We talk to Richard Dent, author of the comic book series Myopia, about what it takes to write a successful graphic novel, and how it ties in with other types of writing.
What is your writing background? Had you ever written a graphic novel or comic before Myopia?
I started writing poetry as an undergraduate, then went on to get a MFA in Poetry at the University of Arizona. While there I started branching out into fiction and screenwriting and have been jumping in between the three ever since. Myopia is my first graphic novel, but I wrote comic books in high school and distributed them to my friends.
Out of interest, what would you say is the difference between a graphic novel and a comic?
I’ve noticed Marvel and DC tend to throw together a series, no matter how it comes together, and call it a graphic novel. That’s not to say that a good comic book series can’t qualify as a graphic novel – The Sandman and Watchmen are the most popular examples – but to me, a graphic novel is planned from beginning to end before production starts. If it is being released as a series, I would hope that the writer or editor had planned at least four issues out before getting started. That way if they decide to call it a graphic novel once it’s finished, it will more likely read like one.
I read on your Kickstarter page that the idea for Myopia started as a screenplay. What was it about the story that made you certain it could work as a graphic novel? Why did it belong in that form?
The world of Myopia is rich and layered, but only briefly touched upon in many areas of the screenplay in order to fit the limitations of the screenplay format. This extra material I didn’t include, the world not addressed, is what made me most certain the screenplay would work well in graphic novel form. This is one of the strengths of the graphic novel. It can speed forward visually but also stop and hold your attention like a book. There were other visions I had as well: how the vehicles should look, what colors should be used, what expressions the characters might have – decisions usually left up to the director, but something I have more control over when collaborating with an illustrator.
You had the funds from your Kickstarter to get you going, and the support of Dynamite behind you. How did that all come together?
The graphic novel market is brutal unless you have a strong track record of selling comics (think Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis), and even if you do find a comic book publisher the deals are nothing like novelists get when selling to a traditional publisher. This is because graphic novels cost a lot to produce. You’re not just paying for formatting and marketing like a traditional publishing house. People need to get paid: illustrators, colorist, inkers, letterers and, yes, even writers get paid from time to time. Running a Kickstarter and proving there were people willing to pay for Myopia (and raising some initial capital) was a necessity. Once the Kickstarter was successful, I went back to the market place and everything changed. Dynamite had been supportive of my Kickstarter and were familiar with my work, so it was a nice match.
What was your process like while working on Myopia? Did you write a script, draw sketches, or produce some other kind of outline? When we talk about “writing” a graphic novel, what are we actually talking about?
Outlining is always a good idea. I didn’t for Myopia, but I had a completed script to work from. That isn’t to say I just copied the screenplay. I stopped along the way and created extraneous world-building material that I wasn’t sure would make it into the book. A lot of it didn’t. What I did include had to be placed in a way that didn’t distract from the primary mode of storytelling, which was pictures. That’s what writing a graphic novel entails: telling a story primarily with pictures and choosing just the right amount of words to string them together.
Are there a lot of commonalities between writing a screenplay and writing a graphic novel? What other forms is it most comparable to?
They’re both collaborative forms. The screenwriter and the comic book writer must keep in mind the different people who will be working off their script once it’s complete. In the case of a comic book writer they must ask themselves questions like will the penciler/colorist/letterer be able to fit all this information in the panels/pages indicated? Have I given enough detail to make sure that the art is reflective of what I’m imagining? Likewise, the screenwriter must visually organize his scenes so that they are efficient and effective. Is the dialogue moving the story forward? Does it compliment the accompanying imagery or does it simply mirror it? Writers of both mediums must also keep budget in mind. A five issue comic book is going to run you around fifty thousand dollars… and that’s without the writer being paid. Likewise a movie can cost anything from fifty thousand, to five hundred million or more to produce. The writer in both mediums can control the budget by making choices about what to include and what not to include in their script. This sense of economy is reminiscent of poetry. A good poet is always asking if their lines are creating complex images and if those images are creating movement. Of course, bad poems are only going to cost the writer his or her time.
What do you need to think about when writing a graphic novel? Was there anything that you found surprisingly difficult or easy?
In film we throw around a term called parallel action, which is a narrative device for showing two simultaneous events by cutting between two pieces of action which are shown concurrently. These pieces of action are dialogue and what’s being shown on screen. In comics, it’s dialogue and the images happening in the panels. If the images mirror the dialogue then you’re not taking advantage of the medium. However, if dialogue and imagery are working together and separately at the same time to move the story forward, you will be telling a much larger story in a smaller space. Knowing how to layer the right words on top of the right images without the pages feeling cluttered is the most difficult aspects of writing comics. At the same time this is what’s easy about comics: so much can be shown in a picture, it saves the writer a lot of work.
How did you find an artist to draw Myopia? What is your relationship with your artist like? How much say do you have over the style and visual look of the finished article?
