Writing Comics

Posted in Savor The Flavor on January 6, 2010

As you might have seen in yesterday's Arcana, Path of the Planeswalker is in bookstores and many game stores this week. It's a bound compilation of seven "issues" of the Magic web comics that have run on magicthegathering.com over the last year, plus some new illustrations and an exclusive "issue" that has never run on the web (note that that issue has story implications for Worldwake and beyond).

Why did we print Path of the Planeswalker as a bound compilation of the planeswalker web comics? The answer is twofold:

1. It's for you!

We had already been producing the planeswalker comics for the web, and they've been well-received. We did the math, and figured out that we could publish the gorgeous, high-quality art of the comics as a book while keeping its cost relatively low. We knew that you, the Magic enthusiast, regular reader of magicthegathering.com, and, in particular, reader of Savor the Flavor, were already interested in the lore and stories behind the cards. You already know the planeswalker characters and dig hearing more about their exploits. And even though you may have kept track of the comics while they went up on the web, you may have missed a few, and may want to keep them all together. You may want to, you know, hold them. In your hands. Turning the pages like a real comic. You may want to own some of that gorgeous full-sized art by famous Magic artists. You may want to have the comics sitting next to your copies of other Magic books, providing the mortar to fuse together the Magic backstory into one big stone wall of planeswalkerness. Or, you know, you may not. You can always read the comics on the web, of course. They're still there, and they'll remain there. But if you want them bound up in a book, that option is NOW AVAILABLE.

2. It's also for not-you!

Now, I'm not sure how to do this, but I want somehow to talk to all those people who aren't reading this sentence. I want to talk to all those people who aren't readers of this site or plugged-in members of the Magic community. Can I talk to those people for a second? No? That's logically impossible? And logically impossible things are hard to do without lots of mana, I take it? Well, anyway, Path of the Planeswalker is for you—you un-talk-to-able person, you. See, part of the mission of Path of the Planeswalker, like Alara Unbroken and A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara and the planeswalker novels before it, is to get planeswalkers, and Magic in general, into another venue besides card shops and game conventions. It spreads the word to those who may not have had contact with the game. It gives them a peek of what's in store for them if they were to become part of the multiverse of Magic. This gets into why we did web comics in the first place—to see those planeswalker characters in action, to move them into a different medium where they could flex their muscles and be seen in a new way, to let them bust out of their card frames and live the stories of their lives for all to see.

But this article isn't about whys today. It's about hows!

    How We Make Comics

Want to know what goes on behind the scenes of the Magic planeswalker comics? Our process is like this.

Step 0: Brainstorming

Before any real writing gets done, we have to figure out what the next comic will be about. Sometimes we use a comic to highlight the story behind some upcoming release, such as Duel Decks: Garruk vs. Liliana or Zendikar. Sometimes we want to enrich the backstory and fill in story gaps not covered by the novels, such as Ajani's relationship to his brother or the story of how Tezzeret became a planeswalker. Sometimes we just want to, you know, see planeswalkers get mad and blast some spells at one another. But the subject matter of a comic usually ties into an overarching story, and is always planned out long before it runs on the web. (For example, this week I'm finishing up writing a comic that probably won't run until around September of 2010.)

Once we know roughly what the comic will be about, a writer is assigned to write it. That's usually someone on the Magic creative team, i.e. me, my fellow writer Jenna Helland, or creative team manager Brady Dommermuth. Before real writing starts, we outline to get the story down and to start to figure out how the panels might go on the page.

Here's a snippet of one of my outlines. This one's for The Veil's Curse, Part I, covering action that eventually became pages two through four.

Part 1

Open with Garruk still unconscious. He's having nightmares. Horrible visions. The decaying skull of the beast, Liliana's grinning face, the chain veil. He startles, awake.

He coughs. It's dark, and the air is thick with dust. He's trapped under some kind of rubble. Part of the ceiling must have caved in.

Shoves his way out. He's still in the Onakke chamber. No Liliana around.

Coughs again. He's weak. He has some kind of—sickness. Something's deep in his veins. He can see the tendrils of it under his skin. Whatever. Can't think about that now. Must find the witch.

The way out is blocked from the rubble. He summons a beast to help him smash his way out of here.

The beast appears, but something's wrong. It's sickly, skeletal, moaning in agony. It's affected by the same sickness that courses through his veins. The beast collapses, succumbing to the sickness almost immediately.

Garruk is horrified—and enraged. Whatever is affecting him affects his summoned creatures as well. Bleep that bleeping death-mage. Have to hunt her down now.

Moody panel in which Garruk, in silhouette, snaps the neck of the beast, killing it.

As you can see, it's pretty stream-of-consciousness. There's no division of panels yet, no dialogue. It's just sketches of action and emotion. In fact, despite being a lot of text, it's mostly visual. I've learned that it's crucial to think as visually as possible, like a movie director, when writing comics. Comics are the ultimate application of "show, don't tell," and it took a lot of work to figure out what comes out looking clear in the comic and what is too subtle or obtuse to show visually. Planeswalkers can be a thinky bunch—and that's good sometimes—but most of the time you need to think about what action they're undertaking.

