Posted by on Apr 9, 2012 in Digital | 19 Comments

The most frequently asked question I get from other writers about moving into digital comics isn’t about how to make any money doing it, though you’d think. (And we’ll be discussing that soon.)  It’s “Jeezum Crow, how do you WRITE for that format?” And what’s both daunting and exciting is that we’re having to invent that part of the creative process largely from scratch–but here’s what I’ve learned so far.

At the beginning of my career, when I sat down to write my very first comics script–I believe it was either the Katzenjammer Kids or the Yellow Kid, I forget–yes, that’s a joke–I literally drew it out panel-by-panel in stick-figure form, so inexperienced was I at pacing a comics story. As any editor will tell you, that’s the first hurdle tyro writers have to clear; learning how much copy fits on a page and how to let the art breathe (and do its job to help tell the story). In time, I became comfortable enough at scripting to where I could see the images in my mind’s eye, and I developed a solid sense of how much art and text can go on a page without making either the artist or the letterer want to pick up a hammer. Now, 25 years later, I just go; I type “Page One, Panel One” to start a script and trust my instinct to tell me as I go how to break up the page (subject to improvement by the artist). An example, for those not intimately familiar with the process, from DAREDEVIL #10:

PAGE TWO

 PANEL ONE: AS THE MOUTH CLOSES AROUND FALLING DD AND MOLOIDS–

 PANEL TWO: –DD BARELY, JUST BARELY, MANAGES TO GRAB HOLD OF ONE OF THE MONSTER’S GIANT, SLICK TEETH–

 SFX/small:    fap

 PANEL THREE/RADAR VISION: –AND PAST DD–HANGING BY ONE HAND, NOW INSIDE THE BEAST–AS HE “LOOKS” DOWN TO SEE THE HELPLESS MOLOIDS VANISHING INTO ITS THROAT.

 DD CAPTION:   I don’t know what this thing is. I don’t want to know. Doesn’t matter.

 DD CAPTION:   Despite what we heard as kids, neither JONAH nor PINOCCHIO could really survive inside a GIANT BEAST. Not for TEN SECONDS.

 DD CAPTION:   It’s not a cartoon CAVE. It’s a CHOKING, WET ABYSS with ACID SPIT–

 PANEL FOUR: TIGHT ON DD’S HAND AS HIS FINGERS START TO SLIP OFF THE TOOTH.

 DD CAPTION:   –and TEETH–

 PANEL FIVE: ON THE MONSTER’S HUGE TONGUE AS IT DARTS UP TOWARDS US.

 DD CAPTION:   –and an APPETITE.

That format works well for me for print. But in digital, every screen is a potential “panel,” and the art needs a little more elbow room, AND the copy needs to be a little bigger than it is in print, AND the artist generally as good an idea (and most of the time,  better) of how to break the scenes down to take full advantage of what digital can do visually. In other words, I’d be a egomaniacal moron to not let the artist take the wheel early on in a for-digital collaboration. It’s more work for everyone, more back-and-forth, give-and-take, but that’s why they call it a Learning Process.

For Stuart Immonen, with whom I did Avengers vs. X-Men Infinite #1 with the express purpose of showing off what digital can do, I just let the man go. You can do that with someone as talented and innovative as Stuart. I didn’t produce a typical script or even a typical plot-to-add-dialogue-to-once-it’s-drawn for Stuart; instead, we talked over the story at length on the phone, and then I gave him a scene-by-scene breakdown with some dialogue notes but with no dictates as to how I saw the “page breaks” or “panel breaks.” An excerpt:

We START with a starfield and then blur/blueshift it to indicate insane speed–

 –then focus on NOVA rocketing through the galaxy. Captions pop up–internal narration from Nova hurrying himself along–

 –as the PHOENIX devours a planet behind him (see reference). Maybe a rack-focus moment here? What looks like an indistinct nebula behind him is revealed to be the coherent shape of the Phoenix Force?

