Key points: There is no set format for comic book scripts. Different writers have different approaches. To keep it short, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. For pacing, start with an overview of the entire story arc, make sure there is a strong opening and a strong, usually cliffhanger, ending to each issue, and within the issue, use page turners -- a small cliffhanger and reveal at the bottom of the right-hand page. Propel the comic forward. Comic creators are using the web as their portfolio. However, it still takes years to learn your craft.
[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 44.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, live at GenCon.
[Brandon] Today we're doing writing for comics with Jim Zub.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Mary] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And Jim, will you please introduce yourself?
[Jim] I'm Jim Zub.
[Brandon] Well, what have you done?
[Jim] I'm the writer of Skullkickers, published by Image Comics, and premiering here at GenCon is the new Pathfinder comics series from Piazo and Dynamite Comics. I'm a writer on that. Really, in the heart of role-playing mecca here. So it's been fantastic.
[Howard] And in the spirit of plugging my friend Jim's work… Skullkickers is the fantasy comic that I wish I had written.
[Howard] I love that book.
[Brandon] Sweet. All right. Well, we're going to talk about writing for comics. Jim, you write scripts and send them off and people illustrate them. I know nothing about this. I know so little. So give me some more context. Do you ever say this is what they're going to do in this scene, draw this? Or do you just give only dialogue and let them go?
[Jim] No, in these sort of comic book scripts, there is no one set format. So a lot of writers have different approaches to it. The way that I work is somewhere between a screenplay and prose. So I try and give the artists… It's almost like this extended screenplay letter to the artist. I'm describing what's happening in a particular page or panel. I'm pretty methodical about it. I describe what's happening, any important information that they need to impart in the artwork so that they know what the focal point is of this particular page or this particular issue. Before I get into the actual page by page breakdown, I even have usually a preamble where I say in this issue, these are the important themes or these are the emotional beats or the readers, the thing they should walk away from this issue with is this impression, so always remember that as you're doing the artwork for this issue. I go through… I dialogue the whole thing. In some cases, I'll have sound effects in there as well if they're particularly crucial. Then they'll send me back thumbnail drawings with rough positioning for characters and composition for the panels. My background is also in art, I used to work in animation. So the good thing is I can actually draw over top or make recommendations in terms of the visuals. Then they go off, do the final line art. When it comes back in, there's a lettering pass with the word balloons and the sound effects, and we make any last-minute tweaks. So if a character's facial expression no longer seems to match the dialogue as well as I would like, or if it looks like it's too verbose, more than I… I put too much in there and I could actually say it in less words or vice versa. That's when I can sort of go into it.
[Brandon] So my big first question for you guys, and that means Jim and Howard, is, how can you be so short?
[Brandon] I know… Like you have to tackle things in really short chunks.
[Brandon] No, really like…
[Jim] Not your size. It's okay Howard.
[Brandon] 6 inch boots. Yup. No, how do you keep it short? Do you have tricks? Like, how can you express yourself… You do it really well. How do you do it?
[Howard] My writing process… I write the dialogue that needs to be written and then… For four panels, because I'm writing four panels at a time. I ask myself the question… It's always in late, out early. How late can I come in? How early can I go out? If I'm writing a sequence so that these four panels picked up immediately after the previous four panels, I ask myself what is the key piece of linking dialogue that has to be present for this to feel like a conversation and how much else can I omit? Then I write the whole thing, and there's always too many words on the page. Then I rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it, and prune, and rewrite it. Writing 150 words will take me often 30 to 45 minutes because I wrote 500 to 1000 words in the process of shaving and whittling…
[Jim] Then you have to start carving it away.
[Howard] And carving it away.
[Jim] Yeah, for me it's really, when I do the outline of the issue, I, for myself… On my blog recently, I did a full breakdown of how I write…
[Brandon] Oh, cool. Oh.
[Jim] So if you go to jimzub.com…
[Howard] We'll link to that on the…
[Jim] Sweet. I've got a five-part blog breakdown of how I write comics. One of the things I do is a page by page beat sheet. So I justify the existence of every page in the comic. So I don't want to have slow transitions unless it's saying something about the character. I don't want to have just pages for the sake of having pages. Every page has to justify its existence. Every panel in a sense has to justify its existence. Sometimes you weigh heavily on the art end of things to describe character or describe plot or moments, physical moments. Other times you're using the dialogue. They have to work together. That's the thing is that even though the only thing you've seen in the finished page that I wrote… That's the only text from my script that makes it to the finished comic page, the reality is there's tons of other stuff written in the script to give the artist what they need to deliver the information. So I think the scripting process is really weird to people, because they look and they go, "Oh, there's two little word balloons on that page," or… I had a page in the first issue of Pathfinder that's silent. It's all the characters sleeping while one of them watches guard. You're like, "Well, that must've been an easy page to write." You're like, "Actually, there was tons of description of how the characters are doing this thing and watching over each other and what they're doing that's going to tell something else to the reader that they may not have gotten through dialogue."
[Howard] On the flip side of that, I was talking to Mike Mignola and he said every so often he'll get to a point where he's able to tell an artist to trusts, "For the next three pages, Hellboy fights an army of skeletons. Go."
