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Beyond film: the language of comics


Comics can do way more than this…not that there’s anything wrong with this

Oyster War cartoonist Ben Towle posted an interesting consideration this week about how we discuss comics, and the tendency to rely on film terminology. From scripts to reviews to casual exchanges, we often rely on film language, referring to a panel composition as a “shot” or “camera angle,” for instance, despite the vast majority of comics never employing cameras (fumettis not withstanding). By Towle’s own admission, the post is a collection of disorderly thoughts, but it encourages an examination of how we think and talk about comics, and how we make them.

His “Let’s Stop Using Film Terminology to Talk About Comics” is likely to elicit responses like “I’ll use whatever terminology I want” and “What difference does it make?” That first reaction is of course true: We can all use whatever terminology we like. A blog post isn’t going to change that, and certainly the ubiquity of film won’t prevent its terminology being used in the context of comics from being understood. However, the answer to the second response might cause someone to reconsider that first. As Towle explains early on, how we talk about something affects how we think about it. It’s why politicians are so careful in the terms they use to describe opponents and allies. They’re hoping to establish terminology for a group of people, which in turn influences how we think about them as well. Is someone receiving welfare relief or government hand-outs? Was information obtained from prisoners or detainees, and were torture or extreme-interrogation techniques used? Obviously those are very politically charged examples, but to bring it closer to home, there’s a reason the term “graphic novel” was promoted over “comic book” to bookstores and other mainstream outlets. Words not only have meanings, but also connotations; they can imply judgment, status, and much more. They influence how we perceive the subject of discussion and how we’re likely to think of it in the future. So yes, it does make a difference.

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Remembering Elmore Leonard and his ’10 Rules of Writing’

elmore leonard

Although prolific crime author and screenwriter Elmore Leonard didn’t have a direct connection to comic books, it’s clear from the number of tweets about his death today at age 87 that he influenced a number of comics writers. Of course, labeling Leonard a “crime author” undoubtedly does him a disservice, as he wasn’t restricted by genre; his earliest works were Westerns, like his 1952 short story “Three-Ten to Yuma,” which has been adapted twice for the big screen.

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Quote of the day | Joe Hill on the fall, and rise, of thought balloons

“My dad did his script for American Vampire, and he showed it to me, and I didn’t have a lot to tell him, but the one thing I did have to say was, ‘Dad, they don’t use thought balloons any more.’ And he was shocked, he was scandalized, he couldn’t understand why you don’t use thought balloons. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, it just doesn’t look cool any more.’ […] But I don’t know, maybe it’s time for thought balloons to come back. If surf rock can rise again, surely there’s room for thought balloons. […] The problem is thought balloons have always been used expositionally. It’s always like, ‘My God, if I don’t turn off the tractor beam, the alien Zurg …’ or whatever it is, and it’s just like, ‘Uh, no one thinks this.’ If the thought balloons were like, Reed Richards, like, looking at Dark Phoenix and she’s in the Dark Phoenix thong or whatever and the thought balloon was like, ‘Man, I’d like to do her,’ that would be fresh.”

Locke & Key writer Joe Hill, bestselling author and son of Stephen King,
talking with CBR TV  at WonderCon about, well, thought balloons

Sam Humphries on the secret life of Sacrifice

by Cliff Chiang

2011 was a great year for writer Sam Humphries; he and artist Steven Saunders self-published and self-distributed a successful one-shot called Our Love Is Real, which sold out several times and eventually was picked up by Image Comics. From there, he teamed up with artist Dalton Rose for a six-issue, self-published and self-distributed series called Sacrifice. The first issue came out last month and told the story of Hector, a time traveler/Joy Division fan who finds himself in the middle of the Aztec empire. The comic includes not only references to Aztec culture, but also pop music and the culinary delights of Rancho Peñasquitos.

Humphries has guest-blogged with us several times in the past, so when it was time to send out invitations to the big Robot 6 birthday bash, I put him at the top of the list. He brought gifts, too, in the form of a rundown of the various references included in the first issue of Sacrifice, a look at the Jade Edition cover variant of issue #2 by Wonder Woman artist Cliff Chiang and critical information on the healing powers of tacos. You can pre-order a physical copy of the second issue through, or you can find it at several comic shops. The first issue can be downloaded now via Graphicly or comiXology.

