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Author: Nick Mac

Comic Pacing Decompression and Compression

In the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels I have a section dedicated to pacing. I cover the basics there, discussing the relevancy of panel counts, word counts and the content itself. One of the things I didn’t discuss is the more advanced concept of Decompression vs. Compression.

Whether or not you’re familiar with these two terms, if you’ve written any comics, you’ve already been implementing them.

As comics are not a complete look at an entire narrative, but rather glimpses of the most important (and hopefully entertaining) parts, comic scripting at its heart IS compression. Taking ten pounds of story and stuffing it into a one pound container.

Let’s look at the following scene breakdowns (not panel breakdowns).

Scene 1:

Our cop hero is transporting a criminal. The criminal gets loose in the back and has a wicked fight with our hero. The car crashes, the fight continues outside. Our hero gets splattered with acid, burnt with a flame thrower and his clothes are mostly torn from his body, before the criminal escapes.

Scene 2: Our hero now cleaned up and bandaged, walks into his captain’s office where he’s quickly chewed out for screwing up big time.

There are distinct visual changes between the scenes. Our hero is no longer covered in acid (it must have been washed off somewhere). He secured bandages and applied them to his burns. And found (bought, stole or by some other means procured) a change of clothes. None of which is shown to the reader. The reader (who’s paying attention) knows this all happened because the elements have visually changed. From scene 1, to scene 2, the story’s been compressed.

Technically, any time you condense story youre compressing and anytime you lengthen story youre decompressing.

Think of it as a sliding scale with compression at one end and decompression at the other. When you’re in the middle, creating “standard scenes”—3-5 pages, 3-5 panels per page (see the Scene Sizes article) you’re writing is balanced. Creating shorter scenes pushes you over toward the compression end, whereas, longer scenes send you over to the decompression side.

Pacing in a comic is NOT governed by one aspect alone and content has a lot to do with it. But as a very general rule, we can say, Compression speeds up, Decompression slows.

Closer to the ends of the scale, in the more extreme cases, there are some specific situations we can recognize and pay attention to.

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The Cost of Making Comics

The following article discusses the costs associated with the creative end of comic production, budget brackets, and both successful and unsuccessful methods to reduce these costs.

Before we get into it, I’d like to thank you for purchasing membership to the site and paying for this article. I hope everyone that visits my site recognizes it as a community for comic writers… as such, your support directly allows me the time to put out more articles and engage the community. Thank you.

It’s kind of ironic that my first paid membership article is going to be a very rough, uncomfortable one for many of you. A lot of people in the public forums don’t like me for my bold opinions. As I’ve stated elsewhere, a lot of my own clients grit their teeth when they receive feedback from me. Though they appreciate it at the end, it’s never easy for anyone to get tough love and honest feedback.

I recently finished reading Band of Brothers, by Stephen E. Ambrose… You might have seen the World War 2, HBO mini-series of it. Good book, good series. So the guy who trained Easy Company (the main group of soldiers of the story) was a guy named Herbert Sobel. A real hard ass who everyone in the company hated. But after they went through World War 2, lots of guys had a different opinion on him. One said (off the top of my head) “Sobel made Easy Company. His hard-ass training saved many of our lives in combat.”

Business (and comics) is war.

You may not take a bullet or have to jump out of a plane, but when your hard earned finances are on the line, it might feel just the same.

I’m hard on you boys (and girls, of course) because I want you guys to make it through. I want you to be successful. And telling you everything is peachy, not letting you know what the real world is like out there, while that approach might get me more likes on social media, it won’t get you any closer to your dreams.

So, How much does it cost to make a comic?

The answer I’m about to give will ruffle feathers for sure. There are variables. Lots of them.

A lot of folks will argue it’s almost impossible to answer this question, that there’s no set standard definition of a comic (for purposes of this article, we’re talking print books, not web comics). One guy drawing stick figure scribbles is just as much a comic as the latest Marvel book.

Art is subjective. And the value of art is prone to follow such subjectivity.

