Vincent S. Moore Presents:
Welcome once again to the Omnium Gatherum.
I’m the nut who writes this stuff every two weeks and works hard on Marc Mason’s grey hairs, Vincent S. Moore.
The man inside my head with the jackhammer is long gone, so the level of insanity and incoherence will return to normal this week. And what a strange and amazing fortnight this has been.
Enough of my blathering and on with…
OUR TOP STORY TONIGHT
Are You In It To Win It?
Continuing my series gathering together some resources for those who either want to break into comics or want to take their game to a new level. Which is very presumptuous of me. But I do think it’s necessary.
One of the origins for this series was a number of conversations I’ve had with a couple of black comics professionals. That when one finds themselves walking through, say, the East Coast Black Age Of Comics Convention or any other comics convention where there are any number of comics aspirants of color, how often one sees substandard or simply poor quality comics. Yet these same folks would often receive copious amounts of praise by fellow attendees and/or aspirants. Only to find themselves frustrated with their lack of progress breaking into comics.
Because these people either simply don’t bother with learning to improve themselves some unknown reasons or feel that their initial failures would suggest that mastering new skills or bettering current ones might be necessary to move them and their careers forward. Which is a shame.
In my opinion, creating comics is a craft. One that rewards self improvement as much as self promotion.
And sure, someone may ask, what about the alternative side of the industry. The one where Art is the highest goal, self expression über alles, as it were. I’ll tell you, while I do read some art comix, I would read more if they looked better or read better. I simply don’t buy into the idea that Making Art excuses one from not knowing technique or craft. As the old saw goes, Picasso could draw like an angel, could draw in a more commonly accepted and appealing styles, long before he ended up doing art in the style more commonly known in Art circles.
Take the above however you will.
Meanwhile, let’s press on.
Comics, to my way of thinking, are the marriage of words and pictures, the place where literary/novelistic, artistic, and cinematic storytelling styles and techniques collide, mix, mingle, and even clash to produce a synergistic effect somewhat greater than the those of the parts.
So, in looking at ways to win in the game of comics, we can look at ways to improve the words part first and then the pictures part later. There’s more to, of course, but that will be covered in the wrap-up. And, this is only my opinion. The bulk of what I list here are resources that I’ve encountered, that I like and that I use in my own work. There are many, many others. But what these essays should do is spark curiosity and encourage aspirants to not rest on their laurels.
Whenever we tell a joke, we are telling a story. Or when we are sharing what happened to us over the weekend with coworkers and buddies. It seems simple. It’s one of the earliest and most pervasive technologies we humans have. Everyone knows how to do, to some extent, but when we want to create comics this skill can escape us or harm us if we don’t completely know what we’re doing.
But we can learn.
The best advice I’ve heard and I’ll repeat it here is to read. Simply read as much as you can. Read beyond and better than comics. In other words, don’t just read comics. Read science fiction and romance and mystery and science and biography and history and whole lot more. Read a lot. Your imagination needs fuel and reading is all about gassing up.
And then write. Write daily. And don’t just feel you have to write stories all the time. Write letters to friends, even old fashioned ones on paper. Write in a journal all your observations of the day. Doing what are called freewriting exercises where you just pick an idea and write about it for ten, fifteen minutes straight, no stopping. And have a daily goal for your writing. The common suggestions for goals are numbers of words or numbers of pages, rather than a length of time. I guess the idea is one could spend a set two hours working on the same one page of writing versus having to knock out three or five pages of writing each day.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the five business habits of writing as described by Robert Heinlein:
Those two things--reading and writing--will get you started, will start building up the muscles for a writing career. Beyond that, just learn about your craft as best you can.
At this point I’m reminded of two more pieces of advice.
One is, if you are in college, not to major in creative writing. The reasons for this are twofold. One, most of the time spent in college writing courses is spent critiquing writing and analyzing it with an eye towards some lofty literary standards that have little to do with more commercial forms of writing. Now, if your goal is to create little comics for the cognoscenti and literati out there, be my guest by all means.
