Sunday, 14 November 2010

Sunday Surgery: RANT!

Question: Script Convention

First of all, let's get the perfectly reasonable question from Matthew McLaughlin out of the way before we get to the rant that developed as I pursued the train of thought…

Of breakout balloons, Matthew asks:

"…Would you mind in future posts explaining what you see in a script or what indication a script might use to prompt an effect such as this? Does the writer indicate specifically "breakout balloon"in his script or is this something a letterer makes as an artistic choice?"

The short version is that this is something you should leave to the letterer. You can certainly indicate an escalation in drama and the required emphasis in a line of dialogue with an instruction like this:

FRANK (shouts): Get DOWN!

But the fact is, until you have the page of finished artwork in front of you, there's no real way of knowing what's going to work in terms of the mood of the art and the amount of physical space. If your letterer's good, you're going to get the most suitable shouting effect for the artwork; if they're not then no amount of instruction in the script will remedy that fact!

(And then, I don't mind admitting, I think I must have suffered some kind of aneurysm or minor stroke because my train of thought rather got away from me at this point! Matthew -- beyond the fact that your question got me thinking about the roles of the various contributors to the process that ends up creating a comic, what follows has nothing to do with you, and is not a comment on the way you write scripts, several of which I've had the pleasure of working on.)

Rant: It's A Question Of Trust

When did the trust start to break down in comics? When did everyone start trying to do everyone else's jobs? When did we collectively start to forget that this is a collaborative medium and that, although it was necessity that divided the creative process up between several contributors, sometimes a team can be greater than the sum of its parts?

If you're the writer, I don't expect you to care about the lettering. Beyond an understandable desire for it to not suck, I don't want you to care! All I want is for you to understand that I care about the lettering and will do the best job I can for you.

I've seen examples of lettering guides from a couple of artists (not ones I've worked with, I hasten to add) that have essentially lettered the entire page; all the dialogue from the script rendered into captions and balloons.

But here's the thing: unless I copy your font choice and size/leading settings, my balloons aren't going to take up the same amount of space. I can understand why you wouldn't want your art covered by lousy balloon placements but, dude, if you're that bothered, then letter the thing yourself and get paid for it!

Otherwise, all you've done is make the letterer's job incredibly boring and waste a whole load of time that you could have been spending drawing the pages, which is the thing you are getting paid for. If you're not happy with the lettering, give feedback to the editor -- sorting this stuff out is their job.

Here's a crazy idea: leave a quarter to a third of each panel as dead space, draw the first speaker on the left, and let me do my job. There you go -- I've just saved you hours of non-billable time. No need to thank me, it's what I'm getting paid for.

It's about trust. It's about understanding that you --wherever you are in the creative chain-- are one pair of hands out of several through which this strip is going to pass. You don't have to be able to do everything and, to an extent, you have to be prepared to fall backwards and expect the person behind you to catch you.

Writers: camera angles? Lighting instructions? Detailed notes on frame composition? Screenwriters don't give that level of instruction to the director, and comic book script writers don't need to spoonfeed the artist every tiny element of the scene.

Pencillers: when did you guys start rendering every last stroke of the artwork in pencil? Seriously? You want to know why you struggle to hit that deadline? Because you have a perfectly capable inker, whose job it is to worry about texture and feathering and cross-hatching, and you've reduced them to tracing all that lovingly rendered detail. Sometimes, you've put them out of a job entirely, because your pencils can just be darkened off in Photoshop. Except that you know that's not as nice as having them inked.

Concentrate on the composition, the storytelling, anatomy and perspective. The writer hasn't included notes on figure drawing in the script, because it's a given that you know what you're doing.

The inker knows that the objects in the foreground have a heavier line than the objects in the background; the inker knows that this line needs to taper thin-to-thick down the page to create weight, because they're the inker. Let them do their job. They've just saved you days. No need to thank them, it's what they're getting paid for.

Maybe, just maybe, if we all tried to worry a little less about what kind of job the next person in the process is going to do, and a little more on playing to the strengths we're expected to bring to our part of the process, our comics would all be a little bit better. 

