How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way changed my childhood. It's the first drawing book I read where everything made sense. It taught me the rudiments of anatomy, perspective, and comic book storytelling. The tone was pure Stan's Soapbox. True believer! Excelsior! Stan Lee's optimism is incorrigible.
I continue to learn the comics craft. Lately the focus is writing. I don't expect to write professional scripts, but I'll draw them better if I understand what the writer is up to. My latest textbooks are Alan Moore's Writing For Comics, and The DC Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O'Neil, with an introduction by Stan Lee. Alan's advice originally appeared as a series of fanzine articles in 1985, after he'd written Watchmen and his acclaimed run on Swamp Thing, but before Watchmen’s release. Denny's book was written shortly after he'd been the lead editor on Batman: No Man's Land. The strain of managing that year long crossover epic led him to retire shortly afterward.
If you're a serious comics reader, you probably know Alan Moore's views on the comic arts. He has great faith in the comics medium. That's why his disappointment with American superhero books is palpable. He looks at the poor state of comics and asks you to do better. I expected something more cheerful from The DC Guide, so it surprised me that Denny O'Neil's judgment was even harsher. O’Neil looks back on three decades of bad comics and demands that professionals learn the basics.
It’s Alan Moore’s “O The Places You’ll Go!” versus O’Neil’s “Idiot’s Guide”!
Alan Moore's Writing For Comics
Alan Moore's book is not a “how to”. In fact, he begins by mocking the idea of “how to” books.
“Above all, I don’t want to produce anything that smacks even remotely of ‘How to Write Comics the Alan Moore Way.’ Teaching a generation of emergent artists or writers how to copy the generation that came before was a stupid idea when Marvel introduced their ‘How to Draw…’ book and it would be equally irresponsible of me to instruct up-and-coming writers on how to write sickly extravagant captions like ‘Dawn transformed into an abbatoir’ or whatever. John Buscema is a fine artist, but the industry doesn’t need 50 people who draw like him any more than it needs 50 people who write like me.”
It’s not a book of “Thou Shalt.” Or of “Thou Shalt Not.” His advice is “Thou Shalt Not Just…” He wants you to keep on pushing your artform. Avoid clichés. To do that, you have to reach inside yourself and figure out what makes you unique, what makes you laugh or flinch, and what are your assumptions about writing so you can push beyond those borders.
"...It's possible to look very closely at one's own reactions and responses and make some helpful deductions about the broad responses of your readership. If you want to write a horror story, first think about what sort of things horrify you. Analyze your own fears thoroughly enough and you might be able to reach some broad conclusions about the broad mass of human fear and anxiety. Be ruthless about this, and submit yourself to as much emotional pain as is necessary to get the question answered: What horrifies me?"
Comic artists rarely go through this kind of spiritual hell to master their art. We just draw a lot of buck naked figure models.
Moore gives some technical advice. He muses on the differences between film and novels, and how comics has qualities of both. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics wouldn’t come out for another 8 years, and McCloud’s analysis on what makes comics unique goes far deeper than Alan’s quick musings.
It’s great fun, and useful, when Alan Moore explains how he planned out a story. Before he started typing the script, he thought through the history of the setting and characters. The goal, as ever, is to find aspects of these worlds that no one had bothered to think through before. Then he mapped out the action on each page. There’s an afterword from 2003 in which he advises more experienced writers to ditch all this planning. From phone conversations, I can say that during Top 10 Alan preferred to plan a story as little as possible beforehand. If he was writing an intricate time travel story, he would meticulously plot out the important back and forth where future meets past. But for one issue of Top 10 he wrote the first two pages while sick, and then collapsed into bed with no further plans. He came back after a few days recovery and wrote the rest of the story based on a snippet of radio background dialog.
Unlike Alan, I don’t think his earlier technique and his current freewheeling contradict each other. Always leave room for later inspiration. I like to plan my pages pretty meticulously so I can spot mistakes before I commit to them. But if I get a better idea later, I jam it in or chuck the previous work and replace it. This means that I might erase some tightly drawn pencils at the inking stage, or worse yet redraw an inked panel when I’m ready to color it. If the deadline gives me the time, it’s worth the lost sleep.
