All the Scarlet Witches: The Writing

Dear James Robinson,

After reading Scarlet Witch #4, I can’t ignore your writing anymore. There’s no shame in needing to get better at writing. I need to get better at writing. My blog posts need editing, but I don’t get paid and I only have a few readers. You, on the other hand, have a lot of readers. As a writer for Marvel, you’ve achieved more writing success than I have. You’ve hustled to get where you are, you’ve put yourself out there, you’ve met your deadlines and you’ve completed your task. You’ve given it a shot. You’re a writer.

You’ll need to work harder if you’re going to keep up at Marvel, though. Matt Fraction, Willow Wilson and Tom King have been roaring down the tracks. They’re making it look easy. They’re telling stories so tight and seaworthy that Marvel can say “suck it, Image Comics intelligentsia.” Your writing on Scarlet Witch is like Marvel saying “Comic book readers are kind of idiots anyway.” Or maybe just “No one gives a shit about Scarlet Witch. Let’s really phone this one in.”

After reading Scarlet Witch #4, I put together a list of things to work on:

Words: how many and which ones.

Scarlet Witch #4 is loaded with words, but the ratio of words that mean something to total words is low. This clogs up the works and makes you look like an amateur. Here are some filler words and phrases that you lean on heavily: Although, though, certainly, if I’m truthful, oh, it does seem as if, most notably, it seems, it would seem, I confess, here is where, honestly, that is, I suppose, more accurately, I imagine, as I recall, actually, I’m sure, whereas, apparently. This kind of speech is common in the office world, especially when someone is a) insecure about their intelligence or b) trying to obfuscate their true meaning and avoid being held accountable. So you’ve got a case of business-ese. I think you thought it would add a nice razzle-dazzle of formality or authenticity but you are wrong. It reads as if you originally thought you would make Wanda’s speech biblical or Shakespearean, and then someone was like “Wait. Hold on. Wanda is Roma, and she’s a witch, and this is a comic book. So let’s make her sound like middle-manager in Toledo who is trying to sound more educated than he is while breaking the bad news to the team about health insurance benefit changes.”

arch-encounter

Try limiting the amount of word balloon space you’ll allow yourself per page. Usually when a writer is forced to make something shorter, it winds up being better. Then we could see more of the art and the art could do more of the talking.

Working dialogue to death.

The wordiness I mentioned above seems to be your way of trying to make people talking sound like people talking. But it’s backfiring. Agatha trails along endlessly dumping exposition into her dialogue. It’s exhausting. Wanda over-reports Every Single Feeling she has. She and Agatha have known each other for a long time. Agatha can probably read non-verbal social cues. And so can the readers. Let the art do some of the storytelling. Let Wanda and Agatha’s relationship breathe. And if you’re using dialogue as glue to make your plot followable, maybe your plot isn’t very sturdy.

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Interesting art from Chris Visions

P.S. When your villain says “I love power” that is what they call “too on the nose.”

Overdoing an accent.

Just because someone is Irish doesn’t mean we want to be beaten about the head and neck with a brogue.

barny

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The second example also shows an annoying sexist trope without proper sense of irony. So powerful and yet so flawed and broken, yadda yadda yadda.

Tone-deaf tone shifts.

Wanda has JUST had a jarring, life-changing encounter with the ghost of her mother. She’s beside herself. Two seconds later she’s saying “You mean bitch” saucily to Agatha. Makes no sense. Maybe, after getting silly on sidecars, Hellcat says “You mean bitch” in a teasy way to She-Hulk. MAYBE. And even then, I could see it landing with a thud. This just shows that you’re not feeling your own story beats (and maybe that you don’t know how women talk to each other, girlfriend).

you mean bitch

Notice how Agatha shifts right into dialogue as exposition again.

Neglect and mis-use of available themes.

This run of Scarlet Witch could mean a lot to a lot of people. Aging. Personal demons. Mother-daughter relations. Friendship. Sacrifice. The passage of time. Mortality. It’s so rich with potential themes that all you have to do is get out of the way.

And that’s the hardest thing—learning how to get out of the way. It takes imagination, restraint and skill. If you can learn to get out of the way of your artist, of your characters, of your themes, of your own writing, then you’ll finally be making it look easy. If you can’t learn to get out of the way of all that stuff, then you’ll have to get out of the way of someone who writes sharper and snappier than you do.