Dynamite works with a regular stable of extremely talented illustrators, and when it was time to get started on the first issue of Myopia, they paired me up with a dozen or so illustrators they thought would work well with the story. Out of that list Patrick Berkenkotter‘s work stood out to me because of its incredible detail. He’s worked with Jim Kruegger and Alex Ross on the Avengers for Marvel Comics, as well as The Torch, a direct spin-off from Avengers, and with Dynamite on their own titles such as Red Sonja, Vampirella and Dark Shadows. Working with Patrick has been fantastic. After reading the script, he storyboards and sketches out anything that will need to be drawn with regularity (for consistency purposes). While pencilling he’ll make notes for the colorist and the letterer; this comes in very helpful down the line when it’s their turn to work on the issue. He takes pride in his work, and it makes my job a lot easier, especially considering that the editorial policy for creator-owned property at Dynamite is more hands-off. This is both a blessing and a curse. I love the creative control, but as a writer, sometimes I feel in over my head. For instance, we had a hell of time finding the right color scheme for Myopia. I knew I wanted to do something different but had a hard time expressing that in “art” terms. As a consequence, there was a lot of going back and forth during the color stage where I was simply saying “I don’t like that,” or “more blue,” or “it’s not dark enough.” Mohan the colorist was a saint throughout and when the final product was printed I realized I should have trusted him more. Not to make it sound like I’m totally alone over at Dynamite. My editor Anthony Marquez, who used to be an editor at DC Comics (and is a talented artist himself), is there for us if we need him.
What other functional things did you need to think about while making Myopia a reality?
After the script is handed over to the penciler, storyboards are created. They must be scrutinized before the penciler starts to draw. That’s step one for the editor (me). Once storyboards are approved then the drawing begins. As the pencils come in they must be compared to the script. Redraws are a big no-no so the editor/writer must pay a great deal of attention to the storyboards. If that all goes well then the pages either go to an inker or to production to be digitally darkened. This depends on the style of the illustration. With Patrick’s style an inker (someone who highlights shadows and lines) would make it harder for the colorist to do his job, so instead his pencils are darkened digitally so that the images are clear enough for the colorist. The colorist then gets to work… and this is a whole other ordeal with the editor. There is the aesthetic level (do the colors compliment the pencils?) but in Myopia‘s case colors are also important to the plot, as different colors indicate different types of lenses being used. Colors also need to be honoured in various other ways – for example if a memory or flashback is lens induced (fabricated) those panels need to incorporate that primary lens color being used. There are also a lot of general notes on how I want things colored, and on top of those the illustrator makes his notes on color. Unlike pencilling, color goes through a lot of corrections, but with digital coloring this isn’t that big of a deal. After color is complete the letterer does their thing. I have a lot of notes to the letterer, more than most. Not only do bubbles need to look different if dialogue is done through lenses, but I also incorporate a lot of letters, notes and journal entries throughout the book. The illustrator also makes notes to the letterer. Making letter corrections isn’t that big of a deal, but this is the final stage to check for the dreaded typos. Once that’s all done a cover needs to be designed and production needs to lay the whole thing out, both for print and digital. There are so many layers to producing a comic book I frankly don’t know how companies like Dynamite and Marvel can put out such high-quality issues on such a regular basis.
Was there anything that didn’t go to plan, or any mistakes that you learned from throughout the process?
For the first script I didn’t scrutinize the storyboard enough and it caused delays. I also didn’t have a clear vision of what the color should look like. Production-wise I should have started hunting for a cover artist earlier – it’s customary for the cover artist to be a different artist than the interior artist – and as a result Myopia‘s cover artist, Cezar Rezek, was put under the gun to get the cover done fast. He did a great job but I don’t like to make people work like that. By the way, the colorist for Myopia was Mohan and the letterer Tylor Esposito – both of whom also did a great job.
Do you have any advice for aspiring graphic novel writers?
It really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. When I teach graphic novel writing I usually charge the writer with the responsibility of doing their own art (just for them to see how challenging the process is). I get everything from stick figures to cut-and-pasted photographs. If you’re actually talented enough to draw, you’re going to have a lot more control over the timeline of your product and also creative control. If you can’t draw and you’re going to work with an illustrator, you’re going to have to ask yourself some hard questions. Do I want to pay someone up front to draw the entire book? (very expensive); or do I want to form a partnership with someone? (very complicated). If you want to be a writer for hire, there are a lot of entry-level opportunities out there with smaller companies. You might be writing for free or for next to nothing for a while but that can change over time if your work is good. Some of my favourite writers like Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood write in different mediums. Don’t be scared to try something new. It’s scary but at the end of the day, it makes you a stronger writer.
Richard Dent is the creator and writer of the comic book series Myopia, published by Dynamite Entertainment. He also writes short stories, poetry and screenplays, many of which have been recognized by organizations such as The American Academy of Poets, Francis Ford Coppola and the Austin Film Festival. When he’s not writing he teaches writing as part of the National University MFA program. Vist him online at www.richdentwriter.com.