Writing for comics: Collaboration really means conversation

Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore

Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore

The writer-artist collaboration is the fundamental building block of a comic. The editorial team’s job is to ensure the right people are paired up and that they both share the same objectives. The closer this collaboration is, the better the finished product. Part of this process is ensuring that one creative doesn’t dominate the other or else there’s gonna be lots of tantrums. With a new comic coming out each month, we haven’t got time for tantrums.

At Dawn of the Unread I sit down with the artist and writer and explain the basic aims of the chapter. The writer then pitches a brief synopsis and as long as it achieves our goals (every chapter must address either libraries, archives or independent bookshops) and is different to previous chapters, they are then handed over to Adrian Reynolds, our Script Editor.

Although I have very clear ideas of how I would like each chapter to be, you must trust your writers and give them enough space to come up with something in their own voice. Too rigidly policing artistic boundaries can stifle expression and so I like to think of my role as having one of those really long dog walking leads that means writers can leg it off into the distance and only get choked if they get too close to the road.

Judit Ferencz's distinctive woodcut drawings of an illegal rave in a disused library

Judit Ferencz’s distinctive woodcut drawings of an illegal rave in a disused library

We’ve deliberately selected writers who have never written for comics before and so Adrian’s role is vital in teaching the grammar of the medium. For the writers this is learning that images tell stories of their own and therefore there is no need to be text heavy with the script. This is a difficult thing for writers to adapt to as we’re used to being given page after blank page to articulate our ideas. With only 8 pages, there’s a lot of babies that need to be sacrificed.

Equally important is rhythm. The artistic side of the equation is the most time-consuming and so they need their script well in advance. Similarly, they often have other equally time-consuming deadlines and so fitting this into their schedule takes a lot of planning. We had originally hoped to lure in Ian Culbard but he was booked up for the whole year with other projects. So even when you give someone a year’s notice it still might not be enough time.

I’m a big believer in meeting face-to-face and so whenever this is possible, everyone goes out together for a cuppa. This is where the real creativity takes place as ides get bounced around and occasionally take out a few teeth. The artist and writer are then provided with a researcher (Wayne Burrows) who provides all of the necessary visuals and facts to help shape a story.

Duke of Portland sketch by Toni Radev for Andrew Graves' script

Duke of Portland sketch by Toni Radev for Andrew Graves’ script

Sometimes it’s not possible for an artist and writer to meet up. For example, Toni Radev lives in Serbia and so Andrew Graves script was written mainly on his own. But we knew that Toni was perfect for illustrating this chapter and so we could show Andrew his work in advance. Now Toni is producing the roughs (sketches of each panel – see above image) we have a chat via email if anything needs to be changed or added.

So far the most interesting collaboration has been between Nicola Monaghan and Judit Ferenz for our Alma Reville (Mrs. Hitchcock) chapter. Judit lives in London and so came up to Nottingham and met Adrian and Nicola. They got to know each other, chatted about what they both liked and then maintained that relationship via regular emails.

What was most interesting, though, was Nicola’s approach to writing. She submitted the opening 4 or 5 pages of dialogue but then left the next few free, stating what would happen. Judit then created illustrations for these pages based on the notes and Nicola wrote the dialogue afterwards. This shows incredible confidence and trust on the part of Nicola, particularly as this is the first time she’s written for a comic. It also illustrates a completely equal relationship and is why this chapter has worked so well. But it’s also about striking a balance with rhythms of working. Nicola had a lot of other commitments and so dipped in and out of her script when she had time.

Alam Reville and Kerrie-Ann Hill have a natter. The film reel tells the story of their lives.

Alma Reville and Kerrie-Ann Hill have a natter. The film reel tells the story of their lives.

As Judit was preparing to think about how she would approach the comic, Nicola and I bombarded her with images and ideas that we thought were fun or what might work well within the story. Judit was then able to incorporate some of these that she liked, such as the idea of a reel to tell stories (see image above), while interpreting it in her very unique style. Perhaps the best way to describe this process is conversation rather than collaboration, as this happened at every single stage.

Dawn of the Unread got off to a bit of a jumpy start and this was no doubt largely down to my lack of experience in the medium and not being clear about expectations and processes of working. But now that we’ve got a few comics under our belt it’s becoming increasingly clear that a cup of coffee and a chat are absolutely vital to success. People work differently when they’ve met each other. It changes the dynamic. It installs a personal obligation into the creative process and means both sides fight for each other. We may be producing a digital comic and finding ways to engage readers virtually, but never for one moment underestimate the importance of human contact.

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