Tuesday, September 3, 2013


David Hine, writer of CROSSED: BADLANDS, STRANGE EMBRACE and many other thrilling comics, stopped by the Recondite Pictures lot to give us a peek into the mind of the writer of darker comics!

Here's what he had to say:

Why do you like horror stories?

I guess I like having the crap scared out of me. It’s a strangely masochistic thing, but it seems to be universal. Most traditional children’s stories have an element of horror to them. The original version of Cinderella has the wicked sisters cutting off bits of their feet to fit them into the glass slipper, complete with description of the slipper filling with blood. Hoffmann’s Shock-Headed Peter is gleefully crammed with stories of the death and mutilation of children. In the 20th Century there was an attempt to clean up those stories and what happened? EC comics! The need to confront all our most primal fears through our story telling is there in every culture. It’s a form of psychotherapy and personally I think a good dose of horror is good for the mind.

What is the key to writing a good horror story?

Make the reader care about the characters. If you don’t make them convincing and sympathetic, readers won’t care what happens to them and the horror will have no bite.

How long does it take you to write a 22-page comic book?

It depends. When everything is going well, I aim to write a book in a week.

I once wrote a 22-page script in a day but that’s rare. At the other end of the scale, when I was writing Daredevil: Redemption there was a lot of research to do. The 5th issue was the murder trial and I wanted to get everything authentic. I spent three weeks reading books on American law and the death penalty and searching online for trial transcripts. I then wrote a 50-page script that accurately reflected the stages of murder trial. After that I cut everything extraneous, condensed what was left into 22 pages and re-wrote dialogue to make the thing work dramatically. In all, there were probably 4 or 5 weeks work in that one issue. Most people would never notice, but it was gratifying to hear from a law student that I had got everything right.

That was real world research. When I’m dealing with established characters, the research is different. On The 198 for Marvel, I had to read a huge pile of X-Men issues to learn the backstory of dozens of unfamiliar characters. It’s important to get them consistent and follow canon as far as possible. I screwed up a couple of times, but that was inevitable with a complex fictional universe that is already riddled with contradictions, reboots and outright errors. Not to mention figuring out what actually is canon and what is some kind of alternative universe, imaginary story so on. There’s a lot of invisible work that involves that research, along with plotting and pitching. But once the background work is done – 5 working days for an issue is average.

Please walk us through the process of writing an average comic book issue.

Usually there will be an arc of 4-6 episodes and there will be a week at the start where I’ll be plotting the story, researching, laying the groundwork. Let’s assume I’ve already broken the story down into episodes so I know where each issue begins and ends. That’s a vital skill in itself. Every episode has to have enough plot and character development to make a satisfying read. You don’t want any filler. Each issue should have its own rhythm and sense of mounting climax with some kind of cliffhanger or tease to get the readers salivating for the next issue, and there should also be a sense of building the drama towards the final climax. It sounds like tantric sex doesn’t it?

So I’ll have a basic plot outline for the issue. I’ll then go through, putting in page breaks. I’ve been doing this for so long that I often find that one run-through will do it. I’ll mark the breaks and find that it works out perfectly. On occasion you may find yourself a page or two short and have to go back to look for a scene where you can condense two pages into one, lose some dialogue, maybe even cut a scene completely, but you really do build up an instinct for the pacing so this part of the process is usually quite painless.

After that I break the page down into panels to make sure I cover all the necessary actions. Each panel is a minor beat, each page a major beat. Scene or location changes should usually come at the start of a page and always remember that if you have a strong visual reveal, it should come on a page turn. It’s no good having the revelation of the killer’s identity on a right-hand page!

