Maybe you’ve been reading comic books for decades, or you’re just vaguely familiar with them as the source material for Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. Either way, you may not know that while cartooning can be an intensely individual process in which a single person shapes a whole story, making comics is often a complex team effort, shaped by the dynamics between writers and artists. Much like the director, designers, and actors in a film, a comic artist often has as much responsibility as the writer for things like tone, pacing, and story and character development. And a lot of this work is done remotely, between the editors in a publisher’s office and independent creators all over the world. Needless to say, clear communication of everything from the biggest ideas to the smallest details is critical, but not always guaranteed.
Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler know this well — they’ve written and drawn comics for both small publishers and “the big two” (Marvel and DC), and worked with dozens of other creators on all kinds of stories. Parker is best known as the writer of books including Thunderbolts, X-Men: First Class and Batman ’66, and Fowler is a prolific artist who has worked on a wide range of titles including Quantum and Woody and MAD Magazine, recently taking the writing reins for the comic version of Rick and Morty, based on the hit Adult Swim cartoon. They worked together on the weird and wonderful Mysterius the Unfathomable series from DC offshoot Wildstorm in 2009.
When it comes to making great stories, or making anything else that brings joy or utility, courtesy and professionalism can be as important as creativity. Here, Parker and Fowler share some of their principles for fruitful collaboration (and reasons it doesn’t always happen).
Show your work
For freelance creators, and for everyone in general, time is extremely valuable. The person who comes after you in the workflow shouldn’t have to spend hours of work figuring out yours.
“Recently I was reading a script and I couldn’t figure out the difference between description and dialog,” says Fowler. “I think I went back and read it the next day and I was like, ‘Oh, oh, okay, I see what’s he’s doing,’ but it wasn’t immediately apparent and time being at a premium when you’re drawing comics, that’s what I needed.”
The solution can be as simple as clear visuals such as templates and standardized formatting — for example, dialog in all caps, voices numbered in the order that they speak, and a clear indication at the top of the page of the number of panels needed. Parker devised a simple template that Fowler uses in his own writing work, and artists are grateful for the clarity. Even if your work isn’t in a visual medium like comics, templates for briefs, requests, project specs and other work product can save time and avoid confusion and misunderstanding.
Be responsive to different work styles
Being consistent in format and workflow doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible. As much as possible with any number of constraints you might have, get to know your collaborators’ strengths, and adapt to bring them out.
“I don’t write the same way for everybody,” says Parker. “I am more fluid when Tom is the artist than others because I know he’ll come up with some cool idea and change a bunch of stuff. You want to turn on the imagination, you don’t want to hamstring it. I give him just enough words to give some idea about mood and the feel of the page, along with the dialog.”
Parker has also learned it can be useful to adjust his vision for a book based on the artist he’s working with. “Even recently, on Justice League United, I tried to set up a storytelling style where we always opened on a splash (a one-image page),” he says. “One of the artists immediately felt uncomfortable with that and added more panels. He’s one of those guys who like to go deep into detail. He’s way more comfortable with a lot of panels, which I’m usually reluctant to do because I think I’m making more work for everyone else. The next time we got back to a script together, I completely changed. I made opportunities for little tiny micro panels and that’s exactly his element. It looked great too.”
Openness and professionalism can and should go together
When you’re working closely with other people, there’s an important balance between taking your work seriously and not taking yourself too seriously. Good communication means both personal availability and a respect for others’ time and ideas.
“There’s a writer who is very explicit with his rules about how, ‘I’ve turned in the script and I don’t talk to anyone else in the process. That’s it. You can’t edit me,’” says Parker. “That tells me he doesn’t understand what comics are. It’s not illustration. You’re killing the potential for anything. It’d be like working on a movie and you just hand off everything and you skip doing the collaboration, which is where all the good stuff that happens in a movie comes from.”
Fowler says he’s worked with writers who hand over scripts and then go MIA and move onto their next job, which can lead to surprises, disagreements, or misunderstandings later on when deadline is fast approaching. As a result, he’s a firm believer in working out a project’s direction and process in an open-minded discussion at the very start.
“Sit down and actually have a human conversation with your collaborator about the story and how you like to do things,” says Fowler. “If they sign off on what you’re all about, that’s great. If they have another way of coming to it and the two of you can figure something out, that’s great. The point is, the effort was made. The human connection was made. Nobody on that spectrum is a cog. As long as everybody knows that and everybody pulls their weight then there’s no reason you can’t make something special.”
Evie Nagy took everyone to see Iron Man for her wedding.