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Finalising text

Róisín Dubh, Chapter 1, coverOne of the last jobs I had to do as the script writer for Róisín Dubh issue 1 was check the text (dialogue balloons, captions, SFX) after all those elements have been laid down on the artwork. I found this a fascinating process because it brought home how much the dynamics of the artwork change the text itself.

When designing their layouts artists always have to consider the placement of the balloons later on, but sometimes a great piece of art requires some finessing of the previous plan.

Several artists have confessed to me that even if they are writing the dialogue themselves they sometimes forget to allow enough space for the dialogue. One writer/artist of my acquaintance told me of how he had to strip down a longish speech into a couple of lines because there was no usable space for the dialogue. Often these enforced re-writes can benefit the final product.

Stephen Byrne did all the lettering for issue 1, and he made a number of wise decisions about the text. In one case he gave a line of dialogue its own panel, which lent the words more significance (it was originally two lines). He moved the previous line back into the earlier panel, and that worked fine.

I spotted a couple of places where a line or two of dialogue had been omitted. In every case the dialogue was doing something for the story, and I pressed for them to be re-instated despite the confines of space. In one instance the panels were tight, but I knew the dialogue would add weight to the actions and give a sense of something happening ‘off-panel’.

So, I re-wrote the dialogue, with an eye to paring it back to its essentials. I got two sentences down to two one-word sentences, and tightened up the rest. The result was much better and conveyed the urgency of the scene.

In another instance I was concerned that a speech bubble was impinging too much on the art and concealing an action. I asked for a small move so that it was clear what was happening. Another artist friend showed me a place in his comic book where he had laid down a excellent sound effect to cover a piece of art he wasn’t too pleased with (in my experience many artists are perfectionists). That’s an instance where a judiciously-placed piece of SFX can come to your aid.

SFX is another aspect of comics to which I’m paying more attention. As a reader its something that is part of the landscape of comic books, but as a writer it’s something you have to think about in a different fashion. I remember reading through a couple of panels and thinking “they sound too quiet”, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in some ways as everything is written down. Yet, a great piece of SFX can really bring a panel alive.

I was just reading a comic in which the SFX word (THOOOM!) was the panel, with the art appeared inside the words. This kind of trick is particularly effective for superhero comics, and I filed it away for future use.

Finally, there is a entire convention of bolding and italicising text that is completely different from what I would use when writing prose. In prose less is more. In comic books its use is dependent upon the style of the comic book, but word emphasis is much more common in this medium than in prose.

It requires a certain change in mindset. One that’s not initially obvious when you’re writing the script on your own and dreaming up a blueprint for the artist.

Once the artwork materialises the text must respond back to it, and sometimes that requires a number of unexpected changes. When everything is going well those tweaks are usually for the benefit of the final comic book.

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Comics, coffee, pint and laptop

Yesterday I went to Sub-City Comics in Galway to meet Rob at 4pm, and my first sight was his brother, and the manager of the Galway branch, Brian Curley. I had to pick up my comic book order – which included issues of Batman and Robin, Joe the Barbarian and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I can’t buy as many single comics as I would like, but I always make an exception for Grant Morrison (I’ve been a long admirer of his work), and the Buffy series has been remarkably good.

After Rob arrived we ventured into the city and hunched against a freezing Atlantic breeze. By a miracle we managed to secure a snug in Tí Neachtain’s for our meeting. Alas, we had to abandon it because of the speaker pumping out music above our heads. As we were heading out the door we met local artist/cartoonist Allan Cavanagh, who through the miracle of twitter was aware of our meeting. It’s a small world.

We repaired to the back of The Quays pub – which was quiet at the time – only to have the waitress refuse to get us drinks because we weren’t eating. Our ancestral hospitality is much diminished.

After Rob kindly fetched beverages we got down to discussing Roisin Dubh. It turns out the 10-page preview will not be back from the printers before I leave for Brighton for World Horror Convention, which is a disappointment. I’m hoping Rob will be able to post out copies to me, so I’ll have something to show during the convention.

