From Page to Panel, Part One

A couple of weeks back, I attended my first Baltimore Comic-Con. It clocked in at around 15,000 people, and unlike the bigger Comic-Cons (NYCC or PHXCC) that I’ve attended, Baltimore was still very much focused on comics.

After two days of panels, browsing, meeting creators, and loading my bags down with glorious comics goodness, I should have expected this to happen.

Sometime during the weekend, I was bitten by a radioactive comics bug. It re-awakened my often-deferred interest in writing for the form.

I grew up reading comics, taking the change from our recycling deposits down to the friendly local comic shop in Brooklyn to buy the latest issue of Spider-Man, Batman, or X-Men. I’ve tried my hand at writing comics scripts only a little bit, but often thought about what it’d take to move into that form.

Now, let me be clear that I have no intentions of leaving prose writing. That’s my home base, and I’m not likely to ever stop writing prose. But more and more, I see writers crossing formats, including several of my writing idols (Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Greg Rucka, among others).

Therefore, the last couple of weeks, I’ve been devouring comics, deepening my immersion in the form, investigating what’s going on at the top of the form with the works that are making waves and pushing at the edges of what the form can and is doing.

Here’s a representative sample of my research list:

  • Saga (Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples)
  • The Wicked + the Divine (Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie)
  • Batwoman (JH Williams III and W. Haden Blackman)
  • Lumberjanes (Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, and Brooke Allen)
  • Gotham Central (Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark)
  • Rat Queens (Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch)
  • Ms. Marvel (G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
  • Velvet (Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting)
  • Lazarus (Greg Rucka and Michael Lark)
  • Global Frequency (Warren Ellis and various artists)
  • Chew (John Layman and Rob Guillory)
  • Atomic Robo (Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener)

I’ve also been diving into some craft books, and revisiting some others I’ve already read:

  • Words for Pictures – Brian Michael Bendis
  • Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels – Peter David
  • Understanding Comics – Scott McCloud
  • Making Comics – Scott McCloud
  • Save the Cat – Blake Snyder

Lessons learned so far


One of the best things I did in trying to deepen my understanding of the differences between writing prose and writing for comics was to open my copy of Saga Vol. 1 and transcribe the finished comic back into a script, trying to capture the visuals, emotion, and to see how much text fit on the page.

Saga, Issue #1 page 1. From Image Comics. (C) Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples


Script != Finished Page != Script

The biggest challenge I’ve faced so far coming to comics writing is that the finished product is drastically different from the working document that a comics writer will produce. When learning prose writing, you can look at a piece of fiction and see the final draft as the actual product. But in comics, there’s so much of a collaboration and melding of the styles and skills of several creators (sometimes as many as six: writer, penciler, inker, colorist, letterer, editor, graphic designer) that a writer’s script is only one part of the equation. For me, that makes it harder to tease out where my part is, especially writing without having yet found any collaborators. I want to write some scripts and see how well my novelist chops translate before trying to make finished comics, and then start reaching out when I’m confident that I’ve learned the comics form well enough to start making professional works.

Basically, It’s Writer Multi-Classing

I’ve written seven novels (two of which are trunked, never to be seen again), and a long novella, as well as a couple dozen short stories. In D&D terms, I’m somewhere in the 3-5th level in terms of my Prose Writer class. But this, this is taking a new class – Comics Writer. There are different skills, different class abilities, and a whole power tree of collaboration powers for when you’re in a party with other comics creators. So while my overall Writer level combines my Prose Writer and Comics Writer levels (like a Wizard taking a level of a prestige class), my Comics Writer level is still 1 right now, so there’s a weird feeling of starting over, of going back to square one. I know a lot about storytelling, but the format, the medium is very different, and I’m having to learn to adjust to it, just like I adjusted from storytelling in RPGs to storytelling in prose.

