Back in the SaddleA column article, Z.E.I.T.G.E.I.S.T. by: Danny Djeljosevic
Danny Djeljosevic doesn't stop thinking about comics. All comics: crackling cosmic punches, subdued glances from art-school girls, high-concept pop, intricate European breasts, Japanese speedlined inner monologue, cartoon teenagers eating hamburgers. He loves them all.
He writes them. He draws them. He writes about them. He talks about them.
This is what his brain sounds like.
First of all, I'm pleased to announce that the phrase "Back in the Saddle" does not elicit thoughts of Aerosmith for me, but rather thoughts of Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. Which is an upgrade as far as I'm concerned.
Anyway, my reason for evoking that song title is that I haven't written a comic in a long time. Which is a strange thing to say when I've got a webcomic coming out twice a week, but as I've explained elsewhere, I wrote that a long time ago. Other than my script for the self-published project -- which is closer to autowriting than it is actual comics scripting -- I'm pretty sure the last time I wrote anything comics-wise was last year. Which amounts to some unfinished scripts and an abortive anthology pitch that I'll probably fully write out one of these days. Since then, my time's filled up by managing Comics Bulletin, plotting but not scripting comics, writing things that have very little to do with comics and sketching into the night.
Until this week.
Not to toot my own horn, but I have some awesome collaborators -- not only can they draw, but they know to bother my lazy ass when I'm not delivering on projects. And, despite what some of my friends will tell you, I have a conscience and eventually get guilty enough to get to work once I realize somebody's waiting on me to write something.
So, I finally got un-distracted and hit the bricks on a longform project that I've been working on with my "Sgt. Death" co-creator Mike Prezzato that I shouldn't tell you about yet. I don't think I've written a comic that wasn't a challenge in some way or another -- if it comes easy, you can go to Hell -- but this first script provided a unique challenge I haven't really encountered before.
It's five pages of seven dudes talking in a room.
Which is normal for other people, but weird for me. A lot of the shit I write is of the "genre" variety, which often demands that something is kicked and/or explodes at some point during the story. I know how to write people yakking to and at one another and I read lots of comics that don't involve masks or big swords and watch films not directed by Michael Bay, so I know it can be done, but writing a story where the crux of the thing is a bunch of guys sitting around having a powwow felt a bit like lifting weights with atrophied muscles.
There are a few issues that comes with writing a dialogue-heavy scene in comics.
First of all, just on the level of writing dialogue, you always run the risk of being boring, filling the panels with needless words or providing way too much exposition. That last bit was my biggest problem: these are characters the reader is unfamiliar with, that he or she is going to meet for the first time. So, do you have somebody introduce each player to the main character/reader? Do you throw in stupid captions labeling everyone? Or, do you just let the characters interact, banking on your ability to effectively characterize these personalities and hoping the reader can get into it? I went with that third thing. None of them are necessarily wrong, but not all of them will feel right for what you're doing.
Then there's what I'm going to call "cutting," where the writer basically has to go into his or her mental editing bay and figure out when to move on to the next panel, like cutting together a movie scene. It's not simply a matter of spreading dialogue across a page to make sure every panel maintains that oft-cited 30-50 word-per-panel rule of thumb or "cutting" to a new angle every time somebody else speaks. Sometimes you have to isolate a line of dialogue in its own panel. Maybe you need a silent panel for a dramatic pause. Maybe you need a big panel full of balloons to convey rapid-fire conversation or a cacophony of people talking simultaneously.
Then there's something that's real easy to forget that I had to work on in this script -- people do other things when they talk. Maybe somebody's he's eating a sandwich and smoking a cigarette. Maybe she's playing with a pin on her jacket. When I was little and relatives would be over, my dad would always casually grab one of my toys and just fiddle with the character's pose in mid-conversation, without drawing any attention to his actions. Depending on how you script, it may be helpful to think about how characters physically present themselves -- not just for the artist, but for your understanding of the character.
(NOTE: a few days after I wrote this, I noticed that David Brothers wrote about "talking head" scenes, too -- as always, essential reading, especially since he comes up with clear examples of doing it wrong/doing it right)
If you're screenwriting, it's usually up to a director and an actor to figure out just what a character's physical motions are, but comic book writing is a different beast, with few real rules regarding how to write the goddamn things. You can be Alan Moore and describe every minute detail of every single panel right down to what underwear Allan Quatermain is wearing underneath his suit or be Garth Ennis and just state what happens in each shot. It's up to you to determine how much say you want in what ends up on the page. Which is one of the things I love about making comics.
Of course, there are some that'd recommend I just trash my script and write something that uses the medium better than a five pages of bunch of bros talking about stuff. After all, don't TV and movies do that better? Which is a fair point, but I don't see anything wrong with making a comic that's exclusively about a conversation, or a comic where dudes in capes just hit one another or even a comic about some misanthrope's record collection. My first real taste of understanding how comics are written came from Denny O'Neil, who wrote that DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics -- which is mostly relevant if you want to write mainstream action comics, but has a ton of value if you're a 15-year-old with no idea how people write these things. Anyway, when he laid out the basic three-act structure of a single issue, he deemed that each act needed an action beat. Even back then I thought, "No, that can't be right." Not for every single comic, at least.
Shit's art. There's no right or wrong way to do anything. Just what works and what doesn't. Comics as a medium has a ton of potential; it's just a matter of figuring out how to make it do what you want it to do.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His newest projec, the webcomic The Ghost Engine with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.