This guide (Avatar, 2008) was originally written for a fanzine back in 1985, when independent comics publishers were only beginning to flex their muscles, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale had not yet been published in an anthologized format. At that time, even the majority of independents were printing superhero books that didn’t look all that different from what was being published in the mainstream, though there were notable exceptions. Moore acknowledges the early work of Eddie Campbell, Harvey Pekar, Jaime Hernandez, and Frank Miller in his pages, all authors who would continue to create groundbreaking comics long after the publication of this essay.
Criticizing the Comics
In Writing for Comics, Moore is critical of the cliché approaches to plot and characterization being used in the vast majority of comics writing (remember that this is 1985), and argues that the rut is endemic of how people think about the medium.
I’d like to talk about the approaches and thought processes that underlie writing as a whole rather than about the way those processes are finally put down upon paper (2).
In this endeavour, Moore only partially succeeds. The distinction that he draws between how one thinks about the “processes that underlie writing” and the “way those processes are finally put down upon paper” is an artificial one. Prior to actively engaging with the creative process, thoughts are little more than just that—thoughts. And if Moore is writing about those thoughts, then do they actually precede the writing process? So long as he is putting them down on paper it’s hard to see how that is the case. As Moore concedes himself in the “Afterwords” section, his essay “…was composed in simpler, far less complex times, and by a simpler, far less complex individual (43).”
When Writing for Comics was first printed, Moore saw that to elevate comics to their full potential, writers had to move beyond the existing paradigm and into new areas of experimentation. Comics were plagued with the curse of formulaic writing and illustration, in part thanks to the publication of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which may have inadvertently silenced what might otherwise have been an entire generation of highly expressive and individualized voices in comics writing and illustration.
The challenge for Moore as he presents it, both then and now, is how to make comics relevant. How can comics storytelling be useful, in the sense that we can learn something about ourselves and our world from reading them? The strategies used to generate the graphic narratives of yesteryear are now outmoded—so in their work, how do comics creators adapt to the inevitability of change in the present and the future? To Moore’s reckoning, the writing process is an essential ingredient in this transformation, since comics scripts tend to be written prior to the production of any accompanying artwork.
The Language of Comics
When we talk about the language of comics, what do we compare it with? Cinematic expression has heavily influenced visual narrative approaches used in comics. This is especially true in light of the influence of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane on Will Eisner. When the film was first released in 1941, Eisner began to incorporate filmic qualities into early issues of The Spirit.
Comics, Moore asserts, are frequently compared with both film and literature, however misguided the comparisons often may be. Consider the following:
Rather than seizing upon the superficial similarities between comics and films or comics and books in the hope that some of the respectability of those media will rub off on us, wouldn’t it be more constructive to focus our attention upon those ideas where comics are special and unique? Rather than dwelling upon film techniques that comics can duplicate, shouldn’t we perhaps consider comic techniques that films can’t duplicate? (4).
Where do we begin? Moore imparts that on the one hand it doesn’t matter, since each point of entry into the medium informs the other. But he also suggests that it makes sense to tackle the more pedantic aspects of comics initially, in order that the trajectory of his exploration follows from the general to the specific. To that end, Moore begins with a discussion of theme, without naming it as such—rather, Moore chooses to speak to the idea of the story, or what it is about.
There is no substitute for practical experience, and if you want to write about people you ought to put down that comic book and go out and meet some of them…It becomes a matter of tuning your perceptions to notice little quirks of circumstance that might otherwise slip by unnoticed, studying your own behavior and the behavior of people and events surrounding you, until you feel you have developed a coherent angle upon life and reality, at least one which relates to a perspective upon events that will suggest original and individual story ideas (8).
Moore points out that ideas needn’t initially be laid out linearly to facilitate story construction. It may be that ideas begin randomly, only to assume a coherent form over time—the important point being that hopefully you are able to mine ideas that have been jotted down randomly to use in a meaningful context!
Moore criticizes industry conservatives who encourage storytelling that caters only to the greatest common denominator—in other words, content that won’t offend the moral majority. But who is the comic’s audience? Moore suggests that there is no such thing as the “average reader,” and that to pander to such a notion belittles the reality that there are not only many different kinds of comics, but there are also many different kinds of people reading them.
