Comics & the Craft of Writing
Welcome to Pageturners, a book I’m writing in which I share what I’ve learnt – and am still learning – about comic writing, film writing, novel writing and how new writers can sell their stories. I’ll publish a chapter or a section per week, available for free here on Iconoblast. And I welcome your feedback or questions, so do leave a comment below!
It was the 1970s; I was in my early 20s, and a freelance assistant editor on Tammy, a girls comic published by IPC Magazines. I’d already written numerous serials for girls and boys comics. Some romance stories for teenagers. And countless cartoon scripts for the various ‘fun’ comics such as Cor!! and Whizzer and Chips. They were popular, even though I regarded them as poor compared with D.C. Thomson’s The Beano and Sparky. In fact, I didn’t regard most of what I had written as having any value. Primarily because I was not writing from the heart. I was writing to pay the mortgage. So my stories lacked lustre. They lacked passion. They didn’t have the ‘divine spark’, which comes from the Muse. Any time I did write anything with passion it was invariably censored. Thus a girls comic serial I wrote about the Irish Great Hunger (aka The Great Famine) was altered (by a Scotsman) to the Highland Clearances – because ‘we don’t want to upset people.’ Actually, one of the reasons I write is to upset people.
But comics publishers back then – and I fear even today – seemed to like stories that lacked soul, so I was still successful. It was all very confusing to me. In fact, that was the reason I was working as an assistant editor on Tammy – editor Gerry Finley-Day thought I would benefit from some in-house understanding of the art of commercial writing, and he was absolutely right.
‘Come on, “Clifford”, don’t take the piss. You know, I was almost taken in by you, Wilf. But that snotty voice gave you away.’
One day office phone rang, and the voice at the other end asked, ‘Is that Pat Mills?... This is Clifford Wright. I’m in charge of IPC Magazines training courses and I’d like you to give a talk about creative writing to a group of our trainees.’
Considering the low opinion I had of my own work, that seemed highly unlikely. Why choose me of all people, when I thought my stories were crap?
‘Really? Clifford Wright, eh?’ I jeered in response. ‘Me – give a talk to trainees? Yeah, yeah, sure. That’s very good! Who is this really? Wilf…? Malcolm…? Gerry…?’
‘No, I am Clifford Wright, head of training,’ the voice replied coldly.
All of us on Tammy regularly played hoax phone calls on each other and this seemed like a typical example.
‘Come on, “Clifford”, don’t take the piss. You know, I was almost taken in by you, Wilf. But that snotty voice gave you away. Otherwise, you sounded pretty real to me.’
‘I am real,’ said the snotty voice at the other end.
‘Oh, shit, really?’
Humbly apologising, I told Clifford I’d be pleased to help, although I was still baffled why he should have chosen me of all the numerous writers available to him. However, I insisted that I wanted to keep things informal, as I was only a couple of years older than his trainees. Then and now, I disapprove of formal education methods, largely because of my English teacher, who should have been my mentor but was actually my tormentor. ‘I don’t want to be a teacher standing in front of a class, so no blackboards or anything like that,’ I warned him.
‘I could bring a whiteboard and some marker pens,’ Clifford suggested helpfully.
I think my talk with the trainees went down okay. I recall I was very frank, telling them how they needed to find something in the magazines they would be working on that lit their fire. Otherwise, I said, they might as well be selling secondhand cars for a living. I told them about my personal loyalty to girls comics because they produced stories with genuine emotions, rather than boys comics, which were pretty mindless at that time. And how I would physically force myself to write humorous scripts by typing them on a continuous roll of wallpaper so I could type at high speed without having to stop to take the pages out of the typewriter. Otherwise I’d fall asleep out of sheer boredom.
I don’t think that was quite what Clifford had been looking for.
I fear I haven’t changed since those Tammy days. I still like to keep my talks on creative writing informal and about finding yourself. Traditional teachers invariably want their pupils to write like someone else – Dickens, for instance. So pupils are awed and overwhelmed by his incredible prose and think they either have to imitate him (an impossible task), or give up writing because they believe they’re rubbish. This actually happened to someone I know and it had a lifelong negative impact on their writing abilities.
So we’ll do this without a blackboard (or a whiteboard) if that’s okay?
I’m often asked by fans and prospective writers about my storytelling. Why I write. How I write. How I created various characters. What are the tricks of the trade? Where do I get my inspiration from? How do I get over writer’s block and so on. I’ll try and answer all those questions and more in Pageturners.
I hope it will make Pageturners a useful ‘How To’ guide for writers – whether we’re talking comics, novels or film. Whatever the medium, the ground rules are ultimately the same. And many of those rules apply to comic artists, too, as one of my fortes seems to be discovering talented artists and pointing them in the right direction. So I’ll also cover the ground from their point of view.
