Form is Function by John Barber

Mean What You Say, but Never Say What You Mean

Continuing down last month’s David Mamet trek towards an aesthetic of creating comics….

Brian Michael Bendis is a big Mamet fan. When I read a Bendis script a little while back, I was really impressed; I liked it because it read like a script to a comic, not like he was trying to impress anybody. It wasn’t full of witticisms and fancy descriptions, it was bare-bones writing that provided a structure which could be turned into a comic.

What I liked about Bendis’ script was that it was made up of panel descriptions like: “Shot of guy’s face.” And “Same as 2.” “Same as 2, closer.”

At first, every growing-up-thinking-comics-scripts-should-look-like-Alan-Moore-scripts bone in my body reacted against this. Wait, I thought, shouldn’t Bendis be saying what the face looks like?

But that doesn’t matter. The face can be anything.

Describing the face in a comics script is like saying “the face should be crosshatched”. That’s not the writer’s business. The writer’s business is writing the story and breaking down the panels. Sometimes the person drawing the comic does some of that, and that’s fine—that should be agreed upon by the “writer” and “artist”, who are free to divide labor as they want. If the “artist” is breaking down the panels (which is common, and is absolutely valid) it is an instance of the “artist” writing.

But when the writer starts giving too much information, starts doing some of the “art” in the script, things can get confused.

Imagine a panel in which you want to get across “a guy is walking down street”. In this instance, the street doesn’t matter, it’s just where he happens to be walking.

Now, what happens sometimes is the writer starts writing: “the guy passes a Gap that’s to the right of a Banana Republic. The Banana Republic has thick glass double-doors and vertical, brass door handles. Reflected in the window is a fruit seller, a man in his forties from Cuba, who’s standing behind his rainbow colored stall offering a Golden Delicious to an elderly lady who has a walker—one of the ones with wheels. You don’t have to include all that, I’m just telling it to you so you can get a feel for the scene.”

Bullshit. You’re trying to impress the person reading the script. I know that because I’ve done it, and it’s wrong.

It’s also massively encroaching into the artist’s territory. It’s encroaching because the artist is still going to have to draw the thing, only now it’s “got” to be like the writer wants it, not what’s going to hold the artist’s interest.

Some writers consider this to be an Alan Moore style of writing, because Alan Moore happens to write really long panel descriptions, and he’s a very good writer. So some writers think, “I want to be a very good writer, too”. And those writers think that spelling out every detail of a panel makes their scripts bulletproof against bad artists. “If I describe every aspect of every panel, it doesn’t matter how bad a storyteller the artist is, he’ll still get it right.”

First: No. A bad storyteller will now put the same importance on the reflection of the applecart as to the man walking. This will turn the comic into an illegible mess.

Second: Most artists will ignore the description, anyway. So the writer’s just wasted his time. Better yet, deep down he probably knows this and was stalling so he didn’t have to actually write something.

Third: Some writers think this is what Alan Moore does, but it’s not. Alan Moore does not do this. Alan Moore works with the best visual storytellers in the world. Dave Gibbons, Eddie Campbell, David Lloyd, Steve Bissette, J.H. Williams III, Chris Sprowse, Brian Bolland, Rick Veitch, Kevin O’Neill. Alan Moore is not concerned that these artists might not be able to tell a story. He writes like he does because he’s writing like a comics artist—he’s writing such that he knows exactly where he is on the page, where the page is in the comic, and—this is the important bit—what that means. He’s writing his thoughts as one comics artist—not just as a writer—to another comics artist. This is valid, but:

Fourth: Almost all comics writers are not Alan Moore.

If you write “Man walks down street” even the worst artist will draw a man and possibly a street, which are the most important parts, anyway.

But the artist will probably draw a man and a street with details sufficient and proper to the artist’s style. The artist will add the proper details to the best of the artist’s ability, and the writer listing every conceivable detail isn’t going to help, it’s going to cause the same work to be done twice. If the artist—or the artist’s style—isn’t appropriate for the comic, well, there’s your problem, right there.

If a bad artist gets his hands on a script, then it’s over with. It doesn’t matter how long the panel descriptions are, a bad artist won’t be able to do what you want – a bad artist couldn’t have drawn Watchmen and made it any good, for example (most good artists couldn’t have, either).

So, okay, the guy walks down a street. What does that have to do with the philosophy I put forth in the last column: “the point shouldn’t happen in the panel, it should happen between the panels”?

Well, “the guy walks down the street” isn’t a point at all. A guy walks down the street…and then something happens. Eventually. Even if the next panel is still him walking down the street. Now, that second panel of the guy could be an extraneous panel. Or it could be part of a sequence that the guy’s walking down the street for a long time. If that’s the case, maybe you’d be better off if something happens, even if the thing happening is a minor one. Like maybe it gets darker, or the style of architecture changes as the guy walks to a different place than where he started.

