I’ll tell you a secret. Shh, no one in the world knows this as I have kept it carefully under wraps with my suave demeanor and impeccable fashion sense: I am a nerd.
I know, you’re totally shocked! Well, at the last writer’s workshop event I completely blew my cover by becoming the infamous classroom stereotype:
This month’s writers’ workshop was with Mackenzie Cadenhead. Mackenzie is an accomplished author and former editor at Marvel. Oh yeah, that’s right thee MARVEL.
Mackenzie was kind enough to walk us through the how tos of creating a comic book and as her example she happened to use a comic that is very near and dear to my heart Runaways. Like comic books? You should check it out. Don’t like comic books? What is wrong with you?
Like many of our children’s media properties the comic book starts with a pitch. Every comic should be based around a clearly articulated, exaggerated metaphor. Like X-Men being about discrimination and discovering yourself. Runaways is all about old vs. young, rules vs. freedom. The series is about six young friends who find out that their parents are actually super villains. The teens run away and discover that they have superpowers, too (well some of them are more like stolen gadgets but you get the picture). The kids resolve to right the wrongs of their parents and be a force for good.
So how to make that awesome idea into a series? A standard comic pitch usually goes through 5 or 6 book arcs (that’s enough for 1 trade paperback graphic novel, as they call them). The end of every issue is of course a cliffhanger, leaving the readers wanting more.
After the pitch is the script (still in familiar territory here). It looks a bit like a screenplay with the panel descriptions and dialogue all typed out. Sometimes writers suggest layout, sometimes they don’t. Now here’s where it gets all “wha?” for those of us who don’t work in the comic arts. The job of Mackenzie, as editor, is really to be the go between between the writer and artist as none of them are likely to be in a room at the same time. After script comes layout which is really like a rough storyboard. After the layout is decided on the pencil drawings are done. These look more final but are still, well, in pencil (hence the name). Once the pencils are done the panels are inked. The inking really indicates the light source and is an amazing art form unto itself. After the inking comes coloring, another powerful tool. Color choices can reflect mood or the characters’ alignment, it can also show the passage of time and time of day. Then after the pictures are final, inked and colored, the letterers come in and fill in the text of the book. A good editor and a good artist know enough to leave room in the picture for the dialogue to fit and the writer also needs to be aware that there’s not room for a 20 line monologue in one panel. The editor has to juggle all these artists artistic sensibilities and make them gel into one cohesive unit. From what I can tell comic book writing is somewhere in between writing a teleplay and a silent movie script. You count on the pictures to fill in information so you don’t have to have text spell everything out for you. It sounds like a really interesting challenge. Kind of like saving the world on a daily basis, only on a smaller scale.
Main Takeaway: My first thought was: comic books look like they’re hard to write. I want to do it! Read ‘em or don’t read ‘em but there’s no doubt that comics are an amazing art form. Every medium presents its own sets of challenges and triumphs.
Personal Takeaway: What a great medium for exploring wonderful universal truths with kids or anyone! As a kid I learned from Spider-Man that with great power comes great responsibility. I learned from Batman that you can do one of two things with the tragedies that happen in life – use them to become a better person or use them to go dark side. We all have the potential to be monsters or heroes. And I learned from the Incredible Hulk that you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. Okay, maybe not that last one but rule of threes and all that…
Inappropriate Takeaway: I don’t know if it’s inappropriate or just an interesting factoid but comics are not returnable. Once they’re stocked in the store they’re there and there’s no ripping off the covers and returning them to the publisher. My local comic book store should’ve thought of that before purchasing 8 million copies of Peter Porker: The Amazing Spider Ham ‘cause I’m pretty sure I was the only one itching to buy that one on new comic book day. (It was my favorite comic book when I was a kid, by the way, next to Katy Keene.)