The Standard: From Script to Page

Following on from a recent interview I conducted with Jonathan Rector, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the creative process behind a comic book page, and how it goes from words in a script to a completed page.  For this example, I’m using page 7 of The Standard #1.  Here is the original page of script I wrote:

PAGE SEVEN (4 panels)

Panel 1.  The daytime skyline of Sky City, a towering, futuristic metropolis densely packed with skyscrapers.

CAP:                                       SKY CITY.

CAP:                                       30 YEARS AGO.

Panel 2.  The same skyline, but now a giant robot has emerged from behind it, taller than all the skyscrapers.  A radio transmission emits from the robot, though from outside the speaker cannot be seen.

ZARTHOS:                            ALL WILL BOW BEFORE ME!  FIRST SKY CITY, THEN… THE WORLD!

Panel 3.  Inside the control panel of the giant robot, a bald man with a curly moustache, dressed up like your classic mad scientist – Zachary Zarthos – prances around gleefully, hooked up to a headset as he broadcasts his rants.  A young woman – Caroline Cole – lies tied up on the floor nearby.

ZARTHOS:                           I HAVE BEEN MOCKED AND IMPRISONED FOR THE LAST TIME.  HERE BEGINS THE ULTIMATE CONQUEST OF  ZACHARY ZARTHOS!

CAROLINE:                              OH, HELP!  SOMEBODY SAVE ME!

ZARTHOS:                                ARMED WITH MY DESTRUCTO-BOT, NOTHING CAN STOP ME!  HE-HEE!  HE-HEE!

Panel 4.  High in the sky, so high the head of the robot only pops up at the bottom of the panel, The Standard and his sidekick – Fabu-Lad – hover in the air, looking down at their opponent.

THE STANDARD:                   NOTHING?  YOU MUST HAVE FORGOTTEN ABOUT YOUR ARCH-NEMESIS… THE STANDARD!

FABU-LAD:                              AND HIS TRUSTY SIDEKICK, THE MINIATURE MARVEL, THE FANTASTIC… FABU-LAD!

And here was the original thumbnail Jon drew up based on his interpretation of the script (with an added rough character design of Zarthos):

Once this was approved, it was followed up by the proper page of art itself, pencilled and digitally inked by Jon:

The main change between the thumbnail and the final image is that, in the last panel, I requested a tighter shot on the robot, to give us a better look at The Standard and Fabu-Lad.

Here is a first look at this page, as colored by the team of colorist Ray Dillon and flatter Mo James:

Jonathan Rector’s art is gorgeous, so much so that I was convinced for some time that the book was so good black-and-white that it didn’t need color.  I sitl think that the art was strong enough to have supported black-and-white, but still, there’s no denying that the addition of color adds a whole other level to the visuals.

And all that’s left is the addition of Kel Nuttall’s lettering, giving us, revealed for the first time, the completed page 7 of The Standard #1:

Good lettering is such an essential component to the success of the book.  The way the words are laid out help shape the page, and help to define tone and pace.  Kel has done an exemplary job throughout the comic’s development, with this page but one of numerous examples.

Hope you enjoyed the look at the development of a page, as well as the sneak peek at a page of art not included in the preview.  Be sure to check out thestandardcomic.com next week, when I hope to have info on the release of The Standard #1!

TheStandardComic.com Launches Today!

Hey folks!

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been developing my first comic book: The Standard.  It is a 6-issue miniseries, each issue being 28 pages long, and in color.  The first issue is due for release April 28th.

The Standard a story spanning across two generations.  One narrative is set in the past, in a colorful, cheery, Silver Age styled past, where superhero The Standard and his sidekick Fabu-Lad battle nefarious supervillains and giant robots.  The other narrative is set in a darker present.  The original Standard has retired, and the former Fabu-Lad has inherited the mantle.  However, this new Standard decided to publicly unmask, revealing to the world his alter ego, Alex Thomas.  Now, The Standard has sponsorship deals, a merchandising empire, and is a reality TV star, making him less a crimefighter than a celebrity.  But secretly, Alex is tormented by what he’s done to the Standard legacy.  He has grown obsessed with the case of a missing girl that nobody else seems to be interested in.  Can he remember what it means to truly be a hero?  Or does fate have other plans in mind for The Standard?

