WORDS WITHOUT PICTURES: A COMICS WRITER GOES PROSE
How does a #1 bestselling comic book author turn his hand to writing novels? Fred Van Lente talks exclusively to SciFiNow for publication of his new book, Ten Dead Comedians, out now in paperback from Quirk Books.
I’ve been working in mainstream comics for over a decade. In that time, I’ve tackled a bunch of big franchises for a variety of publishers (Amazing Spider-Man, GI Joe, Conan) as well as my own original works (Weird Detective, Action Philosophers, The Silencers). I’ve worked on comics based on movies (Big Trouble In Little China) and in one instance (Cowboys & Aliens) I have seen my comic book get turned into a movie. I’ve worked on comics based on video games (Assassin’s Creed) and worked on video games based on comics (The Walking Dead) and I’m currently working on a comic book based on a video game based on a movie based on a comic book (Guardians Of The Galaxy: The Telltale Series).
So I’ve seen it all, is what I’m saying.
And here’s what everyone who hasn’t worked in monthly comics doesn’t understand about making monthly comics: The pace of it.
You know that Wheel of Pain that Ah-nold gets lashed to at the beginning of Conan The Barbarian? Spin that sucker like one of those fidget things all the kids have been into for the past hot second and you will get some idea of what being lashed to the monthly comics schedule is like.
The writer has to deliver pages to the penciller, who has to deliver pages to the inker, who has to deliver pages to the colourist, who, along with the letterer (who adds the words to the balloons), are the ones who get the most screwed if any other person further up the chain blows their own deadlines. These two are the ones who have to spend Friday night rushing to get the whole book done to hit the deadline, while the editor or the production coordinator or the publisher begs the printer on the phone to please, please hold the presses until the final files get uploaded to the server.
Because if the final art files arrive late, the printing press runs late, and if the press runs late, the trucks leave the printer late for the distributor’s warehouses, and if the distributor is late supplying comics shops then the latest issue isn’t there when the fan shows up expecting to buy it. And any disruption in that weekly Wednesday routine of the reader, and I do mean any (I am looking at you constant reboots and artist changes and relaunches at #1) often means you have just lost a reader. And that means heads roll up and down that maimed supply chain.
So, when I started writing my first novel, the stand-up murder mystery Ten Dead Comedians, that’s what struck me first about the main difference between writing comics and writing novels. The pace of it.
When you’re writing a comics script, you’re essentially mapping out a blueprint. You are providing guidance to the other artists who will see your vision along to fruition. The best comics scripts are a straightforward conversation between a writer and his collaborators, which is why I created my personal comics scripting format to epitomise clarity (you can download templates for those scripts on my website).
But the prose writer is the complete package. You’ve got to paint the word-picture, as baseball announcers say. There’s no teammates to enhance you, or that you can hide behind if you do sub-par work. It’s all you, and only you. So you have to take it easy. Just as a work of prose demands concentration from the reader as a welcome oasis in the 60-seconds-a-minute breakneck pace of the social media cycle, so the writer has to pump the brakes.
Even the process of publication is slower and much more deliberate than in comics. Each novel is a one-shot-one-chance-only to hit, unlike the monthly barrage of American funnybooks. So companies are very deliberate in the way they set up marketing, sales, promotions.
I’m not saying one is better than the other. I still love comics and I always will. But the difference between bringing a comic out and bringing a novel out is the difference between crash landing a 747 with a flight attendant at the stick and guiding a huge, elegant cruise ship into port.
Ten Dead Comedians is out now from Quirk Books. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.