Comic book grammar

comic bookNate Piekos has a great piece at Blambot explaining the grammar and tradition of comic book lettering. It’s worth a look for any screenwriter considering writing for the paneled medium.

Comic book lettering has some grammatical and aesthetic traditions that are quite unique. What follows is a list that every letterer eventually commits to his/her own mental reference file. The majority of these points are established tradition, sprinkled with modern trends and a bit of my own opinion having lettered professionally for a few years now. The majority of these ideas have been established by Marvel and DC, but opinions vary from editor to editor, even within the same company.

Many of the examples, such as when to use ellipses verus dashes, have parallels in modern screenwriting. But as a former font nerd, I was surprised I never noticed the rule about crossbar I, or the existence of breath marks. They were always there, but when used properly, completely disappear.

(Thanks to Daring Fireball for the link.)


The rat is dead

follow upLast month, a visitor made an unwelcome appearance in our kitchen, eating oranges on the counter. He was first caught virtually by my laptop’s iSight camera, then later physically by a classic spring-lever trap.

It was loud; it was unsettling; it was over.

I actually like rodents as pets. I grew up with gerbils and hamsters, and enjoy watching rats in the cages at Petco. If my daughter wanted one at some point, I’d be game. But my qualms about nixing this specific rat were minimal. Roof rats like this one are not California-native, so trap-and-release would just be dooming some bird or other indigenous creature.

He was apparently a loner. Since his demise, we’ve sealed up a few possible entry points. He likely came inside to escape an unusual cold snap earlier this year.


The Duluth Dilemma

follow upIn Banging a chainsaw against a tree, I expressed my frustration at those who complain how unfair it is that screenwriters in, say, Duluth, aren’t taken seriously. It got a lot of responses.

Mike writes:

Why can’t he complain if no one takes a screenwriter in Duluth seriously? If he wrote a damn good screenplay that someone (producer, agent) read and wanted to get involved, why would it matter? ‘Oh he lives in Duluth. Bin it.’…? No. It’d be a phone call and a plane flight away if his or her writing were good enough.

The film world does not revolve around Hollywood or L.A. anymore and less so in the future. I think you’re a great Hollywood writer John and I love your blog, but some of your practical advice is somewhat conflicting and unreal at times. It’s just as hard to get a film off in Hollywood/L.A. as it is anywhere else on this spinning globe of ours.

Kevin Arbouet disagrees.

The fact is, the film industry absolutely does revolve around Los Angeles. Los Angeles is the primary hub for film and television much like New York City is the primary hub for theatre.

And I think you’re misunderstanding the whole Duluth thing. With the exception of those great (and mostly fake) PR articles about some dude who worked in a factory in Maine, wrote a screenplay, mailed it to Alan Horn, and then got a movie deal, screenplays are not sold in that way.

Paula agrees with Kevin.

The point is that you have to be in L.A. to take the meetings that lead to work. The spec sale is a) rare and b) not a career. Most writers write on assignment a good deal of the time, including all those who make a living at it, and many who sell specs never work again.

Kevin and Paula are offering a variation on what I call the “Nashville Argument.” The country music industry is based in Nashville, Tennessee. If you’re a country music singer/songwriter, you could stubbornly refuse to move there. You could record your demos in Denver and put them on your MySpace page and play all the local clubs.

But while you’re doing that, a hundred other singer-songwriters are in Nashville, surrounded by an industry that is looking for the next great song, or the next great star. If you lived in Nashville, every third person you met would have a connection to the industry. You could learn from the best performers and technicians in the world.

Moving to Nashville is a smart, proactive move. But you could stay in Denver and just hope for the best. And if your career never takes off, at least you’ll have some heartbreak to write a song about.

On the other hand, LA is the root of all evil

From Duluth is not a fan of Los Angeles:

So you really take those a-holes who sit in Starbucks sipping on their mocha-cappa-frappe-crappie typing a screenplay seriously? It seems to me that quite a bit of the really interesting ideas that get turned into films come from outside LA (as in the rest of the world), while all the well worn, heavily remade, formulaic films come from LA. This is a major problem with the “industry” right now and it amounts to what can best be described as creative incest.

Nick argues against the stereotypes:

You’re trying to make your point by overgeneralizing — acting like every screenwriter in L.A. is a delusional doofus who sits in Starbucks all day, while the serious creative folks are nested away throughout America’s heartland.

That just isn’t the case. I’m not going to argue that there aren’t good writers outside of L.A., but I will argue (correctly) that there are plenty of jackasses from Oregon to South Carolina who think that they can write a totally awesome screenplay just because they saw The Matrix 40 times. (Pay a visit to the TriggerStreet site if you don’t believe me.)

