Comics writing craft extravaganza, true believers!
August 26, 2012 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Decompressed is a podcast in which comics writer and former Rock Paper Shotgun journalist Kieron Gillen (X-Men, Thor, Phonogram) talks to artists and writers about the process involved in writing a single issue of a comic. Decompressed 6 broke format and is instead a discussion with Mark Waid and Matt Fraction about scripting comics using the "Marvel Method", or "plot first" - in which the artist draws the comic from a story outline and dialogue is added later, rather than the writer supplying a panel by panel script. For a while out of favour even at Marvel, the method is seeing a resurgance. The podcast page contains visual aids, and embedded version of the podcast, the script of DEFENDERS #9 complete with B&W art and additional links, including links to Warren Ellis’ 3-part tutorial on writing comics (1, 2, 3). Jamie McKelvie and a vultue put in guest appearances. Further example comicbook scripts are available at the Comic Book Script Archive (previously).
posted by Artw (29 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
If you're interested in comcis craft at all, and not even just the Marvel Method way, I strongly urge you to give this a listen. The other episodes are worth a go as well - the Kelly-Sue DeConnick one on Captain Marvel #1 in particular is excellent and could almost be it's own post.
posted by Artw at 9:47 AM on August 26, 2012

I listened to this podcast but forgot to go back and check out the visual aids. Thanks for the reminder
posted by thecjm at 9:52 AM on August 26, 2012

I used to only read DC Comics back when I was in high school because I thought the Marvel Method was ridiculous. #comicsnob
posted by PenDevil at 10:05 AM on August 26, 2012

I used to only read Marvel Comics because I thought everything at DC was ridiculous. Oh wait that's right now. #new52
posted by thecjm at 10:13 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Deep in my unrealistic nerdy heart, I expect someday to write for Marvel and DC..."Sword of Mazing Man," perhaps.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 10:13 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The advice "you are not Alan Moore" is of course included. Seeing scripts by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman printed in the back of Graphic Novels has undoubtedly led a bunch of writers astray, myself very much included. However this interview has some writing advice from Moore which is gold:

DW: At this point Mr Moore reveals his Grimoire…

(The book has tiny sketched-out panels (stick figures basically), laid out quite precisely to form a rough outline of a page from a Promethea script (the scene has two characters in conversation walking down a beach, with a boat on shore in the foreground in some panels). Each panel has a line drawn from it to handwritten dialogue that is accompanied by two reference numbers – one for the page no. and one for the panel no.)

AM: Horrible, tatty book, but what this has got in it is lots of crappy little drawings that are indecipherable to anybody else but me, but which are basically all I need for anything re writing comics. They will give me a breakdown…they'll just be sort of these pages – these are bits of Promethea – I will break down the page area into a number of panels. Now, I've got a simple, mathematical mindless formula that I follow that is – I mean if you look at these little bits of dialogue that go in each of the panels you'll see that they have little numbers written after each of the lines and what this is is the number of words.

Now, this is basically something that I took from Mort Weisinger, who was the harshest and most brutal –

DW: DC editor?

AM: - of the DC editors during the ‘60s.

DW: Bit of a tyrant from what I hear.

AM: Oh Christ, he was a monster, I remember Julie Schwarz telling me – who was a lovely man – he told me about Mort Weisinger's funeral – and this was probably just an old Jewish joke that he'd adapted – for Mort Weisinger – but he said that apparently during Jewish funerals there's a part where people can stand up and spontaneously will say a few words about the departed – personal tributes, things like that. So it's Mort Weisinger's funeral, and it gets to this bit in the funeral and there's absolute dead silence, and the silence just goes on and on and on and nobody gets up and says anything and eventually this guy at the back of the synagogue gets up and says: “His brother was worse!” (laughter).

But anyway, Mort Weisinger, because he was the toughest of the editors, I thought: “Alright, I'll take his standard as the strictest”. What he said was: if you've got 6 panels on a page, then the maximum number of words that you should have in each panel, is 35. No more. That's the maximum. 35 words per panel. Also, if a balloon has more than 20 or 25 words in it, it's gonna look too big. 25 words is the absolute maximum for balloon size. Right, once you've taken on board those two simple rules, laying out comics pages – it gives you somewhere to start – you sort of know: “OK, so 6 panels, 35 words a panel, that means about 210 words per page maximum”.

