October 17, 2011 How (Not) to Write a Comic Book
“For the splash page I’m seeing ‘Singulas’ launching himself from the craggy edge of his mentor’s mountain cave for the first time. Bird’s eye view, fists high, cape aflutter, and the bone-thin ‘Onlyone’ seated below, lotus-style, age-beaten face angled to watch his newborn pupil ascending. His mouth should be an ambiguous half-grin. That’s important later. Leave me a wide caption box to recap the origin. I’ll do all the words later.”
That’s the first paragraph of my short story “Script Outline, ‘The One and Only!’ Draft 1.” It appears in the new issue of The Pinch literary magazine. I just tore my complimentary author’s copy from its mailing envelope. (Something that, even after some thirty-odd short stories, still thrills.)
My superhero, Singulas, is invented, but my (unstated) narrator is Stan Lee just before Marvel hits it big in the early sixties. “The One and Only!” is his first superhero plot, one he’s describing to a freelance artist. I think it’s probably also a lesson in how not to write a comic book script.
Will Eisner in Comics and Sequential Art assures his students that there’s “no absolute ratio of words-to-pictures” in comic book writing, but his example scripts average 40 words of visual description per panel. My panel above is 75. The whole story runs about 4,500 words. I don’t think many of Stan Lee’s “scripts” filled more than a cocktail napkin.
Which was the point.
While DC editor Mort Weisinger was pounding his scripters with endless rewrites, Stan would dash off a verbal thumbnail for Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko to beat into shape. AKA, the Marvel Method. The laissez-faire approach had obvious benefits for an overworked editor. It might also help explain that office closet of unused and unusable story boards Lee hid from his boss in the late 1950’s. (When Goodman found them, he fired everyone but Lee, until the inventory was used up.)
The Lee of my story has more in common with Alan Moore. Surely the most verbose scripter in comic book history. The guy would mail poor Dave Gibbons reams of paper. Watchmen even includes Moore’s self-parody, a faux bio of a fictitious writer famed for “harassing the artist with impossibly detailed panel descriptions.” Moore can fill a single-spaced page for a one panel. More than ten times the Eisner ratio. Gibbons’ Watching the Watchmen includes only a glimpse of the original transcripts, but it’s enough to see the enormity of the artistic task. Gibbons had to code sentences with colored highlighters just to organize all the instructions.
Back in the sixties, Kirby and Ditko were handing their pages to Lee with the captions and talk bubbles empty. Which, paradoxically, is one of the reason why Marvel’s Silver Age comics are wordier than today’s image-centered graphic novels. The artists were careful to leave their boss plenty of room for his witty (though ad-hoc) dialogue.
But Moore’s Watchmen scripts were also personal letters to Gibbons. There are asides and exclamations wonderfully outside the conventions of any formal script outline. And that’s what attracted me to experiment with the form as a short story. The “One and Only!” is a personal letter, not only from editor to artist, but between ex-lovers. Lee and my fictitious freelancer are collaborators both on and between the sheets.
The story is also my first toe-wetting dip into the material I’m now expanding in my novel-in-process. (Working title? “The Patron Saint of Superheroes.”) I’m not handing the pages (136 so far) to any stressed-out artists with color-coded highlighters. Though sometimes it would be nice to scribble a few words on a napkin and watch them come back as full blown storyboards. Lee was no fool. But neither is Moore. I recommend aiming somewhere between.
(For anyone in Memphis on Saturday November 5th, I’ll be reading from “The One and Only!” at The Pinch launch party. Festivities start at 7:00 at Splash Creative, Inc., 2574 Sam Cooper Blvd @ Bingham St.)