Choosing Your Moment

Since the comics form is one where moments (panels) are compressed into a fluid narrative experience by the reader, one of the most important tasks for a creator is to chose your moments, to pick which snapshot in the action to depict in a panel, as well as how to space out your moments – several panels showing moments very close together, or jumping farther in time between panels. This is not unlike the task of scene selection in prose writing, or picking where to dramatize within a scene, but it’s very much its own thing in comics.

The Business End

I work in SF/F prose publishing. I’ve been learning about the trade publishing industry, and SF/F prose publishing in specific, for around a decade. It has certain processes, customs, and paths to publication.

Comics, unsurprisingly, is different. I’ve asked questions about submission and breaking in to creators and publisher staffers at the various comic-cons I’ve attended, and I’ve received incredibly divergent answers.

Here’s how to break in, as I’ve been told:

  • Self-publish your own works and the editors will find you.
  • Send everything you make to the editors you want to work with.
  • Pay an artist to do a whole graphic novel and then try to sell it to publishers.
  • Pitch editors with ideas and then they’ll ask for scripts. Then they’ll find you an artist.
  • Submit a complete 8-page comic.
  • Submit a full 22-page comic.
  • Self-publish for a while and then try to pitch a new project to publishers.
  • Look for comics anthology invites and start there.

As you might be able to tell, that’s a fair range. The fact that I have several novels out from traditional publishers changes the game for me somewhat, but it doesn’t give me one clear path to publication. In prose publishing, you can query agents, who then pitch to editors. There are other paths as well, but this is the ‘standard’ path. Comics doesn’t seem to have as clear a ‘standard’ path to publication. (Note that the standard path in prose publishing is often anything but easy. But it is the default, one that takes an unpublished debut work and then gets it sold to a publisher).

As you’ll note, this post says ‘Part One.’ I’ll keep talking about my experiences moving into comics writing, both to remember what the process was like, and to (hopefully) cast some light on the journey for other writers interested in moving into comics, either from a prose background or not.

SF Squeecast

Earlier this month, I had the sublime fortune of being a guest on the Hugo-Award-Winning SF Squeecast, joining Seanan McGuire, Paul Cornell, Lynne Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas.

We talked about expectations, how expectations influence the way we experience content, how we squee, and how publishers/creators set expectations about their work.

Then, at the end, they ask me their standard questions, which are comedic and serious by turn.

It was a fantastic time, and I’m very grateful to the SF Squeecast team for having me on.

Seeking Recommendations: Books like The Blacklist

Watching The Blacklist yesterday, I was reminded of how much I like the show, and how it hits me right in a crime fiction sweet spot.

To that end, I asked Twitter and Facebook for recommendations of crime novels that would give me the same kinds of cool as NBC’s The Blacklist.

Some recommendations so far:

Ghostman by Roger Hobbs
The Travis McGee series by John D McDonald

Any other recs? I’m reading up on the crime genre to strengthen my fu for Exhibit A, and because it’s fun.

Help me, internet! Add to my already-gigantic To-Be-Read pile! 🙂

Monday Morning Link Salad

A few cool things happened over this last week, so I’ve assembled them here for public consumption:

KristinD at Bitten By Books gave Attack the Geek 4/5 stars

Mick Happy Reviews gave Geekomancy 4/5 stars


The Shoot the WISB team (myself included) discussed the original 1954 Godzilla

And in case you missed it back on March 7th, I announced that there will be a third Ree Reyes novel: Hexomancy, in 2015.

Comic Talk

With the DC New 52, I decided to get back into comics-buying on a regular basis.  For the last few years, I’d been only following a few series, mostly ones put out by my company’s client publishers.  This meant I read Dark Horse, Image, IDW and a few other publishers’ series, but not much more.  I grew up reading comics, though, and I kind of missed it, especially getting to geek out with friends about comics on a regular basis.

So, I took the plunge and subscribed to a handful of New DC comics, as well as nibbling around the edges of a few other series and titles (Marvel’s Generation Hope, X-Men Schism, and now ReGenesis).

