MasterClass: Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling (2019): Season 1, Episode 15 - Comics - full transcript

Writers don't need to shy away from comics just because they're not illustrators. Neil demonstrates his process of plotting and scripting a comic, using an award-winning issue of Sandman as an example.

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[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]

When you get an idea and you
start turning the idea over

in your head and inspecting
it and trying to figure out

what the strengths
of the idea are

and what the weaknesses of the
idea are, a lot of the time,

that's when you start to figure
out what medium the idea would

work in best.

work in best.

When you get to comics, you
have a whole different area

of territory.

We get to use the
pictures and the words



to try and do things inside
the head of the reader

that you might never be able
to do in prose or in film.

For example, why
don't I take you

through the process
of plotting a comic.

through the process
of plotting a comic.

And not just plotting
a comic but of taking

an idea through to a script.

Now, bear in mind that
one of the strange things

about writing comics is
as far as I can tell,

there are probably as
many ways to write a comic

as there are people in history
who have written comics.

I do it my way.

I'm sure everybody
else does it their way.

I'm sure everybody
else does it their way.



But I can give you how I
do it and how I did it.

"Sandman #19."

In "Sandman #19," this is the
first of "The Absolute Sandman"

volumes.

It is huge.

It is very heavy.

You could use it to stun
a burglar, if necessary,

which has always been
my definition of art.

I have been to a performance
of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

I have been to a performance
of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

I loved it.

I'd forgotten how funny it was.

And it was an open-air
theater, and there

was something very
strange and magical

about being outside as
the play began in daylight

and moved into night.

What would be interesting about
"Midsummer Night's Dream?"

How could I do this?

I thought, well, look, the
first performance of "Midsummer

I thought, well, look, the
first performance of "Midsummer

Night's Dream" outside with
Shakespeare and Shakespeare's

men putting it on before an
audience consisting of Oberon

and Titania and Puck
and the fairy creatures

would all be a little bit more
dark and dangerous than they

are in the play as a gift.

I like that.

That feels like it's
about something.

That feels like it's
about something.

And it also felt
dangerous, felt hard.

Nobody had ever done anything
like that in a monthly comic.

So then I reread the play--

"A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Just made notes.

Just put little
pencil marks where

I thought lines would be
important because I realized,

of course, I was
going to have to have

various layers of action
going on through the story.

various layers of action
going on through the story.

There would be the
play always ticking on.

There would be the front
row of the audience which

would be Morpheus, the
Sandman, the Lord of Dreams,

and Oberon and Titania and Puck.

There would be the back
row of the audience.

I loved the idea of just
a bunch of idiot fairies

commenting on the action and
explaining it to each other.

I thought, that'll be fun.

And then I began.

[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]

[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]

The way that you
begin, if you're me,

if you take some paper, you
take a bunch of sheets of paper,

you staple them together,
you fold them over.

And I knew I had 24 pages,
so I numbered 1 to 24.

Actually, all I needed to know.

Actually, all I needed to know.

I didn't fill in very
much detail in the middle.

Normally, I'll fill in roughly
what's happening on each page.

But all I needed was
starting and ending on this.

I knew that everything
else was going

to be dictated by
the pace of the play.

So page 1 is traveling, page 2--

meet the Sandman, page 3--

set up Wendel open
the gate, page 4--

the fairies are there.

the fairies are there.

And that's my first
notes to myself.

So as I begin, I
draw out roughly what

is going to be in each panel.

And I'm not doing this
for any other reason

than because what I want
to do is know how big

a panel, how much information
I can ask an artist

a panel, how much information
I can ask an artist

to put in a panel.

You're not going to say,
OK, this is a 12-panel page,

and on page 7, I want the
entire plutonium space

force coming in.

While down on the earth,
we can see little Rodney

and his dog running away,
and his dog has got a flower.

And you're going, no, you
can't put all that information

on a 12-panel page.

You have a very small amount
of information in each panel.

You have a very small amount
of information in each panel.

The panel here is the unit of
information, and they're small.

So I begin by just roughing
things out for myself.

What you can see here
is an ox and a wagon.

And up on the hillside is
the Long Man of Wilmington.

And he's standing there,
and he's holding a stick.

And I thought, what
if it isn't a stick?

What if he's a gatekeeper?

And what if he
could open a door,

And what if he
could open a door,

and that's how the fairy
folk come out of the hill.

So that's already
a visual for me

which means we're planting it
there right from the get-go.

So my little stick figures
are instructions to me.

They are only seen by me.

If you do it like
this, your thumbnails

will only be seen by you.

You don't ever have to
show them to anybody else.

You definitely don't
have to show them

to an artist who
can actually draw.

to an artist who
can actually draw.

And the dialogue that I write
down here is dialogue for me.

But mostly what
it does is tell me

what the dialogue needs to do.

