What I’ve Been Reading: Comics (O’Malley, Chao, Kim, Talbot, Cooper)

Have you seen the introductory essay for my new indie comics column at SF Signal? Though I am aiming to keep myself to speculative fiction comics for them, because that fits with the scope of what SF Signal talks about, I read a lot of other comics each week. I’m particularly into semi-(and)autobiographical and realist stories, which rarely have a speculative element, but I still think are worth reading. In the last two weeks I’ve read:

Lost At Sea, Bryan Lee O’Malley – This book, by the creator of Scott Pilgrim, comes early in O’Malley’s career, drawn when he was just 24. Though SP fans will be able to see the evolution in O’Malley’s style from here to there, I actually prefer Lost at Sea. It’s not as directed toward the 20-something gamer geek crowd, which I am tangentially affiliated with (being both a gamer and a geek) but not quite a member of.

Lost focuses on the story of one girl looking for her soul, which was stolen by cats, or traded to the devil. Or she could be looking for friends, or a salve for her broken heart, or a ride back to Canada. There are a lot of possibilities. O’Malley mixes a strong but cute style – grounded in his use of dark line work and sometimes-dynamic panel placement – with a not-entirely-linear story line that was so intriguing I read the whole book in one sitting.

Continue reading

A few thoughts on writing comics

Now that my secret love of comic books is no longer a very well kept secret, I’ve had a lot of people – artists, writers, and readers – talk to me about their work, their favorite titles, and share some great stories about the industry. It’s been lovely to sort of “come out” as a geeky, comic book reading, girl, and not get the kind of dismissive “what do girls know” attitude that made me stop fangirl squeeing in public a long time ago. But …

One of the most common things I hear when I talk to other people about comics is, “Oh, I thought about writing a comic book someday”. Their idea is that writing comics is a) pretty simple and straightforward, and b) still more important that the work of the artist, who (it’s assumed) will just draw what the writer wants. Because I talk about writing here, I thought I’d lay out the facts of the situation, with some helpful quotes and links to other people saying it better than I could. This quick overview is meant to be the beginning, not the end, of the conversation, and assumes you already know things like “come up with original ideas”, “use a spellchecker”, and “edit your work”.

How do you get started in the writing side of comics?

Step one: Read everything.  If you don’t read enough to have a sense of what’s being written, or has been written, especially in your genre, go do that.

“Do not learn to write comic books from reading comic books only. (Nor should you learn to draw comics from comics.) Reading good comics will help you learn elements of form and style, but it is also inherently limiting. You get into the law of diminishing returns, for if you don’t have any reference points beyond comics, everything you write will be derivative. Read novels. Read newspapers. Read non-fiction. Watch foreign films. Go to the theater. Expose yourself to more than what you find on comic book shelves. The more you know about the world around you, the more material you will have with which to build stories. The more storytelling styles you have encountered, the larger your own bag of tricks will be.” – Joe Edekin, Writing for Comic Books

Step two: Be a great writer. Not just a good writer, but the best one you can be. Write short stories, novels, plays, whatever – but be a great writer before you turn your hand to comics because you will need to be a great writer to work in comics. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that that comics are easier just because “you only have to write what happens, not describe everything”. Writing a comics script is more complex than writing a screenplay – which probably is the easiest kind of writing to do – because you will create your script as if you are the writer, director, art director, casting agent, and more, all in one.

“The fact of the matter is that as a comic book writer, you are responsible for everything that goes on the page, just as if you were writing in prose. The artist is your partner, not your substitute. Think of writing a comic book as a collaboration with another writer, one to whom you must give very good instructions!” – Barry Lyga, Writing Comics

Step three: Learn what you like and don’t like in comics. There’s only one way to do this. You have to read every comic you can get your hands on, take recommendations from friends, seek out other work by writers you like, and always check the credits to see who did which part of the book. Who is the writer? Were there multiple authors? Is there a creative team manager overseeing a large crew, or is it a single artist/writer/creative on the book?

Step four: Learn how to write a comic book script. 

“Too many writers think about the script merely as a tool for them. It’s not; it’s a tool for the entire process. It should be prepared as such.” – Comic Related, Learning The Craft: Writing

Step five: Be sure this story is best told as a comic.

Deciding that you’re writing a story told in both words and pictures, an adventure in narrative art, means that it won’t just be your words telling the story. You will need an artist to bring your ideas to life. You have to give up on the idea that the story will be 100% yours, that everything good about it will come from your brain. And, of course, you’re going to need to pay your artist to drop everything and work on your book, even if you plan to submit it to publisher. Even if you haven’t any idea how to get paid for doing this story as a comic, you need to spend money to hire an artist to create it with you.

