In 1947, when the late comics legend Stan Lee was in his mid-20s and was just rising to notoriety, he contributed an article to Writer's Digest called "There's Money in Comics!" In the article, Lee shares his comics writing secrets—including idea generation, working with artists and publications, laying out the writing with the images, and breaking into the comics market. His advice is still invaluable today. Read on to check out the full article from 1947.
There's Money in Comics!
by Stan Lee
Writer's Digest, November 1947
Well, what are you waiting for? They've been publishing comic magazines for more than 10 years. They've been buying scripts for these magazines from freelance writers for that same length of time and paying good rates for them. There are 92 comic magazines appearing on the stands every single month—and each magazine uses an average of 5 stories. It's a big field, it's a well-paying field, and it's an interesting field. If you haven't tried to crack the comics yet, now's the time to start.
No matter what type of writing you specialize in—adventure, detective style, romantic stories, or humorous material, there is some comic magazine which uses the type of story you'd like to write. And, once you've broken into the field, you'll find that your assignments come to you at a fairly steady pace.
The pay is good. A competent writer can write about 10 pages a day for $6 to $9 per page, depending upon the strip he is writing and the quality of his material. So, this comic field certainly bears a pretty close scrutiny from any writer who's interested in receiving meaty checks, and in receiving them often. (And I've yet to see the writer who isn't interested!)
"But I'm not good at drawing! How can I work with an artist on a comic strip?" How often I've heard that said by writers.
Look! You don't have to be able to draw flies! You do need an imagination, and the ability to write snappy dialogue and to describe continuity. And what writer won't lay claim to those talents?
Comic strip writing is very comparable to radio writing, or to writing for the stage. The radio writer must describe sound effects in his script, and the playwright must give staging directions in his play. Well, the comic strip writer also gives directions for staging and sound effects in his script, but HIS directions are given in writing to the artist, rather than to a director. He must tell the artist what to draw, and then must write the dialogue and captions.
A sample page from a script of "The Blonde Phantom" follows. This is an actual page, just as it was typed by Al Sulman, the writer. You will notice that the page is roughly divided into two sections, the left-hand section containing the instructions for the artist, and the right-hand section containing the dialogue. There are no set rules as to margins and borders, the important consideration being to make sure that the script is written clearly and can be easily understood by the editor and artist.
One interesting aspect of writing a comic is seeing how the artist finally interprets your script. Syd Shores used the copy above to draw one page for "Blonde Phantom Comics," issue #15. As you can see below, the artist relied on the instructions that Sulman typed on the left side of the script.
5 Elements of a Good Comic Script
But there's more to comic strip writing than just knowing on which side of a page to type artist's instructions. Let's try to analyze some of the factors which go into the making of a good script:
1. Interesting Beginning.
Just as in a story, the comic strip must catch the reader's interest from the first. The very first few panels should show the reader that something of interest is happening, or is about to happen.
2. Smooth Continuity.
The action from panel to panel must be natural and unforced. If a character is walking on the street talking to another character in one panel, we wouldn't show him horse-back riding in the next panel with a different character.
There ARE times when it is necessary to have a sudden change of scene or time, however, and for such times the writer uses captions. For example, if we have Patsy Walker lying in bed, about to fall asleep in one panel, and want to show her eating breakfast in the next panel, the second panel would have an accompanying caption reading something like this: "The next morning, after a sound night's sleep, Patsy rushes to the kitchen to do justice to hearty breakfast."
Thus, by the use of captions, we are able to justify time and space lapses in our panels.
3. Good Dialogue.
This is of prime importance. The era of Captain America hitting Red Skull and shouting "So you want to play, eh?" is over! Today, with the comic magazine business being one of the most highly competitive fields, each editor tries to get the best and snappiest dialogue possible for his characters. In writing a comic strip, have your characters speak like real people, not the inhabitants of a strange and baffling new world!
4. Suspense Throughout.
Whether you are writing a mystery script or a humorous script, the same rule applies: Keep it interesting throughout. Any comic strip in which the reader isn't particularly interested in what happens in the panel following the one he's reading, isn't a good comic strip.
All of the tricks you have learned and applied in writing other forms of fiction can be used in comic writing insofar as holding the reader's attention is concerned. But remember, giving the reader well-drawn pictures to look at is not enough; the reader must WANT to look at the pictures because he is interested in following the adventures of the lead character.
"One point which I can't stress too strongly is: DON'T WRITE DOWN TO YOUR READERS! It is common knowledge that a large portion of comic magazine readers are adults, and the rest of the readers who may be kids are generally pretty sharp characters."
