05 November 2007

Comics and Non-Comics, Manuscript and Script

In June I featured COMICS WEEK, with every posting about comic books or comics in other forms. In September I launched NON-COMICS WEEK, about books that have something to do with comics, but aren't comics. But today Oz and Ends starts something totally new: COMICS AND NON-COMICS WEEK!

Which is to say, I'm going to post thoughts on what makes comics different from other illustrated books. Some of these differences have to do with form, and thus may be inherent to the different storytelling media. Some involve the way that the different types of books are created, and thus may be more related to organizational cultures and traditions than the artistic forms. I base these comments on analysis rather than much experience with creating either of those types of books, so I welcome comments and rebuttals from people in the fields.

My first observation began several years ago when I drafted a comics script about Button-Bright and submitted it to the world's leading Oz comics creator. (What the heck?) I hadn't found any books about writing comics scripts, so I followed the only rules for to-be-illustrated manuscripts that I knew: the rules for picture books.

Those rules are:

  • The author writes the text on the page and nothing else.
  • Not even page breaks. The artist (working with the editor) decides where those fall.
  • No, you may not describe the action or the setting.
  • All right, if a visual detail is absolutely crucial to the editor and artist understanding a story, you can include it as a note in your manuscript.
  • You as author do not give ideas directly to the artist. In fact, you should not even be in contact with the artist until the book is done.
In one of my writing groups, an author had sold a picture-book manuscript about canoeing on the Charles River with her son. When it was published, the artist had decided to portray the mother and child as Native American. That's how that picture-book publishing works. Editors explain that this is necessary to give the artist enough creative input.

I've heard some experienced authors speak of exceptions to the rules. Stephen Krensky has noted in his manuscript what image should go on the wordless last page of a picture book. Joanna Cole and Robie Harris both insisted that they had to work closely with their illustrators--Bruce Degen and Michael Emberley, respectively--given the nature of the Magic School Bus and It's [Sensible Information about the Human Body] series. But those authors know that they're exceptional. They were all established, and two even had in-house editorial experience, before they broke the rules above. Newcomers don't have the same freedom.

So back to my Button-Bright comic. I carefully wrote out a manuscript that included only the words that would appear on the page, with the barest possible description of the action. No breakdown by pages or panels, no descriptions of characters, no commentary on mood. I had ideas on all those things, but was scrupulous about keeping them to myself.

The artist sent back a polite note gently telling me that's not how comics scripts work. Over the past year I've gotten around to looking at Dennis O'Neil's DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics and several other books that include scripts, either in full or as part of the DVD-like extras that DC and Marvel include in their "graphic novel" editions.

And sure enough, though there are many styles to creating a comics script, the writer has the freedom and responsibility to break the action down into pages and panels, to describe characters' actions and emotions, often even to suggest the shapes of panels and viewpoints from which they should be drawn. Paradoxically, even though a comics artist creates many more drawings per story than a picture-book artist, he or she is expected to have less control over the interaction of art and text.

Sometimes this can cause anxiety. In the extras added to Identity Crisis, penciller Rags Morales recalls complaining to his wife that Brad Meltzer's script was too detailed and controlling, that he couldn't do the job. But gradually Morales realized what Meltzer had in mind, and how all those details would add up. To be sure, the same material and interviews highlight places where Morales suggested changes from Meltzer's instructions which both agree were better. But clearly the scripter was deeply involved in creating the visuals of this book.

Among other award-winning comics scripters, Neil Gaiman's texts are casually conversational:
Well, hi Kelley, Malcolm, Todd, Steve, Tom, Karen...

Here we are at the third part of Season of Mists. We last saw the Sandman watching Lucifer walking away into the mists, having been given the key to Hell. This episode begins a few hours later.

Now, the last issue was pretty low on characters - it was basically just Lucifer and the Sandman, with a couple of cameos. This issue has a cast of thousands. Well, hundreds. Well, lots.
Alan Moore's seem erudite and freakishly detailed:
All I can say to picture-book authors is: Do not try this! If your manuscript includes chatty commentary for your editorial and illustration team or detailed suggestions about the endpapers, for goodness' sake, you will brand yourself as the worst type of control freak: the type who doesn't know what the heck she's doing.


David Lee Ingersoll said...

As a someone who has both written comic scripts for others and illustrated comics written by others I'd say that the best script is the one that gives the artist everything he/she needs to do the job well. Sometimes that means providing reference material for the artist if the artist has been asked to draw something obscure. (The internet has made this a lot less necessary. Yay internet!)