The other piece of advice is that what most writers write about writing is bullshit. On this, I completely agree. Then again, to me, the writer is nothing more than a bullshit artist when all is said and done. So I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t agree. But what I think one does get from reading writing books by writers is a variety of ways to solve problems or to look at the task at hand. When one is learning to write or wants to improve his or her writing, seeing how someone else does it can help to shorten the time any improvements might take.
That’s my story, pardon the pun, and I’m sticking to it.
So, if anyone is still with me, what do I think should be any aspiring comics writer’s or writer/artist’s bookshelves?
To start with, a very good dictionary and thesaurus. Yes, yes, the age of the internets does mean that the entire world of words is at one’s fingertips, I know that. Yet, very few people I encounter are capable of spelling properly or using the right word. And, quite unfortunately, I don’t deal with stupid people for the most part. As a writer, words are your stock in trade. Being able to spell and to use the right word at the right time should be the easiest thing you do. Because I love words I use Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. This three volume set has come in handy many times over the years. Not only to look up words when I’m editing scripts or writing, but to help me to create neologisms just when I need them. Also, Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus covers all the bases for me, with the Flip Dictionary batting clean up.
And speaking of editing, another great tool is The Elements Of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. This classic little book keeps me on point when it comes to how I write. Although I’m sure I do quite the job mangling the English language and punctuation all the time, I can use this simple little book to check myself just when I need it. And I need all the help I can get.
Beyond those few books, here are a few I’ve found that have helped me to better what I’m attempting to do as a writer. This column notwithstanding, of course.
I learned of Techniques Of The Selling Writer by Dwight W. Swain from the book I list below and from Steven Barnes, writer of a number of science fiction novels. This thick book is full of tons of practical advice from a writer and writing teacher whose main goal is to get any aspiring writer to sell his or her work, period. It’s not a graceful book. It doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince young writers of the power of flowery language or the like. Swain does spend most of his time explaining the tools and tricks of crafting a compelling read which will sell to editors and readers. I think that’s any writer’s overall goal. In fact, it wasn’t until I read Swain’s book that some points about the construction of the scene as explained by Robert McKee made sense. It’s an old fashioned book but definitely worth the time and patience.
This book, Writing And Selling Your Novel by Jack Bickham, was written by one of Swain’s more well known students. Bickham, author of The Apple Dumpling Gang, has absorbed his teacher’s lessons well and, in this book, adds a few twists and tricks of his own. Again, the advice in this book is designed around creating what Bickham and Swain call compelling fiction, the kind of fiction that makes readers turn pages, stay up late, and keep coming back for more. Some may say that kind of writing died with the pulps and is no longer in fashion. What I think and feel is that no matter what kind of story one is telling, if it does not do the primary job of entertaining, then it fails in the long run. To borrow from again from Heinlein, comics are competing for people’s beer money; if the comic doesn’t entertain, then those people will go buy beer with their cash. Buying comics isn’t necessary. So making your comics shine in every way possible goes towards convincing people to buy it. Both Bickham and Swain teach methods of how to pull readers in and keep them glued to the page. Isn’t that worth checking out?
On the flip side, On Writing by Stephen King, comes at the craft of writing from less of a fiction factory perspective. Equal parts autobiography, writing manual, and memoir of healing, King’s book often points out that his methods work for him and could work for those who are interested in trying. I don’t agree with what King says about plot (one of those Third Rail topics in writing circles) but I found his thoughts on theme to be refreshing and freeing. If Bickham and Swain are on one end of the spectrum, King is at the other. And balance is a good idea for any writer, I think.
And now, we take a side trip to Hollywood land with the next three books.
Christopher Vogler could either be praised or damned for the impact his book The Writer’s Journey has had on recent movies. To use his own words, this practical guide to The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (also worth reading) breaks down the elements that comprise the classic tales of myth, the Hero’s Journey. One could argue this debases and demystifies myth but as Campbell and Vogler both say there has been and will only be one story told by humans and that story is the Hero’s Journey. What this book presents is a practical form of that journey, broken down into steps. Some of you out there familiar with the book may say that it lends itself to formula rather than form and you may very well be correct. Yet, the reason why formulas become formulas is because they work over and over again. Vogler talks about this very thing in the book and constantly reminds writers not to apply the structure of the journey in a lazy manner. He also includes a hero’s journey analysis of Titanic, The Lion King, and Star Wars in the third edition, just to show how flexible it is. I definitely recommend this book, as I’m one that likes being able to use structure as a way to both short cut the thinking process in creating a story and to give myself definite milestones to meet as a story progresses.
