advertisement
advertisement
  • 11.06.15

We Talked With Comics Who Write Comic Books To Find Out How And Why They Do That

Scott Aukerman, Taran Killam, Paul Scheer, and the hosts of The Flop House explain their path to writing comic books and how comedy fits in.

Despite the deceptive title, not too many comic books are comic in nature. That’s why aficionados often prefer to call them graphic novels, a phrase more reflective of the alternately grim and whiz-bang goings-on within. It might come as a surprise to some of these fans, though, that a lot of graphic novels are now being written by comedians.

advertisement

Deadpool, for instance, is the rare superhero who’s actually frequently funny. The book can count among its recent writers Jason Mantzoukas, the screenwriter and world-class improv performer, Brian Posehn, the stand-up and Mr. Show alumnus, and Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon staffer, Mike Drucker. The comedic talents of this group would seem to befit Deadpool‘s dirty one-liners, but perhaps there is something about the instincts of a professionally funny person that also complement the particular rhythms of telling a comic book story.

In order to find out, Co.Create recently spoke with Scott Aukerman, Taran Killam, Paul Scheer, and the hosts of The Flop House podcast, to talk about these comedians’s path to writing comic books, and whether with great comedic power comes great graphic novel responsibility.

Scott Aukerman

Since starting out his career on Mr. Show, Scott Aukerman has gone on to launch the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast and TV show, co-create Between Two Ferns, and write this year’s Emmy telecast, among other projects. He’s also written comic books like Secret Wars Journal and Deadpool.

History With Comic Books

Scott AukermanPhoto: Kyle Christy, courtesy of IFC

I started being fascinated with comic books at a very young age. My favorite thing was going to the drugstore and staring at the comic spinner rack, thinking about which one I was going to buy with my limited allowance. I gave up on them around 1990 or so–either I started getting too old, or the comics started getting too stupid. When I look back on ’90s comics, I think it was the latter. But when I shared an office at Mr. Show with Brian Posehn, he was still into them, so we would make trips to Golden Apple in Hollywood. I gradually started getting back into it, and have collected ever since. Now I have an entire room in my house devoted to my collection.

Ambitions To Write Them

advertisement

I used to draw when I was younger. I would write and draw my own characters that I created, and make comic books out of them. I eventually gave up drawing, but always thought I could maybe write.

When Writing Comics Became a Possibility

I’d been talking to a few companies about doing something that I created, but I never had time to pursue it. But when Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn, who had been writing Deadpool for Marvel, suggested I write a quick, five-page backup story, I leaped at the chance. And I guess I did a fair job on it (or maybe just the people at Marvel are Comedy Bang! Bang! fans), but they asked me to write the recent 10-page story for Secret Wars Journal #3.

What’s Different About Writing Comics

The main thing you have to look out for is breaking everything down into panels. You kind of have to “direct” the scene in a way that you don’t have to with a screenplay. I had read, before I started writing, that the most common rookie mistake is to have characters performing two actions within one panel. So, for instance, Spider-Man can’t jump off a rooftop, swing across the street and also punch Doc Ock in the same panel. You need to break it up into several. The thing I struggled most with, in these short stories, is trying to fit too much dialogue into a panel, and too many panels into a page. It can be difficult to tell a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and end, in that short amount of time.

Why Comic Minds Are Good With Comic Books

advertisement

In the first story I wrote, I did more of a comedy book, with lots of jokes per page. That stuff comes easy for me. But in the second story, I tried to do something with a little more emotional resonance. That’s the kind of thing I’m more interested in writing–and reading!–so it took a bit more thought.

How Comic Books Helped With Comedy

In comic books, anything can happen as long as it grabs the audience’s attention. I try to harness the kind of imagination and emotions that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee had when they were creating the Marvel Universe when I’m writing comedy too.

Taran Killam

This season marks Taran Killam’s sixth on Saturday Night Live, making him a seasoned veteran considering all the retooling the cast has undergone in the last two years. While he’d appeared in movies before starting on SNL and MadTV before that, he’s recently been featured in more prominent movies such as The Heat, 12 Years a Slave (???), and next year’s The Runaround. He also created the comic book, The Illegitimates, which follows all of James Bond’s out-of-wedlock children, for IDW.

History With Comic Books

The earliest years of my life, comic books were stocking stuffers that I’d read casually on Christmas and forget about. But the Jim Lee/Chris Claremont X-Men in ’91 is what made me an issue-to-issue fan. Then in high school, I went away from them for a bit until Marvel launched the Ultimate Universe and I got back on the train.

advertisement

Ambitions To Write Them

The stories I tend to be passionate about are usually bigger concept, genre adventures. I always wanted to write movies but when Bryan Singer’s X-Men came out, that was the first moment I conceived a professional crossover in both formats. Titles like Brian K Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man and Bill Willingham’s Fables inspired me and my desire to write comics.