[Jim] Yeah. Well, that's the great thing about having a collaborator in an artist. Where when I started working with Edwin on Skullkickers, it was the weirdest process for me, because it's a funny book. In short, Skullkickers is sort of like a buddy cop movie meets Conan The Barbarian. So it's these two idiot monster hunters who get themselves in deep trouble and have to kill their way out, over and over and over again. We keep raising the stakes. It's my own sort of love letter slash elbow in the ribs to the fantasy genre. I'm having so much fun putting it together. But at first, Edwin and I, this is our first project together, I had to describe jokes to him. This is the most awkward thing, where in the script I'm saying, "This will be funny because…" Can you imagine like deconstructing a joke and pulling it apart and making it the most unfunny thing you can possibly imagine as you say, "Now the expression slightly changes which will make the reader think this thing." And you're just like, "Oh, God, it's not funny anymore." But I know how it's going to end up on the page, and that the reader's going to see it in a much… They're just going to read the joke, get the joke, and be off and running. But the artist needs to know what the focal point is to make sure that we hit the mark. Particularly, if it was just a beautiful drawing, they'd go, "Oh, it was a beautiful piece of art." But with a joke, if you don't see what the focal point is, you're like, "What is that? Oh, I guess that's supposed to be funny because I had to work my way through it." So clarity is extra important for the storytelling stuff that we're doing Skullkickers. But now that we've done… Issue 17 comes out in about a week as of this recording, we really know each other. So it's much more shorthand, sort of like Howard was saying with Mike Mignola, where once you know the artist and once you can work with them, you can really get into a great groove. And you say, "This is similar to that," or "We're doing a call back to that thing we did before," or "You know how this works. It's a four panel transition this way, and this is what's going to be the important part." So my scripts are getting more terse as our relationship grows. I think that's really great, too. He feels more comfortable injecting more of himself into the process. I don't feel like I have to clamp down and control it as much because I know that we're on the same path now, that we're on the same wavelength.
[Brandon] Mary, did you have something you wanted to…
[Mary] As you were talking, it reminds me very much… I come from a live theater background…
[Jim] Oh, cool.
[Mary] It reminds me very much of that process, but one thing that I'm curious about is, you know in live theater we have a director. In fiction, I have an editor. Is there an editor in this process?
[Jim] Depends on the book. I'm doing the Pathfinder series with Piazo and Dynamite, and there's an editor, and there's… I mean, at Piazo's I think there's five people who review the scripts. Which was kind of terrifying the first time I sent one in, when they said, oh, Eric Monaco, he's the head publisher at Piazo… I'm going to look it over and I'm going to send it to our world editor and our fiction editor…
[Jim] And we've got our community guy who wants to check it over. I was like, "Oh, they're all going to come back with notes. It's going to be horrifying." But luckily, they did like a roundtable, they figured it all out, there was just one tiny little set of notes. They said, "Looks great." I was like, "Oh, good." With Skullkickers, it's my own independent series. So Image Comics is a pretty big comic publisher. They do The Walking Dead and Spawn and a lot of other series. But they were founded on the idea of creator owned comics, the creator's at the top of the pyramid. So I don't have an editor unless I want one, essentially. That is great and terrifying at the same time.
[Mary] Like in theater.
[Jim] I feel like I'm walking without a net underneath the tightrope. So Skullkickers, I get a couple of close friends of mine to review a script, or my wife who is also a writer will read things over. Usually, I'll walk into the other room, and if she starts chuckling or whatever, I'm like, "Okay, we're on the path, right." Every so often I'll get an "Oh!" and then I know we're doing really good.
[Brandon] Let's stop for our book of the week. You had a book you wanted to promote, one of your favorites?
[Jim] Yeah. It's funny. A lot of people ask me about the influences for Skullkickers, and I've actually been going back and rereading Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Also a fantasy duo, humorous, violent, pulpy. That's totally in the spirit of what I do with Skullkickers. So it was funny going back and rereading those books. Things that I remember very vividly weren't even necessarily the most important moments but they struck with me because they had a particular humor or a particular turn of a phrase or the atmosphere that was built up in a particular scene. Whereas sometimes even the main plot in a book, I would be like, "Oh, is that what happened?" When I was a kid, it was all about the way they killed that one creature. You know what I mean? That stuck with me. Sort of like when I watched Conan the Barbarian when I was a kid and the only moment I could remember was when he punches out the camel. I thought that was great when I was a kid. I wore out the tape rewinding it…
[Jim] Over and over again. He punched right out a camel. I was like, "This is the greatest movie ever made," right? I was also eight years old. So… Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. There's a bunch of different books in the series, and they're fantastic classic pulp fantasy.
[Howard] Go out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can start a 30 day free trial membership, pick up Swords and Deviltry or any of the other titles by Fritz Lieber, narrated by… Wait for this… Jonathan Davis and Neil Gaiman.
[Mary] I'm anticipating a lot of clicks this week.
[Brandon] So I'm going to throw another writing style question at you. Pacing for comic books. How do you pace? What is your process for building an arc through a comic book?