(And just in case you don’t think the Hero’s Journey is as flexible as Vogler says it is, I also recommend Myth And The Movies by Stuart Voytilla. This book acts as a companion to The Writer’s Journey by demonstrating the mythic structure of 50 of Hollywood’s best films across a number of genres.)
Now, for the book that Brian Michael Bendis would call his bible, Story by Robert McKee. I’ve read it and, with some effort, have found it useful. But if any book could be said to have produced the recent plague of formulaic films from Hollywood, I would recommend this one. I never thought McKee’s work was and is worth as much as the people who are his devotees make it. But he does a great job reaffirming the ideas of storytelling and structure that other writers have talked about both differently and much better. I say check it out for yourselves but caveat emptor, okay?
A few columns back I reviewed The Devil’s Guide To Hollywood by Joe Eszterhas and what I said then stands now: this is the essential book to read for those who’ve read McKee’s Story and who want to be able to better handle dealing with the Hollywood types that stalk the halls of comics conventions these days. The practical advice about the craft of writing may feel old hat if you’ve read other books. But it’s the anecdotes about Hollywood and its weird ways that make this book a gem. This book is the kind you turn to when you are feeling down about your work or whether you’ll make it to find that right piece of advice or word of wisdom that will keep you at the keyboard or pad of paper. Or, as Eszterhas himself uses, the typewriter.
Moving away from Hollywood for a time, I will mention the books by James N. Frey, How To Write A Damn Good Novel, How To Write A Damn Good Novel II, The Key, and How To Write A Damn Good Mystery. This set of books by an active teacher of writing as well as published novelist again breaks down the craft of writing into its simplest elements. Frey doesn’t pull any punches, however. He does a great job of pointing out the difficulties of writing while saying how much fun it can be when one is writing. The Key is his take on the Hero’s Journey and matches perfect with his other books, presenting a less poetic and more practical version of the journey that works just as well nonetheless. One thing that may bother some readers is his habit of using chunks of ideas from other writers’ books on writing. I found it honest and refreshing, in the sense that he was willing to say that he didn’t come up with the idea he’s discussing. Short and sweet and full of great advice and tools, Frey’s books on writing could very well be all anyone needs. If he or she were of the mind to think so.
One of the books almost regularly mentioned by Frey in his books is The Art Of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. While the focus of this book is on playwriting, I did find it useful to learn from. Egri’s primary point is that the premise or theme chosen by the writer is what determines the thrust of the story. I’m still not sure what I think about that idea to this day but I did find Egri’s argument persuasive. And I will say that I didn’t begin to understand what was meant by character growth until this book. It’s definitely different from more modern books and that in and of itself is valuable.
So far, I’ve talked about fiction writing only. Don’t fret, you aspiring autobio comix writers. I have something for you. Your Life As Story by Tristine Rainer focuses on writing what is called the New Autobiography by its author. Rainer spends plenty of time talking about applying the rules and tool of fiction writing to tell the stories from one’s life. I like her coverage of all the myriad types of memoir as well as the many questions she uses to help writers shape the unruly mess that is life into a readable story. I even recommend this book to writers of fiction because it could be used to help create great moments of backstory for characters.
With the exception of King’s On Writing, the above books all fit within my own bias towards use of structure. A number of you aspiring writers out there may not be digging on that. You may be wondering what kinds of guidance or even tools may be available for you creative free spirits. And, again, I’ve got you covered.
Here in Los Angeles, on the radio station KPFK, there is a late night show called Something’s Happening, hosted by Roy of Hollywood. He plays all sorts of tapes in the wee hours of the night: old radio shows, conspiracy theory politics, and spiritualist lectures. One of these programs introduced me to the work of Natalie Goldberg. Her best known book on writing, Writing Down The Bones, approaches writing as a form of mediation that when done opens one’s life up to possibilities. Which in turns, impacts and deepens one’s writing. All of the exercises she offers focus on just the act of writing. Nothing about structure or what kind of writing works best. Simply writing. If the rule is a writer writes, this book tells you that it’s okay to write things that are not necessarily stories. That it is okay to simply write and not know where it will take you.
