Beneath The Longbox Bookshelf
My first excursion to the Longbox Bookshelf concentrated on “coffee-table” books of interest to comics fans — this time, I offer thumbnail reviews of several comics and film-related reference books that I consulted while creating my original digital comics story, 4 Seconds, for Thrillbent.com. I’ve had most of these books for years, but they’ve gathered some dust as I have been away from writing — it was good to make their re-acquaintance! Even if you don’t aspire to be a creator, many of these volumes will help deepen your appreciation of comics … read on for capsule reviews from the Longbox Bookshelf!
Comics & Sequential Art by Will Eisner, Poorhouse Press, 1995.
Mostly what I get from this book is crushing depression because I will never be able to draw comic books, but in this I am in good company, as most people who can draw comic books will never be able to draw so well as Will Eisner, either. I consider this essential reading, but it may be the least approachable book on this list, reading as it does like Eisner’s lecture notes, with deeper meanings maddeningly elusive. There is also the aspect of a master explaining what comes easily to him, and making it sound simple at the time … but when you try to put the knowledge to work, a yawning gulf of genius opens at your feet.
I still come back to this book every couple years, and I always find something new — this time it was the role the size of comic book panels play in the pace of story and the passage of time. Eisner’s storytelling advice in the way characters are posed and framed is more relevant than ever, but some of his techniques are sadly being lost to the march of time — few contemporary creators leverage text treatments as well as Will, and Eisner’s approach to page and panel architecture requires re-examination in this era of “guided view” digital comics and their nebulous page dimensions. Eisner’s unstated position that words are necessary only to the degree that pictures fail to do the job is a bitter pill for a writer to swallow, but hard to dispute in this particular art form.
Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud, Perennial, 2000.
Less concerned with the form and importance of comics than his other works, Reinventing Comics is more like a call to action for comics creators, trumpeting the need for more diversity in comics stories (and the people who create them), and new business practices to reinvigorate a wounded comics market. Written on the edge of the digital comics revolution, McCloud’s anticipation of the modern digital marketplace was prophetic, but he missed the bugaboo of discoverability, which has limited the ability of fresh voices to be heard in what McCloud hoped would be a more egalitarian marketplace permitted by digital distribution.
This volume hasn’t aged quite so well as McCloud’s other books, but the author’s challenge that creators should be trying new things in new ways (and not lose sight of the fact that they are artists) is welcome in any age. I’ve tried to take that cause to heart in returning to the comics field.
Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, Michael Wiese Productions, 2005.
The New Testament of screenwriting, building on the work of Syd Field (below), but going beyond the structure of the screenplay to consider the whole product — starting with building the log line to pitch the story, and then showing how that log line is a north star through the process of writing your script, and even how that same well-realized log line helps Joe Moviegoer decide to see your movie on opening weekend. Comics aren’t film, but they are related media (especially as comics have evolved), and while the structural advice for screenplays that Snyder offers has to be filtered before applying it to comics, Snyder’s enthusiastic advocacy for a strong log line was of critical importance in creating the fifteen-second pitch that sold 4 Seconds.
The structure and “beat sheet” Snyder provides has come in for criticism as being Patient Zero for the plague of formulaic screenplays that have taken over Hollywood, and Snyder does sometimes make it seem that writing a screenplay is akin to manipulating the gears of a clock … but what I find fascinating is that even if we the audience know that the “Break Into Two” falls on Page 25 and “The Dark Night of The Soul” must come between Page 75-85, we still sit in the theater and thrill to these stories, again and again, as if they were something entirely new. The magic is in giving the audience “the same thing … only different!” A thoroughly entertaining and very approachable screenwriting book that I recommend even if you aren’t particularly interested in writing.
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field, Bantam Dell, 2005.
The Old Testament of screenwriting, codifying the gospel of plot points and three-act structure. My original edition of this book fell apart as I read it a thousand times while writing scripts for Malibu Comics a quarter-century ago, and while this newer edition featured a few more contemporary movie references (including some back-handed praise for Pulp Fiction), at its core it is still all about the very sound wisdom of the Sultan of Structure, Syd Field. While I never satisfactorily mated Field’s screenplay golden mean with ongoing, episodic comics writing, Field’s book did give me a deep respect for the importance of story structure, and gave me a place to turn when decoding why one of my scripts fell apart (hint: it usually had something to do with … structure!).
yep, I did cards … then promptly threw out that whole first act!
Between re-reading Field and discovering Snyder’s Save The Cat, I decided to go whole hog and plot 4 Seconds using story cards, something I rarely did in my old turn-and-burn comics writing days … and it helped! My script for 4 Seconds effectively penciled out as the first act of a screenplay, and if I am somehow fortunate enough to be able to continue my story, I will have a running start because of the structure I’ve already laid down for the potential finishing acts of the tale.
