TPG Week 118: Cocoa Fluffs…

| March 29, 2013


Welcome, one and all, to another installment of The Proving Grounds. This week, we have a new Brave One in Dan Bridge Over Troubled Watters. Dan hails from East Northforkshireham, in the UK. (I just totally made that up.) As usual, we have Steve Colle in blue, I’m in red, and we all get to see what Dan has to say about


PAGE ONE (5 Panels)

Panel 1. Against an inky black background, a hideous DEMON caresses the neck of a young, quivering (How do you want the artist to show quivering?)(Motion lines.) dark haired girl. (Why dark haired instead of blond? You want her to stand out against the backdrop and the demon, and besides, isn’t it always the blond who seems to die first?) (There’s going to be a white outline around the figures, to separate them from the darkness, however, I agree that her hair color should be different. I’m partial to redheads, myself, but this is a personal choice.) Her white dress is torn suggestively (First of all, how old is this young girl and second, why have the dress torn suggestively?) and a tear runs down her cheek. A middle aged, slightly balding man in spectacles looks on in horror, chained with thick chains to an unseen wall. (I get what you’re trying to do with the whole unseen wall thing, but just say that he’s trapped to the inky black backdrop as it would make a perfect wall.) Ideally I would like the colours to be slightly washed and pale, reminiscent of 70s horror films (see especially Italian Giallo flicks ie Suspiria.) Captions are in yellow.


Every night for the past week, the dreams have haunted me.

Panel 2. We close in on the demon’s hand on her pale neck. His sharp claws are puncturing the skin, drawing blood.


They’re never the same, and each is more horrible than the last.

Panel 3. Closer still as a forked tongue whips out to licks her neck, leaving a slimy trail.


The worst part is that I know I won’t remember this in the morning. Not properly.

Panel 4. We close in on the face of the man chained to the wall, his face a mask of fear and disgust. (I find it interesting when a writer puts in two different emotions that have nothing to do with one another and expects the artist to basically choose between the two. Which is it, Dan: Fear or disgust? For that matter, wouldn’t he be experiencing more anger than disgust, as he’s chained to the wall, helpless, and can’t save his loved one no matter how much he struggles? He is struggling to get out of the shackles, right?)


The haze of sleep will envelop it all in fog, everything but the memory of how the bile felt rising in my throat.

Panel 5. Close on the glowing eyes of the demon.


And those eyes. I never forget those eyes.

My impression of this first page isn’t very good.

To start things off, I find it to be cliché with the whole demon/young girl/helpless voyeur combination of characters. Sometimes the helpless voyeur is the father or the husband or the boyfriend or the knight in shining armour or anyone else in a protector role, but it’s been done so many times that it has lost its potency for me.

Next up is the appropriateness of this being an opening page. Yes, you want to grab the reader’s attention as they open the book, but this isn’t doing its job. It’s boring. The suspense is already gone as the attack has already occurred and this is the aftermath. If you had gone the direction of showing the demon about to attack and/or actually trapping the young girl, then it would have had action and movement. Another thing you could have done is to have the demon and girl looking at the camera, the camera being the helpless voyeur. That way we could have been more involved with the happenings in front of us. This is just a dead page.

Third, I feel like it’s a still image that has been divided into five panels for the sake of filling up the page. I could see this as a cover to a horror comic from the 1970’s if it were a single image, but definitely not a first page and most definitely not divided into five panels. What worked then does not work now.

Finally, the dialogue is over the top for me, especially in the part where you’re talking about how the bile felt rising in my throat. Dig deeper into yourself and, more importantly, say these things out loud. It’s campy like dialogue from a B movie, something I’d expect from Roger Corman. Not good at all.

We’ve got P1 on the books, and really, there isn’t much more to be said.

Steve is extremely correct in saying this is a still image cut into five panels. It doesn’t move at all.

Taking a look at it, what do we know?

We know that this is a dream. Says so right in the monologue. There are things about dreams, though, that get me.

If the speaker is in the dream, typically, they don’t see themselves. How many dreams have you had where you know you were a character in it, and you could see yourself without there being a mirror around? I’ve had plenty of dreams where I’m not even in it, just a spectator following the story, much like watching a movie. This, however, breaks that sense, and for no real purpose.

If the speaker is the one chained, then how much better would it have been to actually see through their eyes? It would have heightened the drama of this page considerably. Wasted opportunity.

Then, you do something that a lot of new comic writer’s do: ascribe feelings in the script that cannot be drawn.

Fear and disgust. Pick one or the other, but not both. You can only get both in prose. An actor cannot show fear and disgust at the same time. It’s going to look like something else. Remember, folks: the cleaner the emotion, the easier it is to draw. As soon as you try to double up, more than likely, you’re going to fail.

