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  • Writing for Artists

    Okay, ‘pologies to those of you who expected this earlier in the week. That Real World keeps interfering. But I also promised the SCAD students who heard the version of this lecture with all of the insightful “Um”s in it that I would put a more solid translation up by now. I still don’t have time to shape this into a proper essay, so keep in mind that it was mostly for me to glance at and riff from. Also I gender-switch my straw (wo)men and switch verb tenses like mad- sorry! Where possible, I’ve added in things that came up during the workshops, like my hi-larious Garfield reference. I began with asking the students their goals; most wanted to write for themselves, but would also like to collaborate with other artists. I encouraged this and furthered the point by stressing that it wouldn’t hurt to get better at as many disciplines within comics as possible, as that will help you stay afloat should one avenue dry up for a while. And of course, you’ll get a better appreciation of everything it takes to make a good book. This reminds me, Jill Thompson has a good report of the weekend on her blog.

    Okay, enough warm up, here’s the first half of my talk.


    The last time I was here I talked about how drawing for storyboards worked vs. drawing for comic books. The focus was on showing how the skills of drawing for comics could transfer to other areas, so artists could try to still make a living doing what they like. The common thread is the art and craft of storytelling itself. If you’re a good storyteller, you can probably learn the particulars needed to switch horses. Since then I’ve jumped all the way onto a writing horse, and now almost no one knows that I ever drew for a living. But years of drawing other people’s scripts has profoundly influenced the work I do now. Many of the most productive writers in comics originally drew or still draw. Some that occur to me at the moment are: Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Mike Mignola, Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Brian Bendis, Mike Oeming, Frank Robbins, Karl Kesel, Al Feldstein, Mark Schultz, and Harvey Kurtzman.

    And I’m assuming many of you are at least interested in writing for yourselves. Everything I say will work just fine for you even if you do complete comics, because at some points you segment the tasks. Hopefully it won’t make you schizophrenic, your inner artist and inner writer at odds with each other. It’s actually a good practice to break it up that way I think, because too many cartoonists won’t write themselves something they have trouble depicting, even though the story would be better for that element.

    Or maybe you just want to hear the flip side of the record (records were these vinyl discs that people used to store music on, in analog). If you plan on drawing only things other people write, you’ll want to consider what goes into that first stage of the job. And what I really hope for here is that writers will consider the artist’s job thoroughly. I’m biased, I admit- I do think writers with some background in drawing have an edge. Kurtzman is probably my prime example- whatever he did with his scripts, he managed to get the best work out of the artists he collaborated with. Often he gave them layouts to work with, and of course they were great layouts. My guess is this freed up someone like Wally Wood to lavish his time on the finishes and funny details instead of all the time it takes to brainstorm layouts. I also suspect Harvey couldn’t convey his humor in a better way than sketching it out, because Funny is often hard to explain.

    You may also want just general writing advice, so at points during my spiel I’m going to chime in with helpful tips like the Final Draft screenwriting program. If you haven’t used it, it’s a word processing program that frequently interrupts with James McKee-esque tidbits like “Do your lead characters have something in their past that’s always lurking beneath the surface? Subtext is an important tool!” Once I run out of useful things on topic, I’ll just go into my highly subjective personal theories on writing comics. Oh, and I’ll mention a few things regarding editors. As I was polishing this speech up yesterday in the airport, I talked to my main editor at Marvel and told him I was coming out to talk about these things. He asked “are you going to address what EDITORS want?” So yes, I will.


    The nice thing about modern writing programs like Word is that you can just drop pictures right in there with the script. Usually when I’m writing about a real place or events, I’m researching online and coming across visual reference that I grab. Visual reference is just as important for writing as it is for drawing, and now there’s no excuse to not do plenty of it. We don’t have to spend a day in the library anymore (though you should still support your local libraries) when we can do a Google Image searches. Or as some art friends just suggested, you can also find excellent visuals searching through Flickr and eBay. However you get it, you should pass all of that onto your drawing teammate, and I’m an advocate of putting in the script where it’s relevant. If you just send them a bunch of jpegs in zip file, they have to surround their desk with paper and keep searching for the images you mention. You can cut that busy time out almost completely for them. They’ll also appreciate that you’re going to lengths for your story, and not just making up facts. It will make the whole thing much more drawable because our artist won’t have to warp reality to make it all happen.


    You’re probably hundreds if not thousands of miles apart from your artist. Make it clear that like Tech Support, you can be emailed as much as he likes and you will respond with answers quickly. Or to be told that something you wrote doesn’t work. Yeah, smarts doesn’t it? But it happens. Not to me, of course. Still our modern miracle of email can bring you two together like you were in the same room- especially if you’re instant messaging- and keep a good dialogue going so you’re working as a unit.