5. A Satisfactory Ending.
An ending which leaves the reader with a smile on his lips and a pleasant feeling that all the loose strings of the story have been neatly tied together can cover a multitude of sins. It has always been my own conviction that a strip with an interesting beginning, good dialogue, and a satisfactory ending can't be TOO bad, no matter how many other faults it may have.
Writing a Comic That Will Sell
One point which I can't stress too strongly is: DON'T WRITE DOWN TO YOUR READERS! It is common knowledge that a large portion of comic magazine readers are adults, and the rest of the readers who may be kids are generally pretty sharp characters. They are used to seeing movies and listening to radio shows and have a pretty good idea of the stories they want to read. If you figure that "anything goes" in a comic magazine, a study of any recent copy of Daredevil Comics or Bat Man will show you that a great deal of thought goes into every story; and there are plenty of gimmicks, sub-plots, human interest angles, and the other elements that go into the making of any type of good story, whether it be a comic strip or a novel.
Another important point to remember is: The only way you can learn about comics is by reading them. So far as I know, there are no schools which give specialized courses in comic strip writing and no books which can be of too much help to you. Constant reading of the various comic magazines is the only way to develop a "feel" for what constitutes a good comic strip.
Another consideration of prime importance is: Decide which comic magazine you want to write for before you do any writing. The various magazines in the field have editorial differences which are almost always amazing. A story which Timely Comics would consider exciting might be deemed too fantastic by True Comics, Inc., and Classic Comics, Inc., would have very little use for the type of story preferred at Fiction House! Each comic publishing company has its own distinctive formula, and the only way to really grasp this formula is to read the magazines.
Navigating the Comics Industry
Most everybody knows something about the organization and workings of an ordinary fiction publishing company. But to most people, writers included, a comic magazine publishing outfit is cloaked in mystery. Let me tell you a little about how a comic house operates so that you'll have a better general knowledge about this large but comparatively unknown field.
The guy you're most interested in at a comic publishing house is the editor. "How does he differ from editors of other types of magazines?" Here's how: The editor of comics is more of a coordinator. He not only considers the merits of a script, but also who is going to draw it and whether it is written in a manner that will suit the artist's style of drawing.
If the artist who draws Hedy De Vine has difficulty drawing crowd scenes and specializes in close-up shots of beautiful women, then the editor of that magazine must be careful not to buy Hedy scripts which call for many characters in each panel and for many long shots.
It's the editor's task to make sure that the scripts he buys are perfectly suited for the artist to whom they are given, and also to ensure that the artist interprets the writer's script exactly as the writer intended it.
Of course, there are some artists who write their own scripts, but they are in the minority. The average artist, even though he may be capable of writing his own script, because of his long-standing familiarity with the character he draws, would still prefer to have a writer write the script for him so that he can concentrate entirely upon the drawing.
Therefore, you, as a writer, should acquaint yourself with the style of art work which is used in the script you are interested in writing. And then slant your story in such a way so that particular style will blend in perfectly with your story. The writers who concentrate on such details are the ones who attain top recognition and top rates in the phenomenal comics field.
Selling Your Comics
Now then, here you are, a fairly accomplished writer interested in trying your hand at the comics. What type of writing is your forte? Is it adventure, teenage humor, fantasy, true crime? Select your favorite comics magazine and write to the editor to get a list of the magazines he edits, and, if possible, his story needs. After receiving the list of magazines he sends you, head for the nearest newsstand and look them over. Select the one that appeals most to you and for which you think your style is best suited.
But up till this point your preliminary work is just beginning. You've now got to read every copy of this magazine you can lay your hands on. Suppose Georgie is the magazine you selected. Get old copies of Georgie, get current copues of Georgie, and leave an order for future copies. Read that strip until you feel you've known Georgie personally for years, and can anticipate what each Georgie story will be about after reading the first page. Live with Georgie for days—get the Georgie formula down pat—and then…
Send some synopses of Georgie stories to the editor. Make them the same types of stories which had been appearing in all the issues you read. Not the same PLOT, jus the same TYPE of story.
Should your synopses click, you'll get an order for a Georgie story from the editor. He will tell you how many panels to write per page, how many pages in length to make the story, and other relevant information.
Now it's up to you. If you write a perfectly satisfactory story (and there's no reason not to, if you've studied the magazines long and carefully enough) there's an excellent chance you'll be asked to do more stories on the same character—and later on, perhaps, additional stories for still other characters.
So, those of you writers who are itching to crack new markets have a market waiting for you that's just made to order. It may seem a little complicated, but the rewards are well worth any time you may spend learning the comic style. I'm sure you won't regret spending the time—I didn't!