Tagged: Writing comic books

Mindy Newell: Patience, Perfection, And Procrastination

I’m pretty much stuck at home these days because of the fractured ankle. Can’t go to my day job for six to eight weeks, per my orthopedic surgeon, and even with the walking boot, the orders are to stay off of it as much as possible. The first couple of weeks I probably walked and stood more than I should have, but as I will snarkily tell my doctor when I see him on August 10 that that’s what happens when your mom dies. Amazingly, there was barely any pain, though perhaps that was a function of the Advil and the Pinot Noir at dinner afterward. Yes, we had a Jewish version of a Christian repast at my mom and dad’s favorite Italian restaurant. (And perhaps my mom was intervening.)

But the other day, right after the almost week-long heat wave in the NYC metropolitan area broke, it was just gorgeous out, and I said to myself, “Self, I have just got to get out and enjoy this weather,” so instead of having my groceries delivered I walked down the block to the supermarket, but I forgot to figure in the walk around the store plus the walk back up the block to my apartment building, a walk hindered by the added burden of my food-laden tote bags – leave it to say that I hobbled my way back home. And once home, I remembered that I had clocked it once wearing a pedometer, and the total distance is actually close to ½ a mile. Oops.

I haven’t repeated that exercise.

So what have I been doing? As I mentioned two weeks ago, “I’m working on a story for a major project that ComicMix has put together that we’ll be announcing in a bit over a week. And I’m also putting together a proposal for a graphic novel,” and as it turns out, it’s a good thing that I do have lots of time, because I’m learning about myself as a writer, even at this late stage:

(1) I am not the most patient writer in the world;

(2) I am too much of a goddamn perfectionist; and

(3) I am terribly guilty of the most common illness found in the demographic known as writers – procrastination.

But I’m also learning “how to deal.”

Procrastination. I tend to wake up early without setting an alarm clock – 7:30 at the latest. And I am developing the habit of getting out of bed, going to the kitchen, making my “cuppa tea,” and sitting down to write. And it’s working! I write straight through to 11 or 12 and take a break. If I break at 11 I watch The Price is Right because I really like Drew Carey – if I break at 12 I usually eat a salad for lunch and then read or log on to Facebook to express my opinions on all things Il Tweetci the Mad, or do a crossword puzzle or stream something on the television or computer. The hard part is getting back to work. But I’m getting there. Even if the end result is only another paragraph or a bit of dialogue, I’m disciplining myself to get back to the job at hand.

Being too much of goddamn perfectionist. That means I can get stuck rewriting a sentence, a word, a paragraph more times than is good me. Literally, I can cut and paste for an hour. (Hell, I’m doing it right now.) I really have to discipline myself not to revise and rework sentences, words, and paragraphs left over from yesterday – or even an hour ago. That’s harder.

Patience. Patience, for me, is hard. Really hard, because I’ve never been a particularly patient person. When I want to know something, when I want to do something, I tend to want to know it, to do it, now – which is probably the reason I love spoilers, by the way. But writing demands patience; waiting for the right phrase, the right dialogue, the right action to come. It’s not a race, I keep having to tell myself. (Well, except for deadlines.)  And then there are the times when I just get stuck. And that’s the hardest time to have patience.

I have always tended to write straight through the story, i.e., begin at the beginning and keep going to the end. (Impatient.) But two days ago I decided to try something new.

The middle of my story for the ComicMix project isn’t entirely clear in my head – oh, it’s there, but it hasn’t yet worked its way down from my brain to my fingers and keyboard.  But the ending has been there right from the start – it was the flame that lit the fuse.

So instead of struggling with the portion that was being stubborn, I decided to write the climax. There’s not much I can do about my perfectionist streak – I need for it to be “just right,” so I am switching and shifting words and sentences and paragraphs – but to my delight, this method is also clearing the logjam. Here’s a metaphor:

When I was a kid growing up on Staten Island, my father would drive us over to Fort Wadsworth to watch the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge between the Island and Brooklyn. First, one tower went up, then the other. Then they strung the cables between the towers. With these pieces in place, they began the construction and placement of the roadway, the actual bridge between the “beginning” and the “end.”

Get it?

Many writers use this “connecting the towers” method, but it’s new for me. Is it making me a better writer? Will my story be more cogent and stronger because of it? Perhaps. I think so.

It’s a constant learning process.

