Catching a Vision 022
Writing IV: Composition
Catching a Vision, the (wow, we really had it going) weekly column on Comic Related from C. Edward Sellner, Founder and Creative Director of Visionary Comics Studio. CAV provides practical guidance on how to break into the comics industry, as well as insights into this medium we all love. With resources you can order online, interviews and debates with comic professionals, and online workshops, this is your best introduction into the wonders of creating comics!
Welcome back once again! Let's take another dive into writing comics. At the end, I'll (a little belatedly) address the OTHER major comic news that broke since last time we hung out in this virtual corner.
Last time I focused a good bit on composition, a term used to refer to bringing various elements of an artistic work together in smooth harmony to better enhance the overall finished piece. We looked at how composition needs to be considered in the panel, the page, and touched on it in terms of the entire issue.
Believe me, this is a critical piece to good comics and I will do an entire series on it when I get to drawing the comic. However, as I mentioned last time, the composition of the comic is something a good writer is also going to be thinking of, to help ensure the script has lots of potential for the artist to run with.
Along with discussing all this last time, I included a number of pages from various comic series that incorporate very effective use of composition, meshing art and story together to create truly outstanding work.
Many of you no doubt noticed a number of these are by writer-artists as opposed to the more traditional writer / artist teams. Why? Well, that one's pretty simple. An artist who is also an excellent writer is going to visualize their story and knows how the art can truly enhance the themes and mood. They are going to have the easiest time in bringing all that together in a script that gives plenty of potential and room for the art to bring it to life.
However, it is also VERY possible for a writer and artist working together to bring this to the table as well, as can be seen in the Watchmen samples as well as plenty of other notable comic series that have been published. I'll revisit this after we examine these pages and let all you aspiring writers in on a little secret that might literally change the way you create comics.
This series redefined comics on multiple levels. It was a brilliant collaboration between Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that showed just how powerful a story can be when told effectively in the graphic medium.
It is also very clear this collaboration started long before finished scripts were written. The world itself, the character designs, both the people and their costumes, the environs in general, every visual element re-enforces many of the themes of the series. There are also many visual plays and cues used throughout to tell the story on multiple levels, to illicit intuitive reactions and feelings that enhance the story. This includes the page layouts.
Throughout the twelve-issues, by far, the nine-panel grid layout dominated (as seen in these sample pages). This layout is one that has been used many times in comics throughout their history. Keith Giffen is also quite well-known for his preference of this layout. However, it was used so much in Watchmen that it has since been seen as one of the identifying trademarks of it.
The grid layout has several strengths logistically. It is an easy to follow, standard grid pattern that allows the reader to very easily move through the page. In a way, it is a nice balance to a story far more complex on the intellectual and emotional levels. It allows the reader to use less focus in following the art, to give more focus on what's happening IN the art and in the actual story.
The grid also allows a good bit of story to unfold in every page. It makes it easy for cinematic sequences, where the panels seem akin to animation cells, one following easily after the other in sequence. In a dialogue and character based story, it also allows for a wealth of storyline to unfold.
However, the layouts also enhance the story stylistically and emotionally. Watchmen is a dark, oppressive story, filled with violence, people trapped in various ways by their decisions, their lifestyles, etc. Many of the themes of the story revolve around some form of restraint or constriction. The rigid grid pattern enforces this. Even action scenes are often constrained in smaller panels. When panels DO open up in that series, they contain something truly remarkable.
I don't claim to know and have never read any in-depth review on how Moore and Gibbons collaborated on this series, but it is clear the story focuses on visuals in a way that was brought in at the writing stage. The famous happy face with the blood smear, the ticking clock ticking down to doomsday, at the same time being a visual for WATCHmen, these are all ways the story was brought to life using visual cues and images that were an effective combination from writer and artist.
The Red Star
This series, primarily from creator Christian Gossett, is another comic that has defined itself visually and compositionally from the outset. A sweeping, alternate history, fantasy-sci-fi epic, the art and story work together hand in hand to bring to vivid life a story well-crafted and well-executed.
Almost the opposite of Watchmen that uses a paranoia, clinging, restricting oppression to tell its tale, The Red Star is a sweeping epic that needs lots of room to breathe. My guess is this series has more two-page spreads than any comic in history. Gosset defines this series visually in three ways. First is his own unique art style. Second is his blending of 3-D CGI images with more traditional art. Third is his use of page layouts and specifically 2-page spreads to enhance the storytelling.
His style itself is very energetic, dramatic, and emotionally powerful. His blending of traditional or 'organic' art for people and environs, but CGI rendered images for machines, ships, weapons, etc. is very nicely done. The people remain more dramatic, more 'earthy' and natural. But with the CGI images, he can add a level of 3-D, realism, depth and scale that opens the scenes up more. Pages that spotlight the Russian war ships in the sky are truly impressive pieces that feel like they have a scale befitting a mile long, 20K crew.
Part of what makes this work for Gossett is he allows the pages to open up to really show the scale, the size and scope of this epic he is telling. Very cinematic, movie quality images from that series make this world detailed, complex and feel very real, despite how different it really is.
While it might be argued the typical issue of The Red Star seems to have less content story-wise, there can be no argument that the story that is told leaves you with an impression. There is a sense of grandeur, a sense of the epic, even mythological levels of this story that want you to pause and stare at those wide open pages.
Mike Mignola's Hellboy, like the rest of these, doesn't really need much in the way of introduction. One of the most well-known creator owned series ever and one that has successfully made the leap into film franchise.
When Mignola talked about creating Hellboy, I remember him saying that he had been invited to do a creator-owned series at Dark Horse and decided if he was going to do one it had to be one that let him draw all the stuff he REALLY wanted to draw. He accomplished just that.
