Devourer of Words 044: The Mailbag

Toucan reading a comic
Marc Bernardin

This time out, I asked the Internet for questions about the business and craft of comics writing. And the Internet, as it has been known to do, kicked back its share of information—some valuable, some useless.

So, on to the mailbag:

@CaptainEats asked: “Would writing a spec comic with existing, famous IPs be a viable writing example or just glorified fan-fiction?”

Well, Captain, in the good old days of comics publishing—and by old, I mean not 10 years ago—editors used to commission what they called inventory stories: single-issue tales that could be slotted in whenever the ongoing writer/artist needed a breather. All too often, those inventory stories were ways for editors to try out fresh talent—the Batman editor knew what a Batman story should look like, so it was easy for them to gauge whether or not a rookie had what it took because there’s an easy yardstick to measure by.

But the thing of it was, they had to ask you to pitch them stories. They rarely, if ever, read those things unsolicited.

For you, I think, it becomes a question of investment vs. reward. Sure, you could invest the time to write (and get someone to draw) your Spider-Man comic book. But there is only one place that’s ever going to publish it, so unless it wows the heck out of Marvel, it is only a sample.

Personally, I think you’d be much better off creating something of your own. If you wanna write superheroes, create your own. That way, if it turns out incredibly well, at least there’s a way for you do so something with it.

Alana Dill (@alanapaints) asked: “How does a writer/illustrator get a chance to write for an existing franchise?”

Very few people break in out of nowhere—that is, with no track record at all, be handed the keys to the Punisher (or whomever) and told to go nuts. Instead, editors and publishers look for talented people doing smaller work and give them a shot. Zines, indie comics, web work, etc.—all of them are like the minor leagues, places to hone your craft, sharpen your skills, and have actual printed work to show as samples.

Of course, it is entirely possible to have a rewarding, lucrative career never writing a pre-existing franchise and only work in indie comics, but if what you want is to crack Marvel, DC, or Image, you’re better off with some books under your belt.

Leonard Maxim (@dyzordalyz218) asked: “How different is a finished comic script from a movie script?”

Not that different, if you look at my comics scripts. But that’s just to look at them—they serve an incredibly different purpose.

There are two things to remember: there are dozens if not hundreds of ways to format a comics script. My way is different from Ed Brubaker’s way which is different from Warren Ellis’ way which is different from Brian Bendis’ way which is different from Alan Moore’s way. Unlike with screenplays, there is no set-in-stone format for comics scripts. So do whatever makes it easier for you to understand it. (For me, the look of a screenplay just makes it easier to see in my head, so I use a modified screenplay template.)

The other thing to remember is that comics scripts and movie scripts are designed to do different things. In a comic, you are freezing time and describing it for an artist (and the editor). A movie script is encapsulating motion, sound, light—everything that makes a movie a movie.

As they are two different mediums, they do two different things. But one can look a bit like the other.

Conor Killmurray (@Conor_JK) asked: “For you what makes a comic more than just a heavily detailed storyboard?”

A storyboard makes no attempt to be literary. It is only showing you one dimension of storytelling: the visual. Yes, in comics, the visual is incredibly important. But a storyboard is not trying to add text, or subtext. More importantly, it doesn’t take into consideration the time gulf that falls between the panels—that thing that makes comics uniquely comics.

Wes Rose (@wes_rose) asked: “How hard is it for an indie writer to release his own IP with original characters/stories in comics?”

It’s hard, but it’s the only way to go. The comics marketplace, like most marketplaces, is geared towards selling people known quantities. You like capes? Here are a hundred more capes. You like crime, here are some great books. You like Watchmen? Here’s Before Watchmen.

But you have to create the new. Your voice is your only real currency, and it’s hard to get that voice front and center without putting it in service of something that no one else has ever seen before.

Finding someone to roll the die on your concept isn’t easy, nor is it impossible. And those first few deals might not be the most favorable towards you. But it can be done. It must be done. Putting your own IP out into the world is the only way to unlock everything else.

Dennis (@bubbsy00) asked: “When writing a comic, should you tailor the script to account for advertisements in the final product?”

Dennis, control what you can control, don’t worry about that which you can’t. If you are doing a creator-owned book, odds are, you won’t have to worry about many ads to begin with. And if you are so lucky as to get them, they’ll either be in the front of the book or the backmatter, not in the meat. (And if they are in the meat, you’ll likely know well enough in advance to deal.)

If you’re on a Big Two book, you will have no idea when or where an ad will pop up, nor will they, for the most part, tell you. So there’s no point in worrying about something you can’t change. Just write the way you normally would and take solace in the fact that the ads won’t be in the trade collection, so it’s all good.

Ryan Taylor (@shenanigandalf) asked: “I’m currently developing an idea for a comic book series but am starting to wonder if it wouldn’t be better suited to a novel or screenplay instead. At what point do you know what medium will best suit your idea?”

While it’s true that, to some degree, form follows function, you need to ask yourself if your story can be told effectively despite the limitations of the medium—or if the nature of the story plays to the strengths of the medium.

If your story is best told with a lot of interior monologue and an omniscient point of view, maybe a novel is the way to go. If you’re telling the kind of story that relies on the audio-visual to work—horror comes to mind, a genre that can be difficult in comics—maybe a cinematic telling is best.

Figure out what tools you think you need to tell the story and then gravitate to the medium that brings the highest number of those tools to the table.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!

Written by