DW: And if you've got one panel you'd have 210…

AM:…and if you've got 2 panels you'd have 105 each. If you've got 9 panels it's about 23-24 words – that'll be about the right balance of words and pictures. So that is why I obsessively count all the words, to make sure that I'm not gonna overwhelm the pictures, that I'm not gonna make – oh, I've seen some terrible comic writing where the balloons are huge, cover the entire of the background –

DW: Doesn't that tend to often happen when you've got what's called the American plot style of scripting which is where the writer basically gives a very broad breakdown –

AM: I've never really got on with that, I can't see – that just looks sloppy to me. I mean, I remember once Archie Goodwin, who I greatly respected, saying it does allow for serendipity. Yeah, I can see that, but I should imagine that as a reward that is probably outweighed by the fact that all the characters, the artist has to give them neutral expressions because he doesn't know what they're gonna be saying, or thinking, in those panels, so he has to make them look kind of neutral, a bit constipated, and everything gets sort of blanded out. Whereas, I can control this – I can make sure that everything works, at least in my little crappy drawings, I can make sure there's not too many words for any panel –

DW: So this number refers to the page and the panel within the page?

AM: Er yeah, well this is a spread so it's 18 and 19 5, 18 and 19 –

DW: Oh right, with the staple line in the middle?

AM: Yeah, that's it – it's a nice way to get to grips with a page. As to how you lay the page out, in your suggestions to the artist, that will depend. How much room have you got? What's the pacing like? One thing to remember in comics – and this is an interesting axiom – space equals time. To convey time in a Page from FROM HELL -

– it's spatial. I remember, when I was doing From Hell – I think it's the epilogue? – no, the prologue, the prologue, where I've got the prologue with just the two old guys on the beach, and I'd been doing that in just little panels because I thought, that's good, keeps it intimate, these little panels just – one of them says this, the other one says that, the next one just sits down and takes a breather – and then I thought; “Alright, I'll have one of them say: ‘Its getting cold, shall we be getting back?'”. And then I thought: “Right, they're right down by the tide line there, and actually it would take them quite a long while to walk back up the beach, and I don't just wanna suddenly jump to them on the seafront, and I don't wanna caption saying: ‘Meanwhile, shortly later…'”. So I thought alright, I'll just put a big wide panel taking up the whole tier – big picture of the beach at night – and there's these two little men, walking up the beach and the width of the panel will convey, it took a long while to do this. Alright, it will take the reader 3 seconds – 2 seconds – to actually look at the picture and take it in – there's no words in it – but it will convey time.

DW: There's some scenes in Dark Knight where Frank Miller really chops it up, in terms of one scene –

AM: - where you splinter the action, that is, all of a sudden it's all happening, it's happening in slow motion, you see something that would take 2 seconds, and you do it in 10 panels –

DW: - a drop of water falling while something happens –

AM: Yeah, yeah, that's it. I think most of what Frank based his stuff upon – on which any aspiring comic writer would do very well to go back to – is Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman – they're the best. Of their period. They came up with a lot of the devices, a lot of the ideas, that Frank and people elaborated upon – you look through Eisner and you can come up with so many brilliant ideas that he just throws away. Or probably even better, look back at the early American newspaper strips of the turn of the century.

(This, and obsessive compulsive panel and word counting, gets mentioned a lot in the the Kelly-Sue DeConnick episode)
posted by Artw at 10:17 AM on August 26, 2012 [12 favorites]

Note that Moore can't be doing with the Marvel Method. The techniques he's trying require an absolute level of control over panels.
posted by Artw at 10:19 AM on August 26, 2012

I'll stop hogging the thread after this one, honest...

Nerdist Writers Panel: Len Wein, Ed Brubaker and Jackson Publick - ANother podcast episode, some industry stuff, some craft stuff, Len Wein getting pissy about Alan Moore a bit and Ed Brubaker rather classily stepping in.
posted by Artw at 10:36 AM on August 26, 2012

Whelp, I know what I'm doing today.
posted by The Whelk at 12:45 PM on August 26, 2012

(also dear god why would you Marvel method anything except for time reasons. Comics are the control freak 's dream medium)
posted by The Whelk at 12:45 PM on August 26, 2012

This post is like a cool bar wrapped in awesome! So many links to peruse...

The Marvel Method probably came about because young Stan Lee had to dictate stories to artists who were far more experienced at making comic books than him, so he'd write down the basic idea and let them figure out the details. When the pages came back he could write dialog fairly quickly, which helped with deadlines and led to him developing that off the cuff, jazz-like improvisational style that characterized early Marvel. Those 1960's Marvel comics are a lot of fun to read aloud.

