What You Can Learn from Comic Books

How Comic Books Can Help Your Prose

Forget Capes and Tights – Think Dialogue, Pacing, and More!

This article was originally published as the feature article in ByLine (January 2004).

As an undergraduate at Yale, I took a creative writing workshop with Tom Perrotta (ElectionThe Wishbones). It was simultaneously thrilling and intimidating — Tom was the best writing teacher I’d ever had (then or since) and the caliber of the students was amazing. Maybe too amazing.

While talking to Tom, I told him that my well-read classmates gave me something of an inferiority complex! Sure, I read and understood the classics, but my leisure reading tended to be…well, comic books. He said something that I will never forget: “Everyone here has read the canon of Western literature, but how many of them have read comic books? You have. That gives you something unique to bring to the table.” Is it any wonder he was my favorite writing professor?

What Comics Can Do For You

I’ve spent a lot of time since then identifying what elements of my writing can be traced back to comic books, for good or for ill. In the process, I’ve come to understand what a prose writer can learn from a comic book.

Fair warning: While I’ve written comic books in the past, that’s not what I’m here to discuss now. Rather, I want to show you what a study of the comic book can bring to your prose, in terms of the actual nuts and bolts of writing, and in terms of marketing yourself and your work. If you’re one of those folks who thinks that comic books are sub-literate junk and not for Real Writers, then I hope Tom’s words above have helped to change your mind. Or maybe the Pulitzer Prize committee can help: They gave the Pulitzer to a comic book called Maus, and recent winner Michael Chabon wrote on the final page of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay that he owes everything he’s ever written “to the work of the late Jack Kirby, the King of Comics.”

Now that we know we’re in good company, let’s get started.

I. Dialogue

I won’t blame you if you think that comic book dialogue tends to run towards lines like, “Vile foe! I’ll not suffer your touch, not while there’s still strength in the body of…Stupendous Man!” While you’ll still find plenty of cringe-worthy dialogue in today’s comics, new generations of writers have brought more subtlety and sophistication to the lips of their characters.

At any rate, I’m not going to encourage you to mimic the actual dialogue in comics so much as study it for what it is and isn’t.

Like movies (and unlike prose), comic books have a visual component that allows them to communicate in shorthand. There’s no need to have an inner monologue that reveals that Bill is angry when the artist can communicate this to us through things like Bill’s facial expression and stance.

But comic books share a common weakness with prose: they lack the immediacy that a film’s motion and sound can lend to dialogue. To compensate, comic book writers work hard at developing each character’s distinctive voice and at crafting dialogue such that it flows naturally, leading the reader through the story and across the artwork. A comic book panel or page is physically constrained by its size and by the necessity of artwork. As a result, words are at a premium. Read some comic books and you’ll see how much you can say with so few words. Your own dialogue will become tighter, more natural-sounding, and leaner as a result.

II. Pacing

One of the toughest things for writers to master is pacing, figuring out where to put the highs and lows. Like being in an band, if you miss a beat, the audience will notice.

Comic books’ format dictates their content to some extent. Most comics are the same length and even longer works are forced into 8-page multiples. (Unlike novels, comic books tend not to “burn” blank pages to compensate for unused pages on a printing signature.) As a result, every page in a comic book has to be used to maximum effect. And since many stories will often be spread out over two or more issues of any particular comic book, the writer has to keep each individual issue (or chapter) tight and exciting…without being able to make it any longer or shorter than the preceding or following chapters! Imagine being told that every chapter in your next novel has to be exactly 20 pages long, regardless of the content.

Bestselling author Brad Meltzer (The Tenth Justice) grew up reading comic books and sees their format as a strength, not a weakness:

[T]here is no question that when I write a chapter in a novel, it is based on years of reading 22 page stories…. Every month I got a cliffhanger. How do I know to write short beats? That’s what I read – short beats in monthly installments. When you do that over fifteen years of your life…. [i]t teaches you to get in and get out. … I don’t think it’s a coincidence that [my] pacing follows the comic book format. (Meltzer, Brad. Interview with Newsarama.com)

Meltzer’s realization marries nicely with the advice often given to writers: keep your prose lean and keep the story moving to keep your readers interested. This holds true for thrilling genre-fiction and slice-of-life literary fiction equally. In both cases, you need to hold the reader’s interest by having things happen, by continuing to build tension and suspense, whether it’s over the impending collapse of an alien empire or the tough decision a woman must make when confronted with the father who abused her.