Sometimes I’ll break down the pages visually, scribbling thumbnails, particularly if it’s an action-heavy page. Often though, I’ll write scenes like a screenplay with pure dialogue, then work out the shots – close-up, mid-shot, long-shot, whatever tells the story best. I have some rules about how much you can fit onto a page. I go for an average of 5 or 6 panels to the page, though that can extend to a 9-panel grid, particularly if there isn’t too much dialogue in the panels. Again, this is something you build up an instinct for. I’m very aware that this is a visual medium and also that the artist is going to get bored with too many panels crammed onto a page or too many talking heads, so I almost always include one or two full-page splashes and a couple of pages with three or four panels. There was a rule at DC on the bat books that pages 2-3 were always a double-page splash. Check out the bat books and you’ll see that in recent years most of the writers have stuck to that.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to sketch out the pages in thumbnail form. I have worked as an artist, so it’s easier for me, but even if you can only draw stick figures, it doesn’t matter. This is only for you. I rarely send my thumbnails or layouts to artists unless they ask me to. Most of my layouts are incomprehensible to anyone else, but it does help immeasurably to know that the story is going to work visually. Once that’s done and I have the panel descriptions written, I’ll work on dialogue. Usually I’ll only have one or two people speaking in a panel and I break that down into linked balloons for longer speeches, to help with the rhythm. If there’s a natural break in the speech, add a new balloon. I try to keep the number of words per page down to 130. 150 is okay and occasionally you may have to go beyond that, but anything over 170 is unreadable. Likewise, no more than 30 – 60 words per panel, never more than 30 words to a balloon. A silent beat can be very effective, particularly for reaction shots.

These rules, applied to American-style monthly mainstream books, will work to make the book readable and commercial. Don’t forget that many of the best comics break all the rules. One of my all-time favourite stories is Steranko’s ‘At The Stroke Of Midnight’ in Tower of Shadows #1. Everyone should read that to see how a master storyteller gets away with breaking every rule in the book.

Once a script is finished, I will ideally leave it for a week or two so I can come back to it and see it with fresh eyes. In practice, most of my scripts are sent off the day I finish them to meet deadlines and make sure the artist isn’t sitting there twiddling their thumbs while they wait for me to turn it in. There should always be a chance to tweak dialogue once the art is done. I usually find that the artist may have made some of the dialogue redundant, or that the pacing has been subtly changed so I’ll need to move balloons from one panel to the next. Sometimes you may literally find the artist has left no space for the balloons and captions and you have to make the decision to cut your words or cover up some nice art. An aside for artists: always pencil in the dialogue and captions on your layouts to make sure there’s enough dead space for dialogue and that your characters are placed in the right positions to make the balloons read correctly – i.e. left to right! Sorry. Little minor rant there. You’d be amazed…

What is the most challenging thing for you to write and why?

Every book has its challenges. If you’re working on a creator-owned book, you are building a world and a set of characters from scratch. That can be a hell of a lot of work, particularly for a book like Storm Dogs where the story is set in the future. You need to build a whole Universe and make it credible. That means figuring out a lot of background that may never feature in the finished work. I like to think that if someone asks me a question about the political or scientific background to Storm Dogs I can come up with the answer. That goes for the artist as well, of course. Doug Braithwaite has had to do a lot of design work on characters, costumes, hardware and the various plants, rock formations and weather systems that make up the setting for Storm Dogs.

Writing established characters is tough because they often have such a complex history and there are fans out there who will get awfully mad at you if you screw up. They often have fixed ideas of how a character will behave. It’s almost like writing about real life characters. Bruce Wayne has taken on a reality of his own, as has Peter Parker, The Spirit or Jackie Estacado. I didn’t create these characters so I have to respect what other writers and artists have already done with them. I guess that’s the most difficult task – to make an iconic character fresh and unpredictable without having them act inconsistently or ‘out of character’.

What does every 22-page comic book story need to include in order for it to successfully deliver what the readers want?

I’ve already mentioned the need to develop plot and character in every story. You have to create a dramatic situation that is either resolved in a complete story or the final issue of an arc, or develop the situation towards a climactic cliffhanger. Even within an ongoing series, each issue should feel like a complete and satisfying experience. If you haven’t learned anything new about your characters, then the comic is a waste of time. You also need action. That doesn’t mean someone has to hit or shoot someone, but this is a visual medium and you need movement and drama. And you should feel something. Your characters should have experienced something intense that the reader can connect to.

What should up and coming writers do to get really good at the craft?

They say a writer writes and certainly it is important to work and work at your craft, but it’s also important to read, to watch movies and TV, to look at paintings, go to the theatre, listen to music, talk to people. If your mind is constantly stimulated you’ll never run out of ideas. You will always have something to say. And if you haven’t got something to say, no amount of skill and craftsmanship will make your stories good. I’d rather read a raw and imperfect comic that makes me sit up and take notice because there is something fresh there, than a beautifully written and drawn book that is uninspired.

What is the most important part of stories that you see commonly ignored in todays mainstream comic book and why?