Waitaminute. If it gets darker in the second panel, doesn’t that mean that it had to be lighter in first one? Yes. Absolutely. Then, in that case, that detail—”a guy walks down the street, and it is light out” becomes important, because the point is going to be that it is getting darker. So now the relative lightness is an important detail, and should be included.

If the point is that the guy is walking from a clean neighborhood to a run-down one, those are relevant details. In fact, in almost every comic ever, it matters who the “guy” is. “Charlie Brown walks down a street and it is light out.” “Spider-Man walks down a clean street in a shopping district”.

The focus there isn’t just on the guy, because the point of the sequence—the thing that gets expressed through closure—isn’t an action that the guy’s taking, at least not exactly. He’s facilitating it, but it’s happening to the street, so the street needs more character.

And the street will likely need some more character than “street”. A street in mid-town Manhattan is different from one in northern Manhattan, let alone Iowa or Calcutta. So I don’t mean to imply that all details are irrelevant, just that irrelevant ones are.

Back to the guy walking, even if there are some small points—beats, they call them in film—involving environment, the big beat (the point of the sequence) will probably involve the guy not walking. This can happen either literally—by the guy actually stopping—or through another agency—like he sees something (this is the basis of Taniguchi Jiro‘s The Walker comic).

Let’s say the guy sees a suit in a window he likes, and he wants to buy the suit, but he hasn’t got any money.

You can do this with drawings of exaggerating emotional reactions that rely on culturally accepted clichés. There could be a panel with the guy looking at the window with little cartoon hearts fluttering out, or we could show the suit with Jack Kirby burst lines coming out of it. He could turn his pants pockets inside out to demonstrate his lack of money. Or flies could flutter out of his wallet.

But I don’t want to do those things. I want to have the beats occur in the closure. Every time something important happens, I want it to not be in the panel, I want it to be in the mind of the reader. Why do I want this? Because I think this is more interesting because it relies on closure, which is what I think makes comics comics.

So in my version, we’ve got the guy walking down the street, and it has to be somewhere where he can see a suit for sale.

Pan 1: Guy walks down the street in a high-class Manhattan shopping district. He’s dressed in tattered jeans and a t-shirt. [If this were a scene in a longer comic, a bunch of other stuff would matter. Where in Manhattan is the shopping district? Who is the guy? Probably the time of day would be important. But this is just 4 panels, so I don’t care about this stuff.]

Pan 2: Guy looks at a shop window. Inside is a sharp-looking suit.

Pan 3: Guy looks at his wallet. [It doesn’t matter if we see what’s in his wallet, what matters is that the guy does.]

Pan 4: Guy walks away from window.

All the beats hit between the panels. See:

Guy walks down the street in a high-class Manhattan shopping district. He’s dressed in tattered jeans and a t-shirt. [A suit catches his eye so…] Guy looks at a shop window. Inside is a sharp-looking suit. [He wonders if he can afford it so…] Guy looks at his wallet. [He realizes he hasn’t got enough money so…] Guy walks away from window.

This isn’t the greatest example in the world, but it works. And I think it’s more interesting than using familiar symbols (like the flies out of the wallet) because it involves the reader more; it involves the reader because everything that’s happening is happening in the reader’s head, not on the page.

That’s actually my first rule of good writing. It’s a personal rule, but I’ll share it with you:

Never say what you mean.

This has a lot of applications. It’s a very good rule to keep in mind when writing dialog. But fundamentally: if you want to get across B, give the readers A and C. They’ll figure out B and B will be more meaningful than if you just said “B” because now it’s something they’ve learned.

In the above example, you learn that the guy’s spotted a suit because first he’s walking, then he’s stopped and he’s looking. You learn he hasn’t got any money because he looks in his wallet and the next time you see him, he hasn’t bought anything.

People will draw those connections, they don’t need to be lead down the path with you showing them he hasn’t got any money. If the guy wants something, checks his wallet, and doesn’t buy it, it’s because he hasn’t got any money.

If you stick a panel in between panels 3 and 4, and it’s the guy’s point of view, looking at the wallet, and he has a note pinned to his drivers license that says “If you buy a suit, you will die”, well, then he has a different reason for not buying the suit. But in the absence of other evidence, the reader will assume the simplest, most likely thing happened.

You don’t have to supply that.

Next: more.

John Barber is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia.

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  1. Excellent as always. And you make me feel much better about the fact that my own scripts tend to be rather spare with the detail.

    You know what’s kind of funny? You made the same point about Alan Moore and scripting in a conversation we had a couple of months back, when I was getting quotes from you for my article on editors–which also appears in this issue. I’m glad that wasn’t one of the quotes I decided to use! (Though it would have been kinda funny.)

    I picked up both the books you recommended in your previous article. Haven’t had the chance to read them yet, but that’s on my list for the coming month.

  2. I personally loved how both of your pieces happened to complement each other so well.

    So I have to say that I’m not so surprised to hear that you’d been discussing something along these lines a little while back.

    Both are great articles.

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