Book Review: Writing for Comics & Graphic Novels by Peter David
“To be honest, this book is not the easiest of endeavors for me. A lot of what I do is very instinctive. When you’re flying be the seat of your pants, it’s tricky to tell people to sit in your lap (and, under certain circumstances, will probably get you strange looks). Nevertheless, I’ll do the best I humanly can to break down for you the hows, whys and wherefores. I will make the inexplicable explicable and the ephemeral… uh… phemeral.”
– From the Introduction to Writing for Comics & Graphic Novels by Peter David
Not every author will try to make the ephemeral… uh… phemeral. Doing so requires a certain kind of mindset and willingness to analyze your work and the craft of writing for the sake of educating someone else, and thereby themselves as well. Some authors prefer to be ignorant of how they make their stories work. So, I appreciate Peter David’s efforts to share the knowledge he has gained from his time spent in the trenches of the mainstream superhero comics industry with another generation.
The result is Writing for Comics & Graphic Novels a decent introduction to the art of writing comics in general and a more than decent introduction to writing for superhero comics.
The book is funny, loaded with examples, and does a good job explaining the basic techniques for writing comics. Unfortunately – probably due to the lack of experience in explaining his creative process to others – the lessons are often clunky in their delivery and less in-depth than other how-to-write books when addressing general writing principles. So, if you are looking for a reference for writing comics and graphic novels, this is a decent place to start but not the end of the road.
– As you can tell by the quote from his introduction, David has a sense of humor, which makes the reading experience fun. Whether his quips and comments are about Stan Lee or Indiana Jones, he’s funny, and puts it to good use. Occasionally, his comments feel like he’s got a bone to pick with fans who have written complaints to him in the past and he’s using the book as his soap box and his humor as a curtain to mask complaints in return, but… whatever. At least you get the idea that people will complain about anything and everything, so write what you want.
– David uses a lot of published examples to illustrate his lessons, which is nice. When someone says, “I did this and it worked in this published piece,” it feels sound.
– By far, the best aspect of this book is his tricks of the trade. Some of the best tips are from simple, basic advice on how to handle word balloons and character creation. Then there are some not-so-ideal tricks and tactics that get the job to “good enough” before deadline, which can also be helpful.
– The title is blatant false advertising. In the opening of his Preface, David admits that “& Graphic Novels” was added to the title by the marketing department at IMPACT Books hoping to make a few bucks on the buzz around graphic novels. None of David’s lessons are actually doctored for graphic novels, specifically, so right off the bat I thought, “what a lousy way to squeeze a dollar out of people who don’t know the difference.” Yes, he is upfront about this lie and those interested in graphic novels can adapt many of his lessons to suit the medium, but… come on.
– In the early chapters, David provides advice on how to approach applying yourself as a writer but doesn’t explain how to actually do many of the things he advises. This makes some important lessons feel shallow. For example, on page 65, he discusses how vital it is that we, as writers, determine our theme, saying, “Once you have a clear idea of what you want to say, it’s merely a matter of determining how you’re going to say it. Knowing your theme, and making sure that every major aspect of your story relates to it in some way, is the surest means of making certain your story doesn’t go completely off the rails.” Great… how do I do that? I recognize that it is important to figure out my theme, but… how do I figure out my theme? That’s a missed opportunity on his part to deepen the lesson.
– Later in the book, when David begins to dissect elements of writing to discuss them one-by-one, he struggles to focus on one lesson at a time. For example, on page 92, when discussing character arcs, David also discusses pacing, character accessibility and a little bit of story structure. If I didn’t already know what he was talking about from other readings, I wouldn’t know what he’s talking about at all. This makes the learning experience feel convoluted and clunky and can actually be a disservice to the reader.
Overall, Writing for Comics & Graphic Novels is a fun read and a decent introduction, but despite the title, it is not an end-all, be-all reference for writing comics and graphic novels.