Some emotions just cannot be drawn, in themselves. Love is a classic example of this. Everyone knows what fear looks like. Everyone knows what happiness looks like. What does love look like? Exactly.

Stop, think about the emotions you’re putting down, and how you imagine them being pictured. Do a search for it. You’re on the internet. You can do a search for images. Provide that reference to the artist, if necessary. Otherwise, put down a cleaner emotion and continue to roll.

As for the dialogue… I think Steve just insulted Roger Corman. He may make B movies, but they’re great movies for all of that, and the dialogue is rarely as clunky as this. Maybe in some of his earlier pictures, and even that was few and far between. (And yes, I’ve seen my share of Corman Classics. I’m a movie-lover, remember?)

While that bile line wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever read, it did take me right out of the story. It was jarring because it was not executed well. The opposite of good, really.

PAGE TWO (5 Panels)

Panel 1. Establishing shot. Early morning small town suburbia. We are looking at a HOUSE in a row of identical houses, white picket fenced with a manicured lawn. (If the house is identical to the others, how do we know which one we’re supposed to be looking at? You say it’s white picket fenced with a manicured lawn , but the way you’ve written it, so do all of the others. Is the camera focused on this house in particular and if so, why do you even mention the identical homes around it?)


It’s 1988 and Moreville, Oklahoma is a little slice of heaven.

Panel 2. We’ve now moved into the master bedroom of the house, where the man from the dream, MICHAEL SMITH (46) and his wife MARIA SMITH (38) are fast asleep. He’s worn-out and worried looking (What do you mean worried looking ? Do you mean to say he’s tossing in his sleep, reacting to his dream?), she’s younger (Not by much), dark and pretty. A large crucifix adorns the wall above their bed. (Why would they have a crucifix above their bed when they could have a family picture instead, which would also show the reader a glimpse of the young girl?)


With good schools and a low crime rate, it’s filled with good, honest, God-fearing Americans. (This dialogue serves no purpose to the story. You could jump from Moreville, Oklahoma is a little slice of heaven to At least that’s what I tell myself every day with a seamless flow, so why interject this bit of needless fluff?)(It’s personality. I’d take out the word good , but leave the rest. The crucifix goes to show their piety, which is reinforced by the dialogue. I have no problem with it.)

Panel 3: The alarm clock shatters the peace like a machine-gun. (Nice use of simile to describe the ringing clock. Problem A: This reference to text has no right to be included with the visual description to the artist and colourist. Problem B: This language is designed for prose, not panel descriptions. Cut to the chase and give the straight facts of what the artist is supposed to draw. Leave out the flowery visual directions. Problem C: What is the alarm clock doing to shatter the peace? It’s ringing, right? So if this were prose, I’d suggest writing it as The ringing of the alarm clock shatters the peace like a machine gun . It’s a confusing description otherwise.) A disgruntled Michael opens one eye. (Is he disgruntled or barely awake?) (As a panel description, this is terrible. There’s no direction to the artist that tells them what to draw. As prose…it’s tolerable. But as a panel description, this fails.)


KA-KA-KA-KA-KA-KA-KA-KA-KA (What kind of alarm clock would make this sound? If it’s digital, then it would be more of a BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP, whereas one with a bell would have more of a RINGALINGALINGALING sound. I can’t picture KA-KA-KA coming from one of those.)


At least that’s what I tell myself every day. (The dialogue above and this bit make no sense to the situation. He’s talking in caption while asleep and his dialogue has nothing to do with what has just transpired on the previous page. If he were outside watering the lawn, I could understand the appropriateness, but not like this.)

Panel 4: Michael sits up in the bed, one hand crashing down on the alarm. With the other hand he puts on his glasses. (That’s a lot of movements for one panel. He sits up. His hand crashes down on the alarm. He puts on his glasses. I could see him still lying there and his hand crashing down and then reaching for his glasses as he sits up, but not all together.)

Panel 5: Larger panel. The Smiths sit down to breakfast in a modest but clean kitchen. (What is with this sudden jump in action and location? You’ve just spent four panels setting up his waking up with his wife still asleep. Suddenly everyone’s awake and dressed to the nines. Why??) They are wearing their Sunday best and joined by their daughter, 15 year old JILL SMITH. We recognize her as the young woman from Michael’s dream. Michael is centre panel, eating from a bowl of cereal. He still looks disgruntled. (What was the purpose in having this panel? What information in it is pertinent to forwarding the story? Take it out altogether.)


Where’s the Lucky Charms?


The store was out.




Eat your muesli. We’re going to be late.

(This is bad. How does this exchange serve the story? Steven would probably say something like they’re eating Coco Fluffs as that’s all this is, but I’ll leave the bad puns to him )(I’m laughing out loud…and yes, PLEASE leave the jokes to me… But on a different note, you’re not wrong at all. My mouth fell open and I literally scratched my head in wonder at the jump.)