Setting Up Your Shots: Great Camera Moves Every Filmmaker Should Know, by Jeremy Vineyard, Michael Wiese Productions, 2000.
I stole this book from the shelf of my old pal, Chris Ulm, intending to give it to my son as he heads off to film school, but ended up using it myself. The stories we are telling at Thrillbent aren’t cinema, but they have strong cinematic elements, and it is useful to familiarize yourself with the visual grammar yielded by our hardwired cultural understanding of film.
Hundreds of film terms are described, with diagrams. If you want to know the difference between a “Spin Around” and a “Spin Look,” then this book is for you!
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.
A great read in that it looks at something you think you know (comics) and then shows you all sorts of things you never noticed. Many of the things that McCloud notes will be of interest only to creators and academics, but as I check both of those boxes, this book was right up my alley, and I always welcome an opportunity to read and re-read it.
Much of the text is concerned with definitions and examples (a necessary evil in academic work), and a big part of the book is an appeal for consideration of comics as serious artistic work (which is certainly doing a good deed, but I don’t much care). Where McCloud is most interesting is when he tries to unravel the way time works in comic storytelling, with a particular emphasis on the reader participation and imagination required to leap across the “gutter” between images in sequential art. In this he builds on Eisner’s book and reveals a kind of ordinary magic that I’d long since taken for granted. A foundational book that every comics fan should read!
Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work, by Wally Wood
Not a book, but a scan of legendary visual storytelling advice by the legendary Wally Wood. The pictures speak for themselves, as does the admonition against dumb writers and their lame characters sitting around and talking for page after page — something I honestly tried to keep in mind while crafting my dialogue!
Writing Treatments That Sell by Kenneth Atchity and Chi-Li Wong, Henry Hold and Company, 1997.
An obscure book about an obscure subject — the story treatment, that feathered fish spawned from the bowels of Hollywood, which is essentially a story about a story. You hear about treatments all the time, but guidance on what they are (let alone how to write one) is thin on the ground. This volume doesn’t help that much, but it does describe the treatment as “… a relatively brief, loosely narrative written pitch of a story … in user-friendly, dramatic, but straightforward and highly visual prose, in the present tense … the closest analogy we can think of is a vivid and intense letter to your best friend relating a series of amazing events that you’ve just experienced.” So, there’s that.
The book would benefit from more examples of actual treatments (that sold, or otherwise), but it does have some useful advice if you are trying to plot a television story, or create a series bible … neither of which was important for 4 Seconds, but the book did give me a running start at doing a little three-page treatment for my script, which bought me some time at the beginning of writing process (by showing I had more than fifteen seconds worth of ideas!) That same treatment revealed that I had a big problem with my opening sequence, which I ultimately discarded when it came time to write the script. The treatment also gave me something to share with my inner circle of creative godfathers, affording critical early feedback on my story.
Words For Pictures: The Art And Business Of Writing Comics And Graphic Novels by Brian Michael Bendis , Watson-Guptill Publications, 2014.
This was an impulse-buy at my local bookstore, but I’m glad I did it — not because of the book so much as the affirmation it provided. The script and plot examples will be useful for anyone wanting to see how comics are written, and the spotlight features of creators like Ed Brubaker discussing Captain America and Matt Fraction on Hawkeye were timely and insightful, but not in a here’s-how-to-do-it roadmap kind of way.
Those sections are of-a-kind with the rest of the book, which is less about how-to-do-it than it is an encouragement to just do it, by any means necessary. Bendis preaches hard work and passion, and pulls few punches about the reality of the business side of comics (you aren’t likely to get rich, kid). Lavishly-produced, Words For Pictures should have plenty of cross-over appeal for fans who will never write a word of comics, but maybe want to better appreciate the craft — the art and layout is more closely akin to a coffee table book than a reference work, and it was startling to recognize that most of the images had no words to speak of. This seemed unusual for Bendis — who can be one of the wordiest writers in comics — but in his afterword, Bendis noted that he didn’t want his book to be about the Bendis Way, but instead to represent many different voices and approaches. In this he was successful, and in turning over so much of his book to wordless pictures, Bendis also underscores another of his primary messages — that comics are a visual medium, and the wise writer will take every effort to collaborate with his artists and empower them to do their best work. From reading his Tumblr I already had the impression that Bendis was a genuinely good guy, and this book cements this opinion. It gave me warm fuzzies. Recommended.
NEXT MONTH: #157 Punisher In Marvel Super-Action #1