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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Writing Comics, Comics Writing

October 10th, 2012 at 23:29

I’ve been thinking a lot about comics lately. You might have noticed this!

The last two year or so have probably been the most solid and intense comics-reading period of my life, even including that year I discovered Platinum Grit and the Justice League at the same time. It’s hardly surprising that, having read so many, a writer’s fancy starts to turn to…

Yep, that’s right, I’m now writing the things. Or at least, I’m making a good go of it. Because that’s what I needed in my life, an entirely new writing format which requires a separate skills set, entirely different publishing rules, and basically starting from scratch as a writer.

Maybe that *is* what I needed, actually.

I am still working on novels, short stories and other stuff, and completely in love with prose narrative, but diverting into a few comic script projects has been terribly fun. And no, I can’t say anything about those writing projects just yet.

Sequential art, baby!

As a reader, I’ve been particularly immersed lately in what David Willis fans call the Walkyverse – I’d only read Shortpacked before now, and while I was vaguely aware that it was part of a series of other webcomics with crossover characters going back 15 years, I hadn’t gone so far as to read them.

But I slipped and fell into Dumbing of Age recently, which is just celebrating its second anniversary – and is basically an alt!world fanfic by David Willis, putting all of his previous characters from various comics into a single college campus, and telling a fun adventure of romantic comedy, geekdom and the great philophical conundrums of our time.

Except of course it’s not fanfic if the author/artist is doing it, especially in comics where reboots and reimaginings are a lot more socially acceptable than among prose writers. Sure, Willis already wrote a college story with half these characters (Roomies!) but it was 15 years ago, and his art is about a million times better than it was back then. He’s also grown a lot as a person, having developed far more keen awareness about issues to do with gender, race, critical storytelling, how to make punchlines funny, and why rape culture means a whole lot of things you thought were funny when you were a teenager are in fact not.

Dumbing of Age, like Shortpacked, has a lot to say about pop culture and social commentary, and conveys that through a fun, diverse cast of characters. I think it’s his best series so far in the portrayal of women, and it’s pretty cool that he has basically given himself another chance to explore his old favourites without some of the baggage of the previous reality.

Sal and Billie, for instance, are two characters whose relationship in the Walkyverse was entirely defined by Danny, the man that they both loved/had loved. Jealousy flared up pretty much any time they were in a room together, even if the world needed saving from aliens. It was a bit cliched, though those characters were quite well rounded in other ways. In the Dumbing of Age reality, however, the two women drive each other nuts for reasons that have nothing to do with boys, and their road to friendship is far more complex and interesting than ever before.

I was daunted by the cruddy art and failed humour of early Roomies strips, but Willis recently launched a blog that is reposting the old strips once a day with his commentary, and this provides a lot more context and deprecating humour than if I tried to read my way through the old stuff on my own.

But no one can cringe more about those early strips than Willis himself, and I think that it’s fascinating to track his development over the years as well as admirable that he is willing to explore and analyse his early work rather than trying to hide it behind a rock. I don’t have to roll my eyes about that dubious joke about sexual consent because look, the writer did it for me! Ah, 1997. Humour was different then.

So after Roomies, Willis started It’s Walky! which I have read quite recently in its entirety. Which is to say, I fell into a black hole where I could do nothing until I had finished reading it. This was a weird, madcap science fictional soap opera told strip by strip over many years. The premise was that aliens were invading, and that a secret organisation called Semme had teams of crack troops, most of whom had some kind of super-power because they had been abducted by aliens.

The pacing of the story was bewildering, as it would go from pages and pages of flat out action adventure with occasional quips and funny bits, to long stretches of domestic comedy/drama about the team who all lived together in the same flat. It had everything from toilet jokes to deep psychological angst, sometimes in the same strip.

Most bizarrely, Willis had included in his main team several characters who had featured to a greater or lesser extent in Roomies! (which had not been the least bit science fictional), and added many crossover connections between his entire cast and that of the old gang. This included Joyce, who had been a wide-eyed, super Christian stalker girl and Sal, the girlfriend that the main protagonist of Roomies! had left behind to go to college in the first place.

Complex plot threads showed how the two stories could indeed occur in the same universe, and more and more Roomies elements fed into It’s Walky so that pretty much the entire cast were there for the epic conclusion of the story.

Yes it was weird and uneven and the early art in this series wasn’t anywhere near as good as it was towards the end. But I loved it dearly, broken bits and all.

When Willis started Shortpacked, a fun webcomic about a motley crew of obsessives running a toy store, he brought in two minor characters from It’s Walky: the super-speedster Robin DeSanto (who still uses her powers of sugar consumption and super speed) and Mike of the angry eyebrows (who had in fact been killed saving the world back in It’s Walky but was now mysteriously alive).

Concurrently, Willis wrote Joyce and Walky!, a completely domestic comedy about the day to day life of the titular characters, their friends and their relationship. What do you do after saving the world? Well, someone’s got to do the washing up, right? This series is mostly available via subscription and I’ve only read the free strips, so I have more to hunt down.

It’s no longer remotely surprising to me that he decided to consolidate all of these series with a brand new, starting from scratch universe, complete with modern storytelling sensibilities and the polished art style he has developed in recent years. Climbing through this complicated history though has made me think a lot about comics as an art/writing form, and what they do well.

I can’t think of any examples of a prose writer doing this – taking a property they have written and retooling it, using the same characters all over again – unless they were adapting it into a new medium. (now that I actually have said that, I think Kim Newman and Michael Moorcock have both pretty much done this with Anno Dracula etc. and Jerry Cornelius – can you think of more examples? and is anyone doing it these days?) The retooling of the same characters/stories happens in fanfic a lot – AUs are a very popular writing convention and some of my favourite fanfics of all time have been so far AU that they carried almost nothing of the original property – but it’s comics where the reimagining and recycling of characters are most thoroughly accepted and encouraged as techniques.

The Marvel Ultimate universe is a great example of this – forty or more years of history set aside to tell the stories again, but differently, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man is wonderful, but I also have a soft spot for the Ultimate Fantastic Four, which made me like that team in a way that the original comics never managed. And of course, it doesn’t affect the original universe, because it exists separately. (but has because of its popularity, accessibility and contemporary interpretations of the characters had huge knock on effects in other properties including toys, cartoon series and the live action movies)

The DC New 52 of course is an example where this didn’t work, because too many punches were pulled on the reboot, and fans of everything except Batman were so busy grieving everything that had been thrown away to create the New 52 that they weren’t exactly in a receptive mood to accept the changes. Also many of the changes sucked.

But in comics you know that the characters are forever, they can exist all over again and in multiple versions of reality. As long as they are being written still. In DC and Marvel comics, it’s not up to the writers/artists, but the lovely and freeing thing about the webcomics community is how strongly that sort of thing is in the hands of the creators. Which is why, I suspect, I find myself reading more and more webcomics, and that is where I look for non superhero antics.

I am excited by the idea that a comics writer/artist like David Willis can stop and reboot his own universe, and that he still has new stories to tell about his own characters. There isn’t always a single path for those characters to choose. Why the hell not?

So here I am, thinking about comics, reading comics, inspired by comics and yes, writing comics. I’ve always loved dialogue best of the storytelling toolbox, and the only surprise really is that I didn’t start doing this years ago.

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