Now let’s hear from Sam …

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A ‘novel’ approach: Marjorie Liu on writing prose, Astonishing X-Men and other matters

Marjorie Liu is the sort of writer other writers envy. We in the comics world know her for her Marvel work, including X-23 and Black Widow and, most prominently, her just-announced gig as writer for Astonishing X-Men, but she has a whole other life as a prose novelist. Her latest books are Within the Flames, the tenth in a series of paranormal romances about shape-shifters, and The Mortal Bone, an urban fantasy novel about a woman whose body is covered with demonic tattoos that come to life. I talked to Marjorie this week about her work in all three genres, and her plans for the near future of the X-Men.

Brigid Alverson: You were writing prose novels before you wrote comics. What sort of adjustments did you have to make to your writing (both style and process) when you moved from one medium to another?

Marjorie Liu: I had two great mentors when I first started: my editor, John Barber, and editorial assistant, Michael Horwitz. Both of them “held my hand” through the process, giving me sample scripts and a lot of wonderful advice. What I found that helped (sometimes, not always) was focusing just on the dialogue. I’d imagine these characters caught in the moment, and write down their conversations. Then, I’d break it into panels.

But yes, it was an adjustment. When I write a novel, I’m responsible for every aspect of storytelling: I have to provide the visuals, all the emotion, through my words. Plus, the story is a lot longer—upward of 100,000 words. Comics are much shorter, and I have a partner-in-crime: the artist, who tells the story through his or her illustrations. It’s such a privilege to participate in that kind of storytelling.

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Comics A.M. | Stuck in the Middle to remain in school library

Stuck in the Middle

Libraries | A committee recommended Monday that Stuck in the Middle: 17 Comics from an Unpleasant Age, an anthology of comics about middle school edited by Ariel Schrag, should remain in the Buckfield Junior-Senior High School library in Dixfield, Maine, after the mother of a student challenged its appropriateness because of “objectionable sexual and language references.” The local school board will make a final ruling in January. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom sent a letter of support for the book prior to the hearing. A school board in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pulled the graphic novel from middle-school libraries in November 2009, but allowed teachers to continue to use it in class. [Sun Journal]

Digital | Charlie Sorrel looks at the iPad comic reader called, appropriately enough, Comic Reader. [Wired]

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Are spoilers spoiling comics? Or holding them to a higher standard?

Spoiler alert

DC and Marvel have complained for years about how difficult it is to continue surprising readers when everyone has access to solicitation information two months before a story comes out. To combat that, they’ve offered a steady increase in the number of redacted solicits and “classified” covers; a solution that’s not just unhelpful to retailers trying to decide how many comic to order, but creates a situation in which retailers have to rely on publishers saying, “We can’t tell you anything about it, but trust us, you’re going to want lots of this one.” If I’m a retailer, that sounds like an untenable situation to be in. But what if it’s a whole lot of noise about something that doesn’t have to be a problem?

Last month, a study revealed that – contrary to conventional wisdom – spoilers can actually increase enjoyment of a story. According to UC San Diego psychology researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, “subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories” and knowing the ending ahead of time “not only didn’t hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.” Click the link for a fuller run-down of how the study was conducted, but the research is relatively unimportant. It just scientifically demonstrates something everyone already knew was true.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve come out of a movie that I enjoyed for its thrilling pace, but realized how many plot holes there were as soon as I started discussing it with my friends. Or the number of comics I’ve read where I was caught up in the “event” only to be disappointed by the end that there was no real story there. In the words of Christenfeld and Leavitt, “plot is overrated.”

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Comics A.M. | Borders files for bankruptcy, plans to close 192 stores


Retailing | Borders Group, the second-largest book chain in the United States, filed for bankruptcy protection this morning, announcing plans to close about 192 of its 639 Borders, Waldenbooks, Borders Express and Borders Outlet locations over the next several weeks. It’s unclear how many of the company’s 6,100 full-time and 11,400 part-time employees will be affected by the closings. Borders, which listed $1.29 billion in debt and $1.27 billion in assets, plans to continue to operate through the court process with the help of $505 million in financing from lenders led by G.E. Capital.