And yet I can’t help feeling like something is changing. Something is wrong. Perhaps it’s just the dreams.

Another page down and I want to stop right now. This isn’t going anywhere. You had the potential for setting up his shooting awake from his nightmare and his wife reacting to his sudden panic, which could have very well been done in the middle of the night, but instead you gave the reader a slow page that does nothing to move things along. And what correlation does it have to the first page? None.

I’m going one more page and I’m hoping this will perk up and start making me care.

Two pages down, and we have a complete break in the story.

Okay. Here’s what we have that’s going on. I understand it, but I’m not a fan of it. Not in the least.

P1 we have the setup with the dream. Okay, fine. It wasn’t done well, but whatever. Now, with P2, we have the waking of the main character, still unnamed as far as the reader is concerned. And what happens? They wake up slowly, there’s a moving panel, and then there’s a jump to the kitchen table.

What the hell.

What’s going on? Matt is taking advantage of the fact that this is an even-numbered page. There isn’t a true page-turn here, because the reader’s eyes just slide right on over to the next page. So there’s a bunch o’ boring here, trying to tide us over to the next piece of interesting.

Not good. Not good in the least.

Don’t do this, folks. Don’t take advantage of your readers like this. Every panel has to have a purpose. What narrative purpose do the latter panels serve? Not one that I can tell. It’s padding, or to use the words Steve put in my mouth, Cocoa Fluff.

What happens if you cut this entire page? Probably nothing. I haven’t looked further yet. There may be a little bit of gymnastics to make sure the flow is smooth, but I’m willing to bet that this entire page can be cut without anything being missed.

If it weren’t for the fact that the dream itself seems important, I’d assume that the story hasn’t started yet. I know that assuming is terrible, but there it is. You probably could have found a much more effective start to this story, leaving these pages in the dust bin.

PAGE THREE (4 Panels)

Panel 1. The Smith family sit in a CHURCH pew surrounded by other churchgoers. Maria is attentive and Jill has the bored, fidgety look adopted by every teenager in Church. Between them Michael gazes at the ceiling, perhaps staring at the roof, perhaps looking for God. (Give the artist the facts, not a series of what if’s and perhaps’s.)


Perhaps I just need to pray more (Missing period)

Panel 2. (JUMP TO) Outside on the Church steps, Maria shakes hands with FATHER QUINNE, a young and approachable priest. Michael’s eye is caught by a young tramp who scowls back at him. This is RAPHAEL, and we’ll be getting to know him later. Though he is hooded and garbed in filthy thick clothing, we can see that the tramp is in his early 20s, black with short dreadlocks and icy blue eyes. (How can we determine his age if he’s looking like that?)


Lovely service today (Missing comma) father.


Always a pleasure Mrs (Missing period after Mrs) Smith.


Have faith that the Good Lord will see me through as he always has.

Panel 3. (JUMP TO) Int. of the family car as Michael drives them home, Maria in the seat beside him.


Perhaps I just need to stop worrying so much. (Perhaps I just need to stop right here but no, I’ll at least finish the page.)


Michael, what’s with you today?




You’ve barely said a word all morning.


Sorry, Maria dear. It’s nothing.

Panel 4. Jill leans over from the back-seat.


Is Uncle Jonas coming over today?


Of course.






Kidding, jeez Mom!


After all, they’re only dreams.

Okay, I’m done. I honestly can’t go any further. This story is going nowhere fast, except maybe to the trash can if it were a hard copy and I was a disgruntled editor bored out of his mind (which I am NOW). I can say with all truthfulness that there are no redeeming aspects of this story as it reads right now. Directionally, this is a mess. You had opportunities to blend the story together, to create a flow of actions that would have resulted in an A to B to C sequence of events, but instead you created a series of events that have nothing to do with one another and definitely have no value in moving the story forward. Then there’s the dialogue. Oh boy, what can I say about the dialogue without sounding like I want to curse profusely. To begin, it’s minimalist. There isn’t enough of it. And what you do have is terrible, especially the captions.

Here’s something I want you to do: READ. Not only read, but take the time to learn from what you read, whether comics or prose or even watching a movie. Take a notepad and write down what you see as things to take away from the story, whether it’s structure, conflict and resolution, use of dialogue, etc. And don’t just go for those that you really enjoy, but also those that don’t work for you (Lord knows I’ve seen plenty of those published by the big guns). It’s by studying that you will learn. I’ve made a few suggestions on how you could have approached the pages differently. Learn from it and apply it to your future scripts. I’ll be waiting in the wings to see what you come up with.

Page three is down the chute.


The basic thing that’s going on here? There’s no story. P1 has the hint of one, and then the supporting pages just didn’t follow through. I may not be a fan of the slow burn, but at least with a slow burn, what you have is interesting (or at least, it should be). This isn’t interesting. This is nothing, and a whole lot of it.