 

All the Scarlet Witches: Steve Dillon

Scarlet Witches #3 was written by James Robinson (who has been ok at best on this series) with art by Steve Dillon and Frank Martin (Scarlet Witch has a different art team every issue).

Things I like about Scarlet Witches #3:

1.) I kind of like how Steve Dillon (with Frank Martin on colors) plays it as it lays. After more heavily stylized Wandas in #1 and #2, now we have a standard comicbook Wanda. Cleavage, check. Hair that’s sultry but without a lot of personality, check. Pouty comic book lady face, check. I kind of like this cranky, low-affect Wanda, and I like that she is darker-skinned and darker-eyed in this issue. She was looking downright WASPy in #2.

Scarlet Witch #3 wanda

2.) My favorite thing Dillon and Martin do is a few landscape panels that go farther than anything else in the issue (definitely including the writing) to transmit a spooky mood and a sense of place.

Scarlet Witch #3 landscape #1

3.) The teaser for Scarlet Witch #4 at the end, with Chris Visions’s pages, is a sight for sore eyes. It looks really rich and individual, full of red hues and expressive lines. It looks like we might be getting back to the early promise of Scarlet Witch #1, by  Vanesa Del Rey and Jordie Bellaire.

4.) James Robinson leaning into Irish brogue is the best opportunity he’s given us so far to work on enjoying a badly written story. Sometimes I’m jealous of the women in my book club who seem to experience novels not as artifacts crafted by a mind but as gossip and folklore that has been downloaded directly into their brains.I enjoy the feeling that we are sitting around a fire talking about people we know. It curbs some of my natural over-thinking. If they were like me, we would kill the novel and take it apart. Most of these women just want to talk about how a character reminds them of their ex-husband, and then there are more details about the ex-husband and everybody forgets about the book for awhile. There is a strong argument to be made that their way of consuming stories is more valid than mine.

At the end of the day: Yes, let’s talk about the end of the day. Lately they’ve been a certain kind. The last three weeks have been long work days full of problem-solving and fire-dousing in the middle of a lot of emotions, politics, and uncertainty. I leave the house at 5:15 in the morning, get home about 12 hours later, skip dinner, and crawl in bed with comic books. I can’t keep up this pathetic routine too much longer without permanent damage to my self-esteem, but for now my total lack of ambition outside of work has been getting me through. So you know, what does a comic book like Scarlet Witch #3 do for me in a situation like that? In my bed with a fried brain? All in all, Scarlet Witch #3 is like a candy bar you used to like as a kid, but now they make it with slightly different ingredients and it’s not as good, but you go through the motions. Hoping that flipping those flimsy pages will make you feel better, that you can recapture some of that magic just from the gestalt of what a comic book is instead of the comic book itself.

Mirror #1 by Emma Rios and Hwei Lim on the other hand? This book met me halfway; this book met me more than halfway. This book came gliding over to me, fresh and intelligent and full of authentic emotion. It was a balm I didn’t have to work for, a revelation. We could have a debate about whether Scarlet Witch #3 justifies its own existence. But when our brains are too tired for debate, its a book like Rios and Lim made that has the power to restore.

All the Scarlet Witches: Marco Rudy

In Scarlet Witch #1,  Vanesa Del Rey and Jordie Bellaire were able to combine forces to transcend James Robinson’s lackluster writing. In Scarlet Witch #2, Marco Rudy falls straight into that bog and gets stuck there.

Marco Rudy is perfectly capable of creating pages that work. He paints, so the color is all him too, and he plays with colors and panel shapes. He likes to get whimsical and psychological. On a few restrained pages, he creates a nice effect.

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The cool blue tones contrast with the stark black and white of Wanda in the corner. There’s a pop of red. The paneling is non-traditional but helps to tell the story. Most of all, he strikes a mood that resonates as a mood and not a mishmash. In this next panel he uses some of his more painterly work on Wanda’s face, and it still works.

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What differentiates these pages from the rest of the book is 1) not too many faces, 2) not too many different art styles, 3) not too many colors, 4) not too many words, and 5) not trying too hard!!

