Comics Storytelling 101: Paul Cornell

A big part of comics storytelling is the very mechanics of plotting out an issue.  Your typical monthly comic follows a pretty regimented structure, though inside its confines there are a lot of directions you can take.  What kind of story can you tell in 22 pages?  Let’s take a recent comic as an example.  Here’s my breakdown of this month’s “Knight and Squire #3″, written by Paul Cornell:

KNIGHT AND SQUIRE #3

In which a resurrected King Richard III plots to conquer Britain through the use of social networking. No, really.

– Scientist Professor Merryweather uses cloning technology to resurrect Richard III – one of the most hated monarchs in British history – hoping to restore what she feels is his unfairly damaged reputation. He is charming to the public, but once they are gone King Richard III gives an aside to the audience(much like one would in a Shakespeare play) telling us of his true wicked intentions. (5 pages)

This scene has the job of integrating the historical figure of Richard III into the fictional realm of the DCU, as well as setting up the issue’s main plot.

– We are shown Knight and Squire talking about their reaction to Richard’s return. During their conversation, we also touch on Squire’s love interest (introduced in issue #1) and Knight’s upcoming date with Cerys Tweed, which will be a plot point later in the issue. (1 page)

This is a brief beat that is more about building character dynamics between Knight and Squire, and reminding us of some subplots from previous issues – adding to the sense of continuity within the series.

– We see Professor Merryweather educating Richard III on the history of Britain – particularly of its royal family – since his death. Richard continues to plot in an aside to the audience, until Professor Merryweather asks why he’s muttering to himself and he has to stop. (1 page)

Another small beat, which serves to tell us a little about Richard’s character, and foreshadow his evil plan.

– Knight – in his civilian alias of Cyril Sheldrake – goes on a date with Cherys Tweed. She instantly figures out he’s actually Knight, as his disguise is rubbish, then warns Cyril that Richard is up to something rotten, telling him that Richard has built up a popular following amongst the people of Britain through his use of social networking site Twunter. (1 page)

This page to me seems to be a bit of an exposition dump, telling us about how Richard has gone through the process of becoming a monarch of the people without having to show it in tedious detail. It also introduces what could be a recurring supporting character in Cerys Tweed.

– One week later, Richard engages in a heated public debate with a representative of the royal family over the issue of him being Britain’s rightful king. They bring out a large book called “Unwritten Constitutional Law” and argue over what it states. (1 page)

This is quite a series of 1 page scenes. I didn’t realise there were so many short scenes in this single issue until I started doing this page count. I think all these short scenes serve the purpose of groundwork and giving us the Cliff Notes version of Richard’s rise in influence, with this scene establishing his designs on the throne of England.

– Richard III murders Professor Merryweather, then uses her technology to created a superpowered clones of the most rubbish kings in English history. He plans to use them as an army to usurp the current monarchy and parliament and become Britain’s new ruler. (3 pages)

This slightly longer scene, taking us through the halfway point of the issue, marks the end of the setup and launch of the main action of the issue.

– The climactic battle begins, with news footage showing us the various superpowered kings attacking different regions of the United Kingdom, and a later news report showing Britain’s superheroes rising to stop them. Knight, meanwhile, launches into battle with Richard’s henchmen. (4 pages)

Here, we get to the main action of the book, with lots of fighting and action shots. Cornell also takes the chance to introduce both the rogues gallery of evil former kings and a selection of oddball British superheroes.

– Elsewhere, Squire discovers that the British public is divided between supporting Knight and the heroes, and Richard and his king club. Richard and the other kings still have more Twunter followers than Knight. So, she turns the tide of public opinion against the other cloned kings by posting incriminating videos of them engaging in wicked deeds (Edward’s “a bit homophobic”, apparently) on video upload site OohTube. (2 pages)

This little scene gives Squire a role in the story, as well as reminding readers of our superpower of interfacing with communications systems.

– Squire joins the main battle, finally exposing Richard for the crook that he is by recording on camera one of his scheming asides (“My hunch paid off… unlike yours!). Desperate, Richard attacks Knight, and the two engage in a motorcycle joust, which Knight wins. (3 pages)

This sequence wraps up the main plot of the story, giving both Knight and Squire a role in its conclusion.

– Squire meets up with her boyfriend – reformed supervillain The Shrike – and Knight invites them to come round to his castle to have dinner together next week. (1 page)

This wraps up the issue by returning to the character dynamics, as well as setting up the apparent basis for next issue’s story.

So to sum up the issue as a whole, it follows the trend Knight and Squire as a whole has had thus far of telling largely self-contained, done-in-one stories, with only fleeting references to ongoing subplots that connect the issues. The first half was dominated by brief snippets of scenes that gave a real sense of jumping all over the place, though this was done largely to unload a barrel of information that set the stage for the wild, nonsensical and very fun battle that dominated the comic’s second half.

I think this was admirably plotted by Cornell, as in the age of decompression and multi-part epics catered to trade-waiters, this is a story with its own beginning, middle and end, introducing several new characters and giving us enough information and narrative to make this single comic a complete, satisfying reading experience in its own right.

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