How To Write Comics And Graphic Novels by Dennis O’Neil #1 – First Class Discipline


Photo by Ed Catto

Dennis O’Neil has a long history in the comics industry as both a writer and editor. He’s best known for writing Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman, through the seventies,  Spider-Man in the eighties and for editing  Batman-related titles in the nineties. A widely published novelist and screenwriter, he is currently lecturing at the NYU on Writing Comics And Graphic Novels, starting today.  Bleeding Cool is grateful to receive a taster of the course every week.

I’ve been teaching classes on how to write comics for, oh my heavens!…about 20 years now, ever since the wonderful Howard Cruse asked me to take over his class at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. (These days, I lurk in the corridors of New York University in lower Manhattan) With all that experience on my resume, I can stipulate, with a great clearing of my throat and a professorial frown, that I cannot teach anyone how to write comics.

Sorry. Writing is self-taught. You acquire the skill by applying the seat of your pants to a flat object and moving a stylus across paper or tapping a keyboard, and you continue to do that until someone begins paying you to do it, and then you spend the rest of your life teaching yourself how to do what you’re doing. It is often a lonely life–you can get help before and after, but not during–and if the notion of closing a door behind you and manipulating verbal and visual language for many hours every week is abhorrent to you, then perhaps you would be happy applying your skill and intelligence and enthusiasm elsewhere.

There’s an old witticism: Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until you begin to sweat blood. I’ve never found it to be that grim; if I had, I would have probably stopped doing it years ago. On the contrary: at times, it has been the best thing in my life. But I’m shy and introverted and not much fun at parties…

So, to return to our topic: I won’t teach you to write comics, and I doubt that anyone else will, either. What I can do is give you information–tell you what has often worked for other writers, in and out of comics, alert you to mistakes that beginners often make, acquaint you with certain realities, point you in directions that you may find useful.

That’s mostly what I do in classrooms, and it is what I will do, in very abbreviated form, in this space every week. I’ll try to give you a quick précis of what I’ll be saying to my students.

To begin, the logical question: what are comics. For an elaborate, and damn near unimpeachable answer, consult the works of Scott McCloud. For a quick-and-dirty definition, I offer a slight variant of something Stephen King said: comics are a story delivery system.

And my own definition: Comics are a language in which image and word cooperate to convey information and story

I think we need to answer one more question, one that underlies what was proffered in the preceding paragraph. Both Mr. King and I mentioned that comics are about story and so, we ask, what is a story? Here is a definition that has been my staunch companion for all of those 20 years. Ready?

A story is a structured narrative designed to achieve an emotional effect, demonstrate a proposition or reveal character.

Now add:

It must have conflict and there must be something at stake.

Action should rise and culminate in most powerful moment.

Everything should be presented with maximum clarity.

Every element of the strip–writing, art, coloring, lettering–should be aimed at achieving all of the above.

Okay? We have a beginning. More next week.

Dennis O’Neil teaches a ten week course on Writing Comics And Graphic Novels at the New York University. Classes are every Wednesday evening from 6.45pm to 9pm, starting tonight. For further information, please call NYU’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies at 212 998 7200.

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