You’re also conveniently ignoring another important fact when you trash the artistic landscape of Los Angeles. The reason it continues to be the world capital of film is that creative people from all over the world choose to come here to write, direct, act, design sets, and so forth. They don’t just sprout up fully formed in front of the Hollywood sign. They’re bringing their individual perspectives to L.A. because its where they believe they’ll have the best opportunity to express themselves. Most of the time, the output of that expression is deeply flawed. But, as Kevin points out, it’s no different anywhere else in the world. You’re just judging the L.A. film industry more harshly because you’re more familiar with the spectrum of films it produces.

Finally, The Other Side calls me out:

I had always believed that your first concern was with making art; now I see that your primary preoccupation has been with careerism.

Initially, I wanted to rant and rail against you and shake you from your ignorance. But then, you are completely right. If one wants to make a living as a screenwriter then a move to LA is of a huge advantage.

I’m sure you would agree that it was by living in LA that you secured the job of adapting Roald Dahl’s “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”?

Funnily enough though, Dahl — also a sometime screenwriter — found he did his best writing in a garden shed. In Wales. An entire ocean of solitude away from sushi-lunches and free diet cokes. You were later paid handsomely to rearranged his ideas, and probably far more than any advance paid to Dahl for his novel.

Considering TOS knew about garden shed, I’m surprised he didn’t get the title of Dahl’s book right. But he inadvertently makes my point: you can be a novelist anywhere, even a garden shed in Wales — or Duluth. A novelist can largely function as a hermit. A screenwriter can’t. A screenwriter’s career consists of meetings and pitches and endless social interactions, many of them aggravating, which may be one reason Dahl’s screenwriting career was so brief.


Follow-Up Week

follow upMy favorite episodes of Intervention are the follow-up ones, in which they track what’s happened with the addicts in the months and years after treatment. Some have stayed clean, others are off-the-rails disasters. I always guess wrong.

Here on the site, I rarely do follow-ups. In fact, once an entry gets pushed off the front page, it’s pretty much dead to me. But it’s not dead to certain readers, who keep comment threads alive long after I’ve forgotten it.

So this week, I’ll be revisiting some recent and not-so-recent posts to look at what’s happened further down the scroll. In some cases, the discussion has veered far away from the original topic, which is why I’m bumping them back to the front page.

One housekeeping note: You’ll notice I’m closing comments on some posts, or simply never turning them on. Certain articles just seem to catch the crazy folks, and after five years I’ve gotten better at anticipating when that’s going to happen.


Be like MacGyver

On Friday, I was asked to speak at a film school graduation. This is what I said.

. . .

The traditional function of a graduation speaker is to congratulate you on your accomplishment and challenge you to do your best work in the years ahead. So let me do that. Congratulations, you’re done! Now, go out and do your best work in the years ahead!

Now that that’s done, I want to talk for a few minutes about what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into. I mean, a film degree. Now? In this economy? A lot of you have friends and family in the audience, and I know they’re really happy for you. But secretly, they’re thinking, Jesus.

So what I’m going to say is as much for them as it is for you.

We call this “film school,” but really, that’s only for lack of a better term. You don’t really shoot much film. You don’t dip it in chemicals. You rarely touch it. Rather, what you do in a school like this is learn how to tell stories with words, pictures and sound.

And quite luckily, that’s what the world needs. Two examples.

A friend of mine writes for a major newspaper. And when she was done covering the presidential election, her bosses handed her a videocamera and told her that every piece she delivered now had to include a video component for the website. She needed to be able to shoot it, edit it and deliver it.

Another friend writes for a major magazine. In addition to her story assignments, she’s now required to come up with web features, like little Flash slideshows that can be easily monetized. She also finds herself suddenly on-camera, hosting arrivals at movie premieres, and dealing with all the requisite technical stuff.

There’s not a word for the kind of school that teaches you how to do all this. But the word that’s missing is probably a lot like film school. They send you out of here not to be a specialist, a cardiothoracic surgeon, but rather to be a generalist, a media MacGuyver.

You may think you’re going to be a screenwriter, a director or an editor, but the odds are you’ll be all of those things on different projects at different times.

The one thing you won’t be is an amateur. I want you to banish that word, because you need to treat everything you do from the moment you walk out the door as a professional. This is now your job.

That means doing your best work at all times, even when it doesn’t seem to matter. You may feel like you’re not getting graded. You are. It’s just that no one is telling you what score you got.

And let’s talk about your classmates. You probably have some good friends and some people you kind of hope to never see again. While you were in the program here, you had to rely on them. Your professors put you in teams. You got along, you fought, whatever. That doesn’t stop. No one makes a movie by himself. So if by next weekend, you’re not reading one of their scripts, or helping on something they’re shooting, something’s wrong. Trust me that five years from now, the most successful person in this class will be the one who worked the hardest for other people.

My last piece of advice is probably the one most likely to induce insomnia. Every night when you go to bed, ask yourself: What did you do today to get closer to your goals? That’s a hard question to ask. Feel free to beat yourself up, because no one else will anymore. That’s the best and worst thing about graduating — it’s the end of the systematic evaluation of your progress.

You need to stop wondering what you’re going to do, and focus on what you’re going to do next. Starting now. Congratulations, and good luck.