And this is where everything goes to complete shit for me, every single time, as long as I've been doing this.
As soon as I type "Panel One," my well-laid plans turn into garbage (and remain that way, some critics might argue). All these three and four-page scenes that seemed totally doable at the outline stage are now collapsing under their own weight. Every page I start has at least nine panels, and not in a satisfying Watchmen way.
Most of my favorite comics creators are innovative geniuses like Chris Ware, who seem to completely reinvent the medium of comics with each new layout, but I've obviously never been that kind of writer. I just like stacking a few little boxes into predictable formations, and then putting whatever moderately challenging ideas I might have inside those boxes.
When artist Pia Guerra and I created Y: The Last Man, we wanted to make a comic that any reader could follow, even if his or her only exposure to the medium were the comic strips in their daily paper. With Saga, Fiona and I wanted to refine that even more, making a book that could be an immersive experience for all readers, even if their last exposure to a combination of words and images was a children's picture book they read as a kid.
Now that I'm a dad, I seem to read nothing but illustrated fiction for very young readers, and the best children's books primarily use artwork to tell the story, while seamlessly integrating the least text possible with those pictures. In a vain attempt to recreate that experience with the language of comics, I try to force myself to use no more than six panels a page, and no more than twelve balloons of dialogue per page, with no balloon exceeding two typewritten lines of text (I think I cribbed that last rule from Warren Ellis, who maybe got it from Alan Moore?). Anyway, while Fiona and I have already started deviating from that rigid haiku, this structure felt like it provided nice creative boundaries for the beginning of Hazel's journey.
But here's the thing, it's fucking IMPOSSIBLE to tell a story that way. It takes three goddamn panels just to clearly show someone opening a goddamn door, so how the hell do I string together a satisfying narrative with five or so static images a page? I somehow did it last month, so why do I always completely forget how to write comics the next month?
Also, why does my story no longer work at all? This is when I really start second-guessing every choice I made, often throwing out or reinventing whole scenes. Marko and Alana can't just sit around reminiscing for an entire issue, can they? This is a visual medium, idiot! And now I'm suddenly doubting all the long-term plans I have for Slave Girl/Sophie. Am I neutering our most formidable antagonist by having The Will rescue her? Would it be more harrowing if he murdered Slave Girl after executing her pimp, a deranged kind of mercy killing to prevent what he sees as the girl's inevitable lifelong suffering? Also, why did I set this story in a fakey make-believe universe where I can't fall back on stupid pop-culture references?
I am adrift and want to be dead.
My wife refers to my inevitable emotional collapse each month as "the rollies," and is thankfully always there to tell me to shut the fuck up and get back to work. Writing is always hard for me, but I eventually remember that it's not nearly as hard as scooping ice cream or being a live-in dog butler or any of the other actual jobs that I or any other human being has ever held.
And it's certainly a million times easier than the job of the poor woman who's going to have to figure out how to bring my mental breakdown to life on the page. But at this stage in the process, I usually start seeing some of Fiona's gorgeous finished artwork for our previous issue, which always helps walk me back from the brink.
So I force myself to put something down on paper… and the first draft is always TERRIBLE. And worse, it's about thirty-nine pages long. But at least I have a finished hunk of something to start hacking away at with a machete. I'm way too ashamed to show you anything from my first pass of this particular issue, but it originally featured several pages of The Will having lengthy conversations with various Sextillion prostitutes. By the time I reached my final pass, that scene had become three completely silent pages that Fiona did way more with than any of my words ever could. This was really the issue that I realized my only job was getting the hell out of her way.
And after all that pointless Sturm und Drang, my script usually ends up looking almost exactly like the original story I set out to tell at the outlining stage. (For this chapter, I only lost that one-page Prince Robot detour, which seemed to detract from the parallel stories of desire and revelation unfolding on Cleave and Sextillion).
It shouldn't be such a chore, but it just always seems to take me fucking forever to edit a comic script down to its barest essentials. As Mark Twain once said, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." (I believe he also said, "Try to feature at least one hideously enlarged pair of testicles in every story you tell.")
Once the script is at least the right shape and size, I spend whatever time I haven't burned up refining the dialogue as much as possible (believe it or not). I used to edit my dialogue a lot after the artwork came in, but Fiona is such a precise "actor," she tailors every facial expression to characters' exact phrasing, so I try to finalize every line at this stage.
My goal is never to have characters sound naturalistic or even realistic, I just want them to sound "right." I have no idea what that means, but I always force myself to perform the mortifying exercise of reading each script aloud to myself, which at least helps me hear which lines are definitely "wrong."
My scripts never ever feel like they're polished enough to show another human being, but inevitably, the deadline beast must be fed. I think of that old saw about art "never being finished, only abandoned" every time I'm about to reluctantly send a script to Fiona.
And now I'm reluctantly showing one of those scripts to you. But first, here's a sample page from Chapter One to show you how verbose I was early in the game, as I take forever to describe one lousy panel…
-Brian K Vaughan