At night, when I close my eyes, I can hear my comic collection growing. There is a shuffling of paper as if tiny flocks of birds were posting up, sliding next to one another on the shelves. The wall studs groan like bad actors in a Dickens play. Books vanish and reappear as if loaning themselves out.
This can’t just be my imagination; there is physical evidence of their accumulation. Indeed, it seems impossible that any human imagination could conceive of such wonders that fill these pages that now fill my home.
No. This must be the world of the supernatural. And like any good character in a Lovecraftian horror, I’m going to painstakingly describe my journey into this publishing madness. Especially all of the indescribable bits.
Writing the Pitch
The first thing I was surprised to learn was that comic books are not, in fact, made exclusively by magicians and their homunculi. This is nothing more than a common misconception that only applies to small parcels of land in England.
Instead, comic books are made by working people! Basically, humans who are too weird to work in an office and yet are forced to adhere to office rituals like email, small talk, and form filling.
And it’s that last one that begins all comics.
“Pitches” are simple documents, usually just a single page, which quickly tells editors and publisher why this proposed comic book would be a.) exciting and b.) a big seller. They do this by carefully completing the text fields beneath four ancient headlines.
Very few pitches exist for well-known books, so we’ll be reverse-engineering Watchmen here to illustrate my points.
This has been a mainstay of pitches since at least Come In Alone by Warren Ellis. This short sentence or two works like a strapline on a movie poster; it’s a tease that tells you just enough to want more.
“What happened to the American dream?”
One to three paragraphs is all you get to tell the thrust of the story. And in true mad science fashion: there’s a formula:
“In a world filled with X, there is/are hero(es) of type(s) Y, and they are hoping to do Z to prevent the end of the world.” (It should always close with the end of the world. Even if your story is about a bake sale.)
Tonight, a Comedian died in New York. Somebody knows why.
Set in New York against the eve of thermonuclear annihilation, five heroes — a god, the smartest man on earth, a psychopath, a beautiful woman, and an everyman — must solve the death of their friend if they hope to keep themselves, and the rest of the world alive.
But when the mystery grows and the Armageddon keeps coming, who will save the world from them?
Set during an alternate universe where America sits with 1 minute left on the Cold War doomsday clock, the fate of the world be decided by the last people you want in charge: superheroes.
This series features characters like Dr. Manhattan (a God-like figure and expy for The Atom), Rorschach (a violent psychotic and expy for The Question) who show us a side of capes we’ve never seen before — the deeply flawed humans beneath them. Personal tragedy and international stakes lead to one ultimate question: can you ever really save the world?
Not the story itself, but how that story is categorized or described.
Is it a high-fantasy adventure tale? A gritty sci-fi detective story? Would it be described as funny or deadly serious? What’s the key draw, action, dialog, art, or something more?
Watchmen is a taut “whodunnit” and political thriller where all the characters are superheroes. It’s a tight, philosophical story takes place in a world where America — the with help of its superheroes — won the Viet Nam war, setting up a Cold War confrontation even more paranoid than our own. The story gets into readers heads with the help of some exacting artwork and a grim tone to match its cynical world. It’s equal parts Apocalypse Now and In Cold Blood with just a bit of satirizing for poor Frank Miller.
But words are ultimately boring, so it’s probably prudent to include something pretty to look at. Sometimes that something is a new character. Other times it’s Batman with a new hat. Either way, it’s probably better than a semicolon…
Final Thought: Execution > Ideas
Pitching isn’t about showing an idea, it’s about showing the ability to think. Creators put these glorified powerpoints together to show they can work from the bare bones all the way up to the business case. Moreover, it’s about proving they have the resolve to get through the difficult and boring parts.
For more info, check out Jim Zub’s excellent posts on pitching.
Outlining only hits the major “landmarks” in a story. It’s a map, while the actual writing is the “driving.” This is also a crucial step that some creators seem to neglect, leading to enormous problems down the line.
Creators often make two outlines, starting with “broad” outlines when plotting a run and “detailed” outlines before writing each issue.
- The Comedian is murdered
- Rorschach investigates; introduces Night Owl, Ozymandias, Doctor Manhattan, and Silk Spectre.
- Silk Spectre visits her mother; Rorschach, Night Owl, Ozymandias, Doctor Manhattan, attend Comedian’s funeral
- Comedian is murdered
- Rorschach investigates the crime scene
- Introduce Night Owl
- Rorschach confides in Night Owl that he believes there may be a plot to kill superheroes
- Rorschach visits Ozymandias at Veidt Industries [Foreshadowing]; talks Registration Act.
- Rorschach visits Doctor Manhattan and Silk Spectre; Silk Spectre brings up the Comedian’s sexual assault of her mother [Foreshadowing]
- Silk Spectre and Manhattan get into an argument; Spectre leaves to have drinks with Night Owl [Foreshadowing]
Graphic or “Map” Outline:
This is a modern invention favored by authors tracking the emotional state of the story (see below) or writing stories with more complex structures (think: Jonathan Hickman). Each artist has their own execution that likely only makes sense to them, but if you want a compelling (and confusing) look into the process, check out Chris Oatley’s post on the matter.
Research and inspiration phase
Modern comics can have a bit of a fetish for research. Different creators manifest this in different ways — Ellis and Moore famously researched real-world matters; Johns and Waid go deep into the back issues; Morrison sorta does both.
Whoever the creator, everything gets researched twice: Once for canon, once for fact.
