Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics

by on Jan.11, 2011, under Comics

Writers talk and write about their craft to an almost obnoxious degree, but when you sit down and look at it, the number of truly great writers who have written genuinely useful things on the topic is very small. There are only a few books I go back to myself for guidance (or, when I was teaching, that I used as textbooks): John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, John Barth’s The Friday Book, and Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

And now Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics, first published as an essay in a fanzine in 1985, reissued by Avatar as a standalone book in 2003, and recently given its sixth printing.

These writers all take different paths into their subjects, and it you can see in those choices reflections of their creative work. Gardner insists one must begin by selecting a genre. Forster begins with the sequence of events (what he terms “story,” as distinguished from “plot,” which includes causation). Calvino covers a series of abstract ideals like “Lightness” and “Quickness.”

Moore starts with “the idea,” by which he means, more or less, the theme. He describes the plot of an issue of Swamp Thing to give an example, one having to do with a Native American werewolf curse. He explains that the animating idea of that story was about how women’s sexuality, specifically their menstrual cycle, is made the subject of cultural taboo.

Of course he goes on to say that you don’t have to actually start with an idea in your own process, you can start working from a plot, characters, a visual concept, whatever. But “idea’ is first in importance, followed by a thorough understanding of characters and their environment. If you’ve read enough of Alan Moore’s work it’s obvious that this is in fact how he conceives of and builds it.

He moves on from there to discuss plot, pacing, dialogue, and much more. Some of his advice is out of date—many of the visual techniques he suggests are stale from overuse now, as he himself confesses in an afterword written for the first Avatar edition. Some is banal (like his recommendation to read dialogue aloud to test its sound). But most of it remains quite sound and applicable for writers of any genre.

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