Mike Gold: There’s No Business Like…

For some odd reason, over the past several decades many a wannabe comics creator has consulted me for advice. That’s quite nice; it makes me feel like I might know something. Of course, that also means I’ve been around the block so many times I’m prone to tripping over my own tracks. That’s the yin and yang of life.

No matter who the victim wannabe is, be that person a writer wannabe, an artist wannabe, or in extremely rare and unusual cases an editor wannabe, there are several chunks of hot glowing wisdom that I try to impart. Now you, if you’re a wannabe or you’re simply comics-curious, get to experience some of these radiant pearls without having to suffer through what I alone like to think of as “my sense of humor.”

I shall start with the most important lesson of them all. It is absolutely true for everybody, although some might find it daunting. “For every truly great guitar player with a contract and an entourage, there are well over 1,000 guitar players who are even better who never make it out of the garage.”

Even though truer words were never spoken, you might be wondering what the hell that has to do with producing comic book stories. Well… everything. The business of comics is show business. Admittedly, comics creators get less money than our performing counterparts, and we get less cocaine and cars and hardly any nookie, but we are in show business nonetheless.

Assuming you haven’t just decided to switch your major and wiki “hedge funds,” I shall drop the definition into your lap. You want to get in to the comics business, editorially speaking. Well, so do a zillion other people – and that’s growing as the medium achieves greater public acceptance. Let’s say you want to be a writer. For every Neil Gaiman out there, we’ve got a thousand people who aren’t in the racket, would like to be, and are better writers than my friend Neil Gaiman (sorry, pal).

O.K., there probably is nobody faster than Neil and that’s important, but we’ll leave that aside. On a planet with 7.5 billion human beings on it right now and births outnumbering deaths by more than two-to-one, there’s got to be at least 1,000 writers who are better than just about anybody we’ve seen thus far.

In order to get in the front door, you may ask, do you have to be better than the best? Well, that would be great and we can always use another bright, shiny beacon, but no – you don’t have to be better than the best. But you damn well better be more than half as good as the best to get noticed.

Yeah, there are schools that purport to teach you how to write (or draw, but not edit), but there are no schools that will teach you how to think. Most are incapable of teaching you how to be creative, but if you excel at the basic techniques and take creative chances and polish your work as though it was the Hope Diamond and work hard and eat your veggies, you’ll have a damn good shot.

If I had a dollar for every time I looked through an artist’s portfolio and offered some words of alleged wisdom only to be told that the wannabe’s work was better than, say, the two or three worst artists available, I’d have enough cash on hand to get somebody from Lenexa Kansas to drive out some Zarda’s barbecue to me here in Connecticut. The fact is, we’ve already got those “lousy” artists. Why would we need more?

Besides, that lesser talent might have been saving our deadline ass for years and years. Sometimes you just need the damn job finished, and I’ll bet you any long-term D-lister you care to mention has paid his or her dues and deserves the respect and the work.

Or not. There are assholes out there. I said this was show business.

So what do you do? After you’ve studied the masters who have written brilliant books on the subject – start with every prose-and-pictures instructional written by Will Eisner and Scott McCloud – and you’ve started producing and polishing and redoing everything and make it better, take copies of a few pages to your friendly neighborhood comic book store at some time when conversation is available (as opposed to, say, Free Comic Book Day) and show it around. Listen to what the clerks and your fellow fans have to say. And by “listen” I mean “pay complete attention, don’t be defensive and don’t be a dick.”

Then you take your pages back and redo them with all the additional knowledge you’ve just acquired. Eventually – and it’ll take a while – you’ll get good enough that you can put it online or work with one of the smaller “independent” publishers or even self-publish. And then you listen some more. And redo it some more. Then you might have something worthy of showing a comics editor or a comics bureaucrat (there’s a difference) or a friendly writer or artist, and… you’ll get some more advice.

Continue along that path, even though there are 1,000 wannabes behind you. Do not get off that path. No, you do not suck (probably; hey, a few do). Persevere. You are on your own personal lifequest. A jihad, if you will. You only lose if you quit before getting to the finish line.

There’s more stuff I will probably get around to saying in the future, and many of my comrade columnists here at ComicMix with names like “O’Neil,” “Newell,” and “Ostrander” have given out some great advice. Marc Fishman, who occupies this space every Saturday, has been on this quest for a while and is nearing that bright light of success – and he’s been sharing every step of the way with our readers.

One more thing.

Don’t give up.