My favorite of the new DC series are:

Action Comics:  This is a huge callback to the very first version of Superman, where he was a one-man new deal, taking on robber barons and corrupt officials.  I find this extra-resonant considering the economic climate and the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  It’s nice to have Superman in tune with contemporary political sentiment, and to have him be pro-active and revolutionary rather than a staid defender of the status quo.

Batwoman: This series has gotten less reboot than many others, mostly due to the fact that the character is pretty new.  I highly recommend the first Batwoman trade, Elegy, which seems to be entirely preserved in the New DC.  The new series gives Batwoman a sidekick and puts her in opposition with most everyone else in Gotham, pursuing her own agenda.  The art here (by J.H. Williams III) is phenominal, and pretty much worth buying by itself.

Animal Man: I am really liking this one, though it feels more like a Vertigo title than a straight-up DC title.   The importance of Buddy’s family is pushing this title over the top for me, along with the striking art style.  This is a series you could read pretty well independent of the rest of the DCU and probably be happy.  Special shout-out-recommendation to old Vertigo readers or Sandman fans.

Batgirl:  Barbara Gordon resuming the mantle of Batgirl ruffled a lot of feathers, since as Oracle she was a rare differently-abled/disabled (pick your term) superheroine.  Barbara was crippled in the classic story arc of Batman: The Killing Joke, and in the New DC, she has gone through physical therapy and resumed the mantle of Batgirl.  Simone’s writing here is solid, and the art by Adrian Syaf is well-done, corresponding with the ‘superhero costumers are armor’ paradigm.

Demon Knights:  This is a straight-up action-adventure/sword & sorcery comic starring magic/occult heroes from DC that would have been around in a medieval setting.  Aside from the actual D&D comic, it is the D&D comic.

More to come later.  The problem with reading individual issues again is that it is a lot more expensive than buying trades.  After the first arcs of these DC reboots, I’m likely to subscribe to the trades and back off my weekly purchases to save some $.  But right now, I really enjoy having my weekly pilgrimages to the nerdery.

WisCon — Changing Science Fiction With Bake Sales

This weekend, I became a member of the Secret Feminist Cabal, with insidious plans to take over the world and indoctrinate the masses…with Feminism.

I’d been hearing about the awesomeness of WisCon for years, from writer friends, scholar friends, and complete strangers.  I intended to go last year, but plans fell through.

This year, I made it a priority and finally reached the nerdy casual halls of the Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club in Madison, WI.  I flew directly from having been in NYC for a week (working, including BEA), so I had a wicked-overpacked bag.  We had a six-hour delay getting out of LaGuardia, and I was very happy to have my various gadgets and some books on hand for distraction.

I could spend quite a long time talking about how awesome WisCon is, but I think I will start with a bullet point approach.

  • Starting off the convention with a writing workshop, getting great feedback on the opening of Shield & Crocus.
  • Getting to see friends from far away, catching up with @Teleidoplex, @futuransky, @DougHulick, @CassieY4, @creature57, @rachelswirsky and many others
  • A convention where the default level of discourse is high enough that when I ramble about the ideological implications of semiotic paradigms, people nod instead of making confused or annoyed faces
  • Bake Sales for Activism
  • A riotous auction filled with communitas
  • Great readings from brilliant writers.
  • Meeting several of my authors (for Night Shade Books and Prime Books)
  • Acquiring several books and only having to pay for two.
  • Discovering delicious food in downtown Madison, from tapas to pizza to Himalayan food
  • My awesome roommates @Keffy and EJ — we all worked excellently together and helped me have a Con Posse despite never having been to WisCon
  • Rar and Squee in various amounts across the weekend, with cutting critiques and effusive praise
WisCon has been going on for thirty-five years, and as such, has an incredible amount of history, in-jokes, and a lovingly-curated feel of inclusiveness, plurality of voice and perspective.  Unlike pretty much any other convention I’ve ever been to, the gender balance was possibly up to 2:1 women:men — making for a very different feel.
I’m excited to attend again next year, and I’d love to be able to do a reading (especially if I have more sales by then).  I think WisCon and World Fantasy are a great pairing of conventions for me, one more formal and ‘professional’, the other more informal and more academic.  If possible, I’d like to hit even more conventions, but that will come down to budgeting and time negotiation between the SCA and writing conventions.
Next post:  Week One with my HTC Flyer.

