On The Ledge: With Bill Willingham, writer of FABLES

On The Ledge: With Bill Willingham, writer of FABLES

By Pamela Mullin Horvath Monday, November 26th, 2012


Bill’s ramshackle schoolhouse, built precariously…




From time to time I’m asked to critique the work of a new comics writer, often one who entertains hopes of writing for VERTIGO, sometimes for other venues. Time and workload permitting, I’m usually happy to do so, but one does get occasionally frustrated with the same beginners’ problems cropping up time and time again.


If there were a good book about how to write comics, full of the elementary blunders one should avoid, we wouldn’t have this problem. But although there are (literally) tons of great primers on how to write prose, and many more not-so-great ones, there isn’t a single primer that I know of on how to write comics.


Maybe I should write one, what with the copious free time I don’t actually have.


In any case, until such a primer is available, here’s one of my chief bugaboos, an oft-repeated rookie mistake that should never crop up anymore. Now that this semi pseudo tutorial is in print, no one is allowed to make this mistake from here on.


(The following is taken from a recent written critique, heavily redacted so as to disguise the story in question and spare the writer some embarrassment.)


Page One is fine. On Page Two, here are questions I have from the very first panel: Where is this taking place? Is it Earth? Is it some future society on some faraway world? Is it the past? Are these even humans in this panel? You started with the infinity of space, so your story could be about anyone and anywhere. Therefore you owe your artist answers to these basic questions right away. Immediately. Don’t make the artist have to go hunting for clues in the rest of your script. Even if you’re writing a mystery, you don’t make the script a mystery for whoever draws it. Clarity! Clarity is the only god of the page and panel descriptions (and you shall have no other god before it).


Based on the dialogue in the first panel of the second page, I’m going to guess they’re Japanese, since (redacted) seems a Japanese name. Did I guess correctly? Why do I have to guess at all? You need to reveal these things to your artist. What if he decides to make these frog people, because you didn’t bother specifying, and he feels like drawing frogs today?


(Later, on another page): Panel Four: Okay, this isn’t bad. Interesting dialogue. I’m sufficiently intrigued as a reader to turn the page. As the artist, though, I still hate you for not being clear on what you want. Remember, in writing one script you have to write two stories. The first is to your editors, publishers and readers. The second story is more personal. It’s only to one person in the whole wide world. In writing panel descriptions, you are writing to the artist – no one else. The best way to make an enemy of him is to leave out vital stuff that he needs to know, in order to have the slightest chance of doing even a crappy job – much less the lovely job you expect and/or hope for. Just because you can picture what you want in your head, it doesn’t mean you’ve successfully communicated it to your artist. Clarity! Panel descriptions are technical writing and, in technical writing the only thing that matters is, did you tell the customer how to properly assemble his very expensive stereo system? If you left steps out, he will have a very expensive pile of useless junk and will hate you forever.


The critique goes on, but my point is made. On some future date, in some future venue, I’ll talk about what it takes to craft an engaging story that readers will love while reading and not feel cheated at the end. But for now, if you know nothing else as a new comics writer, know that the story you tell your artist needs to be clear and detailed enough so that he knows what you want, what you need and what you hope for. Fail him and no power on earth can save the other story, the one you and he are teaming up to tell.


Go and sin no more.


Bill Willingham