I think Pageturners should also be of interest to fans because it goes further behind the scenes on my stories. It picks up where Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD and Judge Dredd: The Secret History and Kiss My Axe! The Secret History of Sláine the Warped Warrior left off, and gives further insights (and horror stories) about the comic industry. Many readers also wanted more details on the storytelling process which – for reasons of space – I sometimes glided over. I’ll do my best to fill in the gaps with some key examples. I’ll get into the various heroes and heroines I’ve created and why they’re invariably working class. Not least because most well-known heroes in fiction are middle or upper class. And most people have been socially conditioned to accept that as completely normal. That’s why you’ll find there were rarely officer or middle-class heroes in the early issues of Battle, Action and 2000AD when I was controlling their destinies. In Action, I even had Dredger, a dirty secret agent, with an old Etonian sidekick.
I’ll feature some detailed case studies of Toxic!, Spacewarp and brand new heroes and villains. And how to recreate a character who you think is lost in the mists of time. Someone you badly want to feature in a story, but can only vaguely remember. There is a surprisingly easy way to resurrect the dead.
Why am I so passionate about British comics? I guess because, although they are now increasingly conservative, safe and middle class – e.g. fucking dull – they haven’t quite destroyed them or turned them all into graphic novels to be enjoyed by elites. Comics still have an appeal to young people, just about, and to traditional audiences from whence comics originated, before ‘North London’ thinking sent them down the current cul-de-sac. They still have grass-roots appeal; they can still produce great new talents, they still have counter-culture voices. Barely. They can still be a refreshing alternative to the corporate, establishment thinking of American superheroes. Comics have the potential to slip under the wire, not least because the elite don’t really understand them or their audience and have grossly underestimated their impact in the past – like Charley’s War - and their potential for the future.
I believe I also have some insights you’re unlikely to find elsewhere, especially as I’m going to stray into the taboo area of marketing – which most books on the craft brush over. ‘How to’ guides explain the principles of writing and then assure you that, if you follow them, publishing doors will open for you.
How to actually sell your work is invariably neglected, so new writers have to figure it out for themselves and all too often they get it horribly wrong because they don’t really understand the current state of the market and how it all works.
I’ve never come across one writing guide which ever told you about the real-life challenges of selling your stories. So I’ll get into marketing, too, in a major way with examples of successes and failures, which I think will be of interest to fans as well as new writers.
That said, there are many excellent marketing books and free resources such as podcasts, blogs and Facebook groups on indie publishing, which cover what it takes to self-publish, from setting up a newsletter, to formatting for large print, or guidelines on cover design. I’ve found the indie publishing community to be incredibly supportive and generous with sharing their hard-earned knowledge.
I’m going to start – in Part One - by picking on the most immediate questions that are likely to be on a prospective writer’s mind, ranging from script layouts, to problems with exposition, to dealing with difficult editors. This will give you an overview of the writer’s landscape before going into more detail.
Finally, when a book is published it’s common for the author to acknowledge their agent’s importance, sometimes with somewhat nauseating gratitude. They know which side their toast is buttered on. And often to also credit their dear old English teacher, their first mentor, who encouraged their writing talents, so that they became the successful author they are today.
When Pageturners is eventually collected into book form, there will be no such ‘I owe it all’ to my agent or my English teacher.
My experience of agents is lukewarm, rather than bad, although it’s hardly worth gushing thanks, and I will cover agents later in Part Three: Marketing.
But my lay English teacher – who was certainly no monk – is very different. He is beloved by so many old classmates, who rightly claim he gave them their love of writing and literature. I think for many pupils from my old De La Salle college, he was an icon. For them, he was a Dead Poet’s Society teacher, a la Robin Williams. Or a Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. He was definitely down with the kids. But not with me.
As a visual point of reference, he was a prototype for George Monbiot – who looks like a typical English teacher – and he was an avid Guardian reader and espoused its values. It partly explains why I have always had a deep suspicion of The Guardian, long before British Intelligence started controlling it.
The other reason was my Muse. She is central to Pageturners and will be referenced many times. She is our instinct, our subconscious, our psyche that drives us all, and especially creatives. She is normally ignored or suppressed by authority, because she doesn’t fit the tramlines of obedient and cowed society. She is proof of the Gnostic principle that true gnosis – knowledge – comes from within us, not imposed on us from outside. She had warned me off The Guardian from at least the age of fourteen. She knew – even back then – that its studied liberalism was little more than an elitist pose and instead encouraged me to read John Pilger in The Daily Mirror. He was writing the Truth. If it seems unlikely that the Muse could give a fourteen year old boy such insight, consider the recent thoughts of Declassified UK on the subject:
My teacher’s deliberate sabotaging of my creative endeavours – for a number of personal reasons I’ll get into later – actually forced me to find my own unique writing path. His negativity undoubtedly made me the writer I am today and I can see his influence in every single one of my stories. Judge Dredd, Marshal Law, Requiem Vampire Knight, Charley’s War. He is lurking in the shadows of all of them and I’ll refer to him from time to time.
Because every story needs a villain, so it is entirely appropriate – with my anti-establishment brand of storytelling – that the villain of Pageturners should be The English Teacher.
NEXT WEEK: HOW DOES IT ALL WORK?
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