Creating a noir comic book – Part 3

What is noir?

There are text books describing the genre and probably lots of discussion on what it is and what it’s not. Although I find genre theory and history fascinating, I tend to stay away from what everyone else says (and demands) a genre is and should be when I work in said genre, and rather go with what my gut feels.

So instead, the question is what is noir for me?

For me, noir needs two things. Downfall and investigation.

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It doesn’t have to be the ultimate downfall, like in Scarface, but things need to spiral downwards for several characters and most prominently for the protagonist in the long run. Relationships, career/job, and definitely emotionally and internally. In SPIRAL, family relationships are the key pieces I keep hacking away at.

Likewise, the investigation doesn’t need to be a straight-up, thorough crime investigation like in Seven or LA Confidential, to name two brilliant noirs on celluloid. But there should be an element of investigation, meaning uncovering a mystery. In SPIRAL, we’re looking at an intertwined mystery from different perspectives, from exposing crime, revealing hidden identities, uncovering what true justice means etc.

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Although noir has always leaned into the visual aftermath of the German expressionists with their heavy shadows, desolation and dark city landscapes – or modernizing it by turning other elements into these landscapes (like a neon jungle, or backwater rural sites) – it’s easy to say that the two ingredients I mentioned, downfall and investigation, doesn’t differentiate noir from horror. In horror there’s always a mystery, and always death. I guess the easy answer here is that horror intends to scare with its suspense, while noir intends to thrill with its suspense.

And deep in its shadows, I see noir as exposing – at least to the reader/viewer/audience – a sickness under the surface of the world. And in the world of police investigations and crime, it is usually corruption. But it doesn’t have to be corruption, of course. This exposure of sickness also links strongly back to the German expressionist era of cinema.

This is the lean and simple framework that SPIRAL is built inside. But it doesn’t mean certain spikes might penetrate the genre confines. Genres offer proven tropes that one can pick from, but it’s often when one subverts, flips, kicks and strangles these tropes that a great genre story emerges. Which I intend SPIRAL to be.

FROM OUTLINE TO SCRIPT

Back to the creation of SPIRAL, my 4-issue noir mini-series, and more specifically the process of breaking down the outline. The birth of the idea and the concept, and how I went from concept to outline can be read here, and here.

With my slightly rough, but solid enough 3-page outline, I could lift out sequences, scenes and beats from my outline and start plotting the story properly. At this point in the process, I feel it’s crucial to know what kind of format you’re going for. Preferably as early as the pitch/synopsis stage, but at least here. Here you need to know if you’ll be doing the story as a 12-page-segment webcomic, full graphic novel between 100 – 120 pages, as a four issue mini-series with roughly 22 pages per issue, or any other publishing format you prefer. The main reasons you need to know this now are: 1) who will publish this or how you want to self-publish it, and 2) where your major cliff hangers and page turns go.

1) Certain publishers will only accept projects that have 4 – 5 issues that can be collected once all the issues are published, some will only look at 100+ page graphic novels, and some will not look at anything unless it’s already been published in a different format. It’s a jungle out there and only research and healthy networking will give you all the information you need.

2) Like with TV episodes, or novels, or films, you need to know where your major moments go. Moments that will keep the reader coming back for more. This also relates strongly to number one. For instance, you’ve pushed past this point and made a full fledged graphic novel which has an intriguing build-up but no real hooks until page 39. Your book is 130 pages long. The plot is ever engaging, and everything falls into place perfectly, as a graphic novel… but the style and type of story only really fits your favourite publisher. And they only publish, say, 3-issue mini-series, then collect them. They say “sorry, earthling, but we can’t accept graphic novels, only 3-issue stories.” You decide, “heck, I can do that!” Now, how will you get that brilliant hook on page 39 down on page 22/24 to make your readers come back for issue #2? How will you be able to cut your perfectly plotted book from 120 pages to around 66 pages? Sure, it can be done. Sometimes. Or you need to hit a publisher that only does straight up graphic novels. Or try something else.

Key is, format relates to WHERE a comic book goes. Format is crucial. Just like with TV. You can’t pitch a 60min episode 4-part TV-show with ad-breaks every 15 minutes to a TV channel that only does 30min 12++ episode series.

That said, tricks have been pulled and stuff have been found up sleeves. But usually, that’s either by known and established creators, or by creators with a strong fanbase, from doing webcomics for example.

Once SPIRAL was fixed as a concept, meaning pretty early on, I knew which publisher was on the top of my list, and I made sure to streamline the project and story to the format this publisher uses. But I’ve also made sure I can hit a few other publishers should my #1 choice fall through. Format is key. And format is different from publisher to publisher. And from country to country, scene to scene. Soak it up and learn it. It might feel more like a business decision than a creative one (who wants to hinder their story to blossom into its full potential?), and that’s exactly what it is. Business. If you want to get into this game, and stay in it, you can’t be all poet. You need to be a tradesman. Business.

You should also try to be short. The opposite of this blog post. By short, I mean, don’t start with long stories. Not unless you’re proved and tested. Publishers won’t look at your 30 issue story, because what newbie can handle that? A few, I’m sure. But a publisher won’t risk it. Start short/small.

Now, back to what happens once the outline is typed up and the plotting begins. As I said, I knew that I was doing a 4 issue mini-series aimed at a certain publisher. So I knew I had 22 – 24 pages per issue. There’s your road map. Consider each issue as a TV episode, especially that first issue. It needs an opening that hooks the reader, (and by hook I don’t necessarily mean a twist), and you need to hook the reader in those first 5 – 8 pages. Like minutes in a TV episode. And the ending of your initial issue must leave the reader wanting to know what happens next. If not, they’ll find another comic to read, another TV show to watch.