Similarly, there’s gathering up inspirational material — old films, music, television, plays, anything — as fodder for the work. Authors and artists will often share material back and forth through the creation of a book. Creators like Rick Remender go so far as to make playlists for individual issues, essentially scoring his comics in order to help his artists out.
This is where the outline becomes real. The writer will work back and forth with their editor (and possibly their artists) to flesh out the initial ideas into a full story. The trick is to create one that can not only be read but can also be illustrated and produced.
There are several stylistic schools for the writing of a script, but the most successful ones follow a simple edict:
Give the artist just enough direction to do a good job, but not so much direction that you stifle them. (Unless, of course, you’re Alan Moore, whose scripts were essentially extremely long letters to his artists in which the bearded wizard charmed and bedeviled them into producing precisely what he wanted. This is not advised for anyone under a level 37 magus.)
This means that the Story Document can look surprisingly inconsistent with the final, finished book with some pages taking more than one page to describe, while others can be reduced down to “Character A gets into a fight with Character B [3 pages]”
For some real-world examples, check out Comics Experience’s Script archive.
If you want to learn how to do this yourself, here are five recommendations to get you started.
- Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative – Will Eisner
- Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art – Scott McCloud
- Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels – Scott McCloud
- Alan Moore’s Writing For Comics Volume 1 – Alan Moore
- Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human – Grant Morrison
These could be considered “the outlining of the art world,” because they take place before the obvious stages, solve a lot of early problems, and because I’m grasping for a metaphor.
Layouts determine much more than just the legibility of a page. Layouts are what make comic books, well… comic books.
How many panels are on a page, their size, shape, and placement determine how information is processed by the reader and at what pace. Meaning big action sequences and big emotional payoffs rely just as much on the layout as on anatomy, perspective, or any other discipline. If not more.
For instance: Watchmen is famous for using the first panel of the comic as the cover, consistent 9-panel layouts, and symmetry between pages to keep tone and flow. All of that took incredibly careful planning between Moore and Gibbons which had to be hashed out in layout. (Many comics will actually be rewritten slightly in layout phase in order to achieve these effects.)
Unfortunately, much like outlines, this is an oft-neglected discipline and can cause enormous problems in the end.
Anyone interested in the importance of layouts should definitely start with Steranko’s Nick Fury Agent of Shield, then work forward to David Aja’s work on Hawkeye. and Russell Dautermann and Matt Wilson on War of the Realms.
Covers are really their own thing and deserving of a second article. But the short version is that covers have their own production schedule, their own creative requirements, and largely their own staff. Down to having their own review structure at times!
For now, just know that the covers get made to help sell the book, not so much the work inside. If I say any more, Dave Johnson might kill me.
With the concept art approved in the pitch and the layouts approved by author and editor, it’s time to commit. Pencils are the first pass at the artwork and are critical for establishing everything. And who better to show it off than Jim Lee?
Inking does more than solidify the artwork with deeper contrast and shadow. It’s also where pencils get corrected for errors in anatomy, perspective, lighting, facial expression, and more. See how Jason Conrad adjusts Batman’s expression in that first panel.
Before colors get applied, colorists either lay down flat fields of color or else work with a “flatter” to do it for them. Flats are for more than blocking out suits and skins; they create the contrast that makes different objects distinct from one another. It’s also where the “mood” of the book takes further shape. It’s also where inks can get cleaned up a bit as needed.
This is the final step in the illustrative end of artwork, adding shading and finalizing light sources, and making it all come alive.
The Script (or dialogue)
The writer takes a last look at the finalized artwork and adjusts dialogue as necessary based on what’s visually described (and how much room is left for the word balloon).
Putting it this late means everything’s being addressed properly… and that the author has had the maximum amount of time to create pithy one-liners.
The letterer picks some appropriate text styles for narration, dialogue, special forms of speech (like telepathy, etc), and any other form of communication that needs written depiction. If you’re a rockstar like Janice Chiang, it can mean creating far more, like the flaming speech bubbles she invented for Ghost Rider (and have been identified with the character ever since.)
The huge text effects that happen when guns go off, monsters roar, things explode, etc. These days, this can go during the inking phase, coloring phase, or right here at the end.
A proofreader goes over everything in the book for errors (spelling, grammar, or otherwise). Minor corrections go to the letterer; major ones, to the writer or editor.
A Special Note on Continuity
Comics can get complicated. To create a book for the big two, you need to know not only what your characters will do in your book, and not just what they’ve been doing for the past few decades, but also what they will be doing in everyone else’s books for the foreseeable future.
Is there an event book coming? Is your character likely to join a team (or leave one?) Did their powers change recently? Their costume? Their friendships or romantic relationships? Do they have a peanut allergy?
This is why big titles have their own, dedicated editors that watch the line.
There are also many unofficial channels through slack, email chains, and more for writers and artists to talk among themselves.
Regardless, assume that every time some creator touches Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, or Captain America, there are about a hundred other steps that get added to this list as continuity checks.
There’s no real mystery to comics. They’re a business that follows a replicable formula which, if respected, keeps things just tidy enough that everyone gets paid. And yet there is something miraculous in the way that something so regimented can still produce such fantastic results that surprise us constantly. Or in how that formula is available to anyone willing to try.
It is in this way that the mundane becomes miraculous.
It is also what is leading to my collection growing out of control as it strains against the very fabric of reality. Newsprint pages like a million dry tongues whispering out the name of some unseen doom that exists beyond our color spectrum. Even now I can hear it shambling its way up the stairs…