Hellboy is a series so defined by Mignola's style that fans have found it hard to accept other artists, even damn good ones, drawing the iconic adventures. It's because Mignola succeeded in creating a character whose appearance and world seems only right when drawn by him. The exception here would be the popularity of the BPRD series with long term artist Guy Davis. Yet, with Hellboy himself, there is no doubt that fans prefer all Mignola.
If we look at how Mignola enhances his story through the art, his style in general is obviously first and foremost. He does not have a distinct layout pattern that defines his work or the series, as he varies it a good bit in keeping with more traditional graphic storytelling. However, he does add some of his own quirks that are purely Mignola. His use of shadow and light, minimalist approach, and some of his distinct camera angles and close up shots also help define the look and feel overall.
So What Does All This Mean?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this series on writing, one of the challenges to the writer in comics, more so than other medium, is how much the quality writer is going to need to focus on and visualize the finished product. That needs to start at the very beginning of the conceptualization of the series and run right through to the final editing of the script.
Which leads me to my closing point on this column: introducing the topic of collaboration, one I will explore far more in-depth after this writing series and the following penciling series.
I am continually amazed at how many writers fully visualize their comic, write the story bibles, write the scripts, fully plot out everything, then go looking for an artist. They've just made their lives ten times harder than it needs to be because, they are looking for a single artist to match a singular vision.
I have a number of properties I've developed over the years, to varying degrees. I've been far more successful in having some things happen in developing them, since I learned a little secret. Instead of picking one and going looking for an artist, I find a great artist I want to work with, one who is professional and eager. I then talk to them about what kinds of things they want to do, genre-wise, storyline wise, etc. I then look at my library of concepts and see if there is a close fit, or then develop one that is.
As a writer, I'm thinking about the quality of the story, how it will unfold, how it will be visualized and how it will be realized in comic form. To do that, I want to start with an artist who is going to have fun, whose style embodies the concept as well as Mignola = Hellboy and who feels they have had some ownership in the series they will work on.
Doing that, in relatively short order, I've got six different series, all with great artists being prepped to spring upon the world.
Something to think about.
AND NOW ON A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT NOTE...
THE INDUSTRY ROUND-UP
First Disney announces its intention to buy Marvel, though that is being challenged by at least one class-action lawsuit, then Warner Brothers announces a major overhaul to DC, forming DC Entertainment.
The new DC will be headed up by a top WB exec, Diane Nelson, and Paul Levitz, long term head honcho will be stepping down from any admin-editorial role and returning to writing. This could potentially be more major news than the Marvel deal as Paul Levitz just may be the single most influential man to have shaped the current comic market.
A lot of his influence has been behind the scenes, but he was instrumental in helping to form, supporting and bolstering the current direct market. He often worked to support comics as a medium and industry, as opposed to just his own slice of that industry's pie. For example, he applied pressure through his position at DC to keep small press well-represented in the direct market through Diamond. When DC had an option to buy Diamond out, he chose to NOT do so, keeping the neutrality of the central distribution venue for the entire comics market.
In other words, he made decisions that benefited comics as a whole, not just always DC. I've no doubt he had a good many headaches and fought a good many arguments on some of those decisions. Levitz, in some ways could be considered the last of the giants in the comics industry who still held a pivotal role with a major publishing house. With his departure there is a sense of sweeping change that could affect the industry in far wider circles than how it will shake up DC.
Nelson is most well known for turning Harry Potter into a household name, taking a great concept and property and leveraging it into a major movie franchise and licensing juggernaut. That was with one series, imagine what she might do with DC's pantheon of heroes!
However, her appointment, and the fact she will be reporting directly to the President of the WB means there will be some aggressive and dramatic changes coming. Unlike the Marvel deal, this may see more direct impact in the DC line of books, a shaking up editorially and in overall vision, or it may not. It will most certainly see a shifting in the exploitation of DC's library of characters in terms of their use elsewhere.
Like the Marvel deal, this has good news and bad news. On the good news front, the whole point of this change is to begin doing more with the characters, broadening their presence and power in the market. Some of the shake-up trickling down in the books could bring good on that front as well, as it will no doubt be aimed at expanding DC's direct market share which has shrunk over the last few years.
On the bad news front, again, there could be shake-ups. Editorially, creatively the books may see change, and some who are fans of the current creators and direction may not like all the changes.
Likewise, I wouldn't be surprised to see DC pushing for some major changes in the direct market structure, even as Disney-Marvel might. It will really be interesting to see what happens on that front in the next few years.
Most of the folks I know in the industry who deal with the current market structure and direct market distribution have long proclaimed the direct market a cornucopia of problems. Now that the two top publishers are being overseen more directly by mega-entertainment conglomerate professionals, they may look at this quaint little system and decide to drastically change everything.
The next few years are going to definitely be interesting times in our little niche of the entertainment world.
Now that we've explored a lot of the comic-specific dynamics of writing comics, we're going to close out this series run with a focus on "Telling the Story" and look at some of the important aspects of telling good stories that work well in comics. Hope to see you there!
Join the discussion and add your thoughts on this edition, or the column in general. If you have any questions or suggestions for resources, post them or email them to Sellner so they can be included in future columns. Are you an aspiring or up and coming creator and would like to share your story? Email Sellner and let him know who you are and what you've done.
C. Edward Sellner is the co-founder and Creative Director of Visionary Comics Studio, a studio that within its first three years has drawn high praise from the media and attracted the attention of legendary creators in the comics industry. They have been digitally and print published in the mainstream market and their creators currently work with over a dozen different publishers. Their work has been featured on television news shows, radio programs and internet podcasts as well as featured in every major comics news site online.
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