Writing On Both Sides Of The Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser covers some of the same territory as Goldberg, with the added goal of separating the acts of writing and editing from each other. I don’t know how much of a problem this is for people, but I will admit it’s a big problem for me. Given that I am currently doing more editing than writing, I do feel I need ways to break out of that mindset. This book has helped immensely and continues to help. Maybe it will help you.
Zen In The Art Of Writing by Ray Bradbury, the great science fiction/fantasy writer, is another one of those books that one will refer to again and again. Bradbury in this simple and short and sweet book does his level best to share his enthusiasm for writing. To him, it is one of the greatest adventures, the adventure of self-discovery. He is a master magician who is showing us how he works his magic. The funny thing is, just when one is expecting to find out the tricks of the trade from Bradbury, all you find is the magic behind the magic. And that’s the point.
The above books are great for learning about the craft and discipline of writing and various techniques and tools. But, what about writing for comics?
Along the lines of specifically writing for comics, we have…
Alan Moore’s Writing For Comics by, naturally, Alan Moore is a collection of a series of essays he wrote in the early 1980s about comics writing. It shows the level of thought he puts into even the easiest ideas by having the audacity to suggest that one even put thought into writing comics. Just crazy. And just crazy enough to work. Even though the concluding essay, written years later, suggests that there may be little of value in using any of the ideas mentioned in the book, I think and feel this slim volume is worth the reading.
Writing For Comics With Peter David shows its bias towards superhero comics, particularly corporate superhero comics, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless. Covering all the basic ideas of plot and theme, conflict and structure, David shows how these tools are applied to comics. As well as covering comics centric topics as word balloons and sound effects, Davis demonstrates through numerous example how all of these things mix together to create comics.
The DC Guide To Writing Comics by Denny O’Neil brings the practical, hard won knowledge of one of comics’ greatest writer/editors to the masses. Essentially an expanded version of the talks he gives to DC’s editors (if you are curious about that class, Danny Fingeroth’s Write Now! presented an outline version of the class in issues #3, 4, and 5; check them out), O’Neil, like David, covers the basics and shows how to apply them to comics. Showing how to structure a single issue story or an long story arc, as well as the Levitz Paradigm for multiple story arcs in an ensemble book and creating the company crossover, O’Neil gives readers a master class on comics writing.
And I know there are many, many more books I could have mentioned in this essay. I wasn’t attempting to cover everything about writing as that’s impossible. Just to show that there are some really great resources out there to find.
Hopefully for you readers, if you can learn just one thing from any of these books and apply it, then you will find it was worth the time you took. I know that is my desire whenever I check out a new book on writing or on drawing. And I am usually rewarded.
Writing is a lifelong pursuit and you should treat it that way. One of the most curious things about the passing of Arthur C. Clarke is that he died within days of finishing his review of his latest, and now his last, novel. Just as he turned 90, when many people have retired, he was still pursuing the craft of writing. Having the long view of not only your career as a writer but of the craft of your writing will make it more rewarding. That’s something you will need as you struggle to break into comics. To keep you warm and keep you moving forward when opportunities are not coming your way.
BOOK(S) OF THE WEEK
Same song, different verse as last time. With all the books talked about above, I would hope you folks are not interested in any more.
However, with the passing of the final third in the Triumvirate of Science Fiction Grand Masters, Arthur C. Clarke, this week, I would recommend reading anything he wrote. My personal favorites are Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood’s End, The Songs Of Distant Earth, The Hammer Of God, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
ALBUM(S) OF THE WEEK
This time out, I have two pieces of music to talk about. One of which is actually something new and recent. Surprise, surprise.
I’m on Playboy’s email list as a subscriber. So about a week or so ago, I received an announcement about a hot music video. Something too hot for MTV. Something Playboy was more than happy to share with me. And I was glad they did, and for more than just the beautiful women in the video.
