Storytelling in the graphic form, or why writing comics is the bomb

AdamChristopherHeadshotToday’s blog is a special guest post from Adam Christopher, a novelist and Sir Julius Vogel Award-winning editor. Adam is the author of EMPIRE STATE, SEVEN WONDERS and THE AGE ATOMIC. When not writing Adam can be found drinking tea and obsessing over comics and The Cure. You can follow him on Twitter here. We asked him to tell us a bit about what it’s like to tell a story through words AND pictures. You can read his response below and get an EXCLUSIVE, first-look at the art from his forthcoming graphic novel, THE SENTINEL.

Fair warning about what follows: I am no expert. In fact, I’m a total novice. An enthusiastic amateur, you might say.

I’m a writer, and a novelist first and foremost. I’ve got two books out with at least another three coming by 2014 from two different publishers. Novels are my job, and it’s a job I love.

But I also love comics. Comic books flip a switch somewhere in my brain that other types of writing don’t. Comics are, as they say, where it is at. But while I feel like I’ve been practicing for years and years in my head, writing comics is a totally new thing for me.

And I’m having the most fun ever.

Writing comics is a fascinating exercise. Although I’ve written the odd short story and novella, I find novels to be my preferred format – you can really get stuck into a story when you have 100,000 words to play with. Novels (and shorts and everything in between) are, most of the time, solo efforts, not counting all the editorial work that comes when you’ve got the book mostly done, which is a real team effort.

Of course, the beauty of prose fiction is that once you hand it over to the reader, what they see in their heads is totally different to what you, the writer, envisaged. And that’s the whole point. That’s why books are magical – there’s that direct person-to-person telepathy between writer and reader, as Stephen King once described it – but for everyone who reads the work, a completely new and different interpretation of the story and characters and plot and setting is created.

Comics are completely different, obviously. The combination of text and pictures works on different parts of the brain at the same time. They’re different to read, and they’re also very different to write.

When I wrote the first episode of The Sentinel, my forthcoming comic debut from VS Comics, I knew the comic script format like the back of my hand, having tinkered with various attempts in the past, more as practice than anything else, and I had worked out a detailed outline. But as I wrote, I just kept packing in the dialogue and exposition – I couldn’t help it, I’m a novelist! So the characters did a lot, and said a lot, and then usually said it again in a different way while also explaining what was going on. Again.

That first draft was long. Too long. I showed it to a friend of mine who has a long and glittering career in comics, and he kept glancing sideways at me with one eyebrow raised. Fortunately – as with my novels – I’m working with a great editor, Ned Hartley, who helped pare down the script and reminded me of the golden rule of comic writing: trust the artist.

Once I realized that I wasn’t in this alone, writing the script was an experience transformed. Comics show the reader the story in pictures and dialogue, and actually the art tells more of the story than you might realize, something that – comic fanatic as I am – didn’t really get a handle on until I started writing my own script.

See? Novice here, told you so.

So I trusted the artist – the wonderful Nadine Ashworth – and together we’ve crafted this thing, a story in words and pictures, my written script transformed into a living, breathing world filled with the characters I had imagined. As every page arrived, there was more to delight and, most importantly, surprise me. The telepathy here is going between the writer and the artist, and no matter what I put in the script or how much detail I use to describe a panel, the artist will come back with their take on it, inevitably different to what I saw in my own head when I wrote it.

The actual process is multistep. Here’s a rundown, using some panels from the first episode of The Sentinel.

1_TheSentinelScriptExample

From my script, Nadine did a series of page thumbnails – while I indicated the number of panels per page, the actual page layout is up to the artist (unless there is a particular need for a specific layout), laying out the panels.

2_thumbs

Meanwhile, a couple of test panels were drawn, where the artist designed the characters and tried out the colour palette.

3_testpanel

4_sketchinkscolour

Once everyone was happy, the page pencils were done (although Nadine works entirely digitally), followed by inks, followed by colour, each step checked in case any changes need to be made. Dialogue balloons and captions are added later by the letterer, once all the art is complete.

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And that’s it. Repeat for every page, every episode. The first run of The Sentinel is four six-page episodes, which, for a pulpy Prohibition-era urban fantasy featuring a dead detective, a cult that worships the New York subway system, and an evil force returning from Ancient Egypt, suits the story very well.

And it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun, the most I’ve had writing. And I love writing novels, don’t get me wrong. But comics. Man, comics are it, baby.

I have much to learn and a long road to travel, but this is just the beginning.

The Sentinel, by Adam Christopher, with art by Nadine Ashworth, letters by Mike Stock, and edited by Ned Hartley, will debut in VS Comics #4, April 2013.

3 responses to “Storytelling in the graphic form, or why writing comics is the bomb

  1. I find the intersection between traditional authors and graphic novels/comics (e.g. Paul Cornell, Lauren Beukes, Chris Roberson…) and, you, to be really interesting.

    And after 7 Wonders, not surprised you are jazzed to write comics. Not surprised at all.

  2. Pingback: THE SENTINEL sneaky peak, THE AGE ATOMIC ARCs, and LitReactor’s Sci-Fi Writing Challenge | Adam Christopher

  3. Pingback: The Sentinel Update |

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