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Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics

Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics is a thin book (just under fifty pages) of essays by who you’d think, and it’s about what you’d think. Except Alan Moore doesn’t cover much of the nuts-and-bolts, as you may expect; he drives deeper, to the theory. Why comics work the way they do. He wrote it in 1985, so the ideas have circulated pretty well since then. I read this saying, “Yes, yes, I knew that, I’ve heard that before.”

One of the ideas, which I’ve also heard from Neil Gaiman, is: the format of the script isn’t so important; any way to communicate what you need to communicate to the artist is fine, so long as the artist knows what you’re talking about. The script is a stepping stone; the storytelling is the crucial point—and the artist is just as much a part of that as the writer. The script is to direct the artist: since he’s executing it, he needs to know where the writer is going.

Moore wrote a lot about experimentation. You can’t know when some seemingly harebrained idea will pan out and lead you to undiscovered shores. Take risks.

The biggest idea, the one that made me think the hardest and spurs me to create better comics, to aspire to the full potential of comics (rah rah). It seems stupid-simple once you think about it for a minute. The revelation is: you can turn the pages of a comic.

I.e. you can turn back to previous pages and experience the same page again, with a different interpretation, with the added revelation of the pages which follow. The writer and artist can bury things which pop upon rereading. I think it was Chris Ware—I don’t remember where exactly—who drew a page where you could start reading in several places and cycle through the same panel. On each reading, that central panel changed meanings a bit—a different facet was evident each time. This technique is unique to comics. It’s technically possible in film: you could rewind; or a novel, you could still turn the pages back, but in either of those media, you’re sacrificing the basic premise in order to re-view any given section.

Comics generally have panels filled with pictures and text (which is an array of pictures, really). These combine with other choices (do you want a gutter? if so, what color, what size… what sorts of panels do you want? what shape/size/border?) to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s fluid, and extensible, and can fold in on itself. Each panel is self-contained, and thus timeless. Read in succession, panels take on time, like beats in a measure. Watchmen has a relentless tick-tock rhythm which pulses, unstoppable, on and on—and it felt this way because Moore used a 9-panel grid throughout almost the entire book. Comics can play with time the way film can’t. It’s all happening inside the reader’s head, so in some ways each reading is unique. The artist, with the letterer, can control the reader’s eye in ways impossible or difficult in other media.

Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics is worthwhile reading for anyone thinking of writing a comic. Not so you can get the mechanics—for that, read a script and compare it to the finished book, and read Scott McCloud’s Making Comics. Read Moore’s book to better understand the fundamentals of writing comics, and to open your mind to what comics can be.

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