Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels

Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels cover

Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels is a bit of a specialized book, focused on writing comics for businesses run by other people (instead of self-publishing or drawing your own work), but it’s full of great advice for those who want to go into that aspect of the industry. More importantly, the enthusiasm Brian Michael Bendis conveys for the job is infectious. Similarly, Joe Quesada’s foreword hits the “don’t give up, push through the many failures you’ll have before you succeed” message hard, which is inspiring.

As you’d expect, most of the art is taken from Marvel comics Bendis has worked on, and there are also many famous names helping out, with insert sections from fellow writers, artists, and editors Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Michael Avon Oeming, David Mack, Alex Maleev, Diana Schutz, and C.B. Cebulski.

Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels cover

The first chapter covers motivation, emphasizing that you shouldn’t want to write comics for fame or money (since those rarely come) but because you have to. The much longer second chapter covers script formats and pitch documents. There seems to be a gap in here, covering “what to write”, but this is more of a practical manual, less an artistic one.

The chapter on writing for artists covers how to build a relationship with your collaborator. This is a much-needed section for this kind of business, and not a topic I’ve seen covered much at all in other how-to books. Also included in this chapter is a roundtable interview with a bunch of notable artists, including Michael Allred, Mark Bagley, Adam Hughes, Jill Thompson, and many more, about what they like and don’t like to see in scripts.

The next chapter is another big question-and-answer section, this time with editors Tom Brevoort, Nick Lowe, Scott Allie, Steve Wacker, and others. That’s where the biggest topic aspiring writers want to know more about comes up: how to actually break in, how to convince someone else to pay you to write comics for them. The sensible (but usually unwanted) advice here is to go write other things before trying to work for Marvel, particularly since unsolicited pitches using their characters are legally banned. Bendis calls this section “worth the cover price alone”, and he’s not wrong. However, in my opinion, he doesn’t put enough weight on the fact that he began as an artist, drawing his own stories, as did many of the other talents interviewed for this book.

Another chapter could have been another book in itself — it’s about the need for a smart person (in Bendis’ case, his wife Alisa) to run your finances and business if you, as an artist, aren’t any good at it. Unfortunately, it’s got a completely wrong answer when asked about the difference between an employee and an independent contractor.

Also included is a set of frequently asked questions Bendis has gotten on his website about his process. It’s more good information, although the book itself, while well-done and useful, boils down to a giant contradiction. Bendis is providing good advice on being a working comic professional for a big comic company, but the way you get there, according to everyone interviewed in the book, is to do your own work, whether with another artist or on your own. There’s not much advice given here for that, so you’ll need another book first to make this one truly relevant (although there’s a short section on a few writing exercises).

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