Comic Books For People Who Want To Make Comic Books

DS, with JDS:

Disclaimer: Scrooge McDuck or Spawn, it’s all comics. Shy of Scott McCloud, there’s not a whole lot of good universal reference material for the medium. But if you’re like us and you want to write comics with heart and humor as well as gunfire, uppercuts, and masks, here’s what we got.

Of course, there’s some required reading everyone should’ve taken care of before class. Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, at least one of the Sandman books… I’d put The DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore on there too, which includes Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and The Killing Joke, as well as some other solid yarns from the dawn of the modern age of comics.

That’s the funnybook GED. JD and I both threw together lists of what we think ought to come next.

JD’s List

All-Star Superman:

Perfect, the most optimistic Superman story ever written, despite being about his last days on earth. Every bit of jaded annoyance I have toward superheroes and the tired revolving doors of the genre goes away when I crack it open. The no-nonsense and well-composed art helps too. Quitely isn't trying to show you what an amazing artist he is, and that's what makes it amazing.

The first 20 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man:

A little dense and a little silly, but ultimately the blueprint for all young superhero drama to follow it. Not a story about a primary-colored fighter who can lift cars over his head, but a trefoil boy and his brushes with victory and heartbreak and goblin-masked rogues on jet powered broom sticks.

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life:

Rough and uneven, but more earnest and funny than most anything I've read. Later volumes get more polished and technically proficient, but this is worth a read just for its verve.

Alex Toth’s Zorro:

I'll admit that this is on here mostly because it's one of the very few easily trackable volumes of Toth's comic work, but it showcases his skill with boiling a scene down to it's raw essentials and then making them shine. The fact that it's done around sub-par scripts makes it twice the feat.

Batman – Year One:

I'll admit that I wish David Mazzucchelli stuck around and drew superhero or detective stories instead of going indie on us, and I'll probably burn for it, but this mini series was amazing. The illustration is in the school of Toth, but the strong impressionistic streak makes every scene stand out visually. I hear that Miller guy wrote some pretty good words too.

Darwyn Cooke’s The Spirit:

It probably shows something odd in the industry that short, fun, easily digestible one off stories are something to be lauded as a breath of fresh air, but that's what these are. Cooke's visual style carries a lot of the weight, but as a whole it's a good example of revitalizing a classic without needing to start throwing the ‘gritty’ word around.

Calvin and Hobbes:

It's a testament to these strips that I read them so often as to forget how much they've influenced me. Life, death, humor, friendship, childhood and growing up in 4 panel snippets. And it all feels natural.

Honorable mention… Preacher:

Vulgar and awful pap, until it reveals a genuinely sensitive eye to religion and love and every universal theme you can think of. It's contrast of the sick and the disturbed to the gentle and thoughtful says something about human nature in general.

Dan’s List

New York – the Big City:

A character study of the city that never sleeps, told in the form of dozens of short human vignettes. Eisner does remarkable things with silence, sound, tightness and space, systematically proving there’s no scene that has a right to be boring. There’s so much acting and set design in these pages that it’s not a graphic novel so much as an exhibition match.

The Punisher – In the Beginning, Up is Down and Black is White, Man of Stone, and The Long Cold Dark:

Garth Ennis plays it straight with this somber, poetic, extraordinarily violent series of Frank Castle stories. The entire run is worth a read, but these four arcs in particular form an overarching storyline, throwing a slew of memorable, sometimes disturbing, characters against the grim stoicism of an aging Punisher whose life is beginning to gain a terrifying perspective. The end of the last volume is one of the very few comics that has moved me to tears.

Daredevil – Born Again:

Born Again can be seen as a companion piece of sorts to Year One, which is arguably the better comic. Born Again is not half so beautiful and focused—The narrative jumps all around Daredevil’s supporting cast, following a whole mess of narrative arcs in each chapter, each of them echoing Matt Murdock’s own journey from ruin to redemption—and the full-page spread where Matt’s redemption evidences itself is one of the greatest thrills in comics, in eighties fiction as a whole. Year One is an experience, but Born Again is an opera.

Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol:

Cliff Steele and Crazy Jane are, absurdly, one of the great love stories in comics. Over a six volume run packed with mind-expanding Dadaist weirdness, the relationship between a human brain in a robot body and a woman with sixty-four metahuman personalities is a fascinating, uncomfortable, and disarmingly sweet thing to watch evolve.

Elektra, Assassin:

Classic Miller, with Sienkiewicz at the height of his powers. Some books create a certain atmosphere, but some—like this one—create a whole psychological state. You get a paranoid runner’s high off this book, and it’s dense enough to be your supply for a week, in moderation. It’s also a bit of a what not to do in terms of pacing near the end, though it snaps it off beautifully on the last page.

Top Ten:

A 90’s-style cop drama with superpowers. It’s a long line of great character moments in between two covers (and there’s two volumes of this, plus a prequel). Gene Ha’s incredibly intricate, Easter egg-laden art is just icing.

Batman and Robin #1-3:

Much as I’d like to put Morrison’s entire Batman-related run on this list, these particular issues—joined by Frank Quietly, doing some of his rawest work to date—represent the best superhero comics of this young century. With Dick Grayson as a joking daredevil Batman, Damien Wayne as an edgy ten year-old Robin, and a flying, eco-friendly Batmobile to carry them into action and danger, Batman and Robin is a forward-looking pop-pulp mystery adventure that stands as a blueprint for superhero fiction both modern and future.

Sandman Mystery Theatre:

Great for two reasons. One: the well-written, adult relationship between Wesley Dodds and Diane Belmont. It’s one of the most realistic ‘my boyfriend has a secret identity’ romances out there. Two: a gritty, unglamorous, utterly human depiction of 1940’s New York. Two point five: early 90’s Guy Davis.

Honorable mention… Peter Milligan’s Human Target:

Very similar to Ennis’ Punisher in terms of atmosphere and characters, combined with an overarching theme of identity and questions about same in the twenty-first century. The last great Vertigo series—so far.

You also probably ought to read some Fantastic Four comics. Mark Waid, Alan Davis, or go back and grab the original Kirby and Lee. Fantastic Four. It is the world’s greatest comic magazine, after all.

Go forth and create.


She's got your hero right here


I’m saddened by the death of Dwayne McDuffie, not because I knew him personally or passingly or at all, but because of what he represented to comics as a whole, which I know somewhat more intimately.

Dwayne McDuffie wrote quality comic books. He built stories like they were automobiles, not fast food value meals, and he made them to last. He wrote characters instead of costumes, problems instead of powers, and stories instead of marketing ploys—or, at least, in addition to. He was progressive without transgression, real talk without tough talk. I’d put the titles he either created or helped create for the Milestone line—Static, Icon, and Hardware, just off the top of my head—among the best bona fide true blue no bullshit comic books of my lifetime. Those stories were full of little victories and little setbacks against the backdrop of the lightning-slingin’ heroes-and-villains street brawls he’d reimagined for the new decade. He wrote like pain hurt and life mattered, to steal a line meant for Raymond Chandler, and if there were a top pick for successor to the mantle of Ditko and Lee, he’d be mine.

Right now, near as I can figure, the baseline for quality writing in the mainstream of the medium is Geoff Johns. This is wrong. Johns is a talented writer and businessman who always delivers an entertaining way to do a new thing with an old costume. This is wrong. This is just good enough at best, destructive at worst. The baseline, the bedrock, the bare minimum a comic book should be—Dwayne McDuffie. The gold standard. Surpass him if you can, but never fall short. If you respect yourself, your craft, or those who’ve come before you, never fall short. 

The medium is now shy one of its finest architects. Time for us all to step up. 


T-minus two weeks


We’re cooking with gas now, oh yes we are.

Emerald City Comic Con sits pretty on the first weekend of March, grinning at us like a mirage. Here, we pitch the project to potential publishers. Cue montage.

JD’s got six pages of appetizer inked and clean. Jon Cairns is turning out some color work you can taste as much as see. Fonografiks is showing me how little I know about lettering a comic book. Humbling, is what it is. I didn’t even know Gotham was a font.

Rough colors, page two

What I do know is we’ve got a book with teeth. It's the book I wanted to see on the shelves but didn’t, so I went wrote it myself. It’s old school and new and different and familiar, and a good pulp novel besides. A game changer? A winner, at least. In my heart I believe this. If anyone can explain the benefit of believing otherwise, feel free.