Because a comic isn’t just words. As Kelly Thompson says in her “Don’t Write Comics” series:

“I know, I know, you’re saying that your story is SO GOOD THAT THE ART WON’T MATTER.  That is great news.  Write it as prose.  Seriously.  If the art doesn’t matter, if your story doesn’t HAVE to be a comic book, then simply don’t do it.  It’s only worth all of this if you know that comics is the right medium for your story. And if comics is the right medium for your story then the art very much matters.”

What do you think?


The script for Cable #83, with comments from author Robert Weinberg

Dark Horse’s comics submission guidelines, including guidelines for writers and a sample script

Kelly Thompson’s great “Don’t Write Comics: How To Write Comics” series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

Dennis O’Neil’s series on writing comics: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9part 10, part 11, part 12, part 13, part 14, part 15 & 16, part 17, part 18, and finally, part 19

Anina Bennett’s list of terms: Visual Language, writing for comics (with a lot taken from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics)

My (Science-loving, Steam-Powered) Heart Beats For Atomic Robo

Sometimes a girl needs a little fun in her life. A moment to enjoy some good old fashioned science-fuled ass kicking. A happy ending would be nice too. So, what’s a girl to do? I got my hands on volume 2 and 3 of the Atomic Robo trade paperbacks.

If you haven’t heard of Atomic Robo, go read my review of the first book.

This series is written like someone handed Brian Clevinger a list of all the things that make my heart sing. Tesla, mad science, heroic action, Carl Sagan, giant robots, evil Nazis, and Scott Wegener’s adorable art style? Oh, pitter patter.

Vol. 2, Atomic Robo and the Dogs of War, collects the five-issue mini-series, complete with cover gallery, pin-ups, and bonus stories. It shows more of Robo’s adventures in World War II, introduces a plucky British heroine, and there’s some evil genius-designed weather cannons.

It also has a brief appearance by James “Scottie” Milligan, a Scotsman and a hero. He was Scott Wegener’s grandfather.

That the creators of this comic wrote in Wegener’s grandfather, in order to allow him to live again in Atomic Robo, is the biggest part of why I adore this book. It’s written and drawn by people who want to be a part of this world, so much that they will populate it with their favorite things, their joys and sorrows and loved ones. This is he one great power we have as writers – the ability to remake the world in whatever image we want, to fix its flaws, to ressurect the dead, to make it right. When it’s done well, as it is in this case, it’s breathtaking.

Vol 3, Atomic Robo and The Shadow From Beyond Time, combines AR with my other great love: HP Lovecraft. I did tell you they write this series just for me, didn’t I? Let’s start with the fact that “Tesla Heavy Industries” had, in 1926, a storefront office with “Science While You Wait!” painted on the window. Throw in the Tunguska blast, Howard P Lovecraft babbling like a mad man, Carl Sagan, lightning guns, tentacles, and … I don’t want to give away the rest of the story but if you like that sort of thing, this is the book for you.

Oh, and Robo’s wearing argyle socks. I’m just saying.

You Should Read: Brian Wood’s DMZ (graphic novels 1-3)


Set in a near future where a second American civil war rages, a lone journalist is stranded in the middle of New York City, now a brutal no-man’s-land. Mirroring current events, DMZ is an unforgiving look at what a ‘war on terror’ can do to a civilian population.

I’ve been told that I need to start reading Brian Wood’s Vertigo series, DMZ. I meant to, I really did. From what I heard, it was exactly the kind of book I like: dark, gritty, urban, bleak, yet full of unexpected hope. I looked forward to it, but wasn’t certain when I’d find the time. Now that it’s coming to an end, I finally picked up the first three graphic novels, which collect issues 1 to 17, and … it’s everything I was told to expect.

The story begins with Matty Roth, photo intern, being dropped into the middle of a war zone. As if being left behind weren’t bad enough, he’s got people shooting at him and strange girls pointing guns in his face and an alarming tendency to faint under pressure. Poor Matty. He can get out or he can bunker down and turn his misfortune into a chance at the big time, a chance to be the only working journalist in the DMZ. Which just happens to be Manhattan, caught in the crossfire between what’s left of the USA and the “Free States” currently occupying New Jersey and points west.

