Archive for the 'Writing Comic Books' Category

Jul 03 2011

How to Make Interesting Headquarters and Bases for Superheroes and Villains

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

1.  Please make the base distinct to your superheroes or supervillains. For example, you can put in unusual touches that help develop the character(s) or team.  For example, one of the secret doors into the Batcave is opened by setting a clock to the minute when Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered.  Superman’s Fortress of Solitude incorporates the hero’s dead parents in a much different way (he keeps his family recordings and other mementos of Krypton there).

2.  Please use the architecture and scenery to set the tone. It’s hard to get grittier and more bleak than a cave built into an almost-unpopulated Gothic mansion.  In contrast, the Fortress of Solitude is much brighter and generally looks more hopeful and futuristic.

3.  I’d generally recommend a headquarters appropriate to the circumstances and needs of the owner. For example, if your team will be arrested on sight, it’d make more sense to do a low-key safehouse or something else discreet rather than a downtown skyscraper.

4.  It might be interesting to describe how the characters came by this particular facility, particularly if they’re not very wealthy. You can use it to establish traits of the characters.  For example, in The Taxman Must Die, one of the supervillains is undercover as a crime scene investigator for a police superagency.  He needs a base he can easily sneak off to without arousing much attention.  Buying a building would leave a paper-trail (paper-trail + taxman = location for airstrike).  This police agency maintains life-size models of several critical buildings on its training grounds.  (Like the Secret Service and FBI do in real life).  So, for example, agents will do a lot of counterterrorist training at models of the White House, the Capitol Building and the Sears Tower in case terrorists ever do attack these buildings.  The only model building that is not used for training anymore is the World Trade Center, since the real building has since been destroyed.  So the villain sets up at the model World Trade Center because it’s unused, large and not linked to him by any documentation.  I think this helps establish that the villain is dangerously clever and disturbingly utilitarian.

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41 responses so far

Feb 27 2010

Name That Superhero Funeral!

Superhero funerals are so common that they have their own page on ComicVine and usually so bland that they tend to run together.  Given a transcript for three pages from a superhero funeral, can you name the series? If the writing were actually distinct, that wouldn’t be difficult.

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11 responses so far

Jan 28 2010

Hit and Miss with Dynamo 5: Introducing Characters in Combat

Opening with the characters in combat can be tricky because the characters can’t speak as naturally.  For one thing, if your superheroes have secret identities, they’d be bloody stupid to blab about their day jobs when they’re surrounded by enemies (more on that later).

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8 responses so far

Jan 03 2010

Nine Surprising Facts About Writing Comic Books and Graphic Novels

1. Marvel and DC Comics don’t consider unsolicited submissions. Fortunately, Optimum Wound has a useful list of publishers that do. If you’re dead-set on working with Marvel or DC, I’d recommend taking a job with them in some other capacity (such as editing, sales or marketing) and then moving laterally into writing.

2. Most publishers won’t evaluate a comic book submission unless it has ~5 illustrated sample pages. This means that a writer will usually need a professional-grade artist friend willing to work for speculative pay, a paid freelancer or the skill to illustrate his own work.  If you don’t know any artists and don’t have $500-750 for a freelancer, I’d recommend submitting to Dark Horse or another publisher that doesn’t require art samples.  However, if you can pull off a competent art sample, it will really help your submission.

3. Pretty much no one considers proposals for licensed works. Do you have an awesome idea for a Star Wars or Buffy comic?  Unfortunately, with licensed works, the publisher will almost always contact the writer it wants to work with rather than vice versa.  Additionally, when they need a writer for a major series, they will hire someone experienced and proven rather than an unpublished author.  Sorry. If you want to write for Spiderman or Batman, you need to establish yourself first.

4. Comic book companies usually buy the rights to the series and characters. In contrast, novel series are almost always creator-owned.  If you really care about maintaining ownership over your characters and stories, I’d recommend looking at Image Comics. Almost all of their series are creator-owned.

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7 responses so far

Nov 15 2009

How to Communicate with Agents and Editors

When you’re ready to submit your novel or comic book to an agent or publisher, these tips will help you make the sell.

1.  The only goal of your submission is to convince a publishing professional that your novel or comic book is likely to sell thousands of copies. Nothing else matters.

2.  Follow the instructions on their website. Most agents and publishers will have submissions pages that lay out what they want to see.  In most cases, it’s best to provide just what’s on the list and nothing else.  (Exception: if you’re submitting a comic book script, consider submitting some inked or colored pages even if they aren’t required– these pages will help the editor decide very quickly whether your proposal is serious).

