Words For Pictures: The Art And Business Of Writing Comics And Graphic Novels Book Review

For writers, there are lots of books on the subject of writing fiction and screenplays. For illustrators, there are lots of books about drawing, manga-style and otherwise. However, there’s not a whole lot about scripting for comic books around, and Brian Michael Bendis’ Words for Pictures aims to fill that niche.

Back Cover Blurb

Arguably the most popular writer in modern comics, Brian Michael Bendis shares the tools and techniques he uses to create some of the most popular comic book and graphic novel stories of all time. Words for Pictures provides a fantastic opportunity for readers to learn from a creator at the very top of his field. Bendis’s step-by-step lessons teach comics writing hopefuls everything they’ll need to take their ideas from script to dynamic sequential art.

The Review

I was confused by this book’s title at first. After all, if it’s about comics, where visuals often take the place of blocks of text, shouldn’t it be Pictures for Words, not the other way around? As it turns out, the title does fit the book as it is not so much about all roles in the industry but specifically focuses on the writer.

So there are a lot of references to art and artists, and many contributors, including Bendis, went to art school and drew for part of their careers. However, Bendis’ intended audience are those aspiring to create the scripts most comic book readers never see. For those unfamiliar with these scripts, they’re the all-text documents used to tell another person how to draw the actual comic book, much the way screenplays guide filmmakers in making films. (In fact, Bendis writes his scripts using Final Draft, which is what my LA screenwriter friends use to write their scripts.) Not that this book can’t be useful for the writer-artist who’s writing out of his own head, but it’s definitely biased toward the situation where the writer is part of a much larger team.

Bendis introduces the “Full Script” and “Marvel Style,” which delineate the two ends of the scripting spectrum. However, from what he describes, scripts wind up in all places in between the two styles, morphing as collaborators figure out what works best for their particular team. In his example of a Full Script, he includes notes that address artist Sara Pichelli by name before getting into the dialogue. (The script also contains a couple grammatical errors, and I’m not sure if that’s an indication of what is acceptable in the industry or an oversight of the book’s editor.)

Because there are no hard and fast guidelines for scripts, Bendis discusses them in broad terms, stressing teamwork, communication, and the need to remember that comics, unlike film, is a static medium. He does touch on topics like story beats but so briefly that other guides, like Save the Cat!, would probably be more useful even if they are not specifically geared towards comic books. Bendis’ advice comes predominantly in the form of anecdotes or Q&A with various artists, whose preferences for script styles run all over the place.

As such, most chapters wind up being a kind of showcase of different ways various creators got into the industry or get their craft done. Fortunately for those wanting something more concrete, there are Chapter 4: The Editors’ Roundtable and Chapter 6: The Business of Comics Writing. If you’re aiming to pitch to any of the editors in the roundtable, which include six former/current Marvel editors and one Dark Horse editor, their responses are definitely worth a look. So is the spotlight on Marvel VP C.B. Cebulski. However, Diana Schutz’ five-page guide to editors will prove the most valuable section to those wanting to get into the industry but have no idea where to start. As for Chapter 6, it’s not a comprehensive guide to managing your creative work as a business but provides a good start and contains a handy glossary of contract terms.

Because it is a book about the comic book industry, it includes comic book art, mostly from Marvel titles, which isn’t surprising since Bendis writes for them. Some pictures are used to illustrate a point; most simply decorate the pages. They are vibrantly reproduced though. And though the focus is on writing, it includes interviews with artists David Mack, Alex Maleev, and Michael Avon Oeming. So if you’re not a writer but have an interest in those artists, you’ll have decide for yourself if that material’s enough to justify the book’s $24.99 cover price.

In summary

The cover flap touts the book as the “complete toolbox needed to jumpstart the next comics-writing success,” but it isn’t quite that. To be sure, anecdotes from Bendis and a host of writers, artists, and editors provide a fairly good look into the industry. However, Bendis treats comic book scripting in such general terms that I would call Words for Pictures a nice tool for a writer but hardly the complete toolbox.

First published in The Fandom Post.

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