Image: Chelsea Beck (Gizmodo Media Group)
I've spent most of my professional career writing about comics (and video games), putting forth what I understand about the art form's mechanics and creators in essays, reviews, and interviews. I thought I got comics, at the very least the superhero genre aspect of the medium. They have always been part of my life. But then I started writing a superhero comic book myself, and suddenly I realised how much I didn't know.
As of this writing, I've been working on Rise of the Black Panther for more than 16 months. That includes the research and wool-gathering phases where I read and re-read as much Black Panther as I could possibly handle.
Those early months also consisted of scribbling down random notes that I told myself would someday cohere into a story. It's been a surreal journey and I've learned a lot. I've tried to sum up some of those takeaways below.
Freezing the Moment Is Hard
Comics live in the visuals. I've always thought that comics' eternal, singular power is the ability to trap a moment in time and fill it with intentionality. That's great when you're a reader because you get to absorb all that. It's nerve-wracking when you're a writer, though!
It's a writer's job to charge the air up with enough energy to make magic come out an artist's pen. (That's me paraphrasing a bit from at the end of this Kieron Gillen post, btw.)
Thinking visually has been the toughest and most fun part of the job. Watching my daughter make charm bracelets the other day gave me a minor metaphorical epiphany: My responsibility has been to find a series of moments to be interpreted visually and hung on the threads of the story.
Charms and string. They both enhance each other but the charms are what draw you in.
Colour Is Magic, Lettering Is Super-Science
The other thing that draws a reader in is sparkle. Here, the sparkle is, of course, colour art. Long before I started writing this project, another fledgling comics writer waxed poetic to me about how much his eyes were opened to the importance of colourwork. "Yeah, yeah, I been reading comics since I was a kid. I know all about it..."
I thought I knew, too. But I didn't. Not really. Seeing firsthand how a good colour artist can make a reader's eye move subconsciously across the page or stop at important details has changed the way I read comics. I still inhale my comics entirely too fast when reading for fun, but I purposefully slow down so I can notice the temperatures and tones.
Lettering gets a new appreciation from me, too. It's no longer just "here are the words the characters are saying." Good lettering — balloon placement, especially — also establishes the rhythm and weight of the conversations.
Balloon shape and letter forms can stand in for an actor's line readings; they're how you "hear" the characters' voices in your heads.
You Never Really Know What a Page Is Going to Feel Like Until It All Comes Together
Most mass-market comics are made on an assembly line. That means that the script, line art, colour art, and lettering are supposed to happen at appointed times. Getting art in from each stage of the process has become an endorphin release that's like nothing else I've ever experienced. (Yes, nothing else.)
Comics-making has been an incredibly lonely creative process for me but it stops feeling that way when art comes in. Seeing my words come to life through another creator's skill has been very humbling.
A fight scene is made better by an artist's choices; an emotional beat lands with more impact because the colours in a panel frame it just so. Comics are a very specific sort of collaboration and the aforementioned loneliness can make you get precious about a script. But that impulse to be precious fades away when you learn you can trust the other members of a creative team.
Editors Are Unsung Heroes
When I started this journey, a friend said, "you're gonna have to tell me what a comic book editor does when you're finished because I don't know." So here it is.
They make your words better, sometimes by subtraction or addition. They find artists that match the sensibilities you didn't even realise were lurking in your story. They stand in for the reader who, remember, hasn't been turning over each element of this story in their head for months and months.
They enforce deadlines without upending the delicate alchemy you need to make the work happen.
You Can't Know It All
Writing a Big Deal superhero comic means wrestling with a publishing history that can stretch back farther than your own lifespan. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about T'Challa's life and the histories of the other characters I'd be using.
But the very process of writing the character has made more of his history float up in front of me and taunt me. The only way I've stayed stable through this process has been to curate: take what I need from 52 years of comics and infuse it into a new story. In today's superhero nerdscape, being encyclopedic gets valorised as a high virtue.
But my guiding principle as a critic has always been to ask myself, "How can I use what I know to communicate an understanding of a character/story/medium?" not "How can I show off how much I know?" That same impulse is what I've prioritised in comics-making, too.
I abhor cliché in all things - while recognising there's often a kernel of truth in all of them - but there's no right way to do this stuff. I've been happy with how my journey's been going for the most part but nothing ever feels like a perfect 10. That's not me being a perfectionist, either.
It's the nagging notion that there's infinite refinement to be had when doing creative work. Having been on the other side for just a little bit, I can definitely say I'm going to look at the craft of comics in totally different ways.