Wednesday 29 April 2015

Countdown To 7th May: What I Learned Writing for Comics by Jason Rohan

I am really excited to be taking part in this year's Countdown to 7th May blog tour, doing my bit to celebrate all the fab YA and middle grade books that are scheduled to be published on 7th May. Today it is an absolute pleasure to welcome Jason Rohan, the author of the totally brilliant The Sword of Kuromori, and its sequel The Shield of Kuromori (due out on 7th May).

What I learned writing for comics by Jason Rohan

When I first tried out for a career in publishing, after finishing university with an English degree, the fact that I had prior experience working at Marvel Comics went against me. This is 25 years ago when comics were still seen as a juvenile art form unworthy of serious consideration - in the English-speaking world, at least. Nowadays, however, with the massive success of super-heroes on the big screen, the opposite has occurred and comics writers are suddenly a hot property. My timing has never been great!

For almost all of us, our first experiences of reading - and of being read to - came via picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Gruffalo or The Tiger Who Came To Tea, so the idea of marrying words with pictures is deeply held. Later, readers move on to full text novels but still turn to film and television to get their fix of entertainment in the form of words and pictures.

If you've never seen a comic book script before, here's an example:

And here's a screenplay extract:

Could you spot the difference? Exactly. Words and pictures: one script for an artist and one script for a film crew but essentially the same. Both are visual storytelling media, only in one the pictures move and in the other they don't.

When I worked at Marvel, back in the 80's, I was lucky enough to be assigned to legendary editor Mark Gruenwald who taught me so much about writing in general and comics in particular. The parallels with film writing were driven home to me when he recommended a book called Screenplay by Syd Field. At first, I didn't understand why a comic writer would need to know about screenwriting but I did as I was told, read it, and it all fell into place. To this day, even as a novelist, I still write with a visual, comic-book style and film remains an important reference. 

As you can imagine, my time at Marvel was a fantastic apprenticeship and I came away with many valuable lessons and insights into the writing process, both for comics and for novels, some of which I would like to share here.

The first thing I learned was the importance of the splash page. The first script I turned in had an establishing shot of London as the opening scene and Mark said to me, "Why do you think it's called a splash page?" Duh. I knew enough to know that the splash page is page one of the comic, traditionally a full page, single panel spread, which holds the title and credit box. As Mark explained, it's also supposed to sell the story. A kid picks a comic off the rack, intrigued by the cover. She turns to page one and expects to be wowed. No wow, no sale. Hence, the splash page has to sell the comic.

When it comes to writing novels, the lesson is still valid in that a reader will look at a cover, read the blurb and maybe turn to the first page. That's the bait. You now have one line to dangle the hook, one paragraph to set that hook and, if you're lucky, one page to start reeling in. I also recall the words of famed movie producer Samuel Goldwyn who said, "We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax." Since I write action-adventure stories, my approach is to start with the literary equivalent of a pre-credit sequence to set the stage and introduce the characters, before settling in to the main plot.

The second thing I learned is to always know your ending and where you're going next. Comic books were typically 23 pages of story, with soap opera style series continuity. A writer would usually write four series simultaneously so that's 48 issues a year, or one script per week. In that environment, multi-episode story arcs had to be mapped out well in advance and different editors would co-ordinate different titles months ahead to ensure that crossover stories and tie-ins happened at the right time and that the repercussions were felt across the title range. You see this happening with the current slate of Marvel movies and this concept of a shared universe was one of the ideas that historically set Marvel apart. 

Another key lesson for me was dealing with the flabby middle. I tend to think in terms of three act structures and I always know my ending and my beginning. In comic book terms, this is the equivalent of a five page set up, a twelve page middle, and a six page finish. Film-wise, it's 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 30 minutes, for a two hour film. However, when writing a book, I find it a lot easier to come up with a strong hook and a climactic ending than to sustain the mid-section that bridges the two and I used to really struggle with this, getting bogged down and giving up. I finally cracked this particular nut by falling back on my comics and script training and I started to brainstorm dialogue, scribbling down the key character interactions which drive the story from inciting incident to pivot point two. By charting the journey via discourse alone, I was able to hack a path through the jungle and it was much easier to then go back and add in the narrative, a bit like listening to a TV show from another room - you can follow the story well enough even though you can't see the action.

The final thing I learned was the importance of delivering to deadlines and the need for discipline, organisation and professionalism. There is no allowance for Writer's Block when you're scripting four titles a month. While I understand the romantic appeal of waiting for the Muse to visit and sprinkle magical inspiration upon the writer's brow, the reality is that writers write. You plan ahead and hone your creative muscles. Yes, it isn't glamorous but journalists have to write to order daily, and if it was good enough for Shakespeare and Dickens, then I figure it's the least I can do.

As a closing thought, a novelist has to paint pictures with words, to bring images to life in the mind’s eye of the reader. However, a comic book writer can do the opposite and direct the artist to tell a story solely with illustrations - the literary equivalent of a silent movie - which isn’t that far removed from our ancestors daubing paint on walls. 

Words and pictures: the oldest storytelling technique in the world.


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