Writing comics is hard

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketRecent years have seen a serious influx of talent from outside mediums (TV, films, etc.) into the comics business, and it’s brought both some highs and some lows. But, for the most part, it’s brought attention to comics and new voices, more than enough to offset the major delays of Allan Heinberg’s Wonder Woman or Damon Lindelof’s Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk. With the past two weeks bringing two new outside talents into comics, I thought it would be fun to take a gander at the transition from novelist to comic book writer, as experienced by Jodi Picoult and Tad Williams.

If you’ve seen my reviews of this week’s comics, you’ll know that I wasn’t much of a fan of Picoult’s debut on Wonder Woman. It was okay, but not at the level I’d expected from Picoult (my wife, an editor by trade, read one of her novels and thought it was very good). And two weeks ago came William’s entry into the field with Aquaman #50, which we Doomers thoroughly eviscerated in last week’s Book of Doom.

Two superstar novelists, and all we have to show for it is a couple crummy books. So, what happened?

First, a little background. Since I’m writing about writing here and I haven’t spoken with either of the authors listed above, this is coming from my experience. My day job is in journalism, but I also recently completed a novel and am currently scripting a graphic novel (expect a formal announcement on that soon). Now, which of the two is more challenging, and why would a successful novelist have a hard time getting up to speed in comics?

Though they’re both fiction and both written, comics and novels are really like apples and oranges. Or, as Pat Sajak said on Wheel of Fortune last night, like apples and lug nuts. Writing a novel is just a marathon effort, requiring months of time and fastidious attention to the slightest bit of language. You have to come up with a cool idea, then flesh it out with several thousand pretty sentences. Comics are closer to a series of sprints. The language (while still important) takes a backseat to creating a good outline, thinking visually and being creatively sparse. Writing an ongoing series is probably most comparable to writing a TV show, which makes it no surprise that TV writers have done so well in comics (when they get their work done).

I don’t think it’s possible to say one is more challenging to write between comics and novels. Different things for different people, I suppose. But in going from one to the other, there are a lot of things you have to change in your writing style to accomodate the format. From the latest issues of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, there are a couple of key problems I’ve noticed that seems to indicate the writer just hasn’t quite overcome the steep learning curve.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOf the two, I liked Williams’ Aquaman effort much less. It went far too cutesy for me. Maybe Williams didn’t know what fans had come to enjoy about the renovated title. A part of that was an abundance of “clever” little visual gags, many of which were repeated and lost what little impact they initially had. Wonder Woman #6 shared that fault. Picoult included ten or more references to Wonder Woman not being as popular anymore (i.e. the Wonder Woman milk shake now being the Black Canary Milk Shake). I caught the first one, so each additional gag came across like the creative team shouting, “Hey, you stupid reader! You’re so dumb we have to kick this dead horse until its guts explode!” I know that’s not their intent, but part of writing comics is having a thorough understanding of how your writing looks when it’s conveyed with art, not words.

That plays into the other main problem, which is that both authors don’t seem to understand their audiences very well. Now, I don’t know the census figures on average DC readers, but I’m probably not far from the norm. The books, though, are aimed at either a far younger audience (I’ve compared Aquaman to a remake of The Little Mermaid) or people with little familiarity to comics. We’re a demanding bunch to write for, I know, but the bar is set. If a big-time talent comes on, I expect them to clear it, or at least come close.

Each of the books has other little problems. Namely, neither was particularly well designed (I’m now very thankful for my typography classes in college) and both were a bit wordy. This isn’t to say that I’m giving up hope. While it’ll take a substantial improvement in Aquaman for me to return to that title, I found a lot to enjoy in Picoult’s Wonder Woman. The dialogue was strong and the over-arcing plot is strong. Once the novelist masters that comic book learning curve, I wouldn’t be surprised if the title really takes off.