Who’s to say Scribbles is “wrong” for charging $200/page. And even if we all think he’s crazy, what if he actually finds someone to pay it? Shows what we know

So how can you quantify a universal price structure if one guy publishing doodles is considered the same product as a team of veteran professionals at marvel? You can’t, not really

But since saying “there is no standard budget for comic creation” doesn’t help anyone with anything, we can do better than simply guessing in the dark.

The most accurate method may be to collect portfolios and page rates from various artists and assign your own personal ranking of quality. After you’ve collected a good body of portfolios (and page rates) you should be able to gauge what costs will yield what quality books.

But there are problems with this method.

You have to know the artists (or at least where they are). You may have particular trouble contacting and getting rates from established pros, so that half of the equation may be lost to you. Overall it takes a lot of time for this type of due diligence. And most importantly, you might not have an eye for gauging quality.

In my article Writing for Free and Being a Shmoo, I link a page rate breakdown from bleeding cool that somewhat represents this approach. It’s one of the more accurate comic page rate breakdowns I’ve seen around the web.

But for folks coming to comics with little experience, I prefer to look broadly at budgets by focusing on another part of the equation.


If you have your finger on the pulse of how long it takes to produce a single comic page. You can multiply this figure by a generic hourly rate based on experience (I know, nobody goes by hourly—relax) and come up with a usable benchmark.

Here are the steps of traditional print comic production and my rough estimate of time required per page.

  • Writer 2 hours / page
  • Editor .5 hour / page
  • Penciler 8 hours / page
  • Inker 6 hours / page
  • Colorist 5 hours / page
  • Letterer .5 hour / page
  • Production Artist .5 hour / page
  • TOTAL: 22.5 hours production time per page

Before you bark about the numbers. Of course there is variance. A LOT OF VARIANCE.

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Conversation Vs. Dialogue

In Writing Natural Dialogue, I discuss a number of focal points to do just that. In this article we’re gonna discuss an important common problem and dive into a more advanced approach of structuring dialogue.

Understanding the difference between conversation and dialogue is key to good writing (especially in comics).

I see a lot of scripts these days where writers try to be uber-stylish and inject their scripts with natural sounding conversation. I call this the Tarantino effect. And it doesn’t work in comics.

I read a mainstream comic, from a well known writer a while back and for a few panels he had the main character repeating “Fuck.” Yeah, if my dog runs off into the woods, I’ll chase after him saying fuck, fuck, fuck. But who wants to read that story? That dialogue is empty, it’s literally, wasted space (as we’ll discuss in a minute).

Storytelling is not reality, its hyper-reality, dramatized-reality. Reality with a point youre trying to express.

The Tarantino effect doesn’t work in comics because, a) actor performances compensate in the movies (see Works in the Movies, Not in Comics), and b) Tarantino has his “A” game on when it comes to subtext and loading up his conversation dialogue with other elements of story. (Off the top of my head, I’d say he primarily showcases character development/personality, but I’ve never really analyzed his work). Whatever his formula, it’s his skillset… a very special talent and the reality is most folks can’t get there without a lot of time and effort honing their craft.

To avoid the Tarantino effect, I strongly suggest you establish yourself as a writer able to deliver solid dialogue before considering developing a conversational style.

So what’s the difference between Conversation and Dialogue and how can we capture the latter and avoid the former? First let’s define them.

Conversation is casual, spur-of-the-moment. The pace may meander. Subtext may be minimal or non-existant. It may have low or no significance.

Dialogue on the other hand is premeditated. It may sound natural, but its not natural. Every facet of it WORKS towards an end.

As a writer you always have to know at any given moment what that end is. If you don’t, if you have two or more characters talking and no clear intent in mind, you’ve got conversation—a waste of real-estate and a build toward potentially losing the reader.

Think of your dialogue as soldier about to drop out of Boeing C-17 over enemy territory. The more you know the intent of what you want to convey, the clearer the soldiers mission.

Each element of story you bring work into the dialogue makes the soldier more combat effective.

