So You Want to Write Comics: Influences

When I was learning to play guitar, I remember reading something to the effect of “listen to every piece of music and melody you hear, and try to play it on your guitar.”  This included commercial jingles and bad pop music and TV theme songs.  The idea was to be able to understand all forms of music, and what worked and what didn’t work.  The same goes for writing, and it’s one of the better pieces of advice I’ve come across for aspiring writers.  Stephen King, in his book On Writing, suggested that one of the most important things you can do as a writer is to read as much as you can.  This is fantastic advice, as long as you don’t, as I certainly have, use this as a way to put off the actual writing.  So I guess that in reality, the most important thing you can do to write is to write.  But right after that, it’s to continually fill your mind-tank with as many varying words and stories as you can find.

This applies to comics as well, but it seems like a good deal of the people who want to make comics really only count comics, or at the most sci-fi among their influences.  But the guys who are doing the best work at the big superhero books are clearly influenced by all sorts of stuff.  Hell, Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet are almost running Secret Invasion by indirect proxy.  The fact is, if comic books were the only input into the creative output of new comic books, it would all start to feed on itself, and we end up with far too much self-referential in-jokes that, while fun at first, eventually become tiring and ultimately unsatisfying (see: Family Guy).  Further, it has long been my contention that the comic book is capable of telling any type of story, with just as much range as novels, or films and TV.  Therefore the more places creators pull inspiration from, the better.

All this got me thinking about my favorite writers, and how that informs my writing (both the stuff on iFanboy and the fiction comics that might never see the light of day).  Some are obvious, and others surprised me, when I think about how they find their way into my work.  What’s really interesting to me is how many of these are based in comedy, and how much I like comedy, but so little of my work actually turns out funny.  Talk to me in real life, or listen to any of the shows we’ve done, and I can’t help but make jokes (defense mechanism of some kind I suspect), but I often have to go back through things I’ve written and try quite hard to make them less dour.  Still, there are lessons to be learned from well produced comedy writing that have nothing to do with being funny.  So funny or not, and regardless of their medium, format or genre, the following writers had enormous impact on the way I put words together and why I do so.

  • Neal Stephenson – Stephenson is a novelist, whose work is so diverse, imaginative and ambitious that I don’t have a simple term to put his work into a genre box, and I don’t want to.  When I read any of his work, from Snow Crash to The Diamond Age to Cryptonomicon (possibly my favorite book ever), I see something that I don’t think I could ever match in depth and intelligence.  For some, that might be discouraging, but the fact is, Stephenson is a god, and trying to catch up to him is futile.  But at the same time, it’s clear that something can be that big and that good, and it is possible, and that gives me hope.  I’d love to see more comics with the ambition of Neal Stephenson.  The world building and deep continuity is there, but I rarely see the courage of concepts he chases.  I think Claremont could have kept up with him for a time, except for the fact that Stephenson’s ever growing books are also frighteningly entertaining, almost in opposition to what it would seem to be at first glance.


  • Monty Python - Most notably, I think the stuff written by Graham Chapman and John Cleese really spoke to me, for taking things that seem so obvious, and right there in front of your face, and making them completely new.  Cleese and Chapman so frequently took what was a normal situation, and twisted them just slightly, leaving one exasperated person to try to make sense of the nonsense happening around them.  There’s the Cheese Shop, and the Dead Parrot and the Ministry of Silly Walks and the Silly Job Interview, and many more, and the lesson for me was to look right in front of you at what’s odd or interesting about the most mundane things in life.  Interesting writing can show us how easily switching out one normal facet for one that doesn’t quite fit gives you drama or comedy.  Monty Python would juggle ideas, and play with your expectations, which are fine traits for any writer.


