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Storytelling Rant | Jim Shooter Storytelling Lecture
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Storytelling Rant

JayJay here. In response to several comments about the state of storytelling in the business today, Jim wrote the following:

RE: Storytelling by artists.  Too many artists these days have no understanding of how to convey information — that is, how to do their part of telling the story.  Or they think it’s their job to make cool pictures and that’s all — explaining things is up to the writer — he or she can always add a caption or something.  Some of them have that attitude even when it’s a full script!  Or, they actively ignore what is called for and draw whatever the hell they want because they think story doesn’t matter.

Call for an establishing shot.  They give you a big head shot.  Tell them to draw figures in action.  It’s a mile away or cropped to the point that it’s meaningless.  Tell them to draw a close up.  They think it’s time to do a direct overhead shot of the room that mostly features the floor.  Give them ref, they ignore it and make something up.  Don’t give them ref and they complain.

Sigh.

In my scripts I tell the artists what they need to get across, provide reference, even throw in scribble sketches sometimes.  I plead with them to make everything clear at a glance.  I say things like:

“MAKE THIS SHOT SO CLEAR THAT IF YOU TOOK IT OUT OF CONTEXT AND SHOWED IT TO ANYONE IN THE WORLD THEY WOULD IMMEDIATELY UNDERSTAND EXACTLY WHAT IS HAPPENING.  Same with every shot, every time.  COMMUNICATE!  Or nothing else matters.”

And:

“If we took this panel out of context and showed it to anyone in the world, they should say, ‘There’s a pilot quickly getting into his seat in the cockpit of a jet and a Native American is running toward the jet just ahead of a dinosaur that’s chasing him.’  Clear at a glance.”

And:

“It doesn’t matter to me how you show this as long as anyone in the world, seeing this panel alone, out of context, would say, ‘The man in the red suit is firing energy beams that are destroying what appears to be a big computer.'”

And:

“Imagine you’re showing what you draw to 1000 people who have never seen a comic book before.  Make sure that every single one of them will understand, clearly, at a glance.”

Blah, blah, blah….  You get the drift.

Do they always listen?

I’ll take the fifth.  Dewar’s if you got it, neat.

RE: Continuity.  Continuity should be a good thing.  The problem isn’t necessarily continuity, except the kind of “continuity” abused by writers obsessed with ancient minutia, either trying to “fix” some tiny glitch that happened years ago, or reconcile some dusty detail with the current retcon, or base what passes for a story on some such flimsy foundation.  Continuity, even detailed continuity can be groovy, if it matters, if it is effortlessly understood.

Writers also have this “you’re supposed to know” attitude that appalls me.  I tried to read a Justice League (?) book a while back that started with a bunch of characters only some of whom were familiar to me.  None of them were introduced — most writers these days don’t know what that term means — and everyone was referred to by his or her civilian first name.  “Bruce” I got.  “Kal” I got.  Then the “Carters” were mentioned.  Who?  Later, halfway through, I remembered that Carter is Hawkman’s civilian last name.  Right?  Slogging through this thing wasn’t easy.  And I felt like I wasn’t in the club.  And when I was done, except for a nifty bit in the middle, I felt like it was a pretty thin read.  And confusing.  If I was a first time reader, I would have pitched the thing by page three and never bought another one.

Nifty bits.  These guys become stars because of occasional nifty bits.  Never mind that as a whole the thing is a Swedish movie with no subtitles starting in the middle and going nowhere.

P.S. The writers of Law and Order, a fairly sophisticated show, introduce characters.  I’ll bet other TV shows I’m less familiar with do, too.  Pretty much EVERY professional writer in EVERY medium introduces the characters.  Except in comics.  There are few movies I can’t make sense of, few TV shows I know of ever that were tough to decipher, few novels that I can’t read effotlessly.  But comics?  Too many are impenetrable.  Some you can figure out aren’t worth the bother.  And very once in a while, there’s a gem.  Far too infrequently.

Is anyone manning the helm?

One good thing — many of these writers don’t challenge the artists much.  Maybe they know better.  There’s fighting, consisting mostly of punching, rather than innovative, creative use of powers.  There’s grimacing — useful for swearing vengeance, anger, intensity.  All purpose grimacing.  There’s looking grim.  What else?  There’s being defeated, battered and bleeding, that’s a staple.  What else?  I don’t know.

But here’s one of the main issues, getting back to continuity: way too much of what’s done is DERIVATIVE.  Nothing new.  Iteration after iteration of the same old stuff.  Same villains again and again.  Same tired concepts rehashed.  Endless permutations of the base conceit — Rick Jones becomes the Hulk!  No, Betty does!  No, what could be more shocking than General Ross!  I know, Krypto!  Wait, this isn’t a crossover….

I’ll end the rant with a story:

Some years back, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I met Terry Stewart.  I didn’t have a stand, so my friend Wolfgang, head of a German comics publisher allowed me to use his stand as a base as I made my rounds.  I came into the office (most “stands,” or booths, have private offices) at one point to sit for a while and rest.  There was a guy there flirting with Heike, one of Wolfgang’s employees.  He wasn’t thrilled about being interrupted.  But then he noticed my name badge and introduced himself.  Terry Stewart, President of Marvel.

We talked for a while about various biz-related things.  Then, he said, words to the effect, “I feel like we’ve won the lottery two years in a row (with X-Men #1 the previous year and X-Factor that year).  You’re supposed to be the big comics guru.  What do I do next?”

I told him he’d done all the easy-money things.  Now Marvel was going to have to create something.

A parade of derivative stuff has come out from Marvel since.  I’m still waiting for something new from the “House of Idea.”

Here endeth the epistle.