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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 24: Writing Comics with Jake Black

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 24: Writing Comics with Jake Black


Key Points: Comic scripts need to be clear enough in stage directions and dialogue for the rest of the creative team to figure out what's going on. Be prepared to adjust and tweak. Comic characters don't talk a lot -- 20 or fewer words in a balloon. It's a visual medium, and dialogue and captions eat up art space.

[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by audible. Visit for a free trial membership.

[Jake] And I'm Jake.
[Dan] Jake Black is filling in with us this week for New York Times best-selling author Brandon Sanderson. Jake, you are the author of the Authorized Ender's Companion. You also write for Ninja Turtle Comics. Tell us more about yourself, you are a very accomplished man.
[Jake] I appreciate that. I don't know that I've accomplished that much, but... I wrote the Authorized Ender's Companion. It's the encyclopedia of the Ender's Game series by Orson Scott Card in stores November 10. I've also written a bunch of comic books. I've written various projects for the TV show, Smallville, written animation for the Chaotic based on the collectible card game, also Ben 10 Alien Force, Batman Brave and Bold, a bunch of comic books, Ender's Game comics, Ninja Turtle Comics... I'm doing some stuff for DC comics, Marvel...
[Dan] That's awesome.
[Howard] After hearing you say that, I know that a zillion people are already wondering how you get into that line of work and we're going to tell them. We'll answer that question...
[Dan] Next week. Mwaa-ha-ha. We are going to do this as two parts. This week is the creative side of writing comics. Next week is the business side of writing comics. All those questions, save them for next week or...
[Howard] You can post them in the forum, but we are recording two episodes tonight. This is non-interactive.

[Dan] Let's go ahead and start with the nuts and bolts of the writing, then, Jake and Howard. You both write comics. What is the format of a comic script? How do you do that? Let's toss this at Jake first.
[Jake] One of the interesting things about comics is there is no real set format that everyone uses. Every writer uses their own format and style. There's a lot of books that will show scripts that different comic writers use, their style. I settled on a style that I like. But really what it comes down to is, as long as your stage directions and your dialogue are clear enough for the rest of the creative team to figure out what is going on on a page, that's really what matters.
[Howard] So what's your style like?
[Jake] I'm pretty... I don't want to say lax, maybe it's lax, maybe I'm lazy. I don't know. But my panel descriptions are not real detailed. I guess relatively detailed, but not down to every square inch of the room or the scene. I'll start with... it'll say page 1, panel one... actually, no. I'll say page 1. Then I'll do a description of the layout of the page. Three tiers of panels, with... the top tier has two panels, the second tier has one wide shot, the bottom tier has three panels.
[Howard] So you are envisioning the layout as you're scripting.
[Jake] A lot of comics writers will do thumbnail sketches of what the layout is on the page. I don't do that. I don't... I'm not... I don't know if I'm not committed enough that way. But I also... I think it more comes down to the fact that I really trust my artists and my editors. If they have a problem with the described layout of the page, I trust that they will make it better.

[Dan] They'll find a good solution. Now this is something that unless people are already in comics or have studied it, I don't know if they're going to understand. First of all, you say there's other people you work with. In comics, that's an inker, an illustrator, and a letterer and all of that sort of thing.
[Jake] Right.
[Dan] You're talking about stage directions. For most of our audience who are prose writers, describe what stage directions are and how you do them.
[Jake] Wow. Describe what stage directions are. I guess it's just describing the look of each panel. In each panel... I guess we'll define panel, too. A panel is the square box on the page that you're looking at. If you have a page that's just one picture, that's called a splash page. You describe what each panel, what each box looks like. Then you have your dialogue. It's scripted like a play or TV or radio or dramatic podcast.

[Howard] Keep going. I've got a stack of Jake's recent work here. One of them is the Halloween... the DC Universe Halloween Special 2009. Which opens with a splash page of Bizarro...
[Jake] He's got the Bizarro World superheroes bound and gagged and he's warning the audience... warning the reader that the stories in this anthology issue -- it's an anthology issue -- are very happy. Bizarro speaks backwards speak so it's supposed to mean that they're scary or sad or whatever. Turn the page, there's credits. Under the table of contents, it lists all of the stories in the anthology. Under each one, it has a huge list of the creative collaborators. It says Jake Black writer, artist is Abraham Robertson, color done by Giovanni Kososki... I don't know, I don't know that person.
[Dan] Now if we can... look at... let's consider this splash page. I know that you guys in radio land can't see this, but it's basically like you said, it's a full-page illustration. We're looking over Bizarro's shoulder, there's some faces in the periphery of the page. How much of that did you script? Did you tell the artists or did you just say, "Bizarro's got some people tied up" and then they went with it?
[Jake] What I did on this one... it's a pretty good-sized paragraph as I recall. I wrote it several months ago because there's a lot of lead time in comics. This came out about two weeks ago, I think, two or three weeks ago. I described it as we are outside the Bizarro Fortress of Solitude so it's made of solid rock instead of crystal. He is surrounded by Bizarro versions of the DC Universe and he is reading the comic book that this is.
[Howard] Reading the book you're holding.
[Dan] Very cool.

