Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why do so many writers sabotage their work with words?
This is one of those questions that might seem to read as being vague, but I know exactly what you’re talking about. Before I dig into the problem you’re referencing, which is a relatively specific one, I’d like to specify what this is and is not about. This is not a writers versus artists topic. This isn’t about which roles are more or less valuable. That’s a bogus conversation that distracts from bigger issues (like the fact that both are undervalued at the biggest publishers). This is about a trend in the role of comics writers.
That trend is the tendency for comics writers to include excessive narration, dialogue, or other text-based elements; something I refer to as overwriting. Overwriting isn’t something that you can define with a word count or easy rule of thumb. It’s more like decompression as defined in comics (or pornography as defined by the Supreme Court), you just know it when you see it. It’s that moment when an internal monologue transforms subtext into text or when narration comments on what is already on the page or when two characters hammer a point home. When you’re reading more text than images in a comic or find yourself questioning whether something really needed to be said: That’s overwriting.
I might just be imagining it, but I think this has become more prevalent in the past five as a stylistic choice. I’m not referring to the boastful voice and pomp of Stan Lee and other Silver Age scribes or the artless scrawling found in the most-maligned 90’s comics. This is well-crafted prose coming from writers who understand the craft of storytelling. The writing isn’t something you would always refer to as a problem, but the word themselves are.
Comics are a visual medium. That might seem like an obvious statement, but given the emphasis provided to writers by publishers, fans, and reviewers, it’s one that can afford to be restated. No matter how clever the plot or dialogue of a given comic may be, it still must be effectively told in a visual manner. This provides writers, specifically writers who are only writers, with two things: 1. a need to understand how and why their story ought to be told as a comic and 2. a reliance on whoever will transform whatever they write into a comic.
The former means that writing comics is unlike any other form of writing. It has much more in common with playwriting and screenwriting than prose because visual concepts like framing, acting, and staging must be taken into account. A comics writer cannot act with omniscience, but must release specific and purposeful amounts of information in each panel. That specific style makes transition from writing outside of comics a hurdle.
The latter might have a chilling effect, especially if someone is new to the medium or isn’t familiar with their collaborators. What they are creating in a script will be taken out of their hands and transformed into an actual comics. In the best of circumstances an artist will take the concepts the writer has written down and improve on them in the same way a director takes a script and molds it into something so much more. But like with any form of two-way communication, there is the possibility of failure.
I think that these two things go a long way in explaining why so many writers today sabotage their own work with words.
Many comics writers are either trained or professionally employed in a different form of writing before ever composing their first script. This isn’t an inherently bad thing. Some professional authors have made flawless transitions between the two mediums. Just take a look at Tom King who after publishing A Once Crowded Sky began co-writing Grayson with Tim Seeley, then began to write The Omega Men, The Vision, and Sheriff of Baghdad. In less than two years he has written some of the most critically acclaimed new comics of today, and they are genuinely great comics. It’s not surprise The Omega Men and The Vision are both swarming end of year lists.
However, that’s not always the case. If you’ve spent most of your life learning how to accomplish a goal one way and then take a completely new set of tools on, it’s easy to understand why their might be a hiccup. You may be used to transporting yourself to the grocery store on your bike, but jumping behind the wheel of a car is a completely different thing even if the ultimate goal is the same. When you see loads of narration or long, talky comics that lack visual hooks or cues, it’s often possible to imagining them working well as a novel or short story. That’s no surprise because many of those writers are used to writing novels or short stories. Making a comic that is cinematic or novelistic isn’t really a compliment because comics aren’t films or books; comics are comics. So while a screenwriter or author might be able to take certain skills from their previous career, they still have to learn to write comics or risk doing something that shouldn’t even really be a comic book.
Having the right tools for the wrong job goes a long way in explaining the phenomena of overwriting, but it isn’t a catchall. There are plenty of comics writers who have always desired to be comics writers that do their best to coat pages in text as well. That’s where the fear of failure comes into play. Whether it’s the fear of an artist unsuccessfully conveying your meaning or simply readers not being able to pick up on the nuances of the artwork, not believing in the medium can easily lead to an over reliance on words. Stacking a page with narration or restating ideas presented visually is a sure sign of someone who doesn’t have confidence in comics to present their story. Scripts are just the skeleton of a comic, providing an outline for a story that still has to be told. Comics writers may not even be aware of it, but if they’re ensuring every point of your story is explicit in the script, then they probably aren’t focusing on the final product. What’s the point of making the thing itself if the bones are too big to wrap in muscle and flesh?