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, and I’ll keep saying it until everyone who wants to write a comic gets it: when you are just starting out, you have about three pages to grab your audience. I’m lenient in saying five, but the reality is that you have about three pages. Those first three pages better shoot straight and true, because if they don’t, you’ve lost readers.


I don’t care what the hell Alan Moore has done, or Neil Gaiman, or anyone else has done. I don’t. They’ve made their bones, probably on sales to you. They’re trusted. They’ve proven they know how to tell a story, how to pull diverse threads together to tell a cohesive story. How to be enjoyable at the least, compelling at the most. It’s been said that Stephen King could probably sell his grocery list and it would be a best-seller, and it’s probably true. When you’re just starting out, you’re none of these people.


You’re not trusted. Readers don’t know whether or not you know how to bring a story home. They don’t know if that story is going to be enjoyable. And if you don’t grab ’em within the first few pages, they’re gone.


P3 is crap. Four panels of steaming crap. What does anything on this page do to push the story forward?


We finally get a name. Michael Smith. We know that because the unnamed priest called his wife Mrs. Smith, and she called her husband (we assume it’s her husband, since they were in the same bed together) Michael. Then we know that someone (probably Michael, but it could be Mrs. Smith) has a brother named Jonas. Could this information have been given sooner? Maybe, maybe not. The good part about it (the steaming part, because heat is always good) is that it the names the characters in an organic manner.


However, except for P1, there’s no real movement of story in these pages. P2 has a total break in the middle of the page, and doesn’t seem to go anywhere near the story being told again.


Enough. Let’s run it down.


Format: Flawless Victory. Do I need to say the rest of it? No. Not this time around.


Panel Descriptions: Not the worst I’ve ever read, but definitely not the best. Prosaic when they shouldn’t be. A moving panel. A panel description that is describing what’s going on instead of describing an action. Not good. There’s a lot of room for improvement here.


Pacing: The total opposite of good. The extreme, total opposite of good. P1 starts the story, and then there’s no more hint of it come panel 5 on P2. The story really effectively stops come P2, no matter what the dialogue—what little of it there is—says.


So, the pacing is both slow, and there’s padding. Two things that definitely should not go together.


Again, I don’t think this is the real start of the story. I think that all three of these pages don’t start the story. I think the story starts later. These pages can definitely be condensed, if not cut altogether.


Remember that the story has to move. You have to give the reader a reason to go from panel to panel. You don’t give them that here.


As for the dialogue, like Steve said, there isn’t enough of it. We’ll talk about the dialouge itself in a bit, but the dialogue is there to keep readers in the story. That isn’t happening here, at all, because you don’t have enough to say.


There’s definitely a case of the dropsies: you start an internal monologue, but then you don’t have it on every panel. Is it needed in every panel? I believe so, because you have a lot of story to tell, and you aren’t telling it. If that internal monologue were interesting, then you’d be in a much better position. Add words. I’ll always advocate having more words instead of having too few. It’s easier to cut and distill than it is to add. That’s my belief.


Dialogue: I don’t have much good to say about the dialogue.


P1 has a travesty on it. However, that travesty is mitigated by the organic way in which names were introduced. So, there’s that.


Italics: Using italics to show a stressor is not wrong. However, I’m not a fan of it. Not all fonts have an italics subset, so it’s easier to lose when the letterer does their job. Really, all they’re doing is cutting and pasting. They aren’t doing any re-typing, and they definitely aren’t doing any editing. (If you find one that does, they aren’t going to do it for you for long.) It’s better to underline the words you want stress on. Underlining is harder to lose than italics. Just a thought.


Overall, though, the little bit of dialogue that’s there is boring to read. The reason it’s boring is because it’s of little consequence to the story being told. Some of it gives flavor to the character—giving their world-view and the like—but most of it isn’t helping to push the story forward.


Dialogue needs to do two things: it needs to reveal character, and it needs to push the story forward. The best dialogue does both of these at the same time. If it doesn’t do one or the other, then it’s fluff. Most of this is fluff. Cocoa Fluff…


Content: I wouldn’t read this.


I’ve been watching 80s horror movies lately. Late 80s. Warlock, and its sequel to be precise. And while they don’t hold up all that well—demonizing witchcraft and the like—and this seems to go into the same vein. I could be wrong. I hope I am. Actually, I’d love to be wrong.


Editorially, this is heading for the city. Rewrite City. An opening that grabs, a story being told, and if this goes in the vein I think it does, a more enlightened approach to religion. (Don’t forget: Greek mythology was once a vibrant, living religion.)


And that’s all there is this week. Check the calendar to see who’s up next!


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Category: Columns, The Proving Grounds

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at for rate inquiries.

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