Black Panther: a storytelling masterclass

When I heard that Ta-Nehisi Coates—long one of my favorite writers—and Brian Stelfreeze—long one of my favorite artists, not to mention favorite people—were teaming up to work on a Black Panther monthly, I was over the moon excited. These pages show exactly why.

All right. So this is from the fourth issue. By now the readers are already well acquainted with these characters: T'Challa, who's the king of Wakanda—as well as being the Black Panther, of course—and Ramonda, his stepmother, the queen mother. But even if you didn't know any of that, even if these were the only two pages you'd ever read, you'd get much of that from the dialogue, which uses their names and/or titles unobtrusively, clueing you in to their relationship and artfully filling in some previously unknown but important backstory, as well as some of the nuances of their own relationship.

Now look at the elegance of the way each page is composed. The first with its bookends of widescreen panels, while the middle tier is composed of identically sized vertical panels, is a model of balance. The two widescreen panels show essentially the same thing, T'Challa and Ramonda having breakfast. But because the second is significantly panned in, there's nothing monotonous about repeating a similar shot. Similarly, each panel in the middle tier is the same shape and size (save for the round panel borders on the first two, denoting that they're flashbacks, and major damn props for the old school storytelling there), with one character in each the primary focus. But because Brian moves the camera in and out, up and down, each image feels fresh. Adding to all this, of course, is absolutely stellar color work by the magnificent Laura Martin, who not only renders the very first panel as though Maxfield Parrish were painting a Wakandan cityscape, but adds to the clarity of the flashbacks by going monochromatic, but using a different palette for each, to denote different times in the past.

The second page, by contrast, is just as elegantly laid out, but Brian chooses an alternate approach: again, three tiers, but this time only the middle tier is widescreen, while the first has three equal sized panels and the bottom two. Again, a perfectly balanced page, but with enough variety to keep the eye fully engaged—and note, too, how often on this second page we're treated to subtle downshots: literal bird's eye views of this high high above the city's streets scene.

But here's the thing. Check out the way Brian reveals how T'Challa is feeling during this conversation. It starts with him sitting at the table, but as the talk progresses, he moves further and further away from his stepmother—except that they're on a balcony, so there's only so far away he can move. But he gets every bit as far away as possible, until by the final panel, his heels seem to literally be hanging over the edge.

Now, if he were any other character, you'd infer from this that the guy was suicidal, or at least reckless, or perhaps drunk or even just plain stupid. But T'Challa is precisely none of those things: he's the Black Panther, which means he's in complete command of his body. He knows exactly where he is and what's perfectly safe for him to do, even if it wouldn't be for just about any other human. He knows he's not going to fall, but if he were to, he wouldn't be killed on account of his suit—although, even then, things probably wouldn't get to that point, as he'd be able to arrest his fall, most likely, because, again, he's the Black damn Panther, and that's how badass he is.

Or how badass he can be. He's only this badass in this exact situation because of the choice his badass artist made to show, in one small understated panel, this subtle, incisive bit of characterization.

Brian Stelfreeze: The Flash!

So I've been asked to write a piece about Brian Stelfreeze, which is convenient, since it's one of my favorite things to do anyway. I start writing about a poster of The Flash Brian painted back in the 90s but for once my normally outstanding google-fu is failing me; according to the internet, Brian did no such thing. But I'm sure he did—it was hanging up all over the DC Comics offices. And yet.

Naturally, I write Brian and ask him if I'm losing my mind. He draws one fewer Black Panther panels that day, instead sending me a copy of the mythical painting in question. It looks even better than I'd remembered, and I'd loved it at the time.

So it's official. I haven't completely lost my mind, not yet. And here, internet—this is for you: Brian Stelfreeze's painted Flash poster. You're welcome.

Batman: Dark Tomorow podcast

So here's a thing I did—an interview about the infamous Batman: Dark Tomorrow videogame I wrote once upon a time. Chris Clow, the gent who interviewed me, did a great job and, apparently, is the person who actually bought the game despite having already played some of it. Now there's dedication!

Check out the interview here—but be prepared, it's not brief. What can I say? Who doesn't love to talk about their greatest flop? Besides...I'm actually really still quite fond of the damn thing. Sure, it was a disaster, but I had fun doing it, and some of the cinematics are still pretty groovy. And I'm a sucker for The Noble Failure™, even when it's mine.

