Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 24: Writing Comics with Jake Black

Jake Black fills in for Brandon “#1 New York Times Bestselling Author” Sanderson this week, and that’s perfect because Jake writes comics and Brandon doesn’t. So mostly this is Dan holding Jake’s and my feet to the fire.

We’ll talk about the business of writing comics next week. This week it’s more nuts-and-bolts, and we run for almost 20 minutes…

Writing Prompt: Write a story in which Superman swoops into a room, kicks something, and then turns into Spider-Man.

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18 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 24: Writing Comics with Jake Black”

  1. Regarding the writing prompt, obviously what Superman kicks is red kryptonite, which turns him into Spider Man. This is the silver age comics red kryptonite, not the Smallville stuff that just affects his personality, with something extra to do the DC to Marvel universe jump.

  2. For the DC to Marvel jump, there would also need to be a cameo by Stan Lee and Jerry Siegel.

    Major congratulations to Brandon for making #1. It is well deserved.

    On a side note, for those of you in Utah County, you’re all invited to my book release party, November 13 at 7pm at the Provo Riverwoods Borders. It would be nice to meet some of the Writing Excuses community.

  3. I work as an artist in the comic field and I must say this to all the would-be comic book writers out there: Don’t follow Mr. Black’s advice about breaking down each panel and describing in detail what’s in there. Just supply the artist with what you want on the page and let that artist do his/her job with it. The reason for this is very simple:

    You’re a writer, not an artist. Let the artist, with years of education and experience, decide how to visually tell the story. That’s what we’re paid to do. You’ve written your story and, in a comic book, that’s where your creative contribution ends. You hand it off to the artists and they give your story ‘visual life’. Throttling them with your probably cliche notions of how a page should be layed-out will only make an inferior book.

    Do your part and trust the artists to do theirs.

  4. I agree with what you said, Mike. I guess I wasn’t clear in the interview. I’m not very descriptive in my panels BECAUSE I trust my artists…sorry for that confusion.

  5. @Mike I wondered about that. I’ve always heard that when you write screenplays not to try to do the director’s job, and I’d always assumed that likewise giving lots of direction to the artist would bring out the same ‘your on my turf’ reaction.

  6. I’m confused. When did Jake recommend detailed stage directions? He actually said his are pretty lax, and that he trusts his artists and editors will change it if they need to. The one example of a pretty detailed one was being outside the Bizarro Fortress with the characters bound? Which doesn’t seem very detailed to me?

  7. Gonna pass this on to a couple of friends who are trying to break in.
    They have been stubbornly resisting the podcasts, but this will hit them square.

  8. @Eliyanna: The artist isn’t the director, but neither is the writer. Ideally they share the role of director. They both have a vision for the book, but they need to realize it’s a team activity, not a writer (the boss) giving directives to the employees (the artist, letterer, colorist, etc.). When a writer assumes the visual dictation of the scenes, it’s like going into a 9-5 job where you clock in, you sit at your desk and your co-worker comes over and tell you how to do your job. Annoying at best. I’ve never worked with Mr. Black so I can’t say more about his approach that what I’ve heard here, so my humblest apologies if I’m missing the mark with him. This isn’t actually a criticism of Mr. Black, but rather my attempt to show aspiring comic book writers what the ‘other half’ of the creative team thinks about.

    Good advice for comic book writers would be to talk to your artist. Ask what format they’d prefer to have. Some will want the panel to panel layout, but most will not. Remember, your name is on the book for ‘writing’, not ‘penciller’ or ‘colorist’. If you make a wrong call on layout, it’s not you who will be hurt by it, but the artist that’s been forced to do it your way. If you have a clear visual image that you want to express, that you feel is integral to the story (like a close-up of one character’s hands clutching a bottle of Glenmorangie) then by all means specify that. For the most part though leave the art to the artists.