John Ostrander: Talking The Talk

So you had a story idea and you’ve worked it up into a plot. The characters are defined, you know who is doing what, the twists and turns and even the theme.

Now you have to put words into everyone’s mouths or, more precisely, into their word balloons. For some would-be writers, that’s where the wheels come off. How do you write dialogue? More importantly, how do you write good dialogue?

Let’s start with a basic: all dialogue is action. No one just speaks: they cajole, they explain, they confirm, they deny, they confront, they exalt, they exult, they attack, they defend, they lie and so on.  It is an active transitive verb. When a character speaks, they are doing something or attempting to do something. What’s important is not what the character is saying but what the character is doing or trying to do when they speak.  What does the character want, what goals are they trying to achieve? In short, what drives them? What is their motivation? What do they need? Not just want – need.

Dialogue has two main purposes: to move the plot along and/or to reveal character. Even exposition falls under the “move the plot along” rule.

Keep in mind that in comics, you have very little room for dialogue. Each panel has room for maybe two word balloons – three, if they’re small. Each word balloon has room for two to three lines tops. And you can’t do that in every panel; the reader will just see too many words and skip the page.

I’ve heard it said that comic book scripting is revealing character via newspaper headlines. So you have to be succinct with your verbiage.

Major Ostrander rule: when in doubt, cut it out. If they can (and do) cut Shakespeare, they can (and should) cut some of your lines. You should do it first. I’ve heard a story that legendary writer and editor Robert Kanigher, when he was writing Sgt. Rock, would stand on his desk and shout out the dialogue; if it sounded okay doing it that way, he figured it was right.

Once I delivered a GrimJack script to First Comics and, while editor Rick Oliver was going through it, I was schmoozing the rest of the office as I usually did. Rick came out to me with a page of script in his hand and the matching page of art. He looked at them, looked at me, and asked how much I was paid per page. I told him and then Rick noted “So on this page we’re paying you one hundred dollars for six words.”

“No,” I replied easily; “You’re paying me for knowing which words to leave off.” I offered to add more if Rick really felt it was necessary but he smiled, said he was just curious, and went back into his office.

When writing dialogue, you need to differentiate between characters. They are not all the same characters (even though all of them are you) and so should speak differently. Some people speak brusquely, some like the sound of their own voices. Some people try to over explain their reasons why they are doing what they’re doing; they feel that if you understood, really understood, you’d do things their way. I was told once by one such person that I wasn’t listening, to which I replied, “Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I’m not listening.”

There is a cadence to how people speak and that’s especially useful if you’re trying to indicate a person has a foreign accent; there is a way of speaking, a certain order. Some movies can give you a wealth of accents to hear; Casablanca is a very good one. Listen and learn.

There’s a simple short-cut that can help you; cast your characters as if they were in an animated feature. Who would you cast as their voice? The nice part of this is that it doesn’t have to be an actor; it can be anyone whose voice you can hear in your mind – a friend, a relative, a co-worker, a politician and so on. They don’t have to be currently living, either; past or present will do.

Listen to your characters as well once you have their voices in your mind; they will not only tell you what to write but may take the plot off in a direction you hadn’t considered. Listen to them and go with them if they do that. There was a GrimJack story once where I refused to do that; I stubbornly stuck to the lines and the plot that I had already decided on. That s.o.b. Gaunt stopped talking to me for the rest of the issue; it was the hardest GrimJack script I ever attempted. I learned my lesson and haven’t done it since.

Listen to people all around you; what do they say and how do they say it? What do they not say? What is left unsaid? In art, negative space can help define the figure. In writing, the silences can define the character. When do they happen, why, and what happens as a result?

Don’t be “clever.” Dialogue should be entertaining, yes; that’s part of storytelling. However, when I encounter “clever” dialogue, it means the author is really trying to draw attention to him/herself. “See how clever I am? Isn’t that a great turn of phrase?” It draws the reader right out of the story and that’s a failure to communicate. There are many writers whose dialogue is clever but that’s not their purpose. Brian Michael Bendis is an example of someone who writes very clever dialogue but he is also a very very good writer because his first focus is story and characterization. He just happens to be clever as well.

Your dialogue can be contemporaneous; it can be elevated. Poetic or streetwise. What it has to do is serve the story and reveal the character.

That’s the job.