3.  Check your spelling, punctuation and grammar. Trying to impress a publishing professional without clean writing is like trying to run a filthy restaurant.  It really doesn’t matter how good the cooking is–customers will run out screaming anyway.  Proofread or perish.  Not many publishing professionals would bet tens of thousands of dollars on an unpolished writer.

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13 responses so far

Nov 09 2009

Making the Sell: A Few Tips on Submitting a Comic Book Script

1.  READ THE INSTRUCTIONS. The instructions take precedence over everything else. If you fail to meet the guidelines provided by the comic book publisher on its submissions page, you are dead on arrival.  For example, you can see Dark Horse’s submissions guidelines here and Image’s here.  (By the way, Marvel and DC don’t accept unsolicited submissions– either they call you because they’re impressed by what you have already published, or you start working for them in some other capacity and move laterally)

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9 responses so far

Oct 13 2009

Can You Describe Your Protagonist’s Superpowers in 1-2 Sentences?

When you’re pitching your story to publishers, please don’t waste paragraphs describing each character’s powers.  That’s space you could be using to develop personalities, character traits, the plot, relationships, etc.  As a rule of thumb, I would recommend keeping it simple–generally, if you need more than 20 words to describe a character’s powers, there’s probably too much going on.  (Main exception: if that extra space is crucial to understanding the plot).*


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100 responses so far

May 26 2009

How to Sell a Magical Superhero Story

Magical superheroes are rare and haven’t sold very well since the Silver Age of comics (late 1950s and 60s). Here are some tips to help you write a magical superhero story that a publisher might take seriously.

1. Do it as a novel, not a comic book. Comic books depend on male readers aged 13-25. The problem is that the people that are most receptive to magical superheroes (kids and women) generally do not buy comic books.  This is one reason that magical superheroes are very, very hard to publish as a comic book. The magical superhero stories that tend to sell even remotely well tend to be TV shows (Sailor Moon or Jake Long) or novels (Dresden Files).

2. If you are absolutely dead-set on a comic book, I recommend using Japanese-style art. American teens are somewhat more tolerant of magic in anime stories like Sailor Moon than they are of American-style stories like Dr. Strange or Zantanna.

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52 responses so far

May 17 2009

Six Superhero Plots That Need to Die

1. Shrinking. First, this is a horribly cliche type of one-off story.  Second, it is pretty much impossible to do anything fresh with it. The characters get shrunk, deal with some tiny obstacles (usually including a cat or some other suddenly dangerous animal), and then get their size back. What else could you do with it?

How can I do it right? Have the character stays shrunken for longer than just an issue.  It’ll push you to develop the formula in a fresh direction, and hopefully one more fertile than “and then they discover a microscopic civilization!” E.g. it seems to work fairly effectively in Ant-Man, where the character spends most of his time full-sized.

2. Body-swapping. One character switches bodies with another, usually involuntarily.  The drama usually comes from the characters having to survive despite having different powers or different roles than they’re used to.

How can I do it right? This isn’t necessarily bad, but it has been done extensively.  It tends to work best if the characters have to keep their identities secret.  If Jim and Luke can just tell everyone that their bodies have been swapped, it’s not really an interesting obstacle.  But if Jim and Luke can’t talk about magic or the supernatural hijinks they’re involved in, then body-swapping makes it that much harder for them to maintain the masquerade.  Give them difficult situations they can’t duck.  For example, “Luke” suddenly has a piano concert and “Jim” is now the starting defensive tackle.  The only way for them to protect the secret is to learn (or feign competence in) something totally new.  Good luck!

3. Age change. The villain or an accident causes a character to get drastically younger or older (usually younger).  This is even worse than shrinking because a hero turned into a baby is no longer a character so much as a prop.  Also, these episodes/issues tend to be overwhelmingly cute.  Ick.

How can I do it right? I’d recommend trying it like Big or Thirteen Going on Thirty or Seventeen Again. The story follows the character as he enters another stage of life. How does he handle his new predicament?  That’s an interesting situation.  In contrast, babies can’t do anything but cry.

4. World War II time travel. Time travel is not a problem in series that have been built around it, but “let’s do an issue set in World War II!” is shoot-me-in-the-face bad.  The villains are one-dimensional, there’s no chance the writers will let the heroes lose and it’s cliche.