It doesn't need to tell
me what the words are.

That's not what this is for.

What this is for
is breaking down

the beats of the story for me.

It's telling me that my
method of storytelling,

getting from one panel
to the next with a story,

making something that
somebody who can read comics

making something that
somebody who can read comics

can read as a story
is going to work.

That's important.

If I have an idea
for what people

need to be saying in a panel
exactly, I'll note it down,

but I will spend no
time at all trying

to get it exactly
right, because that's

when you write the script.

People ask how you
write a comic script.

And a comic script is much more
complicated than a film script.

In a film script, you
just say what happens.

And the director, and the
editor, the storyboard artists,

the camera people,
they're all going

to decide how that is told.

That's not up to me
as a script writer.

And in fact, if I give
them too much detail,

they will probably get grumpy.

they will probably get grumpy.

In comics, nobody gets
grumpy because the function

that you're performing
as a writer of comics,

of graphic novels in film
terms, you're the director

and you're the writer
and you're the editor.

And the artist gets to
be all of the actors,

the director of photography,
and the cameraman,

and the production designer.

and the production designer.

And so together,
you were a full team

and finished off by the
letterer, who in this context,

I suppose, would be
the sound person.

And the colorist who would, of
course, be the grader, and now

we're getting silly.

So for me, a script is a letter.

When I'm writing a script, I'm
writing a letter to the artist.

I want that letter
to inspire them.

I want that letter
to inspire them.

I want that letter
to infuse them.

I want that letter to
describe what we're doing

and why we're doing it
and what this is about,

and I want to make them
complicit in everything that we

do.

So fortunately, in this
"Absolute Sandman, Volume 1,"

the script is actually printed.

So we begin with me
just trying to set

the scene for Charles Vess.

the scene for Charles Vess.

I set the scene.

I say hello.

I describe some
of the characters

we're going to be meeting.

The Sandman-- very
tall, very pale.

If you like the goatee he
had the last time we saw him

in this time period,
then keep it.

I don't mind one
way or the other.

A little note to the
letterer, and I said, Todd,

this story is going
to be lettering heavy,

I know before starting.

So if you can letter it
slightly smaller than

is your normal practice.

Thank you.

Ready?

Ready?

Me neither.

Here it goes.

And we begin just
with page 1, panel 1.

So here I've got my
little doodle to myself.

And one of the things I know
is I need more information

in this panel like could
fit into a smaller panel,

so it's across the
whole of the top tier.

And I describe it here.

"Long shot to large panel--

the South Downs on a
late summer's afternoon,

fine weather.

In the background,
small on a hillside,

we can see the Long
Man of Wilmington.

we can see the Long
Man of Wilmington.

He looks like he does now except
he's wearing a hat of some kind

or the outline of a helmet--

originally, apparently,
he had one--

a white chalk figure
outlined in a doorway,

cut into the turf on the
side of Windover Hill.

Coming toward us, following a
rough path in the turf trodden

to mud, is a procession of
four rough wooden carts, three

drawn by huge Shire horses--

none of your thoroughbred
Arab steeds here--

one possibly drawn
by an ox or oxen."

I've described this in a
certain amount of detail here.

I've described this in a
certain amount of detail here.

You don't need to
cram it all in.

Just bear it in mind.

So at this point, we
get to page 2, panel 1.

"Long shot--
Shakespeare has turned

to the procession of people
and carts, hand on his hips,

shouting, Hold fast!

We stop here, my friends.

Hamnet, go and wait with
Condell and the other boys.

But father--"

"Page 2, panel 2--

Shakespeare walking up
the steep and grassy hill,

probably from behind.

He's sweating if we
can see his face.

He's sweating if we
can see his face.

No dialogue."

Hamnet, his face slightly
unreadable but definitely not

looking very happy,
fills the panel.

One of the things I love about
comics is the silent panel.

In prose, you cannot
have a silent panel.

You are talking.

But in comics, you get moments
when nobody is saying anything,

where everything is still.

And they act as punctuation.

They can act as a beat.

They can act as a beat.

They can act to
underscore something.

They make your audience, they
make your reader contribute.

They bring themselves
to a silent panel.

What are the people saying?

What does this mean?

How do they feel?

When I was reading out the
script for Charles Vess,

there were things
that fascinated

me that I'd put
in there for him,

lines of things that are
actually impossible to draw.

Even, you know, his cloak is
blowing in a non-existent wind.

Even, you know, his cloak is
blowing in a non-existent wind.

Tell your artist
things that they can't

draw but they need to know.

And you can describe
all sorts of emotions,

describe how people look,
describe how they react,

describe what they're thinking
because the artist knows.

And that will, with luck, make
it through into the pictures

And that will, with luck, make
it through into the pictures

and into the story
and into the world.

[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]

The page, for me, in
comics is your unit.

