Comic Book Writers


Exploring this Job

The best advice for a budding comic book writer is to become as familiar with different styles of comics and stories as possible. Read about the history of comics, observing how they and the public's tastes in them have changed over the decades. See what types of stories were quick fads and which have stood the test of time. Read and reread different styles of comics and see how the writers have developed characters, mood, setting, and continuity across issues. Attend local and national comic book conventions and talk to people working in the field. Ask how they got their start in the business and think about how you might go about getting your feet wet in this industry.

Most writers are also voracious readers. In addition to reading comic books, read novels, plays, memoirs, and biographies to learn the different ways in which writers handle character, plot, dialogue, and setting. Start to develop some of your own comic worlds, characters, and stories by fleshing out the details of each.

You can develop your sense of visual storytelling by visiting museums and seeing paintings that capture various actions, moods, and expressions. Practice storyboarding some of your own comic book ideas to gain a sense of what works in the confines of the comic book page and what does not.

Finally, you can test your interest and aptitude in the field of writing by serving as a reporter or writer on school newspapers, yearbooks, and literary magazines. Various writing courses and workshops will provide the opportunity to sharpen your writing skills.

The Job

Comic book writers are creative storytellers who possess both a strong command of language and a good visual sense. Although comic book writers do not have to be (and often are not) good visual artists, they must be able to weave engaging stories that can be rendered in lively artwork and told within a limited number of comic book panels. These challenges are unique to comic book writers, but it is a love of these challenges and the comic book form that attracts writers to this field.

Comic book writing, like all creative processes, starts with an idea. Writers may have an idea for an entirely new comic book, or they may think of stories and plots for an existing comic book series or character. Developing strong characters is one of the essential steps in creating a good comic book story, especially if the characters will be part of a comic book series.

Before writing a specific plot, a comic book writer develops an in-depth profile and backstory for the main character. For example, one of the most popular comic book characters is the superhero. The writer must decide the hero's background, general physical appearance (both as a superhero and as an everyday citizen, if the character has such a dual nature), powers (and how they came to be), weaknesses or flaws (such as Superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite), enemies, love interests, costume, day job, means of transport, and so forth. In addition, the writer will invent a cast of recurring minor characters, such as a wisecracking boss, nosy neighbor, or faithful sidekick. The writer also creates the setting of the comic book (urban metropolis, another planet, medieval times, and so forth). A writer's careful consideration of even the smallest details will make a comic book that much more engaging and believable for readers—even if it is primarily a fantastic tale. Working out these details will also make it easier for a writer to communicate his or her ideas to the comic book artists (called pencillers and inkers) who will draw the story.

After writers have developed the main character and the "world" of the comic book, they can focus on stories and plots. Sometimes writers come up with these ideas through genuine inspiration, but stories for established comic book series are often the result of a brainstorming session between writers and comic book editors. (Among other things, editors come up with story ideas; evaluate ideas from freelance writers and artists; review the art and language used in comic books; and ensure continuity of character, plot, and visuals within one volume or across a comic book series.) In such a session, writers and editors list as many ideas as they can, no matter how outlandish some might seem. They will then go back over the ideas and accept, reject, and refine them until they arrive at an agreed-upon list of workable stories. They will also determine if the story will be contained in one volume or if it will be a mini-series that continues across several volumes.

A writer who is not established with a comic book publisher can also submit story ideas. He or she presents the idea in a log line, which is a one-line story summary, or in a lengthier synopsis, which is a one- or two-page summary of a story that contains the major events, some key lines of text, and brief descriptions of subplots. A synopsis is often the preferred method, as it provides more detail and makes it easier for artists to get a sense of how the action will unfold across the pages.

Space is at a premium in print comics, so a writer must determine how to best convey the story; that is, how many panels will be used per page, and how many of those panels will contain text. There is no set limit to the number of panels that can appear on a page; in fact, the number of panels per page in one comic book usually varies. For example, a conversation between two people might take up 10 panels on one page, while a big action sequence might only require one or two panels. (The splash page, the first page in a comic book, is often rather elaborately drawn and thus consists of one panel.) The writer works closely with the comic book artists when making these decisions.

Comic book writers employ two main forms of writing: captions and dialogue. Captions, which usually appear as boxes in the margins of a panel, are used to convey the passage of time ("Later that day …"), setting ("Meanwhile, back at the lab …"), and mood ("In the Golden Age of Planet Xon, even the sun shone brighter."). Dialogue generally appears in bubbles or balloons near the character that is speaking. These balloons may also show a character's internal thoughts, which are usually drawn differently to distinguish them from dialogue. A writer must handle dialogue carefully, as too many balloons on one page can confuse the reader. (The accepted rule of thumb is no more than three balloons per panel.)

A writer presents his or her story to an editor or artists in one of three ways: as a storyboard, as a script, or by writing text after the art has been created. In a storyboard, the writer makes a rough layout of the text and art by drawing crude comic book panels with stick figures or basic art and the text in its proper place. This gives the artist a specific idea of how the action will unfold and how many panels the writer had in mind. When creating a comic book script, a writer also does a panel-by-panel breakdown of the story and action, but uses only words to do so. For example, a comic book script would contain pages labeled "Page 3-Panel 4" and "Page 3-Panel 5." Each page contains the clearly labeled captions, art directions, and dialogue for that panel.

In some instances the comic book artist will draw all of the artwork for the book based on the writer's original synopsis. This works especially well in comics where action and plot are emphasized over dialogue and captions. In this scenario, once the panels have been drawn, the writer will create text that corresponds to the action.

Comic book writers can be employed either as in-house staff or as freelancers. Pay varies according to experience and the position, but freelancers must provide their own office space and equipment such as computers, printers, scanners, and fax machines. Freelancers also are responsible for keeping tax records, sending out invoices, negotiating contracts, and providing their own health insurance.