The Cedar Rapids Comic Con is fast approaching on February 6! Along with the books I’ve previously posted about here, I’ll also be selling other graphic novels, books, and CDs, including Comics Writing, which is available from Caliber Comics and other places like my Amazon author’s page. For folks who’d like to know more about this book, here is an interview that originally appeared in the first issue of Caliber Comics’ FREE e-promotional magazine Caliber Rounds, followed by a sample chapter from the book:
Cal: What makes Comics Writing different from other books about writing comics?
Steve: Comics Writing doesn’t tell you how to do anything. It explains what you need to do so you can start writing comics now. It describes what a comic is, what a script is, what a story is, and what a writer needs to do to communicate that story to collaborators. A comics writer must be able to communicate a story to an editor, a penciller, an inker, a letterer, and maybe a colorist. Oh, yes, and to the reader. So, it’s your plot, and it’s your words, but unless you’re a jack-of-all-trades, you are not telling this story alone.
Cal: So it’s a primer?
Steve: I like to think of it that way. It’s for beginners. Any communicator who wants to learn the basics about communicating using the comics medium can use it, too, but my target is anyone who wants to write comics stories.
Cal: Why write this? What was your motivation?
Steve: Lots of things, but when I was seventeen I wanted to submit to Marvel Comics. The problem was I didn’t know how. I actually sent them a short story with Iron First and Power Man. Don’t ask me why, but I thought an artist would take it and adapt it into a comics story. I didn’t know any better. Jim Shooter was editor-in-chief and he was kind enough to send me a sample of a plot script so I’d have at least some notion of the proper format, which helped, but there were no books or articles that I could look up to learn the nuts and bolts of taking a story and breaking it down into that format.
Cal: How did you learn to write comics?
Steve: Trial and error, at first. I also went to comics conventions to ask professionals what to do, but they didn’t know how to explain what they did. They just did it. So I just struggled on my own until I was twenty-four, when I finally got around to attending college. That’s when my efforts became disciplined. I earned degrees in Journalism and Religion, but many of the things I learned in those classes also applied to writing comics. For example, Journalism taught me about concise writing. Effectively communicating what you need to say completely and quickly. It also instructed me in visual communication and journalistic editing, things like layout and composition. Scott McLoud’s excellent Understanding Comics was first published a couple of years after I graduated, and I high recommend it, but a lot of the things in it I had already learned in my communication science course. My Religion courses, however, may have taught me the most valuable lesson any writer can learn: how to read. Good writers should be good readers. My Religion courses also gave me some of the best instruction I have ever received into the workings of literature. I also took some college classes for fun that contributed to my learning, like Film Study and Film, Television, and Radio Production. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I never sold anything before going to college, but by the time I was a junior I had sold my first comics series, Street Heroes 2005, to Malibu Graphics.
Cal: So does Comics Writing distill all you learned?
Steve: Oh, no. Comics Writing is my note in a bottle to anyone who is like me when I was seventeen. Comics Writing tells you what to do to tell a comics story. What you do with that information and where it takes you from there is up to you.
A comics writer does two things.
1) Entertains readers by creating stories.
2) Communicates his stories so that collaborators can translate them into comics.
There you go. What could be simpler?
Before we proceed, though, let me ask a question.
What is “comics”?
Now you might be thinking, “Puh-leaze, fool! Comics are things like comic books, graphic novels, newspaper comic strips, webcomics, and digital comics! Everybody knows that!”
That comes close to hitting the bull’s-eye, but close only counts in dancing and collateral damage. Frank Miller, the creator of Dark Knight Returns and Sin City, puts steel on target when he states, “Comics is, foremost, a form of communication.”
Comics is a medium, a unique form of communication.
Comics is narrative art that uses words and pictures to communicate.
And comics is a member of the cartoon family tree with its own communication code called the grammar of comics that cartoon communication expert Randall P. Harrison says writers and artists use “to create a make-believe world, to create figures, to give them depth, to give them action, thought, and language.”
Comics as a Medium
A medium conveys information, rather it is news or ideas, in a method unlike any other medium. Comics is often compared to film because both are verbal-visual media that use words and pictures to convey information, but this is a flawed comparison. Film is an audio-visual medium that uses sound and moving images to communicate, whereas comics has no soundtrack or moving images but uses static words and images. While comics is a verbal-visual medium like film, it would be more accurate to compare comics to literary media like books, newspapers, and magazines.
Comics as Narrative Art
Narrative art is one of mankind’s oldest forms of communication. According to Harrison, “Cartoons, and even strip-like stories, can be found in Roman sculpture, on Greek vases, on early Japanese scrolls, and in the famous Bayeux tapestry.” The Pyramid of Khufu is the oldest of Egypt’s trademark pyramids, finished in 2530 B.C., but one of the earliest examples of narrative art is almost two hundred years older than that. The Standard of Ur is an ancient box with shell-inlaid figures and images on its outside depicting a Sumerian military action and subsequent victory. According to the popular textbook Gardner’s Art Through the Ages these “figures are carefully arranged in superimposed strips, each strikingly suggestive of a film or ‘comic strip’; doubtless, the purpose is the same—to achieve a continuous narrative effect.” Ancient people had discovered that they could record historical events in greater detail by combining words with images into narrative art than with art or writing alone.
Comics as Cartoon
The word cartoon is over five hundred years old. It comes from the French and Italian words for “card” and “paper.” Until 1455 the word “cartoon” was used to describe a preliminary sketch for a painting or sculpture, but after the invention of movable type made printing presses all the rage in Western Europe, “cartoon” was used to describe any sketch that could be mass-produced.
These early cartoons were very simple to make reproducing them on printing presses easier. They were also very simplistic in nature, but today any drawing is considered to be a cartoon regardless of its complexity so long as it encapsulates a complete thought. In plain English, this means that any illustration can be called a cartoon.
Two Definitions for Comics
Which brings us back to my question, “What is comics?”
Believe it or not there is no single agreed-upon definition for comics, despite the best efforts of two of the most knowledgeable comics communicators of the last century to create one.
During the Seventies comics grandmaster Will Eisner (The Spirit, A Contract With God) coined the term “sequential art” to describe the medium. Sequential art is piquant and to the point but fails to describe the comics medium to anyone who has never seen anything like a comic book or a comic strip. For this reason Scott McCloud expanded the term sequential art into a proper dictionary-style definition for his milestone text on comics communication, Understanding Comics (1993). What he came up with was:
Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reviewer.
Intimidating, isn’t it? I know it scares the heck out of me.
My problem with McCloud’s definition, besides inducing brain cramps, is that it fails to mention words as an element of comics, even though comics is narrative art and a verbal-visual medium.
My Definition of Comics (Sort Of)
For this book I have attempted to cobble a more precise description of the comics medium than what Eisner or McCloud created. The components come from one of the first critical examinations of the medium, Coulton Waugh’s The Cartoon (1947). Waugh argued that all comics had to include three criteria: 1) A narrative told through a sequence of pictures, 2) a continuing cast of characters, and 3) the inclusion of dialogue or text within the cartoon. Technically a continuing cast of characters is in no way necessary to communicate anything in any medium, so I have taken the liberty of scrapping this criterion and connecting the remaining criteria to assemble the following:
COMICS: A narrative told through a sequence of pictures with the inclusion of dialogue or text within the cartoon.
There is your answer, Charlie Brown. That is what comics is all about.