BY JAMES BRADLEY
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ZOE SADOKIERSKI
I’ve given up reading superhero comics three times. The first time was when I finished primary school in 1979. Until then I’d been an enthusiastic consumer of the black and white reprints of DC and Marvel comics produced by Australia’s Planet and Newton Comics, but as I prepared for high school I decided it was time to give my-then favourites Green Arrow and the original X-Men away in favour of interests more in synch with my newfound maturity. Of course it didn’t stick. A little over a year later, in 1981, I started reading them again. My parents’ marriage had just ended, I was thirteen, overweight, desperately lonely and flunking out at school, so I’m sure it was at least partly about comfort, about returning to something I understood, and which repaid the sort of emotional energy I invested in them by providing me with a sprawling, endlessly evolving and richly imaginative world to explore.
I tried again in my final year of high school. This time it was little more than an interregnum, a blip of a few months, meaning that by the time I started university I was back on the drip.
Somewhere during the decade and a half that followed I pretty much stopped reading mainstream superhero comics, transitioning to the sorts of titles DC was producing through its Vertigo imprint, although if the truth be told my happiest moments often involved moments like the appearance of the original Sandman, Wesley Dodds, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, or revisionist riffs on the superhero like Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol.
But by the time I was in my early 30s I’d had enough. Most of the titles I read had petered out, and given it was the dark days of the mid-1990s, there wasn’t much new that appealed to me, so when the final issue of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles appeared I decided to draw a line under my life as a comic nerd.
Yet as Renton famously observes in Trainspotting, there are last hits and there are last hits. And, as the years passed, I discovered I couldn’t stay away. At first it was just the occasional deniable dalliance, but slowly my habit started to get more serious again, a process that has only accelerated in the past few years by the instant fix of digital comics.
Alan Moore often seems to take a little more pleasure in annoying mainstream comics audiences than is really seemly, but I suspect his recent comments about superhero comics being a form aimed at boys of 9-13 which have somehow become the preserve of 30, 40 and 50-something men are pretty much on the money. Yet my love of comics – and superhero comics in particular – isn’t just about wish-fulfilment or the need to keep returning to the things that delighted me as a child or the slightly nerdish delight associated with an awareness of sprawling continuities that stretch back decades (in her excellent study of superhero comics, Superheroes, the critic Roz Kaveney observes correctly that the Marvel and DC universes represent the largest narrative constructions ever created).
Instead it’s something deeper, a sense that the four-colour world of the superhero and its often archetypal contours capture something essential about the secret selves and internal paradoxes we all bear within us, that the characters themselves possess a sort of poetry and pathos that is recaptured each time Daredevil somersaults across the rooftops or Reed Richard’s latest attempt to undo Ben Grimm’s transformation into the Thing comes unravelled, and that the best of the characters are sufficiently protean to continue to surprise and delight decades after they were created.
Given how much time I’ve spent reading them, it’s possibly surprising I’d never thought about writing them until comparatively recently. That’s probably partly because I can’t draw, but it’s also at least partly a function of the fact that the places comics – or at least the comics I’ve always been interested in – are created are a long way from Sydney, so it never seemed like a realistic ambition.
In recent years that’s changed a bit: although I’ve never actually tried writing them I’ve certainly thought a bit about the logistics of how it might be done, and fooled around with ideas for a few projects that weren’t quite comics but certainly involved illustrators.
All of which meant that when I was approached by if:book Australia and asked whether I had an idea for a project that would take me out of my comfort zone I replied almost immediately that if they were interested I’d love to write a comic.
As is often the case with me I quickly realised I hadn’t really thought through what I was taking on. To begin with there was the question of the art: although I know a few people who write comics, most of them create their own material from the ground up, and I couldn’t imagine they were likely to be interested in working with me. And even if they were, I wasn’t sure their styles necessarily meshed with what I wanted to do.
Then there was the rather large problem of what exactly I intended to write. Although when I had initially agreed to be a part of the project I’d been thinking that perhaps I could write a graphic novel of some sort, it didn’t take long for me to realise that simply wasn’t feasible, partly because it was far too much work to ask an artist to take on without an existing relationship, partly because I was already so committed I couldn’t imagine where I’d find the time.