Gotham Adventures #17

When I was first trying to figure out how to differentiate the original Batman Adventures run from the many other Batman comics we were then producing, one of the things that occurred to me was to strictly limit the number of panels per page.

I liked this idea for a few reasons. The first was that the book was designed to be accessible and attractive to the very earliest of readers, and fewer, bigger panels seemed to me one way to achieve that goal. But the other thing was that we were, obviously, tied to the brilliant animated show. And I felt that by going with fewer and therefore bigger panels per page, we'd be making it a faster read, sorta kinda imitating the kind of motion animation obviously has and which comics obviously don't have.

I thought it worked wonderfully. Some creators felt it was a bit restrictive, but others flourished—most obviously the unsurpassable team of Kelley Puckett, Mike Parobeck and Rick Burchett. I found it to be something like working in blank verse rather than free verse, somewhat akin to the (perhaps apocryphal?) famous Robert Frost quote that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net. I loved the challenge of writing (hopefully) fully satisfying, interesting, exciting, funny, thought-provoking stories with an absolutely maximum of 85 panels (and sometimes even fewer).

Fortunately, in Tim Levins I found a co-creator more than up for the challenge. Just check out this page, from Gotham Adventures #17—only our second issue working together:
Look at how clear, how elegant, yet how interesting this page is.

The exterior establishing shot, shot from far away and high above, already indicating the house—mansion, really—is extremely large...and there are unconscious bodies strewn about.

Move in for an interior establishing shot, with another interesting camera angle, another victim in the extreme foreground, others in the background, and more indications of wealth.

The third panel, the first to show actual action, as two more victims are tossed onto an enormous desk, the action ramping things up, the angle straight on for maximum clarity.

Then the final panel, pulling the camera back, although still eye level, with the Batman and not just his deeds at long last on stage, way off to the right of the panel, his antagonist on the far left, their placements drawing a parallel between these two characters, both largely in shadow and yet the antagonist's wheelchair highlighting the obvious difference.

Gotham Adventuers #20: Swing

Reason #739381 I love working with Tim Levins

Compare and contrast the script page I wrote:
Page Five
Panel One
Batman and Robin swing as only they can. Starry, starry night behind them, Gotham all a-twinkle. It’s poetry, really.
     ROBIN: Wow. I knew Eden’s Own was popular, but I had no idea it’d gotten this big. 
     BATMAN: So you’ve heard of this cereal before? 

Panel Two
     ROBIN: Are you kidding? Eden’s Owns is the hottest thing on the market. There’s a lot of people who won’t eat anything else.
     ROBIN: I first heard about it from Batgirl--it’s only sold through health food stores, so college kids were about the first to pick up on it. 

Panel Three
They land on a rooftop.
     ROBIN: These days, though...

Panel Four
Robin gestures to the street down below. We can see a row of stores, all of which are closed; well, it is four o’clock in the morn, for pete’s sake. Then how come there is a huge queue, at least two dozen deep, forming outside the Blossom’s Health Foods store? Ah, mysteries... If we can see it, the store’s got a big sign in the window: “We Have Eden’s Own!”
     ROBIN: Well, just take a look.
     ROBIN: The store won’t even be open for five hours and people are already lining up to buy the stuff.
 with what Tim then drew:


I wrote "swing."

That was the total of my shot description. And that big panel is what I got in return.

Look at the characterization there: the Batman all big, bold, aggressive, assured, sheer power yet graceful, whereas Robin is more, well, kid-like, albeit a kid who's got the ability and nerve to swing from a line hundreds of feet above the city streets. Awesome.

I was fascinated to look at my page of script today, as it'd been 15 years or so since I'd last looked at it. This was only the fourth issue Tim and I had worked on together, and yet looking at those minimalist shot descriptions, very clearly I'd already internalized just what he was capable of and willing to bring to the table as an artist, and trusted him completely. As well as I should. That big dramatic panel, bookended by the smaller yet still visually interesting and aesthetically pleasing panels, with the final panel pure storytelling? That's like Comic Book Storytelling 101 right there.

Gotham Adventures #15

So my boy Tim Levins the great and powerful has been posting some of our old Gotham Adventures collaborations on his DeviantArt page, and making me positively sentimental (something which does not come naturally to me). What's more, I'm learning some stuff about how he felt about the work, and that's beyond delightful.

This is a page from our first issue together. I was thrilled with Tim's work from the very first, but I think this may be the page that made me fall helplessly, hopelessly, deeply in love with his art, and want to keep working with him forever and ever.
true love, Gotham style

I am the knight

My wife comes out of her office and stops short. "What?" she says in an alarmed tone.