Telling Your Story
What are tools that the writer can use to aspire towards success, given the predicament of a widely varied and generally unknown audience? Moore suggests the inclusion of humour and the inclusion of fearful events as two examples that will resonate with readers, because of their ability to imagine themselves in the situations that characters may be going throug. In both cases, “the material is human thoughts and human feelings and human ideas (14).” So. Keep it human.
Next Moore divulges into a discussion of narrative structure, and the importance of understanding whatever structure is being imposed on a work. Examples include:
- The elliptical structure (the beginning and the end of the story meet up with one another);
- Starting in the middle of the story and simultaneously fleshing out the beginning and the end as the narrative moves forward;
- The “jigsaw” (piecing together an entire story through the points of view of various individuals involved in the story, until the whole story is told);
- Less formal, anecdotal approaches such as those of Eddie Campbell, Phil Elliott or Ed Pinsent.
From here, Moore moves onto “storytelling devices,” which include transition scenes, pacing, rhythm, flow, etc. On the subject of transition, Moore remarks,
As I see it, a successful story of any kind should be almost like hypnosis: You fascinate the reader with your first sentence, draw them in further with your second sentence and have them in a mild trance by the third. Then, being careful not to wake them, you carry them away up the back alleys of your narrative where they are hopelessly lost within the story, having surrendered themselves to it, you do them terrible violence with a softball bat and then lead them whimpering to the exit on the last page. Believe me, they’ll thank you for it.
The important thing is that the reader should not wake up until you want them to, and the transitions between scenes are the weak points in the spell that you are attempting to cast over them (17).
The spell cast on the reader through fiction will only last if a successful rhythm is maintained up until the hypnotist wishes to awaken the reader. In comics, the passage from one page to the next and from one panel to the next is the swing of the pendulum used to prolong the trance.
Moore describes how transitions contribute to the creation of rhythm; two consecutive pages may introduce verbal or visual cues that simultaneously link the two through association, but also create distance. These transitions may be effected using wordplay, colour, and imagery. Pacing is also managed from one panel to the next on the same page. The use of dialogue as it accompanies and flows through a sequence of images is equally important, since some panels are designed to hold the reader’s attention for longer than others.
Moore concludes by explaining that as a writer, one is limited only by the imagination; that as a writer one should be thinking about what one is doing; and one should know when to apply storytelling devices in the interests of advancing the narrative.
Creating Your World
Moore suggests that the best way to envision the world within which your story will occur is to imagine as much as possible about that environment. The most telling example that I have encountered demonstrating this approach in comics involves the creator Seth. In an interview transcribed in Todd Hignite’s In the Studio, the artist describes how he has created cardboard three-dimensional models of the entire downtown core that serves as a set for his most recent graphic narrative. Although most people would not go to this extreme, clearly some do—authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and the film director James Cameron in producing Avatar (see the Wired article) conducted extensive background research on their worlds to make them as realistic as possible.
Next, ask yourself, “Who are the inhabitants of this world, and where do they live?” Both personal and social histories can be closely linked to geography, although in most comics great lengths are not made to connect the two. Developing complex personas seems to be a challenge for comics; Moore’s opinions on the subject of characterization in graphic narrative are unwaveringly clear:
The approach to characterization in comic books has evolved, like everything else in this retarded bastard medium, at a painfully slow pace over the last 30 or 40 years. The earliest approach found in comics was that of simple one-dimensional characterization, usually consisting of “This person is good” or “This person is bad.” For the comics of the world that they were attempting to entertain, this was perfectly adequate. By the early 1960s, however, times had changed and a new approach to characterization was needed. Thus Stan Lee invented two-dimensional characterization: “This person is good but has bad luck with girlfriends,” and “This person is bad but might just reform and join the Avengers if enough readers write in asking for it.” Again, at the time this was breathtakingly innovative and seemed a perfectly good way of producing comics that had relevance to the times in which they were being produced (23).
To bring comics characters to three-dimensional individuation, Moore suggests that authors study the complex behaviours of individuals in everyday life. Observe the ways in which people act differently around different people, and the ways in which people’s personas are not always as predictable as we might think.
