Makeshift Musings and Comic Book Bliss by Jim Zubkavich

Speaking Up

I’m going to change pace a bit and dole out some advice for would-be writers or critics of comics at large. Take note and feel free to disagree with me…

Here’s a little exercise: Take your favorite comic and read the dialogue out loud.

Now laugh.

Most comics, especially superhero fare, don’t hold up very well when you’re hearing a real voice say the dialogue aloud. Maybe it’s the hokey terminology and character names ("I’ll crush your soul, Cyclops!"), or maybe it’s the events themselves that seem foolish as the world hangs in the balance over and over each month. Whatever it is, it’s a lameness which we should strive to avoid in our own work and mock it when we find it in the work of others. We’re looking for natural-sounding dialogue.

Read my last paragraph and you’ll realize that people don’t talk the way I just wrote above. I said all sorts of things back there, but not in a way that comes across as real dialogue. It’s quite informative… but not natural in any sense of the word.

Listen to real human speech and you’ll soon realize that people talk in ways that would break your English teacher’s heart and soul. Started thoughts that die in mid-sentence, interrupted points, in-jokes and strange grammar. Mix in jilted turns of a phrase with a dash of colloquialism and you have big fat dialogue mess. But, that’s real human speech and it adds an air of authenticity to a story. Look at damn good writers like Neil Gaiman, Brian Michael Bendis and Justine Shaw. Their work shows a slice of life… real human speech that makes their solid stories that much more grounded and believable.

But that sort of realism takes more than just mimicking an accent or throwing in catch phrase, bub. It’s listening to dialogue and understanding what makes a person sound calm compared to frantic, mesmerized compared to distracted, angry compared to in love. When you read a comic that does it right, your brain clicks in and you care about the characters. They’re not just spouting exposition to advance the plot, they’re people with real feelings.

You might be surprised at how much you can learn when you hang back and listen to other people’s dialogue: the way people talk on the phone, talk in a coffee shop or talk to themselves when they’re gathering their thoughts. You’ll even learn about how you yourself talk in patterns with certain words you may use again and again.

All this stuff might seem pretty anal for a column about comic books. You may think I’m crazy for harping on about dialogue in a reading-based medium. Maybe you just read comics for a quick punch line or to see some nice artwork. That’s all quite valid, but I’m hungry for the entire package. It’s the crazy quest for great story, great characters and great art. I’m selfish and I want it all.

I’m hoping you can create the complete kick ass comic… you and a dozen others. I’m hoping that when you read natural dialogue you smile and realize how well it can enhance the reading experience.

Every time I read a comic that gets it all, I realize how amazing this medium is and what we’re capable of delivering. That may sound cheesy, but it can’t be any worse than "You’ll never learn Pepper-Lad. I’m invulnerable!"

"Heh." I chuckle to myself.

"What’s that? Why’d you laugh?" my girlfriend says.

"It’s… the thingie. The one I’m running late on." I say.

"The article? That thingie, or the other one?" she says with a smirk.

"Yeah, that. Trying to nail this last part… an example for people to check out. Some kinda di-"

"You’re gonna draw a comic for it?"

"Draw? No, no… I don’t have time to write it, I sure as Hell don’t have time to make a comic for it. I’ll just write it up and have it there."

"Crappy. ‘Cause you could, you know."

"Draw it? Yeah, Of course I could if I had the time. I could do all sorts of things if…"

"If what?"

"Just stuff. If I had stuff better organized."

"Then you better do your next column ahead so Frank doesn’t kick your ass."



  1. Bravo! The creative writing English major in my sings your praises, Jimbo.

    Stalking people from afar and listening to how they talk is the best experience a writer can ever gain, especially for such dialogue heavy things as comics.

  2. Yes, yes, and YES!

    My writer husband and I are always speaking the dialog outloud as we work on a script. We want believability in how our chars speak. We’re also gamers, paper and dice types. Our 20+ years of playing has come in very handy when it comes to dialog. We find ourselves stopping to think about just HOW the chars would say something, to make it sound like what THEY would say.

    It’s like the fights in the standard superhero comic: all the quips and teasing. You really don’t have time to do all that when you’re in the middle of fighting for your life.

    Anyhow, thank you for the article. Something that many writers really should think about before they write.

    creator/artist, Twilight Agency

  3. Kick his ass, Frank! ^_~

    Seriously, well said Jim. Even if saying “well said” is a little weird in context here.. heh. I know when I’m writing, I like to leave all the “trails” and stutterings of real speach in, if only because it adds to mystery and suspense at times. You can really use dialouge in comics just as you would in prose.

    And whoever got the art together to go with the column (Bill?) is a mad genius. The gorrilla pirate stew cracks me up!

  4. I do think that this is important advice, ignored far too often considering how essential dialogue is in comics. However, I do think that there ought to be a few caveats on this. For one, it is one thing for dialogue to sound realistic and another for it to be realistic. Even the most realistic, down-to-earth literature does not accurately portray human speech. Nor should it. If we put in every colloquialism, every “um” or “like”, every pause, the overall meaning of the piece would be hampered. As long as the characters are believable and the dialog avoids being stilted, I think the purpose is served. Even documentary radio programs edit out pauses and “um”s to increase listener understanding.
    The second caveat I would propose is that while in some cases a sense of realism is the goal, in many cases it is most emphatically not. Comics, like other literature, are art, not reality. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking otherwise lest the underlying meaning be lost in slavish devotion to the “way things are”. Just take a glance at Shakespeare. His plays deal with fundamental questions of reality, and speak meaningfully about the way we live. Nonetheless, nobody in the world has ever talked the way his characters do. But would

    “To be, or not to be: that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;”

    really be better as

    “Um…so I was thinking, like, is it better to live or, uh…you know…kill yourself. I mean, is it more of a well…what’s the word… I dunno…noble thing to tough it out and hurt or to get all mad and finally lash out and like…fight back. You know, end it all.”?

    Actually, it really depends on what you’re doing. Obviously, it would sound stupid if Hamlet were to say the second paragraph, it would sound just as stupid if a character from “Clerks” or something said the first one, without quoting.
    Just a few thoughts.

  5. Mmm…Broken sentences, hesitations, redundant vocalizations, terrible grammar, all those “um”s and “like”s..I love it all. That’s the kind of feel I look for when developing the dialogue in my comic. Or is it just a means to cover up my hideous lack of control of the English language?

    Well said, Jim; though I think artists should write their characters the way they want to write, I do feel that the feelings and emotions we want our characters to convey can just as thoughfully be transferred with everyday, broken vernacular.

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