Sunday, 8 June 2014

Words For Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels Review (Brian Michael Bendis)

I’ve never taken a creative writing course in my life but I’ve never understood why anyone would if the teacher was an unknown writer, as most tend to be. The only “how to write” book I’ve ever read was “On Writing” by Stephen King, which made sense to me as he’s an enormously successful novelist - of course he’s worth listening to! - and it also turned out to be a very entertaining read, one of King’s best in fact. 

Similarly, Brian Michael Bendis is best placed to pen a “how to write comics” book as he’s one of the most popular comics writers in the world, having written for many years at the world’s biggest comics publisher, Marvel. Who better to learn writing for comics than this guy? Words for Pictures is a fantastic look at all of the aspects of writing comics as well as the comics industry as a whole, and would definitely be invaluable to anyone seriously looking into a comics career. 

That said, Bendis comes right out of the gate with some hard truths: in comics, there’s no money and there’s no fame - and this is coming from a guy at the top of his profession! Do it because you love it, he says, and it’s fine advice for any profession you choose, writing or otherwise, but especially true for comics when even a guy like Bendis doesn’t make bank - well, he makes a decent living but he’s not rich like if he were top of other artistic mediums eg. movies, music. 

Reading Words for Pictures, I realised how repetitive “how to write” books are, if they’re being honest. Bendis quotes King’s advice: “Read a lot, write a lot”, and really there’s little else to add, at least in terms of writing advice. Study what you like, break it down and see why it works, power through the failures, keep at it etc. - obvious kinda stuff. 

But this book isn’t about motivation - it’s a practical guide to writing comics. Bendis assumes the reader knows nothing about comics and goes from there, a fine approach to draw in the largest possible audience. 

Firstly, Bendis explains the difference between full script and Marvel style, the two most popular approaches to writing comics. If you’ve read a few “deluxe” trade paperbacks (usually by Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore), the publisher will include full scripts at the back so you can see what a comics script is like - at a glance it resembles a screenplay but look closer and you’ll see panel breakdowns and guidelines for the artist. Bendis writes this way.

Marvel style was pioneered by Stan Lee back in the days when he had to produce 12 monthly titles. Lee would write a few pages of outline and then hand it to one of the artists who would take the story, break it down into panels and pages, draw it, and hand it back to Lee, who would fill in the captions/dialogue. It’s a loose, less controlled approach but one where the collaboration between writer and artist strongly favours the artist as opposed to the full script method. 

Marvel style is rarely used today but it turns out Matt Fraction utilised this approach in writing his and David Aja’s acclaimed Hawkeye run. And here’s a surprise: you’d think this book would be all Bendis but it’s actually comprised of contributions from a great many people in the comics industry. Fraction supplies an essay on Hawkeye and his writing process and partnership with Aja, and later on there are extended sections where Bendis fires questions at a group of the biggest artists and editors in the field, collating their answers in a lengthy Q&A. 

The Fraction essay was a pleasant surprise as I’m a huge fan of Hawkeye and was fascinated with the utter chaos that is the reality of a Hawkeye script! Fraction includes photostats of his handwritten notes as well as thumbnails by Aja, all of which look appropriately loose and dirty like Clint Barton’s life in the book, and in sharp contrast to the neat, perfectly compressed comics we see as the final product. 

The likes of Michael Allred, Skottie Young, Jill Thompson, Mark Bagley, Klaus Janson, Walt Simonson, Sara Pichelli, and a few others go through the do’s and don’t’s of how a writer/artist relationship should work, what they look for in a script, and other helpful tips. All of the artists in the book also have numerous examples of their work at different stages of completion displayed throughout so that the book’s text is broken up with gorgeous (mostly Marvel) art. 

A gaggle of Marvel editors and Dark Horse’s Scott Allie explain the editor’s role and the pitfalls most writers tend to drop into, as well as how to catch an editor’s eye and get hired (short answer: create your own comic. Repeat.). 

An interview with CB Cebulski, Marvel’s chief talent scout, goes into what he looks for in possible candidates to hire (don’t send unsolicited pitches, especially if they include Marvel characters - they legally can’t read them anyway and will be discarded immediately - but, again, instead create your own stuff and don’t call them, they’ll call you), while Bendis’ wife and business partner goes through what every comics creator should do to avoid getting ripped off (you don’t want to be a Siegel/Shuster cautionary tale should your creation take off!). 

Most of the participants in this book are Marvel affiliated and there are no DC editors/personnel contributing to the book, nor are there professionals from Image, IDW, Oni, and other comics companies represented here (Scott Allie and Diana Schutz from Dark Horse are the only non-Marvel professionals). 

However, this book isn’t aimed at writers looking to write Marvel comics specifically - this book contains advice that’s applicable from someone setting out to write their first web-comic to someone writing the latest Ultimate Spider-Man issue. It looks heavily Marvel flavoured but it’s all about comics, whatever the brand, and gives you an idea of the expectations in the comics industry. There’s also no guarantee that even if you do get hired at Marvel for a comic, you’ll get asked to do another one, so don’t put all your eggs in the Marvel basket - think more broadly and create your own stuff instead. 

I’m not an aspiring comics writer but I am a devoted comics reader and thoroughly enjoyed this look behind the scenes at how everything is put together, from soup to nuts. It’s an eye-opening and enormously informative read that’s worth a look even if you’re not a wannabe writer and just a comics reader. There’s a lot of stuff here that’ll make you appreciate the comics you read every week and get much more out of them too. 

And if you are looking to get into comics, this book will be like the freakin’ Bible to you! Every single aspect of the process is laid out and explored by professionals in an easy to understand and practical way. Words for Pictures is a must-read for anyone looking to get started in comics writing with plenty of useful information from a writer at the top of his game.

Words for Pictures

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