The Transparent Diary: Flipping the Comic Book Storytelling Process

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Jamil Scalese

Fiction runs my life. 

It started in college. Due to an unfortunate selection of English as my concentration, I read massive amounts of prose over a four-year span. I'm not complaining, I love me some books, but perhaps writing analytic papers about those stories, whether inspired or not, drained me a bit, because since then I've only read a modest handful of novels per year since. Since that time (less than a decade ago), I've found myself retreating to my first love, comics, which has lead to writing for Comics Bulletin, where -- whether inspired to or not -- I write about sequential art that I've read. Writing my own fiction -- both prose and sequential -- caps off my fiction immersion. In my free time, when I'm not writing or reviewing made-up stories, I sit down to watch a scripted sitcom, play a plotted video game or go out to see the newest giant spaceship movie. 



My belabored point: I experience a lot of fiction, which in no way makes me an expert but has allowed me to delve a little deeper into the process. Operating on both sides as creator and critic I'm still amazed anything even gets published. What I mean is, as a writer, I've found it extremely difficult to settle on a finished copy for "publication." Sure, deadlines help -- that's mostly what propelled me through college (and sometimes Comics Bulletin) -- but I have a difficult time cementing my creative writing. What often staggers the process are what I think of as "forks" in the artistic process. Different routes the story can take, both in narrative and in the case of form, confound me. Should my short story be satirical and sardonic, or more straightforward and self-reflective? Should it be a short story at all? Third-person or first? Tight, efficient prose like Hemingway, or something more flowery like Faulkner? What about the plot itself? How many twists and turns can it take? 

In comics, when you consider the visual aspect, these choices multiply exponentially. How many panels? What color palette? Captions or thought bubbles? The possibilities fascinate me, and over time I've learned to just write it out, and the important lesson in settling. I always have to remind myself of an incredibly accurate quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: "Art is never finished, only abandoned." In other words, cut the cord. Perfection is a goal but not a destination.

Furthermore, when I think of the "forks" in creative process of a comic book I include the factor of having more than one creator at the helm. Without a doubt, each person involved in the creative process manipulates the final product in some way.



These particular quirks of fiction, and comicdom, repeatedly pattered the percussions of my mind when I read the dual graphic novel The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary released by Image via Man of Action studios. The work is unlike anything I've read, two separate stories with the same exact art by Teddy Kristiansen separated by drastically different script. Together with previous collaborator Steven T. Seagle, they weave an experience that may never be duplicated. The Red Diary, written and drawn by Kristiansen, follows elderly biographer William Ackroyd as he traces the path of a seemingly forgotten artist during the first World War. The story is steeped with emotion, full of longing and regret.



The Re[a]d Diary, using the same art and with copy by Seagle, is markedly different. It follows "William Ackroyd," a man carrying a false identity who reflects on the diaries of his "younger self" and the changes both to his own personality and the world around him. Both stories have similarities that connect them -- dates, names, captions and of course unwavering art, but overall the two tales about war and art barely intersect. What is most different is the tone of the writing. The Red Diary carries a much simpler syntax; it's elegant but spare on words. The language is direct, and does read as translated but not lacking poignancy or depth. The second story features a much more complex tone, a style that is wordier, more elaborate and wrought. The Re[a]d Diary reads like thesaurus exploded on the page while The Red Diary is more sparse and direct. In both stories the tone is vastly important because the painted pages are blotchy and bleak, and leave the reader to insert their perceived meaning into them. Some panels don't even relate to the text in the caption boxes, with Kristiansen going for more abstract images and layouts. 

The journey of these two stories captured my interest. How did this graphic novel originate? The Red Diary is entirely by Kristiansen, but the supplementary The Re[a]d Diary with text by Seagle comes in and borrows a small handful of elements and completely switches the entire plot, purpose and aura. Fortunately, for the sake of my curiosity, Seagle does explain how the project came about.