In the end I solved the first question by approaching the artist Zoe Sadokierski, who I had met at a graphic storytelling event in Melbourne a few years back. I didn’t know Zoe well, but I knew and loved her work, both as a cover designer and as an illustrator, and having heard her speak about comics in front of an audience I had enormous respect for her intelligence.
Zoe was surprisingly receptive to the idea, and we quickly agreed I’d write a script for a twelve page comic, but with an artist lined up the second question only became more pressing. Part of the reason I’d approached Zoe was because my initial idea was for a comic about a single mother addicted to an alien opiate which I thought would make perfect use of her gorgeously sinuous style of paint and ink, but the more I thought about that idea the more it was clear to me it was a story that needed considerably more than twelve pages to work properly.
The solution lay in a short story called ‘The Death of Negative Man’ I’d been working on for a while. As with a lot of the things I write it had started with a couple of images – in this case that of a geriatric superhero in a nursing home and the idea of flight and of what it might mean to lose it – but as I’d worked on it the story had grown into something rather more complex about what it might be like to be transformed into something more than human.
Although I’d never finished the story the sections I’d written had deliberately played with the tropes of the Silver Age superhero comics I’ve always loved, complete with references to characters recognisable as the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, but it had also tried to take them and resituate them in a more naturalistic contemporary setting, as this passage from an early draft suggests:
“I met them, all of them: Stark, the Four, the Spider. There are things they never tell you about them. Like the size of Grimm, the inhuman scale of him, the way the ground would literally shake as he approached. Or that Storm had this thing, like movie stars have, this beauty. It wasn’t about the flames but when he was in the room everything seemed hotter, more exciting, and when he spoke you shivered inside.
I never liked Richards. Some people said it was the power that made people uneasy, but although there was something queasy and sick-making about the stretching it wasn’t that, it was Richards himself. He was supposed to be one of the good guys but he wasn’t. Even when you were with him you could feel the way he was watching you, feel the cold appraisal, the ambition. They said they were a family, but they weren’t, people like him don’t have families. I once read a piece in the Times, about his private tragedy and the search for a cure for Grimm, but I never bought that. Grimm embarrassed him, that was all, made him look bad.”
Now it was supposed to be a comic those connections needed to be both more obvious and less explicit. While I thought I could get away with including recognisable characters in the background of a short story I was pretty sure I couldn’t in a comic. But by the same token I suddenly had the visual language necessary to make the connection available to me (or at least to Zoe). More importantly though I knew I needed to find the emotional core of the story, to understand what it was I was really writing about, something I’d never really been able to resolve when writing the story, and which was the real reason I’d never managed to finish it in that form.
With these things in mind I began the process of turning the story into a script. I already knew there were two basic formats for comic scripts. The first is the more formal format usually known as a full script, which breaks the action down in a very concrete way, specifying not just dialogue and sound-effects, but also the detail of the panels and pictures.
The other, developed by Stan Lee in the early days of Marvel Comics and known as the Marvel method, is a less prescriptive format, in which the writer supplies a script outline, usually with dialogue, and leaves the artist to do the work of transforming it into a visual narrative.
There are obvious advantages to the Marvel method, in particular the way it emphasises the role of the artist as a full co-creator rather than some kind of artistic amanuensis. No matter how good a writer is the odds are the artist they’re working with will have a much better idea of how to organise information visually. Yet nor is it without its problems, as the longstanding and acrimonious disputes between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko over exactly who was responsible for creating characters like the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man demonstrate.
I wasn’t troubled by these sorts of questions: it seemed to me that if I was collaborating I was collaborating, and I was more than happy to trust Zoe to do her thing. But I was uneasy about the idea of transferring to much of the burden of the writing to her, especially given neither of us was getting paid. And, although it was a less important consideration, I was also concerned about whether I would be able to pin down the story if I didn’t try and shape it in some direct way.
In the end I opted for a version of full script in which I specified the number of panels and gave some direction about what they contained, but simultaneously I made it very clear to Zoe that I was happy for her to make any changes she thought would improve the flow or coherence of the story.
