the interest of comity, I shall not call this the Ten Greatest
Westerns. This is simply a list of my favorite Westerns, in no
WILD BUNCH—Sam Peckinpah’s violent elegy to the closing of the
West is filled with indelible images and lines, and provided
career-defining roles for Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, Robert
Ryan, Warren Oates, Edmund O’Brien and Ben Johnson, and launched
the career of Bo Hopkins. A bittersweet drama of aging outlaws with
no place to go.
MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE—my favorite Ford, with the Duke as an
aging gunfighter who comes to the aid of naive lawyer Jimmy Stewart.
Lee Marvin at his most despicable.
legend of the lone gunfighter has never been better, with Alan Ladd
in his finest role, and Jack Palance, every bit as despicable as Lee
PROFESSIONALS—Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Woody
Strode saddle up to rescue kidnapped bridge Claudia Cardinale from
Mexican outlaw Jack Palance but—surprise! She doesn’t want to be
rescued. Filled with exciting set pieces and crackling dialogue, a
Richard Brooks masterpiece. Brooks also did Bite The Bullet.
THE HIGH COUNTRY—Peckinpah’s first feature is a romantic ode to
the dying west, with career-capping performances from Randolph
Scott and Joel McCrea. Introduced Warren Oates. Begins with a camel
Newman as a blue-eyed Indian comes to the aid of ungrateful banker
Fredric March, menaced by the sinister but likable Richard Boone. Why
did Richard Boone, Jack Palance, and Lee Marvin never make a Western
RIVER—the Duke as a rigid father figure intent on a cattle drive,
dealing with rebellious adopted son Montgomery Clift. Colleen Grey
finally straightens them out.
Eastwood’s last Western is a sprawling revisionist epic where the
West is not so glamorous, nor the heroes so heroic. His aging
gunfighter, Will Munny, does what he must, leading to a showdown with
brutal sheriff Gene Hackman. It always bothered me that Munny simply
abandoned his children in order to provide for them.
GRIT—both versions are brilliant.
IS COMING—Burt Lancaster as Mexican lawman Bob Valdez fights the
system to bring justice for the widow of a man wrongly killed. Based
on an Elmore Leonard story, this is hortatory story telling at its
RAID—Burt Lancaster again as a wizened scout trying to tell a naive
young Army lieutenant about the Apaches’ true nature. But will that
lieutenant listen? No he won’t. He has to learn the hard way.
Writers are people who have to write. They write every day. They
don’t talk about it, they do it. People who don’t write every day
are not serious writers.
You must know your craft, the rules of grammar, how to conjugate a
verb. Don’t get nervous. Most of you already know this without the
fancy labels. I see, you see, he sees. It is part of your
instinctive grasp of English. Everyone needs a little book of rules.
For the writer, it is Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
This slim volume has been in continuous publication since 1935. It
takes an hour to read and is quite droll. Buy a used copy. Do not
get the illustrated version. It has been bowdlerized in the name
All good fiction, whether comics or otherwise, is built around
character. We humans are mostly interested in our own kind. The more
interesting your protagonist, the better your story. Stories start
with people. The TV show House on Fox is a perfect example.
Hugh Laurie’s character is so thorny and unpredictable people tune
in week after week out of fascination with his personality. Same
thing with Batman, since Denny O’Neil straightened him out.
Prior to O’Neil, Batman wandered from mood to mood, often
“humorous,” seldom entertaining. Denny made Batman a
self-righteous obsessive/compulsive. Obsession is always interesting.
While it’s possible to grow a great story out of pure plot, sooner
or later it will hinge on the characters of your protagonists.
“Character is destiny” holds true in fiction as well as life.
Know who your characters are before you start writing. Some writers
construct elaborate histories for each character before they begin.
It is not a bad idea. Start with people then add the plot. Get a
bulletin board. Write each character’s name and salient
characteristics on a 3 X 5 card and tack it to the bulletin board.
You can do the same with plot points. You can move characters and
plot points around to alter your chronology.
What is plot? It’s a dynamic narrative with a beginning, middle,
and end. It’s like a good pop song. It has to have a hook.
