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How to write horror comics

Jasper BarkThis month I’d like to look at the actual craft of writing horror comics. In particular I’d like to concentrate on the relationship between the writer and the artist and my experience of writing scripts for someone else to draw.

From the outset I have to say that, at the very least, an artist is a full collaborator in any comic story the writer tells. In truth they are often more than just a collaborator. I know many writers will talk about how the poor ‘pencil monkey’ is just there to “fulfill their vision”, but an artist does a hell of a lot more than that. They not only add a huge amount to a writer’s vision, they drag it kicking and screaming into reality. It takes a lot longer to draw comic than it takes to write it and there are a lot more pictures on a comic page than words (if you’re doing it right). So who do you think is doing all hard work? This is primarily a visual medium so you need to show the right amount of respect to the person handling the visuals.

The other thing I need to say from the outset is that I will probably be dropping a few names over the course of this article. The more cynical among you will no doubt think that I’m trying to bolster my opinions by trading off the reputations of artists far more successful than me – and you’d probably be right. While those of you who don’t read many comics will probably just wonder who the f*** I’m talking about. That’s the problem with a niche subject like horror comics. Andy Warhol famously said that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. He reckoned without the world of horror comics however, where you can be famous for as long as you like, but only to 15 people.

The film analogy

Although Walt Simonson (Clang! that’s the first of many) once cautioned me about comparing comics too closely to that other visual narrative medium – film, it’s a useful analogy with which to consider the roles of the writer and the artist within comics. The comic writer plays the same role as the screenwriter and if they have a really simpatico relationship with the artists they might be considered a co-director. Usually however, the artist is the director, as well as the cinematographer, the scene designer, the special effects expert, the location scout and every single member of the cast. While a good script is crucial to a good comic, a good writer knows where his or her responsibility to the finished strip ends and the artist’s begins.

To elaborate on this point we need to look at panel descriptions. Apologies to those who already know this, but comic scripts are generally made up of two components: a short description of what’s happening in each panel, including what the characters are doing, where they are and how they feel about it, and the dialogue and captions that will appear in that panel. There are two schools of panel descriptions, the Alan Moore school and the John Wagner school (no this isn’t a name drop because I’ve only briefly met both men).

Alan MooreI, like most writers, started out in the Alan Moore school. This is partly because Alan Moore’s work had such an impact on the field of comics, but mainly because more of his scripts are available to read so most of us learned from copying him. I had the good fortune to be mentored early on in my career by Miracleman artist Garry Leach and to a lesser extent Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons (double Clang!), both of whom quickly beat the budding Alan Moore out of me.

The difference between the two schools is detail. Alan’s panel descriptions are full of detail but give the artist very little room for their own ideas. John’s panel descriptions are short and to the point leaving the artist a lot of scope.

Here’s an imaginary panel from an Alan Moore Dredd script (he did write one or two):

PANEL 1:                        Okay, we focus on DREDD in this panel and it’s pretty obvious he’s not in a good mood. His face is twisted into a snarl and his body language radiates menace and the threat of physical violence. The streetlights over head are flickering and cast him in a red light, The lawgiver in his hand is firm and pointing upward suggesting the sort of erection he probably gets just before meting out the type of physical justice of which he is so fond. Just off panel, we can’t see it, but there is probably another crime going on and DREDD is torn between arresting the perp in hand and stopping the other crime he can see. Perhaps this sets off memories of other difficult choices he’s had to face. Maybe he thinks of his clone brother Rico, I don’t know, but suggest some of this dilemma in his form and stature.

DREDD:                        DROKK!

This is an actual panel description written by John Wagner:

PANEL 1:                        DREDD – grim.

DREDD:                        DROKK!

If you think about it, everything the artist needs is there in John’s description. It also gives the artist far more room to bring his or her own ideas to the panel and to creatively engage in the telling of the story. It’s also a lot quicker for the writer to write and the artist to read. Garry and Dave told me they used to skim through Alan’s scripts with a highlighter and pick out three or four words per description. That’s right, all those award-winning scripts that changed the medium forever were only quickly scanned by the artists because of their unwieldy length.

I started my professional career as a comic writer, so when I came to write prose I had to learn to put more visual description into my stories, as I was so used to the artist covering that for me. Many authors who write comics for the first time seem to have the opposite problem. Letting go of the control can be difficult for them, and they feel the need to micro-manage the artist quite unnecessarily. Several of my artist friends have shown me scripts from novelists that make the Alan Moore pastiche above look as terse as the John Wagner script. Seriously I kid you not!

First time comic writers take note

If you’re reading this and are just about to write your first comic script, might I politely suggest that you don’t need to describe every knot and swirl in the bark of every tree in the forest where your characters find themselves. In fact, you don’t need to describe the trees at all, or send reference material. The artist has probably seen quite a few trees already.

New York harbourThe last thing I’m going to cover before I run out of space is the difference in the way that writers and artists tell stories. An artist will often begin a story with a seagull hovering over the New York harbour. The seagull will then fly past the Statue of Liberty before wending it’s way between the sky scrapers of Wall St and catching an updraft that takes it into a seedier part of town where it alights on a window sill. We push through the window beyond the seagull into the office of a PI. The PI spends several panels scratching his head and polishing his gun before putting it in a drawer in his desk. There’s a knock at the door. We focus on the beads of sweat on the PI’s forehead. He gets up and puts his hand on the door handle, leaves it there for three panels then eventually opens the door. Beyond the door are shadows, out of which a sultry blonde steps, but she takes six panels to do so. She takes another six panels to enter the office and sit down in front of his desk. Finally, the dialogue starts.

A writer will start with this panel description:

PANEL 1:                        We open in a PI’s office in a seedy part of New York city. There’s a knock at the door, the PI gets up from behind his desk and opens the door. A sultry blond saunters in and sits behind his desk.

Upon reading this the artist will despair over the fact that there are nine such panels on the page and  each panel contains so much action that it should, in all fairness, be six separate panels. At this point the artist puts down the script and picks up a bottle, pretending for the next two days that they don’t need the money so badly they can’t get out of drawing the f***ing script.

As you gain more experience writing comics, you learn to strike a happy medium between these two (only slightly exaggerated) approaches. To give the artist a bit of a lead in to the story and to curb your tendency to cram far too much action into one panel.

This is especially important when writing horror comics because the best horror always depends more on the reader’s imagination than the writer’s powers of description. The horrors they see in their mind’s eye will always outweigh anything you put on the page. For this reason you need to have faith in your artist’s talent and imagination and let them put just the right amount of detail into every panel.

Showing respect for your artist’s talent is the best way of showing respect for your reader’s discrimination. It’s also the best way of scaring the pants off both of them.


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1 comment

    • Kyle Houston on January 4, 2016 at 4:52 pm
    • Reply

    Brilliant. Hilarious. Insightful. You’ve certainly earned a place on my bookmarks, sir. May I ask if you believe that Wagner’s and Moore’s style can be combined?

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