“Addicted” by the band Saving Abel just goes to show that good, old fashioned, straight ahead rock n’ roll isn’t dead. The single tells the tale of one man’s addiction to his girlfriend, expressing the unexpressed aspect of being in love with a woman. Namely that it hurts. Especially when the woman you love is away or simply gone out of the picture. The video, which features two lovely ladies cavorting in various states of undress and mutual embrace with the lead singer in a stereotypical artist type loft, was cool to look at. But it was the power of the song itself that sold me on buying the band’s new album. Once I get it and listen to it, I will let y’all know if it was worth it.
Now, back to my favorite older music.
One of my favorite blaxploitation movies to watch on a regular basis is Superfly, that story of a drug pusher who wants out of the game. A part of this film’s success was the soundtrack of the same name, written and performed by the late, great Curtis Mayfield.
Mayfield took the task of making music for this movie and found a way to craft both a story and a counterstory with it.
Songs like the title track “Superfly” and “Pusherman” celebrate the glory of the underground life with hard driving rhythms and silky guitar licks. Just as the songs “Freddy’s Dead” and “Little Child, Runnin’ Wild” voice the frustration and anger over being trapped by a drug game that only makes victims. All shaped by the music and lyrics of Curtis Mayfield.
The version I have is the 25th anniversary edition put out by Rhino Records that not only recreates the die-cut, fold out cover of the original record but offers a second disc of alternate takes and interviews with Mayfield discussing the making of the album and his thoughts on the story and the politics of the day.
I highly recommend checking this out.
FEAR AND LOATHING, HOPE AND WONDER ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL 2008
As much as I want to say we should just go ahead and elect Barack Obama President, I will hold my judgment.
For those who’ve been reading nothing but comics lately, Obama found himself in the unfortunate situation of having to talk about one of the third rails in American politics and social life: race.
See, the sudden revelation that Obama’s pastor Rev. Wright had said on more than one occasion some incendiary comments about America forced the candidate to speak on such matters. Now, I won’t go into details; you faithful readers can and probably have already read the details for yourselves.
What I will talk about is how much the outrage over Wright’s comments may not about the comments themselves as they may be about the sudden realization that Barack Obama is black.
I know, that’s silly, right?
Just follow along with me for a few moments here.
From the time Barack Obama spoke at the 2004 Democratic Convention, his star has been on the rise on America’s political landscape. His decision to run for president started an upswelling of interest in and fascination with him. His speaking style--slow, methodical, full of fire at just the right moments--has electrified many in the republic. All to the point where first Saturday Night Live and then Hillary Clinton herself could joke about just how “easy” Obama has been treated by the press. Even in loss, even at those times when his campaign has struggled, Barack could deliver a speech that would draw in listeners with the promise of a better tomorrow.
To a growing many Americans, Barack Obama was and is shiny and new and the embodiment of the very change he seeks to bring to our government and our nation.
All of which appears to have changed as the fire and brimstone racial realpolitcks of Reverend Wright has hit the airwaves and the internets.
All of a sudden, Barack Obama has gone from being the Great White Even Though He’s Black Hope, whose election to the highest office of this land could just as well buy some segments of white America out of any and all guilt for our country’s racist past, to just another black politician, to just another angry black man. Or at least, someone who listens intently to the ravings of an angry black man.
Maybe in this case, Hillary’s argument that she’s the real deal Democratic candidate because she’s already been tested and vetted may very well be right and true.
Still, Obama, rather than simply throwing Wright under the bus and moving on, choose a different strategy. One that will make him or break him in the long run. He choose to speak with America as if we were actually a mature nation, with apologizes to Jon Stewart. He choose to talk about race in a mature manner, to say that many people, white and black, say and have opinions about other races that would not fit in with polite company. Obama choose not only to not throw Wright under the bus (the same cannot be said about Wright in regards to Obama though), but to pick up Geraldine Ferraro from under the bus where the Clinton campaign threw her.
All of which may do him no good in the short term. Because, again, white America now sees Obama as a black man with a black background for the first time in this campaign season. That’s a shock the white community has a very difficult time overcoming. Just ask O.J.