Emerald City. I’m trying not to read too much into the name. 


Slow Days


Writer's block is a myth, dating back to the Lethargy Cults of ancient Athens. A writer by definition is one who writes, and if you find that for some reason you are unable to do so — well, the algebra isn't hard. The professional creator creates and creates every day, because that's the job. But there is such a thing as a slow day.

The slow days, the grey days, the stable and the mucking days. It's not like you don't produce something, ‘cause you do — it's just that you're a little less magic than usual. Usually you’re John Constantine, but you find yourself stuck being, say, Harry Dresden. Which still does the job, mind. And maybe that's the work you redo later. Some days all you can do is lay down some foundation while Lights Out plays noiselessly in the background.

These are, of course, the days that make those other days so high and holy. 


This ain't no high school team, Meat


Planned for five chapters at twenty-plus pages a pop, writing AVERY is a brand new beast for this Texan. My main previous effort, spooky crime comic The Private Files of the Fowl, updated at a rate of one page a week. Those pages were scripted on Sunday, penciled on Monday, inked on Tuesday, Lettered on Wednesday, and then uploaded Thursday night, when all went to plan (and it very rarely did). Every now and then I’d do some B-side stories with artists like Nick Foster, Lee Gaston, and a person I may have mentioned once upon a whenever named JD Smith, but these averaged to six pages, and never exceeded fifteen. I’ve scripted single issues for friends and the occasional paying client, but a full miniseries/graphic novel/long-form visual narrative? Yo’ mamma. Jogging around the park does not a marathoner make.

But I’m Dan Schkade and I’m mortally terrified of people thinking I’m a wuss, so I broke out Denny O’Neil’s DC Guide to Writing Comics and tried to look like I knew what I was doing. And so far, no one’s called me on it. This is me knocking on wood.

One chapter down and a second in the workshop, I’m starting to notice things. On this project in particular, I’m noticing it’s not as funny as what I’ve written in the past. With the Fowl, I had a very weird and witty leading man who wielded the moral right like a crowbar, and his stories tended to be designed around giving him scenery to chew. 

The Fowl, al la Dan Schkade
Avery, a la JD Smith

AVERY’s lead (Avery) is the Fowl’s equal and opposite. Just as clever, but quieter, sitting inside his head and watching the world spin. He bends with the plot, as opposed to the Fowl, whose presence always warps events to the bizarre. Avery is a small man, physically and professionally, where the Fowl is big both in business and build. The Fowl solves the insoluble because it’s a thing to do — Avery does it for money. And while the Fowl can always rely on Krav Maga and a smoking .45 to see his enemies dispatched, all Avery can do is tense his abdominals and wait for the punch. But Avery has a life plan and a hope, which is something the emotional dilettante known as the Fowl never quite got a hold of. Avery, he wants to build something. He’s harder to write, but I’m getting more out of it. I want to build something too.

Both comics have a supporting cast made up entirely of fashionable psychopaths, so that’s fine.

More generally, I’m discovering the liberations and limitations of long-term scripting. Doing a weekly comic, you find yourself plugging leaks with duct tape and bubble gum just to get it out on time, and maybe later you sneak in and fix things properly for when future readers peruse the archives. But this thing… I’ve got months. Months to write it and doubt it and change it in a million little diamond-shaving ways, which I’ll change still again later on. I’d written half the first chapter before I realized it was ass-backwards tripe and had to throw the whole thing out with the used coffee filters. I came to understand that when good enough isn’t, there’s going to be waste product. And I didn’t really get cooking until I realized this was the way it’s meant to be. You can’t hang onto something just because you spent X days on it, any more than you can stay with someone just because you’ve been together for Y months. If it’s right it’s right, and if it’s not, axe that turkey. You can eat it while you think up something better.

First time was the toughest. It meant having to confront the fact that Dan Schkade isn’t always right the first time, which by extension means that for years I’ve been pumping out substandard work with the Fowl. That’s three years of mediocrity. I’ve got some making up to do.

Right. Back to writing the things I’ll eventually throw out so I can write the better thing.