Read several months’ worth of the same comic book. Notice how the writer plays out plot, subplot, and character development over many issues, providing enough dramatic tension and change in each to keep you coming back for the next. When your readers get to the end of a chapter, isn’t that what you want?

III. Experiment/Mix It Up

If a drama about a family secret suddenly featured extraterrestrials, or a thriller about treasure-hunters veered into a discussion of fine wines for a chapter, the audience would be surprised, to say the least. Such things, though, happen all the time in comic books.

Again, a comic book writer needs to keep his audience coming back month after month. So mixing genres, magical realism, extended digressions, and more are all fair game. Anything to keep the reader off-guard and coming back for more. For example, in the middle of a storyline about the main character’s trek across America in the comic book series Swamp Thing, celebrated writer Alan Moore suddenly wrote an issue that followed the prosaic adventures of an ex-hippy who had only the most tangential connection to the main character. It was a strange slice-of-life story in the midst of mind-bending horror and it made readers sit up and take notice. More important, it made them eager for subsequent issues since now no one knew what Moore might have up his sleeve.

(This trick only works when you earn it, of course. Moore later showed how the one-off story tied into his overall theme.)

In short, then: Let your imagination run wild. Break the rules that you were taught in your writing classes. Remember Tom Perrotta’s words: Everyone has read the canon of Western literature…but what unique somethingcan you bring to the table that no one else has?

If that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will: Maus (the Pulitzer Prize winner) was a downbeat Holocaust memoir…featuring cats as the Nazis and mice as the Jews. If it’s good enough for the Pulitzer folks, it should be good enough for you and me. Think big and think weird.

IV. Think In Pictures

A picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes only words will do. For all the strengths of visual media, prose still works best for communicating inner thoughts and feelings, and (in this writer’s opinion) for expressing the deepest themes.

But sometimes visualizing a scene can help you describe it better in prose. Get the picture in your head and then use the perfect thousand words to put it on paper. Do you need a comic book to learn how to do this? Of course not. But a lifetime of reading comic books has made it easy for me to “see” my stories. I construct them, pace them, and develop them on a sort of mental storyboard, then pick out the moments and details that work best and translate them into prose.

Spend some time reading comic books and you’ll become accustomed to producing your narrative visually. This has the side benefit of letting you realize which details can be left out. (If you picture your protagonist in nondescript clothing, maybe you shouldn’t waste time describing his outfit.) On the flip side, visualization will also identify shortcomings. (If you always picture your protagonist in nondescript clothing, you may need to think a little harder about his character, situation, and environment.)

Recommended Reading & Further Resources

  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (an excellent resource on the form and art of comics)
  • Watchmen (considered by many to be the highwater mark of super-hero comic books and a postmodern classic)
  • Maus (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize)
  • Jimmy Corrigan (Winner of the Guardian First Novel Award, the only time it has ever been award to a comic book)

To find a comic book store near you, check out the Comic Shop Locator Service.


V. Promote Yourself

One thing the comic book industry does better than almost any other: Make pretty pictures, especially on covers. Since comics are 50% art, the cover is given much more consideration than in prose publishing. I once had a friend mock-up a cover of a novel I was pitching to an editor. While the editor remonstrated me for showing the cover (it’s considered gimmicky in prose publishing), she confessed that it looked better than most of the covers from her own house! So when the time is right, use the artistic sensibilities of comics to make suggestions that will make your cover leap off the shelves. Sad to say, many book covers are bland, stiff, and boring. Very few comic book covers can be accused of those particular sins.

Get Creative

Now that you have an idea of what you can learn from comic books, go read some…and then let your imagination run wild!