 Zoom, zoom, zoom–gotta make it to Earth, gotta tell everyone. Caption noise here about how Nova can’t even remember now how long he’s been running like some sort of intergalactic Paul Revere–five minutes, five weeks? When he hits warp-speed, his brain does funny things to both simultaneously slow down (so he’ll have reflexes to dodge stuff) and speed up (so the minutes won’t go by like years). This effect adds to his stress, he’s addled–

 –which is why, as we REDSHIFT back into linear time, he fails by a millisecond to sufficiently BRAKE in time when he hits Earth’s atmosphere–

and so forth. Very light on detail (normally with a plot, I’d at least break it down by pages and panels), but not irresponsibly so; I split the plotting fee with Stuart since he was doing more than his usual share of the lifting, which seemed only fair. (My advice to all comics writers: if you want to take this route and give this level of control over to the artist, be prepared to cut a similar deal; s/he’ll earn it.)  Stuart then did thumbnails and used a LOT more screens than I assumed he would (which only made the story look better; no complaints here, I just figured this would pace out at what “feels” like about three standard comics pages, not five or six). From there, he and the editor and I went back and forth a couple of times, suggesting this or that, and then I did a few passes on the dialogue to match the pacing of the story.

That, then, may be my answer for now to the question “How do you write for this format?”: Don’t be dictatorial or controlling. Give the artist his head, even moreso than usual. Collaborate moreso than usual. Talk AT GREAT LENGTH. And let the artist take the lead for now as we all work together to refine the process and learn the new language. Again, it’s more work, and you’ll find you’re doing more of the writing over the phone than at the keyboard, but try it, see if it’s a good fit for you. Those webcartoonists among you who’ve likewise found yourself reinventing this wheel lately–any thoughts, tips or insights are warmly invited. Let’s hear from you. Comment below, or discuss your methods in the forum.

19 Comments

  1. D.J. Coffman
    April 9, 2012

    I was talking to another artist and writer lately who felt like it was too much work, and yes, it can be a little tedious at first, but here’s a quick tip for artists organizing these types of pages:

    #1 Photoshop layer groups!!! In this way you can turn panels or captions off and on, move them around, etc. Simply take your “screen” or page and figure out what’s going to happen on it before the next big screen change. Organize each panel into its own layer group. And if a panel has transitions, organize groups within groups and either number them in the order they should appear, or like Panel 1-A, 1-B, etc

    #2 if you’re working with a collaborator and want to quickly show them some digital proofs, simply take a selective screenshot to
    E-mail. (don’t know how? Google it, it’s easy)

    #3 be mindful of future format size and resolution!!! Chances are the widescreen shape won’t change, but don’t be foolish and work in 72dpi or at size. Even as recently as the new iPad with the retina display, people who made content at 1078px wide are scrambling to make “hd” versions of their work. The solution? Work in high resolution from the start! Here’s a quick trick to laying out a Template page:

    –open new in Photoshop. Set the page specs to 1024px by 768px at 72dpi first. Then go ahead and bump the dpi up to 300dpi and you’ll see that the “1024” is now in the 3000s. That’s okay! You’ll want to work at 300dpi anyways in case you ever do decide to print a collection. And when your page is done, you can flatten a copy and reduce width to 1078 or the new 2048 retina display size and your page will keep the proper ratio as you go down in size.

    I hope to take some videos of all that process to make it a little easier. When I do I’ll link em up in the forums.

    Reply
    • Balak
      April 9, 2012

      What i do personally, is to work with Adobe Flash (boohoo say the agry anti-flash crowd).
      Well, as soon as someone comes up with a tool as easy to use than flash I’d be more than glad to change my habits because yes, flash is sometime a pain in the ass (but first and foremost because you can’t read flash on I-devices)… but it’s the only tool flexible enough for me to explore new stuff as far as digital storytelling.
      It’s convenient for me because i can roughly sketch into my pre-made canvas the whole story board and test right away the pacing. I can send it to the people i work with, and since it’s vectorized drawings, the file size is not a concern.
      Plus they can read it EXACTLY as i intended to.
      Working with flash allows me to test a lot of transition style (cross fade, swipes, where and HOW to add/substract panels/lines/posing). It’s quickly made and quickly readable. You see right away if it works or not.
      When the storyboard is over, i just export jpegs and hands it to artists and the creative team so they can work on it.
      it’s a certain mindset to get but it’s not complicated.
      i came to the point where the storytelling ideas i get are mostly “digital” first, so when i’m working on paper comics i have to adapt the storytelling ideas to the traditional canvas…

      Reply
      • LuiG
        April 9, 2012

        Hey man i totally agree with u on flash. Its soo much faster to come up with concepts, animatics and tests with flash than any other software. But the best part though is usually the small file size.
        Anyway, i was wondering if there is a way to convert flash based comics (like the simple flash comic engine) into apps that can be viewed on the Iphone/pads or Android phones.
        I know it works on the web, but is there a way to create the comic on flash, then output it to the above mentioned apps. Do u know what scripting software/s were used for doing AVX Infinte 1?
        BTW thank you for the Simple flash comic engine link on ur deviant art page.

