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A Writer’s Best Friend

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
A Writer’s Best Friend

Dipping into the Where the Hell Am I mailbag this week:

Hey Jason,

Something I’ve always been kind of curious about is the changing of storytelling choices based on the artist you’re working with.  Do you find you do this a lot?  Is it something you even actively do on your end or is it simply that different artists would interpret the same script very differently?  If it is something you do regularly, do you search out an artist based on what you want to write (or maybe does an editor do this for you)?  How do you determine an artist’s strengths, simply by observing their work or by sitting down and finding out what they like to draw?  Like I said, I’m curious.



Good question, Stephen, and the answer actually depends on what sort of project you’re working on.

Oftentimes with work-for-hire projects, you write a script with no idea of who the artist is going to be. Sometimes you may have a say in who the artist is, sometimes not. Even once an artist is attached, you’ll likely have little to no contact with them. That’s just the way it goes, at least in my experience. It’s always the editor who acts at the go-between. Your contact with the artist always goes through the editor. I’ve worked with plenty of artists I’ve never spoken to at all, maybe only exchanging a couple of email or sometimes not even that. Not because I didn’t want to talk with them, but too often there’s simply not enough time, or the opportunity just isn’t there.

Creator-owned projects are obviously different. With “Scalped,” R.M. Guera is a co-creator, so we’ve always talked quite a lot, about the direction of the book, the look of it, everything. Even then though, we’d been working together for over 5 years before we ever actually met in person.

That’s another big hindrance to having a strong personal relationship with your artist: geography. If you’re writing comics today, you’re most likely working with artists from all over the world. Just in the last four years of my career, I’ve worked with English, Scottish, French, Italian, Spanish, Serbian, Croatian and Canadian artists, and probably a few more nationalities I’m forgetting. Sometimes there’s a language barrier. Sometimes just a time difference and geography standing between you. The point is, you may find you can’t always have as direct a relationship with the artist as you might like.

That doesn’t have to detract from the comics though.

Personally, I love sending off a script, not knowing how it’s going to look when the art comes back. I might have an idea, sure, but nine times out of ten the art blows away anything I had in mind. That’s the true joy of comic book collaboration.

Even when I know before writing a script who the artist is going to be, I don’t feel like I’m yet good enough at what I do or have a keen enough eye to tailor my scripts specifically for them. I’ve learned to do little tweaks here and there, but usually nothing major. A script I write for Howard Chaykin looks pretty much the same as a script I write for Steve Dillon. The little tweaks come once I’m able to get into a real groove with an artists. R.M. Guera and I have a real rhythm together. Same with Ron Garney. Not surprisingly, those are by far the two artists I’ve worked with the most.

In regards to Guera on Scalped, I know he seems to do some of his best work when I give him 7 or even 8 panel pages, whereas most other artists would kill me for loading them up like that. I’ve also learned to give him a good share of silent sequences, because he always pulls them off so beautifully. Guera likes for me to write lots of emotional insights into my scripts, as part of the panel descriptions. He wants to know what the characters are thinking and feeling, beyond just what they’re saying, so I always try to pepper my script with that sort of stuff.

Here are a couple of typical panel descriptions from “Scalped:”

Tight on Carol. She feels even worse than Dash. She figures everything that’s happened to him is her fault, that she dragged him down.

DASH (from off): But-

CAROL: I know. I shouldn’t have either.

CAPTION (Carol): I did this to you. I dragged you down with me. I’ll never forgive myself for that.

They face each other, both lonely, both wanting to reach out to the other. Dash is trying, but Carol holds back, afraid to tell Dash the truth. She doesn’t yet know what she’s really afraid of though. Is she afraid he’ll freak out when he finds out she’s pregnant? Or afraid he’ll want her to keep it?

CAPTION (Dash): I want to make love to you again.

DASH: You wanna, maybe… go get a drink or something?

CAPTION (Carol): I’m pregnant with your child.

DASH: I don’t think we should.

Dash looks away, shot down. Carol is watching him, perhaps wanting to see if he’s really willing to fight for her, to sweep her off her feet.

DASH: Yeah.

CAPTION (Dash): I never should’ve come back to this place. All I’ve done is spread misery.

CAPTION (Carol): I’d be dead if it wasn’t for you. This baby saved me.

With Ron, I try to keep things looser. Fewer panels per page. Especially when it comes to action. With fight scenes, I usually just throw a few ideas out and let Ron sort of choreograph things for himself, since so he’s so awesome at breaking down action. There’ve been times in “Ultimate Captain America” where I would just write “Nuke is beating the shit out of Cap” as a panel description and then just step back and let Ron deliver something amazing.