The likelihood of bankruptcy has loomed for the past several weeks as the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based bookseller pushed unsuccessfully for publishers and distributors to convert late payments into $125 million in loans. That concession was critical to Borders securing $550 million in refinancing from G.E. Capital. Publishers like Penguin Group, Hatchette, Simon & Schuster, Random House and HarperCollins are now, in Publishers Weekly‘s words, on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars. Diamond Book Distributors, which stopped shipping to Borders last month, is owed $3.9 million. [Bloomberg, The New York Times]

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Quote of the day | Tom Brevoort’s bad-comic blind item

Yesterday in Reading Circle, we read a competitor’s book that was one the absolutely most amateurish pieces of drek I’ve ever seen. I don’t really want to name the book or the creators, because that feels like a different sort of bashing, but this book embarassed itself. From the folks involved and the company involved, you’d expect a better minimum set of standards. Made worse by the fact that one of the principle creators is a key player at the company, and displayed an utter lack of storytelling knowledge or understanding of how comics work. We put out our share of stinkers, but if one of my editors turned this book in, they’d be on probation, at least. Comics are expensive these days, and so every issue, every shot, must count. We need to have better minimum standards. All of which is hopelessly cryptic without naming the book, of course, but there you have it. It made me want to slap someone.

There’s more craft evidenced on the plastic bag of FF #587 than on the whole of the issue we read yesterday. One of our editors read it and was appalled by it, so I thought it was worth further study by the group. Sometimes, a bad example teaches more by example. An absolute lack of understanding of character, theme, scene, pacing, lousy tinny dialogue, incompetent artwork…it was just a red hot mess. And editorial oversight was ineffective, if even engaged. The editor in question is now in my mind, so if he ever applies over here, he’d better have a good story to tell.

Marvel Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort in a no-punches-pulled (except the name of the book, of course) Twitter takedown of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad comic from some other publisher. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a pretty harsh thing to say about Drawn & Quarterly and Adrian Tomine’s Scenes from an Impending Marriage. Haha, jk, LOL — what book do you think he’s talking about?

Writing tips from an artist

A page from Dawn Patrol

Martha Sperry has never written a graphic novel, but she has illustrated quite a few, and she is working with a writer right now to create Dawn Patrol, a graphic novel about the Battle of Britain. So when she explains the process of writing graphic novels, as she did recently for Beyond the Margins, it is from the perspective of someone who has worked with a number of writers, as opposed to “This is how I do it.” Her post is a good first look at the process, and she emphasizes the importance of collaboration, so that the finished work is not an illustrated book but truly a story told in pictures:

In my mind, the biggest challenge for a writer working with an illustrator is trusting the illustrator to help refine the visuals to better communicate the story. I perceive the greatest difference between writing a traditional novel and a graphic novel is learning how to exercise the skill required to “think in pictures.” The writer has at least as much responsibility for framing the images as the illustrator, and that means envisioning and examining the images to ensure that they tell the story the writer intends to tell. A writer who can move easily between the words and the images has already planted the seeds for a great graphic novel.

Comics A.M. | Steve Rude’s home, Jim Davis’ apology, Stan Lee’s star

From Steve Rude's 2011 calendar

Creators | Renowned artist Steve Rude has announced that money raised from an online art and comics auction has enabled he and his family to keep their home: “When I saw the bread coming in after Gino made her announcement (this was unbeknownst to the oblivious Dude), I was, and still am, in a mild state of stupefication. The outpouring of generosity was clearly far beyond what Gino and I could’ve asked for. Your contributions poured in from all corners of our planet; the sizeable backstock of comics and Dude related ‘higher reading paraphernalia’ were ordered by the spit-load; and Erik Larson bought his complete Next Nexus 3 issue! All said, we saved the house.” The Nexus creator is still working to regain his financial footing, so he’s selling 2011 calendars and, soon, a new sketchbook. [DudeNews]

Creators | Stan Lee will receive his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Jan. 4. [Mark Evanier]