TheStandardComic.com, the official blog for the comic, has now launched.  I’d really appreciate it if you guys would check it out.  I’ll be updating the site daily on Monday-Friday, so there should be plenty of new content to look at.  I hope I can capture your interest enough to make you want to find out more, and perhaps get the comic once it goes on sale!

Comic Book Pacing

As someone who’s fairly new to writing comics, one of the things I have found most difficult to get right is pacing.  It’s one of the most vital elements of comic book storytelling, but also one of the most inscrutable and elusive.  This week, Steven Forbes posted an excellent Bolts & Nuts column on the subject over on ComixTribe.  Anyone wanting to learn more about pacing, or how to write comics in general, should definitely be checking out Bolts & Nuts if you aren’t already.

I’m not sure I fully agree with everything Steve says there, though. I can see the logic that more panels on a page will slow it down and less on a page will speed it up, and some of the time I think that yes, this is indeed the case. Especially in dialogue-heavy scenes. But I don’t think it appliies all the time, and in many cases – particularly in action scenes – I find the opposite to be true.

For example, let’s imagine a big cimactic fight scene between Chilly Willy and The Golden Hemorrhoid. If I was writing this four page scene, I might start with a 4 panel page, showing both men facing each other down, then reaction shots of each man, before finishing up with them charging towards each other. I’m wanting this to be a slow moment, building up anticipation, and the larger, more detailed images encourage the eye to focus more on them, taking more time to dwell on the moment. I’d also probably make this an odd-numbered page, so the reader would have to turn the page to start reading the fight itself.

With the second page, I’d be tempted to try using 8 or 9 panels. All with shots in quick succession. Panel one could be Willy punching the Hemorrhoid in the face, panel 2 the Hemmorrhoid poking Willy in the eye, panel 3 Willy giving Hemorrhoid a purple nurple, and so on and so forth. Generally, a series of snapshots of quick, blink-and-you’ll-miss them moments. All small panels, crammed together, encourage the eye to race through them. It’s like putting the reader in amidst the quick, frenzied atmosphere of a battle.

By the third page, these two titans have grown exhausted from beating on each other, so the pace of the battle has slowed. Perhaps evil Chilly Willy has gained the advantage over our hero, The Golden Hemorrhoid, and so taunts him while he’s down, giving him a boot in the ribs while boasting about his superiority. But heroic Hemorrhoid is building up his strength, and regains the advantage, lecturing Willy on how evil will never prevail. There is motion here, so I’m not trying to create a sense of stillness like with the first page, but there is also dialogue, so the pace has slowed down a bit, and I want that reflected in the reading experience. So I’d probably use 5 or 6 panels here, with the reader taking a little time on each panel as they read the dialogue, but things are still moving forward. And with how I began the scene, page 3 also falls on an odd-numbered page, allowing for a page turn…

The final page of the fight is a full-page splash, with The Golden Hemorrhoid blasting a massive fireball out of his anus, setting Chilly Willy ablaze and flying screaming into the air like one of Dhalsim’s opponents in a “Street Fighter” game. This is a big moment, where the whole fight is brought to a standstill, and much like the big slow-motion knockout punch in a film, I want the reader to dwell on this climactic moment. A big splash page, lots of detail, encourages the reader’s eye to settle on that moment for a little while, slowing down the scene in their head.

So I think that more panels on a page CAN be said to speed up a scene, while less panels CAN slow it down. Though having said that, I’ve also done things the other way like Steve recommends, using 8 panels in a page to create a sense of slow motion, of a single moment being drawn out. It all depends on context.

I’m also interested in the taboo of the silent opening page. It’s something I’ve never attempted, not feeling competent enough that I could pull it off, but I’m fascinated by the sheer ballsiness of the idea. The name of it escapes me, but I remember encountering one comic where the first FOUR pages are silent, and are taken up by nothing but sunrise in a city, as we see night give way to morning in intimate detail. I’d love the challenge of trying to grab someone’s attention without words.

