Writing comics is a craft that takes a specific skill set. It requires an appreciation for brevity and economy of storytelling, an ability to show things visually rather than spelling them out in exposition, mastery of visual pacing, and an ability to balance dialogue against action and physical space restraints. On top of those skills which are particular to comics, the writer must also have a firm grasp of plotting, pacing, characterization and all of the basic tools that are required of any other storyteller.
Because the challenges that face the writer of sequential art are fairly unique, I have compiled a list of what I feel are the most important books on the craft. Anyone scripting comics, especially long-form stories, would be ill-advised to skip any of these titles. I’m not saying that everything in each book should be taken as gospel. There are few statements in some of these books that I absolutely disagree with, but the bulk of their insight and advice is gold. No one’s creative process is the same, but each of these books holds something important for any visual storyteller to learn. Bruce Lee once said “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” Consider the words of these masters and take from each what you feel can be applied.
- Understanding Comics By Scott McCloud
Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is so much more than a how to book. It is a heart-felt love letter to sequential art. It is even told as a comic! Rather than go on about story structure, pacing, and all the other basics of writing, McCloud looks at all the things that make comics unique and wonderful and inspects them under a microscope. This book examines how time passes through the use of space and gutters, how sound is expressed in a silent medium, how movement is expressed in still pictures, and the various ways emotion can be conveyed through a series of images. Additionally, it gives you the history of the medium, from ancient times through the computer age.
Understanding comics is an excellent book, not just for creators and would be’s, but for anyone who loves comics, graphic novels, manga, or even comic strips. There is no other book out there that takes such a serious, intellectual and thorough look at what makes this medium so special and unique.
- Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting By Syd Field
While this book is focused on scripting for film, it is an amazing resource for anyone who tells stories in a visual medium. Syd Field is considered the guru of screenwriting and there is a lot we can all learn from his words.
This book was recommended to me by Mike Siglain while I was going through a Comics Experience mentorship program, and with good reason. Syd Field examines how to visually and emotionally engage your audience, how to incorporate characters that stick, creating excellent dialogue, and how to exploit the strengths of a visual medium while overcoming its weaknesses.
As this book talks about how to adapt one’s existing story or novel into a screenplay, it is of particular worth to writers of prose who are working toward their first comic script. Since since film is a more familiar language than comics to many, Screenplay might be a good starting point for writers who want to make comics but did not grow up reading them.
Just keep in mind that film and sequential art still have fundamental differences. Pacing, time, sound, and dialogue all have different laws in each medium. A common pitfall for new writers is to script a comic as if it were a movie.
- Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative By Will Eisner
Will Eisner is a legend in the field of comics. The industry’s highest honor, the Eisner Award, is named after him. Will’s work ignited the imaginations of a generation of future creators and storytellers. Lucky for us, he also spoke about his process.
Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative is really comics 101. It delivers all the basics of telling a story with pictures and, up until Scott McCloud starting writing books about comics, it was THE most important book about the craft.
Mr. Eisner explores how to tell a story in interesting ways, how to use background images to convey important information, and how to utilize visual shorthand in order to make your stories more concise.
Now, this book was written a long time ago, and comics have evolved quite a bit since then. There are certain techniques in here that may seem crude to a fan of sophisticated, modern comics. Before you can break the rules though, you need to learn them, and this is the rule book.
- The DC Comics Guide To Writing Comics By Dennis O’neal
So this is a book which I got by mistake. I had tried to order a different book on writing (which will be the next on our list), and the clerk ordered me O’neal’s book by accident. The mistake of the bookseller turned out to be a happy accident, as I found the insights of this volume to be quite valuable.
The DC Comics Guide To Writing Comics looks at the entire writing process. O’neal compares and contrasts the full script (which is more standard today) against the Stan Lee style plot point script. Additionally he takes a deeper look later on at the details of sitting down and actually putting the script down on paper.
The book details different types of stories, particularly the type that appear in mainstream comics, making the book particularly important for writers of cape and spandex fare. A lot of attention is given to maintaining dramatic tension to keep the reader hooked, once again with a special focus on power fantasies.
My favorite part of this book is O’Neal’s insight about the use of subplots. The powerful ways in which one can use a subplot, especially in a serialized situation, as well as the inherent challenges of sub-plotting are explored.
While this book may be too “super-centric” for the hardcore indie folks, it is a must read for anyone who has ambitions to write for a licensed property or for the big two.
- Write or Wrong: A Writer’s Guide to Creating Comics by Dirk Manning
Dirk Manning is the writer of Nightmare World, Love Stories about Death and Tales of Mr. Rhee. He is also a writer for Zenescope and Big Dog Ink. While he may not be a legend like the other guys on this list, he is contemporary creator who’s career is steadily on the rise. There are three big reasons for Dirk’s success. He is a work horse, he is incredibly tenacious, and he is extremely talented.
Write or Wrong is a polished up collection of Mr. Manning’s column by the same name. In this collection, he details everything from writing for comics, to what kind of horror works in comics, to how to deal with collaborators, to what to do when real life gets in the way.
While this is a valuable resource on writing, I find that the greater value of this book is the insight Dirk gives about the realities of making comics. More than any other book on the market, Write or Wrong takes a hard look into the face of the comic book industry and tells upcoming talent just what to expect. In no uncertain terms, Dirk reveals the peaks and valleys of this business and lets the reader know that making comics is a labor of love, not for the feint of heart. If you have the steel to stick with it though, Write or Wrong will surely serve as invaluable resource.