        Reply
        • Reilly Brown
          April 10, 2012

          AvX was done with Comixology’s own software. It’s not publicly available yet (although from what I hear they ARE working on a public version).

          Reply
      • Steve Broome
        April 10, 2012

        As a Flash dev I completely agree, and Flash is adopted in enough browsers that it’s far more backwards compatible than a lot of the JS and HTML5 I see people gladly putting in their sites.

        Reply
  2. Reilly Brown
    April 9, 2012

    Heh, yeah, working on Power Play with Kurt has been a real lesson in reinventing how to collaborate on a comic.
    The first thing you realize is that “pages” don’t exist any more, so it’s sort of pointless to organize a script that way. At first we tried organizing it as scenes with panels, but that got confusing and without an official page count it’s REALLY tempting to just add more and more panels– which translates into more and more work to do than you planned.
    Now we pretty much do it Stan Lee/Jack Kirby style, where we’ll talk over a story, I’ll pace it out how I think fits best, and then we do the dialog after the art’s been drawn.

    But yeah, a real learning experience!

    Reply
  3. Brian G
    April 9, 2012

    Mark, just want to say that this is an awesome experiment, and I love the fact that you’re showcasing the differences between Digital and Print (not saying one is better than the other or one is replacing the other, just that they’re different).

    I have hope for the future, and you sir, are a large part of that. Finally, someone who has a voice, and who actually “gets” it.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Adriano Ariganello
    April 9, 2012

    Good timing with this post. I brought this up in the forums just this morning.

    I get hung up on format sometimes myself.

    I’m all for collaborating, but I fear that keeping things too vague may lose something in translation.

    The loose nature could work with the digital format, but it does require near constant communication to make sure you’re on the same page. The good news is that changes don’t cost much, outside of time.

    After all, what matters most is putting out the best product possible – regardless of who “writes” it.

    Reply
  5. Alan O.W. Barnes
    April 9, 2012

    Mark,
    Thanks for doing this. I look forward to your future posts!

    Reply
  6. Vito Delsante
    April 9, 2012

    I don’t know…I’m such a control freak. And I’m really not. I give all of my artists the leeway to reinterpret as they see fit. But…and I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, Mark…I’d feel lazy if I didn’t write full script. I’d feel like I’m just waiting to write instead of directing the action. Clearly, I’m not working with anyone of Stuart’s caliber (yet), but I’d still feel like I wasn’t pulling my fair share.

    The next question is…if you do intend to print (as I’m sure Marvel is), how would the finished digital product differ from the finished printed product in terms of layout.

    Reply
  7. Karl Kesel
    April 9, 2012

    All well and good, but needless to say not everyone is Stuart— a man with an impeccable sense of timing and staging. I think for the sake of everyone’s sanity, we need to develop a few commonly accepted terms so writers and artists know what each other are talking about and expect— even if it’s then thrown out for something different.

    I’m working with Ron Randall on a web comic story that started as profile-page formatted story, but we switched to a tablet-first approach once we got wind of what Waid was doing, and it was just so damn cool and full of exciting possibilities. Re-working the (already finished) script, I found the easiest way to get across what I saw in my mind’s eye was to actually write the word CLICK whenever I wanted the image to change. For instance:

    Sgt. Rock and Easy Company walk down a bombed-out street.
    CLICK
    Panel expands right, revealing a Nazi Unit laying in wait around the corner of a building.

    If Ron has something better in mind, I’m all for that. This is just a starting point, but I think it’s a solid starting point.

    Reilly’s right– it’s very easy to just keep adding images. Our first 2 pages of portrait-format story became (what would be the print equivalent of) 3 pages– but it’s also much cooler and involving.

    What I have a harder time keeping straight is how we will convert the digital comic to print later on– because I’m still Old School enough to want a printed version of the story some time in the future. One set of clicks might only be one panel in a printed comic, while another set may be a double-page spread. This is my real headache, and one maybe we can talk about in its own thread at length.

    Reply
  8. David Gallaher
    April 9, 2012

    Back when I worked on HIGH MOON for DC (and later BOX 13) for comiXology, I made a keen discovery. You see when I started learning how to write comics, I was always told that the ‘right-handed page’ needed to drive readers to turn the page. It has to be compelling and attention-getting.

