A month or so ago, I wrote a broad overview about the inspirations for Rebirth of the Gangster, the comic that I write with artist extraordinaire Juan Romera. I got so much good feedback from that article that I decided to keep up the behind the scenes look at my crime comic, but I thought I’d twist the concept and get into the nitty-gritty, the nuts-and-bolts of actually making a comic, not just the inspiration behind it. In short, this series will tackle the blood, sweat and tears part of creating a comic, not just the childhood seeds that eventually bore fruit.
The Birth of the Idea
A while back I wrote a poem as a model for my students (I’m a high school English teacher if you didn’t know). I no longer remember what lesson this poem was for, but I became obsessed with the themes it established. I also wanted to know more about who the narrator was, and where he would go with his life after being “born out of darkness”. Would he really find the light? Who or what was responsible for creating that darkness in the first place? Below is the poem I created, which I adapted, more concisely, to start the comic (compare the poem to the first page, which I’ve attached shortly after the poem).
I was born out of darkness into light
But I bet I didn’t view my birth with such optimism.
Rather, I imagine that my newborn eyes
balked at the harsh glare
and I suppose that my meek mind
reeled at the excitement of a new world.
While I truly hope that my small self greeted this new world with
the passion of a pioneer staking out new land,
I realize that, instead, I must have lashed out at this new experience:
wailing and wavering,
like a rabbit dodging birds of prey.
As I flinched at this world of light
my grandfather’s flame flickered and fell–
leaving my torch in greater darkness
but with a greater chance to flare up
My mother rattled and shook with the pain of
bringing me into this world;
my grandfather, too, rattled and shook with the pain of
I was born out of darkness into light.
as I recite the conditions of my birth,
I am left with one simple question-
What makes my birth so different from
“Chapter 1: The Future is Mine”
As you can see from the “Prologue” and first chapter title, I always intended to use this piece in a longer work. However, my plan was to make a sweeping historical novel centering around two families during the Great Depression (the Marcus character would be white and rich, and the Hunter character would be black and poor). Clearly that’s not how it’s playing out in the comic. I thought it might be too stereotypical, so I switched the race of the narrators to make it more unique and I brought it to present day to make it more relevant.
After I wrote this poem, I started working on a different comic titled “The Eye of the Beholder”–if you’re interested in that comic, one of my past Kickstarter rewards that I’ve written about is a sample script, so you might be able to track it down or email me requesting it–but I quickly realized I didn’t know where to take that story. I hadn’t done excessive planning, and I was writing the comic for a stylistic experiment more than an actual, engaging story. So, while that comic went nowhere, it did teach me some valuable lessons:
- Other writers might be able to start with a spark of an idea and improvise as they write. Not me. Or at least, not me at this stage of my career. I found that I need a very detailed layout of the story before I even start it. This isn’t to say that I will follow that outline completely, but I need it to have a clear picture of where I’m going. And besides, I’ve found that having that outline in place has freed me up to be flexible, ironically: it’s easier for me to adjust if I know the rest of the skeleton is intact, and if I know where I need to bring a story element back into the bigger picture.
- I also realized that I loved writing for comics. I mean, it shouldn’t really have been a surprise, since I’ve read comics obsessively since I got a Christmas gift of 30 X-Men comics from my parents, but I had been stuck on this idea of establishing my literary merit with a novel before switching to comics. I had the mindset I’d often raved against: that comics can’t be seen as serious literature. (Don’t worry–I don’t believe that now, and I didn’t really believe it wholeheartedly then. I was just letting fear run my life more).
When it came to adapting this poem to the first page, I quickly realized it was too wordy, especially once I saw Juan’s great storytelling ability. Below, you can see the complete page where I’ve bolded the lines that were deleted. As they say when revising, “Murder your darlings”, and that’s exactly what it felt like. But I think it made the comic better and more concise. Decide for yourself though, and compare the comic page with the first draft of the script for that page that follows.
Rebirth of the Gangster, Issue #1 CJ Standal, 1
MY NAME, ADDRESS, AND CONTACT INFO WAS HERE.
PAGE ONE (nine panels, standard 3×3 grid, each panel the same size and shape)
Panel 1. We open on a completely black panel, starting our story the way all our stories start: in darkness. This page will be a flashback. We’ll have a lot of these flashbacks throughout this story, so it would help if you manage to visually separate these pages and panels from the rest of the piece, either by having a different style or even something as simple as creating a different outline for the panel borders.
“I was born out of darkness into light.”
Panel 2. The fluorescent glare of hospital lights shines through and breaks the darkness. We see these lights, the ceiling, and that’s it; we’re essentially taking on the perspective of the narrator as a new-born baby.
Panel 3. Now we’ve shifted out of that perspective and are looking down on Marcus, the new-born baby. A close-up of a screaming baby shakes the borders of this panel.
“But I bet I didn’t view my birth with such optimism. Rather, I imagine that my newborn eyes balked at the harsh glare, and I suppose that my meek mind reeled at the excitement of a new world.”
Panel 4. We’ve widened our camera angle to see the thrum of a busy hospital room. Doctor and nurse hover near the hospital bed, standard birthing accessories/machines wait for the next birth, and Marcus’s mom and dad hold him, welcoming him into their lives.
“While I truly hope that my small self greeted this new world with the passion of a pioneer staking out new land–”
Panel 5. Zoom in on a scissors snipping an umbilical cord.
“–I realize instead I must have lashed out at this new experience: –”
Rebirth of the Gangster, Issue #1 CJ Standal, 2
PAGE ONE, CONTINUED
Panel 6. This panel is similar to panel 4, but now we’ve completely zoomed in on Marcus being held by his mom and dad. Like all new parents, love radiates from them and his mom’s eyes water. Marcus continues to howl.
“–wailing and wavering, like a rabbit dodging birds of prey.”
Panel 7. We shift scenes (keeping the voiceover from Marcus). Now, we’re on the streets of Madison, WI at night. On the left side of the panel, hands holding a gun creep onto the panel. The hands clutch the gun as it blasts a few shots, attacker knowing how to prep for the recoil. On the right side of the panel we see the target of this gunshot: an old, black man (Marcus’ grandfather). He’s wearing a suit, newly bought. He’s pushed back by the force of the gunshots, flailing as his feet leave the ground.
“As I flinched at this world of light, my grandfather’s flame flickered and fell–”
Panel 8. We’re at the same scene as panel 7, but time has passed, the murder has been discovered, the body is gone, and all we see is a chalk outline of the grandfather’s body. It’s still night, but we can see this area more illuminated than in panel 7; flashlight beams cut across the chalk outline and this panel.
“–leaving my torch in greater darkness but with a greater chance to flare up, illuminate, burn.”
Panel 9. We’re at the same scene as panel 8, but now we’re panning out to seeing the area surrounding this chalk outline. We still see the outline, but it’s crowded by police tape and cops talking with each other and with witnesses. Their flashlights still shine against the darkness. There will be two captions in this panel: the first one will be at the top of this panel and the second will be at the bottom.
“As my mother rattled and shook with the pain of bringing me into this world, my grandfather, too, rattled and shook with the pain of saying good bye, severing ties.”
“I was born out of darkness into light.”
*Note* To see more behind the scenes, check out “First Shot: The Making of Rebirth of the Gangster“ for sale on Amazon!
And stay tuned for more posts on creating the comic: I’ll cover writing the script, finding the artist, communicating with the artist, lettering the art, and the all-important process of submitting a comic to publishers, plus revising based on feedback. Until I shine the light on this process again, good luck in the dark!