Today's guest blog is from Dale W. Berry, the creator of Tales of the Moonlight Cutter, a graphic novel series set in ancient China that can best be described as supernatural sword noir. Dale has published comics and graphic novels since 1986, and is the husband of LadyKiller Mysti Berry. His current project is Black Scarab, inspired by pulp crime fighters of the 1930s.
“If I could draw, I wouldn’t have to write.”
It’s one of the most frequent comments I hear when I’m talking to writers, just after they find out I produce graphic novels. It’s a compliment, and it’s deeply flattering. But as a visual storyteller, my immediate, gut-level response is usually the inverse: if I could write, I wouldn’t have to draw.
I envy writers for their ability to magically conjure the pictures directly into their reader’s heads, and to evoke all the complex emotional states that are occurring in those pictures into their reader’s hearts, often simultaneously. I can’t do that. For me the pictures have to come first. What the pictures mean, or what they make the reader feel, follows afterward, and isn’t always so immediate.
Working primarily as a visual storyteller, I travel around with an old-fashioned Movieola inside my head. Ideas come to me as a series of images, sequentially, like a mental film clip that plays over and over. Whether it’s a gunfight in a warehouse or a picnic by the ocean, I throw that scene onto the editing machine in my brain to cut and reorder it until I figure out how it should best be drawn, working out how many panels it takes to create the visual rhythm that will tell the story.
Next, it’s time to give that sequence some context, an actual reason for being, so that is when I usually start devising a formal plot and script. Only then is it time to start putting pencil to paper, where I stage and light the sequences shot by shot, panel by panel, until they read (and subsequently “feel”) right.
Working from rough, “thumbnail” sketches to develop the overall design and look of the art, pages are drawn first in pencil, and then the pencils are painted over in ink. This black and white artwork is then scanned into a computer, where gray half tones and other visual effects can be added, including the word balloons.
If I’m lucky, the dialogue will have appeared right along with the visual ideas, like an instant “dub track”. Mostly, however, I write and rewrite a plot and script parallel to actually drawing the pictures, constantly blending and adjusting the visuals and the verbiage until the two unite to form a whole story.
When all this comes together in a way that makes sense, that has a sense of “flow” and is emotionally and visually satisfying…you’ve got a comic book. (And if it’s long enough, it’s a “graphic novel”, but there’s really no difference. I’m no dilettante.)
Overall it’s a labor-intensive process, like having to produce a story two or three times just to tell it once. But when it works, a graphic novel provides an original and compelling ability to tell a story unlike any other medium. Character and setting can be shown instantly. So can mood, atmosphere and complex action. Meaning and subtext can often be communicated more quickly. And since the words can say one thing while the picture implies another, multiple simultaneous narratives can be achieved, and juggled with ease. The final impact of a story is dramatic and direct, grabbing the reader and transporting them in ways that words (or pictures) alone sometimes cannot.
As a creator, when I finish producing a book, I’ll admit that I’m probably as proud--and as critical--of my work as even the most seasoned wordsmith. But…truthfully, deep down…even then I still suffer from writer envy, and still wish I could do it all with words alone. In the end, it’ll always be easier, quicker and probably more thrilling to write “Ten thousand horsemen came over the hill”, than to draw ten thousand horsemen doing so.
You guys are so lucky…!
Multi-level narrative: Click here for a four-page sample from Tales of the Moonlight Cutter #1.