    HIGH MOON was part of the Zuda initiative. Everything was formatted for the 4:3 widescreen format. Nobody at the time had any idea of how the comics would look if they were ever to be printed. Would the pages be stacked 2-up or would the books just be formatted wide-screen … and it was then I realized that it didn’t matter. Printed required every ‘right-handed page’ to be a page turner — but digital created an opportunity for EVERY PAGE to be a ‘page turner’ — every panel, every scene, every page had to matter and engage the reader.

    These same techniques were used in BOX 13 to varying degrees, but given the nature of the digital devices we were on, we had more opportunity to play around in the same sandbox that comics like VALENTINE and POWER PLAY did. It’s difficult reading a LOT of tiny text on an iphone, so we reduced the amount of words we used per panel and increased the size of the fonts. We also made an effort to let the art tell more of the story. So, you see the characters move and pantomime more that you might find in a print comic.

    Both series were freely available to read online or download — but we tried to give readers their monies worth anyway by adding more panels per page than you’d find in an average print comic.

    The scripts for BOX 13 were pretty light in comparison to the other work I’ve done, which gave Steve Ellis (the artist) more opportunity to play around.

    Reply
    • LuiG
      April 9, 2012

      Interesting.
      Technical question. What softwares are used for outputting the comics into the Comixology format?

      Reply
  9. Matthew Hargraves
    April 9, 2012

    Is digital content the beginning of the end for the comic book script? From Mark’s example, the content for the Nova scene was generated in a phone conversation. Obviously, one has to be as good as Mark Waid to be able to verbally relay a “script” directly from the mind’s eye. But in a true collaboration between artist and writer, isn’t it easier in many ways to verbally just tell the artist what you want? I see much lower possibility of miscommunication on the story being conveyed if you have a verbal back-and-forth between writer and artist. If it becomes more efficient to verbally transmit a story from writer to artist, the old written script moves closer to obsolescence. Or possibly, the old written script breaks the shackles of formatting for dead tree publication, and becomes whatever the writer needs to keep the story elements organized in his own mind as he passes it on verbally to the artist. Food for thought.

    Reply
    • Joshua Yehl
      April 10, 2012

      Interesting point. That also brings up the question of how this digital format can be mass produced (not in a horrible factory way, but in a way that allows anyone and everyone to use it effectively). While it would be ideal for the writer and artist of every digital comic to have lengthy phone conversations about every beat of the story, that is not a process that is practical for everyone. And then what if your artist does not speak English, which can often be the case?

      I like the sound of Karl Kesel’s “CLICK” script since it conveys the intended beats of the story in your mind. But of course a whole series of clicks might change at the whim of the artist, who will most likely (and rightfully) change the images and their layout.

      Reply
  10. LuiG
    April 9, 2012

    Lovely post Mark. Thank you so much for what u are starting here, its been very helpful.
    I’m sure you have a planned schedule for the subjects of your posts, but i hope in the future you will touch upon these three points that are bothering me.

    * The technical issues faced when delivering the finished product into multiple formats (iphone/pad,android,web etc)

    * Is hiring a technical programmer necessary for compiling the comic digitally or is there an easy to use software where the artist can do it him/herself?(apart from flash)

    * I know that AVX infinte was specifically made for digital, but, IF it would ever be printed, how would you go about it? (would the book be widescreen?)

    Reply
  11. Steve Broome
    April 10, 2012

    People say Jeezum Crow?

    Reply
  12. spleenal
    April 15, 2012

    The nice thing about web is more freedom. You’re not tied down to 4 page blocks. (when you’re working for print if you go a page over suddenly you have 3 extra pages to fill.

    Print uses CMYK which can’t re-produce all the colours in the real world. Especially bright neons The RGB of screens does.

    The only drawback is not knowing what size screen people will be using.

    https://twitter.com/#!/spleenal

    Reply
  13. Ted
    April 17, 2012

    Surprised that no one here has mentioned Operation Ajax, the digital graphic novel app for iPad that came out a few months ago. It really shows off the potential of the medium, a polished approach that goes beyond even AvX Infinite’s execution. And beyond the tech, the story is very well told!

    It was done by Cognito Comics using Tall Chair’s Active Reader software, which is currently in closed beta; I guess you have to be an enterprise client to license it.

    Reply

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