Dennis O’Neil: A Difference of Opinion

Back then, when the universe was trying to create justice from whatever scraps of phantom it could find, I was working for one of the all-time excellent comic book editors, writing stories about a superheroic archer. I once gave this archer a line that conflated a politician with… I don’t remember the exact wording, but it had something to do with corruption or the like. The editor seldom asked me for rewrites. He was not the kind of fellow would impose his ego on the work of others by demanding unnecessary revisions But in this instance, he asked for a tiny couple of changes: he wanted me to make “politician” plural and add “some” to modify that same “politician.” So our hero said that only some politicians were corrupt and hence not all of them were.

Big deal? Huh uh. At least it shouldn’t be. In such a situation, the person being edited can a) quietly make the change(s) and go find something useful to do, or b) holler and smash the windows and cry that his First Amendment Rights are being shredded by some crass son of a bitch who picks his nose with a tuning fork, or c) mention the disagreement to the editor and make the changes. Preferably, mention it politely…

Let’s end the story, not that we must. I made the changes and kept my mouth shut and did not, as far as I can remember, feel persecuted. For the record, I did not agree with the editor. The editor was acting from the values of a generation that had recently survived a war and before that a protracted depression. Leave my own politics aside, and put the editor’s right beside them. This was a matter of courtesy – you did not insult people in public, even if they were drooling blackguards who you personally saw mug the vicar – and it was a matter of fairness. Innocent until proven guilty and all that. Maybe fear of being offensive played some part in this, too.

But the editor was (slightly) wrong because, in the honest opinion of the guy calling the fictional shots – me – the archer/hero would not have softened his opinion; he was not that kind of guy, at least not as he was then interpreted, and so we were committing the itsy-tiny offense of not being true to the character. This is seldom considered a cardinal sin and I would not expect to be lynched for it.

We are reminded of an occasional confusion that occurs when a reader believes that what a character says is what the author is saying. Sometimes that’s the case, but not always. So, hey, could we just relax and enjoy the prose?

Oh, and remember to always work for excellent editors.

Glenn Hauman: Rejected!


One of the most frustrating things to learn when you’re trying to break into the comics business is that you can be doing everything right – you can be skilled in your craft, pro-level, ready to go, with genuine audience pleasing work – and you still don’t get the job.

Even more, you can go back, show the same work again, get an even better response to it – and you still don’t get the job.

Let me offer myself as an example.

1989. Summer. Batman had been in theaters for six weeks and I was at the San Diego Comic-Con. My first, their 20th. I was 20, so it seemed fair. The show was still in what they now call the San Diego Concourse, with the Masquerade in the Civic Theatre, and it was the biggest convention I’d ever seen, bigger than all the New York shows I’d been to – why, there were eleven thousand people there!

(We pause for a moment of laughter – nowadays, that’s the line for Hall H. Onward.)

And there was a panel there called (more or less) “The Mighty Marvel Pitch Session.” You would get up on stage and pitch your plot to Executive Editor Mark Gruenwald and Historian / Archivist Peter Sanderson, who would listen and critique you to the audience, and give you a thumbs up or thumbs down. I went. And I had nothing, really, except for a She-Hulk story that I’d written up and mailed to editor Bobbie Chase in the wake of John Byrne’s leaving the book, who rejected it.

Heck, I didn’t even have a copy of the plot, just the memory of it. But it was what I had. And so I went up, to face the judgment of the duo doing Siskel & Ebert.

I don’t have the space here to recap the plot, but trust me: I killed.

The audience was laughing hysterically at all the right places, and Mark and Peter were right along with them. By the time I got to the point where She-Hulk was arguing with the new voice in the narration box, wanting to talk to Byrne, and the narrator explaining Byrne wasn’t there because he wanted to have She-Hulk shave her legs with her heat vision –

“ – I don’t have heat vision!”

“Yeah, we know. Messy, ain’t it?”

Mark turned into the gale force of crowd laughter, exclaiming, “Does everyone know this story???”

I finished the story to rapturous applause, and got the only double thumbs up of the panel.

Afterwards, Mark came up to me. “That was a great story! Why don’t you submit it?”

“I did. It was rejected.”

“Really? Who did you send it to?”

“Bobbie Chase.”

“Hmm. That’s weird. Why don’t you send it to me, and I’ll bring it over to Bobbie and see what’s going on with it?”

An invite to submit a story to Marvel? To the Executive Editor who already likes your story? “Yes, sir, I’ll send you a copy as soon as I get back to New York!”