I’ve long dwelled on the idea of a haunted house comic: speaking of taboos, the idea came to me from Steven Forbes saying that it is impossible to make one scary. I’ve never went ahead with writing it because, as far as I can tell, Steve is right, and I at least can’t find the tools within the comic medium to tell a haunted house story effectively. But I’m going to keep trying to figure it out. The one idea I do have would be to open with several silent pages, filled with establishing shots of the various rooms of the house, culminating in a full-page splash of the exterior establishing shot of the house as a whole. Not something I think I can pull off yet. Hence why I’m sitting on the idea for now.

Okay, so let’s look at how pacing works with the breaking down of scenes in an actual comic. I’ve been talking a lot about Scalped lately, so I’ll use the most recent issue, #46, as my case study. The issue can broken down into 5 scenes over its 20 pages.

The first scene is 4 pages, the first and fourth of which are both splash pages. The setting is a cave, where one character is holding another captive. In the case of the first page, we have a close-up of the character in peril. I imagine this is going to be a recurring trend throughout the current arc (“You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”) as the first part began with a full-page close-up of another character. This is telling us that the issue will be told largely from that character’s perspective, slowing down as we dwell on getting into their mindset. The second page is 6 panels, and the third page is 5, both of which are dialogue based and move by pretty fast. The fourth page is another splash, in this case setting up a dangerous scenario, and drawing our eye across the page to explore said scenario in more detail. Again, slowing down.

The second scene is five pages long, and is a talking heads scene, based around one character visiting another in prison. As opposed to the previous scene, the increased number of panels are used here to slow things down – the panel counts are 7, 6, 6, 7 and 6 respectively. Here, close-ups and silent beats are inserted in to create pregnant pauses between the conversation, slowing the scene down. In the final page, we see the prisoner walking back to his cell. This could have been done in one panel. But by taking four – one of him walking, one with the camera placed behind a cell of prisoners staring at him as he walks, one with a close-up of the prisoner’s eyes looking sideways, and another high-angle shot looking down at him walking, we dwell on the scene, thinking more about the character’s vulnerability.

Now things get complicated, as the next 9 pages are shared by both the third and fourth scene of the comic, which us cutting back and forth between the two locations. Both are action scenes, of a sort. The first scene is of our kidnapped captive trying to escape from the cave, while the other returns to our prisoner, waiting anxiously for an attempted assassination in the showers he fears is coming his way. We’re four pages into scene three before scene four starts encroaching, and with both scenes jostling for space in the same page we get an increased page count, the page gets more crowded, and it feels like the pace is picking up, each scene building to a crescendo. But then scene 4 ends with a 7-panel page of its own and scene 3 ends with a 5-panel page, where the crescendo stops, and each ends surprisingly quietly. In the case of each scene conclusion, the panels on the top half of the page are packed tightly, before opening out into larger panels at the bottom of the page, when things get still. Again, larger panels slowing things down.

The final scene is a 2-panel page, with one character confronting an unknown figure at gunpoint. The first page is 5 panels, and goes by slowly, building tension for the reveal of who the character is. We turn the page, and the last page of the issue is a full-page splash, revealing what character our assailant is talking to. Because it’s the last moment of the issue, we dwell on it.

So I’m afraid I haven’t been very helpful here. Pages with lots of panels can be used to slow things down… or speed them up. With the same writer using it to do two different things within the same comic, no less!

Given there are so many ways to get pacing right, and even more ways to get it wrong, it’s difficult finding a hard-and-fast rule of, “THIS is the best way to pace your comics.”  I think the hardest part about it is that pacing is so subjective.  No matter how many little tricks we might be able to use as creators to guide the eye or encourage the reader to speed up or slow down, ultimately there is no way we can exercise complete control over how fast or slow someone reads a comic.  The pages that I talked about spending some time on, another reader might have skimmed over, and vice versa.  In the end, it’s out of our hands.  Pacing is decided anew by each new reader who picks up your comic book.  The best we can do is offer some subtle encouragement.