  • Brian Michael Bendis - He’s the only comic book writer on my list, and he’s here for several reasons.  To me, Bendis changed what was expected of a mainstream superhero comic book.  He was a guy who did his own thing for a long time, and when he got to Marvel, he kept doing just that.  He dabbles in different stories, and while I don’t always like them, I am impressed with his fearlessness.  I wouldn’t have thought in a million years that the Bendis I had come to know would be able to make New Avengers something I’d think about reading.  I thought he could only to snappy dialog, street level crime, and that’s about it.  But he put his stamp over every kind of book they have at Marvel.  And while some might say that all superheroes are the same, we know that’s not true.  Further, Bendis had a style of writing I felt I could aspire to.  I know I can’t write like Mark Waid, but when I read Bendis stuff, I think, “This is both really good, and I think I could do something like this,” meaning, there’s a chance for me, not that I want to do books in his style.  Bendis is also an immense inspiration for me.  He’s a guy who really toiled for a decade doing books no one knew or cared about.  He proves that you can stick with it, and persevere, and do the work you want to, and be successful, and all you’ve got to do is try, really hard.  He always reminds people that the only thing they have holding them back is themselves.  That’s such a great lesson, and it makes me want to sit down at my keyboard and make something.  It’s so plain and so true, but you just have to do the work, and keep doing the work, regardless of whether you think anything will happen with it.


  • Bill Watterson - A 10-year old Josh picked up the Essential Calvin and Hobbes before going camping for a week, and he was never the same.  There are many levels of Watterson’s work, but what stands out to me is the pure simplicity in Calvin and Hobbes.  The basic heart of that work is so relatable that it becomes reality.  You want to know this kid, and you want him to be happy, and you want him to be real.  It was funny, and real, and you couldn’t help but see the heart, and it was communicated so elegantly, that it fit into just a few words, and just a few panels.  Nothing has ever made me wish I could draw more than Calvin and Hobbes.  There’s almost no separation between the words and the pictures.  They worked in perfect concert, both aspects of equal importance to the final product.  When I think of sincerity and pure emotional resonance, I think of Bill Watterson.


  • James Downey - Here’s a name you might not know right off, but I guarantee you’re familiar with his work.  Downey (Tony Stark’s uncle, for the record) wrote for Saturday Night Live for many seasons, and is known mainly for his political sketches.  I realized during the years long election we just concluded, that I learned a lot of my thinking on politics from watching SNL skits in the 80′s which I didn’t fully understand at the time.  Yet, when it comes to cutting through the crap and seeing politicians and the people who run our lives for what they are, Downey’s sketches were instrumental.  I didn’t know he was doing the bulk of that writing until much later in life, but regardless, he was a huge influence on me.  From the parodies of George Bush and Dan Quayle, to Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, to much of the recent work we’ve seen, Downey is a pro and a veteran.  It’s generally accepted that Downey leans more to the conservative side of things as well, proving that you needn’t pick favorites when poking fun at the emperor.  Obviously, we’ve been talking about politics a great deal lately, and I believe politics have a vital and important role in storytelling.  A giant influence on the way I see politics comes from the work of Downey.  While the format isn’t necessarily what I would put into comics, the ideas and thoughts behind them very much influenced me.


  • Kevin Smith - Depending on your age, you might be thinking a few different things with my inclusion of Smith.  If you’re my age, you knew Kevin Smith when Kevin Smith was a big deal, and a new thing.  There had been nothing like him, and he hadn’t turned into…whatever it is that he is now.  He hadn’t become a joke in comic book circles for announcing projects that never happened, and taking the better part of a decade to finish a story.  Back when I was 19 years old, he was a guy who was just very funny and very honest.  Clerks was a phenomena I will never forget.  It was so natural and it didn’t matter that it was shot terribly, and the acting was, for the most part, barely adequate.  It wasn’t very realistic, and yet it was the most true thing available at the time.  What Kevin Smith did was to channel himself and the things that make him great into this script and he got that on film.  And all his charm and wit and appeal were right there on the screen and in those words.  Later works weren’t as successful, but you can never say that they weren’t 100% Kevin Smith, which is about all you can expect of him.  Yet for Smith, it seems that being himself is enough.  There’s a stellar wit, and a glowing enthusiasm, with just a bit of weariness.  Smith taught me to just do what you do best, and if you’ve got it, that will be enough.


