Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Waid Wednesday #1: 101

Screenwriter walks into my office. Famous, one of the two or three whose name is as instantly recognizable to movie fans in Iowa as it is to us Left Coasters. And he’s immediately on my good side because the first words out of his mouth are not “so I have this pitch for a supernatural western,” but, rather, “I know how to write for film but I don’t know how to write for comics, and I presume there’s a difference.” You would be astounded at the number of professional writers who mooch off my expense account and don’t know even that much. Here’s what I told him:

The single most important difference between a screenplay and a comic book script is that a comic story is made up of frozen moments. Screen stills. Snapshots. While there is no “right” format for comics scripts (and we’ll get into the specifics of formatting later), they generally look something like this:

* * * * *



1 AQUAMAN: Can you HEAR me?
2 GL: My ring’s translating your UNDERWATER SPEECH, if that’s the question. Guess if you can LIVE underwater, you can TALK there...
3 GL: Lead the way. I’ll take point once we hit bottom. Then I’ll need you to--


4 AQUAMAN: Why are you always giving ORDERS?
5 GL: Because I’m the team LEADER.



6 AQUAMAN/dwindles: AH ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
7 GL: What? What’s so FUNNY?
8 AQUAMAN: YOU’RE not the leader of the Justice League. FLASH is the LEADER!
9 GL: ...
10 GL: What?


11 AQUAMAN: The REST of us talked about this WEEKS ago! It’s OBVIOUS to US!
12 GL: Then why...
13 AQUAMAN: Why does Flash let you boss us AROUND? We just figured he was letting you be YOU.


14 SFX: krkK-KK-K
15 AQUAMAN: Careful. We’re at the deepest spot on EARTH. Pressure’s UNCANNY. Pump up the WILL POWER...
16 AQUAMAN: ...“leader.”
17 AQUAMAN/small: Heh.

* * * * *

Frozen moments. No artist can illustrate, in one panel, “Tiffany gets up from her chair and answers the door” or “Vito sniffs the rose and puts it in his lapel,” or even “He blinks.” This isn’t a medium for fluid motion. You’re collaborating with an artist who can convey (generally speaking) one action per panel, no more. If you can’t imagine what a photograph of the moment would look like, neither can your artist envision it and force it out of his pencil. Frozen. Moments.

The second most important difference is that the comics page uses space the way film uses time. On your TV screen, the Battle of Trafalgar and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich are the same size--27” (or whatever) on the diagonal--and what indicates their relative significance to the story is how long the camera lingers on them. In comics, artists instead tend to indicate the importance of an image (a moment) by how large it is. An establishing shot of an alien-world landscape that’s supposed to be fascinating and breathtaking and jaw-dropping in its detail and splendor needs to be big, maybe a single image across facing pages. Conversely, unless that sandwich is the crowning punchline to some incredible dramatization of The History of Sandwiches, it probably doesn’t need to take up much room on the page. Even if it’s somehow, against all odds, a plot point (“PANEL TWO: IN A PANIC, THE MOBSTER STABS HIS HAND INTO THE BROWN PAPER BAG. PANEL THREE: CLOSE ON HIS HAND AS HE WITHDRAWS NOT A PISTOL BUT, RATHER, A PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICH. PANEL FOUR: AN EXPRESSION OF HORROR DAWNS ON HIM AS HE REALIZES HE GRABBED HIS SON’S LUNCH INSTEAD OF HIS OWN CAMOUFLAGED GUN.”), really, how big does that one image need to be to hit the beat? Not very; certainly not compared to the following moment where the defenseless mobster, armed only with a 400-calorie lunch treat, is gunned down by the time-traveling team of John Wilkes Booth, Squeaky Fromme, and Robot Al Capone 3000. (That’s a full-page image.)

There are at least forty other things vying for “third most important difference,” and we’ll get to those soon, but those are the big two.

Next: 101-A


Robert N. Emerson said...

Now that is a helpful thing to know, as I've always wondered about good ways to script for comics, as I've always wanted to give it a shot, but I've no experience doing it. While I've read comic book scripts before, it was like I lacked a solid frame of reference to look at it, which was brought into a better focus.

I will say that I've always been a fan of the more subtle presentation on a page, as the gun doesn't always need to fill a page when it's drawn (pun not intended) on the hero or heroine, even if, as you said, it's the most dramatic part of the plot. Sometimes, to get the intensity of a moment, the macroscape is better, much better, than the smaller detail.