And it's a unit in a way that
it isn't normally in prose.

In prose, it doesn't
really matter

how something is paginated.

how something is paginated.

And the reason that I sit here
and I break everything down,

the reason that all
of what I'm doing here

is to tell me what fits
on a page, how it works

on a page, when you're
turning the page,

when you're not turning the
page is so that, beat for beat,

I'm in control, and I go,
good, the page is the unit.

The panel in comics is
a single illustration.

The panel in comics is
a single illustration.

You need another illustration
next to another panel

in order to make it comics.

It only starts to become
comics at the moment

where the reader begins
to fill in between what

happens in that panel and what
happens in the next panel.

Sometimes, you can use the page
in an incredibly powerful way.

You can surprise people.

You can make somebody
see something

You can make somebody
see something

that they haven't seen before.

For example, in Sandman #7,
probably the nearest thing

to a classical superhero
versus supervillain

battle that there ever is
in the entirety of Sandman,

where Dr. Dee, this
skeleton-headed, monstrous

creature, has the Sandman's
Ruby in which the Sandman's

power is.

power is.

And he says, "This
is your life, and I'm

crushing it with my hands."

And he crushes it
and destroys it,

and there's a huge explosion.

And we go over the page.

And now, there's
just a tiny figure

against a completely
white background.

And we move in, and we're
still in this completely white

background.

And Dr. Dee says, "I did it.

I killed him.

Whoever he was,
whatever it was--

it's dead.

it's dead.

The ruby.

The ruby's gone too.

I feel so strange."

He does a little speech
about how I rule it.

"I'm the King of
Dreams of everything.

It's funny.

I always thought
when I became king,

I thought there
would be applause.

I thought somebody
would say something."

And he's standing
there floating against

this pure white background.

And we go over the page,
and we go over the page,

and we realize
that he is standing

in the palm, the white, white
palm of Morpheus, the Sandman's

in the palm, the white, white
palm of Morpheus, the Sandman's

hand.

And that's what
we've been seeing.

And Morpheus says,
"Thank you, John Dee."

And, I'd forgotten
how much of my power

I had placed in that ruby.

And when you smashed
it, it all came back.

And it's a moment
that I could not do,

I could not pull that off
without being in control

of when the pages are turned.

And actually, when we did the
graphic novel version of this,

And actually, when we did the
graphic novel version of this,

we then had to
create this one page

where you get the tiny, tiny
figure of Dr. Dee hanging

in the air because we needed
that page turn always to exist.

The problem with comics is you
cannot put something important

on a right-hand page, or you
can't put a plot surprise

on a right-hand page because
people are going to see it

on a right-hand page because
people are going to see it

as they turn the page.

They may not be looking
at it, they may not

be trying to see it, but
they will kind of see it.

So if it's going
to be a surprise,

it's going to have impact,
put it on a left-hand page.

Let people turn the
page and find the thing.

So there are geniuses in
comics who write and draw

So there are geniuses in
comics who write and draw

and letter and color and
do everything themselves.

People like Chris Ware, who you
look at, or Art Spiegelman--

they are brilliant.

I am not that brilliant.

So in order to create comics, I
need people who can do things.

And I have collaborators,
and we all work together.

We all work together
to create something.

We all work together
to create something.

Let's look at
"Sandman #19" again.

It's a lovely example.

Now, the way that comics
traditionally are done

was it would be drawn out,
first of all, in pencil.

And once penciled, it
would go to the letterer.

And the letterer, in ink, would
letter, draw the word balloons,

the lettering inside them.

And then that would
go back to the artist

or go to a different
artist to ink.

or go to a different
artist to ink.

And inking is not coloring.

Inking is the
process of going over

the pencil lines
in black India ink

in order to create something
that is now reproducible.

Shooting from
pencils never really

works because you lose
a whole lot of detail.

So the first and most
important collaborator

on this which is Charles Vess.

And Charles penciled,
and Charles inked.

And fortunately, we have some
of Charles' beautiful pencils

And fortunately, we have some
of Charles' beautiful pencils

here.

And part of the fun
of Charles's pencils

is looking at how he
laid something out.

We have the oxen.

We have the four carriages here.

We have one covered up,
some with people in them.

You can't really see
what the props are.

There walking alongside a wall.

It definitely looks
incredibly Sussexy.

He then took a much
smaller version

He then took a much
smaller version

of what I did, after that,
was tell the next four

panels in even-sized panels.

And Charles, being an artist and
having much more design sense

than I do, just told
this little sequence.

He puts one panel, smaller inset

We see Shakespeare and Hamnet
walking ahead of the oxen.

And Hamnet, says,
"But father, you

said that we will be performing
the new play tonight.

Where shall we play
it if not in an inn?

Where shall we play
it if not in an inn?

I have no idea.

But we will know soon.

Keep your eyes on
the road ahead, lad.