    As a comic book writer, you should be more concerned with telling the story than with panel count. Develop your story on a page by page basis and simply tell the artist what you want to happen on that page. Don’t just write what is visually happening (Spidey clinging to a wall, etc.) but also include things that the reader may not directly know. What’s he thinking about? Is he brooding? Even through a mask, an artist can portray these things with pose and camera angle.

    @Mike Barker: Near the beginning, and he mentions that he does a panel by panel layout, even specifying the number of panels per page. It’s this attitude that I felt the need to reply to.

  9. @Mike All of my comic book writing has been for bigger companies where I not only don’t know who the artist will be, but have no contact with them as it is all done though the editor. I completely agree that when possible and appropriate talk to the artist about the format of the script. (When working with an editor at DC or Marvel, it’s not appropriate to go straight the artist *in most cases*.) But when I don’t know who the artist is going to be, I just write the script I’ve been hired to write in the format I’m most comfortable with. But, as I said in the podcast, I trust the artists and editors to make it better by their talent.

    I was just speaking from my experience and training. And as I’ve worked as a comics writer for the last six years, I’ve settled on a script format that works best for me. Is it perfect for everyone? Probably not. But, also as I said in the podcast, every writer has their own unique format for scripting, just as artists have their own preferred style of scripts to read.

  10. @Mike. Thanks. I have to admit, I took the panel count as more of a suggestion of how he was visualizing the blocks to let him figure out the appropriate captions and dialogue than a hard-and-fast “THOU SHALT DO THIS.” I suppose this is something that the creative team could talk about, how to divvy up the job and what order to do things in. After all, the writer needs to have some idea of how the dialogue balloons are going to be divided — he can estimate it, and trust that the artist will juggle if needed, or the artist could take the first cut and then the writer can fill in. Actually, a common “storyboard” rough outline might come first, too, which would give them both something to work from.

    As you can tell, I’m not a comic writer or artist — more of a software engineer — so my apologies if I am envisioning the process incorrectly. But over in software land, we do similar things, and have used various arrangements. I like the rough outline (aka design) as a common effort, then individual approach, but I have seen others work well too. Depends on the team more than anything.

  11. Often the most important bits for telling the story are not in the dialog, which is what people assume the writer writes. A Punisher comic, for instance, might require a close-up of someone’s weapon in order to show that the safety is engaged, or that there’s no round behind the hammer. This is something that falls to the writer, because it’s crucial to the story.

    But whether we’re looking over the left shoulder or the right shoulder of the character in question, and which direction the action moves from panel to panel — that stuff is usually best left to the guy doing the pencils.

    And I would argue that the person doing the pencils is the director. She looks at the writer’s script and the “storyboard” that his panel suggestions provides. Then she makes the decisions about what to actually include in each of those panels, and where to put them.

    The inker and the letterer have much less creative input. The colorist might have some, but often the most important color decisions are things like lighting that will already have been dictated by what was penciled.

    So: Writer=writer. Penciler=director. Inker, Colorist, and Letterer=Post-production and Computer Effects crew.

  12. @Jake Black: I’m glad hear that you don’t demand a rigid following of your stories’ panel layout. Some writers do. As I’ve said, my intent was to point out the one bit of advice that I felt new comic writers should avoid. Bad habits started early are the hardest to correct. Everything else about what you’ve said on the podcast I have no problem with..it was interesting to hear how you go about your job. I do understand that some writers have a very good visual eye (Brandon being one of them….with a little practice he’s make a damned fine comic book artist; he ‘sees’ the action clearly) and their ideas will actually be quite good. I just wanted to help future writers avoid problems.

    @Howard: You put it far better than I could with fewer words. I guess that’s why I only communicate well with pictures!

    Keep writing everyone; without you, all we comic artists have are pin-ups.

  13. ooo yes! Mistborn should be a comic! I’d love those Mist cloak flying about.

    Thanks for the podcast on comics. I love to see how all the different entertainment arts tie into each other.

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