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Monday, 4 April 2011


As mentioned in his two earlier posts HERE and HERE, Keith Chapman is known to Archive readers as Chap O'Keefe, author of a string of popular westerns. However as we have learned Keith has also worked in the comic books field. I wondered how the two disciplines of writing differed?

And so over to Keith:

You were less of a free agent when writing a comic strip. For a start, with a novel, even for a publisher's line like Black Horse Westerns where the printed book will have a set number of pages, you have some latitude on length, sometimes of several thousand words. The comic strip story, or instalment of it, runs to so many frames, and apart from variation of just a few, that's it.

I've seen novels, even BHWs, where characters -- or rather their often well-regarded authors -- indulge in pages of thought and reflection. In a comic strip, that isn't possible. Can you imagine picture after picture of a single character dominated by his thinking in speech bubbles? Even lengthy flashbacks present problems for comic books, confusing the reader and requiring ugly visual devices like wriggly frames for the pictures.

The other day I read a fascinating Comics Journal interview with the late Tom Sutton, an American artist who drew for Marvel, DC, Warren, and Charlton. He is perhaps best remembered for his long run on the Star Trek comic, but he drew a couple of the scripts I wrote for the Charlton ghost titles in the 1970s. One of his biggest grouses was about scriptwriters who used text panels merely to repeat what he was expected to show in the pictures. Scriptwriters have to rein themselves in. A panel is not a place to show off descriptive skills, but to give continuity and explication that can't be shown.

Comic writing assignments are also very likely to involve characters and concepts that have already been decided in advance by the publishers and an editorial team. Much but not all of my work for the British annuals fell into this category. Most editors, too, used to require a synopsis before submission of the finished script.

All this discipline would make for slow work, you might think. But I never found it so. You never get to the "where do I go next?" stage while writing a script. Working quickly is never a problem. "Next" is the next picture you have to describe for the artist to draw. And it has to be something fresh and interesting. The script format provides its own momentum. The process is excellent training for writing action-packed adventure fiction.

For illustration, I'll send you scans of advice from Dundee comics publisher D. C. Thomson and from US publisher Charlton's Comic Book Guide for the Artist/Writer/Letterer, written in 1973 by Nic Cuti.

The two Thomson pages come from an eight-page leaflet issued in 1966. Perhaps readers can click on the images to read them full size. They don't mention that many of the strips in Thomson's comics were adapted by staff from text stories that had appeared previously in the company's text story papers that had run from the 1920s to the 1960s. For example, the Victor's war flyer, Braddock VC, and its athlete, the Tough of the Track, had earlier been favourites in the Rover. Twenty years later the new comics home was good as gone, too.

An earlier Thomson leaflet, giving info to prospective writers for the text papers, had said, "Note that these stories can be indicated in terms of the main character, and in that lies an important tip -- tell about the doings of an interesting character to make a story!"

I know I don't need to emphasize that for Archive readers. Whether your fiction is a novel or a comic script, you need a memorable hero or heroine. It's something I've tried to keep in mind, especially when creating leading characters for my series western novels about Misfit Lil and Joshua Dillard. Differences for sure, but much that is just the same!


Paul D. Brazill said...

Interesting stuff.

Steve M said...

I've enjoyed these three posts from Keith. I hope there will be more sometime in the future.