And they might even come out on time.



PS: Just adding some extra material into Part Six of the Illustrator Guide. Look out for it tomorrow or Tuesday.


  1. Colourists! No slight was intended by your omission from the rant above. It's just that I've BEEN a professional writer, I AM a professional letterer, I'm an enthusiastic amateur artist (with a particular focus on inking this last year) but haven't yet got to grips with colouring. It fascinates me, which is why I hang around Gutterzombie, but I don't know enough about the process (and the attendant rubbish that gets handed to you) to comment!

  2. Aaawww... You forgot to mention flatters, too! You bastard! :P

    I do spend some energy worrying about what colourists will do with my flats and occasionally that translates into separating some areas that I might not have otherwise. It's usually with people whose work processes I know fairly well. I'm not sure if it's a bad thing for me, though. They are the ones paying me, after all.

  3. Amen brother. It's been a while since I read a good Campbell rant. And one that makes a lot of sense too.

  4. I knew I'd break you eventually Campbell ;)

    I suppose the "lack of trust" issue has a more positive side - when creating a comic you may not know who will be further down the line. This is probably especially true for pencillers, as they don't know if the inker is just going to directly ink their lines or if they are going to work more as a finisher. It is why we often see art teams sticking together, like Davis/Farmer or Hitch/Neary. It also works with artists and writers, if you know your artist well then it is much easier to write for them and pitch them the level of script that they need - the exception presumably being Alan Moore, he knew David Gibbons would tend to try and get everything from the script into the art (when Ian Gibson would tend to go through Moore's scripts looking for what he could take out) so he was able to deliver his usual massively detailed script and ensure it was all going to translate well. There are also times when you might want to specify a camera angle or describe a shot in detail because it is important for the story, if you need the view from a certain angle to obscure something you reveal later but even then you would have to flag this up in the script ("Remember X is hiding behind the door so don't draw it so we see that area or the next pane won't work"), because it is unwise to surprise the artist in the same way you are planning on surprising the reader, so you might as well rely on the description rather than specify the angle. Still I'm sure there are plenty of examples of places you'd need to heavily describe the scene, even before we get anywhere near Alan Moore's technique of describing everything as if on a flat plane (which may be necessary if the angles and placement are themselves significant). So never say never.

    All that said, I don't see any excuse for an artist drawing the balloons in themselves, unless they are going to letter the page too and it might still be better to overlay the lettering rather than draw the balloons in. Dave Gibbons is a great letterer and did the watchmen lettering, presumably because it gave him much greater control over what went where but I am unsure if he drew the balloons in.

    So there are exceptions but unless you are Moore and Gibbons good it might not be wise.

  5. Oh and I should say on the lettering front that working with you and Bolt (no sucking up just because you are both here ;) ) is great as I can leave the sound effects and the like for you to use your best judgement, only offering suggestions where I think something should go.

  6. Well, Jim, my apologies ahead of time if any comics I write give you any headaches ;-)

    --- Geoffrey D. Wessel

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  8. Dave Gibbons is also a canny businessman. As I understand it, for Watchmen he laid down the panel grid and the barest of thumbnails for each panel, then lettered it, ensuring:

    1) That he could fit all the lettering in


    2) That he didn't do ANY unnecessary drawing.

    I, on the other hand, draw the whole bloody thing and then stick the letters over the top. This is because I'm a numpty.

  9. I know Dylan laid down balloons for his french graphic novel DIAMOND, but I think that was an editorial request. (Maybe if he pops along he can confirm)

  10. Pretty sure I read that on his blog, too. Got no problem with that -- I lettered Iron Moon into Keith Page's balloons and it's nice to think about a lettering job in different terms every once in a while.

    It's more the idea of someone doing complete artwork and separately doing a set of letters just to show the letterer how they should be done. On that score, I refer to my previous point about NOT GETTING PAID FOR IT!

  11. heh. I used to noodle balloon placement - just to figure out where to leave space. Now I just kind of leave a generous amount of room (at least I think it's generous, sometimes it's a miserly ... but I blame the writer for over egging the pudding...)