TPG Week 181: Searching For A Signal

| June 14, 2014


Hello, one and all, and welcome back to The Proving Grounds! This week, our Brave One is someone who’s no stranger here: Sam Roads. I’m alone again this week, so it’s only me and Mr. Roads. Let’s see how he does with




Before I get started, this script was in 11 pitch. You know how happy this makes me? Yeah. If I were getting this as an editor at a publisher, I’d be putting it in the trah, pissed off that I took the time to open it. Twelve pitch, ladies and gentlemen. And if you don’t know what I mean, you’re on the internet. Learn.

PAGE ONE. (Five Panels) GRAMPS is a middle-aged south asian man, thinning black hair, big black moustache, dressed in threadbare modern-day jacket and trousers. YOUNG MAMA is a six-year old south asian girl in a ragged patterned dress.(Okay, I don’t know whether or not to be a fan of this as yet. The reason being is that I don’t know if these are recurring characters or not. Wait. I lied. I don’t like it here. If they’re recurring characters, then it should be in a different document, or maybe at the start of it, separate from everything else. If they’re one off’s, then this should be in the panel descriptions.)

1.) Wide. Day. A zombie-apocalypse large London urban square, houses ringing a central park of grass. Abandoned cars, rubbish-strewn, distant smoke rising over a city in statis. A horde of zombies chase YOUNG MAMA and GRAMPS. She looks back, frightened, he drags her firmly by the hand, looking forward resolutely. (Sam, I’m not a happy camper. First, how is the reader to know this is London? I’m currently watching a bad movie (Broken Skull/Skullcrusher), and while it’s an urban setting, there’s nothing really to give it a feel as to which city this is in. It could be anywhere. Second, where’s the camera? Would it be better to hide what they’re running from until the next page? Maybe. Depends on how the story runs. Third, how many zombies are we talking about? Fourth, what’s the distance between the zombies and the live ones?)

Mama (caption)

OK, sweetie. If you sit nicely, Mama will tell you a lovely story, and then we can get back to it.

2.) Medium. The POV is from just behind the heads of the frontmost zombies. Maybe do them in silhouette. In the background, GRAMPS and YOUNG MAMA are entering the front door of a poorly maintained house. YOUNG MAMA is twisting her head round to look back in fear, despite GRAMPS helping her in ahead of him. (See this? You’re now asking for the zombies to be somewhat hidden. This is something that you should have taken care of inn the previous panel. Now, since this shot is from behind the heads of some zombies, what’s the distance between the zombies and the house? If we can see her fear, then we can only be no more than 50 yards or so away. See how distance plays an important part?)

Mama (caption)

No, you cannot have Woofy Wolf and the Flumikin. This story is about when Mama was no bigger than you.

Mama (caption)

and no, it’s not boring.

3.) Inside the house, in the front room, looking at the front door. This is the kind of house where the front door opens straight into the front living room. Right of the door is a window, and right of that, an upright piano, with the lid up. The place has not been looked after, with ornaments on the floor and the curtains hanging. GRAMPS stands at the door, wrestling with a zombie arm that has punched through a weak panel in the door. Another arm blocks the door from closing properly. YOUNG MAMA stands by the piano, trembling.

Mama (caption)

terrible zombies were chasing Mama and Gramps.

Mama (caption)

They wanted to eat our flesh! (Uh oh. What happened here, Alyssa?)

4.) Medium, canted. The back of YOUNG MAMA’s head on the left, foreground. She is beside the piano, and we can look along the keys towards where GRAMPS struggles with the zombie arm at the doorway (with his left hand). GRAMPS is twisted towards us, shouting, and his right hand points at the piano. Shards fly from the window where another zombie’s arm has smashed through.

5.) Close, canted on YOUNG MAMA, worm’s eye view, profile (This entire sentence right here? Makes no sense at all. You want a close-up view. Got that. You want it at an angle. Okay. Then you totally contradict yourself by saying it’s a worm’s eye view. Close and worm’s eye view to not mesh. That’s where it stops making sense. And two canted panels back to back aren’t helping your cause.). She has her face up against the piano as she heaves, trying in vain to push it. Her eyes are wide, terrified. Behind her, zombie arms flail through the smashed window frame. (This entire panel makes no sense. As soon as you go close, you can’t see what she’s trying to do. You need to pull out to see what she’s attempting. Also, is the piano on casters? Is the floor carpet, wood, or some kind of tile? This comes into play with her ability to move the thing or not.)

Okay, so we’ve got P1 down.

I’m not the biggest fan. It’s okay as a page, but there are some technical difficulties that have crept in, preventing this from being an intriguing opening.

Before I delve into that, though, let me say this: unlike the rest of the population, I’m damned tired of zombies. I lay the blame squarely where it belongs: on the doorstep of George Romero.

Understand this, folks: before Night of the Living Dead, zombies were only scary because they were undead slaves. Or, as Mantan Moreland put it in King of the Zomibes, Dead folk what’s too lazy to lay down. (He was a great Black comedic actor. Search him out.) Anyway, before NotLD, zombies were either created through voodoo, or through some sort of spell. They were used either in war as infantry, or they were used to do menial tasks.

