Tag Archive: Writing

An artist friend of mine is working on writing his own comic and asked my advice on the following:

“There is a sequence I want to put in my comic, but it’s not essential to the main plot. It’s a scene that gives insight into the main character, his motivations and the world the story takes place in, but it’s not vital to the story. Do I keep it or cut it?”

Good question. And this will sound kinda like a cop-out, but that’s really part of your voice as a storyteller. What do you choose to keep in and take out?

How self-indulgent do you get? Do you go Mignola’s route and show lots of aspect-to-aspect panels — they help set the mood and establish location but don’t advance the plot at all. Do you go Tarantino’s route and show a scene of two characters talking just because they play off each other well and not because they advance the story? How cutthroat are you with your story and pacing?

My general approach is to see if I can’t take the idea you’re talking about (something that shows characterization and world) and add that into another “important” scene that DOES move the story along. I forget who called it this, but someone used the word “telescopic” storytelling. Like adding multiple storytelling functions, one on top of the other, so that a scene is doing like ten things at once. And that is really fucking hard to do as a creator, but I also feel it works great for reader participation and immersion.

Off the top of my head, I’m pretty sure that every single scene in The Happy Samurais #1 “turns”. There’s a point to every scene.  Some value in the scene (trust, loyalty, love, hope) goes from positive to negative, or negative to positive. And once the scene turns (and I’ve made my point), I get the hell out of there (start the scene as late as possible, and end it as soon as possible).

If a scene DOESN’T turn, it better be really fucking interesting on SOME level. There is a super-popular series out there that used to piss me off with this constantly. I’d get done reading a scene and be like, “WTF?!  Why did you even show me that? That scene had no point (except to piss me off) and had no bearing on the outcome of things.” If a scene is entertaining and you’ve got space for it, then fuck it and put it in there.  Most monthly books don’t have the pages to spare on scenes non-essential to the plot.

When in doubt on what storytelling decision to make, I generally go back to Walt Simonson’s advice: “For every decision ask, ‘does it make the story better?”.

Picking up where we left off last time then, my goals when planning out The Happy Samurais #1 were to try and do what the first issue of a good manga does:  introduce the world and characters, setup the status quo, introduce some story problems/conflitcts AND get across the series premise/hook.  On an even higher level, I wanted to craft a story so strong, that if someone picks up this new series from an unknown creator, they’d not only enjoy the first issue, but be compelled into picking up the ENTIRE series.

Now, that’s a damn tall order in your typical 22 page comic.

That’s why my plan was to do what I mentioned previously and go with a double-sized first issue.  Somewhere during the writing process though, that double-sized issue became a triple-sized issue and the final page count is pushing 60 pages. (Now whether a 60 page first issue is an idiotic idea or not is a discussion for another day, but I will say the whole point of making this comic is to make it exactly the way I want and fuck everything else.)

So The Happy Samurais #1 has ended up feeling somewhere in between a single issue and a trade paperback (most TPBs collect 5-6 issues, which would be 120-130 pages).  I’m used to working on 22 comics.  It’s familiar.  The finish line is always in sight and that’s a VERY comforting thing.

Doing a long form comic though presents it’s own unique set of challenges.  And I will admit that 60 pages BARELY qualify as long form –especially if compared to say, Craig Thompson’s 600+ page Habibi (which I had the privilege to read last fall).  But 60 pages is still half of a standard trade paperback and it feels radically different from a 22-pager to me.

And that brings me to the point of this post.

As I draw The Happy Samurais #1, I kinda feel like I’m only making progress on the project when I see the finished page count tally rise.  For whatever reason THAT and ONLY THAT seems to be how progress is measured (maybe because it’s the simplest quantifiable way?).  I might do six character designs, three location designs and five pages of layouts over a couple weeks, but because I didn’t add any pages to the tally, I feel like I didn’t accomplish a damn thing.

And feeling like you’re spinning you’re wheels (even though you know that’s not true) can depress the hell out of you.

One of the biggest factors in seeing things through to completion is handling the inevitable ups and downs that accompany a project that requires such a long period of work.  Day to day and hour to hour, you’ll go from believing you can slay dragons, to convinced you’re so awful that you need to find a new line of work.  For me, the surest way to feel good about myself again is to draw pages and add to that tally.