The biggest problem I ran into was a writer who would describe more action in a panel than could fit - they asked for the illustration of a process rather than a moment in time. In times like that the writer and the artist need to have a conversation.

J. L. Bell said...

That's interesting. Usually picture-book artists take responsibility, and pride, for their own visual references. When some detail must be historically or scientifically correct, an editor might ask the author to supply some references, recommend sources, and/or check a sketch. But most artists expect to receive the manuscript and nothing more.

In thinking about this distinction, I wonder if tight deadlines have produced different expectations in comics. Book publishing has its deadlines, of course, but they're far more forgiving and rubbery than the deadlines of a daily newspaper or a monthly magazine—the two media that have historically published the most comics in America. With a tighter deadline, comics artists might not have less time to do visual research than picture-book artists.

Thanks for sharing the tip on remembering that a comics panel shows a moment, not a process.

David Lee Ingersoll said...

The work I've done was for the so-called independents. The process may be different for Marvel and DC.

Apparently part of the impetus for the creation of Mad (the comic) was to give Harvey Kurtzman work that didn't require him to be so obsessive about getting his drawings right. He was overworking himself on the war comics he did for EC by being obsessive about getting all the details (period uniforms, weapons, landscapes) down in his drawings.

Anonymous said...

As someone who's drawn comics for both small and large US comics publishers, it's all over the map whether the writer or the editor will supply reference to the artist. Only once was I given enough reference to draw a research-heavy story without doing my own research. That was Doug Moench's script for a story in The Big Book of the Unexplained. Every other time I drew a story for DC's Big Book series, I did my own research, even though I was supplied with stray bits of reference sometimes. The funny thing was that 90% of the time, my research disagreed to some extent with the story I was drawing. I often tried to incorporate the new info I'd found into the story while trying not to undercut the script. Several times I just had to call up the editor and tell him or her that the writer had spelled the names wrong.

Anonymous said...

I've come by here view the Children's Lit carnival. At the moment, I'm travelling in Belgium and have been to the Centre Belge de Bandes Dessinées twice and also picked up a couple of books (both BD) about writing BD.

All of that suggests that there is interaction between script-writer and artist and even that the initial art may go back to the scriptwriter.

but the other interesting thing is that I so NO comparison to picture book production. The main comparision is to FILM. So maybe script-writing for comics should be considered akin to screen-play writing. How much detail about shots, angles, setting, mood, etc. to screen-writers provide?

and are there big cultural differences between Belgian/French comics (or maybe french-language comics more generally) and US comics?

Interesting questions. (BTW, my post about the museum is at http://jovecanada.typepad.com/tricotomania/2007/11/comics.html. It was written for other homeschooling parents rather than for artists/writers. but it might have links) And the two books are published by Delcourt (not sure if there are English translations available): L'aventure d'une BD by Sergio Garcia and Bande Dessinée: Apprendre et Comprendre by Lewis Trondheim and Sergio Garcia.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for bringing back a view from outside North America!

I have no idea if European picture books are created along the same organizational lines as those in the USA. I know that when H. A. and Margaret Rey first came to America in the 1940s, they were dismayed to find publishers insisting they create their own separations, so there could be long-standing differences in how publishers and their contractors carry out their work.

It doesn't surprise me that comics creators working in cultures that don't associate their medium so much with young readers look beyond picture books for analogies. Comics and movies really grew up together as popular art in the 1900s, with a lot of cross-pollination (Winsor McKay, for example).

Starting with the label "script," the written plans for comics and movies have a lot in common. Some movie scripts do specify (or suggest) camera angles, lighting, moods, and other visual touches. I get the sense that, as in comics scripts, there's a lot of variation in style from one writer to the next which isn't necessarily visible in the final product.

I also sense that movie directors feel much more free to rewrite, discard, or ignore details of a script that don't suit their vision than comics artists do.

There's one more quality that the most visible movies and the most visible comics share: a large studio or publisher with layers of decision-makers owns the product, and thus calls the shots for the creators.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the other amazing thing over here is that there are lots of children's comics. Including a WEEKLY magazine for kids by one publisher (with lots of variety in it; a lot of their stand alone comics previously appear in it; check it out at www.spirou.com) and a monthly by another.

and the belgian comics scene has history. The museum covers the 1930s to the present.

(I'm Canadian, BTW, just happen to be over in Europe at the moment.)

J. L. Bell said...

(I caught the Canadian reference. That's why I managed to say "from outside North America" rather than "from outside America." I know you folks are touchy about that, eh?)