Re-Launch — Now “Geek Theory”

I’ve decided to re-vise, re-name, and re-launch this blog as “Geek Theory.”

Since I’ve been focusing more on my fiction and my ambitions as a writer of speculative fiction, I’m re-branding this WordPress blog as my personal-professional blog, talking about writing, my life as an independent publishers’ book rep, and other fun things.  There will be far fewer reviews and essays, and they’ll be in a more personal tone, rather than my pop-academic tone from before.

First up — a summary post on the awesome that was WisCon 35.

Glee = Win

FOX’s new offering Glee debuted a pilot episode earlier in the year and made it available online throughout the summer, and responded to initial positive responses with a very strong and pervasive advertising campaign which continues even now.

It’s impressive to think that a weekly musical television show could get this positive a response, but there are a lot of reasons to love the show.

1) If you are a musical theatre fan, the chance to see it on network primetime is inspiring and delightful.

2) If you aren’t a musical theatre fan, the show offers constant laughs with compelling laughs.

3) Jane Lynch portrays the shows main antagonist, the coach of the national-attention-winning cheerleading team (aka the Cheerios).  Lynch is given reign to cut loose and portray a vicious competitive scheming selfish heel of a character — and she revels in it.  Lynch’s Coach Sylvester is one of the strongest parts of the show.

4) The way that the musical numbers are integrated into the show are mostly diegetic, given the focus on a glee club, but there are some breakout fantasy numbers, such as “Bust Your Windows” when diva-licious Mercedes is rejected by the fashion-forward Kurt, or head Cheerio Quinn’s crazy-go-nuts anthem railing against her treatment by her boyfriend and others in general

5) The showrunners and writers keep on finding new ways of eliciting laughter and delight from the audience.   Last week, we had Jane Lynch in a zoot suit, “I Could Have Danced All Night” sung in a dress shop by the adorable Jayma Mays while dancing, and the glorious Slushee War.

6) The show’s musical selection ranges from classic rock “Don’t Stop Believing” to contemporary hip-hop “Gold Digger” and a strong but not overwhelming sampling of musical theatre numbers such as “Maybe This Time” and “Tonight.”  Upcoming numbers include “Defying Gravity” from Wicked (not the TV show by the same name — that’s another blog post).

7) Characters originally introduced in an antagonistic role are frequently fleshed out into sympathetic characters, including head cheerio Quinn, coach Tanaka, football bully “Puck”, Will’s wife Terri, and even the dread Sue Sylvester has her pensive moments.  Few characters are universally good or universally villainous — our protagonists are flawed, lie and cheat for understandable if misguided reasons, and generally act like high schoolers — even the adults.

8) Despite this ambiguity, it’s very hard not to root for the Glee kids, and most see the dissolution of Will’s marriage as an inevitable precursor to the more-inevitable union of charming Glee coach Will and adorably OCD guidance counselor Emma.

It’s Both Good and Popular!  Amazing!

There are more reasons to love the show, and Glee’s popularity is written nearly everywhere — critical praise abounds, it consistently trends in the top 10 topics on Twitter the nights of its episode airings, and most importantly, it’s ratings are consistently strong, consistently earning a 4.X rating and 7 share and a 3.X/9 among the coveted 18-49 demographic.  The show was the first new show of the season to (publically) receive an order for the back 9 episodes — and the first DVD set (collecting episodes 1-13) has already been solicited).  Another important facet of the show’s success is that the musical numbers from the show are made available on iTunes and consistently reach best-seller levels in that market.  The show is another example of Most Repeatable Programming (ala Steven Johnson), where small moments/reaction shots may be missed without multiple viewings, and it’s easy to see why people would watch and re-watch (including Hulu) given the selfless-smile-inducing musical numbers.