Monsterbeard said...

Why is Robot Al Capone 3000 always getting up in my shit?

Welcome. Thanks for the insights!

Hartwell said...

More, more!

keith said...

So I have a question -- and this may be one of the oldest ones in the book, but I didn't grow up with comics and it bugs the crap out of me:

Why does all comics DIALOGUE read like a transcription of WILLIAM SHATNER? I find it incredibly JARRING.

Mark Waid said...

Style. A way of making up for the lack of voice acting by falling back on one of the great pulp fiction tools: bombasity.

Not all comics dialogue has words punched. Some writers punch few if any words, but they "sound" natural to me. Some great writers, like James Robinson and Jack Kirby, punch words with a cadence that sounds utterly random to my ear. Regardless, the words always look especially jarring on the script page, but by the time they're hand- or computer-lettered in a uniform block-letter font, they don't scream out quite so loudly.

Or maybe they do to you. It's just style. YMMV.

Kevin said...

This was great. Very helpful.

Louis Porter Jr. said...

It is amazing that in this little bit of space, you have helped me understand more about my writing then I ever thought possible. After years and years of doing writing, you make it seem so easy and naturual like you have been doing it from birht. But I guess that is the true mark of an expert. Thank you for revealing so much important information to us, especially to me.

Anonymous said...

off topic but I just watched the first episode of Leverage and have to say, despite my basic dislike of Hutton, I still really liked the show. Good writing on TV - imagine that...

Dave T. said...

is gunned down by the time-traveling team of John Wilkes Booth, Squeaky Fromme, and Robot Al Capone 3000

LMAO. You Kung Fu is strong. Welcome.

But I guess that is the true mark of an expert.

groan. :)

Louis Porter Jr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Louis Porter Jr. said...

@Dave T.

groan. :)

Groan all you want. LOL!!! I remember reading Captian America for years BEFORE Mark got on it the first time (Cap Wolf anyone???) and raised sales by 300% in less than 11 months. Mark's a proven writer with a lot of skills that I would like to learn to help my writing. So please keep serving them up!

Jason Sanders said...

Thanks, Mark!

Fills a hole left behind by The-Engine's passing. Looking forward to the next installment.

Christina said...

This is a really interesting post. Ever since reading "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud, I've been interested in the overlap between comics and movies.

Theliel said...

you rock.
please don't stop with the writing.

Dan Coyle said...

One mistake, I feel, that screenwriters turned comics writers sometimes make is that in their head, they're expecting actors to fill in the blanks with their characters.

Consequently, some writers make their characters completely unlikable forgetting that with an actor, his or her charm could carry that through or make their snarky attitude endearing. Ron Zimmerman had this problem with a vengeance (also, he never really gave a sense his heroes were ever in danger).

J. Michael Straczynski also made a fatal mistake in this vein with Supreme Power. Straczynski notes in his intro that he kept Mark's thoughts and motivations out of the frame, because he felt that would be the best way to keep the reader on edge and build suspense.

The problem is, go far enough with that, and we have what's basically a cipher, a person who we have no idea what he's doing or care about how he gets there. Supreme Power is hideously overrated to begin with, token attempts at relevance (Gub'mint be bad!) and cheap shock tactics (Look! Batman hates whitey!) that make Mark Gruenwald's awkward and overly fanficcy metaphors look like Watchmen by comparison.

But to cut us off from Mark- that- THAT was a huge mistake. Because Mark Milton is who we spend most of our time with, and there's no there there, JMS refuses to let us in for the sake of suspense.

Now, if say, Jensen Ackles had been playing Mark in a TV movie? Maybe things might have been different.

Tim W. said...

"And he’s immediately on my good side because the first words out of his mouth are not “so I have this pitch for a supernatural western,”"

Hold on, was that a veiled shot at John August?

Mark Waid said...

No, it was an unveiled shot at every third pitch that has come across my desk in the last twelve months.

Stuart Moore said...

You have an expense account? What are you doing for lunch today?

Great post. I have nothing to add -- you've explained the two big differences more clearly than I've ever seen before.

Dave T. said...


Err...I was groaning at the pun. the "mark" of an expert. His name is "Mark".

Anonymous said...

Why all the hatin' on Mark Gruenwald? He's not everyone's cup of tea, and he certainly had his flaws, but he's no Rob Liefeld either.

