Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
It started with a simple question on Brian Michael Bendis’ Tumblr:
what advice do you have for someone that has had writers block for the past 6 or 7 years?
His response was terse:
this will sound harsh but you’re probably not a writer.
writers write every day. it’s ok, not everyone is.
but if you consider yourself one, get off your ass and get back to work!! write about why you haven’t been writing . anything. just write.
… and then it made its way around Tumblr, getting blogged and reblogged and commented on. Here’s a pretty good string of responses and responses-to-responses at Warren Ellis’ Tumblr, and Paul Constant compiled more Tumblr responses in a post at The Stranger, which then accumulated a pretty long comment string of its own.
This particular discussion resonated with me because I was in a similar situation: I wanted to be a writer for years before I actually wrote anything worth reading. It’s true, a writer writes, but when you are just sitting there all alone in front of the keyboard, it can be hard to know what to write or if what you are writing is worthwhile. I wrote great articles in my head but they seldom made it onto the computer, and when they did, I never seemed to be able to finish them. I picked at different things, but with no deadlines, I had no urgency to wrap anything up, and with no one to read my unfinished bits, I got no feedback. It’s one thing to write when you have assignments and deadlines and editors yelling at you; it’s another entirely when you’re sitting there in a vacuum.
So here’s the advice I would have given Bendis’ inquisitor:
“I knew what a movie script looked like, I’d seen them. But I couldn’t get my head around what a comic script was. And eventually, a marvelous comics writer, probably the finest writer of comics there’s ever been, a man named Alan Moore just showed me how to write comics. He sat down and said, ‘Right, right now, you write Page One, Panel One. And then you say everything that is happening in that panel.’ In this case, you know, you’d say, ‘Page one, panel one, Neil Gaiman and Tom Ashbrook are sitting in a studio, there’s paper all over the desk, there are great big microphones. Neil is talking, waving his hands around, doing an impression of Alan Moore. Tom is nodding sagely.’
It’s stage directions, and it’s a letter to an artist. And then underneath, you’d write Tom: ‘It’s stage directions'; Neil: ‘It’s a letter to an artist’ and those would be what would go into the word balloons. And Neil, thought balloon: ‘I’m so glad they got me that cup of tea.’ You put everything. As far as I was concerned, and still to this day, as far as I’m concerned a comic script is a 10,000 word letter to an artist. I would always get puzzled when people would say to me, ‘So you write comics! So you write the words that go in the balloons.’ And you’re going, ‘That’s absolutely the tip of the iceberg.’ What I’m doing is building the cake, and in those words I will tell the artist everything I want to be in the panel — the size of the panel, the shape. What you’re also doing is working with some of the most creative people in the world.”
— The Sandman writer Neil Gaiman, turning his interview with Tom Ashbrook for the WBUR radio show On Point into a comic script on the spot
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.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years of writing the strip is if something I’m writing makes ME uncomfortable, even only a little bit, it will probably offend other people as well, and I should rethink it. The times I’ve ignored that impulse, or told myself “no, it’s only problematic if you take an extremely narrow interpretation of the strip,” guess what: people got offended.
You as an author have control over the intent of your work, but you do not have control over how other people will interpret it. And if someone’s interpretation of your work differs from your intent, while you can defend your intent, it does not necessarily render their interpretation invalid.