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Breadcrumbs from the Void # 9 Living in the Gutters: Writing & Comics

Alex Schumacher

Living in the Gutters: Writing & Comics

by Alex Schumacher

Just when you thought it was safe to return to Five 2 One Magazine, Bread Crumbs from the Void is back to bite you in the ass! That is correct, children of all ages, I have returned with another installment of my writing column stuffed to the gills with hard-nosed advice. Someone has to be the bearer of blunt and brazen news. Who better than a jaded and cynical road warrior to deliver the truth from the seedy under belly of the writing world?

As you may or may not have already heard, I was recently named as the Art Director for Five 2 One. I am heading up the new comics/art section of the magazine which has been dubbed The Fucking Funnies. What started with a cartoon mocking an egg-shitting Easter Bunny (http://five2onemagazine.com/an-easter-fucking-funny/) has sprouted into a full-on “underground digital movement”. The Fucking Funnies will consist of underground/alternative comix and art full of thought-provoking piss and vinegar! Our aim is to give the god-damn finger to any and every establishment or idea there is to skewer.

For those of you out there who may be interested in taking part, you are in luck! I will be covering the basics of writing for comics in today’s column. The rules and practices for writing comics when you are simultaneously covering art duties can be rather varied. Each individual devises their own unique method of adapting their own stories. That said, this article will focus on those writers who could not draw a straight line with a god-damn T-Square. If you do not know what a T-Square is, for instance, I am talking to you.

The Cross Comics has to Bear

Since the comics popularity boom in the 1960’s, a stigma has remained, sullying the name that was once more synonymous with storytelling than it was with children’s entertainment. To this day the prevailing thought on comics is that it consists only of big tits, big guns, spandex-clad superheroes or sci-fi/fantasy masturbation material for the adolescent-minded male.

Nothing could be further from the fucking truth.

If you take the time to look back to the comic magazines and newspaper comics of the 30’s and 40’s you will find honesty, real people, and relatable struggles. There you will uncover literary-grade stories about families, average Joe’s, low-lives, outsiders, and everything in between. Even the “funny animal” comics of the day revealed more raw emotion than the mainstream pap that the “Big Two” force-feed down the throats of consumers today.

With that in mind, one of the most integral aspects of writing for comics, and something I try to impress upon anyone who is interested in the art form, is putting in your due-diligence. By this I mean taking the time to wade through the muck and the mire using publishers such as Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly as your guide. Delving into the underground and independent side of the industry will crack open a sprawling landscape of the human experience far more in touch with the spirit and attitude of the medium’s originators and innovators.

Crackling Exposition

Writing for comics is a completely different beast than writing prose. Know this from the start. With prose you are the sole pilot on the reader’s journey, whereas with comics you will be partnering with an artist to cover a large portion of that ground. With prose you as the writer will be controlling every aspect from character description to action sequences, while with comics your artist will literally be employing the “show don’t tell” method of storytelling.

Keep in mind that the majority of your story will not be read. It will be depicted through a series of graphics provided by an artist. This is why it is imperative to partner with an artist who you believe can faithfully adapt your story and bring your vision to life*. The vast majority of what will be read is the dialogue between characters. It is in the dialogue where you will expose such plot points, character backgrounds, etc. which would otherwise be a waste — not to mention a fucking bore — to have an artist draw. Some narration is acceptable, but I would recommend keeping the exposition to a minimum.

No one takes a trip to the movies to watch a character’s inner-monologue for three hours.

At this point you may be thinking to yourself, “Ok, this is all good info and all, but OMG how the fuck do I write for comics?” Well, you will be happy to know that now is when I will be getting down to the nitty gritty!

First off, you must decide which format will best represent your tale. Is it going to work better as an ongoing series, graphic novel, alternative comic strip, etc.? Once you have figured this out your next step is to compose your story. Feel free to review previous installments of Bread Crumbs from the Void (which you can do here: http://five2onemagazine.com/category/breadcrumbs-from-the-void/) if you are in need of some assistance. Write in first, second, or third person. Use whichever comes the most naturally as you are only constructing the arc at this stage.

Even though this draft can be loose, essentially little more than an outline if you prefer, you should plot a beginning, middle, and end. There should be no ambiguity as to how your characters relate to one another or how they arrive at point B from point A. By the time this first step is completed you must have all of your “t’s” dotted and “i’s” crossed!

After all, how are you going to communicate to an artist exactly how events are unfolding if you have not even figured this out for yourself?

*A good resource to for finding creative partners in the comics field is a site called Digital Webbing (http://www.digitalwebbing.com/forums/).

Break it Down!

When your story is ready to be handed off to your slave… I mean artist, there are several schools of thought on how to break down your story into digestible nuggets. This is certainly something you can discuss with your ink-slinging partner-in-crime, but ultimately how you present your script should be organic and feel natural to both parties.

It may even be something you can do while splitting a fucking ice cream soda — or some other man-date type activity — if you live in the same area. Of course with the ubiquity of the internet the already misanthropic artist type will most likely prefer to remain in their studio cave with ample supplies of microwave burritos and booze. This is merely a heads-up on what to expect if you decide to extend an invite to one of my antisocial asshole brethren.

Circling back around to the topic of breaking down your story, there are three major styles of scripting for comics which are typically employed. They include:

  1. Marvel Style
  2. DC Style
  3. Kurtzman Style

Marvel style, as you can guess, was popularized by the studio system during the Golden Age of comics in the 1960’s. Using this model, the artist works from a story synopsis from the writer rather than a full script. The artist creates page-by-page plot details on his or her own, after which the work is returned to the writer for the insertion of dialogue. The up side is that this method can be far more collaborative. The down side is the constant back-and-forth can cause some delay in producing the finished product.

In the DC style, the writer breaks the story down in sequence. The story is broken down page-by-page and panel-by-panel, describing the action, characters, and sometimes backgrounds and “camera” points-of-view of each panel, as well as all captions and dialogue balloons. This is commonly referred to as a “full script” method and was the preferred format for books published by — you guessed it — DC Comics. If you as the writer prefer to maintain a bit more control over the outcome of your comic, this would be the process for you.

In a variation of the plot script like that of the Marvel style, Kurtzman method is when the writer breaks down the story into page roughs or thumbnail sketches, with captions and dialogue jotted down inside the roughs. The artist (who is often the comic’s writer as well) then fleshes out the roughs onto full-size art board. Writer/artists Frank Miller and Jeff Smith are known to favor this style. If you are not an artist, you can still utilize this process using crude stick figures as the late-great Harvey Pekar would do when working with such famed artists as Robert Crumb.

The gut-punch combo of words and art used by comics is unlike any other published storytelling outlet. It is similar to film in a visual sense, but with comics you have no budget and no limitations on running time. Comics (and independent comics in particular) are the punk rock of popular art.

Shed just as much blood as you would with straight prose, leaving a steaming pile of entrails on the page and you will be doing the legacy of comics proud. If you would like to hear me elaborate a bit more on my own process, you can find links to a couple of interviews conducted recently with me on my website at: https://alexschumacherart.com/about/.

Bread Crumbs from the Void will return in two weeks, at which time I will be delivering a ball-busting exposé on the myth of writer’s block. Until next time, keep scribbling you freaks.

Stalk Alex online:
http://alexschumacherart.com/
https://twitter.com/AJSchumacherart
alexschumacherwriter@gmail.com