More Than Storyboards: Comics & Film – On Writing Comics

by Tyler Weaver

comicstoryworldcover-e1350901391951I’m going to start this series the same way I started my book:

Comic books are more than storyboards.

They are more than a stepping stone to a star-studded career as a screenwriter. They are more than research and development for franchises. They are more than tights and fights. Comics is (I treat the word “Comics” as a singular, as Scott McCloud does in his seminal Understanding Comics) NOT a genre. Let me repeat that. Comics is not a genre. Brad Bird, director of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, said it best (of animation, a medium facing many of the same prejudices as comics): “… next time I hear, ‘What’s it like working in the animation genre?’ I’m going to punch someone!”

So what is comics? Comics is a storytelling medium with unlimited potential, limited only by your perceptions, prejudices and ability to manipulate nine essential elements. Like film, comics has its own genres and hybrids: superhero, romance, crime, sci-fi, fantasy, coming-of-age… the list goes on and on. By the end of this series, I’ll show you that no matter what genre your film is – or isn’t – you can consider comics as a viable storytelling tool, not as a back-door stepping stone to get your failed screenplay traction as an adaptation, but rather as an outlet for story deepening and world building.

I have one simple credo that I hope will take root in your creative psyche: if you’re going to create within a medium, you have to respect–and love–that medium. To engrain that philosophy into your grey matter was the goal of my book, Comics for Film, Games and Animation (it’s why nearly half of its 300 pages are dedicated to the history of the medium, with its successes, foibles and failures) and it’s the goal of this series, with a special focus on Comics for the eponymous film.

With the soapbox out of the way, let’s dig in.

THE ELEMENTS OF COMICS STORYTELLING

Like film or any storytelling medium, comics has its own language and component parts. These are the elements of comics storytelling:

  • Page – Self-explanatory.
  • Panel – The box (or container) where the action happens.
  • Grid – The division and layout of Panels on a Page.
  • Gutter – The space between Panels on a Page.
  • Art – The visuals within (or without) the Panel.
  • Narration (or, Caption) – 1st, 3rd, omniscient or limited. Second – the narrative voice that, in conjunction with the Art, moves the story forward.
  • Word Balloon- Dialogue.
  • Thought Balloon – Thoughts (not used as much anymore, supplanted by first person Narration).
  • Sound Effects – BOOM. THWIP. SNIKT. BANG. PLOP. AARGH.

That’s it. From those nine elements and combinations thereof, from numerous permutations and extrapolations, comes the medium that has thrilled, excited or stupefied readers for generations.

A WORLD LIT BY STROBES

When I interviewed Denny O’Neil for the book, he used a phrase that has stuck with me: comics are a world lit by strobes. It means that when writing comics, you can’t write movement. You have to select the most iconic image through which the succession of panels will create a sense of movement… the pace of which is developed in an unspoken collaboration between the writer, the artist and the reader.

Example: In a film script, you can write (as Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler did in Double Indemnity):

INT. NEFF’S APARTMENT – NIGHT

He crosses to the corridor door.

KEYES: I’ve got to get to a drug store. It feels like a hunk of concrete inside me.

He puts his hand on the knob to open the door.

INT. CORRIDOR – APARTMENT HOUSE  – NIGHT – LIGHTS ON

The hallway is empty except for Phyllis who has been standing close to the door of Huff’s [a mistake in the adaptation process: in James M. Cain’s original novel, the character Walter Neff is named Walter Huff] apartment, listening. The door has just started to open. Phyllis moves away quickly and flattens herself against the wall behind the opening door. Keyes is coming out. 

KEYES: Good night, Walter.

The above excerpt shows movement and a collection of actions. But, how would I present that in a comics script?

PANEL ONE
Keyes’ hand on the doorknob.

1. KEYES – I’ve got to get to the drug store.

PANEL TWO
In the well-lit, empty corridor, Phyllis’ head is pressed to the door of Neff’s apartment 

2. KEYES (behind the slightly open door) – It feels like a hunk of concrete inside me.

PANEL THREE
Phyllis flat against the wall next to Neff’s apartment. The open door casts a shadow over her face.

PANEL FOUR
Keyes in the doorway.  Neff behind him – nervous.

3. KEYES – Good night, Walter.

The true magic of comics comes in the Gutter, the space between the panels. Between panels two and three, we don’t need to see Phyllis moving from the door to the wall. By noting her mood and that she has gone from the door to the wall, and is hidden, we have shown movement and captured the script in comics form.

To wrap up this first installment, I’d like to leave you with one final thought: a comics script is not a screenplay. There is no set format. It is a personal communication between writer and artist and editor. Thusly, you will have to write based on how you work with an artist. Some artists like tons of detail, and some writers, notoriously Alan Moore, like to make each paragraph description mind-numbingly detailed. I prefer to err on the side of less detail, communicating only the key actions and leaving the “direction” of the story up to the artist. This speaks to my philosophy of collaboration: if you’re going to collaborate, let the collaborator do their job. You might be surprised by the life that they bring to your story. As Kurosawa said, (paraphrased, of course) “if it comes out exactly as I envisioned it, I’m disappointed.”

Next time, we’ll explore the potential for narrative expansion that comics can offer filmmakers. Until then, remember: if you’re going to create within a medium, you have to respect–and love–that medium. Read Part 2 now.

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