And so I sent it off, and waited.

I waited through August, and just as I was packing up to head back to my Junior year of college, I got a reply – which I just found this weekend in my files and reproduce for you here.


Good story, amusing story – just not usable anymore.


By that time, school had started up again, and I got busy and didn’t end up pitching again – you know, just got caught up, had to finish school, had to pay the bills, had to move, yadda yadda yadda. My next time writing Marvel characters would be almost seven years later in a prose anthology, The Ultimate X-Men.

So, is there a moral here?

Yes, and it’s this: Don’t give up.


Every writing manual tells you not to get discouraged, just keep at it, and eventually it’ll break for you.

And it will, but it does take effort. It takes time to find a voice, a groove, a point of view. The only thing that moves that process along is output.

And even when you’re ready – the shot may not be there. Even crazier: the shot you take may miss.

And that’s okay.

Don’t take it personally.

There will be other chances, other places, other things that inspire you to create.

But also, this: Talent and skill does not necessarily correlate to career opportunity.

That’s a tougher one to handle; realizing that no matter how good or bad you are, your career will hinge to a completely unknowable level on blind luck and happenstance.

But that’s okay too.

Because then when you realize it, all you have to do is put yourself out there, and all you have to be… is ready.

John Ostrander: Writing Rules


Recently on Facebook, a father asked me what advice I could give his 13-year old daughter who wanted to be a writer. I had to be succinct but I think my reply was moderately useful and I thought I’d repeat it here.

As I’ve done columns about writing before, some of this may be familiar but this time it will be the short form.

  1. Read. If you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader. Fiction, non-fiction, newspaper (or online news feeds). Read outside your narrow interests. You draw from yourself so you need to feed yourself. My late wife Kim Yale called it “re-stocking the pond.”
  2. Write. Seems obvious but it’s not. Write every day even if it’s only for five minutes. Get into the habit of writing. We all have a certain amount of crap we need to write out of our systems before we can do real work. A writer writes. Get to it.
  3. Live. Again, seems obvious but in writing we draw upon our own experiences. Live life. Learn from those experiences. It’s all grist for your writing mill, the good and the bad. If you don’t know anything about life, how will you get life into your work? If you don’t have any real life in your work, how will the reader connect with it and you?
  4. Write what you know. This combines 2 and 3 above. Write what you know from your own experience to be true. Not what somebody else told you was true. What you know.
  5. You have a right to make mistakes. Best advice from a teacher I ever got (Harold Lang at Loyola University Theater, Chicago). You have the right to try something and have it not work so long as the attempt was honest and that you learn from it.
  6. Make big mistakes. Again, courtesy of Harold Lang. Big mistakes are easier to see and correct. You learn as much – maybe more – from your mistakes as from your successes. A big mistake means you took a big risk. There is no success without a big risk. Try, fail, and learn.
  7. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It won’t be on the first draft, anyway. It never is. Write first, correct/improve/spellchek later. You need to put the story into words so you have something concrete from which to work. The first draft is not intended to be the final draft. Don’t get hung up on it.
  8. Don’t tell anyone your ideas before you write them down. You do that and you’ll release all the energy in the story. It wants to be told; you want to tell it. Speaking it lets the steam out of the engine. Let the steam out and the engine doesn’t run. If you speak your idea you won’t write it. Write it first. You don’t know what you have until you’ve done that; you just think you know. Do the work and then share.
  9. You are your characters. There has to be something of you in every character you write. That includes the bad guys, the villains, the psychotics. If you write a bigot, you have to find out where the bigot is within you. That’s not easy and it’s not comfortable. It still has to be done in order to write the character honestly.
  10. You are not your characters. You also have to separate yourself from your characters. They are not your alter-egos. You have to give them their own lives and then let them live their own lives.
  11. Don’t look down. You’re a tightrope walker with no net. You have to focus on getting to the other side; if you look down, you’ll fall. Translated from metaphor – don’t ask if you can write. Assume you can. If you have to ask, the answer is “no”. Don’t put the weight of your existence on your writing; that’s too heavy an existential load. Don’t pretend that asking these questions will make you more honest and thus a better person and thus a better writer. They won’t. They’ll just feed your neuroses and keep you from writing. Do the work.
  12. You have to know the rules in order to know which ones to break. A freeform jazz musician may appear to play whatever the hell they want but they know music, they know their instrument, they know what has been done before and they interpret it their own way. Learn the rules.
  13. Write questions, not answers. If you want to preach, get a pulpit. As my fellow ComicMixian, Denny O’Neal, once told me, “You can say anything to a reader but first you must tell them a story.” Pose the question, explore it, and – if you feel like it – give AN answer but don’t assume that it is THE answer. Some readers have come up to me and told me what they got out of a given story and character; if I’m smart, I listen and learn. They may have a better answer than mine. Assume your readers are at least as smart as you.
  14. There is only one way to write and that’s whatever way works for you. Anyone tells you differently is trying to sell you something. That includes me and this column. Listen to everyone and take the bits that makes sense to you. That way you come up with your own style, your own approach.