Sometimes that hook is simply the narrator’s voice. Huckleberry
Finn succeeds mostly on the strength of Huck’s voice, by which
I mean the way he presents words. In other words, it’s not the
meat, it’s the motion. It’s not what you say, it’s the way that
you say it. Huck comes alive through his words, which are fresh and
immediate. We feel we know Huck. Same thing with Raymond Chandler’s
Philip Marlowe. It’s that world-weary, cynical with a heart-of-gold
voice whispering in your ear. “He
looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel
Chandler also said, “A good story cannot be devised, it has to be
distilled.” In other words, start with character and let character
find the plot.
Comic writers think visually. No matter how bad our chops we can
pretty much describe what we see in words. Some of us can even draw a
little bit. I used to write comics by drawing every page out by
hand—everything—all the tiny details, facial expressions, warped
anatomy, half-assed perspective, all word balloons and captions.
Editors and artists loved it. Why? Because they had everything they
needed on one page instead of spread across three pages of
single-spaced type. Some of the most successful writers in the
industry write very densely. Each script is a phone book.
drawing I became so immersed in the story I gave myself a spastic
rhomboid muscle. Friends! Do not do what I did Learn to draw
properly. That means a drawing board, an ergonomically correct
chair, and applying the pencil lightly to the paper. So much for art
There is another advantage for writers who would draw each page. It
forces you to confront issues of pacing, camera placement, and
editing. It teaches you the natural pace of a story, when to break a
scene, when to zoom in for a close-up, and when to pull way back for
a two-page spread. Archie Goodwin and Harvey Kurtzman both used this
method when writing comics for other artists. I’m not advocating
such. Most of the best writers in this industry do not draw. If they
do, they still write full script.
Even though you are only providing words, it is up to you to SHOW,
DON’T TELL. This is the prime directive. What’s the dif? Tell:
“The assassin drew a bead on Mac’s back and pulled the trigger.”
“Mac stared at the wall. He thought he saw a face there, maybe his
ex-wife, damn her. He was still staring when a thirty foot giant
slammed him in the back with a titanium driver. As he slid to the
ground, his face gathering granules from the brick, a creeping
numbness radiated from his right shoulder followed by the gush of
warm blood and the scent of sheared copper.” We don’t have to
mention the assassin because obviously someone pulled the trigger.
writing for comics, try to show as much as possible. A finicky man
entering a public phone booth might pull out a handkerchief to wipe
the receiver. Maybe he’s obsessive/compulsive. Maybe he carries a
box of Sani-wipes with him everywhere. By showing this man wiping
down the receiver, you have established something about his
describe what the reader can see for himself.
There’s no established format for comic scripts. You can’t go
wrong by doing it as a film script. You don’t necessarily need a
screenplay writing program, just write it like a play. What does a
play look like? Brush up your Shakespeare. There are a lot of books
out there on writing comics. I’ve contributed to some of them. It
never hurts to read about writing. We’re all curious as to how
other writers do it. Many aspiring writers have recommended Robert
McKee’s Story as the way to go. While Story contains
good advice, it is also egregiously padded and never uses a nickel
when a fifty cent piece will do. Joe Esterhaz’ The Devil’s
Guide to Hollywood is the anti-Story. If you read one, you
must read the other.
also Denny’s DC Comic’ Guide to Writing Comics, a no
bullshit primer by one of the best.
There are no writing schools but there are many writing programs.
College level courses on comic book writing are a bull market. I’d
advise any struggling writer with a Master’s degree to head toward
the local college. Run don’t walk. Nobody can teach you how to
write. You either got it or you ain’t. But a good teacher can help
you improve your writing. Famous novelists in residence offer a
career shortcut to those who are determined to become novelists or
screenwriters. Same old adage, it’s not what you know, it’s who
Hudnall has an essay on writing that comes and goes on James’
homepage like a mirage. Go to www.hameshudnall.com
and say James, where’s that great column on writing at? Elmore
Leonard has a few choice words on writing:
is the narrator’s voice that draws you through the story.