Illustrating what overwriting is and who does it would probably be much easier with some examples, and there are plenty in mainstream comics right now, many of whom are very, very popular. But it’s the start of a new year and I’d like to begin it with a sense of optimism. So rather than pick out some of the problems, I’d prefer to focus on one comics writers who knows exactly how much text is required on every page: Warren Ellis.
The best part of this example is that Ellis has written two vastly different comics in the past two years with the exact same creative team of artist Declan Shalvey and colorist Jordie Bellaire. First was Moon Knight characterized by its one-and-done issue plotting and action-heavy, speech-light scripts. They almost immediately moved onto the creator-owned project Injection afterward, a sprawling narrative with five focal characters and a dense mythology composed of both the scientific and surreal. It’s difficult to imagine two ongoing series with much more different scripting requirements, but both of these excel under the talented hands of this team.
One of the reasons for this is that Ellis’ scripts always provide just as much verbiage as the story requires. If you take a look at Moon Knight #1, you’ll notice there’s a large amount of dialogue on certain pages. When Moon Knight interacts first with the police and then with a serial killer, he engages them with conversation. In the original instance this makes sense because he is working as a detective and asking questions. The purpose is less obvious when interacting with a madman in the sewers, until it is revealed he was distracting him until a stealthily thrown boomerang could effectively hobble the killer. When Moon Knight is moving between places or engaged in action, he is almost perfectly quiet though. Every word balloon serves a purpose.
Just examine Moon Knight #2 to see how quickly Ellis discards dialogue almost altogether. After the issue introduces Moon Knight and his sniper antagonist (following a fascinating 8-fold introduction to assassinated bystanders), there are only 6 word balloons in 8 pages and that’s only if count something like “AOWW.” Nothing in Moon Knight’s story requires much to be said, except for the mic drop of a cold-blooded capitalist on the final page. Moon Knight is a superhero comic focused on action, chases, and spectacle. Ellis’ script provided those elements with plenty of room to not only breathe, but blow away readers. When a page dove into fast-paced gunplay or psychedelic exploration, Ellis didn’t bother to slow it down or cover it up. He let Shalvey and Bellaire tell these parts of the story to the best of their ability and make a truly superb comic book.
Injection is a much more cerebral comic though. It takes its time to build stories, characters, and concepts, slowly revealing new elements. It is constructed much more similarly to another series scripted by Ellis at Image Comics Trees, in that both are comprised of issues that only act as chapters to a greater whole. While Injection still contains plenty of bizarre settings and superb action set pieces, it also contains a lot more words. Those words are a necessary part of building this larger story, one that reads better in its first collected edition than Moon Knight read on a monthly schedule. There’s an enjoyment and understanding that comes from getting to explore the nuance of a complicated set of characters and their circumstances, punctuated occasionally by imagined forest monsters and bloody smackdowns in posh apartments.
There’s no overwriting in Injection though. Every exchange of dialogue or bit of exposition serves a specific purpose, one that enhances or complements Shalvey and Bellaire’s art, rather than covering it or making it redundant. As Ellis utilizes speech patterns and different knowledge bases to distinguish his set of characters, Shalvey and Bellaire make use of the setting, fashion, and mannerisms to do the same. Despite being a word-heavy book, Injection never feels slow or boring. It is one in which each page brings new discoveries, ones that could only be found in the completed form of the comic.
Comics writers like Warren Ellis, who is a modern icon of the medium for good reason, serve as an excellent example for those looking to hone their craft. The point isn’t to write like Ellis, but to understand why he writes the way he does. Why does he choose to use word balloons in such quantity on one page, and then apply none at all on the next? Why does he occasionally include narration as a part of the art, rather than in text boxes? Why does he set conversations where they occur?
Overwriting is a problem in many modern comics and it may even read like sabotage. The truth is that no one wants to write a bad comic though. In fact one of the main causes for overwriting is the fear of not effectively telling a good story. So how do writers work to use their words more effectively and efficiently? I’d wager that the best thing to do isn’t to focus not on examples of the problem, but on those that lack it entirely. Comics writers who fear their scripts aren’t clear enough or who rely on skills developed for other media would do best to focus on examples of excellent comics writing. Writing, like any other craft, is learned and one of the best ways to learn is to study those who do it best.