When Writing Comics Became a Possibility

Marc Andreyko, who I write Illegitimates with, has been writing for years and we became friends about a decade ago. My relationship with him was a huge influence on wanting to dip my toes into the comic book world. I pitched him Illegitimates probably four or five years before we even started to write it. The opportunities Saturday Night Live has presented me are what made me decide to produce the first arc. That and a chance meeting with Mike Marts on an NYC subway. We swapped info and he was instrumental in helping me put together the creative team.

What’s Different About Writing Comics

It’s telling a story with static visuals. Often when I’m writing, I’m doing so for something I’ll eventually perform. So on the page it might not read as dynamic without the inflection of my voice or execution of movement. So you have to be incredibly efficient with action. And thank goodness for our artist, Kevin Sharpe, who would add so much to every panel we’d describe.

Why Comic Minds Are Good With Comic Books

advertisement

Both comic books and comedy have a lot to do with surprise. And also the turn. In comedy, a great turn is what often causes laughter; in comics, there’s the literal turn of the page. So you end a panel with the set up and hopefully you deliver on the payoff, very similar to a punchline.

How Comic Books Helped With Comedy

It absolutely has informed all my writing, especially in terms of efficiency. Get to the point. Cut as quickly and clearly as you can to the meat of the story. The moments that matter and move the story forward. And also how you can say so much with slight visuals. I think in my earliest writing, I had a tendency to over-explain or lay heavy into exposition. But a character’s posture or placement of an object, something very simple and clean can help your story more often than three pages of dialogue. And that’s most necessary in writing comics. You know, that famous saying, a pictures worth 3,000 dollars? Or something like that. I’m not good with sayings.

The Flop House (Elliott Kalan, Dan McCoy, and Stuart Wellington)

The Flop House is a biweekly podcast that hilariously picks apart little-loved recent films. Recently, the three hosts collaborated on a Flash Gordon Omnibus comic, and former head writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Kalan, has also written many titles for Marvel.

History With Comic Books

Elliott Kalan: I’ve been reading comic books for as long as I can remember and reading superhero comics regularly since 1992. As a kid I considered superhero comics “too violent” for me, but when I realized it was just punching and laser guns, I saw I’d been missing out on something amazing.
Dan McCoy: I was more into underground comics growing up, like Dan Clowes’ Eightball or Peter Bagge’s Hate. I also loved reprints of old comics like the EC Tales From The Crypt, or Carl Barks’ Disney duck comics (I’m always a bit embarrassed mentioning the last one, but comics aficionados know how sophisticated those duck comics were.)
Stuart Wellington: I started in junior high, mainly with Marvel and Image. Then I moved over to indie comics in high school. When I went away to college, I used to meet my comics dealer in his car in the parking lot of my dorm, because there were no shops in that small Indiana town.

Elliot Kalan, Dan McCoy, Stuart Wellington

Ambitions To Write Them

advertisement

EK: I went through the traditional kid experience of wanting to write and draw my own comics, realizing that I’m not a good enough artist, and transitioning to writing.
DM: I did a lot of cartooning earlier in my life, but I focused on short gag stuff. In high school I was the editorial cartoonist for the local paper, and I did a Doonsbury-like strip all four years of college. But I never thought about writing comic books.
SW: Writing and drawing comics was my principle hobby in college and for a year or so after. They were weird little comedy-horror stories. Never dreamed I’d actually get something published, though.

When Writing Comics Became a Possibility

EK: In 2009, I was introduced to Tom Brennan, then an editor at Marvel, through Wyatt Cenac who Tom had hired to write a story for an anthology book. I accompanied Wyatt to an episode of the Comic Book Club show at The PIT [a New York comedy theater] and pitched a story onstage about the eskimos who discovered frozen Captain America. Tom later got in touch and hired me to write it for a totally different anthology book.
DM: You’d think that I would’ve gotten approached from my work writing for The Daily Show, but I was actually approached through my podcast, The Flop House. I think it’s because (although it’s a movie podcast) we talk about comics a lot on the show, and it’s clear we’re all fans.
SW: It didn’t hit me that our book was actually getting made until I started seeing the artists pages start showing up in my email.

What’s Different About Writing Comics

DM: you need to think visually for comics, even more than when you’re writing a screenplay, where you really only get into visual specifics when they’re key to the narrative. (Although — unless you’re Alan Moore — you also leave a lot of space for the artist to interpret and run wild.)
EK: It was great to flex the muscles of getting into the mind of a character and seeing how they would react to a situation. And writing dialogue that will be read is a different thing than writing dialogue that will be heard. You can’t take emphasis or delivery for granted, it’s got to be a lot clearer.
SW: A big part of a comic script is considering not just dialogue and individual panels, but how those panels are going to be laid out on a page. In my other writing I rarely have to think in such visual terms.

