The comics business went into a steep decline in the ’50s and early ’60s. During that time a lot of companies folded, a lot of comic book professionals were unemployed, and so, if you were an editor at a surviving comic book company you never had to train anybody, you knew lots of guys who were out of work. The streets were awash with unemployed cartoonists. So what happened is we had a generation gap—relatively few new people came into this business between the mid-’50s and the early-to-mid-’60s. Around that time a few of us started to trickle in. Among the arrivals in the early to mid-‘60’s were E. Nelson Bridwell, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, Neal Adams, a few others and me. We were pretty much the last guys who got to learn our craft from the older guys–the guys who really invented and built the comic book business.
Category: 04 Storytelling Lecture Page 1 of 4
Story is probably the most fundamental and important element of entertainment in the world. It’s a basic building block. It comes into play in virtually every creative medium. Storytelling is the oldest profession. Don’t believe what you’ve heard. People were telling lies long before any other business was invented.
We’re in the same business as Homer was. This business has been around for a long time. I think it’s going to be around for a long time. It’s going to be here forever because it’s something that’s built into us and it’s something that we really like.
Okay, so what is a story? Well, in the simplest possible terms what a story is:
What it was, what changed it, how’d it come out.
All right, so you’ve got this concept that’s built into our language and therefore built into our brains. That’s why there is a definition of story. So why can’t everybody just sit down and be a writer? Well you can. Just let yourself. There’s a little more to it than that, which I’ll tell you in a minute, but basically I think for most of us, our problem is when we sit down to be a writer we get this big capital `W’ in front of that word and we think we have to be Hemingway. Probably you’d all be better off if you would just stand there, tell the story to yourself in a mirror or to someone small enough that you can force them to listen.
We know what the basic unit is, now let’s expand that definition. What it was. When I say what it was what I mean is who or what are we talking about, and what is their situation. What is their status quo? Where are they? What are they doing? What’s normal? What’s going on here if nothing else happened? What happened is something occurs to disrupt that normal status quo. I used to say a problem comes up, and sometimes I used to say a conflict, and then I said, “No, it’s not always that. Sometimes it’s an opportunity.” Something happens though, to kind of rock the boat. So what effects does it have? What develops? What issues are raised? What is at stake? What conflicts arise? What forces are our opposition?
Today I’m going to show you how to make the Little Miss Muffet example from yesterday better and then next week I’ll discuss some of the craft of being a writer.
How can we make it better? We could add some character. Wouldn’t it be interesting to get to know this little girl? All right let’s do that. Let’s say Little Miss Muffet is a very lonely girl. She’s eating lunch alone every day. So she’s all alone, she’s sitting on her tuffet, she’s miserable and she’s a very lonely girl. We can infer from the story that she’s probably afraid of spiders. So all of a sudden Little Miss Muffet starts coming alive to us–she’s a lonely little girl who’s scared of spiders. So she’s having another lonely lunch, and then along came the spider. Now the spider happens to be a lonely guy too. The guy is ugly. He’s a spider. He can’t get a date. So he sees Little Miss Muffet and he approaches her. Now every instinct in the spider’s body is saying take a chunk out of this babe’s leg, and yet he’s lonely. He’d like to have a friend. On the other hand this is a high-risk operation, what if she steps on him? Little Miss Muffet is like, “Gee, he’s ugly. Gee, I’m really lonely and he seems nice.” She waffles around about it for a while and then finally she screams and runs away, proving that Little Miss Muffet is more afraid of spiders than she is afraid of being lonely. It’s a better story. You learn something about her, you learn something about the spider. It’s already better.
Well there’s more you can do to a story. You can add jokes, and bits of business, interesting little events that happen. You can build more suspense. You could actually have the spider creeping a little closer to her on her tuffet. You could do a lot of things. You could add a car chase. So you could take that basic building block and that’s where you start being creative. Throw your creativity at this and come up with something really cool. Better still, you could make it relate to me, the reader. Let’s face it, that’s the kind of stories we like to read when you can say, “Yeah, I felt that way.” You could try to figure out something that means something to whomever is reading it. Try to get that across.
(JayJay here. I posted this blog straight from the transcript, but once Jim got a bit of a break, he touched it up. Here is his edited version.)
I like Mark Twain. He was good. Take Huckleberry Finn for example. That’s a great piece of writing. It’s about this boy, Huck, who has been taught since birth that certain people are property, they have no rights, no worth except as slaves, and if you help one of them run away or you let one of them escape, you’re going to hell because it’s evil to do so. In the story, Twain makes this clear, so we understand the situation, the status quo, and of course he introduces the characters. We read about the disruptive element that sends this story into motion—both Jim the slave and Huck are driven by circumstances to run away. They fall in together, and travel down the Mississippi on a raft. The conflicts that are raised are wonderfully interesting, and Twain brings the characters alive so well, that we really relate to them.