Now… go write something!

Dennis O’Neil: A Superhero Story

Trump Demon

It’s emerging from the darkness…the ghastly, horrible, revolting…Copyright Monster!

Okay, that’s enough of that. Now: Springboard for a 22 page Superhero Story!

Birdman is in torment. For over 75 years he’s been fighting crime, swinging from rooftops, crashing through windows, escaping from death traps. He has vanquished foe after foe: the list is long and formidable – Prankster, Macaroni, Captain Conundrum … Demonface! And countless others. Time after time he has delivered them to the authorities, and time after time he has seen them escape to resume their careers of evil. It is enough to frustrate a saint.

Demonface is worst of all. He considers his mission to be saving the Earth by eliminating its human population, which, he feels, is destroying the environment. Five years ago, Birdman sent Demonface to prison only to see the villain released for lack of evidence. Lack of evidence? Come on! Demonface, who could be a charmer when it suited him, continued his scientific wickedness by night while beginning to dabble in politics by day. He was – let’s be fair and give credit where due – a terrific politician and, lo and behold, he won a candidacy for President of the United States.

Today is election day, and Demonface is considered a shoo-in. To celebrate his victory, as soon as his victory is official, Demonface will push a button and activate the culmination of his genius, a device that will open a portal to another dimension through which humans can travel to a lush, green planet, very sparsely populated by cuddly little humanoids that resemble Hobbits and love company. This migration will be voluntary, but there should be no shortage of volunteers because, let’s face it, Earth has become pretty crummy.

Birdman has had plenty of opportunities to kill Demonface but has always settled for a stern admonition and, when appropriate, a lusty right cross to the mandible. Birdman has never killed anyone. It is his basic commandment: never kill anyone – no matter what. No killing. Now, today, election day, would be a good day for the dealing of justice in the form of a little long overdue homicide.

Demonface won’t be alone; no doubt there will be a few red-eyed volunteers armed with nothing more formidable than cardboard coffee cups at the villain’s combination campaign headquarters/laboratory, but none of the huge – huge! – minions bearing massive armament that used to be part of the gestalt. So eliminating Demonface should be a walk in the park. Of course, there is that little matter of Demonface being about to save humanity but, darn it, he broke the law! Again and again! He is a criminal and he must pay for his crimes. No love taps to the jaw Not now. Enough sissy liberal nonsense!

The election results are in. Demonface by a landslide. His finger hovers above the button that will save everyone, savoring the moment, Suddenly, the skylight above him shatters and a masked figure plummets toward him…

John Ostrander: The Face We Show

Ostrander 2Every once in a while, I’ll come across a picture of me from back in my twenties and thirties or even earlier. I look at myself and what I was wearing and how I wore my hair (I had more hair back then to wear). I sometimes had a mustache, I sometimes had a beard, or even big sideburns and that was always a little bit odd. My beard especially came in sparse in some areas, tightly curled all over, and a touch red. Likewise, I sometimes let my hair grow long although it too was very curly so it never achieved any great length. It was longer on the sides than on the top of my head; I referred to as a bozfro.

I suspect a lot of people look at these older images of themselves and go, “What was I thinking?” And yet, it was a choice that I made. Part of it would have been influenced by the fads and fashions of the time but did I really think at the time that I was looking good?

Occasionally, the look was a little subversive. For two years in college I was both a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) and the Theater Department. This would have been in the late Sixties so the two were not especially compatible. Every Thursday we were supposed to wear our uniforms to school and to ROTC. This got me odd looks in the Theater Department; we were usually a rag-tag looking bunch of semi-hippies. However, I also told the ones in charge of ROTC that I was in a play and thus has to keep my beard and long hair. (Not true usually but they didn’t know that.) At least once a month our commanding officer would announce to the assembled ROTC that the following week would be an inspection and we all should “shine your buttons, spit shine your shoes, get a shave and a haircut.” His eyes would then rest in me, “unless you’re in a play,” he would mutter.

