How Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kevin Smith, and Other Celebs Learned to Write Comic Books

Scott Aukerman, Kevin Smith, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Photo: Kyle Christy/IFC, Getty Images

Last year, acclaimed nonfiction writer and lifelong comic-book geek Ta-Nehisi Coates stumbled into an incredible opportunity: Publisher Marvel Comics asked him to write a superhero series. The plan was for him to pen a number of issues of Black Panther, which chronicles the adventures of a long-running and much-beloved character from the Marvel pantheon named T’Challa. He’s the king of a fictional African nation, and Coates’s deep understanding of history, politics, and superhero fiction all made him well-suited for the job. There was only one problem: He had absolutely no idea how to write a comic book. Didn’t know what word-processing program to use, didn’t know how to describe what the artist should draw, none of it.

“It was very apparent to me right away that this could suck,” Coates says in a phone interview from his home in Paris. “Some people get a level of fame and people give them the ability to do things that they probably should not be doing. That is exactly what I did not want to happen.” Coates was not the first person to run into this specific problem. In the past few decades, an array of stars from outside the comics industry have gone from being comics fans to being comics writers. After speaking to a few such people, it became clear that publishers don’t have some kind of boot camp for celebrity novices — people largely get thrown in the geeky deep end and learn how to swim.

“Those really aren't the sorts of things someone can teach; you pretty much have to figure it out on your own,” says J. Michael Straczynski, who started writing high-profile comics in the late 1990s after he was already famous for creating and writing the TV show Babylon 5. “Mark Twain once said, ‘A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.’ Comics-writing is a lot like that.”

Marvel obviously had some initial assistance for Coates. He talked through his story ideas with Marvel editor Wil Moss and got a bevy of comics scripts to examine. Luckily for Coates, the geek world is also a small one, and he was also able to get the guidance of some friends who write comics professionally: Greg Pak, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Matt Fraction, and G. Willow Wilson. And the stars, as they say, are just like us, so Google helped him, too: When he needed to figure out what application he’d actually use to write the scripts, he searched around and found a tutorial that recommended a program called Scrivener.

But advice is one thing; actually putting finger to keyboard and working in an alien medium is another matter entirely. There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to writing a comic book: the plot-script method and the full-script method. Each can offer unique rude awakenings for a writer whose prior experience comes from other mediums. A full script is what it sounds like: a detailed description of all the action on every page of the comic, along with the dialogue that should appear in every panel. But in the plot-script method (also known, for historical reasons, as the Marvel method, even though it’s not commonly used at Marvel anymore), a writer just taps out a general summary of what should happen in the comic — the hero is going to fight her arch-nemesis, there’s going to be a romantic subplot involving her friend from science class, the climax will happen in an abandoned railyard, that sort of thing. Then the artist takes the script and does the heavy lifting of actually drawing each page from that skimpy amount of information, more or less functioning as a co-writer. The writer gets the artwork back and adds in dialogue and sound effects.

If you’ve never written a comic before, that plot-script method might seem like an ideal way to go about things. After all, how hard is it to just jot down a few story beats and let the artist go to work? But the trouble is threefold: Plot scripts are very uncommon these days, meaning your artist will likely be expecting a full script from you; a plot script means relinquishing a huge amount of creative control; and on top of that, you can end up with a major artistic traffic jam. Filmmaker Kevin Smith found out that latter bit when he was tapped to do a run on Marvel’s Daredevil with artist Joe Quesada in 1998. “I was trying to fit too many words onto his drawings,” he recalls. “If you're scripting backwards like that Marvel method and you're a writer like me who just can't shut up, your balloons are taking up all the art space.” After one issue done with a plot script, Smith switched to a full script.

Coates planned to do a full script from the start and learned a lot through imitation. Marvel sent him scripts done by superstar writer Jonathan Hickman for his then-ongoing series Secret Wars, and Coates would compare what was in the scripts to what was on the printed page. Right away, he made a crucial observation: “You can't say, ‘In this year, this happened.’ You can't do that. You actually have to think, ‘What does this look like?’” This was a huge departure from his journalism writing. “If you were writing a lede, a piece for a magazine, you could say, ‘When T'Challa returned to the throne, this had happened, this had happened, this had happened.’ But no, that doesn't work in comics. You gotta write a scene.”

To make things more complicated, in any given scene, a character can only do one thing per panel. “You might want to write, ‘He takes a sip of something and shoots somebody,’ but that doesn’t work,” says comedian, screenwriter, and podcast host Scott Aukerman, who wrote two comics stories for Marvel last year and is on tap to publish another one in a few months. “Someone can’t take a sip of something and shoot someone unless they’re doing it literally at the same time.” In other words, you have to force yourself to pace everything out: in this panel, he takes a sip; in the next panel, he shoots someone. Compared to writing an article, a novel, or a screenplay, this approach can feel glacial.

But such detail is essential because you need to develop a deep relationship with the artist who’s drawing your comic — and like any relationship, that one is built on communication. “I tend to be far more descriptive in writing a comic book script than a movie script, because you realize that if you don't communicate it, you're never going to see it on the page,” says Smith. Of course, you don’t want to get too detailed, lest you seem a control freak. As Straczynski puts it, the artist “needs as much information as you can pack into the scene description without closing off their own process or desire for collaboration.” And no matter what level of detail you put in there, you’re still ultimately putting your story’s fate in the hands of another creator. “It’s almost like giving something to a director and then never showing up on set and hoping it comes out well when you get it,” says Aukerman.

The lessons outlined above are just the basic, practical ones; after that, it's time to worry about how many panels go on a page, presenting exposition unobtrusively, or fitting your work into existing character continuity. It’s a massive headache, and the consensus seems to be that the only trick for getting a good rhythm is a pretty simple one: sheer repetition.

“It comes to me much more instinctually now,” says Coates. “Before, it just felt like you were a marathon runner and somebody had asked you to learn how to bike and do the Tour de France. You might have a base level of fitness and athleticism, but it's just a different sport.”