Let me tell you a little bit about some other structural things that you may need to know. You heard me say, “Introduce your characters” a couple of times. What does that mean? What I mean by that is, whenever you are trying to establish your status quo, Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, you have the same duty as the newspaper reporter–who, what, when, where, why, how. You’ve got to give them a clue about what that status quo is so they can understand how it’s disrupted. That means also understanding who these characters are.
I’m going to walk you quickly through a movie called Rocky. I’ll just touch on a few scenes from Rocky that basically will illustrate some of what I’m talking about in terms of building these things into the story. Rocky’s not high art but is impeccably constructed. It’s like level two. It’s a story, it’s a good story because it has a lot of bits in it. I think Stallone did make a stab at trying to say something, but he ain’t no Mark Twain.
What’s the first scene in Rocky? Rocky’s in the ring. He’s not in a tux. He’s not at the opera. He’s in an arena. The guy’s a fighter. The event that happens in the ring is a little taste of what the whole thing is about. In a way you can think of it as a comic book. It’s a splash page. Hi, here’s who I am. Rocky’s in the ring and he’s fighting, and the manager’s screaming at him because he should win this fight but he’s losing. He just doesn’t have the killer instinct. However, when the other guy cheats and then it sort of upsets Rocky’s sense of justice, fair play, and manhood, then he knocks the guy out. That’s Rocky.
I want to get onto the artwork. Writers pay attention. A lot of this applies to you as well. This is a two-part medium. It’s visual and verbal.
We’re in the business of storytelling. Because of the unique combination of the visual and verbal, a lot of the burden of storytelling falls upon the penciler. The penciler’s not just an artist, he’s half of the writer. And a writer should not be just a writer, he should think visually, be a visual storyteller, he should be half of the artist.
Sometimes, when the artist and writer are the same person, it really works well, but it often works very well when it’s a collaboration like Lee and Ditko, Lee and Kirby, or Goodwin and Simonson. Sometimes a collaboration is even better than a solo act, because two good storytellers in tandem come up with stuff neither one could alone. Two can be better than one. So, writers, if you can’t draw, don’t despair. But learn to think visually. Pencilers, artists, learn about writing. I don’t care if you’re aren’t a wordsmith, learn the principles, understand the goals. As they say in Hollywood, “do the math.” Learn how to do the math.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, two new media were invented. Okay, some scholar is going to correct me and say the first movie was actually made in the 1860’s, and Scott McCloud thinks hieroglyphics were comics, but work with me, here. As mainstream, commercial ventures, film and comics got started in the mid 1890’s. Before that, live performances were pretty much the only visual presentations, unless you count stereoscopes. Some books had illustrations, yes, but they were superfluous. Didn’t need them to understand the story. Live performances, of course, were on stage and seen from a theater seat—and that’s exactly how early film and comics were presented, from a point of view as if from a theater seat.
Then, one day, some actor walked up to D.W. Griffith’s camera and stuck his tongue out, and when the film was developed, they discovered close ups! Kidding. But, anyway, filmmakers and comics artists soon discovered that there were different kinds of shots. I will now show you the three kinds of shots.
The first great secret of drawing better is using your eyes. Don’t laugh. Once, with another group, I leaned an umbrella against a door and asked them to draw it. I gave them a minute, I think. I watched them. Most of them glanced at the umbrella, then hardly looked up from their paper. Some got the umbrella more or less right, but made it too tall or too short in comparison with the door. Some made the door too narrow or too wide. Some were so worried about the umbrella that they got the door handle entirely wrong. One guy drew an umbrella that wasn’t furled and strapped—basically, he just made one up, rather than draw the one in front of him.
A lot of people just don’t use their eyes enough. You need to really look, measure and compare elements of your drawing to each other. How tall is the umbrella compared to the door? Does it come up past the door handle? And you need to draw the actual umbrella.
I find that even people who draw pretty well just plain don’t look with care at all the elements. They’ll get most parts of a figure right but fake the wrinkles on the sportcoat. You see, without trying or even noticing, we’ve all learned a bunch of glyphs—symbols for things—and they have a way of creeping into and weakening our drawings. You get the sportcoat right, but do your wrinkle glyph on the sleeves at the elbows. You’ll get a person’s face right, then do your hair glyph. You’ll get the building right but draw window glyphs instead of the real windows.