That was a choice I made back then. Whether we realize it or not, we make those kind of decisions all the time. Every character that we write or draw makes those choices. Even if someone says, “I just throw on any old thing”, that is still a choice. It says something. It may be saying, “I don’t care how I look; fashion is not important to me.” Or it might say, “This way I’ll be invisible; I won’t look any different than anyone else.” It does say something. We are making statements about ourselves whether we intend to do so or not.

As much as the costumes they wear, heroes and villains are defined by the everyday clothes that they put on, the look that they assume. It says something about them. When I taught at the Kubert School, one of my lecture/assignments was to have the students research the clothes that the characters wore when they were out of costume. Bruce Wayne will wear something different than Peter Parker. They will shop in different stores. I wanted the students to be aware and be able to draw different types of fabrics. This all conveys something to the reader.

What a person chooses to wear says something about them, about who they are, about who they see themselves to be. It’s how they present themselves. It’s the same for all of us. What image of ourselves are we presenting? How do we want the other person to see us?

Every line drawn in a comic is defining a person, a place, the action, and every other bit of information. The reader takes it all in. It creates not only a story but a reality into which the readers invests themselves. If the artist, if the writer doesn’t put the information in there, it doesn’t exist.

Certainly, an artist can over render. They can noodle a page to death. They can add extraneous information, as can the writer. The key is to know how much information must be given, what can be implied, and what can be omitted. We don’t want to confuse the reader because that pulls them out of the story, out of the reality we are creating with them.

People, all of us, are like diamonds and each facet reveals some different perspective or glimpse of who we are. The question becomes what are we choosing to reveal and to whom and why, and what are we revealing without realizing it. That changes from moment to moment and person to person. As with us, so it needs to be with our characters. We don’t want to shortchange them or the reader.

That’s the job.

John Ostrander’s Writing Class: Details Details Details

grimjackLast week, I wrote about plot and character and I applied Newton’s First Law of Physics – a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it, and a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force – to both. I want to delve this week a little more into character.

The basics. Every character you write is you, some aspect of you. If it isn’t, the character is stillborn. There’s no life in it. We all have many different aspects to ourselves. Different people bring out those different aspects. Good, bad, indifferent – every character is you. I once described Story as an author talking to him/herself. It helps, therefore, if you are aware of those different aspects you possess.

So the first step in creating a character is finding yourself in that character. It is, however, only the first step – a broad outline. To fill in the character, you need details. You also need to write them down. It’s not real until you’ve put it into words. Having it in your head is all very well but the character doesn’t exist until it’s written.

Character is found in contradiction. Never try to explain a contradiction away; put it out there for the reader to explain it. Every wise man is a fool in some way. If you love someone, there will be moments when you hate them. Parents and children, taken together, are evidence of this. (“I hate you!” “I brought you into this life and I can take you out!”) You may love someone more than you hate them but there will be moments when you would gladly strangle that person you love, if only for that moment.

The great rule in writing is “Write what you know” but what do you know? Yes, there are specifics and you should know them; if you’re going to write about a policeman, you need to know something of how they live their lives. What you really have to write is what you know to be true in life. Not what you were told was true; what has your own life taught you to be true. What do you know from experience? That’s what has to go into your characters.

Details matter and they can go from the broad to the very specific. What is the gender, age, race, ethnicity? Not just for the main characters but for the minor characters as well. Give them names. The more specific you are, the more real they become to you and thus the more real they will be to your reader.

What clothes do they wear? Peter Parker dresses differently than Bruce Wayne. Where do they shop for clothes? Armani? The Gap? James Bond has a signature look – he should be in a tuxedo at least once in a story. Clark Kent wears glasses.

What is their background? Do they have siblings? Oldest, youngest, middle child? Do they/did they have pets? What are their quirks? What are their foibles? What habits do they have? What hobbies? What pet peeves?

What do they believe (and not simply about God)? Do they believe in their country? Do they believe patriotism is for fools? Do they have a cause? Do they think white chocolate is a form of chocolate? What other delusions do they have? You need to ask yourself questions and you need to write the answers down. You’re like a photographer trying to pull an image into focus; details are the lens.

