Learning a New Format, One Half Page at a Time
One of the necessary attributes to be a comics writer is understanding how to compose a comics page. Sounds obvious, I know. But it’s a skill that not everyone in the business possesses, or even cares to possess.
A writer should understand how much fits on a page, how many panels, how many balloons, whether the images in those panels are apt to be inherently vertical or horizontal, and how that impacts the layout of the page. If you need a big panel to properly introduce, say, an intergalactic armada, how much room does that leave on the rest of the page? It’s all about understanding the spatial possibilities of the comic page. It’s hugely helpful if a writer can “see” the page, and know that it works, before turning it over to the artist. Some writers are visual thinkers, some simply aren’t. But understanding the page is a skill that can be learned.
Now there’s an additional wrinkle to be learned, thanks to the increasing prevalence of digital-first comic releases. A great many digital-first releases are formatted as half pages, compared to the traditional comics page. In other words, the full comic page is essentially split in half horizontally: top half and bottom half. A 20-screen digital comic is a 10-page print comic.
The recent “Adventures of Superman” arc by me, Doc Shaner and Matthew Wilson was created in that format. So was “The Protectors” prequel story, “Seeds,” by me, Israel Idonije, Bart Sears, Mark Pennington and Neeraj Menon. I’ve written a number of other projects in the same format, though they haven’t been announced quite yet.
I’m honestly not certain who pioneered the format, though DC is certainly doing a wealth of digital-first titles that adhere to it. Marvel’s Infinite Comics share the ratio, so do numerous projects from Thrillbent, Lion Forge and Monkeybrain. The “Sunday-style” strips at the Edgar Rice Burroughs site, including “The Mucker” and “Korak” strips I’m writing, are horizontally oriented. Madefire is a slightly different animal, because of the motion aspect. But generally the digital content at all these publishers hews to a horizontal format that’s friendlier your laptop or tablet screen. It’s a two-birds-with-one-stone solution, making use of a horizontal format digitally, while enabling the standard page dimensions for print comics.
In terms of the creative process, it’s not wholly different than writing or drawing for print-first comics (where you’re not dealing with the page being divided in half). But there are attributes particular to the digital format that must be paid heed.
First and foremost, you’re composing a page that serves two masters: the single “screen” of the digital version, and the “combined” version for print. You’re writing for a top half and a bottom half, creating something that should work both individually and together. It allows you a page-turn moment at the bottom of each full page, just like any print comic.
But there’s also a chance for a mini-cliffhanger in the middle of each page (the final panel of the top half), if you can take advantage of it. I’ve been told by artists that some writers don’t indicate where the suggested mid-page break should come, which to me seems like abdicating a responsibility, and eschewing an opportunity.
My rule of thumb is that my job as writer is to give the artist all the information that he or she needs to create the page. Then the artist constructs a page; if the artist has a different way of conveying the information on that page — add a panel, subtract a panel, tweak the storytelling — that’s the artist’s prerogative. It’s the nature of collaboration, and where some of the real magic of comics comes from. The writer’s job is to provide a map that indicates the trip from point A to point B. The artist is the one who actually makes the journey.
I find the top/bottom dynamic of a digital-first comic leads to a denser panel count per page. A lot of print-first comics average five panels a page. It’s a good number, allowing more flexibility (odd-numbered panel counts yield a greater variety of layout options for the artist). With digital-first, you want to make sure the reader is getting a decent story chunk — or at least an important, impressive visual — in every screen. So each screen tends to end up with three panels, or sometimes four panels if it’s a more dialogue-driven sequence. That obviously translates to six- or seven-panel pages for the eventual print version.
Forcing a little more story into… well, a story… is not a bad thing. Frankly, current comics could use more meat on the bone. I would have been comfortable telling our “Adventures of Superman” story in two or even three full print issues (40 or 60 pages of comics). But we told the complete story — beginning, middle and end — in 60 digital screens, or 30 pages of comics. The resulting story was both leaner in execution, and more dense in presentation. And, incidentally, it’s one of my favorite stories I’ve ever worked on.
To be sure, there are some downsides to the format. The “split-page” method means the splash page is essentially lost as a storytelling tool, as is the double-page spread. (An aside: I know there’s sentiment among some readers that a splash or a spread is a waste of space, better devoted to more story. I firmly believe nothing could be further from the truth. A well-chosen, well-drawn splash is a glorious thing in a comic, a pure marriage of story and image. I dare someone to convince me that any of Kirby’s mind-boggling spreads were a waste of space; on the contrary, they’re the essence of comics. It’s the choice and execution of splashes and spreads that matters, not their simple existence.)
We created the illusion of a splash page in the second chapter of the “Adventures of Superman” story via a montage page. The images work as two separate screens, but when put together, they’re a seamless splash.
Another loss to the format is the symmetric beauty of the nine-panel grid, one of my favorite storytelling tools. The brilliant, formal structure of “Watchmen,” for example, doesn’t completely translate to the format.
But if the nine-panel grid is lost, the six-panel grid works beautifully. Another storytelling tool I favor is the cinematic triptych: three panels of repeated imagery, sometimes with the “camera” locked down, sometimes zooming in, sometimes pulling out. Our Superman story features a bottom-half triptych of Lois and Clark bantering at the Daily Planet office, each panel a little closer than the last. I think it’s one of the best sequences in the story, not in spite of the format, but because of it.
One of the best things comics as a storytelling medium does is evolve. Digital is the future. It’s the way comics can reach a vast audience at the click of a button. But I also don’t believe print is going away either. As long as there are comics, there will be some print aspect for those who want the tactile experience. We evolve by serving both audiences.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Witchblade” and the graphic novel series “Ravine” for Top Cow, “The Protectors” for Athleta Comics, his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image, and Sunday-style strips “The Mucker” and “Korak” for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.