The Creative Team in Comics

In comics, unless you’re one of these obnoxiously talented people who can do everything, odds are you’re working as part of a creative team.  Steven Forbes has spent the past couple of Bolts & Nuts columns over at Comix Tribe talking about the core components of the creative team – the writer, the penciller, the inker, the colorist, the letterer, the editor – and the contributions each of them make.  So I added my own observations on the roles each play in the creative process.

I think that, from an outside perspective, an editor’s role seems clearer in the Big Two. If you’re an editor for the Batman line of books in DC, or – surely the most nightmarish, Herculean of tasks – the editor of the X-books for Marvel, your job involves having an encyclopedic knowledge of continuity, keeping on top of plot turns and character beats that may clash with something that happened in the past, and making sure the chronology between various books in the line plays out without too much overlapping and confusion. You’re overseeing multiple books, trying to make sure they all stay afloat without stepping on each other’s toes, and you’re acting as a kind of custodian for decades of comic history.

As such, I think that’s what people associate comic editors with, rather than being part of the core creative team of all comics of every creed. But I speak from experience when I say an editor is essential, and a part of the creative team I would not do without, for all the reasons Steven mentions in his column.

As for the rest of the creative team, it continues to impress me just how cumulative and complimentary a process it all is. The penciller’s job is to make the writer look better, taking the panel descriptions – just a collection of words – and turning it into a magnificent image. Then the inker’s job is to make the penciller look better, picking out the lines that will draw out the strengths of the art and emphasis the right aspects of the page. Then the colorist’s job is to make the inker look better, balancing out the inker’s shading and linework with splashes of color that give the whole thing depth and vibrancy. Then the letterer’s job is to make the art team look better, positioning bubbles and captions in ways that lead the eye and bring out the hot spots of the panel.

It’s a very collaborative, almost symbiotic process, so much so that credit is not always placed where its due. A critic may praise the genius of a penciller for what is actually a triumph of color, or they may give kudos to a writer for the emotion he wrings out of a silent beat when in fact that was the contribution of the penciller. But I think that’s a sign of the best comics, when every person involved in its creation – each with their individual skills and contributions – meld together into a singular creative voice.

Also, I think it’s amazing how the internet age has allowed people from all over the world to collaborate so intimitely, often without ever meeting face-to-face. Imagine how difficult this woul have been even a couple of decades ago.  For someone like me, a writer living in Glasgow, Scotland, the internet has been a true blessing in this regard.

Which brings me to the next phase of this lengthy ramble.  Now that I’ve talked generally about what each aspect of the team brings to a comic, I thought I’d talk a little bit about my communications with various aspects of the creative team.

First up: the editor. The editor is often the first pair of eyes to lock on your script after you’ve finished your first draft. He’s the person that decides if it’s ready to go ahead to the other members of the creative team, and ultimately, to the reading audience. It is the comic book equivalent of the gatekeeper at the door, stopping you from leaving your house with your pants around your ankles.

Now, when I was young, I took piano lessons, and I had a great teacher. This teacher would pick apart every little mistake I made, judge my playing under the highest level of scrutiny, so much so that at times I got frustrated. But she’d always say that she was a hard taskmaster, but she was a lot stricter than any examiner would be. And she was right. By the time I got to my actual exams for moving up the Grades, it was a cake-walk in comparison to the standards I had to maintain in lessons.

And I think that’s what’s great about Steven Forbes, the editor I’ve been working with all through the creative process of The Standard. He is a hard taskmaster, and is not easily pleased. He judges a story a lot more harshly than any reader, picking apart any logic holes and mistakes. This results in a whole lot of notes and required fixes, but it also means that when he finally deems that you’ve got it right, YOU’VE GOT IT RIGHT.

Case in point: one of the scripts I wrote, I was really happy with. I was thinking to myself how good it was – action-packed, dramatic – and that Steve was going to LOVE it. So imagine my shock when he got back to me, and not only did he not love it, he thought it was bad, that it had core structural flaws. He said that surface changes wouldn’t be enough here, I’d have to pretty much go back to the drawing board.

