and I threw all inhibitions of working with a writer out the window!
Flash forward several years. I still did comics on the side for myself, I had a few short stories in Flight and DHP anthologies and did the odd webcomic here and there, and my OGN East Coast Rising (RIP), but it wasn’t until I was tapped by Scott Allie over at Dark Horse to write an issue of Buffy that I was forced to write a script, a real live script. Now, I don’t know how other writers do it, for me conjuring words to a blank page is damn near impossible. I won’t deny that I struggle with this, I definitely think in a more visual way, not so much in words. Writing a full script for me was like pulling teeth. Dialogue especially was difficult.
It wasn’t until WOLVES and THE MIRE when I set out to conquer the script on my terms. I had an idea to do three or four short stories, all set in the same time period- stories I could collect into a trade later. That’s what I’m working on in my spare time, and from working on these stories I’ve distilled a sort of process, one that I think lets me write as an artist. Here it is, my writing process for short stories.
First I think about what the story. What are the big events? What is the theme, the essence of the story? What are the feelings I want the reader to feel? Who are the characters? Right now draw the characters. Draw them in your sketchbook. Draw them over and over until they come out exactly the way you want them to. Draw them so much that you feel comfortable enough with them to make fun of them. Grow to love them, or hate them. Or both. There, now you’ve broken the ice with your characters, they’ll be easier to write now that you know them better. This is an important step for me.
Now we’re ready to get started! I like to start with a bullet list, because I like the way the little black dots look. I write down all the events that have to occur, and any other notes important to the story. From here it gets worked over a bit, things are taken out or moved around, until I’m happy the events fall where they should.
Then I make a list from 1 to 22. Each number represents a page, and I write down what each event as it happens per page, and any dialogue that I think would be good to use. I have a few rules I like to follow, like I don’t change scene in the middle of a page unless it’s a flashback, and I’m mindful of the page turns and double page spreads. Stuff like that! I’ve been doing this for a while so I have a good idea on what I can fit in a page comfortably in less than 7 panels. I don’t like to go above 7 on a mini comic since it’s printed a bit smaller, for readability.
Then I go in and thumbnail! I don’t have final dialogue written, so I have to make sure I leave space for the words. After it’s all penciled and inked, I go in and letter it in photoshop. It’s easier for me like this because the characters expressions and body language help me think of words they might use. This is funny (read: embarrassing) because sometimes I act out the comic to try and figure out the words.
Taa-daa! This is my process for a 22 page comic. When I wrote the Buffy script I had actually used this process, I did my bullet list and thumbnails, then I wrote the script based on that, because it was easier for me to visualize how much action I can fit on a page when it’s drawn out in front of me.
So I don’t think there’s any right way to make comics, but this is what works for me. It allows me for a lot of freedom, but it’s still organized enough to make me feel like my structure is sound. I’m sure one day I’ll attempt at writing and drawing a graphic novel again, and I’ll probably use this process. Until then I’m building up my stamina with short stories. Baby steps!
Of course I’m sure I’ll keep working with writers, even if that’s not what I imagined my comics would be like it twelve years ago. Always work with people who will challenge you. I wouldn’t have learned so much about storytelling without working with amazing story tellers. Thanks everyone!
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