After their collaboration on It's A Bird in 2004, Seagle wished to help out his buddy by printing his work Le Carnet Rouge in English. A problem arose in that Man of Action is unable to print something that a member is not directly involved with, so Steve's solution was to "translate" the book. He took the original French and Danish dialogue and inserted similar-sounding English words, fine-tuning it so was literate, and inserted elements things like setting, character, plot and theme. He, at the time of writing his afterword, had still not read Kristiansen's original story. It's bit of a twist on the Marvel Method, except with the writer and artist working separately instead of in unison. 



It reminds me of a 2011 release, From The Marvel Vault: Defenders. This single-issue features a script by Kurt Busiek and art by Mark Bagley, and a plot by... Fabian Nicieza. Yes, this oddity of modern comics was originally written and drawn by Nicieza and Bagley over ten years ago. The original art sat in a drawer as unused filler for the Defenders Volume 2 run until someone eventually pulled it out, realized it still held up as great work and decided to publish it. Except there was a problem: It was unlettered with no script. Well, two problems: Nicieza -- at the time signed exclusive to DC -- couldn't write it and, more importantly, couldn't remember a damn thing about the story beats. In fact, neither could Bagley, which is both amazing and completely reasonable for a duo decades deep in the biz. Thankfully, comics hero Kurt Busiek flew in, looked over the art and developed a nifty plot from the action happening in the panels. In the end, the team put together a great, remarkably unique Defenders story, one that will stand the test of time. 



Coincidentally, one of the few modern titles attempting utilize the Marvel Method was the current Defenders series penned by Matt Fraction. I say was because at the time of writing this article Defenders will be canned in to make room for Marvel NOW! titles. When we reviewed the series opener way back when, the Comics Bulletin staff continually praised the comic's freshness and ingenuity.

In an interview earlier this year, Fraction described the process:


Nrama: And you're also sticking to writing it plot-first, then scripting over art -- the old "Marvel method" -- right?

Fraction: Yeah, that is the rule. There have been three guest artists -- after the first arc, there are three standalones. [Newsarama note: issue #4 is illustrated by Michael Lark, #5 by Mitch Breitweiser and #6 by Victor Ibanez.] I said up front, "Look guys, here's the mission with this book, and it's incredibly new and uncomfortable for me, so hopefully it'll be new and uncomfortable for you, and we'll figure it out." It's been a different experience every time. I don't know that it's actually saving time, but it's certainly exercising new muscle groups and making me think about stuff in different ways.


Thanks for helping me make my point, Matt. 

Being a sinful hypocrite, I am tragically behind on Defenders (I haven't even gotten to the issues mentioned above), and contributed to its cancellation. From what I read (and heard) it offered a pretty amazing experience; a distinctly inventive series embedded with elements of familiarity and resonance. Personally, what I remember most about my small sampling of the series was the vast nuance. The free-flowing art bolstered creatively fantastic layouts, and the dialogue matched the character's actions and expressions step-by-step. The synergy between Fraction's words and Terry Dodson's art could be seen on the page. 



These examples of atypical-process comics came about in different ways. In the case of the unpublished Defenders Vol. 2 issue, even though the artist drew a script he couldn't remember a writer was able to come in and develop a script because he knew the characters and context. The Re[a]d Diary borrowed elements of date, characters (both fictional and non) and locale to morph a story around the visuals of battlefields and canvases. The newest Defenders series was drafted in broad strokes, the artist(s) did their thing, then page-layouts were complimented with appropriate dialogue. These ambitious comics ditched the typical write-then-draw approach for something more collaborative. 

We all know of the success of the Marvel Method employed by Lee and Kirby back in the '60s, but it isn't flawless by any means. In fact, much of early Marvel suffers from corniness and outlandish characterizations. Ever read the first 25 issues or so of Fantastic Four? Reed Richards is just plain ridiculous. Undeniably, the Marvel Method is laden with potential pitfalls. 

Writers are hired as writers. Artists are paid to draw, and they do. That's the way mainstream comics works. Up until the "New 52" we rarely saw artists writing and drawing mainstream books, and even a lot of those year-old titles have new scribes attached to them now (hold strong Flash!). Still, why not more reverse-process comics? I suppose it's a tricky route with a myriad of variables (more "forks," if you will). How much do a writer and artist collaborate beforehand? Should ground rules be set or should the artist just go crazy? Where does editorial come in?