Jim Davis

Comic strips | Cartoonist Jim Davis has issued an apology for an ill-timed Garfield strip that appeared on Veterans Day. The strip, which appeared in newspapers on Thursday, featured a standoff between Garfield and a spider, and referred to “an annual day of remembrance” called “National Stupid Day.” In a statement, Davis explained that the strip was written almost a year ago, “and I had no idea when writing it that it would appear today — of all days.” [CNN, The Daily Cartoonist]

Conventions | Wizard World Austin Comic Con kicks off today at the Austin Convention Center. [The A.V. Club Austin, KXAN]

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Quote of the day | Tom Brevoort’s advice for young comics writers

Feel like it’s perhaps time to drop some knowledge–or what passes for it at any rate–to young writers. I’ve run into a couple of moments this week where I’d swear, you guys don’t quite understand what your job as storytellers is.

Tom Rule #1: Know what your story is about. Not what the plot is, but what the point is. Why you’re telling it beyond collecting a check. If you can swap out your leads for other characters and it changes nothing meaningful, you story does not work. It’s all about characters.

Tom Rule #2: Do not try to impress me or others with Byzantine structures or pseudo-clever narrative devices. These tools all have their place, but they don’t in the slightest make up for not making me care about the characters. When in doubt, simpler is better. Start at start, as much as possible. Take the time to make me give a damn about these people.

While they’ve become industry standard, devices like “Dueling Narrators”, where two characters have a back-and-forth conversation over barely-related visuals is inherently confusing and pulls people out of the story. Clarity is your friend, and your job. Impress me with the conflicts your characters face, and the choices that they make. Don’t be overblown for it’s own sake.

Also, dropping a lot of references to old stories isn’t the same thing as making me care about people. By itself, it’s lazy, counting on good will and interest in the characters created by your predecessors. Your job is to make me care every issue. Emotional Truth!

Your mission is to tell your story directly, and well. In general, novices love technique, pros love content. Don’t confuse them. Remember, you’re asking readers to drop at least three bucks and twenty minutes of their lives for this experience. Earn it.

I will remember a story that touched me or moved me far longer than one that was over-clever in its execution. It is in no way passé or uncool to be direct.

Also, watch any episode of any television show and count how many times characters are named. Tell me your cast’s damn names! Every issue!

Alan Moore is incredibly talented. He can break the rules, because he knows how. You are not Alan Moore. Not yet. Walk first, then run. There are a million ways to write a comic book, but nobody enjoys being baffled, or uninvolved, or just plain bored.
And that’s one to grow on.

–Marvel Senior VP-Executive Editor Tom Brevoort, in an epic Twitter “rant” (his word, not mine — this is way too reasonable to constitute ranting) last week. Who says you have to be “stupid and provocative” to get on Robot 6, Tom? (Although the tweets did apparently trigger a miniature stampede of creators concerned Brevoort was talking about them…)

Elements of craft: Jim Campbell talks lettering

For those who are interested in the details of the craft, letterer Jim Campbell, has set up Jim Campbell’s Comic Book Lettering Blog, and if the title seems straightforward enough, the URL takes a moment’s thought. (Here’s a hint if you’re still mystified.) This blog is probably more useful to aspiring letterers (and comics creators) than the general reader, as Campbell takes the reader step by step through the creation of different shapes of word balloons and lettering types, usually working with Adobe Illustrator, and presents some useful resources as well. And he answers questions! Campbell also has a five-part tutorial on lettering with Adobe Illustrator that can be downloaded for free. His current gigs include lettering for Classical Comics, Markosia Enterprises, and Zenescope.

Robot 666 | Steve Ellis draws Nosferatu!

In honor of Robot 666 Week and 31 Days of High Moon, artist Steve Ellis walks you through the process of drawing famed vampire Nosferatu. Check it out above!

Also, David and Steve are giving away a bag of High Moon swag to anyone who changes their icon to something High Moon related on Facebook or Twitter. Find all the details on their blog.

Frank Santoro gets back on the grid with Watchmen

The great cartoonist and critic Frank Santoro is once again tackling grid-pattern panel layouts, and this time he’s talking about arguably the most famous nine-panel grids of all: Those used by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in their stone-classic superhero dissection Watchmen. Here’s a sample that includes an insight about the art in that book that had never occurred to me before:

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