I find that’s usually when you get an artists’ best work: when you simply give them more freedom.

I’ve done some scripts where I’ve been more detailed in setting up shots and whatnot, but typically I try to leave that sort of thing up to the artist. I always feel like my job is just to give them what they need to hit a homerun, to set them up with an easy pitch, so to speak, not to tell them how to swing at it.

The simplest example I can think of is the three-page spread from Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine #3. All I wrote was:

Logan stands atop the mountain of rubble, looking up into the sky, gun at his side. Doom the Living Planet looms above him.

And Adam Kubert delivered three pages of insane awesomeness. He didn’t need anything else from me but what I gave him.

A different example would be The Other Side. It was my first book, so I was super jazzed and working like mad on it 24/7, and the Vietnam War was also something that I’d spent the last several months of my life obsessing over. So I had lots of background info on everything that went into that script, and worked in as much of it as I could. Here are just the first two panels of The Other Side #1:

Page One

Splash Page

Close-up of Private Jon J. Falkner, a young Marine, screaming. He’s been thrown to the ground by an exploding 82mm mortar round and sprayed with searing hot shrapnel. His legs are gone, his entrails are spilling out and his bowels are perforated. But we only see his face. His eyes are wide with shock, his face is freckled with splatters of gore, his mouth is open so wide it’s almost inhuman, and he’s screaming the most bloodcurdling howl you can imagine. His eyes see beyond. Beyond the shock of his injuries. Beyond his inevitable death.

Because this whole story is basically a symbolic hell descent (both main characters undertake the type of archetypal heroic quest exemplified by stories like “Beowulf,” “Heart of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now”), Private Falkner is not simply wounded: he’s one of the damned being dragged into hell. In these last few unbearably painful moments, he’s getting just a taste of the torture and horror that await him in the afterlife. And all for what?

For inspiration, look to Luca Signorelli’s painting “The Last Judgement,” Jusepe Ribera’s painting “The Flaying of Marsyas,” Russ Heath’s story “O.P.!” in “Frontline Combat” #1, and the scene in “Full Metal Jacket” when Doc Jay is pinned down by the sniper, shot twice, and screaming wretchedly (don’t worry, I can provide plenty of reference images). Across Private Falkner’s helmet is written “Death be not proud,” but the words wrap around the side so that we can’t quite make out the entire phrase.

1 CAPTION A: On Monday, September 4, 1967, CBS aired the final episode of “Gilligan’s Island”…

2 CAPTION A: Jimi Hendrix opened his show in Stockholm, Sweden with “Killing Floor”…

3 CAPTION A: the Braves beat the Phillies in both games of a double-header at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium…

4 CAPTION A: and in the Quang Tin province of South Vietnam, 19-year-old Marine Private Jon J. Falkner earned his one and only Purple Heart

5 CAPTION A: when an 82mm mortar round blew off his legs and ripped open his bowels.

6 CAPTION A: The poor bastard probably dreamed of marrying his high school sweetheart and opening the first drive-through burger joint in Bumfuck, Missouri…

7 CAPTION A: but instead he died facedown in his own shit and the mud of the Que Son Valley.

Page Two

Four wide panels

1) Private Falkner being zipped up in a body bag. He’s filthy with blood and mud and shit. A vestige of the look from Page One is frozen on his face. Operation Swift, which began on September 4, 1967, was one of the bloodiest operations of the year. Four companies of Marines would have been wiped out by the NVA were it not for the timely intervention of U.S. airpower. When the bombs actually began falling, the order had already been given to fix bayonets and the grunts on the ground were standing by for hand to hand combat. Those who’d run out of ammo had degenerated to rock-throwing. Two of the soldiers killed that day received the Congressional Medal of Honor, including a chaplain, who continued ministering to the dying, despite his wounds.

1 CAPTION A: Ambushed by a vastly superior NVA force, the Marines of Operation Swift were nearly overrun that day.

As you can see, I threw in a lot more than Cameron Stewart needed to actually draw on the page. But he responded to that sort of thing, so I kept doing it. I think he liked getting some background on what he was drawing. I think it helped put him in the right mindset, helped him feel connected to what he was drawing.

I’ve been very lucky with the assortment of artists I’ve been able to work with so far in my career, to the point where I’ve already learned the true secret of comic book writing: a great artist makes you look like you know what you’re doing, even when you don’t.

Learn that well, Stephen, and thanks for the question.

Until next time.

Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series “Scalped” for DC/Vertigo and “Wolverine,” “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine” and “PunisherMAX” for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter (@jasonaaron) or his blog. His beard is bigger than yours.

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