There’s a standing idea in comics that you have to grab the reader’s attention by page 1. If you don’t hook them with something immediately, they’ll put down your book and give someone else’s a read. This isn’t unreasonable thinking. After all, a great opening line, a great opening scene, these behoove a book or movie. In fact, in comedy, you generally start off with your second-best material (saving your best for last) to make that quick impression so essential to establishing a rapport with your audience.
The same is true in comics. It was this idea, which I believe originated with Julie Schwartz, that called for an opening splash page depicting the crucial, unbelievable scene from later in the story (“Two Green Lanterns fighting one another! Keep reading to see how it came to this!”), but I could be wrong. I know he was the one pushing for shocking covers to establish the same effect. (“SEE! The Superman Who Turned Evil!”)
Personally, I think there’s virtue in the build-up as well. It doesn’t have to all be a splash or an unbelievable scene. The opening page of Watchmen is an intriguing composition of the ghastly and the mundane, but it’s presented in a tightly drafted PULL BACK TO REVEAL. Other comics derive their intrigue from engaging dialogue, charismatic characters…the gist is that something has to be happening between the comic and the reader. But no, it doesn’t have to be a gigantic splash page or even a gripping image.
It should, however, be a GOOD image. Adrian Tomine is a master of economy. He can use just a few lines to situate you in a Greenwich Village street. But a lot of his comics open with people doing something mundane, being disenchanted a little bit with life. That’s exactly what he should be doing, because it establishes the feel of his comic. For me, his work has the sadness of wandering around suburbia with nothing to do on a Friday night. I know that’s a very personalized response, because that’s what I did on half of my high school Fridays, but the connection is that in both my memories and many of Tomine’s comics, there’s a feeling of some opportunity lost, and a sadness at it. There’s also humor and fear and a host of other good things, because that’s your responsibility: make the audience feel something.
Hold on, I’ll say that again.
It’s surprisingly okay to be bad. It’s definitely to be trashy. It’s fine to be disposable. But it’s unforgivable to be boring. I know, because in nearly every comic I wrote from 18 to maybe…24 years of age was a whole lot of chatter and not a lot of development. Poor Pietro has been drawing Citizen X off and on for years because it took me three revisions before I realized it was all just Rakh wandering from one conversation to another for people to talk AT him, not WITH him, about their philosophical musings. It was only with a more experienced eye that I realized there were a few elements in place.
Go ahead, read chapter 1 of Citizen X. I’ll wait.
(Incidentally while I’m waiting, don’t give your character a goofy name like Rakh al’Gadriel. I’ve actually changed a few of the other characters’ names to something else that, while still Punic, sounds a lot more like modern counterparts. I kept Rakh’s, though, to teach myself a punishing lesson. I’ve started interning at a literary agency, and in the first day, I saw so many characters named Bal’thoun Kto’Silvostri or Hua’hourc na’Tirnagog, I thought I was turning dyslexic. I don’t care if your characters are elves or orcs or vampires, keep it simple. Even common names can be badly mixed, or made to sound artificial, like one memorable example, Lord Stefan di Spicolli.)
Back? Okay, you may have liked or hated that story, but I guarantee you it was galactic improvement on the previous versions. That whole chapter was an expansion of a few pages of flashback from Rakh’s arrival in Ireland. What was chapter 1 became chapter 2 after I got sick of jumping around the timeline and decided to make a short chapter 1 out of those flashbacks. And all I was left with was with the General lecturing Rakh, Dad lecturing Rakh, Hamilcar lecturing Rakh…
In other words, nothing changed. The scene with the Roman getting arrested ended the same way it started: Rakh was sulking at Hamilcar’s insensitivity, and some guy we’d never see was going to jail. It was only later that I thought to add the drunk’s passing out and Hamilcar stealing his money, then Rakh’s reaction to that showing us how extreme his morality takes it that he’d assault a superior officer and teacher. It also shows he’s an idealistic teenager (with all the attendant extremity and mood swings), that he’s losing his heroes and beliefs, that he’s starting to realize nobody lives up to what they preach, even though he does.
What he DOESN’T realize, and this is why I added the scene with Thalia, is that it makes him an inhuman jerk. He can’t interact with other people because he’s too austere. He demands the same severity of others that he gives of himself because the state and religion say “Act this way.” He’s so committed to purity and perfection that he breaks up with his first love rather than wait and wonder if she’s going to live up to something he’s imposing on her. It’s a no-gain situation, giving up love and happiness to attend to someone’s rules, but it’s him being the person he wants to be. In his head, he still has an unblemished record.
When he later escorts the commander in chief, who’s acting like a drunken lout, he doesn’t react with the same furor, because he’s changed in those few hours, and he’s already in enough trouble. He’s also inclined to defer to his father, even though he chafes a bit. That scene, too, had to change from merely being Dad telling him he’d learn the ends are often more important than the means to an actual example of it.
All of which is to say, if I’d opened that comic with an in medias res scene of Rakh breaking character, sure, you’d be engaged by the sight of him punching his teacher, or of him aaaalllmost giving in to his passions for Thalia, but it wouldn’t have any relevance for you, because you’re not a monthly reader. We all know Superman and know he would never force Jimmy Olsen to marry a gorilla, so what strangeness transpires here?
But for this introductory meeting? Not so much. Here’s what’s not boring about the Citizen X script:
–The drunken impudence on the part of Citizen X
–The insubordinate, but noble, defense of honor by Insufabal
–The tryst in the garden
–The mugging and its resolution
That’s also a list of what’s new to the latest revision. You’ll notice in all of those: things happen. And it’s not a punch or a love scene simply to have such things; they directly result in a change of circumstance, or a change in a character’s outlook.
You can engage the reader viscerally, intellectually, or emotionally. You can do it slow, fast, big, small, really any way that fits the piece. But you can’t be boring. It’s the worst possible crime.