I look up. "What what?"

"Why do you have that look on your face?"

"What look?"

"You looked so...grim."

"Oh. Sorry. I was being Batman."

"Oh. No, I'm sorry. Go back to it," she says, heading back into her office.

One of the nice things about being married to another writer is you don't have to explain what it's like when you suddenly find yourself writing dialogue for a scene when you're actually right in the middle of washing the dishes.

The Joy of Writing

I've never seen any other depiction come anywhere near this close to dead on accurate.

Kelley Puckett in Batgirl Beyond

When Annie Wu and I did Batgirl Beyond a few years back, my old pal Kelley Puckett gave me feedback on an early version of the script. I graciously thanked him here in this second panel. That's the kind of loving, respectful relationship we have.

Gotham Adventures #23

So someone sent this to me, and it was a delightful surprise, since I was a fan of all seven days, but two of them were, well, mine. On the Wednesday entry, I was the editor for the pinup by the great Kelley Jones and how awesome is his shot? How dead on is his characterization of the Joker and Penguin, despite being rendered in a totally different style to his normal incredibly unique style?

Then there's Sunday. I wrote that issue, my first time (I think) writing the immortal Ra's al Ghul, fully aware of what huge shoes I had to fill. Fortunately, I had the great Tim Levins on art, so I knew I was at least well covered there. And how well covered indeed. I haven't read the entire issue in years, but I had to laugh, looking at the panels reprinted here. I clearly asked more of Tim than was seemly or kind, and even more clearly, Tim then went and delivered, and then some.

I mean, here're my shot descriptions for Pages Sixteen and Seventeen:
Page Sixteen
Panel One
Big ol’ shot of the Dark Knight doing his best Tarzan imitation as he swings towards the stronghold of Ra’s al Ghul. His line’s attached to either a tree near the castle, or has imbedded into the castle itself. If, for any reason, this wouldn’t work given the geography of the island, Tim, just let me know and I’ll change this all around.

Panel Two
He’s now let go of the line and is entering a window in one of the castle’s turrets feet first, knocking over several of the guards as he does so.

Panel Three
He turns to see a host of guards coming up the turret stairs. Batman’s in one of his ready crouches and is taking a sword off one of the unconscious guards whilst never taking his eyes off the approaching troops. It’s a scimitar, one of those big mamajama swords that’s curved and thicker near the tip than the handle.

Panel Four
Batman’s in the winding stone stairway, swordfighting his way down the stairs, conquering guards left and right, taking another sword off a vanquished foe. Roll over, Errol Flynn.

Page Seventeen
Panel One
Pull way back for a big shot. Batman is still carrying his swords, if it looks okay to have a sword in each hand; if it doesn’t, just give him one (and delete the second from last panel) and have Ra’s toss him one next page. Batman is sprinting out of the stairs and into an immense room as guards come swarming. If we still see the stairs, it’s piled with bodies. This is the anteroom of the throne room (and where else would Lord al Ghul be?); although we can’t see Ra’s yet, we can glimpse the room he’s in through the enormous doorway. The door itself is a huge wooden door inside the room, hanging by a pulley system--we won’t know this until next panel, but there you go. Almost done with guards, Tim.

Panel Two
Batman enters the throne room, walking now. As he does so he throws his sword backwards and up without looking. The sword cuts through the rope holding the door up, imbedding in the wall. Needless to say, with the rope thus severed, the door begins to plummet closed.

Panel Three
Twoshot of Batman and Ra’s. The hero and the villain. The Dark Knight and the Demon’s Head. Protagonist and antagonist. The door slams closed. There are no guards in the room, but there is an enormous and ornate tapestry that hangs on an otherwise blank section of wall. This tapestry hangs almost all the way to the floor; it doens’t matter which of the four walls, but it’d be nice to see it here. This is absolutely the only decoration in the entire room, which is quite large indeed, except for some torches on the walls, if you want, because torches are cool and Ghulish. I think Ra’s is sitting down here, but if standing works better, so be it.
      RA’S: Hello, Detective.
What I asked for was totally unreasonable. And yet here's what Tim delivered.

I am a very lucky man. (And I feel we've proven beyond a doubt that torches are Ghoulish.)

What States Drink

Well. We may have finally found something even the reddest of states (Texas, Alaska, Alabama) and the bluest (California, Vermont, Hawaii) agree on: Jack Daniels.