Comic-book writing is about telling a story in pictures, with words supplementing the visual storytelling. No matter what story genre you work in, comic books convey, through pictures and words, action, movement, and drama—a “larger than life” excitement. You should learn comic-book techniques and terminology and use them. I’d suggest that you read Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner to learn the conventions of the medium.
There are a number of jobs available in the comics field. We’ll look at each one. But I should warn you: Competition for these jobs is fierce, but if you’re good, you can always find work. As a literary agent, I once had a young, enterprising writer send me story after story, pleading for me to be his agent. Finally, I gave in, and a couple of years later we made his first sale. I went on to represent him through his next seventy sales. You may have heard of him: his name is Ray Bradbury. About the same time, another young writer submitted a story to Thrilling Wonder Stories, hoping to win the $50 prize in its new writers’ contest. He won that prize and many more in later years. His name was Alfred Bester. Another aspiring writer opted instead to submit his entry to Astounding Stories because an acceptance would pay about $75. It became the first sale and the start of the literary career of Robert A. Heinlein. Even the big names have to start somewhere. Don’t let a little competition intimidate you.
Comics writers are the storytellers of the medium. Before writing for an established line, you need to do your homework. You need to become familiar with a character’s history, habits and voice before you can write about that character. The idea is to retain continuity so that your depiction of the character doesn’t vary with how others have shown him or her. As a new writer, you probably won’t be able to make major changes in a character, give them new powers, or kill them off.
You will need to submit your proposals in the form of a springboard, a single-paged, typewritten, double-spaced story concept. Never submit a full plot or script. If you can’t convince the publisher that the idea is something they should publish using a springboard, then you’ll find yourself doing a lot of extra work for nothing.
Your springboard should give the basics of the story. It should probably begin with a “hook” or “high concept”— a compelling, one-sentence description that tells how your story will be unique and interesting. Beyond that, the springboard contains a beginning where an engaging conflict develops and characters are introduced, a middle where the protagonists struggle to overcome the conflict, and an end that resolves the conflict to the readers’ satisfaction. But most importantly, the events you describe must affect the character in a way that we will care about. To make us care, you must tap into universal emotions.
The pencillers are on the front line of creating the images for a graphic story. Pencillers submit their work by showing several pages of comic art in order, progressing a story through a series of pictures from panel to panel and from page to page. The story should move along clearly and dynamically. It’s usually better to draw a story well in traditional block panels rather than to try complex layouts or gimmicks.
The penciller’s samples should show strong basic drawing abilities. You will need to be able to show not only characters and expressive faces, but anything that your characters will see on the street: buildings, animals, machinery, aliens, trees, clouds. You should show a basic understanding of composition, perspective, and anatomy. You should be able to draw people in different poses and costumes—from children to senior citizens.
It’s best for the penciller to be well-trained as an artist. Don’t rely solely on comics for your inspiration. You should work on life-drawing and take some general art classes. Try to draw everything you see, all the time.
A comic-book inker’s job is to add depth and clarity to a penciled picture without obscuring the penciller’s work. The inker puts on black spots and varies the weight of lines to give the page variety and give each panel its three-dimensional effects.
Knowing how to tell a story is an important part of the inker’s job, and the best inkers generally know how to draw well. A good inker will recognize when pencil lines need to be omitted from a drawing. They will also know how to isolate foreground objects from the background by giving each object a varying “weight.”
Inkers submit their work by making photocopies both of the penciled work and the work that they have inked. The inker should try to submit inked work from more than one penciller. If you don’t have access to pencilled work from a friend or professional, you can usually get samples by writing to the publisher where you will submit the work.
The comic-book letterer’s job is to handle captions, draw word and thought balloons, create balloon shapes, draw panel borders, letter the titles, and give the credits and sound effects.
The letters should usually be uniform and easy to read with enough “breathing room” between the letters and lines. You should show all types of lettering—from word, thought, electric (jagged edge) and whisper (dotted line) balloons to sound effects.
You can submit your lettering samples on full-sized penciled pages. To get sample penciled pages, you can write to the publisher where you will submit your work.
The colorist interprets the drawing and tells the story by adding depth, mood, dramatic effects, and clarity.
In order to make sure that each character and object in a scene is clearly visible, the colorist will frequently need to color things differently from how they would appear in real life. The colorist will also use theme colors to establish a mood for a piece.
Since standard comics color guides are coded to match a chart of the colors available to a publisher, an important part of the colorist’s job is to mark up the color guides.
Colorists should submit several pages of fully colored and coded comic-art photocopies. Once again, if you need samples of comic art to color, you can normally get these from the publisher. You should also find out from the publisher which brand of dyes or colors they use as their standard.
Finally, liberally adapting Robert A. Heinlein’s three rules of writing (which also apply to artists):
If you are a writer, you must write!
You must finish what you write!
You must submit your finished manuscript to a likely market—and if it’s rejected, keep on submitting it till you’ve exhausted all possible markets!
Here’s looking forward to seeing you in print!
This article was originally published in the L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 9 in 1993.
Julius Schwartz had a long and distinguished career both in science fiction and in comics. He was the co-founder of The Time Traveller, the first science fiction fan magazine, and helped organize the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York City, 1939. He was the co-founder of Solar Sales Service, the first literary agency specializing in science fiction and fantasy, and represented such notable authors as Alfred Bester, Robert Bloch, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Edmond Hamilton, Manly Wade Wellman, and Eric Frank Russell.
Heis credited also with ushering in the “Silver Age” of comics. He began editing comics at DC in 1944, and worked there continuously for 50 years, editing such lines as Superman, Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League of America, and Strange Adventures. He won some of comics’ highest awards: four Shazams, three Eagles, an Inkpot, an Alley, and a Jules Verne. When you read the biographies of the authors and illustrators in this volume, you will find that many of them cited their love for comics as the first inspiration that led them to careers in speculative fiction. Perhaps only then will you recognize the profound effect Julius Schwartz has had on us all.