SKTCHDxTINYONION: Part Two, How to Build a Comic
It’s Month Two of 2023’s ongoing SKTCHDxTiny Onion collaboration, as we’re back for February’s conversation between writer James Tynion IV and myself about the wider world of comics from his perspective. While the first chat was firmly focused on the broader business side of things, this one takes a different direction, as we hopped on Zoom for an extended chat about how he develops his comic projects.
It’s a fantastic and textended conversation, one in which we use his Image/Substack series The Closet as a focal point, but talk about all of his projects as we discuss how he plans, where he starts with each project, the importance of being flexible, how licensed projects differ from creator-owned ones, how format shifts things for him, how his approach differs from his peers, and a whole lot more. If you’re interested in how one of the most popular creators in comics builds his comic projects, this chat will be for you.
Unlike the first one, though, this one will be mostly behind the paywall. That will be the case each month going forward as well, as we’ll continue to tackle different subjects each month that explore each facet of this medium and industry from Tynion’s perspective from throughout the year. As with the first one, this is running both on SKTCHD and on The Empire of the Tiny Onion, Tynion’s Substack, so if you aren’t already subscribed and want to enjoy this chat in full, consider subscribing to SKTCHD or the Tiny Onion newsletter for this expansive conversation and more just like this.
That’s enough preamble, though. Please enjoy this extended conversation with Tynion, and stay tuned next month for another edition of this ongoing collaboration.
So, if last month’s chat was all about the macro, this conversation will be all about the micro. We’ll be discussing how you build a project and what that process entails. And I’m not just talking about writing a script or pitching publishers or something like that. I’m talking everything. Before we get into it though, I think it’s useful for readers to understand something from your perspective. How usual or unusual do you believe your development process to be? Do you feel like it’s pretty comparable to your other writer pals?
James: I would say that the early stages are fairly identical. The people I talk to almost every day, it’s Josh Williamson, Matt Rosenberg, Scott Snyder, and when all the sudden 10 disparate ideas have suddenly come together in one of our brains, and we’re excited to share it for the first time, that’s always the first sign that the idea is about to become a comic. The moment where the weird shit brewing in your head becomes something you want to explain to someone.
That’s always sign of, “Okay, this is cooking. This is developing.” And it works the same for all of us. Some of us are more forthcoming and we’ll pitch out the whole story. I don’t like to pitch out the full story, I want to pitch the gist of it that normally has one of the first story hooks, but that first raw idea stage is pretty consistent between all of us.
I do think that my process is a little different in the next steps. And I think that part of it is I am an over planner and a deliberate under planner all at the same time. It has become a deliberate part of my process because I’ve trying to throw out the unnecessary steps of development to make something that feels more visceral and of the moment while I’m writing it.
We’re going to get into your process, but I want to talk about that idea of over planning and under planning simultaneously. Where does the over-planning happen and where does the under planning happen? Are there normally places where those show up typically?
James: The things that matter the most to me while I’m developing a new series – and this is something that I’ve learned over the process of this past generation of creator-owned comics that I’ve been writing – is I need the vibe. The feel of the book is the most important thing. I need to know, what is the general aesthetic sense that I’m going after, what are the central ideas, what is it about?
That is fundamental. I have friends who will then take that and then their next step is to figure out how that tracks against the protagonist’s character arc. But I’ve learned that in my writing, I do best when I find the characters on the page. And so sometimes if I get overzealous about laying out all the steps of a character’s journey, it completely screws me up.
All of a sudden, I have a character who on the page is not acting like the character that I wrote in the outline, and then I have to throw out a whole lot of material. So, the over-planning happens in a world of aesthetics, in a world of vibes, in a world of ideas. And then the under planning happens in terms of plot. I want to create the best road to make sure I know these characters well. Then once a project is up and running, usually around three issues into an ongoing series, that’s when I go back and whatever chicken scratch I wrote in terms of what’s the plot of the first year and where it goes from there, I’ll throw all of that out and I’ll rebuild it based on how I’ve gotten to know the characters over three issues.
I feel like something like Something is Killing the Children is probably a good example of that because didn’t you discover in the process of writing it just how impactful you thought that Erica Slaughter was going to be?
James: Yes. Let me go even further back for a second. One of the most important moments in my creative life was working on my first ongoing creator-owned series, The Woods, at BOOM! And around issue eight, I realized that the character I had outlined to be the villain of a 36 issue series, a big, long running epic series, this character that was set up to be the central antagonist all the way to the end…I realized that he needed to die in issue 12.
James: And once I realized that it was a moment of panic because it meant I had to throw out all my documents. I had to throw out all of the plans. But I realized that that move was the most interesting thing that could happen to every character in the cast, and it created a brand-new dynamic that I could build from. And I was more excited about that new dynamic than I was the old document.
Making the decision to do that, to throw out the map, was the most important creative leap that I think I’ve ever made as a writer. Because it was the right decision, it made the book better, and it made me a better writer. So, I’ve always tried to recognize when I’m at one of those moments.
At the start of Something is Killing the Children, I had outlined a five-issue miniseries. It was a disjointed miniseries. Every issue was going to be a standalone one-shot. Erica comes to town, she kills a monster, and every issue would’ve been from the perspective of a different random person who just bears witness to this strange character who we wouldn’t fully understand. It was me trying to do a miniseries built out of the weird interstitial issues of Hellblazer or Sandman. That was what was in my head.
But then I saw the design of Erica Slaughter, and it was just…this is a character that I want to be in more than three pages of an issue. And beyond that, I started writing the first issue and I did a little trick that’s often a shorthand for me, which is I was writing this truth or dare sequence with these young boys in Milwaukee, and I just plugged in my name and the name of my four closest friends from freshman year of high school into those characters.
Suddenly, I knew all those characters. I knew them backwards and forwards and I of course knew my young self in this big, powerful way. And then I started doing the pacing of the issue, and it was just like, “I’ve spent some time in this truth or dare scene and all of this stuff. I can’t resolve this whole thread in one issue and then get out.”
So, then I emailed Eric (Harburn, Tynion’s editor on SIKTC) and was like, “I think I’m going to spend all five issues in this small town outside of Milwaukee and I’m going to tell the whole story there.” And then I write another issue and I’m just like, “I can’t resolve this in five issues. This is a bigger story. There are more interesting threads here for me to pull.” And thankfully, it was around issue three that BOOM! was like, “Okay, advance sales are high enough that we will give you the road of 15 issues.”
That sounded great, but beyond that didn’t exist yet. But then I started writing the next few issues and I started adding little things. And sometimes there are the little happy accidents. I described the brief flash of the ruling council of the House of Slaughter, and I mentioned the House of Slaughter for the first time.
And then just in the description of that I told Werther (Dell’Edera, SIKTC’s artist) “Okay, maybe they all have different color masks and maybe they have different stuffed animals sitting in front of them.” But I hadn’t figured out what that meant yet. When I said that, I just thought it would be a cool beat and I needed the larger scale of the organization. Emotionally, that was the only important thing. But the second I showed that, it was like, “Oh, I want to find out more about those guys. I want to sit and play with that idea.”
And the House of Slaughter, that just sounds fucking cool. So, it was allowing myself to lean in over and over and over. And it was between writing issues five and six that I basically laid out, “Okay, here’s the 15 issue super plan for the whole story. And then beyond that, if we want to tell another Erica Slaughter novel down the line – I think of each 15 issue chunk as a Erica Slaughter novel – then we can tell another Erica Slaughter novel if we want to. Thankfully, another arc and a half in, they were just like, “So, can we keep this going forever?”
And I was like, “Please.”
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