(Garruk, incidentally, is a great character for comics. He's physical in action and devoted in cause. He isn't afraid to mix it up and he does all his own stunts. He can be tough sometimes because he's such a lone wolf—a lot of his "dialogue" is actually inner monologue, since he's never around anyone other than his beasts, and green isn't supposed to be too intellectual anyway—which makes it hard to get his thoughts out of his head and to the reader sometimes. But otherwise he's well-suited to the medium. I love writing about that guy.)

Step 1: Scripting

The next step (and the first step that appears in our corporate scheduling software) is writing the script of the comic. A comic script can look a variety of ways, but our scripts look something like a cross between a movie script, with dialogue and "stage direction," and a Magic card concept, with descriptions of action and references to how characters and magical effects should look.

Here's a sample taken from the same comic, The Veil's Curse, Part I.

Page 2

Panel A
Big panel. This is a dream of the rotting skeleton/carcass of GARRUK WILDSPEAKER'S BEAST. The corpse lies on its side in the forest. Flies buzz around the corpse. There's a horrible purplish glare on the scene, as if the (out-of-frame) sun has turned to blood.
NARRATION: Elsewhere...
GARRUK (voiceover): "Death surrounds me."

Panel B
GARRUK WILDSPEAKER awakens. He's lying on his side in the same position as the beast carcass in the previous panel. His face kind of "lines up" with the beast's skull. It's dark—not only is he inside the dark ONAKKE TOMB, but he's covered in a layer of rocky rubble.
GARRUK (voiceover): "It's suffocating. It's all around me."

Panel C
Garruk busts out of the rubble. His body is strong and powerful, like a former boxer. But his skin has purplish undertones, and dark veins run under his skin. He's not healthy.

Panel D
Pan back. Garruk has taken his helmet off, and holds it in one hand or under his arm. He's coughing (coff, coff), but we can see around the ONAKKE TOMB around him. The ceiling structure has partially caved in—it's not open to the sky (it's still an enclosed underground chamber), but there is rubble all around the chamber.

Panel E
Garruk finally looks at his arms/hands. He sees the veins and strange coloration to his skin.
GARRUK (voiceover): "Or is it inside me?"

The script codifies the action of the comic and tells the artist (once the comic has been commissioned) what to paint and how. There's dialogue specified here, but it's placeholder—the dialogue is usually rewritten almost from scratch once the art is final. It's there to guide the artist about what the characters are thinking, what their facial expressions should be, how they're interacting with the other characters, who should be in the "shot" in any given panel, etc. Even though the dialogue often gets thrown out, it's immensely helpful to the process.

Note that this script breaks down the action into panels, but not all of our comic scripts have looked like this. Sometimes they more closely resemble the more stream-of-consciousness outline I showed you earlier, and sometimes they're a mix of the two—some strict panel layout instructions and some "you know what I'm going for here, so show this however it makes sense." We work with very talented artists, so sometimes the best thing the writer can do is just trust the artist to figure out how best to get across the action visually.

Step 2: Commissioning

Magic art director Jeremy Jarvis is responsible for commissioning all the planeswalker web comics. (You know, the guy who commissions all those Magic cards? Like, all of them? Be nice to Jeremy—he works hard.) As a comics fan and an artist himself, he's also a great resource for advice on tweaks to the script that will improve its visual result and avoid pitfalls. Jeremy knows what it's like to receive art commissions as well as give them, so he's our resident expert on what makes a script helpful and clear to the artist.

The main task of the commissioning step is to find an artist who fits well with the project at hand. Artists have different styles and specialties, and the art director's task is to match that skill set with the visual content of the comic and the needs of the story being told.

Step 3: Art Development

Then it's off to the artist. For me, the writer-type, this is the equivalent of waiting for the cake to bake. There's nothing to do but pace around and pester the art director. Simulated dialogue:

Me: Do we have sketches yet?
Jeremy: No. Another two weeks.
Me (later): Do we have sketches now?
Jeremy: No. Another week.
Me (later):Now?
Jeremy: Ding!
Me: Yay!
Jeremy: No wait, they were delayed for some reason.
Me: But I—but the—why did you—
Jeremy: Never mind, sketches are in, here they are.
Me: Yay!

Much like in the card art development process, a few weeks after commissioning, the artist sends us a black-and-white sketch of the comic for us to review. It shows us a thumbnail of how the action will be laid out, who's in each panel and how many panels there are, and how much space there will be for word balloons. The whole team makes comments, not just the writer. "Make sure Ajani has his eye scar on the correct side of his face." "Leave us more room for text in this panel." "It needs to be clear that Liliana is casting this dark spell here, not being hit by it." "Make sure to stick to the token reference for Garruk's beasts."

Then once the feedback is ... fed back ... to the artist, he or she is off to make our modest words into beautiful art, and we are back to waiting. And pestering Jarvis.

Me: Are the—
Jeremy: NO!