  • Pete Townshend - Pete is the reason for the Who, who are the reason for so much wonderful work that followed them.  From Pete Townshend, I learned to try to find your voice in whatever medium you’re working, and make it authentic.  This is a guy who told ridiculous stories through overblown concept albums before there were concept albums.  He told stories through songs, and they were long stories.  Before Pete, albums were at best, short story anthologies, and Pete made Tommy into a novel.  But it’s not just Tommy.  Even the earliest work spoke so plainly and so evocatively about the experiences of kids living in London at the time he was writing.  He did it without flowery words, and did it in such a way that I honestly feel like I know the guy through his work.  Finally, Pete is about attitude, and how you can inform your work that attitude, as long as you stay authentic to who you are, and what you’re trying to say.  If Pete can communicate so clearly through songs, then surely that authenticity can be found in the pages of a comic book story.


Of course, there are probably more, but this is a good cross section of writers who impressed me and inspired me.  As you can tell, they’re almost completely unrelated to one another, and other than Bendis, there are no comic writers (Smith doesn’t count).  You can learn about how to tell a story from anything you read, from non-fiction to 3 panel strips.  I’m sure you’ve got your own lists of writers and artists, where you read something they produced, and you just get that smile, and that warm feeling, where on the one hand, you’re awed by their talent, and on the other hand, you think, “if I could just get serious for a little while and get myself going, I too could produce a work like this.”  The trick, it seems, is getting yourself to do that.  So, if you’ve ever had that passing thought, and you made up some excuse why you can’t, let it go right now.  Go start writing that thing you’ve been thinking about.  Think about the artists who’ve inspired you, and influenced you, and just jot down some of the thoughts you’ve had.  You never know what it might turn into, but if you do nothing, you’ll have nothing.  So just start with something.

Comments

  1. stuclach stuclach says:

    @Josh – Have you seen Zack and Miri Make a Porno?  I hope it is a return to form for Mr. Smith (Clerks 2 felt … wrong for some [possibly donkey related] reason).

    James Downey was phenomenal at SNL for a great many years and continues to have a rapier wit.

    As someone who writes constantly (economics journal articles, not creative writing), I second the suggestion that the best way to get started is to simply START.  Get something on the paper.

    Good luck with your writing.  I will be first in line to read anything you write.  (The first time.  If you suck I won’t come back.  No pressure.)

  2. ohcaroline ohcaroline says:

    I can’t express how much this was exactly what I needed to read right now.

    Thank you.

  3. Caifan77 Caifan77 says:

    BMB- "…the only thing they have holding them back is themselves[...] It’s so plain and so true, but you just have to do the work, and keep doing the work, regardless of whether you think anything will happen with it."

     Very True Josh. No matter how crappy my day has been or whatever else is going on around me, I try to put something down on paper every day. There are no excuses. Writing is a chellenge. A step a time. Thanks for those words.

    Calvin and Hobbes- "There’s almost no separation between the words and the pictures." 

     I remember reading those during class in the 5th grade. I couldnt beleive someone could draw like that! Even when the characters were still they were doing something. They looked like so much fun to draw. Very influential on me as well.

     Kevin Smith-

    Clerks left quite an impression on me back in  high school. That was the only movie of its kind at the time that helped me think of film in a different way.  Even bad movies are great if the filmmaker puts their passion into it. I love Chasing Amy.

     As far as musicians…I think Joe Strummer might be the most influential storyteller Ive ever come across.

    Cheers to you.

     

     

     

     

  4. DaveCarr DaveCarr says:

    I smell a series coming on.

    Top knotch work here. I offer five so the post doesn’t get too long  in no particular order.

    Nietzsche (yes that one). I’ve read his entire body of work and what strikes me is his ability to employ a differnt vocice with each work. His tone in say The Gay Science is dramatically different than it is in The Anti Christ.  In so many ways, he taught me that tone is just as intergral to story telling as content, sometimes even more so.

     John Kwats: Poetry is something to which I never conneced until Keats, His images are simple and evocative and he accomplishes more in a stanza than most do in several pages. From him, I learned the economy of words.

     

     Shakespeaer. Not for the reasons you might think. His plots are airtigh. A lesson in Plot, subplot, counter plot, parraellism. The men knew how to srtucture a play.

     Steve Martin.My stand up hero. He taught me that a perfomance can indeed be art and that great art is always greatly executed. On the surface his premises seem hackneyed, but damn if he won’t sell it.

