FAQ: How To Write A Comics Panel

This is something I get asked A LOT.  It seems to be a thing that really paralyses a lot of first-time comics writers, particularly ones coming from other media. What is the picture?  How do I find the right panel to describe?

A useful starting place might be something the actor and comics writer Nick Vince said, back in the early 90s. It comes from cinema, as did Nick, and it goes like this: imagine the panel as your “print moment.” The frame that captures the essence of the moment. Imagine, say, thirty seconds’ worth of film, and that your job is to overlay those thirty seconds of dialogue over a single frame pulled from that ribbon of film that best encapsulates what’s going on.

That’s a very mechanical way of looking at it, but it might get you started. You’re looking for the image that captures the moment.

You’re also, wherever possible, looking for an interesting image. But don’t confuse “interesting” with “splashy.” You’re still trying to serve the demands of storytelling, telling the story as clearly and simply as possible.  In most forms of narrative, each panel must have a relationship with the panels on either side of it.  You’re plotting out a sequence of motion in a series of stills.  Imagine it like that, and you may be able to get a better sense of how a story in comics might flow.  It’s not a perfect analogy, but it might be worth considering if this is something you’re having trouble with.  You’ll develop your own view, approach and methods as you go.  Everybody does.

FAQ 3jan13: On Conservative Characters, Cyberpunk & Women Who Write SF

I’ve been enjoying Crooked Little Vein a lot, but I was wondering what motivated the narrative decision to make your protagonist be (and I hope I’m phrasing this properly) an essentially conservative character. By that I mean he tends to react with hostility to the oddballs his work brings him in contact with, and then defends people who, while seemingly being more socially typical, demonstrate close-mindedness.


The truth, I think, is that most people are essentially conservative characters, and I found it interesting to try and develop a character like that towards some kind of acceptance of the real face of the modern Western world without betraying his basic nature.  People can and/or should change during a story, but they shouldn’t transcend into completely new people, especially not in a short book.  My note to myself on McGill’s passage through the story was something like “Trix doesn’t magically fuck enlightenment into him.”

Aside from stuff Phillip K. Dick and Neal Stephenson, what’s on your must-read cyberpunk novels and comics list?


Okay.  Deep breath.

Cyberpunk, also known as Radical Hard SF or The Movement, was born around 1980 and didn’t survive that decade.  (Some people map the end to 1992, with Neal Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH.)  Philip K Dick had no affiliation with the movement, and was dead by 1982, two years before William Gibson published NEUROMANCER.  People tend to associate Dick with cyberpunk because of BLADE RUNNER, particularly its visuals, which had nothing to do with the novel, but were so strikingly of the speculative zeitgeist that in 1982 William Gibson had to get out of his cinema seat and leave the screening because it looked too much like what was in his head.

Phil Dick was pre-cyberpunk.  He, JG Ballard and Alfred Bester were major touchstones for the movement.  Ballard’s CRASH and Bester’s STARS MY DESTINATION and THE DEMOLISHED MAN are essential.  Also John Brunner’s STAND ON ZANZIBAR, THE SHEEP LOOK UP, and, most importantly for cyberpunk’s ancestry, THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER.

(EDIT to note: yes, and about a hundred others, I’m sure.  These are the ones that occurred to me that day.)

Of the cyberpunk period itself, you will need William Gibson’s first trilogy, NEUROMANCER, COUNT ZERO and MONA LISA OVERDRIVE.  Also, Bruce Sterling’s THE ARTIFICIAL KID and ISLANDS IN THE NET.  Richard Kadrey’s METROPHAGE.  Rudy Rucker’s SOFTWARE and WETWARE.  Pat Cadigan’s TEA FROM AN EMPTY CUP.  That should keep you going for a bit.

I couldn’t help but notice your recommendations of cyberpunk writers a couple days back were all men. Are there any female writers of cyberpunk (or sci-fi) in general you recommend? Are there any that have influenced your own work?


Um, Pat Cadigan is in that list, and she’s female.

A partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of female speculative fiction writers whose work I’ve liked would include:

Ursula LeGuin, obviously, who’s influenced everybody.  Seek out and start off with THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, if you haven’t already.

Pamela Zoline.  Carol Emshwiller.  Mary Soon Lee (one of the single best short stories in sf in the 00s was her “Pause Time”).  CJ Cherryh’s early book DOWNBELOW STATION is warmly remembered.

Doris Lessing’s SHIKASTA had a *huge* effect on me.  Very influential, I think.

Cherie Priest, Elizabeth Bear, Cat Valente… I’ve written book blurbs for two of these, and those two have also written on my website, which it suddenly occurs to me you don’t read…!

Kate Wilhelm.  Mary Shelley counts.  Probably so does Angela Carter, at least in my head.

Lauren Beukes, of course, who is also a friend.

Obviously incomplete and written in two minutes, but a start.