In which we blog about the marvellous intricacies of writing and editing.

home               blog               team               work               contact

Monday, 10 February 2014

Graphic Content: What Can Copywriters Lean from Comics?

Back in December 2012, Chris Martin wrote a piece for the 26 blog on the lessons writers could learn from comic books. These included telling stories, being concise and looking great (the writing - I'm sure those pyjamas are just dandy, you freelance thing, you). Since Copy That and Sidekick Books were both founded on a love of mixing media and collaborating, I wanted to delve into the actual nuts and bolts of comic book design, and the ways in which the different components work together, in order to apply this to other forms.

A great place to start is the 2000 AD submissions page. This lays out for the rookie Alan Moores out there exactly how exactly you write a comic. I thoroughly recommend this guide, not just for comic writers, but for anyone interested in narrative and storytelling. There are old, cross-format pearls in there, such as 'Show, don't tell' and 'Write it, then pick it to pieces', but these are presented in the light of the restrictive format. Overly verbose passages, for example, which perhaps might just read badly in a novel, literally do not fit into the majority of comic book panels. In splash pages (an entire page dedicated to a single frame), more often than not the only words in it will be "Oh. My. God." or "I don't believe it", tucked beside something like this:

Yes, when it comes to the big reveal of an immense robot-gorgon-kaiju, the artist is the star.

Which leads on to the skill of collaboration. A good copywriter, like a good comic writer, knows when to let the image speak loudest. Sometimes this means using no words at all, sometimes a few and sometimes quick-fire darts of wit all over the shop. Being able to bounce off the ideas of a designer or artist is something any writer can benefit from. Take Roald Dahl's work with Quentin Blake, or those sparsely-worded ads that blow your mind.

Simply awesome. Nightcrawler would be proud.

Katsushi Ota, editor of Japanese literature magazine Faust, describes the illustrations in the manga he publishes by saying they "do more than just explain a scene, or describe the novel. [They're] meant to draw in the reader and excite their imagination." Many manga writers, like Bleach creator Tite Kubo, both write and draw their own titles. This is not only less expensive for the magazine but also allows for easier cohesion between ideas. In mainstream Western comics, it's more common to see a pairing of artist and writer, and when the two work well together, it's magical. Do you pile in the quickfire dialogue or let a static silent movie unfold, punctuated only by the odd sound effect?

Decompressed and Compressed Storytelling
(with thanks to Brian Cronin)

Basically, compressed storytelling was a format more popular in Golden Age comics, in which monster-of-the-week or one-shot episodes demanded a lot of action in a small number of pages. So within six panels you might have Magneto stealing a weapon, taunting the X-Men and getting into his escape plane, only to find Cyclops on his windscreen, who pulls him out of the window and dumps him into the sea. Bam. High-octane, lots of BIFF and KER-SPLASH sounds. The writer could cram several such adventures into one comic. Not much room for emotional development and nuances.

Deadpool get compressed. Wait, IS that Deadpool?

Decompressed storytelling is a comparatively modern mode, and involves a lot more suggestion and silence. A look, the sudden appearance of a character, a weapon, a uniform...the reader is left to do a little more of the legwork. Criticisms include self-indulgence and over-angsty storylines at the expense of excitement and plot progression.

Response buffering...

A balance between the two - character and plot, excitement and believability - is paramount for engaging writing. Charlie Jane Anders has an excellent post on the sins of comic book writers, including inserting action scenes for the hell of it and ornamental dialogue. Readers aren't stupid.

In Close-Up

One of the golden rules in that original 2000AD post is not to cram too many actions into a single panel. Good planning is something copywriters and novel writers alike always have trepanned into their skulls. You simply can't have Spiderman knocking out a bank robber, rescuing MJ and jumping onto the roof in one frame. It would be confusing for the reader, impossible for the artist to render coherently and disruptive to the reader's flow. If just putting the speech bubble in the wrong corner of a panel is enough to confuse the order of dialogue, having Peter Parker whirl around like a Catherine Wheel in a very short period will leave the audience as dizzy as the hapless crooks themselves.

The copywriting parallel with the overstuffed single panel would be beginning your story with a paragraph-long sentence. This might work for Faulkner, but most people, it's not exactly gripping. There's a reason we are taught to emphasise ideas three times - it sticks in the mind and gives us space to begin examining and processing. Just the same, many comic strips in newspapers will have three panels; a visual repetition of the characters that helps the reader to follow a story.

It's clear that, just as working with strict poetic forms like the pantoum or villanelle can benefit writers looking to improving their linguistic dexterity, the comic book form has a lot to teach everyone from ad writers to novelists about restraint, excitement, pacing and working with outside elements like artwork. And you don't need to be a brilliant artist or owed favours from Nick Roche. Compassionate types on the internet have designed free software for this very purpose. Check out Bitstrips and Pixton for a start.

Alternatively, just do what Max Cannon at Red Meat, Ryan North at Dinosaur Comics and Randall Munroe at XKCD do, and make your lack of artistic skills a fundamental part of your comic.

On that note, I'll leave you with Max Cannon's inscrutable cut 'n' paste cryptkeeper, Bug-Eyed Earl, demonstrating the Rule of Three in style:

No comments: