I declare today that the creators of every comic book must be able to answer these questions, or at least make work that shows they’ve considered them all.
1. Why is this a comic book?
Does it want to be a movie instead? A video game? A piece of prose? (If so, you should probably go make whatever it’s supposed to be instead. I have no interest in looking at your proof-of-concept movie proposal.) Is there a reason it has to be drawn as a series of still images, rather than photographed or filmed or animated?
2. What is it going to look like?
How does it look different from every other comic book out there, including others drawn by the same person? There are no great generic cartoonists; first-rate cartoonists treat style and design as integral elements of every individual project, and it’s generally true that the more premeditated a particular comic’s look is, the better it comes out. (The Dark Knight Strikes Again doesn’t look like Sin City, which doesn’t look like 300…) This also extends to coloring, of course. Think of Patricia Mulvihill’s work on 100 Bullets, say, or what Frank D’Armata’s been doing on Invincible Iron Man lately: they’re distinctive, carefully thought out, and hugely important to the way both series work.
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3. What is it going to read like?
How is its writing different from the writing in every other comic book out there, including others written by the same person? Again, style is everything in comics, and good narrative writing doesn’t just tell a story, it fits the story. Final Crisis and Joe the Barbarian and Seaguy are all written by Grant Morrison, but even apart from their visual differences, they’re very different from one another in their mood, their pacing, and their language.
4. What is the first thing I’m going to see on the first page, and why should that convince me to keep reading?
The first page of a comic book is a compact between creators and readers. It’s the first thing we look at. If you nail it, that means you’re paying attention, and we keep reading. If it doesn’t immediately grab our attention, we put the comic back on the shelf and go look at something else. You look at the first page of the first issue of Y: The Last Man, and you need to know what happens next. The opening gambit doesn’t have to be a cliffhanger, either: the first page of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a little anecdote about Bechdel playing “airplane” with her father, which instantly sets up the look and tone of the book and the relationship between its two main characters–that’s enough to draw a reader in.
5. What is this story about, in a sense broader than the plot? What is it expressing? How do its form and content serve that?
Every comic book doesn’t have to be a grand tone-poem on Man’s Inhumanity to Man in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction or whatever. Still, having some sort of idea behind it, or some goal toward which it can work, means it’s a lot less likely to fumble around blindly until it stops, and more likely to find good answers to questions 2 and 3.