Knowing the road map, I focused on my initial issue and wrote down my key scenes on small notes and put them on my table. Writing brief key words, making sure all the crucial beats of a scene are mentioned. Starting with the final scene, the cliffhanger. Then filling out the rest.

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Once I had my plot laid out, and the first issue looking somewhat okay, I colour them. One colour per note for which storyline/character’s scene it is. Here, I think I used pink for my protagonist/A-story, blue for my C-story etc. Once they’re coloured I have a quick and easy overview, and can see if the plot focuses too much on a certain character for too long, if the protagonist gets lost or if the shifting of scenes and storylines are dynamic enough.

Then I rearrange them in different orders just to see what it does to the plot and the story (and storylines). Certain scenes will always shift places when dealing with multiple/parallel storylines. Simple because everything plotted doesn’t need to follow a strict cause-effect route.

With notes like this on the table, it’s also easy to see which beats (or scenes) can be cut, or merged into each other. For Spiral #1, I think I ended up with about 27 notes/pages initially, then by reconstructing and merging I managed to get the plot down to 24 notes/pages. Once I had rearranged everything, merged what could be merged, and felt generally happy with how the story and plot evolved, I numbered the notes. (This can be done earlier, but then you’ll have to keep re-numbering them a lot.)

And since I’m lazy sometimes, I don’t rewrite the notes, I just put the ones that should be merged next to each other and write “merge”, “cut” or “splice” or something on the beat or scene that deserves it.

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Road map filled. Time to drive down the route!

I thought I could fit the actual scripting bit into this blog post, but I can see your eyes are already drooping, mouth drooling. So, next time, I’ll talk about scripting this first issue of SPIRAL.

Creating a noir comic book – Part 2

In the first article, I spoke a bit about how the idea for SPIRAL came into being. How I let the idea marinate in my head for several months, picking up more inspiration for it along the way, until I was ready to write anything down.

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We’ll get to the artist/artwork bit later.

Here, I’ll explain briefly how I go about getting that marinated concept and story down on paper slash screen.

I know a lot of writers like to write down the story they have in their head directly. Almost like writing prose. I’ve done that earlier on a few projects, both films and comics, but these last couple of years I’ve found that it’s easy to lose yourself in the details if you approach it like that. Approaching the whole thing.

Instead, I start with the pitch. Not necessarily a sales pitch, but more a pitch to myself. If you’re not familiar with what a (sales) pitch is, it’s basically explaining your concept and story in as short a space as possible. The movie industry has something called “the elevator pitch”, meaning you sell your idea verbally in the elevator ride down (or up) with a producer – meaning 30 seconds. Some projects are easy to pitch, some are tougher. Snakes On a Plane has its entire pitch in its title, for instance. SPIRAL is a bit trickier than that.

Back to writing down the pitch. I write the pitch for me, not for it to be a selling pitch – meaning it’s not the originality and freshness I’m looking for in this initial pitch. It’s just the key things that happen that drives the story forward. And the shorter the better. The initial pitch for SPIRAL (after a couple of revisions) was…

Brash police officer Olivia Jensen takes up the mantle after her father, the retired The Watcher, against his wishes. Her recklessness gets her shot and injured. When her brother Samuel, who was intended to take on the The Watcher personae, goes to avenge his sister he ends up in a coma. Recovered, Olivia takes on the mantle in hopes to heal her now broken relationship with her father and brother.

(Note: I changed up the names a few times to get them right. And I still consider everything a work in progress until the lettering part begins.)

With this I have a fixed idea on what the core of the story revolves around. You can lift themes out of this. Father-daughter relationship, blood thicker than water, values, justice etc. etc. And also guess at endings, knowing that I locked down on the noir genre from the get go. I guess there’s also a slight originality in there, with the mix of gender roles and genre attached.

But it’s very basic. It doesn’t say much about what actually happens. Which is a good thing for me. The details, and with details I mean plot, isn’t important at this stage for me. I have a lot of plot floating around in my head at this stage of course, but I deliberately hold back on writing plot and scenes down and focus on getting the core of the story right.

Once I had this, I could start going down the prose path, basically writing down what I knew I wanted in the story, what I thought could work and what ending I wanted. As I started writing down the outline (the story) a few subplots took on a bigger role and certain things I had imagined showed themselves to be too cliché or just not right for the story.

I won’t put the outline up since it’s too spoiler-y of course, but I’ll briefly explain how the outline turned out. For this project I wanted to have a multi-layered story with several intertwining storylines. (Having drawn inspiration from Scalped, and The Wire.) The A story was of course about Olivia and her vigilante business and relationship with her family. The B-story followed the father and son of the criminal main element of the story, as I’ve always liked stories that present a world that’s blurred, that has several perspectives. And the C-story was Olivia’s husband’s story, dealing with an ex-wife and their kid he was losing custody over. Once I began fleshing out and scripting the story, another prominent storyline came forward as well, but more on that in a future article.

(It might be good to mention that Spiral isn’t a very big project, it’s a mini-series, but if it was a larger story/project I would likely have written a few synopsises before going into the prose-like outline. A synopsis summarises the story in broad strokes, but not as broad and quick as a pitch. A synopsis helps you stay focused if you have a large body of work to map out. Navigating a 2-page synopsis is easier than navigating a 5 – 10 – 20 page outline. As it’s a small project the outline for Spiral was 3 pages.)

Once I had the outline down I knew the most important thing about Spiral. The ending. With that locked down, I was ready to go into the story, to start breaking it down into pages, which is unique for comics. There are several factors involved as you go to break down the story (publishing plan, format etc. – which you likely have in mind before typing anything) and I’ll speak more about these things, and going into the scripting phase next time.

Thanks for reading!