And Weisinger... hoo boy. I've never read anything good about the man, just grudging praise for the work other people did under his tenure.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:24 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Considering I usually include detailed thumbnails with my scripts (Cause BLOCKING IS IMPORTANT, I still think in terms of cameras, not illustration) the idea of working like that gives me HIVES.
posted by The Whelk at 1:30 PM on August 26, 2012

I used to do the whole "top tier has three panels, second tier has four, all of equal size" type malarkey, under the influence of the aforementioned Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman scripts. I've loosened up considerably since then, on the principal that artists generally know what they are doing and micromanaging them can actually keep them from doing it. Generally the only layout instructions I'll give now are "big panel" and "small panel".

Would I ever give up all control over breaking pages down into panels? It'd be a big leap - I'm big on the storytelling tricks that being able to do that gives me, but maybe for the right artist I would - I'd just really have to trust them a lot.
posted by Artw at 1:40 PM on August 26, 2012

Yeah I've never worked with an artist I didn't have a really close relationship with and I still break everything down cause expressions are important, pacing is important, beats are important, background details, linked visual associations are important....

I mean I have a few pages that are "And then draw some awesome dancer poses" but I still break down the panels and page.

Like I don't even know how you write a comics page without quickly drawing it up first. I try not to dictate too much to the artists but I also include like 30 page photo-reference files cause ...yeah recovering film student.
posted by The Whelk at 1:45 PM on August 26, 2012

“OK, so 6 panels, 35 words a panel, that means about 210 words per page maximum”.

I think I need to tape this to my laptop cause everyone in my scripts is fucking garrulous motherfucker.
posted by The Whelk at 1:53 PM on August 26, 2012

I really need to try more things that are comics-as-comics and illustration and not just nine-panel storyboards but the "Please leave room for balloons" situation is basically my worst nightmare so NO THIS IS WHAT THE ROOM LOOKS LIKE, HERE ARE SOME PHOTOS FOR DETAIL I HAVE INCLUDED A FLOOR PLAN SO YOU CAN FOLLOW PEOPLE'S MOVEMENTS.
posted by The Whelk at 1:59 PM on August 26, 2012

Heh. That reminds me of Nabokov's Lectures on Literature. There's sketches in the book where he attempts to reconstruct floor plans from the descriptions in great literary novels, and I remember he was particularly impressed by Jane Austen. Apparently you can follow Fanny Price around the rooms of Mansfield Park and it actually makes sense as a real building.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:09 PM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's a writing tool for me, if you have a clear idea WHERE your characters are then you can imagine more ways they can interact with the environment and use already existing details to work your way out of plot knots or get new ideas. Fer example, I had someone trying to escape their house and I was stuck in the situation I set up until I re-read my notes and remembered that her bedroom was on the north side (thus not facing the front door guards) with a flowing magnolia tree outside her window (cause I wanted to make the character visually linked with floral imagery in contrast to the villain who gets hunting motifs, tying them together in their scenes together with the color red). Well a big old magnolia tree could be a nice way to escape the house and add a tension beat as she struggles/slips and HEY if the town is laid out like I set-up in the opening panels then she's not far from the scrub woods and now she's in the woods like she needs to be for the next scene to work.

Hell half the reason I went to Versailles was so I could make damn sure you could run from one particular room to another in a sprint.

It just occurred to me I may be crazy.
posted by The Whelk at 2:19 PM on August 26, 2012

Twenty years ago I did a similar interview with Neil Gaiman, whereby he broke down the process of plotting, writing and so on an early-ish issue of Sandman. (It appeared in the long-departed Fear magazine.) I knew Neil socially (he'd bought my first short story for one of the Midnight Rose anthologies, among other things) but getting to talk to him about his craft for a couple of house was greatly illuminating. Mostly what it illuminated was that comics storytelling was not for me, an insight for which I am still profoundly grateful.
posted by Hogshead at 2:21 PM on August 26, 2012

Mostly what it illuminated was that comics storytelling was not for me, an insight for which I am still profoundly grateful.

Why is that?
posted by The Whelk at 2:25 PM on August 26, 2012

You're not crazy, Whelk. That's just one of the many different possible ways to approach creativity. Some people make it up on the spot, like Jack Kirby coming up with endless character designs in Fantastic Four, and some people like to plan everything out like a stage play or TV show. (And then there's other people who do a bit of both and probably aren't aware of how much they visualize in their imagination beforehand.) It's all good.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:29 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

(also dear god why would you Marvel method anything except for time reasons. Comics are the control freak 's dream medium)

1.) Keep thinking that, because I can think of no medium less suited to the control freak than comics except maybe film. Once those finished pages come back to you the writer, they are effectively done, and you have to live with it, and it will never be exactly what you envisioned in your head, capital N small E small V small E small R. Mark Waid has bitched often and entertainingly about how artists fuck up on the script they were given and practically never have to redo anything. Such is life.