If Glee is able to maintain its current balance of drama and humor, delightful musical numbers and ridiculous antics, it’s likely to survive for several years.  In times of economic and social instability (recession, massive conflict over health care reform, gay rights, etc.), a happy, inspiring show is an easy pick for success.

After all, as the dearly departed Irene Adler, long-time coach of the McKinley Glee Club (inc. during Schuester’s time) saif,

Glee, by its very definition, is about opening yourself up to joy.”

Why Defying Gravity Needs to Not Get Canceled

When I first heard about Defying Gravity, I was surprised to see another space show, following the dead-in-the-water Virtuality which went from pilot to TV-movie backdoor pilot to TV-movie that everyone knew wasn’t going to become a series.

Defying Gravity had a number of similarities to Virtuality — ensemble-sized crew on multi-year mission deep into space, their efforts being made into a reality show for people back on Earth, driving off of interpersonal conflict exacerbated by the enclosed space and mission stress.

However, Defying Gravity has a far milder version of the ‘reality show’ aspect, and lacks the virtual reality material featured in Virtuality.  As a result, the show is much more focused — it’s serial SF with episodic interpersonal plot — originally pitched as “Grey’s Anatomy in space” — the show released on ABC over the late summer, but was only aired for episodes before it dropped off of the schedule — ABC has stated that they they are looking for the best time to air the remaining episodes — meanwhile, the episodes have been airing elsewhere, due to the show’s status as a multi-country, multi-network production.

I hope to see the remainder of the season on television, but I have doubts about the show getting picked up.  It’s likely rather expensive given the sets and FX required, and the show’s ratings were lukewarm when aired — though that’s far from unexpected from a relatively un-advertised mid-summer show with a high concept.  Depending on how its ratings fare elsewhere, it’s possible that even if ABC drops its support, it might continue on.

Here’s why Defying Gravity is cool, for me:  It’s probably the best new straight-up SF show (recently) on television.  The show addresses advanced speculative elements (deep-space missions, plus other SF-inal spoilery things that are very intriguing).  It also sustains and develops strong interpersonal drama, throws in good doses of comedy, and includes the best use of flashbacks since LOST, using a parallel structure depicting the mission crew and other personnel in the years-long training that served as the characters’ introduction to one another and informs their relationship with one another in the ‘now’ segments.

Unlike LOST, the characters are deeply interconnected with one another throughut their flashbacks, meaning that instead of revealing a ‘small world’ setting where disparate characters were more connected than they suspected, the crew of Defying Gravity are shown working through years of interpersonal relationships — it’s two stories that are one and would theoretically come together by the end of the series, when the flashbacks lead up to the start of the ‘now’ part of the show and provide (10-11) years of contiguous storyline.

Back to the title of my post:  Why this show needs to not get canceled — Defying Gravity depicts a future where space exploration brings us into a larger universe, valuing both science for science’s sake; also the love of exploration.  It also introduces and explains SF-inal elements unseen in television, if well established in SF literature.  The SF writing world talks about how film/TV is two decades behind prose.  The ideas get investigated in prose, and go from brilliant innovation to discussed and debated trope, and once well known enough, if the materials that lead into the trope are established in the popular imagination, then it can reach a broad audience to be digested.  Shows like LOST took several years to build up to and introduce SF elements, and Fringe is popularizing parallel/alternate universe theory.  Dollhouse is a possibly-too-complex-for-tv meditation on the possibilities of interfacing with and modifying memories through technology.

It’s all well and good for the SF community to investigate ideas and develop discussion, but it’s a small world, and for those ideas to reach the majority of the populace, either you need a massively popular novel on the level of Stephen King or Dan Brown, or you probably need to make a movie/TV show.   And if shows that further the collective understanding of the culture-shaping ideas that SF produces keep getting canceled, it serves as a barrier to that dissemination of ideas.

For these reasons and because I think it’s engaging on an interpersonal level with strong performances by a fairly-ethnically diverse cast, I would really like Defying Gravity to continue long enough to tell its story, to convey its speculation about a possible future.