When you use your downtime to analyze stories to stretch those screenwriting muscles, you may never think of the humble comic book. Just like film, almost every country has its own kind of sequential art short stories. For most, they seem like fragile books for kids and nostalgic collectors, but there’s more to it than that.
Have you noticed that there have been an incredible amount of comic book adaptations into TV and film? I’m not just talking about the Marvel and DC movies, but there’s Umbrella Academy, Deadly Class, Hellboy, Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Men in Black, Oblivion, and more. Comics are becoming adapted left and right, but why and how can this help film?
Comics are basically storyboards all set-up and ready to be shot and directed, there’s reduced dialogue since dialogue bubbles take up visual space, and panels are used to give a pace to the story. Even the format for writing comics is similar to a film script! So how can you get the most out of analyzing a comic book?
Comic books are like TV shows and are released in bimonthly or monthly installments. Every Wednesday, when the comics are released for sale, you can buy them at your local comic book store and continue the story. You’ll pick up the thin paper booklet and think, how is there a full story in there? In twenty-two pages, comic book writers make an art out of short story writing. Each comic can stand alone, for the most part, hooking you into the narrative with an overall plot that links all the comics together. After reading the one comic, you’ll have learned enough of the world to be sucked in and are left with enough unanswered questions to ponder until the next comic book’s release.
Each page only has so much space to fit in visuals and story content. When reading, try to notice what the writer removes. Movement, opening doors, maybe even some facial expressions? They have to budget their page space and dialogue in order to give a complete story in twenty-two pages that fits like a jigsaw piece in the overall storyline. When they section-up the story, there are still details that need to be boiled down so that only the most important information that furthers the story or adds to the characters. A comic book writer’s skill at showcasing only the most important information for the story in an entertaining way for audiences is something we can all learn from.
Since there are several installments of each storyline, comic book writers have to plan ahead for their stories, knowing how their story will progress and finish before they even start. This is similar to TV shows and how every season must be planned prior to filming. There are plenty of comic books that are complete where you can see the gears of the writer’s plans turning and moving the story and characters. Take Bill Willingham’s Fables for example. It starts in New York with small problems in their society of Fabletown where fairy tale characters lived closed off from regular people. As the story continues, new worlds are created and bigger conflicts between the worlds are exposed, affecting every character and their choices make bigger impacts.
Start a series that has completed. If you don’t wish to spend money on graphic novels, then I recommend seeing if your local library system has the start (at least) of a series. If you’re not sure where to start, try Robert Kirkman’s Invincible, Joe Kelly’s I Kill Giants, Luna Brothers’ The Sword, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet, or Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man. You don’t need to read them all the way through, just through enough volumes to see how the plot develops and see the complexity of the writer’s web. Most of these expanded years of change and development and yet can be ready within a short span of time and feel like a whole and complete story.
Character growth is paramount in storytelling. Characters are what the audience links with and tethers them to the story. What is incredibly important is that characters have their own voice. Take Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes for example. Calvin has such a distinctive voice that you don’t need to check the title of the comic strip to know who he is, despite the fact that he’s just a boy. There’s no super-suit or markings that define him other than Bill Waterson’s artistic style. That style is deliberate and defines Calvin as much as his humor and antics do. Everything that goes into a character; design, coloring, lettering of their dialogue, is all used to enhance the character. Everything is discussed between writers and artistic teams to create the form that best represents the character. Not all comic books look like they’re done by Alex Ross. They all have their own style because the writers and artists found the voice and design of their characters and the world
Think about your story and characters. For live-action films, there’s not much you can change visually without being the director. However, the way you write your script can influence how the director sees it. There’s more to it than just visuals. Reading comics, there’s an atmosphere. From character names to how they’re drawn, you get a sense of the whole character without hearing them or even seeing them really move. When you are reading a comic, single out characters and just look at their language, what they’re wearing or what they say. There are small things you can implement in your script you may have thought about that are almost entirely visual in comics. For example, you may notice that there’s one character who doesn’t care to get dirty and it’s shown when the character doesn’t move out of the way of a puddle. Small actions have huge meaning in comics since they only have twenty-two pages and all writers can learn from that.
Comics are two dimensional. Just art on paper. There’s no sound, no movement, everything has to be done in a way that conserves space, but still provides an atmosphere for the reader. A popular image for comics is “BAM” or “KA-POW” because onomatopoeia helps give the reader context to the actions in the panels. Letterers and writers can get really creative with trying to calculate what actions make what sounds. Have you ever wondered what sound breaking glass makes? In a movie, it just happens. But in comics, it’s planned in the whole experience. The balance of when to describe the sound and when to keep it silent is also part of the planning. You can’t have every little rustle and footstep spelled out for the audience, comic book writers and letterers know when a sound is important for the audience and the atmosphere and it’s something you could learn from.
When was the last time you thought a movie used sound to grab the audience? Not just the soundtrack, but the sound of an action. A SPLASH as something unknown fell into dark waters or a CREAK of a floorboard that announces that the character is not alone. Sounds can hold mysteries and give away secrets. They’re immensely underrated, but if you read a comic book, you can start to understand ways to implement them to add a layer of immersion for your audience. If comics can turn everyday noises into emotional cues, a film that can actually portray the action and the sound to the audience should be able to execute it with just as much skill. Think about something as boring as footsteps. No one really notices footsteps in a film, but give a certain character a specific walk with a limp or clicking high heels or thudding work boots, and you can have the character present even if they’re not on screen… with just a few sounds.
You don’t need a list of things to look for in a comic book in order to read it. Hell, you don’t even need to analyze a comic book. Just read one for fun. Sometimes the best way to learn is through entertainment. Always read the comic first for your own enjoyment before analyzing it. It’s like watching a movie and then watching it with subtitles to pick up what you may have missed. You may even find that you see things better when you find that you like the story, not just the art form.
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.