I wrote a lengthy e-mail back to him pleading my case, explaining all the ways I thought he was wrong and how my story wasn’t as bad as he thought it was. I adamantly disagreed with him, and to this day I’m still quite fond of that original script. But here’s the important bit. Despite the fact that I personally thought he was wrong, I still trusted his judgement enough to take his advice and go back to the drawing board with the script anyway.

What’s crucial about this? You don’t just want an editor who likes the exact same things you do, and sees things the same way you do. Then you might as well just be cloning yourself and acting as your own editor. You’ve hired an editor to be someone who can stand outside you and your story, and over an outside, objective perspective on it. And even if you don’t agree with their conclusions, if you hired them to do the job you should trust they’re doing it right.

And here’s the other sign of a good editor: Steven told me I needed to go back to the drawing board, but he didn’t tell me what to replace the bad stuff with. He could easily have just said, “Right, take out this page, and put this and this and this in there instead, then have that character do this, and this character do that.” He’s a good enough writer that he COULD have done the fix himself. And perhaps, in certain emergency cases, such a hands-on approach is necessary. But he respected my status as the writer and that this was my story enough for me to come up with my own solution to the problem.

So anyway, I start the drastic redraft, following Steve’s advice despite not agreeing with it, and telling myself that I’d only go ahead with this restructuring if the final product was better than the initial draft. And it was. Dramatically so. I’ll admit it. By taking some stuff out, and putting other elements in, the script went from good to great (Steve would probably view it as “from awful to adequate”), and put the story on a whole other level.

Other times, the editing contribution has simply been fixing wonky lines and tightening up elements here and there. But whether the changes are large or small, going through an editor is always an essential part of the process. It lets you know your script is ready, that it reads well to someone other than yourself.

And Steven has been incredibly supportive through every aspect of my first comics project, advising me on every step of the process, looking over art. I’m incredibly grateful for his contribution, and I know the comic probably wouldn’t have been made without him.

Next up: the artist! I think when an artist gets involved in your project is when it starts to become real. When someone starts turning your words into images, your comic stops being something abstract, and starts to take shape before your eyes.

To any new or aspiring comic book writers reading, I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to put out an ad, and have all the replies start filtering into your inbox. I had over a hundred artists contact me in response to my first ad. It was a bit overwhelming: all these people want to work with me! Of course, some were more suitable than others, and I narrowed it down to my top choices. But here’s something I should mention, something I think everyone should do: I took the time to personally reply to every ad and thank each artist for submitting, even if it was just to tell them they weren’t right for the project. As creative types, we’re all going to experience the frustration of submitting work and never getting a reply, so we all know how much any acknowledgement is appreciated. I certainly know I’d like to hear back from anyone I submitted work to, even if it was just to say, “no thanks”.

I’d like to think I was able to end on good terms with everyone that contacted me. And now I have a bunch of artists in my mind that I could approach for future projects. But from the wave of replies, I was able to find the kind of people where I could picture The Standard drawn by them, and I got chills at the prospect.

But this is one of the things that makes an artist flaking so frustrating and disheartening. You start to imagine your story through their eyes, see your characters how they design them, and then when you lose them, you lose that vision of the project too, and it’s back to square one. The first artist I hired submitted a killer sample page, which got him the job. He submitted a couple of character designs… then vanished. I’d try contacting him repeatedly to no avail, then maybe once every few weeks he’d reply with “Oh hey, I’m just going out, I’ll send a reply when I get back tonight.” Then I’d not hear from him for another few weeks.

This went on for several months, until finally I pulled the plug and dropped him from the project. The artist got back to me saying that he’d had a lot of difficulties in his personal life, and I don’t doubt him, but at the same time I believe COMMUNICATION is key. If life is getting in the way and you can’t produce, TELL YOUR COLLABORATORS. Don’t leave them in the dark.

This is something I find baffling. So many artists (indeed, many people of all disciplines within the comic industry) talk about how hard it is to climb the ladder and establish yourself. But surely a big part of building your reputation would be, when you DO get paying work, actually DO it?