The DC Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O'Neil
If Alan Moore’s theme is “You can be great if you keep pushing,” Denny O’Neil’s is “You won’t stink if you learn the basics.” Denny has been editing comics since 1980 and taught writing classes since the 90’s, and it’s apparent he’s read some awful comics in that time. When I say basics, I don’t just mean things like the varieties of word balloons and how to format the dialog in a comics script. I mean things like subplots and bold print.
I’ve been working in comics for nearly 20 years, so a lot of things that seem obvious to me are truly new to beginners. When I look back at portfolios and student work I’ve seen, all the advice makes sense. It includes a lot of important lessons, especially if you’re writing superhero books. If you’re doing a comics memoir or travelogue, some of the story structure or dramatic advice will be useless.
The Guide tries to warn against every common mistake, a long list of Thou Shalt Nots. Some of these are outdated or strangely basic:
“Once, it was standard practice for editors to make several words in each balloon bold, sometimes without regard to the content of the dialogue.”
I can see how this would be a pet peeve of his, but it hasn’t been a problem for decades. Or on dialogue:
“When a ‘Chinee fella talkee chop chop like this, you betcha,’ in any work of fiction, he is demeaning an entire race: the clear implication of the dialogue is that the speaker is a jolly, childlike dimwit. And no Chinese does talk like that, so not only is the writer being racist, he’s also being inaccurate.”
While this is advice for the beginner, it’s also an indictment of some of the worst books he remembers. Denny is critiquing professionals here, and he declares that they suck ass. Compare this to the more encouraging tone of Alan Moore:
“The more adventurous you become with characterization, the more confident you become about tackling some of the more specific and knotty problems of the craft. As a white male writer, for example, and a practicing heterosexual, how am I to write about a homosexual character, or a Black character, or a woman? Theoretically, of course, it should be easier to write about people of another race, gender or sexual inclination than about a sentient vegetable consciousness, alienated ubermenschen or creatures from the pit. Where this comes unstuck is that if you get the characterization of your walking vegetable wrong, you aren’t going to offend anybody or hurt anybody or misrepresent anybody that actually exists.”
The teaching in The DC Comics Guide could be clearer. It lists out principles and terms, but does a poor job showing how they’re used. It has images of comic scripts and the resulting art, but doesn’t explain how the principles are used on those pages. I would have loved a detailed analysis of the Sandman script pages they’ve reproduced. As much as Alan Moore may hate “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way,” it mixed text and examples seamlessly to show how the ideas were put into action. I suspect that the DC Guide is based on O’Neil’s lecture notes, but in a live class he’d show a slide and start riffing about all the exciting tricks the writer is using off the top of his head.
The appendix of the DC Guide is by another author. “Writing Humor Comics” by Mark Evanier. Between the three writers, he does the best job of teaching. And he does it in two pages’ worth of text. He takes a “man walks into the doctor’s office” joke with a silly punchline, and explains how it’s structured. Then he shows how he’d turn it into a comics page. It shows principles of characterization, dialog, brevity and suspense better than O’Neill or Moore did. And it shows how these universal storytelling principles apply to the comics medium. If you can track down a copy, I’ll give you some odd advice. Read the ending first
Addendum, February 3: I thought I'd add in the harshest critique about comics pros from Dennis O'Neil's The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics:
Above all else, remember this: Subplots are plots. They must advance toward a resolution, or at least the illusion of a resolution. What they should not do is merely fill up pages. In times past, I suspect, some comics writers used subplots to pad issues because they didn't have enough main plot or, in the case of multiple issue stories, they hadn't figured out how the damn thing was going to end and their editors were demanding script or plot to send to the artist. This caused the main plot to meander over more issues than it deserved and may have given some readers the notion that nothing was really happening. Or so I suspect.
Hopefully we're no longer living in times past.