The Ian Gibson column: dealing with a comic script

What does a comic artist need to know when turning a script into art? And what are the main frustrations? Ian takes us through it...

A genuine British comics legend: Ian Gibson

Contentious… Me???

You must be thinking of two other blokes, or a dwarf with a telescope. (To be PC about it …. that is: “someone vertically challenged but optically enhanced”.)

So, I come to bury the Pontif, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. So I’m wondering if there will be any need for an extra big coffin for his Holiness?

But I didn’t come to talk about gays and rainforests or Bishops and little boys. I came to talk about scripts and writers. And so the greatest of them all sprang to mind – even if some believe Shakespeare was actually a committee and not just a one man band!? The important thing for me is the words.

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So, what do I know about words? I throw them around a lot. And thoroughly enjoy the way some roll around in the mind activating images and streams of thought just by their power.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great ‘wordsmiths’ – scriptwriters. And I’ve had my share of lesser lights too.

So what does a script look like when it arrives with the artist? How much information does it contain and how is it laid out? Does it include a synopsis or just plunge straight into the story? Well, the answer is that they all vary. And sometimes this difference is dramatic.

In the UK, or should I say ‘with British writers’, the script usually comprises a series of panel descriptions with the accompanying dialogue and any sound effects. Rarely do you get a synopsis. It is often just a matter of reading the whole script so you, hopefully, get the gist.

Very occasionally you get more than one script at a time so that you can see where the story is going. I seem to recall asking for this whenever possible. Not that it is often an option with writers working to last minute deadlines. If the writer delivers late – then the artist has a tough time playing ‘catch-up’ and it can snowball from there… to a point where the editor is losing sleep and his hair and his patience…. for fear of losing his place on the newsagent shelves and thus his readers!

I think what started me off asking for a ‘preview’ of scripts was the frustration of continuity, which I’m not very good at anyway! An example could be a scene where the last couple of frames of the episode feature a couple of bad guys ‘Jim and Joe’ (with names like that they can’t be up to any good!) who burst onto the scene brandishing weapons. And Jim is screaming threats or whatever, while Joe is silent. So, as an artist, you put some effort into defining Jim as a character, while Joe gets less definition because he’s in the background and has no dialogue to characterise him. Then the next episode arrives in the post and you find that Jim dies in the first frame, while Joe continues for three more episodes and turns out to be an important player in the story. But you are stuck with the image of Joe that you threw together, thinking he was a mere background character!

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It’s not the writer’s fault. He didn’t know you were going to put all your effort into working up a character who had such a limited lifespan. Maybe if he’d known he could have made it Jim who survived and Joe got erased. But the imperative for speed of production and meeting deadlines doesn’t allow for such luxuries very often. Most of the time you just get one script at a time and have to do your best and hope for the best!

My experience with American writers is quite different. Often, in the States, the idea is for the writer to provide a ‘plot’ and the artist works from this. Then the writer comes along later and gives the characters ‘dialogue’. Which is one of the reasons characters in American comics have such inapproproate or characterless expressions – the artist has no clue as to what they might be saying!! Duh? Yes. I know. It’s a stupid set up. But I think it evolved from the ‘production-line’ need for speed. And with Darth Vader or Spiderman and similarly masked characters, you don’t get facial expressions anyway. So for them it works as a system.

But it is frustrating for an artist to have a plot outline which says: “Pages 14 through 17 – fight scene.” It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to write a script like that! And no… That wasn’t a John Wagner script! In fact, I can’t remember the names of the script writers for most of the American stuff I did. Maybe because it wasn’t that memorable.

But I was lucky with my time working with Ryder Windham on the ‘Droids Rebellion’ saga. He wrote ‘proper’ scripts and I think we worked well together as a team. Not that you get much chance for facial expressions with R2D2 or C3P0!! But I think I managed a kind of ‘Droids body language’ which did the job.

It’s good when you feel like a team with the writer. Little personal touches make all the difference. Like the time John Wagner wrote, as a panel description: “One of your crowd scenes.” It’s nice to be noticed.

Read Ian Gibson’s previous column for Den of Geek here.

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15 January 2009