The next artist I went to was polite, courteous, totally professional… but it was clear it was a business transaction. And that’s totally fine. Not every work-for-hire gig is going to invoke deep passion and personal belief in the project. He also submitted character designs and a sample page, got as far as thumbnails, but then another project he had been finishing up suddenly got a lot bigger. Now this is the difference: he immediately contacted me and laid out the situation, saying I could either wait a few months for him to finish, or I could find another artist – and the sample page and character designs would be free of charge. I opted for the latter option, and we ended on good terms. I’d happily hire the guy for another project, schedules permitting.

It was a case of third time’s a charm, however. I was feeling down on the whole project after two false starts, and wondered if I’d ever get it off the ground. But then Steven put me in contact with artist Jonathan Rector (another great thing an editor can provide – contacts!), and it was a perfect match. This might sound cheesy, but I very quickly got the sense that this was the artist who was always meant for this project.

His style of art was just a perfect match for The Standard, even moreso than my previous artists. And here’s the biggie: you got the sense that he BELIEVED in the project. He was the first artist to read the script and seem genuinely excited about working on it, popping with ideas and ways to add to what I had. The process of character design was so much more in-depth and collaborative here, as we brainstormed and through back and forth ideas. There was a total rapport there, it felt like a partnership.

The thumbnails were similarly collaborative, with Jon often working out multiple approaches to the same page – one adhering strictly to my instructions in the script, the other with him doing more of his own thing. And almost invariably, his way was better. But it was good being a part of that process – again, it felt like a partnership.

And then came the point when I started getting the interior pages. Another note to any aspiring comic writers: it is so exciting opening e-mails in your inbox, and finding your pages of script turned into works of art. You’re seeing your story come to life. And not just seeing the images you’ve had in your head for weeks, months and years perfectly recreated, but seeing someone take that image, and make it BETTER. It’s an incredible dynamic.

I feel like I’ve perhaps been spoiled in having an artist as good as Jon on my first project, as we’ve become friends. I’ll usually talk to him a couple of times a week. He’ll show me other art he’s working on and I’ll send him other scripts I’m working on. And he’s engaged and excited about every aspect of The Standard. It feels like it’s his baby as much as it is mine.

Jon inks his pencils, so I can’t talk about any communications with inkers from experience.

Similarly, I’ve only recently added a colorist to the book, so I can’t talk at length about my dealings in this field, other than to say I’m really happy to have someone as talented as I do onboard the project fulfilling this role.

Now, with lettering, in the very early stages of development I foolishly thought I could learn my own lettering and do this aspect of the comic. “It’s just lettering, right?” After a few tutorials on the subject put me in the fetal position curled up in a ball on the floor, I realised I needed to hire someone that knew who they were doing. I ended up with Kel Nuttall, who is a lettering machine. I was floored by the quality of stuff he was providing, and the speed at which he was doing it. The lettering added a whole new dimension to the book, really complimented the art and brought out the best in it. It was a major contribution, and I tried to make sure Kel knew how much that contribution was appreciated.

Really, I find I’m really fortunate with the people I’m working with. They’re all such incredibly talented people, that I’ve never felt like I’m just settling for. If I had my pick of any of the biggest names in comics in each of the respective fields, I’d sooner keep everyone in their present roles. I feel like this is the ideal lineup for The Standard, the dream team. And these are all people I’d want to work with on other projects in the future.

Character Creation

Hi everybody!

Steven Forbes recently posted up a column (part of his excellent Bolts & Nuts series) about creating comic book characters.  That can be found here:

http://www.comixtribe.com/2011/01/11/bn-week-3-characters/

Creating characters is always hard, with each medium of fiction offering its own challenges.  In terms of comics, part of the challenge is how economical you have to be in your character development.  When Stephen King introduced Randall Flagg in his epic novel The Stand, he was able to devote a whole chapter of prose to establishing Flagg’s history, and his dark nature.  With comics, you don’t have that luxury.