Then, I snapped open my laptop and we discussed a new project, which is still in its early stages. It’s a great concept originating with artist Terry Kenny. It involves complicated subjects such as identity, shapeshifting, redemption and immortality, so some of the elements require a lot of teasing out. I’d been up until 3am the previous night writing solutions and suggestions, but we still had a lot of work to do to sift through the various story options.

We believe we have a starting point now, and I may even meet with Terry in London while I’m over there.

I’d love to be involved in this project, so fingers crossed it works out well.

Getting together

Today I travelled up to Dublin and had our first Team Róisín Dubh meeting in person. After months of communication with Stephen it was great to meet him finally. I’ve known Rob for a very long time, as I’ve been buying comics from him since Sub-City opened.

It was the third time we’d scheduled the meeting, because the severe ice and snow during the Christmas period and for the following couple of weeks made travel impossible.

Holmes and Adler

We had a good meeting, discussed how the project was progressing, and of course talked about comics! We also referenced the recent Sherlock Holmes film, which we had all seen and enjoyed. Its look and atmosphere is similar to that in Róisin Dubh – without a 1,400-year-old neamh-mairbh of course!

Stephen had his Macbook with him and showed us artwork he’s been working on. It’s always a pleasure to see how he’s interpreted the script.

I received useful feedback on the second draft of the second chapter, which will necessitate some re-writing on my part, but it will be a better comic for it.

I left Dublin feeling inspired and looking forward to seeing the finished project later in the year.

Extra pages

Please sir, can I have more?The page count of a comic book is pivotal, and it’s important when writing to hit the target number.

When Róisín Dubh was first envisioned last year it was originally slated for a 3 x 20 page min-series that would be collected into a graphic novel later.

As the project took form Rob re-considered the idea in light of the time and cost involved, and the simple dynamics of the comic book industry. It was decided that we should skip the three one-off comics and go straight to producing a graphic novel. Since the story was already split into three it made sense to present them as three chapters within the graphic novel.

When I was writing the three scripts I had considerable difficulty squeezing all the story elements into twenty pages. When I was into my second drafts of the script this became more difficult, especially when I started to see the initial excellent artwork from Stephen in late December. I didn’t want to have too many pages with 7-9 panels on them, because once you add in the ballons it doesn’t leave a lot of space for the art. After all, this is a visual medium. I could have just about managed with the original page count, but I felt it would be a disservice to the story and the artwork.

Since we were already planning for a graphic novel I pitched the idea to Rob and Stephen that we go for 3 x 22 page chapters. Six extra pages does have a cost and time factor, so I was aware that it might not happen.

Thankfully, I got the green-light from Rob and Stephen. This necessitated me doing a very fast re-write of the first chapter as Stephen was already working on it. Luckily, the changes I made didn’t kick in until after the point where he was drawing.

We’re all a lot happier with the extra space for the characters to realise their adventures.

Script writing

CeltxPeople are often interested in the practical information about putting a comic together, so I’m going to mention today the software I use.

All the Róisín Dubh scripts have been written using the free, open source software known as Celtx. Writing a comic book requires a lot of formatting, but unlike writing for film there is no standardised system.

I was familiar with the format for screenplays before I tackled RD, and for them I used the Final Draft program. Initially, I found the change in formatting for comic books strange and difficult. Some people might write the script as a story first, and then add the formatting to avoid the hassle. I like to build the layout of the pages as I write, and for me that means establishing a strong sense of the page, panel, balloon and character cues from the beginning.

Celtx might not suit everyone because its format is heavily influenced by the system used in film scripts. This works well for me because I’m used to that set-up, but equally I think it’s a clear way to indicate the layout of the comic book to the artist.

Most importantly, if I change around the pages and panels they are renumbered and reordered automatically, and that function alone makes Celtx indispensable to me.

In general, this means the formatting doesn’t get in the way when I’m writing, and allows me to concentrate on the storytelling. I have some minor gripes with the program, but I’ve figured out ways around them.

You can also use the software to write for a range of other media such as film, plays, radio plays, and even to storyboard. Plus, it’s free and updated regularly.

It’s a very useful tool.