    Jane Austen. Absolute master of Irony and cchracter. Shw knows she working against the stigma of
    "women’s issues" and she usesthose expectations to sharpen her wit.  Astounding.

     

  5. BrianBaer BrianBaer says:

    Great article, and it’s nice to see someone else has read "On Writing." Are you collecting rejection slips like King suggested? God knows I am…

  6. sigridellis1 sigridellis1 says:

    God, yes.  Just, yes.  I personally add:

    Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, because mystery novels must *care* about the plot in a way that I don’t, andit teaches me to think of the plot.

    Lois Bujold, because she does "show, not tell," magnificently — also, she makes character moments serve the plot and plot moments serve the character.

     Pauline Kael’s movie reviews.  Roger Ebert’s movie reviews.

    Top-selling nonfiction in history or sociology, so, Jared Diamond, Thomas Friedman, the guy who writes all those WWII memoirs, William Manchester.

    Pop culture books on relationships and how to understand your partner — because they explain how to decode the signals, and I can use that information to ENCODE relationships and depict them in comics. 

  7. Really great article Josh, nice to know who is help influencing you in your quest to be a comic writer.

    My list is pretty short though in terms of influences:

    Bill Watterson: Just loved Calvin and Hobbes when I was young. But now I am starting to see just how influential that comic strip really was. Sure there we’re a lot of slap stick humor. But the amount of philosophical and metapsychial quotes and lines are just impressive. Reading back now that comic works on a whole lot of levels then just something below Garfield every day in the paper.

    Lewis Black: Lewd, but effective when it comes to real world topics. His jokes on religion and politics is some of the best in the business. Plus he proves that it doesnt matter how old you are in life; you can be famous at any point.

    George Meyer: Famous Simpsons writer and dubbed ‘the funniest man in TV’. His non sequitors and his main writing credits are some of the best in the series. He’s also a deeply political nut and I find that facisinating. It’s either him or John Swartzwelder that has influenced my plotting techniques.

    Garth Ennis: If there is one comic writer that I would love to rip off….I mean play homage too is him. His realistic protrayal of war is frightenly good, almost like he fought in those wars. Conor’s POTW of the Night Witches proved to me as well that he is the best writer in the business when it comes to war. Plus he made The Punisher a more recognizable and more important character in the Marvel U.

  8. RoiVampire RoiVampire says:

    Excellent work sir, some may scoff at the inclusion of Smith but he still has it i think, its just a matter of whether or not people like it anymore. I for one do.

  9. ElitistJerk ElitistJerk says:

    Great article, I think that people have a hard time grasping the depth of comic books, and their ability to not just convey high flying super heroes, but issues which affect the world we live in. This can be as simple as in the Robin series where he talks a college student down from a roof and there is a suicide hotline at the end of the issue, or something like the Watchmen which is an entire critique on our world.Until people fully understand the medium and what it is capable of, there will be that stigma that comci books are good for very few things, least of which is conveying a complex story of emotions.

     

    I personally love reading and writing, and I do aspire to be a comic book writer. I am working on a project at the moment, and it is interesting after reading this to go back and really think about what influenced each individual portion of my writing. Thanks for a great article, keep them coming.

  10. AirDave817 AirDave817 says:

    Awesome! I too aspire to print.

    I’ve read a number of Stephen King’s novels for the amount of detail that he goes to. Michael Crichton for the same reason. Backwards from the films that were adapted from them, Jeffrey Deaver, Clive Cussler and James Patterson. As you might expect, the books are much, much better. I try to grab a newspaper regularly and a newsmagazine when I can. James Robinson’s Starman was incredibly much like a graphic novel presented in monthly installments. Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man is always solid. I like Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern. As far as music, I’m not much on storytellers, but Keith Urban and Brad Paisley seem to speak to me. Or maybe becuase I used to play guitar I just enjoy watching what they do with one. Something completely different from my days of watching Angus Young, Rick Neilsen or James Young. I always watched to see how they contributed to the experience.

  11. FACE FACE says:

    I just love that you brought up Pete Townshend. Citing music composers for literary inspiration gives merit to how valuable their contributions have been. I’d mention Bob Seger among song-writer influences, though I could bring up a thousand. I just like that Seger keeps it simple and real. He’s really telling story thru song, which very few contemporary songwriters do.