Why Comic Minds Are Good With Comic Books

DM: Pretty much any narrative is livened by a well-timed joke, but also — comedy is about all about structure. A gag can be great, but if the words aren’t perfectly turned, and the set-up and payoff aren’t positioned just right, it doesn’t work. You can apply that same structural skill to comics writing, and timing the sequences of the panels for maximum effect.
EK: Comedy is all about working out an idea through precise timing, with stops to allow the audience to laugh. Writing jokes that rely on pauses, phrasing, and momentum develops similar skills to writing comics that rely on the rhythm of panels, pages, and word balloons. And I’ve found that timing out how many panels a scene will require and what moment in time to choose to present in each panel can be the most fun part of writing comics (for me, at least).
SW: Part of what makes comics work are the little mental leaps the reader has to make between panels. The reader reads panel A, then panel B and makes the cognitive leap to bridge what’s happening in the two panels. When structuring a joke, I think comedians also have to know how to get the audience to point B from point A, and how to get the biggest payoff.

advertisement

How Comic Books Helped With Comedy

DM: I learned a lot from reading classic newspaper strips, whether it be the dialect humor of Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” or the existential strangeness of George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat,” or the deadpan goofiness of E.C. Segar’s “Popeye,” or the bittersweet sadness of Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts.”
EK: Partly just in providing a frame of reference that I can go to for funny ideas, and pointing out the absurdity of the goofy fictional superhero universes is good practice for pointing out the absurdities of the goofy real universe we live in.
SW: I feel like the biggest comic influence on the podcast for me would be Evan Dorkin’s Eltingville Club strips. Those basically serve as a template for pop culture reference comedy.

Paul Scheer

You’ve seen Paul Scheer in a bunch of movies and shows, and you may have heard him on his podcast How Did This Get Made? or seen his recent comedy special, Crash Test, but the comedian is also a prolific writer of comic books. Starting with Aliens vs. Parker, which he cowrote with Nick Giovannetti, Scheer has since gone on to write a Deadpool biannual, and several other Marvel titles.

Ambitions To Write Comics

I’ve been a comic book fan for a long time, but I only thought of actually working them after I’d written this certain screenplay and hit a wall. Everybody I talked to was, like, “Oh, that’s too expensive. You can’t do a space movie. You’re never gonna be able to make it.” And I come from this background where I’ve been lucky that most of my ideas I’ve been able to execute on some level, or at least there’s some movement. And it just felt weird that I could write this script and it would just die on the shelf. So I thought maybe I could do it as a comic book instead.

When Did That Seem Possible

I met with the guys at Boom!, which is very much the independent world of comic books. They were awesome. They liked the idea and they agreed to support me and get an artist for the book. It was a really fun experience translating the screenplay into a comic.

advertisement

What’s Different About Writing Comics

Anything that I’ve ever done, you write it and then you hear back and rewrite it a little bit and it’s actually better. And then you cast people in it and then you maybe improvise a little bit on set and it gets even better. And then you edit it and then it’s changing again and then it’s the final product. With comics, it’s like you’re writing, acting, directing ,and producing. You’re kinda seeing it all in one moment and creating this finished product. But I like that idea. And what I specifically like is Nick and I have figured out this system where when we get the first pass of the word balloons, which is the very last pass, we do a lot of rewriting. Because at that point you’re finally reading it like you’re reading any other comic book.

Paul Scheer

We’ve learned what we need to tell a story to get the artist to do it, and what they bring to your stuff too. Like, “You don’t need these two panels, you need this.” And so it’s always a collaboration but then when you get to that end, that’s always the most fun ’cause then you’re just kind of writing dialogue for these amazing storyboards. You can hit jokes better. We do a lot of jokes in our books so it’s like “How do you get that joke to read?” If you put it all in one bubble it may not hit as much as it can. You want to kind of make the audience surprised, and so you have to figure out how to do that without shots and angles.

What I love about doing these Marvel books is it’s exactly what I never have the option to do, which is work with the biggest budget imaginable, get to do everything I want. Like everything that I do in my career, TV and film and stuff, the question is always, how can we bring down that budget? So it’s figuring out how to compromise your vision to what you can afford. And comic books allow you to blow it out. When we wrote Alien Vs. Parker we’re doing like aliens and space fights and you have this limitless palette. So getting to explore a voice I never really have access to because you can also have the scope of something so big feels like writing a hundred million dollar movie. So as a comedy writer, it lets me make all those movies I love to watch in the theatre but usually never can make myself.

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

More

Video