My notes from brianmichaelbendis's book Words for Pictures, which if you're a comic writer you should read.
There is a lot to take away from this, and it’s probably going to become one of my process books for my comics’ class. Especially the writing exercises. The whole idea of my class is to show how comics can help visual learners, who struggle with writing, write more descriptively and collaboratively while making writing actually seem like fun. This idea is right at the core of this book. Writing comics, while extremely difficult, is tremendous fun but it’s also meant to dispel the myth of the solo writer sitting in his dungeon chained to the word processor. The book has so much enthusiasm and gusto that I couldn’t read this before going to bed because Bendis’s enthuasiasm stretched beyond the page and I could help but be excited to make comics after reading this.
This book isn’t all ra-ra-comics cheerleading—it’s filled with practical and sobering advice. It was a roller coaster. The most valuable lessons were: 1) be enthusiastic and don’t be afraid to fail—that’s how you learn; 2) get out of your comfort zone and be a co-conspirator; 3) being a collaborator is key to success, so be normal and make smart choices rather than saying yes to everything, because comics make one excitable; and, 4) know the business.
The first one I took from Bendis and Joe Quesada. Accept the reality that you’re going to fail, more often than not. Quesada writes in his intro:
What can I learn from this? How do I make it better? Artist B learned how to fail. This is the key to success. Like I said, I was far from being the most talented person in my class, so this story not onyl struck a chord with me, but it also made me think long and hard, not just about how I would personally handle the futures failures of my life but how i would go about avoiding the most obvious ones.”
This is why I feel that no matter what stage in your career, it’s important to read this book and other books like it. They’re really a timeless public service, because they make public the writer’s failures and experience. Occasionally this can be crippling, but more often than not it’s how you choose to perceive your reading. There were moments in the reading of this book that I felt crippled and helpless. Especially in the artist section where Bendis interviews artists like Bill Sienkiewicz, Walt Simonson, David Marguez, Alex Maleev, and David LaFuente. I’ll get into that in a moment.
Of course one of my favorite parts of this book was in the section about how Fraction writes Hawkeye. I’ll read anything Fraction writes about his process. Really I’ll read anyone’s writing on the process of writing comics or anything. I’ll take and try on methods to see if they work for me. Fraction on writing Marvel Style:
“Writing Marvel style scares the living crap out of me. It scares the living crap out of me. It is the antithesis of what we teach ourselves as writers. It requires trust and sharing and believing in your partner—and he’s [the artist] your partner—and he’s a partner, not an artist here, just check the check the credits page—and trusting in the collaboration above all else. An it’s easy to see how slippery a slope Marvel Style can be to “PAGES SEVEN THROUGH NINE: They fight. I started experimenting with Marvel Style because it scared me, and when I get scared, I get exhilarated.”
A macro lesson, or theme—whatever you want to call it—solidified in this section and it was preached by Bendis, the artists, Brubaker and Fraction—is you’re partners.
“So many of my favorite comics were done by singular cartoonists—Eisner, Hernandez, Brown, Clowes, Chaykin. And the more I thought about it, how could I ever hope to write the thing those guys did for themselves? You can’t. A writer could never coax American Flagg out of Chaykin—unless they gave him a Marvel Style script and treated him like a partner, as invested in the storytelling as the writers. So I knew I had to try it.”
And that’s why I like it. And sort of do that with my scripting style now. I write the plots to the panels first, followed by the dialogue. I’ve tried going dialogue first, in the style that I’ve heard Nick Spencer and Kelly Sue utilize, but I find myself writing a radio play, where the dialogue comments on what’s happening in the panel and that isn’t what dialogue should be used for. So I write the plot, broken down by panel counts first, then follow up with the dialogue. I’ll reformat when I do my proofreading. It gives me a chance to compartmentalize and focus on one section at one time.
The interview section with editors Steve Wacker, Sana Anamat and Lauren Sankovich was great too. A major problem I have is I like saying yes to things and often I bite off more than I can chew. This is a nasty reoccurring them in every aspect of my life and I’m getting better at it, it’s part of the reason I love Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, and that’s what Sankovich talks about here:
“Not the most scandalous of stories, but a recurring unprofessional behavior is irresponsibility. This can be a creator not being realistic with his own abilities and/or in his communication/relationship with his larger team, including the editor. Comics is a collaborative experience and when one player will not take responsibilities for his own actions, it has a ripple effect on everyone else involved. Don’t lie. Don’t hide. Be brutally honest. The relationships you build now, especially if you are newer, will last longer than your first assignment, so make that first impression a good one.”
This is perhaps the biggest lesson I need to learn in every way.
Finally, the fourth lesson—and not one that a lot of people talk about other than Jim Zub and Charles Soule’s Agree to Agree series—is the business language of comics, and that comes courtesy of Bendis’s wife, Alissa. This is probably the section that clued me into the macro theme, or thesis for the whole book.
“The old saying about loving what you do and never having to work a day in your life—well, Brian was living it. I loved him dearly, but I soon discovered he was a financial disaster waiting to happen. He had already messed up his taxes and was running his finances backward, which, sadly, is a common problem among many of his peers. Needless to say, I quickly took over the household finances and have managed them ever since.”
They go through the definitions of contract negotiations, page rates, and “write contracts as though you are splitting up a million-dollar pie, and ensure you cover all possible income streams and scenarios.”
That’s the value of this book, the thesis if you will, is to be a partner. To not treat people like they work for you, that you work with them. The purpose is to be a partner in all aspects of life, and that’s the beauty of creating comics. Treat your artists, your editors—really everyone in your professional and creative life—as a partner, a co-conspirator as Fraction likes to say, and that means understanding each other. It’s really simple, on pages 75-78, Bendis writes about the function of the comic script, (ellipsis means I’ve jumped around in the text, but the meaning is the same): “The function of your script is to communicate clear story, images, and characters to the artist…Writers write for their artists…so, as a writer of scripts, your words are only meant to inform, inspire, and entertain your collaborators [you can say that about novelists and readers]... Send emails and make phone calls. Talk to your collaborators. Have an open door policy. Find out what they are in the mood to draw and why. First of all, the answers may surprise you. Also, you will find that if you add elements to your story that the artist has a real passion for, then those drawings will be the best you have seen in your entire life.”