My first comic book story (one I got paid for) was published sometime around this time of the year in 2006. So that makes it 4 years (yeah, I’m a math whiz ) “in the biz” for me. It’s been a great ride. Balancing a dayjob (and later parenthood) with writing has been challenging, but very rewarding. I’ve had the good fortune of working with some great people and have come to know (or even make friends with) some creators who were till even a couple of years back hallowed names in the credits pages of books I adore. Yeah, it’s been a good ride.
So today, as I nurse a busted ankle, I felt like writing a blog post about one of the primary lessons I learned through my 4 years of working in comics. Much as a writer’s ego wouldn’t let him/her admit it, Comics are primarily a visual medium. A writer seeds the vision, but the artist executes it. The art is what one sees first and thus great art is a must-have hook for a reader to pick up an “unfamiliar/unknown” comic book in the first place. So the first part of the writer’s contribution – the script, is sort of “invisible”.
The script and the initial panel breakdowns decide the pace of the comic book and set a box around the artist’s execution space. For example, as a novice I had this habit of putting every single visual and transition I could think of on the page. The result was a very panel heavy page that didn’t account for the fact that someone had to draw it (and someone else had to letter it too). Condensed information of this nature is visually off-putting as well as confusing. Visual stimulus is one of the most direct methods of perception in Cognitive Theory followed closely by Sound and Smell. So overloading the visuals, results in a confusing disjoint experience that turns off the reader and sometimes assaults their senses too.
So the key to visual storytelling, in my humble opinion, is simplicity. The one lesson you learn as a writer of comic books is to “Keep It Simple, Stupid” (KISS). A writer must learn intuitively the art of picking “frozen moments in time” from the entire timeline of the unfolding action and give the art some “breathing space”. Trust your artistic collaborator to execute the sequence you’ve chosen and (as the title of the post says) “Get the hell out of the artist’s way”
Once the art is done, the writer’s pawprints show up again in a comic book via the captions and speech balloons. Lettering is often compared to other “invisible arts” like the background score of movies. When done right it enhances the experience, without intruding on to the foreground of perception. Conversely, when screwed up it completely ruins the experience. As a writer, I’ve come to learn the hard way to let the art “speak” rather than go around ham-handedly inserting text to repeat what is already explained in the art. Comics are unique in the fact that all of the different dimensions of storytelling (art, speech, sound effects) occupy the same 2D visual plane and panel real estate is a zero-sum resource. More you use for Captions / Bubbles / SFX, the less you have for art. So sometimes it’s again just better to let the art “breathe” and “get the hell out of the way”.
Of course, I am by no means an expert on sequential storytelling. These are things and practices that have worked for me and your mileage may vary… a lot.
Until next time,
I used to write a column called “Nine Panel Grid” at Comics Waiting Room about my experiences as a writer and things I learned as I moved through the world of comics. I have decided to continue writing those “columns” here at my blog.