Comic writers really only have two tools at their disposal when constructing a character.  The first is dialogue.  The biggest contribution of the writer that will carry over directly into the finished product, dialogue is the most overt way to make an imprint on a character.  This can be done through exposition – the way other characters talk about your character and tell us who they are – or it can be done through the way you have your character speak.  Either way, you have to be very succinct, as you have a finite number of words: if your average page count for a comic is 22, and your average panel count for a page is 6, and your average word count for a 6 panel page is 35 (I’m being very generous here), then you have 4620 words at your disposal.  And with all the narrative plates you’ll have spinning, you’ll only be able to devote a fraction of those to developing your character.  So make them count!

The other tool we have at our disposal – less obvious, but probably a lot more useful, and a lot more likely to have an impact on the reader – is the artist.  If you’re a writer/artist, lucky you!  But if like me, you can’t draw to save yourself, then being able to convey your character to an artist, so THEY can bring them to life, is an important skill to have.  They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and it’s true.  To try and demonstrate, I’ll use an example of something I wrote fairly recently.  It’s a Western script called The Hollow Men.  Here’s a panel excerpt, where the lead character William Phoenix is introduced:

Panel 4. Medium shot in profile of the old lady and William Phoenix, sitting across from each other.  The old lady is leaning forward, a concerned expression on her face.  We can get a clearer look at Phoenix now, and can see he’s a fresh-faced, clean-shaven young man in his late 20s.  He is very neatly dressed in a black tailored suit, with a black waistcoat underneath, and black polished shoes.  He should instantly stand apart from the others in the carriage, both in terms of wearing very dark clothes while everyone else is dressed in light clothes, and also being attired like someone from a city out east.  A black leather suitcase sits on the floor of the carriage by his feet.  Phoenix is sitting rigidly upright in his seat, hands still resting palms-up in his lap, a thin smile on his face.

OLD LADY:                          WELL, I DON’T KNOW WHAT BUSINESS A NICE YOUNG  MAN LIKE YOURSELF WOULD WANT TO SEEK OUT IN TOLLSTON’S HOLLOW.

PHOENIX:                             YOU’D BE SURPRISED, MA’AM.  SUCH A PLACE CAN OFFER MANY AN OPPORTUNITY FOR AN ENTERPRISING MIND.

Now I’m no expert, and offer no suggestion that my way is the right way, or that the script is anything special.  But for the sake of offering an example, you’ll see that the dialogue here doesn’t say overly much about William Phoenix.  He’s talking in general niceties, making small talk to an old lady on the train.  I’m expecting the artist to do the heavy lifting.  The fact that he’ll look dark against the light color palette instantly marks him out as an outsider.  And notice the rigid, uncomfortable body language.  I’m trying to create the sense of someone whose whole body is constantly like a tensed muscle or a coiled spring, like he’s struggling to twist and contort himself into acting like some approximation of an ordinary human being.  This is a frequent note to the artist throughout the script.  A couple more examples:

Panel 1. Long shot of William Phoenix standing at a train station platform, having just stepped off the train.  There is a sense of bustle all around him, with a crowd of people getting on and off the train, but he exudes a sense of stillness, standing rigidly upright, staring straight ahead with a blank expression on his face, suitcase clutched in his hand.

Panel 4. An over-the-shoulder shot from behind Eliza, looking at Phoenix.  His body language is once again very tense and practised, with him clutching tightly onto the edge of the bar with both hands.

Panel 3. Medium shot of Phoenix, smiling with his mouth, if not his eyes.

Comics are a collaborative medium.  So don’t feel like ALL the character development needs to be conveyed to the audience through your words.  The artist has a big part to play in giving these characters their personality.

In Steven Forbes’ column (linked above), he suggests interviewing your characters.  Even with minor characters, going into detail about their life gives you a better sense of their personality, who they are and where they come from, as well as giving you a clear sense of how they speak.  A new character joins the cast of The Hollow Men in the second issue, which I haven’t written, so I figured I’d do an interview with this character I’ve not had a chance to write for, to maybe get a sense of his voice and personality.

