How To Write Scripts For Comics

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I’m amazed everytime it happens. People really don’t know – or understand – how comics are made.
I’ve written scripts for comic books since 1989 and have produced hundreds of episodes; everything from children’s comics to hardcore horror, via humor and action/adventure, and every now and then, people ask me how the heck you write for comics. People who recognize me in a pub, or people I meet at parties, dinners or events. Usually people in their 50s or older.
I explain. They just don’t get it.
“So, you get the pages from the artist and then fill in the balloons?” they ask.
“No… The artist must know what to draw first! And I need to know what the story is about…”
“So, you’re the one who writes the text in the balloons?” they ask.
“No, that’s made by a letterer or the artist himself, after the artwork is done.”
“So, you tell the artist what to do, and then you fill in the balloons.”
“Not really. I write scripts! The artists follow my scripts!”
“Huh? I don’t get it.”

Now, there are a few ways of writing comics.
If you both write and draw your own comic, usually a daily newspaper strip/cartoon, maybe you don’t write scripts. Some guys just make a really rough sketch of it in a minute or two. Or if you’re fast, inspired and really professional, you do your strip right away – but this only works with strips. Hergé made the very first (and very long) Tintin adventure “Tintin in Soviet” without a script, he just made the story up while drawing the weekly episodes, which explains why it’s a mess.
Then we have “The Marvel System” or “The Marvel Way”, which Spider-Man creator Stan Lee claims he invented in the early 1960s. Back then, Lee was writing most, or maybe even all, of the titles in the Marvel line (Spidey, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men…) himself, and just hadn’t the time to write full scripts for dozens of comics each month.
So, Lee, who was working closely with legendary, experienced pros like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, came up with a system where he just wrote down what was going to happen in the episodes, page by page – sometimes he didn’t even do this; he just called Kirby and told him the story. Then Kirby drew the pages which were returned to Lee, who filled in the dialogue and captions.
This system is still used by Marvel and some other major, American publishers, but personally I don’t really understand how it’s possible to work like that. You can maybe manage to do it if you really know the artist, and if you’re working with established characters you haven’t created yourself.
But since I’m a writer and creator myself, I feel the story and characters are mine, and that the story should be told the way I want to. Therefore, I write full scripts – the most common way of writing comics in Europe.

“I still don’t understand,” they say. “What do you mean, scripts for comics?”
“Huh? Well… You know what a screenplay is, right? A script for a movie? Or a script for a play?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Now, you don’t think a movie director, his crew and cast make a movie without knowing what to shoot and what the actors are going to say, right?”
“Of course, I don’t.”
“Okay, a script for a comic is pretty similar to a screenplay. I describe what’s supposed to happen in each panel, and what the characters say in the balloons, and sometimes I add a caption.”

Back in 1979, there was a short-lived Swedish comic book called Svenska Serier (Swedish Comics), which contained comics sent in by budding artists and/or writers, most of them young amateurs. This was a way for the publisher to find new talents, and to me as a young kid, it was very inspiring. Today, 30 years later, I realize most of the material published in that book really suck – it’s awful – but quite a few artist who debuted there have since become famous.
One thing I really liked about Svenska Serier, was the articles – the How Tos. Well-known artists, writers and editors wrote about the craft; about layout, penciling, inking – and writing scripts. One early issue had an article on how The Phantom was – and still is – written. This may come as a surprise to many of you, but Lee Falks costumed crimefighter, created in 1936, was and still is the most popular adventure comics character in Sweden (and in Australia, where the movie starring Billy Zane was shot). The Phantom got his own book in 1950 and it’s still published twice a month, and since circa 1970, the main bulk of the Phantom comics are produced from the headquarter in Stockholm, Sweden. The stories are written and drawn by people all over Europe, some of them are Swedes, but a handful of Americans (like DC Comics legend Dick Giordano) also work for the mag. The daily strip from King Features Syndicate is still made in the States, though.
This article in Svenska Serier was illustrated with a sample page from a real script; it was extremely small and hard to read (and written on a typewriter, of course), but I still write my scripts like that. The way you write scripts vary from writer to writer, but just like a screenplay for a movie, they mainly look the same.
This is how a script by me may look:

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Page 1

1. (= The first panel)
Splash panel (= Big panel to grab the reader’s attention) with logo, the title of the episode and credits (= writer, artist(s), colorist, letterer…).
We’re in a dark alley. Midnight. In the foreground, we see a mugger holding up a frightened woman. The mugger cocks his gun.
In the background, we see the Hero approaching.

CAPTION:              Midnight. Downtown Manhattan…

Mugger:                Gimme yer money, lady, or I’ll kill ya!

Woman:                 EEEEEEEEK!!!

Hero (thinking):    Something’s going on over there!

Sound FX:              CLICK!

….

2.
The Hero jumps the mugger, who spins around.

Hero:                       Drop that gun, creep!

Mugger:                   Damn!

….

…And so on.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Okay. This is how I do it. Depending on the comic, my descriptions of the scenes vary. If it’s a well-established comic, I usually don’t have to tell the artist more than in the example above. If it’s a project of my own, the descriptions are far more detailed, sometimes with suggestions for the layout. And sometimes, if there’s time for it, I rewrite or edit the dialogue and captions before it’s lettered; sometimes the finished art inspires me – or forces me – to make changes.
Oh, and before you write the actual script, writing a synopsis wouldn’t hurt. A synopsis is a short summary; one page or less, of the story. This is usually what the editor wants to see before a full script is written, at least for stories longer than a couple of pages.

So, old man in the pub, do you understand what I do now?
“Yeah, I think so. The artist gives you the pages and you write what’s in the balloons.”
“Bartender! Gimme another beer. And a whiskey. A double.”

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How To Write Scripts For Comics by Pidde Andersson is licensed under a Creative Commons Erkännande-Inga bearbetningar 2.5 Sverige License.

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