Wood shows a NYC we can imagine without having to squint too hard. It’s a brilliant premise, turning a city with as much cultural weight as NYC has into a hotly contested battle zone. It turns familiar territory into a whole new world, an alternate history two steps to the right of where we are now. To say that Wood loves this city is an understatement – it serves as both backdrop and character for two of his other titles, New York Four/Five and The Couriers, and he lives in Brooklyn – but in DMZ it’s transformed.

There are all kinds of little bits of fun in the book too, meant for people who have a vague idea of what New York is, as both a historical landmark and a place where the cutting edge is sharpest. Central Park? The Zoo? The Flatiron Building? They’re in the books. Art installations and vegan restaurants and Chinese gangsters and tattooed girls whose thong underwear is visible over their low-rise jeans? Here. All the bits of truth that become ideas when they filter out of the city and into popular media can be found, eventually, in DMZ, but they serve as anchors, pulling the book back into our world, and giving us landmarks to guide us along the way.

Wood has to be given credit for another bit of world building – even though the book is marketed at an arguably male (and white male, at that) audience, because that’s still the bulk of the comic book buying population, his characters are not only white or male. His main character is, sure, because we have to give the reader a person to identify with, but most of the other white males in the book are military, soldiers. Matty’s friends and neighbors are the people you’d expect to see living in New York today. To have whitewashed the city would have been an unforgivable sin, and one I’m glad Wood didn’t make. In addition, he gives us the full range of humanity’s potential, so that it isn’t just the white men who save the day, but the black architecture student, the hispanic female med student, the elderly Chinese “grandfather”, and so on.

Yes, of course, there are the punks and the thieves and the whores. It is still New York.

What makes DMZ work for me is that while there is a big war going on, and Matty, as the “outsider” does have to reflect on why it started and where it’s going, the bulk of the people in the story don’t have time for that kind of philosophizing. It’s not a book where people sit around a diner talking out their big ideas on long swathes of dialogue. There’s running and hiding and exploding bombs and dying children and conspiracies and fucking and making mistakes and trying not to die. A lot of simply trying not to die. It gives the story a frenetic layer of action on top of which can be thrown a little heavy thinking, if there’s time.

There are 72 issues in the series, before it ends, and I think I’m going to have to read them all.

Cover illustrations: Brian Wood, John Paul Leon
Colorist: Jeromy Cox 
Lettering: Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics/Vertigo
DMZ is co-created by Riccardo Burchielli

On the Ground. Collects Issues 1-5. ISBN 1-4012-10627
Body of a Journalist. Collects Issues 6-12. ISBN 1-4012-12476
Public Works. Collects Issues 13-17. ISBN 1-4012-14762

5 Movies I Didn’t See in 2011 (But Saw This Week)

I love movies. I love how a great director and great actors can take a script, which is just the skeleton of a story, and flesh it out with sets and sounds and camera movements and jump cuts to make emotions. Turning it into the warm body of a film, with strength and heart. When I was young I attended the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and worked on a degree in Screenwriting (with a minor in Cinematography), wrote a few films (and saw them produced), and learned a lot about the film-making process. Though I figured out that screenwriting was basically organizing thoughts and notes to create an outline for someone else to finish – and therefore not enough to keep me interested – I still use some of what I learned then in my writing now.

When I went to UPenn I studied mainly Art History – which is one of the best degrees for a writer in terms of teaching you about art, culture, history, and how to think – but I also got a chance to take a couple of film criticism classes. I loved them! I’ve done classes on Japanese film, both pre-WW2 and post, noir films, and adaptations, and those four classes together showed me most of what is being put back into (recycled, adapted, homage’d) modern movies. Over the years I have learned to write screenplays, see a script cinematically, and think critically about film. But the biggest thing that informs my view of film is that I have watched so many of them. I’ve even worked in movie theaters in order to have access to all the celluloid I want. This has led me to watch a lot less “Hollywood” blockbusters, because I can see the predecessors in the work. Which is to say that I’ve watched enough classic, indie, and foreign films to know all the myriad ways that Hollywood is ripping them off. Why pay to see what’s already been done, and often done better, by someone else?

I ended up only seeing one movie in theaters in all of 2011, my all time low. I saw Contagion, which was wonderful, and that was it. This had, honestly, more to do with my year than with what was available, and so I started off 2012 by renting a handful of “hit” movies that I actually had wanted to see. In the last three days I have watched the final Harry Potter film, Super 8, Captain America, Thor, and Fright Night. What did I think?

Continue reading