You reflect the story theme in your dialogue, you’ve just given your soldier an extra magazine. You pay attention to the pacing, slap on another. Foreshadowing plot, that’s a grenade. Subtext—give that solider a razor-sharp Ka-bar!

Beyond all the elements of story (everything discussed within this site and the books) we can bring to bear in dialogue, beyond the 9 points discussed the Natural Dialogue article, there are a few key more advanced considerations to keep your dialogue out of the realm of conversation:

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Outline Development

If you’re not running your writing with an outline, you’re either a genius talent or a lazy bastard… either way, I don’t like you.

You probably didn’t even bother to read my article Outline Basics. Shame, shame, shame, I know your name.

For the rest of us hard-working mortals, outlining is a critical step in the creative process. As I discuss in the above article (and Storycraft for Comics) outlines arrive first, in the simplified Skeletal form (basically a beat sheet) and second, in a more Comprehensive long form.

Since Skeletal outlines are fundamentally shorthand notes, there’s not too much to go over there as far as how you put down your details (the structural points themselves are the important part—different conversation)… but when you move into Comprehensive outlining… it’s crucial to work efficiently.

A cumbersome comprehensive outline, can quickly turn into an unwieldy document and make your life much more difficult than it should be.

To keep your Comp Outlines on point, keep the following categories of detail in mind:

  • Outline Level Details. (points that need further elaboration when scripted)
  • Script Level Details. (points that can be directly set into the final script)
  • Superfluous Details. (points that don’t appear in the script)
  • Backstory Details. (points that don’t appear directly in the script)

If you suffer from ADD and can’t continue to read, here’s the Cliffsnotes—use Script Level Details as little as possible and Superfluous details even less.

I’ll use “Robot Kids” the (deliberately badly titled) sample story and outline from Storycraft for Comics as an example.

In the skeletal outline for Robot Kids, I have the Inciting Decision structural point listed as simply “Molly saves Kai.”

For the purpose of a Skeletal Outline, no further detail is relevant to structuring the story. To understand the story, we don’t need to know how Molly does it… The key point (at that point in the creative process) is that we know the one main character saves the other. This is an Outline Level Detail (or more simply put, a basic concept beat).

Now when I build out the Skeletal Outline to the Comprehensive Outline, I might turn “Molly saves Kai” into:

“The cyborg cops capture Kai, restrain him and load him into a transport truck. Enroute to Central City, Molly intercepts the truck on her hover-cycle. Using her bionic gadgets and the help of Iblii, her mutant flying squirrel, she disables the truck and frees Kai. Together they flee into the toxic swamp where the cyborg cop pursuers refuse to give chase.”

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Character Personality

I’m working on a new character breakdown, trying to capture his personality in ink, so I have a strong foundation when I start scripting him. What do you think of what I have so far?

Heres Johnny!

  • Johnny is not just smart, he’s SUPER smart.
  • Since his near death experience, Johnny’s held a deep appreciation for life and values every moment.
  • Johnny struggles to get out of his dad’s (a world-famous NASA astronaut) shadow.
  • He’s often overwhelmed by strong personalities.
  • And is tight lipped about his shady past.

Is Johnny’s personality coming through?

Does this sound like someone YOU could capture in dialogue?

Many folks would say sure, but if you’re a regular reader of my site, you know the kung fu we practice here is an ancient and powerful art. And rarely do we accept things as they first appear.

The fundamental building block of story is characters. If your characters aren’t engaging, if nobody empathizes with them, your story is DOA (Dead On Arrival—good movie—the original 1950 one).

Throughout this site (and my books) I put a lot of emphasis on developing and showcasing character personalities (and their arcs, but that’s a different discussion).

I realized the other day, personality is something we take for granted. A critical aspect often overlooked or muddled up when writers sit down to structure their characters.

A little clear direction in detailing your characters’ personality will go a long way in creating an effective, engaging cast and dramatically improve your writing.

So first, let’s define personality…

Personality: Characteristics and qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character.

Personality really comes down to expression. Any way we express ourselves, is a conduit to reveal personality.

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