Saturday, March 31, 2012

Editing Comic Scripts

Sean Cloran asks: 

How have you determined what to trim, remove or leave out a comic script? That is a kooky question, but comic book scripts to me have to have a certain balance since in most cases the script has to go another creative person to make a finished product. 
For example, One could write a scene where a character looks for his car keys for 20 panels and maybe create a certain visual pacing but it would probably be better just to have the character on panel one say, "Sorry, I'm late I had trouble finding my car keys." and move on with the story.
Can you recall any specific stories where you had to "kill your darlings" for telling a better story?

After writing comic books for so long it's generally pretty easy for me to just go ahead and write a story for a specific length. I don't generally outline beyond knowing what the character arc is going to be (or what aspect of the character I want to highlight with the story) and general things like what the basic plot will be, what needs to be said and by whom, what props, or seeds for a future story need to be planted, and what ideas need to be introduced. That's usually enough to get me through an issue of a comic book. Having said that, with a comic book story set at 22 pages in length I'll often finish with 20 pages (which is no problem to fill out) or 24 pages, which means something has to go. 

The decision of what to cut usually comes down to anything that isn't entirely necessary for telling the story. That seems pretty obvious, but with my work, I usually put the characters first and plot serves as a supporting function to develop the characters, whether that's something long term like Xombi, or even a 2-issue Batman story. If you read anything of mine, there are lots of bits of character interaction and conversation that don't necessarily move the story forward but instead serve to define the characters and their relationships with one another making their actions in regards to the plot itself truer and more complex. 

Generally, if it's an action oriented comic book, I will cut out some of the action. My feeling is that with over 75 years of super hero comics behind us, everyone reading them has seen two people in garish outfits hitting each other frequently enough that they can fill in the blanks and get the sense that a hefty battle is being waged even if I cut out a page of someone getting beaten with a parking meter or having a bus thrown at them. This seems like something easier to do away with and without the same impact that cutting a scene that strengthens the bond between two characters through their interaction over dinner. 

If I do end up choosing to cut character bits, I'll do so based on how much impact it has on the story itself. Often times, it's material that I can move forward to another issue, or figure out another way to convey in less space. With the recent Xombi series, I ended up doing a pretty broad, yet complete plot outline simply for the purposes of approval with a new series. Each issue was condensed to a few sentences, with longer explanations for character arcs and thematic undercurrents. This outline was for a series which was made up of 22 page issues. After issue #1, the page count of DCs titles dropped to 20 pages, which doesn't seem like much, but over the course of issues #2-#6 that amounted to ten whole pages of material that had to go, which is why issue #3 seemed a bit caption heavy. Some scenes I wanted to include and decided to cut were things I was really looking forward to including, but if they didn't serve the story they had to go. Most of these things were character bits, interactions between the characters. The story works fine with out them, and may, or may not have been richer if they were there. 

In terms of killing my children, that happens all of the time. When it was decided that Midnight, Mass. was going to be cut off with issue #8, instead of being an ongoing series, I'd already written past issue #9, but had to go back and try and pull out anything extraneous that hadn't already been drawn, and throw out all of issue #8 and try and turn everything into something that felt like it came to something like a satisfying conclusion. 

For the second Midnight, Mass. series, the scene that the entire storyline grew out of ended up being cut. I really loved it. I thought it was very funny and incredibly horrible at the same time and highlighted the dichotomy of monsters I was building in Midnight, Mass. by portraying them as well rounded people, not so different from us, but also very different and truly monsters. I just didn't have the space, and as much as I wanted to keep it in, in the end it was really enhancement and not necessary to moving the story forward. I also had planned to kill Arturo off at the end of issue #1, but he ended up being incredibly important to the story. 

The pacing issues that you bring up with the example of the keys brings to mind two things. When I write a comic book script I break it down panel by panel, with how many panels will be in a page, what will be in them, and what will be said, so that the artist knows how much space is needed for balloons, pacing, etc. I ALWAYS give them the right to mess with that. If they can condense four panels into two, or want to add panels, or reconfigure them, so long as the story's flow works, and that dialogue is paced properly, I'm good with that. Guy Davis did some extraordinary things with adding panels to cross cut the action in the never published Xombi Hanukkah Special that really enhanced the tension and danger of the climax. Likewise, Frazer Irving did amazing things with condensing entire scenes into single panels that really conveyed the passing of time and a character moving through space in a new and exciting way that was nothing I scripted. 

The pacing with the keys, as you point out, can be done a number of different ways depending on what you are trying to get across. If you just want someone unlocking a door, use one panel. If you are trying to show that they are absent minded, clumsy, or are new to a home, by still not knowing which key unlocks the front door, use several. When I wrote The X-Files comic book, the producers of the show wanted it to replicate the show as closely as possible, which meant no narrative captions. I ended up meeting with them, and pointing out that the tv series had the benefit of music, sound effects, and editing which controlled how long the viewer was able to look at something on screen, which were not tools available in comics. On tv, if someone picks a lock, it takes a few seconds. In comics, showing someone picking a lock in the same manner can use up half a page, but if I can use  a caption that says "Mulder picks the lock on the door" I don't even need to show it at all if I don't want to. This really helped us use the strengths inherent to the comic book medium to improve the comic book series, and led to a great deal of trust between the folks at tenthirteen productions and myself with regards to the material.

I hope all this rambling helps answer your question. I've got an old question of your to answer tomorrow, so stay tuned.


Sean Cloran said...

Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Your "ask me anything" feature, is a great resource, I certainly do appreciate you taking the time and effort to answer these questions. I am excited to read what this unanswered question is? I don't remember a specific question that did not get answered previously, hopefully it isn't a goof one, like, "How much wood could a woodchuck, blah, blah, blah?".

John Rozum said...

Thanks, Sean. I try to be useful.

Your mystery question, and it's answer, is now up.