What Happens When A Novelist Tries To Write A Comic?

Things I’ve written: a few novels, a few short stories, a column on this very website extolling the virtues of comics as a medium for speculative fiction. Now, for better or worse, I’ve written an actual comic too: Rogue Trooper, published by IDW, issue #1 of which is in comic book shops and digital outlets including but not limited to Comixology this very week.

So what happens when a novelist tries to write a comic? Herewith, a select few of the very many things that have occurred to me as I’ve begun to learn this new craft.

Writing’s not just about words. A novelist is used to their words being their means of communicating everything to the reader. Plot, narrative, theme, character – every single thing is filtered through the humble, visible word in prose.

Not in comics. Obvious really, given that pictures are sort of central to the whole thing. But it does make you focus on the fact that writing is not just about those actual, literal words that are presented to the reader: they are the means of communication, not the complete creative ‘act’ itself.

The reader of Rogue Trooper #1 only sees my words in the form of dialogue, captions, sound effects. But my contribution as writer still encompasses all that other stuff – sequence of events, theme, narrative and character arcs – just as it would in a novel. It’s all in my head; the difference is that in so far as it gets turned into actual words at all the only people who ever see most of those words are my collaborators on the comic.

So, perhaps writing a comic separates out and clarifies elements of the writer’s creative process that are more blurred in writing prose. The conception, the mental creation, is de-coupled slightly from the means of communication, the words.

Which is probably the proper moment to acknowledge that I lucked out in terms of the artistic involvement in this book. Alberto Ponticelli, the artist, and Steve Downer, the colourist, are experienced and talented when it comes to this medium, and they make me look good. They, in a very real sense, are the ones who ‘speak’ to the reader of this comic, not me.

In fact, you know what? My favourite pages and panels of Rogue Trooper so far? Mostly, the ones where I’m all but invisible. The ones with the least text, where the art has the room to speak to the reader directly and unencumbered by my words. Writing comics makes me want to disappear as the writer, you might say.

It’s the economy, stupid. I like writing short stories. I haven’t done it very often, but I’ve always found it a satisfying challenge to work within the constraints of a tight word count. It enforces economy, structure, clarity of both thought and expression. Then I wrote a comic, and discovered whole new heights of economy to aspire to in my writing.

Word balloons. Kind of central to the whole comics thing. They take up a lot of real estate on the page, though. Too many, or too big, and they might crowd out the art, break up its flow, obscure rather than reveal the rhythm of the story. So here’s a kind of writing where characters mostly speak in chunks not much longer than a tweet, yet still have to convey information, character, tone while sounding vaguely naturalistic.

This is stuff that gives you a different take on what constitutes economy in writing, believe me. I thought I had grasped and internalised the concept that ‘every word has to count’ in the process of writing short stories. Not so sure now. In comics, every word really, really has to justify its presence on the page. It truly does give you a new perspective on what’s necessary, sufficient and effective word-wise.

Turns out, I love architecture. Comics have a literal, visible and inescapable architecture. Prose has an architecture too, of course: sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter, arcs of rising and falling action, cliffhangers, all that stuff.

The difference with comics is that in some sense the architecture is physical and very rigidly pre-defined by the form. That might sound constraining, but as it turns out, I really enjoy having the scaffolding right there in front of me and demanding that I use it in the ways the comics medium makes possible.

I’ll stick to a single simple example, which is but the tip of the structural iceberg in comics: the page turn. At the end of every odd-numbered page, the reader turns the page. Because of the unique way the reader experiences paper comics (digital comics are a bit more complicated, but let’s gloss over that for now) that transition is crucial. It’s a physically-defined, recurring opportunity – or perhaps requirement is a better word – to surprise, entice, engage the reader. And in one particular sense it’s the only such opportunity a comic offers.

In prose, you can theoretically spring a surprise on the reader at any time, because they (generally speaking) can’t read more than once sentence at a time. They progress through the story in a linear, controlled way. Not so comics.

When a reader turns a page in a comic they are immediately presented with the complete next two pages. They form an instantaneous and unavoidable visual impression of what’s happening on those two pages; they might not immediately absorb any of the text, but they’ll certainly absorb an indeterminate amount of the art. The only place they don’t have a conscious or unconscious awareness of what’s coming next is at the page turn, the moment when they reach for the corner of the page, the first fleeting instant in which they set fresh eyes on the newly revealed page, the newly revealed first panel.

Which means two things: first, you’d better hope you’ve given them enough reason, every time they reach the end of an odd-numbered page, to make that turn; and second, you’d better be thinking in terms of page turns from the first moment you sit down to start writing, because those are the structural beats you need to hit – not just in terms of surprises, but scene changes, story pacing, rhythm – all the way through.

Layers, layers, everywhere. Two very different kinds of layering are involved in this making comics lark, and I really like them both.

The first is the actual creation of the physical object that is a comic, which I’ve come to think of a sort of layering (though it’s a horrible over-simplification). It’s not what I really want to talk about here, so I’ll just suggest in passing that in some sense a comic book comes into being by the accretion of layers that each subsume or modify the one that came before: script, pencilled art, inked art, colours, text.

(And before moving on, I’ll just note a phenomenon associated with this layering by many hands: e-mails. Writing a novel, I can easily go weeks or even months without having contact with anyone about it. Comics? Constant e-mails. Art pages flying back and forth. Questions, suggestions, requests, notes. It’s a blizzard. And – perhaps because of its novelty – it’s enormous, collaborative fun.)

The other aspect of layering is the more writing-related. The finished comic contains art, colour, dialogue, other text (captions etc.). Now, in a novel you can of course convey multiple meanings or senses in a single scene. You only have words to play with, though.

In a comic, you have those other layers of communication to play with. There are all kinds of ways in which they could relate to one another. They could all convey the same meaning or mood or tone, or they could contradict, undercut or comment upon one another. I’m only just starting to learn this stuff from the inside, so I’m not getting too ambitious just yet (Keep It Simple, Stupid), but I can see the this far off gleam of wondrous possibilities that the unique combination of words and pictures offers for elegance and complexity of expression.

Conclusions? Comics are a complex medium, rich with possibilities, inviting the writer to think in slightly new ways about what it is they’re doing. They offer enormous scope for using the innate architecture and nature of the medium to find ways of expressing things without using words. Writing them is fun. In fact, that last is probably the conclusion that’s lodged most firmly in my brain and perhaps – who knows? – the one that’s going to make the biggest difference to future choices I make.

One thought on “What Happens When A Novelist Tries To Write A Comic?”

  1. I too am a writer, who has dabbled in comix. An illustrator friend had to give up her pens thanks to a debilitating stroke that destroyed a lot of her fine motor control. I suggested she resume her long-abandoned interest in writing. “It’s just like drawing,” I told her, “except you have to use words/verbal nuances to shade your picture.” And of course there are greater differences that I didn’t fully understand. Result: My friend is a writing fiend. Not published yet, but every paragraph is a bit more refined, and I have no doubt her experience as a sketch-artist influences her writing. Here’s to a grand confluence of two great story-telling techniques. More Story with Pictures… More Pictures with text!
    Thanks for the article. David R. Watson

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