Baron has written many novels. Wordfire Press has published Helmet
Head, about Nazi biker zombies. Whack Job is about
spontaneous human combustion and alien invasion. Skorpio is
about a ghost who only appears under a blazing sun. Banshees
is about a satanic rock band that comes back from the dead. Liberty
Island Press has published Biker and Sons of Privilege
and will publish Not Fade Away, Sons of Bitches,
Buffalo Hump, Bloodline, and Disco.
do comics attract such intense fascination? Much of it has to do with
the form. It’s all there in your lap. It takes fifteen minutes to
read. This makes everybody an expert. For those of us who grew up
with comics, they are among our nearest and dearest entertainments.
We all have our favorites and opinions on what constitutes a hero.
art grabs your eye first, especially when you come across the shock
of the new. Kirby, the first time you saw him. Steranko or Neal
Adams. You read the words. There aren’t that many, but usually
there are too
writers can’t abide a wordless page. They’re the writer, it’s
their job to add the words! So add words they must, whether they
advance the story or not. A comic is not a novel. Words have greater
significance in a comic because there are so few of them. Who reads a
comic and skips the long-winded passages? Nobody.
they’re so simple, everybody thinks they can do it. And they can.
Comics are the most forgiving of all art forms. You will believe a
man can fly. Flaming Carrot. The Tick. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
These concepts would have a hard time gaining traction in other media
without first launching as comics. It took sixty years for movies to
present these concepts convincingly. In comics, they gain instant
underground explosion of the sixties, seventies, and eighties brought
fresh writing to comics. The autobiographical musings of R. Crumb,
Spain Rodriguez, Dori Seda and Sharon Rudahl have an immediacy and
freshness often lacking in mainstream comics, because
they are unique to that individual, untethered to continuity or
Many of these creators have continued to do groundbreaking, often
literary work, such as Bill Griffith’s memoir of his mother’s
often, mainstream comics have fallen back on cliches. How often have
we read, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore?” “We have
to talk.” “Move it, people.”
can only read so many novels a week, but you can read twenty-five
comics in a day. Now you’re an expert. Because the form is so
simple, it’s easy to imagine how you could do it better. Everybody
has their favorites. Everybody has strong opinions on what
constitutes good story. Some writers understand the medium better
than others. Carl Barks. Alan Moore. Chuck Dixon. The explosion in
comic-based movies has not resulted in an increase in readers, but it
has fired up the comic fans.
require vastly greater resources than comics and because the stakes
are so high, the level of professionalism is also much higher.
Captain America: The
is better written than ninety per cent of the Captain America comics.
you grow up loving a character or book, you feel a proprietary
interest. When the movie deviates from canon or just falls on its
face, many readers feel betrayed, that the movie makers don’t
understand the character, or pervert its intent.
comic sales shrink, the obvious solution is
to sell comics in movie theaters. But there is no communication
between the comic book publishers and the theater chains, and even if
there were, they couldn’t agree that the sky is blue. Comics aren’t
important enough to occupy space in a modern cineplex, never mind
there is plenty of space.
are on life support for a number of reasons. Poor writing. The rise
of video games. Most comics can’t compete with a good video game in
terms of entertainment. The rise in illiteracy. The collapse of the
distribution system. Take your pick. But they will never die because
of their simplicity. Anybody can produce a comic. It is a labor of
are certain phrases that permeate the zeitgeist like low-hanging
fruit. The moment you read one, your eyes glaze over.
don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
have to talk.”
book writers feel pressue urge to add words. There’s all that
space! For what are we being paid if not to add words? The habit is
especially egregious during fight scenes. A real fight is physically
demanding. Even the best fighters, who train for months, run out of
gas and simply don’t have the energy to talk to their opponents.
There are always exceptions, like Muhammad Ali and Nate Diaz. But
most of the time, you’re out there panting trying to outguess your
me Father, for I have sinned. I too have added unnecessary dialogue
to fight scenes. And I just used a cliché! You see? It’s
don’t tell is among the most important lessons a writer must learn.
This applies to prose as well as comics. Comics are a visual medium,
and anytime you can advance the narrative by showing, you should.
This doesn’t mean a wordless comic. Dialogue can advance plot too,
but it must arise naturally from the narrative. Use dialogue to
reveal character or add a touch of humor. Shakespeare understood the
importance of humor, which provides brief flashes even in his darkest
tragedies. Even Schindler’s List has a few jokes.