Hmmm…good question. I think the most annoying aspect of mainstream comics is the lack of diversity. I don’t mean ethnic and sexual diversity, because I think that is starting to be addressed, but variety of personality and physique is mostly ignored. Probably because it’s easier to draw standard male and female characters and then mix and match hairstyles. Similarly with the characters, there are a number of stereotypes, from the flawed hero, to the psychopathic villain with a single redeeming characteristic, which you can pull out and fit into most situations. Check out the Hernandez brothers to see how genuinely diverse characters are written and drawn. It takes a great sense of observation and most people can’t do it, but the characters in Love and Rockets have genuine personality that goes beyond trivial quirks. And visually every character is unique. No two noses are the same, no two profiles, no two body shapes. I don’t want the Greek Classical Ideal, I want realism!

What part of a good comic book story excites you the most as a reader?

The shock of the new. It’s rare, but there are still times when I’ll see a visual effect I’ve never seen before. That happened all the time when I first discovered Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Steranko did it over and over again. Recently I would say the most innovative things I have seen are David Aja’s visual storytelling on Hawkeye, Winshluss’s Pinocchio from Knockabout Comics and The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon from SelfMadeHero. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are doing some surprising things with Young Avengers too. I don’t usually plug mainstream comics but Hawkeye and Young Avengers are proving that there’s still a flicker of life in the Big Two.

It’s also always refreshing to see characters resolve a conflict without beating the crap out of someone. I guess that’s unexpected coming from someone who has written so many mainstream books, but a comic that conveys drama and conflict without clich├ęd fight scenes is always a pleasure to read.

How do you handle scene transitions?

I’ve mentioned that scene changes should come at the beginning of a page. You should also make the transition as smooth as possible. It’s good to have a visual of verbal link of some kind. If a character is being discussed at the end of one scene, then it’s perfectly natural to cut to that person. A visual link may involve zooming on a cup of coffee, then cutting to a storm-tossed ocean – though I advise writers to steer clear of any segue involving cups of coffee or bubbles rising through a glass of beer, or anything else drink-related. They have all been done a thousand times. Similarly the trick of having a character start a sentence in one scene and having another character complete the sentence in the next is an absolute no-no. Alan Moore did that one to death decades ago.

There may be times when you want the scene change to be jarring, so you might cut from a happy smiling child’s face to an old man screaming in agony as he’s having his fingernails pulled out. This is something that comes instinctively most of the time, though there may be times where you have to work hard to find that perfect link.

How do you write great dialogue? Is it all about conflict?

Yes, that’s certainly the basis of good dialogue. Listening to two people agreeing with one another without a subtext is pointless and boring. However the way that they disagree could well be subtle and almost subliminal. Good dialogue would have two people arguing about some issue like global warming or whose turn it is to buy a pint. Great dialogue would be where two people appear to agree or be sympathetic to one another but after a while it dawns on you that one of them loathes and despises the other so much they are capable of ruining their lives on a whim. If you can communicate that obliquely without saying it outright, then you know how to write. Dialogue should also have individual rhythm and style that reflects each character. Ideally you should read your dialogue aloud and it should scan well. That’s not as important as dialogue in a screenplay or drama for theatre, but it’s a bonus if it sounds good when it’s spoken.

What David Hine comics should readers seek out in the back issue bins to get the best introduction to your work?

Strange Embrace, The Bulletproof Coffin, Storm Dogs and Poison Candy – the creator-owned work! Daredevil: Redemption was also an important book for me and Spider-Man Noir worked out well. I was also very pleased with the way The Man Who Laughs turned out. I had the advantages of adapting the story from Victor Hugo, who told a pretty good tale, and working with Mark Stafford whose name is most often equated with the term ‘genius’.

What do you have coming out?

The Death of Jackie Estacado from Top Cow, where I kill off one of their most successful characters, I’m currently winding up the second arc of Night Of The Living Dead: Aftermath for Avatar and I’m also finishing up my second arc of Crossed: Badlands. Then there are a couple of movie/TV related projects, which are, of course, ‘under wraps’, an original graphic novel with Mark Stafford, Season Two of Storm Dogs and more work with Shaky Kane in the pipeline.

Scott Amundson writes comics for Bluewater Productions, Heroes Fallen Studios and Recondite Pictures.

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