2.) It's like improv - they riff off your ideas and then you riff off theirs.
posted by mightygodking at 3:31 PM on August 26, 2012

It just occurred to me I may be crazy.

In real life, I have a pretty fucking awful sense of direction -- the kind that lets you gets lost in a neighborhood you've lived in twenty years -- which may be it's really, really important to me to know exactly where everything is in an environment I'm creating in a story. I need to feel like this is a complete world. There's a sequence at the top of Locke & Key: Head Games that blew me away because you start out in the second-floor hallway of this high school and see the principal pass these kids to go into his office as they head for the stairs, and then he grabs a cup of coffee or something and sits at the window and looks out on the courtyard two stories below, where after a moment (i.e., a few panels later on) we see the two kids appear, having left the building, and then we watch them cross the courtyard and presumably enter the wider world. Joe Hill (writer) and/or Gabriel Rodriguez (artist) just knew where everything was; that was a real place, even if it only ever existed on the page. (I don't know whether Rodriguez modeled it on a real building.) It's a really terrific sequence that is probably only remarkable to people who have made comics and get how much thought must have gone into it.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:26 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

2.) It's like improv - they riff off your ideas and then you riff off theirs.

Well yeah but all the fun collaboration stuff goes on (for me anyway) way way way before the art stage, lots of re-writes, re-drawing, re-tumbnailing, pencil approvals, etc. Granted I do more complete book projects and not multi-issue series and my overhead consists of two people and I can take as much time as I want. It must be very different putting out a new issue with pre-established characters and arcs every month with a rotating list of editors and artists.

So my particular XYZ situation allows for my control freak flag to fly but it's far from common. Although if you are producing your own work, it totally allows you do whatever you want, but that's a broader issue of medium, not genre or format.
posted by The Whelk at 7:10 PM on August 26, 2012

I've been listening to these podcasts as part of my comprehensive fangirling of all things Kieron Gillen, and they're utterly fascinating. Two points of order:

Gillen is actually writing Journey into Mystery, which is not, strictly speaking, a Thor book. His run is centered on a version of Loki who's been reincarnated as a kid thanks to his previous self's schemes, but who characteristically refuses to fall meekly in line for anyone, including his former self, and is trying to negotiate his own way with mostly-good intentions and bluster and, of course, lots of trickiness. Kid!Loki has obtained a Starkphone and the uncouth humans on the internet call him a troll when he says that he's an Asgardian god. He has a badly-behaved hel-puppy that he named named Thori. He is adorable. There is a good chronological reading guide here if you want to figure out where to pick up his storyline. (And you do. Because it's amazing.)

Also, although these guys say they're using Marvel Method, when they talk about their actual process it sounds more like Modified Marvel Method or perhaps Marvel Method 2.0. In episode 4, for example, Matt Fraction says he has more emails in his inbox from Hawkeye penciller David Aja than he has from his own wife, which sounds a bit more collaborative than just sending off a plot treatment in a bottle and then receiving a stack of pages to dialogue.
posted by mayhap at 7:41 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

That's not entirely uncommon with full script though.

The big modification from classic Marvel Method seems to be they all like to break things down page by page, whereas back in the day I think Smiling Stan would just drop something like "Let's have a guy called Galactus! He can have Kermit the frog in his hat* and a big G on his belt! He eats planets, hop to it!" on The King and The King would come back with Fantastic Four #48.

* No, seriously. Once you see this you will never unsee it.
posted by Artw at 8:50 PM on August 26, 2012

Oh man, it really isn't easy being green (and needing to consume entire planets for sustenance).
posted by mayhap at 9:10 AM on August 27, 2012

Once those finished pages come back to you the writer, they are effectively done, and you have to live with it, and it will never be exactly what you envisioned in your head, capital N small E small V small E small R.

Counterexample: John Byrne* has bitched about his early collaboration with Marv Wolfman on Fantastic Four and how Wolfman would change the meaning of a scene when he scripted it after Byrne had already drawn it. One example that he gave was when the Human Torch was fighting Skrull X, and unleashes a nova burst; in the original script, Johnny knew that Skrull X was an android, but Wolfman apparently changed it so that it was a big shock to Johnny that he had not, in fact, used his maximum power setting on an actual living being, something that upset Byrne once he got the pages back because Superheroes Shouldn't Kill (Deliberately), and apparently sentient machines don't count in Byrneland.

*still ostensibly sane at that point
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:36 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

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