Voices Carry

So I’m rereading a couple of my own scripts and obsessing over scenes that have a weak flow.  Without any formal training to speak of, one tends to learn to write comics from reading comics.  That being said, the 22-page format isn’t always conducive to lengthy scenes that wrap up nicely.  Movies have the swell, fade, or abrupt end of a piece of music to assist in the leading of one scene into another.  Comics obviously don’t have that going for it.

The thing is though, I’ve gone from riverbottom scum to riverbank fungus… writing skill-wise, and am now paying better attention to the duality of the comics medium.  Picture and Text.  Image and Thought.  It should be very obvious really, but I’m not exactly the easiest person to teach things to.  Especially when the teacher is me.

Sequential storytelling will kick the story forward with images.  It’s the first thing that hits you because it’s passively consumed.  You can’t help but see a picture.  But when scenes are just strung together (my scenes anyway) with just the images advancing the narrative, the story feels jittery and choppy.  I’m learning these days that while the text obviously carries dialogue and exposition, it is also the strongest tool in scene transition.  A speaker’s words can carry over into the next scene even if he is not present in that scene, creating a sense of continuity.  It sounds simple enough, but it’s surprisingly difficult to pull off.

From Remender's Uncanny X-Force

As for how the spillover text relates to the new scene, that’s a whole other thing entirely.  It can act as a simple throughline connecting the most trivial of story elements together, or it can be a foreshadowing narrative.  It’s all depends on how it’s used.  But one thing’s for certain today… Scene Transition:  A skill definitely worth developing.


Been tweaking the dialogue for Urban Animal #2 for the past week, and I’ve pretty much put most of it to bed.  With the series already completely drawn, I’ve really no choice but to write in a pseudo-Marvel style — applying text that I hope works with the imagery.  I had thought of leaving in the original dialogue from almost a decade ago, but a lot of it now feels verbose and cumbersome.  I like to think that I am at least a little bit better at writing than I was back in college.

In reviewing my scripts and self-editing, I find that I am often guilty of using redundant dialogue, so I’ve been keeping to a set of guidelines as I go along:

1) Dialogue should be brief.
2) It should add to reader’s present knowledge.
3) It should eliminate daily conversational niceties.
4) It should push the narrative forward.
5) It should reveal the speaker’s character, directly or indirectly.
6) It should show relationships among people.

— Elizabeth Bowen

I have a fairly good ear for dialogue, but where it gets wonky is when I have to make different people talk in different ways.  There’s this joke about Silver Age comics not exactly being known for their character-driven dialogue — when Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and the Flash get into a car and drive into a tunnel, if they continue whatever conversation they were having in the daylight, now that all you have is word balloons in the dark, you will have no fucking clue who is saying what.  I heard this on a podcast once, and it just cracked me up.  It speaks to the importance of having dialogue genuinely reflect the speaker’s personality, and that’s what I’m trying to build on today.

The Comedic Element 01

Justin Tyler is one of the hosts of Comic Book Club and a member of the comedy sketch group Side Car.  He has a thinking place with a long poster.

Amor: So the idea for this volley came from our initial chats to eventually collaborate on a comic, with the intention of chronicling the foolishness that the project began with.  I guess we can say for now that we are slowly working on a comedy comic together and safely leave it at that.

Tyler: I love the secrecy. We ARE working on a comedy comic together and I will leave it at “Hurray!”

Amor: To get the ball rolling, let me ask you this — what are some of your favorite funnies in mainstream comics?  As a comedian, your standard for junk like that might actually be pretty high, no?

Tyler: I love the comedy in the first half of the Bone series. It’s so fun and innocent and does such a good job of making you fall in love with those characters. I loved the joke-to-page ratio of the Formerly Known as the Justice League series from 2003. Peter David always manages to sneak some smart jokes into X-Factor. Early Invincible was really fun. Starman had some great jokes and was also an amazing series. Having some level of comedy, just like the real world, makes a comic a fully rounded experience.

As a comedian, I don’t think I have a higher standard for what is funny, it’s just more exposure to it. It makes me crave original humor. You can only hear so many Aquaman-is-useless-on-land jokes before you think “Check. Got it. Let’s give him a hand made of water, that’ll do it.”

Is there a difference on the artist’s end when it comes to comedy? Do you have a special joke pen?

Amor: Man, I wish I did.  Not a lot of illustrators will freely admit it, but the skill to render the wide range of emotions needed to make a comedy comic work is pretty challenging to develop.  Pros will tell you to look in the mirror, yeah well that doesn’t necessarily make it universally simple.  You mentioned Formerly Known as the Justice League as one of your favorites — my love for the BWAHAHA stuff goes back to the JLI, when I used those books as a gateway drug from Archie.  Kevin Maguire’s a complete genius at conveying the emotions needed to make Talking Head Books work.  Other favorites of mine include the genre-bending stylings in Next Wave, and the fourth-wall breakage of any Adam Warren book.

The Aquaman jokes are all good at the start, I guess… but after a while it gets stale and overdone, which really only makes it attributable to lazy writing.  And since no character would actually freely mock Aquaman to his face, it’s really just the writer mocking the character vicariously — know what I mean?  Which brings up the relevance of voice…

Tyler: Well, to be fair, there are ways of mocking Aquaman to his face. He speaks very little French, for one.

Voice. I love talking voice. Voice is essential to good storytelling. When you think of all of the most distinctive, popular characters in comics, what they have in common is a clear voice: Wolverine, Captain America, Batman, Deadpool, Joker, there are others. These are the characters that jump off the page: you can almost hear their “voices” as you read, especially the bubs.

But giving voice to a character is hard. It’s a combination of language, attitude, worldview, accent, emotion, motivation and on the artist’s end, design, look, movement and a ton of other small details that make up the character. It’s so easy to miss one or two of these or over-emphasize others and then the character ends up out of balance and bland or fake.

Aquaman is a good example of this. In many writer’s hands he just doesn’t have a strong voice: he just seems like an underwater superman. Or dying secretly dying with an octopus face. But you look at a mini-series like Peter David’s Aquaman: Time and Tide and he has a clear character, a strong voice and it’s just amazing work. It’s a must read, even though he’s just a bâtard poisson muet…. you know what I mean.

Amor: Hehah! Indeed, I do.  In contrast to that though, something that annoys me a lot, is when a writer will inject too much of himself into a character.  And though it may still be funny in the context of the story, certain characters simply don’t say certain things.  In Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, Wolverine tells Armor to step up her game or else she’ll be transferred to Excalisuck, or something to that effect.  That’s a funny joke… but Wolverine doesn’t say that.  Xander says that.  Buffy banter does not a good X-comic make.

Tyler: Yeah, definitely. Wolverine is not great with banter. He’s got a great stand up comedy act though. Sort of a gruff Carrot Top.

Every writer brings their personal take to the character but the best writers explore the voice through the character rather than laying their personal voice on top of the character. But Wolverine saying “Excalibullshit” would be pretty cool too.