We’re Number One!
The first journalism class I ever took was my senior year in high school. The first thing we learned, the first day of class, was the Five Ws. It’s the underlying principle of all journalism: Who, What, Where, When, Why. By my sophomore year in college, I was working as a journalist, and stayed with it — as both a writer and editor — until I left to write comics full time.
I’ve said before that I think print journalism was a great training ground for working in comics, because it taught me to be concise, to write on deadline, to write to a specific length, and to fit a certain amount of information into a certain space. Most of the time, a monthly comic has 20 or 22 pages for you to tell your story. That means you don’t have pages to piss away on clever writer tricks or decompression. “Decompression” is a nice way of saying the writer padded the hell out of the story. Because, let’s face it, the artist has to fill the same number of pages no matter how tight or flabby the story is. The artist’s workload is the same whether it takes four panels or four pages to depict a chase across the rooftops. But four pages of chase scene, rather than four panels, means the writer just saved himself the time and effort of coming up with another scene for the issue. The page count of a single issue (rather than an OGN) really demands a more judicious use of space and story… especially in a #1 issue.
Starting this week, September features a veritable flood of #1 issues, thanks to DC’s New 52. And that’s great. The response, in both sales and enthusiasm, seems really positive thus far. Hope it continues, not just through the month, but for months to come. There’s a built-in lure to a #1 issue, the appeal of being in on the ground floor of something new. But with that great power, of course, comes great responsibility. The creative team has to deliver on the promise of that #1 with an accessible story that should leave the reader wondering “When does the next one come out?” rather than “What the hell did I just read?”
Writing a #1 issue is not like writing anything else. Or at least it shouldn’t be. The adage goes that “every issue is someone’s first.” Absolutely true. But a #1 issue is even more likely to be someone’s first. The creative team — especially the writer — owes it to the audience to make the issue accessible and welcoming. That’s in the forefront of my mind whenever I sit down to write a #1 issue. I approach the job assuming the reader hasn’t read anything prior. The job is to lure in the first-time reader, without driving away the longtime reader. The story itself — not a Wiki entry, not even a recap page — should tell the audience everything it needs to know. The Five Ws I learned on day one in high school journalism is not a bad guideline to follow.
Who: It’s painfully obvious that you should name the characters on the page, right? It should be, though I’ve read my share of issues that don’t bother to identify characters by name. The default option here is identifying all your characters via captions scattered across the page like confetti.
But beyond the simple name, the central issue here is establishing who your character is. Character is revealed through action, and through dramatic choices. Show the reader who your character is, don’t tell.
What: What do your characters want? And just as importantly, what are they willing to do to get it? This is what ultimately drives your plot.
Where: Setting is important. Setting can be a character all by itself, and probably should be. A Batman story in Gotham is a different animal than a Batman story set somewhere else. Same for Superman and Metropolis, or Spider-Man and New York City. Can you imagine “Starman” without Opal City? Figure out what’s unique about the setting, and what effect that has on the characters.
When: Certainly if you’re telling a period story, you need to believably establish the era. But more than that, to me “when” is a reminder to keep the storytelling relatively straightforward in a #1 issue. A while ago I read a first issue that was so fractured in terms of its time structure — flashbacks, flash forwards — that the narrative’s momentum was lost. The story was so busy being fussily clever, I didn’t care about a single character. If the reader comes away with no attachment to anyone in the book, you’ve failed as a storyteller. I’m a big fan of Keep It Simple, Stupid, especially here. Save the clever stuff for issue #15.
Why: Why tell this story at all? What’s important about this story that you need to tell it? What’s compelling enough to make it your #1 issue? If you don’t have those answers, you’re not writing the right story.
A lot of this is a matter of craft — how well and how naturally you can thread this information through your story. Give the audience what it needs to know, but take care that it doesn’t veer into a perfunctory information download that brings the story to a halt. Introduce characters with action. If it’s an existing character, simplify the necessary continuity, ignore the rest.
Short version: you need to provide the reader with a way into the story. Sometimes it’s a narrative device like an internal monologue or journal entries, which supply information in a parallel track to the dialogue. Every issue of my “Green Lantern” run had an internal monologue, both to build character and to offer up necessary information.
But the device I’ve used most often is to give the audience a point-of-view character, someone who is new to the surroundings and circumstances, someone who needs to learn what’s going on. As the character learns, so does the audience, hopefully in a fairly seamless way.
My first issue of “Witchblade” was #80, but I treated it as a #1 issue. I introduced Detective Patrick Gleason into the storyline, a new character who knew nothing or Sara Pezzini or the Witchblade. In fact, Sara spent the entire issue in a coma in a hospital bed. Gleason’s investigation of Sara, and how she wound up in the coma, was the way into the series for the reader.
In “Shinku,” the POV character is Davis Quinn, a fish-out-of-water in Japan who is plunged into an even stranger world. Davis is the audience’s proxy, incredulously learning about Shinku and her war against a samurai vampire clan. Shinku herself is taciturn — her character is revealed through action; the first time she appears on panel, she’s beheading a vampire.
Drawing in new readers used to be not just an issue #1 thing, but an every-issue thing. I’ve been told there was once an edict at Marvel declaring that the main character needed to be on the first page of each issue — a splash — using his or her powers. That’s a bit didactic, obviously, not to mention creatively confining. However, it was also useful shorthand to tell the audience exactly what was being offered up: here’s the hero, here’s what the hero does.
Page 1 of “Artifacts” #1 was an exercise in defining character in a singular image. The page is Sara Pezzini in bad-ass cop mode, gun drawn, badge obvious, and a bit of meta-commentary in the dialogue. The image doesn’t show her using the Witchblade, but it does show her essence — even unfamiliar readers get a sense of who she is.
All of this, of course, is simply the bait in an issue #1. The ultimate goal is to bring the reader back for the next issue, and the issue after that, and the issue after that. And to do that, you need a hook. To me, the best hooks are always cliffhangers. You spend the issue making the audience care about the characters. The last page should make the audience want to come back and find out what happens to those characters. I’m not going to spoil the cliffhanger in “Voodoo” #1, but it’s one of my favorites in a long time.
An issue #1 is a leap of faith by readers, and a promise by creators. When creators deliver, and readers embrace it, it’s like a first date that leads to a long romance.
By the way, that journalism class in high school? The final assignment was a magazine-length article. I wrote mine on comic books. I got an A.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts,” “Witchblade” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, “Voodoo” for DC and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com