Why, there are those of us who actually like his work, "Cap Wolf" notwithstanding. And say what you will about "Squadron Supreme" (Gruenwald's love letter to Silver Age DC), but unlike "Watchmen" and all the other "superheroes take over, RAAAR!" stories, Gruenwald showed how heroes could stay 100% true to their ideals and still screw it up.

Ron Marz said...

Jeez, Mark, give away ALL the secrets, why don'tcha?

Well done. Some of our comic-writing brethren could use a refresher course as well.

Dan Coyle said...

Oh, I think Squadron Supreme is still far, far, FAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR superior to Supreme Power. Gruenwald, unlike Straczynski, had the courage to tackle his issues directly. However mixed the results may have been, it still made for a stronger book.

Straczynski's book read like a compilation of "things I wanna talk about, but don't really have any balls to make a point about."

Wright Johnson said...

"Supernatural western?" Really? Are those, um, big these days? Because all I can think of is a fiery Indian riding a ghost horse, which is not so much intimidating as bizarre and mildly amusing.

You know, like Haunted Tank.

But enough about John Byrne. Let's talk about this post. :)

It's interesting to me that I've been reading comics for years and (hopefully) learned a lot from them, yet I've never noticed something as simple as Important Things Are Big. I'm just glad I'm not the only one, or I would be really sad.

I'm not the only one, right? Right!?

And I liked Squadron Supreme. It was certainly, er, of its time, but a lot of the ideas were pretty interesting. Which, upon reflection, is what everyone else is saying, but I thought I had an original observation. Until it came out of my head.

[pilkington]Me brain better stop lyin' t'me. It's doin' me 'ead in.[/pilkington]


Great post, Mark. Keep it up.


P.S. But seriousslty, ef da silverr surferf got in a FIGHT WITh spiderman, who would wonderwomans kisss? I am nbeed to kno dis nows in the future now time now. Tank u mr comic WRIter Mans! PUPPETS!

Mef said...

Wow that was really insightful; great post Mark, and John thanks for allowing the space share.

Mark: I asked you (through John)a question a long time ago about Capatin America watching the Avengers fight Namor; thanks for answering it.

Looking forward to more posts on comic book craft.

Thanks again
Mark Farrell

Cully Hamner said...

Mark, I'm glad you posted this.

Elliot Blake said...

Really valuable post, Mark - looking forward to reading more.

Justin said...

Out of curiosity, who has the easier time making the transition to comic scripting: screenwriters or novelists?

Screenwriters seems the more obvious choice because they're used to creating scenes and observable "moments" without prose exposition, but I wonder if novelists might have a better ear (eye?) for dialogue that reads better printed on a page rather than spoken, as well as less reliance on motion and sound.

(Longtime fan, by the way. As a kid who grew up just reading Marvel, it was "Terminal Velocity" and Morrison's JLA that introduced me to the modern DC Universe.)

Cully Hamner said...

If I may: I'd say that from either discipline, it's the ones who examine the form, notice the right things, ask the right questions. I don't think there's a real deficit between screenwriters and prose writers trying comics. For every Rogers or JMS, there's a Rucka or Meltzer. Comics attract storytellers, and the ones who make the jump successfully are the smart ones who realize its a wholly separate medium and educate themselves accordingly.

nick said...

I know this is sort of outdated at this point, but I figured I would comment anyways, and maybe check back when any responses are outdated as well, and we'll see if anyone else noticed this thing ...

See, there's this one panel in Batman:Year One, where Matt Wagner, bless his soul, managed to convey just a startling amount of movement in one comic panel.

I don't remember the specifics of the plot that well, but I remember that the panel contained Sarah, and Gordon, and someone else coming in the room, and that you understood, from looking at this one still picture, that Gordon and Sarah were working late, and the panel conveyed that uncomfortable sense of comfort they were taking in each other - that guilty domestic bliss of the cuckold - and then the third person came in, and that in response to that person's entry and declamatory statement, everyone grabbed their coats and headed for the door. It was a brilliant piece of art, and I am not someone who usually notices that kind of thing so much as the Alan Moore-esque nuances of plot, mental connivery, and linguistic eloquence (I am thinking of the epiphany sequence from V for Vendetta ... "La Voie, La Verite, La Vie") that all you comics bigwigs are so fond of.

Does anyone else remember this panel? I suppose it's possible that I hallucinated it.


Great entry, Mark, and I look forward to reading more of what you have to say.

nick said...

or was that mazzuchelli who drew Year One ... it's been a while... oops

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