    One hitch there you may find right away is that artists are often phone people. Most of them work by themselves in an attic studio and keep from losing their minds by talking to peers in the comics community as they draw, wearing a headset phone. Initial drawing demands a lot of concentration, but once you’re tightening up your pencils, you can free up some brainspace for valuable human interaction. I was just like this when I was drawing full time. Now I hate this. I prefer to talk initially on the phone to touch base with my partner, and then deal with almost all the particulars by email. When I’m checking my email is exactly the time I want to be communicating with others, so there’s NEVER a bad time to email. If you call me when I’m writing, I’m losing money every minute I’m on the phone because I can’t do both. And I’m trying to make a deadline so some other artist can hit the ground running with the schedule. It’s even easier for inkers to stay on the phone while working, and colorists are the biggest phoners of all (again, all my subjective opinion. If you get mad, I was just kidding.)

    It’s a strange conceit many writers have that they understand how story should unfold and the artists should just concern themselves with making pretty pictures. In fact, artists spend every day thinking about storytelling and how to convey every step of the way to the reader, so they have a lot of business chiming in on what the script calls for.

    WRITING NOTE: Do you know what your character’s favorite foods are? That’s me speaking in Final Draft voice, by the way. You almost never need to know this unless you’re Jim Davis and it’s Thursday so it’s time to remind everyone that Garfield likes lasagna. Actually you should know it if you are going to have a dinner scene, and then if say you suddenly have Wolverine being a vegan, it’s just not going to ring true to the readership and that odd detail will take them out of the story, and cause them to mistrust you as a steward of their beloved character.
    Garfield, by the way, also dislikes Mondays.


    You may have a lot of great notions for detail and want to show the world just how much stuff you can put into a script, but everything you describe takes hours to draw, and our artist probably just has a month to get this job done. It’s all well and good to write “Achilles steps over the hill to find THE WHOLE OF THE TROJAN ARMY waiting for him!” And dang, you sent a cold chill down the editor’s spine for a second- dude, that’s so widescreen! But you just gave your artist a splash or double page spread that’s going to take a week to draw. Then you throw a couple other doozies like that into the next couple of scenes, and bam, your book is shipping late, or the editor now has to bring in other artists to help finish the issue on time. Now the book doesn’t have a cohesive look, the artist feels like she’s let the publisher down, and readers think she was being slack and that’s why extra elves had to be called in. And oh, you also didn’t get the script in on time because you kept thinking, “Hey, we don’t have to have this to the printer for almost three months! I gots time.” Of course, that ain’t true. The artist was probably going to draw the issue after this, and is counting on that frequency of work to pay bills, so there’s still only a month that this thing has to get done (we’re not even going to go into the fact that someone else is probably inking and some poor colorist is getting all these pages dumped into his FTP folder all in the last two weeks).

    I’m not saying you can’t have the occasional Whole Trojan Army show up. It’s a good moment, and done in proportion, it will make our artist look good- he can Bring The Impressive and really wow the reader. But say you do write that scene. Once you’ve shown The Whole Trojan Army, there no need to keep showing their masses after that one image. Then go into more one-on-one action after that point. When you need to suggest their numbers, see if silhouettes won’t suffice. And really, a lot of spears and flags poking in the air at key points will keep that feeling going and leave the readers with the impression that a war just unfolded in their hands.

    Remember that by the last third of the book, our artist is tired. No matter how good your script is, it’s hard to stay fresh in the last week and a half. So throw our guy a bone. Can this story end in the desert, or snow? Could a nice big fog roll in? Can the final conflict be with one big Tyrannosaurus instead of ten little Velociraptors?

    If you’re one to pick your shots, remember this. Upshots go MUCH faster. Drawing the X-Men from shoulders up looking up at Professor Xavier’s head in the sky takes a fraction of the time than a downshot where now you have to draw all of their bodies, at a particularly hard angle, and establish the environment our mutants are standing upon. Speaking of this…


    *Okay, this takes up a lot of space when squished into a blog. We’ll pick up from Shot Calling tomorrow!


    Pingback from Anime and other things » Blog Archive » Writing for Artists
    Time: November 15, 2007, 2:52 pm

    [...] Check it out here [...]

    Comment from Tim O’Shea
    Time: November 15, 2007, 3:50 pm

    Well worth the wait, Jeff.

    Thanks very much.

    Comment from Zack Smith
    Time: November 16, 2007, 8:04 am

    Some mad wisdom in this. I’ll be looking carefully.

    I used to use final draft for scripts, but I found it made it too easy to write excessive dialogue. I found a number of writers who use it to tend to err more toward screenplay-type exchanges.

    Comment from Jeremy Colwell
    Time: November 16, 2007, 9:10 am

    Great stuff, Jeff. I’ve got to pass this on to some of my collaborators.

    Pingback from Blog@Newsarama » Quote, Unquote
    Time: November 17, 2007, 9:53 am

    [...] writer-artist Jeff Parker, offering advice to aspiring comics writers   Posted by Kevin Melrose in News & Views, Comic Books, Creators, Marvel, DC Comics, [...]

    Pingback from Writing for artists, and art for writers « Graphic Fiction
    Time: November 26, 2007, 9:17 am

    [...] for Comics Art Forum XIV about this subject and gave some of the best, most practical advice on how artists can improve their writing, and how writers can work better with their [...]