[Jake] This page actually was a late addition to the script. DC decided after I had submitted it that they wanted it to be what they call the bookend story to the anthology. So there are four pages at the front and then four pages at the back. Then other people did a bunch of stories in between.
[Howard] That really confused me when I picked it up the week before Halloween. I knew that you had a story there and I thought, "Oh, I want to read the Jake story." So I picked the book up and read the four pages and said, "I do not understand this ending at all. I really don't understand this ending."
[Jake] Originally, it was just seven pages but when they decided to make it the eight page bookend, the editor -- a guy named Eddie Berganza, who works at DC Comics obviously -- said that it was going to be the bookend story so they were giving me another page to work with and they wanted it to be a splash page introduction to the book. They said if it could be based on the cover, that would really... that's what they wanted. I had seen the cover image which also has Bizarro reading a Halloween comic and the heroes of the DC Universe.
[Dan] Awesome.
[Jake] So I adjusted the script.
[Howard and Dan] Let's break for an ad.

[Howard] With Brandon out of town signing Wheel of Time books, it's appropriate for me to plug Wheel of Time books from audible. I've been listening to the first five Wheel of Time titles recorded by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer. Fantastic audio books. They've been very, very engrossing. They are also very, very long which is why I've only read... or had five books read to me. When I'm sure everybody else is all caught up and can pick up The Gathering Storm right now. Grab yourself some Wheel of Time audio books. Good stuff. Visit for a free trial membership.

[Dan] And we're back. Now, in discussing that comic that we were looking at, you said a lot of things like, "This is Bizarro's Fortress of Solitude so it is made out of rock instead of crystal." You are working with somebody else's IP. How much research do you have to do and what fear do you have that there's going to be a bunch of fans out there that know more about it than you do?
[Jake] I don't go to message boards anymore. I really don't. They make me so angry, because fans are so angry and they can't just enjoy the product. But I'll probably visit the forum on Writing Excuses after this.
[Dan] Well, obviously, yes.
[Howard] Jake, if it makes you feel any better, sometimes I can't visit my own forums for the same reason.
[Jake] Yeah. I went on a rant couple of weeks ago on about fan mentality -- negative fan mentality. I also want to be very clear, and I was very clear in this rant, that there are really good fans, really supportive fans, really positive fans. It depends on the property that I'm working on -- the level of research that I have to do. I hadn't ever read Ender's Game before I started working with Orson Scott Card.
[Dan] Dangerous thing to admit.
[Jake] It is a dangerous thing to admit. I've read it more times now than any human probably should as I was doing the research for the Ender's Companion.
[Howard] Coming into it cold gives you a really solid advantage over a lot of fans. Fans will read a book and then they will tell themselves the story that comes next... or they will tell themselves the story that comes first. That's usually where we upset our fans, is when we go and we write the story that comes first or that comes next and it's not what they told themselves. They feel like they've been proven wrong and nobody likes that. But coming into it cold, you were able to look at Scott's canon of work, the whole body of work, go through the whole thing, and treat it as a research project. Lift out the salient points and see things that I think the hard-core fans are likely to miss.

[Dan] Now... how different was the experience, writing that book, to writing the typical comic script?
[Jake] Well, it took me about two years to write the book. Actually, I guess that's not totally true. It took me about six months to write the book the first time. But then he kept adding books to the series. Like War of Gifts came out, and he did a bunch of short stories for his online magazine. Then Ender in Exile came out. So I was having to adjust the manuscript. Also, I was the resource, his continuity resource as he was working on these other books to make sure that he wasn't going to earn the ire of the fans as we discussed a minute ago.
[Howard] How did you get into that position?
[Jake] Actually, it was through comics. About five years ago, I published a couple of comics. One of them was a Smallville one and again there was another intellectual property. But I had a little bit more of an advantage on Smallville -- we'll talk about that in a second for a second -- but he was writing Ironman for Marvel -- Scott Card was -- and I wanted to get my name out there, I wanted to get my portfolio out there little bit more, so I tracked his e-mail down and contacted him asking if he had any contacts or anything that... or if I could co-write a comic with him? I said that I had worked on a couple of other projects before. He was like no, but I just licensed my novel Wyrms to be adapted into comics. Here's the editor of that project, send him your stuff. If they say it's okay, then you can do that. I did this adaptation, this comic adaptation of his novel Wyrms. He really liked it. It was actually a train wreck of an experience, but that's another story for another time. Maybe when we talk about the business. He trusted me from that. Also, my degree is in history, and he trusted me from that. And he offered me the Ender Encyclopedia.
[Dan] That's very cool. I have another question. We don't have a lot of time left, but I want to make sure that we get some...
[Howard] We can run to 18.