How can I do it right? Realistically, you can’t and I wouldn’t recommend it.  However, if you’re dead-set on trying anyway, maybe try something more creative than sending the villain back in time to help the Nazis.  One alternative would be having the heroes try to stop a well-intentioned “antagonist”–say, somebody who lost his family in the Nazi death camps–from going back in time to kill Hitler because killing Hitler might lead to Germany winning the war with a competent leader.  This setup is stronger because the villain is more morally complex and because sneaking in to guard a hostile target is inherently more dramatic and challenging than an all-out assault.  Also, the outcome is less guaranteed/predictable, particularly if the story is set towards the end of the war.  Perhaps the story ends with the heroes and assassin agreeing to stage Hitler’s murder as a suicide, but only when the Allies’ victory is guaranteed.

5.  Underwater adventures, particularly with Atlantis. It’s very hard to do an interesting aquatic tangent.  Have you ever heard anyone wish that Aquaman or Namor would show up?  Me neither.

How can I do it right? I think your best bet is to set most of the story in a sealab or a sealed city under the waters.  The less time the characters spend in submarines or swimming, the better.   Also, this kind of story might work better as a series focus than as a tangent.  It’s not that aquatic stories necessarily suck (please see Finding Nemo or The Little Mermaid), just that an aquatic setting is usually a waste of time for land-bound heroes. Additionally, few land-bound heroes have powers well-suited to interesting underwater fight scenes, so it might help to have the climactic battle in a sealed environment like a domed city or in a coastal city above the water.

6.  Saving helpless women. (Hat-tip to commenter Heather).

How can I do it right?  At the very least, if she’s going to get herself kidnapped or otherwise endangered, maybe it’s because of something she did besides dating the hero?  For example, in Iron Man, Pepper Potts endangered herself by sneaking into the villain’s office to steal his computer files.  Sometimes Lois Lane is a competent investigative journalist.  Give your characters a chance to be something besides just The Screaming Girlfriend.  Maybe even you have some female characters that aren’t love interests!  (A revolutionary concept, I know).

UPDATE: If you’re interested in plots that don’t need to die, I think this list of stock plots might help.

210 responses so far

Mar 09 2009

An Introduction to Thirty Comic Book Publishers

These are some of the biggest comic book companies.  Knowing which publishers are geared towards your style of writing or art will help you decide which publishers to apply to. (Please note that I tried to stay away from publishers that do not accept unsolicited queries, like Marvel and DC Comics).

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19 responses so far

Mar 08 2009

Writing Tip of the Day: Pick Your Publishers Carefully

This should be pretty obvious, but unfortunately it isn’t.  When you submit a novel manuscript or a comic book script, pick your prospective publishers carefully.  Make sure you submit it to publishers that actually work with stories that have a lot in common with your story.

  1. Audience (age and gender)
  2. Genre and content
  3. Style/mood
  4. Setting (real-world Earth vs. historical vs. the future vs. a Tolkien-like fantasy world)
  5. Length, for books (length usually goes hand-in-hand with the age of the audience)
  6. Art style, for comic books (dark and gritty vs. Western cartoons vs. anime/manga, for example)

Prospective publishers love it when authors put some thought into this.  If your query clearly shows that you have looked into which publishers will be the best fit for your book, you will look professional and competent.  A good place to start is looking up 5 or 10 comparable works on Amazon.  Where did they get published?  For comic books, which editors signed on?  That should give you a few publishers to look into.

I’ll use a very particular example to show how easy this is.  For example, right now I’m looking for publishers that would be interested in a guide for how to write superhero novels and comic books.  It’s aimed at teens.  Many publishers have printed books for kids that want to write, so finding apt publishers shouldn’t be a problem.  I’d also like to look at publishers that have printed guides about writing comic books.  

After 30 minutes on Amazon, I found ~10 works that seemed comparable at first glance.  Let’s look at why these works might or might not suggest that their publisher would be interested in mine…

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2 responses so far

Mar 06 2009

Free Comic Book Scripting Software

Celtx is a free scripting program that is designed for comic books (among other types of scripts).  I find it very useful.


  • It produces scripts that are generally easier to read and navigate than Microsoft Word.
  • Easy to learn.  It took me 10 minutes to figure it out by trial and error.
  • It’s extremely good at converting scripts into typeset.  (You can see an example here).  A typeset separates the in-panel text (like dialogue, captions and sound effects) from the text that won’t actually appear in the panel, like your directions to the artist.  That’s useful because it helps you gauge how large the panels will have to be to accommodate the text.
  • It’s free!


  • Handles comments notably better than Word.
  • It’ll help you keep your comic book documents separate from your other files.
  • If you like to fill out index cards with important details about characters or places, it can help keep those details accessible and organized.
  • Built-in spellchecker.  Not that important for a professional proofreader, but you might find it helpful.


