If you don’t know who Brian Michael Bendis is, then you aren’t reading comics, because he’s everywhere, from doing some of the big Marvel stories and characters like X-Men and Ultimate Spider-Man, to his own creator-owned works like Powers and Scarlet. Check out the credits at the end of any of the Marvel movies, like the recent Guardians of the Galaxy, and you’ll see his name listed as a creative consultant. Plus he also teaches comics writing classes in the Portland area. Plus he’s married and has four children. The dude is busy. Despite that, he’s also managed to put out Words For Pictures, his advice on breaking into, and working in, the comics industry.
As someone wanting to write for comics, I was looking forward to reading this book, but I’m kind of disappointed. First of all, Bendis’ actual words only take up about maybe 50% of the actual text. A lot of the content is delegated, filled by artists and editors, and, very occasionally, actual writers. What these other people have to say is mostly, but not always, interesting, though they’re fed some pretty basic questions, like “What was the best and worst experience you have had collaborating and what made it special or terrible?”
I guess I expected more hands-on details of basic stuff, like the actual writing of scripts, like the sub-title of the book suggests. There are some sample pages of scripts, and at least one example of some scripts pages followed by how they actually ended up looking in comics format. But there is no diagramming of scripts and, nothing, for example, that shows how he divides up panels by size, or creates a ‘beat’ in the flow of a story. He doesn’t even explain what a beat is—a pause—assuming I guess that everyone already knows that. There’s nothing that shows why Bendis chose to arrange certain words on a page in a certain manner.
Instead, there’s actually a lot of art. The book is filled with it, much of it examples from the artists Bendis interviews, some of it even showing rough sketches next to their final versions. Which, is interesting—writers do need to see how artists work, and think—but I wish there were similar examples of the writing process—notes, drafts, revisions, edits. But even though Bendis at times tells us that he does a lot of rewriting, we never get to see it.
What the book is really about, what Bendis really seems to care about, is relationships—since the comics business is really almost always a collaborative team effort, Bendis’s questions to artists and editors emphasize how much ‘success’ (meaning anywhere from just getting your foot in the door to actually making a living) comes from how you work with, and approach, people in the biz. Which is fine, and I understand, though I think it could all be summed up as “don’t be an asshole” (which I might be violating by writing this review) though reading about some artists and editors peeves is interesting.
That’s the thing: this book is interesting, but is it going to be helpful to some writer (like, say, me) at the beginning stages? This book seems more geared towards those writers who already know how to write a script, already have their own comic made—because that’s Bendis’ most basic advice to beginners—to create their own comics, though how that is done remains rather vague. He seems to assume that all beginning writers will happen to know an artist willing to work together for free, and/or will be able to pay an artist to do 20-22 pages, which—and I’ve done the research on this—could mean you might have to pay $3000 of your own money just to get your own comic made anywhere near professional-looking.
The most interesting chapters are by other people, like Matt Fraction’s account of how he wrote Hawkeye the old-school Marvel way, as a real collaborative process with artist David Aja, though the account is as confusing as it is interesting, since then we’re given some sample “full script” pages too. But at least it’s a writer talking about his writing process. The only other writer featured is Ed Brubaker (one of my favorites) in a frustratingly short interview that just talks about how Brubaker went from being an artist to deciding to be a writer—which is what Bendis did as well, but there’s nothing about actual writing.
The other two sections I found helpful (meaning beyond just interesting) were Dark Horse Editor Diana Schutz’s “A Writer’s Guide To Editors” and the “interview” with Marvel’s vice president in charge of talent, C. B. Cebulski, both of which stressed that when submitting sample work, they prefer the writing to be accompanied by actual art, and that they prefer what are called “minis”—eight-page short stories—something that gives them an idea if you can write a beginning, middle and end in a limited space. Though they each have other useful advice, though again this is more for after you’ve gotten through the basics.
Finally, nitpickingly, there are some kind of obvious spelling glitches and oddities in the text. For example, in the sample pages from Bendis’ script for Spider-Men, there’s this on page 34: “The trick of his giant very detailed panel is that it is are very good look at the 616….” [underline mine]. Also, on page 37, “Think about it- what is new York?” There are other bloopers like this, not all of them in the sample scripts, but in the main text itself. Also, just stylistically, there are some headscratchers, like this on page 42:
“There will be occasions when the artwork does its job so well that the dialogue seems redundant or in the way. My biggest compliment to an artist occurs when I look at the page and say to myself that my dialogue is just in the way. Mark Bagley, with whom I worked with on Ultimate Spider-Man….”
Seems like Bendis, or at least the editor of the book, would have caught the repeat of “in the way.” And, if you use the phrase “with whom,” you don’t have to say “with” again later in the sentence. In fact, you shouldn’t.
All of which feels like the book was thrown together in a rush. I would think, especially in a book about writing, and especially when one bit of advice given in the book is to make sure your scripts don’t contain errors, that a little more care would have been put into the proofreading.
Still, is Words For Pictures worth reading? Yes. Any glimpses into the behind-the-scenes life of the comics world is going to be useful to aspiring writers (and to artists). Just know that, despite the subtitle, it’s more about the “business” than the “art” (That is, the art of writing). Or, as Bendis himself actually says in the Acknowledgements section, it’s “a book about how to be a professional.” You might want to supplement your reading with Understanding Comics and Re-Inventing Comics by Scott McCloud, as well as the DC Comics Guide To Writing Comics for more of the basics.