In the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic novels, Comictography, is the second item, in the list of four essential elements to all comic panels.
First and foremost, comictography is the shot and angle used to illustrate any given panel—the most obvious technical element of visual story telling. It also includes an array of other design/visual representations of the panel.
While comictography is definitely still one of the 4, since the publication of the book, I realized I did not emphasize enough the degree to which this critical element should be addressed… by newcomers. And that is to say, not at all.
A comic book arrives at (at least) 4 distinct levels:
- The surface story script.
- The subtextual story script.
- The surface visual script.
- The subtextual visual script.
Plainly put, most novice comic book writers do not understand the nuance of level 4. Heck even the more experienced writers have usually only scratched the surface… so let’s kill that one, right off.
Anytime a writer focuses his energy on #3, that is time he can not put towards the first two. And hopefully, you see that the first two are the writer’s primary domain. Or to put another way;
If the writer flubs the surface story script or the subtextual story script (deeper meaning parts of the narrative), the artist and book are hugely disadvantaged. Perhaps irrecoverably.
In theory, it’s possible a writer new to comics could execute comictography perfectly or nearly flawlessly.
However, in the real world, every script from a new writer that’s crossed my desk with focus on the comictography, without exception has not implemented it flawlessly and more importantly, has delivered a script with significant problems in the story itself.
It’s like baking a cake.
You spend a bunch of time icing the cake, but your flowers come out wobbly, you misspell the iced words and most importantly, the cake itself is really dry and ten times too salty. Nobody will eat the cake, no matter how it looks, because it wasn’t cooked right.
For these reasons, my more specific advice, FOR WRITERS COMING TO COMICS FOR THE FIRST TIME, or very inexperienced writers, forget comictography all together. Eliminate all reference to camera direction and panel design in its entirety.
Let’s take a look at this concept in action. I’m gonna showcase a very typical panel from a newer writer focusing on camera direction in their panel description;
Page 3 Panel 3
We are now inside Louies’s bar. The camera floats at eye level where we can see a man (Louie) behind a bar in the back end of the room. There are empty chairs and tables all around, it should be a bit of a dump. A couple of patrons who are passed out, are scattered around the room. A woman (Jane) with black hair is walking in the foreground with her back towards us (her face isn’t revealed until later), presumingly just entering the panel and heading towards Louie. Jane should be wearing a long coat.
Good gosh, that breakdown gave me a headache. Let’s redo it removing all camera direction (and passive for those paying attention).
INT. LOUIES’S BAR – NIGHT
A shoddy bar from another era. The only clientele, empty chairs and a few passed out drunks. An old man whose face speaks of a hard, long life, LOUIE, stands behind the bar cleaning the dust from a bottle of top shelf scotch, the only bottle of top shelf liquor in the whole joint.
Louie’s too old or too tired to notice, JANE, the raven haired femme fatale stalking towards him in a form fitting long coat.
Which is easier to read?
Which is more enjoyable to read?
Which conveys more information, with greater clarity?
And most importantly, does the first version with the muddled camera direction give you something that the second version lacks? The answer is no.
If anything the first version complicates and hinders the artist.
If you’re still not convinced that newer writers shouldn’t focus on camera direction, let’s take another look;
INT. LOUIES’S BAR – NIGHT – LOW
A shoddy bar from another era…
Here I specified (in the proper place) that I envision this panel as a low angle shot. Though I just as easily could have ran it;
INT. LOUIES’S BAR – NIGHT – BIRD’S EYE
Or a dozen other ways… So my question is;
What is lost in the narrative when I switch from the original ‘Over the Shoulder’ setup to one of these others?
The answer is nothing. The narrative isn’t changed here based on any of this camera direction.
Which leads us to the rule regarding all camera direction in a comic script for seasoned writers; camera direction should only go into the script, when it directly affects and supports the narrative.
As a newer writer if you’re not exactly sure why or how a camera setup is affecting the story, for God’s sake man, why are you struggling to explain it?
If you’re newer to writing comic scripts, forget about the comictography. Do that, and your focus will be 100% on there story itself… exactly where it should be. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.