  • It’s not as easy to add dialogue as new pages or panels.
  • They should add buttons for New Panel and New Page.
  • It can’t save scripts as Word files.  Everybody (like friends and editors) is comfortable with Word.  Right now, if I have a Celtx script that I want to show you, I have to also tell you how to download Celtx and pray that you figure out the software quickly.

One last note. I haven’t had a chance to test its printing capabilities yet.  Given that Celtx can’t produce Word files (as far as I know), its ability to print usable scripts is essential.

30 responses so far

Mar 06 2009

Which superhero-related sites do you like best?

For superhero comedy, I’m a fan of the International Society of Supervillains and Evil, Inc.

I’ve come across a few interesting comic book review sites, but I haven’t had nearly as much success finding sites for people that want to write comic books.  Except for Superhero Nation, the closest thing I’ve found is Twelve Fingers.  For example, I found 10 Writing Tips for Comic Book Writers very informative.  However, TF is hard to navigate.

So, which websites would you recommend?

6 responses so far

Mar 05 2009

Experimental Panel Layouts

The typical comic book page is a grid of panels. That’s fine, but it can get boring. This article will help you play around with your panel layout. Your pages don’t all have to look like this.

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70 responses so far

Dec 30 2007

List of Superpowers

Generic Physical Superpowers

  1. Superstrength
  2. Speed
  3. Durability
  4. Agility/reflexes
  5. Healing/regeneration
  6. Supersenses
    1. Sight/hearing/smell/taste/touch
    2. Sensing danger (spider-sense)
    3. Sensing other types of events (dishonesty, murder, etc.)
  7. The ability to remove senses (like inflicting blindness, etc.)
  8. Longevity/immortality


Forms of Transportation

  1. Climbing/wall-crawling
  2. Swimming/water-breathing
  3. Flight
  4. Teleportation
  5. Exceptional leaping (e.g. the Hulk)
  6. Phasing/intangibility


Time-Based Abilities

  1. Temporal manipulation (like The Matrix)
  2. Time travel
  3. Prophecy


Elemental Control/Manipulation

  1. Basic elements (fire, water and/or ice, earth, wind)
  2. Electricity
  3. Light
  4. Darkness and/or shadows
  5. Gravity
  6. Magnetic forces
  7. Radiation
  8. Energy
  9. Sound
  10. Nature


Generic Mental Abilities

  1. Skills and/or knowledge
    1. Popular categories: science, mechanical, computer/electronics, weapons-handling/military, driving, occult/magical.
  2. Super-intelligence
  3. Resourcefulness (“I’m never more than a carton of baking soda away from a doomsday device”)


Psychic Superpowers

  1. Telekinesis (moving objects mentally). Can be restricted to a particular type of material (e.g. metal for Magneto, paper in Read or Die, deadlines for B. Mac, sand, etc).
  2. Telepathy (reading minds)
  3. Mind-to-mind communication
  4. Mind-control
  5. Possession (total mental control)
  6. Memory manipulation (may include creation/alteration/deletion)
  7. Mentally generated weaponry/objects
  8. Mindblast
  9. Ability to locate someone mentally
  10. Forcefields
  11. “Psychometry”–the ability to learn things about the past or future of an object by touching it


Biological Control

  1. Acid/poison
  2. Controlling plants and/or animals
  3. Shapeshifting (animals).
  4. Shapeshifting (people)–mainly useful for disguises/stealth. In some executions (e.g. Clayface), the user’s body can create weapons or otherwise modify itself for combat.


Miscellaneous Talents

  1. Elasticity
  2. Self-destruction
  3. Self-liquification
  4. Gaseous form
  5. Growth/shrinking
  6. Self-duplication
  7. Invisibility
  8. Absorbing someone else’s powers
  9. Negating someone else’s powers
  10. Luck manipulation (good luck for hero and/or bad luck for enemies)
  11. Illusions
  12. Pocket space–the ability to hold and remove objects so that only the user can retrieve them. It could be used for carrying really heavy equipment, hiding valuable and/or stolen and/or highly explosive goods, concealing weapons, smuggling candy into movie theaters, removing a hostile explosive, etc.
  13. Ability to control density



I’m working on a guidebook about how to write superhero stories. If you’re interested in superhero writing advice, please sign up for the email list so that I can let you know when it comes out. Thanks—it’ll be easier for me to get published if I can show that many people are interested.




2,043 responses so far