Comics writer and novelist Warren Ellis often advises prospective comics writers that the best way to learn how to write comics is to read them — not as a consumer, but as a detective. Combing through work you admire, page by page, and breaking down how the writer and artists accomplish certain things equips you with tools you can then use in your own work.
My attempts to write comics have been of middling success, and I believe that may be at least in part because I have not done this kind of close reading. I’ve read plenty of comics, of course. I’ve read plenty of comics scripts. I’ve read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, perhaps the best available work on the visual craft of the form. None of these, however, are quite the same as taking the finished product, smashing it apart into its constituent elements, and pawing through the wreckage.
So I’m going to do that, and I’m going to share. Inspired by The A.V. Club’s new Back Issues feature, I’ll be re-reading some of my favorite comics in an attempt to discover what makes them tick. I’ll be looking at issues of structure, characterization, theme, and particularly the comic as visual product — how panel layouts, point of view, and other visual elements contribute to the narrative.
First up will be Ellis’ Planetary, art by John Cassaday and Laura Martin. Planetary ran for 27 issues, released sporadically from 1999 to 2009. The series’ relative brevity and self-contained, straightforward narrative should make it a good first subject for this experiment.
If you’re interested in reading along, the series is available in four collections. Check back here early next week for my entry on Volume 1, All Over The World And Other Stories, covering issues 1-6. (paperback, Kindle, Nook, ComiXology)