Rough drafts of comic pages

Other than a few brief forays into comics as a younger artist – mostly the newspaper-style, though some western comics were attempted – I’ve been scared of writing them for years.

Why? It’s unlike writing anything else I’ve done before. In either professional or personal capacity, I’ve done short stories, novels, novellas, short-form news stories and long-form editorials. I’ve written technical manuals, how-tos, choose-your-own-adventures, poetry, video game plots, stage plays and video scripts. I’ve done storyboarding for commercials and short films. Writing wasn’t scary, of course: writing comics was.

I was petrified of the idea of them, actually. Comics are “written” in images and compositions and assumptions; they have a dialect all their own. When in the planning stages, how do you do that? Do you draw them out first? Do you write it like a stage play? Poring over Scott McCloud’s great books was a valuable step, but reading actual comics meant so much more. Just like learning a new language, it’s sometimes best to immerse yourself in it headfirst and start picking out the bits you understand, and building on that.

After getting a little more comfortable with the idea of all the facets of writing a comic in the first place, I tried dozens of different methods on writing comics, and most of them resulted in my never being able to put pen to paper. I read what professionals did, tried it, and failed miserably. I dug out software and sample templates: no luck. I wrote the stories as actual pieces of fiction, and realized that it resulted in incredibly static layout and imagery, and far too much meandering. What takes two paragraphs in writing might take fifteen pages to draw if the actions don’t have the right flow. I talked to other artists at conventions, and few of them even understood my challenges, having learned the language so long ago that it was almost second nature to them.

After reading Bakuman (one of my favourite comics on the subject of comics), I really connected with the idea of the writer handing a rough sketch of the page and its dialogue to the illustrator, as interspersed through its volumes. That way the progression of the frames is clearly depicted as part of the storytelling process. I tried doing this in smaller form, such as tiny sketches with numbered speech bubbles, and an additional series of lines to write full dialogue. It… didn’t work. Even the speech bubble’s layout was critical to getting the story across.

Finally, I decided to put caution to the wind and start just drawing on the end paper I’d be using. It was expensive, but it was more expensive to just leave them sitting there doing nothing. The result? Actual scripts. Actual production. I finally found what worked for me. Huzzah! Now my comics are stacks of scribbled-on manga stock, loose forms and basic expressions showing the flow from one page to the next.

It’s weird for such a digital developer to prefer paper, but that’s where I found the “zen” of writing, that sweet spot that turns it from working into crafting. It stinks only having a single paper manuscript, I’ll admit. Some of my pages have suffered a lot of pencil-rubbing traveling from work to home and elsewhere. However, it’s a lot easier to shuffle pages and spot inconsistencies when I can do a flip-through. Now, I tend to not even have a full story outline before I start working, which is completely unlike how I write anything else. One of my favourite practice techniques is to just draw a page that takes place somewhere in a story, and see how it goes. If a single page couldn’t hold its own as engaging and clearly part of a greater story, then I didn’t quite get the language well enough yet.

Learning what works for you takes trial and error. You might find it right away, or it might take a while. Just keep trying, and eventually the words – and pictures, and compositions, and flow – will come.

How do you write your comics? Sound off in the comments below.

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