But father--"

And sooner or later,
it would be colored in

and would look like this.

And then you do have another
artist working on this page.

In this case, it's an
artist named Steve Oliff.

And Steve colored this comic.

And one of the things
that he was doing

was make everything
darker as things went on.

was make everything
darker as things went on.

It starts on a
glorious summer's day.

It's going to head into
dusk and then into darkness.

And Steve Oliff's coloring
was really elegant.

He didn't work on "Sandman"
for very long, but when he did,

what he gave us was
absolutely magic.

It was lettered by Todd Klein.

Todd is a glorious letterer.

I think he now has
won more awards

I think he now has
won more awards

for lettering than any
other living human being.

He won a lot of them
through "Sandman."

And what was almost
cruel of me was

when I discovered everything
that Todd could do,

I'd make him do those things.

So we got to the point where
every member of Dream's family,

of the seven Endless, had a
completely different lettering

style.

So many of the
characters who turn up

would have their
own lettering style.

I like the idea
that you can kind of

I like the idea
that you can kind of

hear the lettering in comics.

You're having to do a sort of
moment of synesthesia there.

Any sound effect you see,
whether it's a flack or a plop,

it's going to be written.

And yet, you're
taking it as a sound.

And that-- you need
somebody like Todd

to actually pull off for you.

And then there are
invisible collaborators.

There's my editor, Karen Berger.

And Karen was a fabulous,
fabulous editor.

She looked at the script.

She normally didn't have
much to say about the scripts

because she liked them.

"Sandman #19," her
reply to me was,

look, I don't understand
Shakespeare, particular.

I'm not a big fan
of Shakespeare.

I'm not a big fan
of Shakespeare.

I'm not sure what the
heart of this story is.

And I thought, right, OK.

And I had to stop and think
between my first draft

on the script and my second.

What was the heart?

What was it really about?

And you can call that theme.

But really, it's
just what's it about?

What does it mean?

Why is this story important?

Theme, at the end of the day,
is just why should we care?

Theme, at the end of the day,
is just why should we care?

Why should you care?

And I have an editor whose
opinion I trusted, loved,

and respected who was saying to
me, why should I care about all

of this?

And I thought, well, actually,
the heart of this story

is Hamnet.

It's this 8-year-old boy
who I brought onto the stage

who's watching his father having
this wonderful, successful

who's watching his father having
this wonderful, successful

career but isn't really
connected to him, who's

going to be seduced by Titania
and who dies a few years after,

and who maybe, if
I write it right,

I can leave his death
almost ambiguous,

as if maybe he was
taken away by the fairy.

And I wrote a conversation.

I took one page.

I only had, really, one
page left to do things in.

I only had, really, one
page left to do things in.

So I took that page, and
I wrote a conversation

where one of the actors,
he's playing Hermia,

says, "You must be very
proud of your father, Hamnet.

Proud?

I suppose."

"He's very distant, Tommy.

He doesn't seem like he's really
there anymore, not really.

It's like he's somewhere else.

Anything that happens he
just makes stories out of it.

I'm less real to him than any
of the characters in his plays.

Mother says he's changed
in the last five years,

but I don't remember
him any other way.

but I don't remember
him any other way.

Judith-- she's my twin sister--

she once joked that
if I died, he'd

just write a play about it."

"Hamnet.

Come on laddie, I'm
back on in a minute!

Mother ordered him to
have me for this summer.

It's the first time I've
seen him for more than a

week at a time, that I remember.

But we live five days ride
from London up in Warwickshire

and see him seldom.

All that matters to him--

all that matters
is his stories."

And the actor says, "I
would be proud of him

And the actor says, "I
would be proud of him

if he were my father."

And just that
moment of heartbreak

at the center of the story
is what gives it its drive.

So why should you care?

Because at the end
of the day, you're

seeing this beautiful,
wonderful thing--

the first ever performance
of "Midsummer Night's Dream."

A play that has
given joy to hundreds

upon thousands of
people, probably

to millions of people, one
of the greatest beauties

to millions of people, one
of the greatest beauties

of the English language.

And you're also
watching the sorrow

of a small boy whose father is
out of reach, who isn't there.

He's down in London
making plays.

And if he died, his father
would just make a play about it

and call it Hamnet.

And that was Karen.

That was Karen as a collaborator
who's invisible just saying,

That was Karen as a collaborator
who's invisible just saying,

why should I care
about this story?

And I thought about it, and
that was what I gave her.

And if there's a reason
why it won the awards,

it's not from the
technical cleverness,

it's not Charles Vess's
beautiful drawings,

it's not wonderful
Steve Oliff colors,

it's that moment where
everything comes together--

where Charles Vess draws,
Steve Oliff colors, Todd Klein

letters, that little
6-panel conversation,

letters, that little
6-panel conversation,

and we break everybody's heart.