Writing Comics: A Newbie’s Perspective by Christopher Irvin

I originally met Chris Irvin when I steered some graphic novels I had on my hands but wasn’t interested in his way. So in that regard, I guess I’ve always known he was into comics. Most of my interaction with him, however, has revolved around his crime fiction, both his short stories and his recently released novella, Federales. But when it came time for Chris to do a guest post in support of Federales, we thought it’d be interesting if he explored a slightly different side of writing, one many authors never think about: how to write for comics. So without further ado, here’s Chris on comics. (But do go buy a copy of Federales!)

I’ve been a fan of comics since I was young, collecting shiny Fleer trading cards and staring wide-eyed at the explosion of comics in the early-90’s (yes, that young.) I drew a lot as well, though that petered off as I got older and began to see true talent in those around me.

Skip forward a couple of decades and I’m knee deep in prose, working on short stories and a novella. But I’ve still got that itch to work on a comic. I sign up for a class on graphic novels at Grubstreet in Boston, taught by Katherine Roy and Tim Stout, who inspire me to work on mini-comics (four, six, eight page stories) and I’m off to the races.

Taking a cue from Dark Horse Presents, who run eight page stories/chapters, I write an eight page comic entitled, EXPATRIATE, about an American criminal who flees to Rio de Janeiro in the shadow of the coming 2016 Summer Olympics. The pages sit for a while, Boston Comic Con is postponed from April to August due to the marathon bombing, and I stumble into Ricardo Lopez Ortiz, a fantastic artist out of Brooklyn. I’ve sworn off purchasing a commission prior to going in, but I dig his art so much I pull the trigger anyway and he sketches a killer head shot of Judge Dredd for me.

Fast forward again a few months and I’ve been able to somehow rope Ricardo into this crazy project, which has now bloomed into a five issue mini-series. Fingers crossed, with a little blood and sweat and a lot of luck, this might turn into something.

So here’s a tease—above—of the first panel (which is such a knockout I’m ready for a line of t-shirts) and a few things I learned up to this point:

1. Respect the artist – Writers: repeat after me. Do not ask an artist to do work for free. They work harder than you and put in more time per page than you. Respect their profession. Thankfully I didn’t have to learn this lesson the hard way. The few friends of mine who are artists face a constant barrage of pro bono requests for work. Don’t add your name to the pile.

2. Learn to love dialogue – I used to hate writing dialogue. It didn’t help that I was reading a lot of Lovecraft when I started writing short stories, but it always felt stilted and uncomfortable for me. I’ve gotten better since – partly because of a LitReactor class with Suzy Vitello, who recommended writing out dialogue first and then blocking around it – brilliant! – but even more so because of comics. Comics thrive off of dialogue and character interaction. Sure, some of my favorite books make heavy use of internal narration, and EXPATRIATE does to some extent early on, but thinking about panels, flow and how to get the story across to the reader made me buckle down and work on it. Practice, practice, practice.

3. One action per panel – A character can’t open a door, draw a gun and fire it in the same panel. Think about what your characters are doing and how that translates on the page. Is the action too complex? Do you need to break it down for the artist to render it? Or is it even necessary? Maybe it can happen off the page.

4. Use the page and empty space to your advantage – Early on in EXPATRIATE, the main character, Frank, is on the run from the Brazilian military. While it looked great and flowed well in my head, an editor pointed out that nothing was happening. Sure, it would look good, but we are just moving from A to B. I took the critique to heart and went back to the pages and filled them in with background and detail pertinent to the ongoing action. Much of the panels/pages are the same, action-wise, but the additional information slows it down and makes the pages worth reading.

5. Formulate a plan – Have an idea of where you want to go. Unfortunately, I think there are some comics out there in which the long story/objective wasn’t defined from the onset. Stories that do well in early issues and then jump the shark or pull in elements that seem forced. Although not a comic, the reimagined version of Battlestar Galactica is an example of a story that went this route. I love the show, but you can tell that it just kept going once it got popular, and the writers had to force it along until its eventual conclusion. When I finished the first eight pages of EXPATRIATE, my answer to what comes next was more or less, “I have some ideas.” Fleshing out the rest of the issues helped reinforce earlier parts of the story, which wouldn’t have been as strong if I hadn’t thought ahead. I don’t think you need a detailed outline, but some pillars to help guide you along the way could prevent heartache in the end.

*Excerpt from EXPATRIATE copyright 2014 Christopher Irvin and Ricardo Lopez Ortiz

Christopher Irvin has traded all hope of a good night’s rest for the chance to spend his mornings writing dark and noir fiction. His short stories have appeared in several publications, including Thuglit, Noir Nation, and Shotgun Honey. His debut novella, Federales, is out from One Eye Press. He lives with his wife and son in Boston, Massachusetts. To learn more about Chris, visit his website.

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