But making comics isn’t JUST drawing pages.  Well, at least for ME it’s not.  Even though finishing pages is the only way you feel like you’re getting closer to your goal, you can’t jump the gun and rush to start them.

You have to have something to say in your pages.

You have to build the pages on the foundation of your world and the story you want to tell in that world.

If you’re in too big a rush to draw the pages without laying the proper groundwork, they’ll ring empty and hollow.  You can’t just toss stuff out there.  If you want people to notice, if you want to them to give a shit, you have to world build.  And that means thinking how one character, one object, one prop, one location etc. is going to affect EVERY other thing in that world.

And to do that right takes time.

Don’t get distracted by things you WANT to draw (design that one character, setting or maybe that promo image that you’ve been dreaming about for years) and make sure they’re things you actually HAVE to draw in order to get the next page done.  That’s always a good test for me.  Do I HAVE to draw this model sheet super-tight to make the next page work?  Or can I just do it medium-tight and still have it work?  What’s the “endgame” for this piece?

The pages will come.

You’ll add to your tally.

Just keep plugging away.

Complete each step.  Move on to the next and stop worrying about how close you are to the finish line.

As discussed a few weeks ago, you’ve got to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.


Note: click here to read a couple of Craig Thompson’s thoughts on long form comics from my time at ACA with him.

Most new manga in Japan launch with double-sized stories (somewhere between 30-40 pages).  The page count is high enough that it leaves room to establish the world, setup the status quo, introduce some story problems and ultimately get across the story premise or hook.  Sure, the series might not really hit it’s stride for a few issues or even volumes — it personally takes me 2-3 volumes before I’m really sold on a series — but you have a pretty decent idea what the story is about and where it’s headed based on that first story.

Contrast that with the first issue of most new American comics.  You’ll read the first issue (generally 20-22 pages) and basically only be introduced to the world and/or the characters. You have NO idea where this story/series is headed.  I’m rarely COMPELLED in any way to pick up the next issue — because there was no series premise/hook or even just an issue-hook to bring me back.  They kind of just say, “here is this character, and here are some of the people he interacts with but that’s all we’ve got time for this issue.  Come back for the next few issues when we’ll explain just what the hell this character wants and what’s standing in the way of him getting it.  Just trust us…it’ll be worth it!”

Usually then, I’ll only pick up the next issue based on the creative team — they’ve got a proven track record of work I like, or the creators are doing something that seems like it has potential and I’m gonna give them a chance.  But it’s not that I’m COMPELLED to come back because the story they setup was SO AMAZING that I just HAVE to see where it goes.  And honestly, I think that’s an essential part of the job for the first issue’s story.  Introduce things, but also HOOK the reader with that issue.  MAKE them came back for #2.  Don’t just HOPE they come back.

Often times, even the best comics fail to do this.  Take Invincible by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley (current artist) and Cory Walker (original series artist).  I picked the series up initially because I love Cory Walker’s work.  I stuck with it and gave it a chance because Walker’s art was so badass — not that Kirkman’s story was bad (it was actually pretty good), but it didn’t MAKE you pick up the next issue.  At least not until the stuff happened with Omni-Man, which was probably issue #10 or #12.  That’s when Kirkman and the team started to hit their stride and they MADE me pick up the the next issue to find out what happened next.  I’m not trashing Invincible.  I think it’s one of the best comics around.  Just talking about it failing to hook me with issue #1.

I’m trying to remember what the last #1 that DID hook me for the whole series was.  Not sure, but probably Jonathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 from Marvel.  After reading that first issue it was just about impossible NOT to buy the subsequent issues.

Maybe just how important it is to hook a reader with the first issue depends on what kind of “name” you have in the industry though.  Someone like Brian Azzarello (random choice) has a strong enough track record with his past work, that he probably doesn’t HAVE to hook you with issue #1.  You’ll probably give him 3-4 issues before you make any decisions on continuing to pick up the book.  But when you’re an unknown creator like myself, I don’t feel I have that luxury.  I think I’ve gotta hook you right off the bat and MAKE you come back for the rest of the series.  If I can pull that off remains to be seen, but that’s the goal of issue #1.

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