    As novellas go one writer currently comes to mind. Anne Rice. There’s much more to her books than ambiguously gay vampires. If you read an Anne Rice novel you’ll find you’re acquiring a lesson in humanities as she brings up art, literature and moments in history which compel you to stop reading and look for pieces she cites. You’re also forced into contemplating the moral and ethical aspect of vampires. Any time you can make me sypathize for the ’bad’ guy you’re in a win-win situation.

    Wes Anderson gains my screenwriters award. Movies just ain’t what they used to be and are more often than not just a parody to themselves these days. A guy like Anderson takes the conventional story and gives it flair where it once had none.

    I’ve always said that if I could write anything it would be sketch comedy. The political satirists aside, SNL has always been a major inspiration to my writing, thoughts and beliefs. Some tenures have been more favorable than others, but there are always moments. I’d also put The Kids in the Hall on a very high pedestal for all to see.

    Finally, all the writers who make us realize that r/evolution’s just a moment away. If only we could turn that corner how much we might gain from it, though we’re always too afraid to let go of that bar and let our feet hit the ground – thank you Nietzsche, Huxley, Orwell, Hicks, Morrison (kiss the snake on the tongue!) and many others..

    final thoughts: Calvin and Hobbes meant a lot more to me before the bumper stickers

    and.. Mr. King could use a follow-up titled "On Editing", in which he condenses down his work, eliminating all needless elements to story, which he seldom does.. I, too, read "On Writing".               

       

  12. Kory Kory says:

    Great article Josh.  I especially enjoyed the Monty Python and Pete Townshend parts.

    I don’t aspire to become a writer, but the guy who has influenced my thinking on politics, religion and society most is George Carlin.  It’s not exactly a stretch to list him, but I would be lying if I said he didn’t have any influence on me.

  13. jguerra jguerra says:

    For those of us aspiring writers there is a great website run by Francis Ford Coppola (or at least by his people) called Zoetrope.com.  They don’t have a section for comics (yet), but they have every other form of writing from short stories and poetry to screenplays.  It is a great place to post and get feedback on your work.  I highly recommend it!!

  14. Paul Montgomery PaulMontgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    This is an awesome, awesome article.  More of this, please.  

    I’m still trying to get over the Sorkin sort of inspired Secret Invasion thing though.  The knife is still turning.   

  15. Great article, Josh!

    And thank you for including a songwriter. the works of Lou Reed, David Bowie, Ray Davies and Mr. Townshend have had just as much of a influence on me as any novelist, playwrite, satirist, comic writer, journalist, screenwriter or cartoonist.

  16. JasonB35 JasonB35 says:

    Thanks for the great article Josh.  I’m not a writer myself unless keeping a sporadic journal counts but I have great respect for those who do. It takes guts to put your voice out there. I can only imagine how scary it is to toil in obscurity hoping that you will be able to make a living at some point.  I especially liked how the influences came from various mediums and sources which makes sense but I had never really thought about.  How pathetic of a writer I am is proven by the fact that I can’t put into words how much I enjoyed your article and how much it has been running through my brain since I read it several hours ago.  Keep up the good work.

  17. TopGun TopGun says:

    Fantastic article Josh. I actually just read The Nightly News and in the back matter where Hickman writes about the War Of Art and how he pushed himself to make something I just got so amped and excited.

    At the moment i’m trying to get down ideas for a story. Right now it’s just at the developement stage but that in itself is so much fun.

    I’ve really been inspired by Alan Moore’s book on comic writing(the title of which i can’t seem to think of right now) and how he tells you not how to write like him but more the mind frame when writing. Letting yourself really flesh out the world your in and making every character 3 dimensional. The one place i get most inspiration from though is music. Certain songs just manage to inspire so much emotion in me and I try my best to come up with ideas that (hopefully) would give someone else the same feeling that i get so much from my music.

  18. Tork Tork says:

    A few personal influences on my writing

    Ernest Hemmingway– There’s a rawness and a simplicity in his stories that I really like and try to incorporate.  His ability to establish characterization and atmosphere in very little time is really amazing.  He and Poe are definately my favorite American writers.

    Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa–  The ability to establish mood and scale through Kurosawa’s direction coupled with Mifune’s ability to convey instense emotion and willingness to go "out there" make for some of the best movies I’ve ever seen.  Their movies are just epic both in quality and themes, Throne of Blood in particular is one of my favorite movies, especially that last scene with the arrows.

    Jerry Seinfeld– I think the majority of the humor I attempt in my writing has roots in Seinfeld.  The amount of topical, absurdist, and sarcastic humor in that show was so wide-sweeping and well-done.

    Charles Schultz– Peanuts is really interesting by doing something that’s on the surface very ridiculous and kiddie yet very mature and introspective at the same time.  Really, of all the "slice of life" fictional canons out there, Peanuts will always be up there for me.

    Grant Morrison–  Whereas a lot of other of the people above can be very minimalist and grounded to reality, Grant is very out there with big and very imaginitive ideas and I like that he feels unrestrained to go to those weird places and make them fun reads.  He shows you can do that big surrealist ball of imagination and I appreciate that.

    Paul McCartney and John Lennon–  The Beatles were very good at trying new things and thinking up new ways to make music which is something I appreciate.  Their ability to ttranscend styles and genres is something to take notice of.  Plus, they did Paperback Writer, which is one of my favorite songs.

  19. Jim Mroczkowski Jimski (@jimski) says:

    Josh: how are we not married?

    Oh, right. Straight dudes.

    I am a big advocate of reading voraciously (especially as a writing procrastination tool; why, I’m doing it right now!) but I am hesitant to practice it lately because I don’t want to inadvertently rip anyone off. The subconscious plagiarism angle is one I never hear anyone explore in any detail. How do you keep your influences from being your sources?

    I have passed up multiple opportunities to see Kevin Smith’s latest movie in the last week, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that both Clerks II and, yes, Jersey Girl moved me in unexpected ways. Also, discussing the fact that Clerks was 14 years old, thus making it the same age as its ideal audience, made me feel like I should sleep with my teeth in a glass on the nightstand this very week.

    I had no idea Jim and Robert Downey were related. I’m going to need a few days.

  20. AMuldowney AMuldowney says:

    Josh, go pick up Raymond Carver’s Cathedral if you’ve never read it.

     I feel like he’s a weird missing link in American literature (between the Raymond Chandlers and Mickey Spillanes and Aaron Sorkins/David Mamets).  

    Jimski too, for that matter.  

    I’ll be stunned if you guys don’t like him.  

    Great article.  

  21. When I want to get the creative juices flowing I read Cormac McCarthy.  He just throws all the shit on paper and lets God sort it out.  It also helps that he’s brilliant, which I am not.  It gets me in the mindset that I don’t need to agonize over every sentence.  Just write something and see what happens.  This may or may not resemble his approach in any way, but that’s what his stuff does for me.

    Excellent, Josh.

  22. Wolfdog Wolfdog says:

    Very nice list of influences.

    The King book was of great use to what little writing I do.  He also wrote a great forward to a Harlan Ellison collection (Stalking The Nightmare or Angry Candy or Deathbird….I can’t remember right now) that talked about the fine line between being influenced and outright mimicry.  Something about milk tasting like whatever it’s next to in your fridge.  Good stuff.

    I’ve heard Townshend talk about going through large stretches of not being able to write, because he (and everyone else) would hold it up against Tommy/Who’s Next/Quadrophenia.  It turned The Who into the world’s greatest Who cover band for a long period of time, so I was happy to see Endless Wire come out.  It ain’t the greatest thing ever written, but it’s good.  And that’s good enough for me.

    …I just thought of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and my eye started twitching.  My brain will never forgive me for overloading it like that…

  23. Josh Flanagan josh (@jaflanagan) says:

    I wish there was more Baroque Cycle.  That’s how much I loved that world.  Never have I read 3000 pages of story and not wanted it to end.

  24. AlexG AlexG says:

    This is great Josh, and I really appreciate your candor about your own process-You’ve also piqued my interest in Stephenson who’s work I’ve seen on the shelves for years, but never picked up.