Additionally, Moore suggests that writers may benefit from dramatizing characters’ actions through method-acting—he provides the example of his pretending to be a demon, in order to better understand how the experience might be represented in illustrated form. He acknowledges that one of the advantages of writing fantastic stories, for example the scripts that Moore authored for the Saga of the Swamp Thing, is that “…if you get the characterization of your walking vegetable wrong, you aren’t going to offend anybody or hurt anybody or misrepresent anybody that actually exists” (27). Whereas if one were to attempt to represent a character who self-identifies as part of a minority ethnic group, for example, without the writer being a part of that group, the stakes could be much higher if the character’s identity was poorly depicted.
Moore rightly points out that plot ought not be the driving force behind creating a story, but should rather enhance whatever dynamic interplay is already taking place between characters, setting, and the central idea behind a story. “The plot is a situation seen in four dimensions (30);” those of the environment, characters, and time—which taken collectively comprise “the situation.”
Theme, plot, setting, characterization: for an essay that suggests it will approach the writing of comics using a holistic approach, Moore’s Writing for Comics ends up sounding very much like it is delivering the content of a traditional high school English course—the vast majority of the tenets to which Moore adheres in his essay are unsurprising to anyone who has read at least one book on how to write fiction.
The Power of Suggestion
Through using the painting “The Hireling Shepard” by William Holman Hunt as an example, Moore demonstrates how a story can be developed considering the elements that are implied through symbolism, “subtle shifts in perspective and meaning” (31). Incidentally, this painting was critiqued by many upper class viewers as being vulgar when it was first exhibited, due to its suggestive imagery.
Think in four dimensions. This, in essence, is the primary message that Moore wishes to impart to his readers, and he cites examples such as Watchmen, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’ Love and Rockets “Locas Tambien” and “Mechanics” storylines, and the Superman Annual # 11, which he describes in detail over five and a half (!) pages.
The author’s critique of Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics fifteen years after its initial publication is a much more interesting treatise on writing than the essay that takes up the vast majority of this publication’s 47 pages. Moore addresses the notion of adopting a style as a writer by urging the abandonment of any comfortable voice or habitual tendencies that inevitably end up blocking the creative process.
All that stuff I said a few chapters back about changing scenes with clever panel-to-panel linkages? Forget it. It was becoming a cliché even as I was writing those words, a technique that I pretty much abandoned straight after Watchmen (44).
Moore goes on to equally attack his own ventures into flowery prose, and any other stylistic technique that has become easy for a writer to use. Moore states,
If your talent is of any genuine worth, it should be able to weather squalls of unpopularity and audience incomprehension. The only thing that might seriously endanger either your talent or your relationship with your talent is if you suddenly found yourself fashionable.
Take risks. Fear nothing, especially failure. As a living and progressive process, your writing should constantly be looking for the next high windswept precipice to throw itself over (46).
Perhaps with these words Moore is anticipating the response that he might receive for Lost Girls, his pornographic comic collaboration with Melinda Gebbie. Interestingly, Moore ends on a surprisingly tender note:
The artists…writers, painters, musicians…whose voices speak loudest to us across the centuries are those that turned out to have the most profound souls, those who turned out to actually have something to say that was of lasting human value. Love people. Love yourself and love the world. Its only when we love things that we really, truly see them in their most lucid and perfect aspect; that we truly know them (47).
Moore goes on to encourage us to explore the unlovable aspects of humanity and find the means to embrace them with an open heart. Does Moore have something of lasting human value to say? At the end of his essay, yes. In his comics, sometimes. Though I don’t self-identify as an Alan Moore fan, he remains an intriguing character in universe of comics creation, one whom I will continue to follow with interest.
Covering the Material
The publisher-speak included on the back cover of Writing for Comics is misleading in more ways than one. Avatar, responsible for reprinting Moore’s essay, claims that the work is “.,.collected for the first time as one graphic novel, and heavily illustrated by Jacen Burrows.” Graphic novel? By any standard, this is a clear misuse of the term. Additionally, Burrows’ drawings seem almost to have been included as an afterthought, designed only to break up the page. They cover the gamut of standard comic book fare, from knights to spacemen to superheroes (including very large-breasted females, such as on page 18!) to gangsters. The cover is ingenious for its synthesis of these genres into a visual medley, and the back cover is equally clever—but between the pages, the drawings included seem only to serve as window-dressing.