If you’ve set your sights on writing an original novel or a prose piece, you can generally type to your heart’s content. There’s no hard-and-fast space limitation. American comics, on the other hand, tend to be 22 pages. It’s a totally arbitrary number; since their invention in the 1930s, comic book stories have been as long as a hundred pages and as short as one. In the early 1980s, industry leaders DC Comics and Marvel Comics, factoring profits versus creative costs, arrived at 22 as their standard page-count, and other companies settled in at about the same, give or take. (As the E-I-C at BOOM!, I allow 22 pages for first issues and 21 for ensuing issues, leaving room for a “what has come before” text recap after the opening scene.)
Twenty-two pages is not a lot of space. Believe me. Having written a bazillion comics, I still find myself more often than nine pages into a script and realizing to my horror that I’m only about a quarter of the way through the story I wanted to tell, and the next thing you know, I’m making fresh coffee and tearing up the floorboards to rewrite.
The best tools in a comic writer's toolbox serve the cause of Economic Storytelling. Your foremost task is to convey the maximum amount of story in the minimum amount of space. Don’t misunderstand; “story” is not the same as “plot,” and I’m in no way suggesting that every page you write be weighted down with a hundred lines of dialogue feeding me more exposition than I can possibly digest. But a plot, as I’m gonna presume you already know if you’re reading this, is simply what happens. A story takes a plot and adds emotion, timing, style and mood, and as loudly as I rail against comics that spend an entire page showing a character filling a glass from the kitchen faucet, I’d still rather read a story that was involving but breezy for 22 pages than one that was dense but dull and unmoving for eight.
Shorter comics stories are even more of a bitch to script. Eight pages, six...regardless of length, you still need to show me a conflict and a resolution or else it’s not a story, and there is no time to screw around. At BOOM!, I get a l-o-t of eight-page scripts that, for no good reason, burn up the entire first page with a slow zoom into a New York restaurant kitchen. This makes me homicidal. If your story is about a chef and geography is incidental, just show me the damn kitchen. Tick, tock. I love RESERVOIR DOGS, but if you handed me a comics script that began with four pages of gangsters debating the merits of Madonna, I would not only reject it, I would break your keyboard.
In a 22-page comic, figuring an average of four to five panels a page and a couple of full-page shots, a writer has maybe a hundred panels at most to tell a story, so every panel he wastes conveying (a) something I already know, (b) something that’s a cute gag but does nothing to reveal plot or character, or (c) something I don’t need to know is a demonstration of lousy craft. Comics are expensive. Don’t make me resent the money I spend buying yours. Every single moment in your script must either move the story along or demonstrate something important about the characters—preferably both—and every panel that does neither is a sloppy waste of space. This is one of the reasons why Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ WATCHMEN is so revered; it’s a tour de force example of Economic Storytelling because there’s significance to every word and every image.