So, a real opening has arrived just in time to save the sinking HRC campaign.
Meanwhile, John McCain, the Republican nominee in all but fact, took a wonderful day trip to Iraq, the country we broke and bought. For him, life is easy. The campaign season is effectively over. The Democrats still have months to fight to see who comes out on top. The economy continues its roller coaster ride, mostly heading down and down the big dip, upsetting the stomachs and what not of many Americans. G.W.’s approval ratings continue to fall into the pit of history. McCain can do his own version of linking Iran to Iraq and Al Qaeda without the news media questioning him. All of which make McCain look like the force of stability this great nation needs to sail the seas of troubles the future looks to bring.
It’s nice and safe and boring in that typical Republican way. Just the way they like it.
Unlike the Democrats who are guaranteeing fun, fun, fun until their daddies take the T-bird away later on this summer. Man, I hate being a Democrat sometimes.
COMICS OF THE WEEK
I have a new comic from a well known name and a original graphic novel from a new face to talk about this time.
Echo by Terry Moore is the follow-up to Strangers In Paradise. Initially, Moore shows daring by moving into an entire different genre--technothriller--for his new project. Yet we still see his preference for character drama on display here. The first issue introduces us to Julie, a photographer struggling with personal and financial issues, who is exposed to the disastrous fallout of a military experiment. For a first issue, Moore does an excellent job introducing us to the situation and informing us what is at stake while giving us hints of the drama and melodrama to come. Definitely worth picking up.
Now, a confession: I know Matt Maxwell. Not in the biblical sense, but I do know him. I don’t want to say we’re bosom buddies as we’ve never been to a strip joint together. But I know him and he is a righteous guy.
So when he handed me a copy of his new OGN, Strangeways: Murder Moon, I said I would read it and review it.
Well, there is doing a favor for a friend out of a sense of duty and there is doing something because you want to. This is definitely the latter.
Murder Moon nearly perfect blends the western genre with horror, with the story of former soldier Seth Collins who finds himself summoned by a long lost sister to the beleaguered town of Silver Branch. I say nearly perfect simply because the tale, originally constructed as a four issue mini-series, ended too soon for my tastes. The stand alone short story included didn’t quite satisfy my curiosity for more story. Drawn in gorgeous black and white by newcomer Luis Guaragña, the art matches well with the story, demonstrating on the part of both writer and artist a grasp of the power of comics done well. Not comics as movies on paper, but as comics.
I wish Matt the best with this and hope he’s busy writing the sequel. Go bother your retailer to carry this OGN when it comes out.
MOVIE(S) OF THE WEEK
I wish I had a movie review this time out.
I say this, not because I haven’t seen any movies on the big or small screen, but because I can’t completely describe the movie I just watched.
It was Southland Tales, an alternate present science fantasy film. If that makes any sense. It stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sean William Scott, and Sarah Michelle Gellar and takes place in a Los Angeles on the brink of collapse and revolution. To explain it any further would be to do a disservice. This is a flick you need to see for yourself.
When you do, please email me and tell me what the hell was it about. I’m still not sure.
THE TEMPEST IN A TEAPOT THIS TIME
It looks like Wonder Woman has gone a’courting and has upset more than a few internet peoples.
So what? Big deal.
She’s human, if only on paper. She’s allowed to have a life, right? And this is the modern, post-feminist world, right? The very idea of courtship rituals of women and men should no longer be bound by such concept of worth, right? I guess not.
C’mon. Get real, people.
While I’m not 100% in Gail Simone’s corner, she’s only five issues into her run on WW! Can we give her a chance? I would assume that she has plans for where this relationship is going. And that Nemesis will show the very reasons why Wonder Woman has fallen in love with him. Gail seems to be trying to expand out the storytelling parameters on WW, to give her a social life as well as a real supporting cast. Let’s give her, and by extension Nemesis, some time to prove themselves.
GOOD DAY, GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK
Once again, I’m running late and long with the column. So I’ll wish you readers a great fortnight and will see you next time.
Copyright 2006- 2010 Marc Mason/Comics Waiting Room. All rights reserved