[Jim] I'm really methodical about how I do a breakdown. So what I do is, I do the overview of the entire story arc which is usually anywhere from 4 to 6 issues. Then I do a breakdown of what elements are happening to open the issue, so we have a strong opening and a strong, usually cliffhanger ending to the issue, keep people reading. Justifying of course the rising tension and everything else for the climax of the arc and then the wrap up. But then within the issue itself, I also want to have a rise and fall. Comics have a really unique thing where we call them page turners. So you have that classic thing where at the bottom of the right-hand page, someone goes, "Who?" and they open a door and you want to turn the page to find out what they're looking at. Or a character is entering a scene, or a character is interacting with someone, and the reveal is always on the page turn. Not every single time, but enough that it propels the comic forward. So when I'm actually putting together my pacing sheet, I'll have just a list of usually 22 pages. So 1 to 22 in either a text file or a sheet of paper, and I do those breakdowns that every time I've got an odd page, I'm like, "Well, if I'm going to have a reveal, I don't want it on… Sorry, on the odd page."
[Howard] Yeah, you can't put reveals on…
[Jim] On the odd page because the readers can see it in their peripheral vision. They're like, "And the murderer is… Oh, I know who the murderer is because it's right there in my view on the right-hand side." Whereas if they gotta turn the page and go, "It was… the butler." Like, whatever. So then you've got some kind of element propelling the comic forward. It's really kind of a unique element of it. Also, when you're going to use a full-page, when you're going to use a double page spread, those types of things where panel size becomes crucial. If I have a lot of small panels, and they're all equally spaced, there is a staccato kind of rhythm to it. Whereas if I have strange shaped panels or things like that or I'm… Then it creates a chaotic feel, like a battle scene or something like that.
[Howard] Do you count to pages 11 and 12 for the centerfold and try and make sure that there is a big spread in the middle of a book?
[Jim] I used to. I don't anymore because the comics are published weird. If there's ads in the front, then that blows it out the other way, so you can't really gauge it anymore the way you used to because the… They will always give me page one on a right-hand side, but they won't always give me the middle of the book where I think it's going to be. So sometimes you get a happy accident. But I usually don't worry about that as much anymore.
[Brandon] Last area I want to go, and this again is a big topic. But let's say there's somebody listening who wants to be you. They want to have a creator owned…
[Jim] They should have a better diet.
[Brandon] Creator owned independent comic with Image, who's at kind of the top of that force. How do they become you? What advice do you give them? How do they go about doing it?
[Jim] It's a much… In some ways, it's a much easier industry to break into than ever before. When I was a kid and I was reading Marvel comics, there was a sense that you had to live in New York City. Or you had to be such a huge name that they would be willing to send you… You could mail your artwork in or things like that. But nowadays with the Internet and things like that, you can put your work online. The majority of comic creators at this point are using the web as sort of their portfolio. They're making short stories, they're putting them on the web, they're writing stories and they're soliciting for artists on websites like deviantART or penciljack or ConceptArt.org or other art-based websites like that. So they're able to go through that entire process and build up their craft. The weirdest part is that they're doing it in the public eye. So they're putting it out there, they're building up their form, and slowly but surely learning how to do it. I think the biggest mistake that people make is that because it feels like the stuff is very accessible, that they go, "Well, I have great ideas, so let me write Wolverine" or whatever thing they want to do, not understanding that it does take years to build your craft. Just like anything else, you have to get better at it, you have to screw it up, you have to learn how to… Why it's being done the way it's being done. Then…
[Howard] Yeah. If you look at that page of the characters sleeping in Pathfinder and say to yourself, "That must've been easy to write," you're not ready to have Jim's job yet.
[Jim] But that… That's the whole kind of thing. I think it's like any other professional occupation, you've got to practice at it. You've got to get better at it. Comics are no different. The difference for me is that… Well, one of the things I say is, "Don't rush into doing a comic with just the first artist you find." Make sure it's the right artist, that they are just as professional or more so because you're going to be judged so much by how it looks. Is the art a good fit for the story? Is it really enhancing the story? Take your best shots. I feel very fortunate that I've been able to work with some great artists, but it's also because I was really patient. So I didn't just jump into it and go, "I gotta do this right now." You gotta build up a relationship with someone. Find someone dependable. Put out the best project you're both going to be proud of.
[Brandon] I think the most helpful thing probably from all of this, people will find, is that blog of yours. People will actually be able to go see… I assume you've posted some of those scripts as you've worked on them and things like that.
[Jim] I've got full scripts and I've also got comparisons of the finished page and the script, and how they changed.
[Brandon] That's going to be so helpful. So make sure you guys go out to Zim Jub… Jimzub.com. Zim Jub? It's jimzub.com, right? We will link that. Jim, do you have a writing prompt you could throw at us?
[Jim] Sure. Well, you don't mind if I do a comic book one?
[Chorus] No. Not at all.
[Jim] Okay. Cool. So I guess we'll… That's kind of an interesting idea here. So introducing a place without dialogue. So what can you use, almost like a camera, more like a movie? If you had five panels, how would you introduce people to a place they've never been before and make them feel that they know that place?
[Brandon] All right. Thank you very much. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.