A quick disclaimer: as mentioned, my story is a Western, set in 1899. That’s more a detail of the plot than of character, so I thought I’d just mention that here rather than asking “What year is it?” in the interview.

WHAT’S YOUR NAME?
I go by Rudy Gallows, my friend.

THAT’S AN UNUSUAL NAME.
Yeah, I picked it myself.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
Never did know my kin. My mama died in childbirth, and my pa, who the hell knows who he is, or was. Never met him. I was bounced around a couple of places when I was young, picked up the name Rudy at one of them. Just Rudy, though. Gallows I gave myself.

WHAT AGE ARE YOU?
35, or thereabouts.

WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
Georgia, originally. But I travel a lot, so I just like to think of myself as a man of America.

ANY EDUCATION?
I can read and write if that’s what you mean. Don’t look so surprised, my friend!

WHAT’S YOUR JOB?
My job? Well first, if I may declare, I am to some degree discomfited to call my preoccupation a job, as if pressed I must confess I find it to be in equal degrees a combination of business and pleasure. A hobby that pays handsomely, if you will. But for lack of a better definition we’ll speak of my job. My job… I suppose you could say I provide the remedy to a very particular kind of problem, the problem one individual may have with another individual walking the mortal plain.

WAIT, YOU’RE A KILLER!?
That would be as good a term as any, my friend. Don’t look so horrified, it’s just a word. I’m not offended to be called as much. If a man that farms is a farmer, and a man that preaches is a preacher, then a man that kills is a killer. It’s as simple as that, each applying themselves to their calling in life and thus being named by their trade.

BUT MURDER IS WRONG
Yes, but what is murder? Is the bullet that goes through a man’s heart guilty of murder? Or is the gun it shot from? Or is it the man with murderous intent in mind who raises that gun, finds his target, and pulls the trigger, sending that lethal weapon on course to kill the man he desires to be dead? I don’t have a murderous bone in my body, my friend. There is not a soul alive I personally would wish dead. But I provide a service, and that is to act as proxy for those who are murderous, to act as their weapon. They point at the man they want dead, and I shoot. The way I see it, I am no guiltier of murder than the bullet or the gun.

YOU LIKE TO TALK, DON’T YOU?
Ha ha! Yes, yes, my friend! My pa always used to say, “Son, never say in 10 words what you could say in 100.”

YOU SAID YOU NEVER MET YOUR FATHER
Heh, heh, I did, didn’t I?

WHEN YOU’RE NOT KILLING PEOPLE, WHAT DO YOU DO TO RELAX?
I seek the same leisure that any red-blooded American man enjoys: the taste of good liquor and the company of beautiful women of questionable morals. I’m one hell of a card player, too. I make as much money at poker as I do killing folks!

WHAT ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL LIFE? DO YOU HAVE A HOME, A FAMILY?
No to both, my friend. I might have a few kids running around, but none that I know of to a certainty. The hotels and saloons of the frontier are all the home I need. A bed, a bath, a piss-pot… that’s all you need, and any more is just sentimentality talking.

I found this pretty helpful. The character, as I plotted, was essentially a blank slate, a walking plot device used to take other, more prominent characters from point A to point B. Certainly, the details of his personal life will never be explored in the script. But in forcing myself to think a bit more about how he might answer questions about his life, it started giving me a sense of his voice.

First came the response to his name. At first I just had him answer “Rudy Gallows”, but that seemed a bit too robotic. So I added the “my friend” to the end of it. It reminded me of an unsavory Scottish politician called Tommy Sheridan who when addressing people would always finish with, “my brother”, even though most of the time it didn’t sound in the slightest bit genuine.

From here, the whole vibe of cloying, false friendliness, and by extension this overly verbose way of speaking sprung up around Gallows, giving him a more fully-realised presence that might make his interactions with my other characters more interesting than just “point A to point B” stuff.

Doing an interview is a helpful  technique for getting to know your character.  But whatever approach you take, make sure you DO know your character.  You only have a limited canvas to give your character a personality and a life of their own within a comic script, so knowing your character in a lot more depth than what you’ll actually include in the story will help you in making those few words count.