Step 4: Copywriting

Once the final art is in, it's writing time again. This time it's to fit narration and dialogue to the art. This is usually the point where I have my usual Writing Media Are Different Freakout. See, while comics are mostly art, my brain is mostly words. Even though a lot of my job is condensing thoughts into little tiny sentences of flavor text, I still find it hard to get across everything I want to get across in little bitty word bubbles. Comics are a different medium from articles or novels—they just don't have much room to get across a lot of info. So the real work is to get across what's going on in as few words as possible. That is labor, I tell you—for me at least.

But it's good labor. It's what writers should be doing anyway. Fluff bad. Pith good.

The artist controls a lot of how the story is told. When the final art comes back, it shows the artist's interpretation of the writer's words (usually crisper and clearer than it was in my head anyway). That's why the placeholder dialogue from the script generally has to get tossed out. And then the writer writes all-new text, assigning that text to the final panels to be laid out by a graphic designer. We call this writing the "copy."

Step 5: Layout

Once the copy is all written, it and the final art get handed off to our CAPS (Creative and Production Services) department, where the comic gets lettered and laid out. The bubbles are made to fit inside the panels. The cover page and credits are created. Sound effects are designed and added. Certain words are bolded for emphasis, or reduced in size to create a "whispering" effect. Special treatments for dialogue (for example, the creepy, snaggly dialogue of Kothophed, one of the demons to whom Liliana owes her soul) are designed and laid out. Sometimes the writer estimated wrong, and text as written just won't fit in a given panel, and the graphic designer has to work with the writer to cut it down even further. Sometimes there's odd gaps that look like they need more text or more explanatory narration, and that gets written and added in. Sometimes the text just looks superfluous, and we rip it out (*sniff*) and just let the art tell the story all by itself. Sometimes we even detect continuity errors at this stage and correct them. Finally, the comic is basically done—in English.

Step 6: Translation

At this stage, the comic gets handed off to Wizards' localization team, where the text of the comic gets translated into other languages (usually Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Japanese). This is the same team that localizes the text of Magic cards and handles any other translation needs for the company—they're a busy bunch. The localized text then has to be laid out again, as word length and sentence structure can sometimes flow differently in different languages (I'm looking at you, German). It's at this stage when the localization team can require further background information on the text—what gender is Kothophed? What's the definition of "ursoth"? We answer (as best we can), and the translated versions of the comic are completed.

Step 7: To the Web!

When it's time for the comic to run on the web, the final files in all nine languages are sent over to the web team. They handle converting the files into web-usable images, and they build the navigation so that you can page through the comic. They set it up to run on magicthegathering.com at a certain time and build a new entry for it in the archive of planeswalker web comics. They also hook it up to a message board thread and track traffic as you guys start seeing it.

    That's the Process!

That's what we do. It's certainly not how all comics are created, but it's what we've done for the comic series that's now being published as Path of the Planeswalker. I'm excited to see how the planeswalker characters have grown and changed partly as a result of the comics, and I look forward to hearing what you think of the book. We have many more comics planned for 2010—more chances to see the planeswalkers and Magic in action.

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
I'm not sure if this is the right place for this, but I personally love when a card references its predecessors, whether it's the name of the card, its ability or its flavor text. But my personal favorite is when there are subtle nods to older cards in its artwork. Take [the December 9th] Arcana for example, the necklace depicted in Fortune Thief that alludes to the necklace in the art for Ali from Cairo.

My question is, does the team request this from the artist, is the artist given older cards as references, or do a majority of artists actually play Magic?


A lot of Magic artists have played the game, and some even play avidly, but many of them haven't played. Even in cases where the artist is a player, though, the art order comes from us, so the artists are usually giving us what we asked for. Time Spiral block was full of little visual nods to past cards, like Fortune Thief, and the creative team worked hard to make those references line up—even to the point of having the same artist illustrate the homage that illustrated the original (where possible).

There are times, though, when an artist is so well-versed in the game and the Magic universe that he or she will suggest to us other options for how to illustrate a card, or wow us with a different perspective on what we asked for. And sometimes we commission pieces of art from awesome artists without even having a particular card in mind, knowing that we'll likely be able to use their work somewhere (e.g.: "Hey artist, give us a really cool demon—not setting-specific, just whatever looks cool to you"). This only works with artists who know Magic very well, as there are a million little ways to go wrong when you're working without the "net" of a real art description, and we have to make sure it's of something that can actually go on a card someday—but sometimes these pieces can turn out to be some of the most beautiful art in the game.

Latest Savor The Flavor Articles

Daily MTG

December 24, 2012

Is This Your Fateful Hour? by, Doug Beyer

Before the city-plane of Ravnica devoured the spotlight, the shadow-lurking forces of Innistrad were the ones doing the devouring. In this interactive article, you play the role of a tr...

Learn More

Daily MTG

March 28, 2012

Thanks and So Long by, Doug Beyer

Today I'm hurling huge explosions of gratitude and appreciation at you. To everyone who has read these articles and shared this enthusiasm for Magic flavor: you are awesome. I've loved ta...

Learn More



Savor The Flavor Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All