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Things I Never Knew About Writing Comics Until I Wrote Comics

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’ve always been part of my life. But then I started writing a superhero comic book myself, and suddenly I realized 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.

Color Is Magic, Lettering Is Super-Science

The other thing that draws a reader in is sparkle. Here, the sparkle is, of course, color 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 colorwork. “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 color 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.

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