[Dan] We can run over. Be prepared, listeners, we'll run over. I want to ask about characterization. I think this will be a valuable thing for people who intend to write comics or scripts or even fan fiction. When you are working on somebody else's property, what do you do to really get into those characters and to show who those characters are? Especially with something like Bizarro who's been around for decades.
[Jake] Bizarro is easy because he's dumb as paint and just does everything backwards. But... in the case... probably the hardest thing I did is I did an Ender's Game comic where I was working with Peter and Valentine. Nobody has spent more time in that universe in the last two years than I have. Even then, I was having some issues picking up on the nuances of their characters. It took a lot of conversation with the editor and Scott Card to sort those things out.
[Dan] Are there any tricks that you have when writing dialogue or when scripting a scene?
[Jake] I don't know. I don't really think that I'm the best at characterization. That's probably the biggest note that I get all the time, is you need to tweak this dialogue here to make it more in character. When I get that note, I can do it. If I can figure out how to do it the first time...
[Howard] If you can figure out how to do it preemptively...
[Jake] That would be really, really fantastic for me.

[Dan] That's why editors are so awesome. This is where Howard says luxury. Of course, you have Sandra and you have other people that fill that same collaborative role, at least in part, isn't that right?
[Howard] In part. I... obviously, I'm working with my own IP. So when a character is changing as a result of dialogue, it's likely because I think the character needs to change and I am adjusting the course of that character. The thing that's different between what Jake does what I do is that I'm also doing the principal illustration. I'm doing all the line work. I've now hired out the coloring, but I'm doing all the line work. So I do my scripts right in the panels. I just sort of imagine the pictures. The scripts for me... the dialogue... dialogue tags, whatever... they serve as placeholders so that when I sit down to pencil, I'm like, "Oh, he's saying that. What was he doing what he was saying that? Oh, I remember what I thought he was going to be doing. Well, I'll go ahead and pencil that." I'll start penciling and I'll realize, "Well, that was stupid. I'm going to pencil something else." So I'll pencil something else.
[Dan] Do you, Howard, then tend to do most of that visualization by memory or do you keep little notes for yourself?
[Howard] Oh, it's mostly by memory.

[Jake] That's a really good point though, that you bring up. When you're writing comics, your characters can't really talk a lot. If they say more than 20 words in a balloon, it gets really problematic. That may be the biggest difference between like prose writing where you can fill up pages and pages of dialogue and comics where it's a visual medium and you have to let your artist make the visual medium. The balloons, the captions, all of that take up art space, and the bigger they are, the less space there is for the art. It ends up not succeeding. I did an Ender's Game comic a couple of years ago. It was one of the first comics that I'd done. I wasn't really conscious of that rule. I have balloons where there's 50 words of dialogue, so it's this really dense balloon and a head in the panel.
[Howard] I just picked up a Conan comic where there were narrative tags and dialogue tags and they had broken up because they only wanted 20 to 30 words per bubble tops. But there's a whole lot of frontloading on that story and it's the front page. It's where the splash page would go, and it's not a splash page. I still haven't read that comic, because I get to that page and my brain has to put on the brakes because it's covered with dialogue. In that regard, it fails as a comic.
[Jake] That's the same with the panels, too. You don't want to overload your page with too many panels. I try to have a maximum of five panels per page, occasionally six, very rarely seven. Someone like Alan Moore who wrote Watchmen has 9 to 12 panels on each page. It's a sure sign of an inexperienced, and I would say almost amateur, comics writer who scripts like that. Alan Moore can get away with it because he's Alan Moore. But a new writer -- you need to keep the pages freer and more open, keep the dialogue...
[Howard] One of the reasons that he got away with it with Watchmen was because he was deliberately harkening back to earlier days of comics when a lot of that syntax hadn't been established.
[Dan] It's the old adage that you can break the rules once you know them and you are breaking them on purpose, but when you are breaking in, you need to follow them.
[Howard] The other place where I think you can break that panel rule is when you are not doing multiple panels for dialogue, you are doing multiple panels because there is a key piece of action that needs to be described and you will describe it as Superman swoops in, picks up the gun, kicks that, pulls blindfold off of that guy, and stops to take a picture -- okay, now it's Spiderman. To have all that happen is going to be... it's almost like animation, and you might do 10 or 12 panels on page illustrating that.

[Dan] We are running far over time, so we are going to cut this. Please tune in next week when we will talk about how to get into the business of writing comics, and how to succeed and stay in the business of writing comics. Your writing prompt for today is to write a story -- you can do this as prose or you can do it as a comic script -- in which Superman swoops into a room, kicks something undefined, and then turns into Spiderman.
Tags: balloon, comics, dialogue, stage directions, visual

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