Creative teams with rapport could hurdle a lot of the bumps in the reverse-process method. Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison have worked together so long, and so proficiently, I'd image that Quitely could lay down 20 pages of something rad and Moz could swoop in and tie it together . Talents like J.H. Williams III and Francis Manapul have had a big hand in DC books they write and draw, but imagine if those talented artists, with the intricate and brilliant layouts they cook up, built some groovy stories for writers like Scott Snyder or Gail Simone. I admit, it's a risky move, and feels a bit against the grain to the entire comicking process, but it isn't extremely different from a finished script being delivered to the drawing table. At that point the writer is trusting his or her collaborator with their work; There is an expectation the artist will deliver professional material. An artist sending their sketches to a scribe in exchange for a script is absolutely abnormal, but the same collaborative trust factor is there.



I am semi-aware this isn't exactly viable within the Big Two, where a lot of books are writer-driven with editors as backseat drivers and artists in the trunk. Penciling a comic takes a load of time, and putting together what amounts to an experimental project is a considerable gamble. Defenders' strong start and steep decline is prime example and something like last summer's Vengeance could be a thing of the past. That ambitious mini by Joe Casey and Nick Dragotta originated from Marvel editors wanting to use six pieces of outstanding cover art by Gabriele Dell'Otto. Casey and Dragotta weaved a strikingly original narrative around a half dozen villains that were all defanged, de-aged or dead at the time of publication. It's an example of something way different spawning from the art, as I have blabbed on about ad nauseum.

Joe Casey likes to approach comics with a "wild west" mindset. Anything goes. He has stepped away from the Big Two and is concentrating on work-for-hire projects and that's probably the place for what I'm preaching for. Independent publishers could benefit from fostering this type of creative process. I want to read more things like the The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary or original ongoings or graphic novels that slant toward the Marvel Method. I'm in the love with the progression of ideas and the means through which they form. A plot can have myriad possibilities; comics celebrates that like no other medium. How many of our favorite comics feature alternate universes, retellings, "Elseworlds" and "What Ifs"? We love being different, so it's weird the medium does not branch out enough stylistically. Modern music remixes, films have director cuts and alternate endings, TV employs a variety of programming. Despite being recognized as a fertile ground for inventive new ideas Comics lags behind in the department of method ingenuity. Writer - Artist -Inker - Colorist - Letterer -- that's the way it goes with infrequent variation. 

I like to think that comic readers are fairly intimate with the inner workings of the industry. I doubt there are many fans who walk into their LCS completely surprised by the names and titles on the shelves. I'm willing to bet that most readers are internet savvy and are knowledgeable about the particulars of their favorite titles, and for some it's part of the experience of knowing more about how work comes about. Just about every trade paperback I read these days has page/character sketches or even an afterword that brings readers closer to the journey. Transparency helps to drive excitement, and I think fans would really get behind a project that attempts to get a little ballsy with the way it's made (with top notch creators at the helm, of course). Fiction lovers like when the narrative gets wacky. Take something like Drawception, which is basically a visual Telephone Game. People enjoy not only experience the hilarious fun, but also the unforeseen craziness of the final result. 



Basically, I want the whole industry to shake things up, to think of new ways to make comics that reach outside of the ritualistic script-first mentality. High-level creators might discuss particulars before a major project, but I'm asking for two general things: a) for writers to pitch the outlines of general ideas to an interested artist or b) artists to relegate dialogue and some plotting to a skilled writer on fully-formed work. Both alternatives require a great amount of trust between partners, but foster situations that can lead to unanticipated results . The idea is to break creators out of their tendencies while at the same time utilizing the talents that make them great storytellers. 

I have no idea if any of demands are practical or feasible in today's climate. Hopefully something like The Red Diary/ The Re[a]d Diary can help propagate more innovative ways to develop comics. I read the book and it unlocked something in me that compelled me to write about the creative process and with a bit of luck this blathering will inspire others to create something through collaboration that is unlike anything out there. To me, that's what comics are all about. 



Jamil Scalese is just like you -- an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.

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