You won’t use all the details you discover but you need to know them in order to be able to choose which ones to display. When Tim Truman and I began our work on GrimJack we knew a lot more about the character, his background, and his setting than we told right away. The readers sensed there was more to the story; they sensed a depth and a reality and they trusted us as a result. You pick and choose the details to fit the story, that will drive the narrative and reveal the character. You need to know and then you have to forget it all and just write, letting the details work on your subconscious and guide the story.

That’s the job.


John Ostrander: Music To Write Comics By

I love movie and television soundtracks. I’ll often use a given soundtrack while I work, letting it fuel my writing. I can’t listen to music with lyrics in them; that interferes with my process. I’ll get themes, characters, even scenes or whole plots from the music. Soundtrack music is in service of the story that the film is trying to tell; it’s a part of the narrative, heightening the emotion that’s being invoked.

I have my own particular favorites. The composers usually have a large body of work but certain key works resonate within me – Jerry Goldsmith’s Chinatown and Patton, James Horner with Field of Dreams, Shaun Davey’s Waking Ned Devine, Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill A Mockingbird (has there ever been a more beautiful and evocative theme?) and, of course, The Magnificent Seven.

I’ve also been very fond of Alan Silvestri’s score to Forrest Gump but that one is hard for me to listen to anymore. It was also one of the favorites of my late wife, Kim Yale. We had it playing in the background on the morning that she died; in fact – as the last notes of the last track played, Kim gave out her last breath. The music will always be with me but I can’t physically listen to it very much.

What I find amazing is how many great composers in movies and television have the last name of Newman. It’s a fascinating family; the musical DNA runs strong through these people. Alfred Newman (1901-1970) was the scion of the family and has won more Oscars for soundtracks than any other composer. He worked on The Grapes of Wrath, Ball of Fire (I love this film!), Twelve O’Clock High, The Grapes of Wrath and How The West Was Won among many, many others.

He composed the theme for 20th Century Fox which is still in use today. You’ve heard it at the start of every Star Wars movie (although, alas, you won’t hear it in any future episodes since the franchise is now owned by Disney). He was the general music director at Fox for decades starting in 1940 and when he left, he was replaced by his younger brother, Lionel Newman.

In his younger days, Lionel was the accompanist for Mae West on the vaudeville circuit (which must have been an interesting job). He composed the music for the John Wayne film, North to Alaska (one of my fave Wayne films as I was growing up) as well as a passel of TV shows like The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. He was also the music director for TV shows such as The Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, and Batman.

Alfred Newman sired other soundtrack composers, notably David Newman and Thomas Newman. You may know David from his work on the Disney animated version of Tarzan. He was also the composer on Serenity, the feature film follow-up to the TV series Firefly, a particular favorite in our house. It’s a really lovely piece of work. He also did the music for Galaxy Quest, that wonderful homage/send-up to Star Trek.

Thomas Newman is a prolific and talented composer and one of my absolute faves of the modern breed. His work is stunning, be it on the James Bond film Skyfall or Pixar movies such as Wall-E and Finding Nemo. He scored the films based on two Steven King works, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. He did the theme for the TV series, Six Feet Under, one of my favorite TV themes of all time. It’s quirky use of percussion sets the tone for the series itself.

One of the most played soundtrack CDs in my collection is the music Thomas Newman wrote for Road to Perdition. As he often does, Newman makes great use of minor chords, suggesting melancholy and loss. I have a strong streak of melancholy myself, always have, and it just responds to this music. Heart breaking and breath taking.

Last, and certainly not least, we have Alfred’s nephew, the astounding Randy Newman. Randy is a pop singer and composer par excellence; you must know his songs like “Short People,” “It’s Lonely At the Top,” and “I Love L.A.” among so many others. One of my fave pop writers/composers of all time.

Given his pedigree, it must have been inevitable that he would also take up soundtrack composing. You must have heard his work on The Natural, all the Toy Story movies, Seabiscuit and Monsters Inc (for which he finally won an Oscar after 15 nominations). If memory serves, his first words of his acceptance speech as he gazed out at the audience was, “Don’t you pity me.” He is a man of great wit, a dry humor, exquisite musical sensibilities, and a great sense of narrative. As you may guess, I am a fan.

There are some composers whose soundtrack albums I would buy without even seeing the movies. The Newman clan rank high on that list. They have, as an aggregate, just too much damn talent. It’s unfair to others, I know, but they make me happy.