Perhaps naively I had assumed the scripting process would be a bit like writing for the screen. Yet as quickly realised it was completely different. With a film one describes scenes and writes dialogue, a process that requires one to think visually. Writing a comic by contrast requires you to think graphically, a process that involves much more than imagining what needs to go inside the panels. Instead you need to think through questions about how many panels will fit on a page, about what moments require splashes, and even, as I quickly realised, how the story can be broken down in a way that allows it to be organised within the pages available.
Worse yet, these questions all interact. Breaking the story down into pages is difficult enough, but what if the big moment that gets a half page or a page to itself breaks over a page rather than across a spread as you need it to? What if one of the sections requires more panels than you can fit within its allocated space, or you end up with whole pages of dialogue?
I suspect these problems are amplified for somebody like me who is used to the relative freedom of novels and short stories. Even at their densest comics are a surprisingly spare form linguistically, their language essentially gestural. So while brevity and concision always matter, they are an imperative in a comic.
There is also the question of how to tell the story, especially when it is one that covers an entire life like the one I wanted to tell. In film and television voiceovers are almost always seen as a sort of failure, a sign the script produced is not able to tell its own story; in comics they’re more common, but as I quickly discovered, they’re also a trap, overwhelming the capacity of the art and dialogue to tell the story in their own right. After all, why do the heavy lifting of trying to make a scene tell its own story when the voiceover can just drop in and explain it for you?
At least initially these problems were almost overwhelming: I could feel how stiff and over-directed the script I was writing was. I was painfully aware of the way the thing only ever came to life when my narrator shut up and let the characters speak for themselves. Yet as I went on I began to try other techniques, the most successful of which was to write the dialogue first and only then try to supplement it with description and narration.
As with any project the real story only emerged in the course of the writing, the concerns I’d started with largely falling away, to be replaced by a subtly different story about a man and the ways love can get mixed-up and come unstuck. There was still too much voiceover for my liking, but it was loosening up, and, finally, particularly in the final pages, hitting the emotional notes I wanted.
Once the draft was finished I sent it off to Zoe, and a few weeks later we met to discuss it. Inspired our mutual affection for the work of Dave McKean and the deliberate edge of pastiche in the early pages (amongst other things I’d created a cast of superheros and supervillains with names like Solaris and Nightman and the Human Bomb) she suggested using collage to create some of the super-powered characters, a technique that would help delineate the boundaries between Negative Man’s life as a superhero and his ordinary life.
Although I’d deliberately tried not to avoid approaching the meeting with Zoe with preconceived ideas about what the comic should look like her suggestion was still a long way from the sorts of art I’d been imagining. Yet I could see immediately how many possibilities it offered, especially when combined with the idea of using actual photographic negatives to portray Negative Man and a mixture of ink and other media for the other sections. And equally importantly I could see the way it offered Zoe a line of connection between her work as a designer and artist and the work she was doing on the comic.
As I write this I’m still waiting to see the finished version of Zoe’s art and, perhaps just as importantly, to assess how well my script has translated to the page. But for now I’m mostly thrilled to have experienced the way a good artist is capable of taking an idea extending it in ways I’d not even imagined.
And, equally importantly, I’m excited to have had the chance to try and write my own version of a form I’ve been reading for almost 40 years, and to have been forced to begin to get to grips not just with some of its challenges but also its possibilities.
Would I do it again? Hell, yeah. In fact I’m already working on some ideas. One is for a sort of omnibus of short stories with supernatural themes, an updated version of the horror comics of the 1950s if you will. The other two are both full-length projects, one based on my original idea for a story about a woman addicted to an alien drug, the other a fantasy story aimed at teenage readers. But in all cases they’re stories which I’ve chosen because they seem to lend themselves to a graphic format rather than prose. Now all I need is an artist …
Illustrations by Zoe Sadokierski: covers from Tales from the Tower Anthologies and 'The Marmoset of Mediocrity', 2012.
James Bradley is a writer and critic. His books include three novels, Wrack, The Deep Field, and The Resurrectionist, all of which have won or been shortlisted for major Australian and international Awards. In 2012, he won the Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year. He blogs at cityoftongues.com.
Zoe Sadokierski has won multiple Australian Book Design Awards for her work. She lectures in the School of Design at the University of Technology Sydney.