But this page is more representative:

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And this one even more so:

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What do you get if you try out a smorgasbord of styles and combine it with a whole bunch of bla bla bla? Something that looks like a teenager drew it on her jeans in history class. Marco Rudy’s art gets so busy that you’d think James Robinson’s words could hide there and escape notice. But no, there is no escaping the mediocrity of the writing in this issue.

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Minotaur? Why whatever could you mean?

 

All the Scarlet Witches: Del Rey & Bellaire

I like that James Robinson is writing a Scarlet Witch series that is all stand-alone stories and a different artist for each story. Vanesa Del Rey and Jordie Bellaire so totally owned the character and story in the first issue, though, I’m not sure anyone else will be able to measure up. Right now it looks like issue after issue will come out, and we’ll just sigh and think “Remember that time that Vanesa Del Rey and Jordie Bellaire drew Wanda Maximoff?”

SW1 facing pages

I’m planning to follow the series because I like this sort of thing, where some variables (writer, character, letterer) stay the same and another (art) is switched. It’s a good set up for story science. I know now that the Del Rey/Bellaire issue is the one that will have to be the benchmark all the others are compared to. What I don’t know is if I’m ever going to actually read the words.

I “read” the Del Rey and Bellaire issue several times, poring over the art, before I realized I hadn’t actually read it. And then when I went back and consciously set out to read it, I just got bored and bogged down and wanted to stop. A lot of conversation, a lot of reflection, a lot of exposition — and I couldn’t latch on. The art is where it’s at.

From the first pages, Del Rey (pencils & inks) and Bellaire (color) lock in this dusky aesthetic. There’s the shadowy, magenta-bathed privacy of Wanda’s home. And then there’s the grey-scale grittiness of the city outside. In both places, Wanda’s red clothing pops against the background and her face is made luminous and expressive with minimal line work.

There’s a smudgy scratchiness to how Del Rey draws, but there’s something sharp, accurate, and reliable about her art. Clean white gutters between murky panels, columnar panels like the canyons of the city avenues, chevron panels coming down in smart Vs like her heroine’s angular nose and chin. And most of all — and Bellaire contributes to this — the aesthetic creates an uninterrupted dream featuring a particular person in a particular place. And that’s why I don’t care that I don’t care about the writing. This is confident, intuitive visual storytelling, and will be a hard act to follow.

Jordie Bellaire colors Agatha Harkness

There were a couple of Marvel sequences recently that made me think “this is why I read comics.” Even though the pages are in two different series with two different artists, they are both colored by Jordie Bellaire and they both feature the white-haired witch, Agatha Harkness. In both cases, we see how a limited palette shows off what Bellaire can do–and how heavily Bellaire contributes to the integrity of the stories she works on.

Scarlet Witch #1 opens quietly with Vanesa Del Rey’s dark, scratchy lines soaking up Bellaire’s moody colors. Agatha, in ghost form, is talking with her protege Wanda.

Agatha is dry, sardonic, and all in blue gray. Her coloring matches Wanda’s sad eyes. Wanda’s red dressing gown strikes a minor chord with the magenta of the room. These rich bloody colors work with James Robinson’s dialogue to drench the panels in a feeling of privacy and the bond between two women.

In The Vision #3, we go back in time to when Agatha was alive. She and her familiar are performing a ritual to see into the future. The mood immediately shifts with time and place because the colors are so subdued after pages and pages of the Vision family’s bright green hair against their red skin. The Agatha panels start quietly enough.

agatha 1

The dimmer palette accentuates Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s inking in a way the earlier pages, bulging with color, don’t. It’s a sort of nakedness. Tom King’s narration carries through the scene, moving at a different pace–on a different path–than the pictures. The boxes have been magenta all along, but  now they seem to presage Agatha’s appearance.

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As the Agatha panels turn vicious and bloody, the red/magenta juxtaposition appears again–and again it speaks to intimacy between Wanda and Agatha.

The carnage reminds us of another supernatural white-haired woman Bellaire colored: Alice in Image’s Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios.

prettydeadlypanel1

With a few colors, Bellaire both heightens Rios’s lines and stays out of their way. It’s one of those things that looks easy when done right–but if everybody could do it, these books wouldn’t stand out from the field as much as they do.