Written by Devin Larson
Successful collaborations tend to hinge on effective communication. For writers and editors this process covers the same territory; both parties traffic in words. Other collaborative relationships are less intuitive. Comics, for example, require words and pictures to tell a story. But what to show? What to tell?
The Writer/Artist Dynamic
Writers and artists shape the story of a comic in different ways. The story flows from the writer—scene structure, characterization, dialogue—but is communicated nonverbally through the artist. It’s a visual medium, so whenever possible let the art do the talking. Reserve dialogue and descriptions for when they are absolutely needed and don’t overstuff your comic.
That may sound as if it puts a lot of power in the hands of the artist, and it does. Yet every word of the script is vital in producing the art in a comic. No writer has ever regretted putting too much description in a script. All of it is useful and necessary.
A side-note to writers: always think through the flow of gestures and expressions within a scene. They add a crucial dimension to the story you’re telling to the audience, and could allow for new opportunities to nonverbally communicate information.
Writers and artists have different levels of influence on a comic’s story, depending on the level of explicit direction that the script provides. It doesn’t matter if the writer expresses a strong vision or allows the artist room to improvise, as long as you find the balance that works best for your team.
That said, there are two common ways to format a script. One method involves writing the script in full detail, with everything described for the benefit of the artist. This is called “Full Script” style.
Conversely, a writer might describe only the basic sequence of events before handing the storytelling reins to the artist. The finished page is significantly influenced by the artist’s illustrative choices, with dialogue later written to match. This format is often called “Marvel” style, after early collaborations between Stan Lee and legendary artists like Jack Kirby and John Romita.
The central dilemma of telling a story lies in selecting which moments to illustrate and which actions to imply. All editing must take place prior to illustrating the page—they are unlike films in that way. And while films allow for motion, a comic page is extremely limited. You cannot draw everything that happens.
It’s critical to think of page space as an aspect of time. It takes time for the reader’s eye to move across the page, panel-to-panel, absorbing all of the information and dialogue. By adding panels you increase the amount of time a reader will spend there. The pace of a story slows when a sequence of actions is illustrated in detail over multiple panels, or speeds up when jumping from one key moment to the next in as few panels as possible.
Once a page count is established (or in the case of a webcomic, an update schedule) the writer can set the pacing. Start by aligning major story events to their appropriate page number, allowing more pages for larger scenes. Break each of those scenes into their component moments and evaluate which moments need to be illustrated for the story to make sense.
Consider this example:
Your protagonist approaches a suspect’s apartment and notices from the hallway that the door is ajar. The protagonist draws a gun and enters the apartment, finding it empty but recklessly searched. As the protagonist looks around she is briefly startled when the apartment phone rings.
This sequence presents many options. How long should it take? One page, two? Does every action need to be explicitly shown, such as the protagonist drawing the gun, or can that be implied off-panel? Should the focus be placed on searching the apartment over approaching it? If so, then more panels should be used.
The answer to these questions depends on the needs of the comic and the whims of the collaborators. Any number of radically different treatments could work for this example and they would all be equally valid. Therefore, think everything through! Communicate with your partner and use this advice to craft the best comic you possibly can.
“How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-man” was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko with lettering by Artie Simek and Sam Rosen. It originally appeared in Amazing Spider-man Annual #1.