By Josh Hechinger
So, here’s a writing exercise: take a finished page of comics by someone else, and try to reverse engineer the script for it, either in your style, or in a different script style (full-script, plot-first, etc.)
Last time, I did a page from the first comic I ever read, Uncanny X-Men # 295. As you might be able to divine from that being my first comic, I grew up, uh, ‘90s US Comics Orthodox? Which mainly meant Marvel and DC comics, if I could find them, which was rare…mostly it meant growing up on the X-Men and Batman cartoons, Toy Biz X-Men toys, and various beat ‘em ups on SNES/Genesis.
(Although the first comic I ever collected was Archie’s Sonic the Hedgehog, and those Calvin & Hobbes books were always around, so maybe I’m, I dunno, spandexwashing my own history a bit.)
Anyway, for this installment, I wanted to change it up with the first comic I started consciously reading because it wasn’t a superhero book or tied to another form of media I enjoyed: Bone Issue # 1, by Steve Hamaker (colors) and Jeff Smith (art/writing).
The other reason I went with Bone: while Uncanny had a mob of talent behind it, I wanted to try something that’s predominantly by a single writer/artist. Like, I’m 90% a writer, so I like to think I know from writing for an artist, or a team. I wanted to see how effective I could be at reverse-engineering something from a single writer/artist; there’s a mental shorthand there that I think is fundamentally incapable of being captured, but I also think anything that works on a finished page can be described in a script. We’ll see.
PAGE TWO (SEVEN PANELS)
P1. FONE lights SMILEY’S cigar; they’re both droopy-eyed and dripping sweat, but it plays a little more bone (ha) tired on FONE, and peacefully pooped on SMILEY.
– FONE Don’t get him started.
– PHONEY (off) They can’t do this to me! You can’t do anything to a rich person that he doesn’t want!
P2. PHONEY writhes and rants on a nearby rock. His sweat flies off his head like an explosion.
– PHONEY Gasp! Oh! Th’ horrible injustice of it all! I’m still reeling with shock!
P3. We’re still on SMILEY as he’s switched position, using the rock like a pulpit, gesturing to an imaginary audience.
– PHONEY I’m a respected community leader! A shining pillar of moral strength!
P4. Now he’s bracing both hands on the rock/pulpit, looking desperately at his brothers over his shoulder.
– PHONEY …So a couple of shady business deals went sour…is that any reason to run th’ most beloved bone in Boneville out on a rail!?
P5. FONE’S not even looking up as he pulls a folded map from the pack. SMILEY grins broadly and ashes his cigar.
– FONE Yes.
– SMILEY Beloved? Th’ mayor declared a school holiday just so th’ kids could come and throw rocks at you!
P6. PHONEY is sulking, burying his pout in his crossed arms on the top of the rock.
– PHONEY Ingrates! Oh, they’ll rue th’ day they chased Phoniciple P. Bone outta their crummy ol’ town! >sniff!<
P7. Pull back to show FONE wiping his forehead and SMILEY waving his cigar expansively in the background, while PHONEY screws his eyes closed in frustration in the foreground.
– PHONE Now, now, little buckaroo! Don’t be sad! There’s not a cloud in th’ sky!
So, What’d We Learn?
– I think you could conceivably script Smith’s double-emphasis lettering like “Now, now, little buckaroo! Don’t be sad! There’s not a CLOUD IN TH’ SKY!”, but I’m not sure why you would, unless you were feeling overly precious, or the artist or letterer specifically requested it.
– Translating Smith’s gestures and cartooning into panels was interesting: there are always clear actions, clear emotions, but it all comes off much, much drier in the script than on the page.
– One danger of focusing on an isolated page, instead of a series of pages, is that I wasn’t entirely sure it was a map Fone Bone was pulling from the pack in P5, until I went back and read the next page. I also tend to skip character descriptions, because I’m treating this as actual-page-two of a script, and I’d usually describe the characters when they show up on Page One, assuming they’re not pre-established designs.
– I “call a shot” in P7, which…broadly, that’s a habit I’m trying to get out of, but I am human and I need to be loved occasionally fall back into old habits and bad crutches.
– Wait…I didn’t even call the shot right, did I? The “camera” isn’t “pulling back”, it’s “panning over” to show the other two Bones in the background. So there’s another reason to get out of that habit.
Anyway, that should do it for this one. I like to think we learned a little, and grew a little; speaking for myself, I’d say the overall takeaway here is that when scripting from/for a writer/artist, get out of their way as much as possible. You’re probably not going to out-clever them in terms of lettering, gesture, or panel composition.
Philly-based comic writer Josh Hechinger is a Cancer, and his blood type is A+. He enjoys spicy food, free coffee, and social smoking. The mayor has never once declared a school holiday just so the kids could come and throw rocks at him.
[*Editor’s note from HMS: Josh is too humble to mention here that he has an excellent graphic novel out from Archaia called The Grave Doug Freshley with mp Mann. Hopefully he will forgive this little plug. ]