Zombies didn’t want anything.

Now, though, the only thing a zombie wants to do is eat flesh. Brains? That’s a Return of the Living Dead thing. This is all that the layman knows about zombies anymore. They want to eat you.

I’m tired of zombies as eaters. I’m tired of vampires. I am not tired of werewolves. I don’t think that has been explored enough. But I’m tired of seeing zombies of all eating stripes. Just had to say that.

Now that my rant is over, let’s talk about the problems.

The biggest one is spacing, and the reveals that come with it. Panel 1 talks about a horde of zombies. What’s the spacing? Panel 2 has more spacing problems, and panel 3 has the horde at the door (literally), so they must have been close, right? But the spacing is never mentioned, and that’s going to be a problem with the storytelling.

Next, we have a camera angle that just doesn’t work, no matter which way you slice it. Knowing what you want and understanding what you’re saying are two different things. I know what you want, Sam, but the way you describe panel 5 won’t get you there. And if the artist gave you what you wanted, it would weaken the page somewhat. Basically, the panel, as you described the camera angle, is undrawable.

Finally, the dialogue.

I don’t like lopsided stories. There should be two sets of captions here. I won’t go too much further into it because I don’t want to give Alyssa any help as she answers the question. (Because I’m evil.) However, I do have to say this.

These captions are of someone telling a story to someone else. We all know and understand this. The action in the panel descriptions are all happening in the past. This gives a lean back experience to the reader, which isn’t the best one to have. There’s no immediacy, because none of the characters are speaking on screen. Add some spoken dialogue, and you add immediacy and connection to the action. That’s what you should strive for at all times.

PAGE TWO (Six Panels)

1.) Small panel. Close on YOUNG MAMA’s hand, on the piano keys. It’s not ‘playing’ the piano, it’s an accident. (How is the reader supposed to know this is an accident?)


A dense dischord with several accidentals.(Sound effects but no dialogue? Lazy.)

2.) Close on a zombie, head cocked to one side, eyebrows furrowed. The overall effect should be zombie surprise.


? (This is not a sound effect.)

3.) Medium. Outside the building, POV from amidst the zombie horde. If we used silhouette on P1, then maybe again here. The zombies face the window and the door. They are all standing passively, heads cocked. GRAMPS head has appeared at the broken window, peering out. (So, the unnamed older guy suddenly stops fighting for his life to peer out a window? You’re still trying to use silhouettes? Why? What’s the purpose here? You’ve already called them zombies. There’s no longer any surprise left, if there was any to begin with.)

4.) Medium. YOUNG MAMA’s POV. Gramps faces us, no longer fighting the door zombies (You don’t say! You’ve already said this. These words are padding.). His left hand makes the shape of a pianist doing a spread chord. His right hand points at the piano keys. He looks hopeful. (I think I’m losing my mind… Flutterby’s! Beautiful flutterby’s, with teeth used for kissing holyoke, and diaphanous wings that want nothing more than to give asthma to infants. Oh, flutterby’s! Why isn’t anyone talking in this panel? Why the pantomiming? Does she even know how to play the piano?)

5.) Close. Low view from beside YOUNG MAMA’s left hand playing the piano. Her face looms over, her tongue sideways out of her mouth as she concentrates on trying to play. (Why? What is this particular angle and anything besides the hand being shown important?)

6.) Medium. GRAMPS is foreground, his back to us, scratching his head. The front door is wide open and we look past him, through it at the horde of zombies, standing peaceably. Eyelids droop. (Can we see this? Can we see drooping zombie eyelids? I don’t think so.)

Mama (caption)

That day we learned the most important lesson in the world!

P2, and we have a severe case of the dropsies.

So, here’s the setup, and how Sam painted himself into a corner:

We have someone telling a story to someone else. The story being told, though, is the story being shown in the panel descriptions. Sam has heard time and again show, don’t tell! , and he’s taken that to heart. The problem is that in showing and not telling, he’s put no dialogue in the characters mouths, and he has stopped telling the story in words to whomever is supposed to be listening.

Remember that scene in The Avengers, when Thor has taken Loki away from Cap & Iron Man, and he’s about to threaten him, telling Loki to listen—when Iron Man comes out of nowhere and shoves Thor off camera? Loki then looks at the empty space and says I’m listening. That’s the same thing here. Someone says, I’m gonna stell you a story! Then, they proceed to be silent for a while. Then, they say something at seemingly random intervals, things that are part of the story, but make no sense when taken as a whole.

Before cable television was deemed a necessity, we used an antenna in order to gain a signal. If you had a weak signal, you had to twist and turn the rabbit ears in different configurations in order to find the best signal available. Otherwise, you’d get a lot of twisted picture and garbled sound. You’d then find the signal, and the show you were viewing came in strong, and you heard things with crystal clarity. Then then signal would be lost again, and you’d go hunting, find it, but since the story continued, you’d have missed what was said before, and they’d be saying something new. Those snippets, when taken as a whole, made no sense.

That’s what you’ve done in the verbal telling of this story. Your character has literally said nothing, because you’re afraid of telling the reader what they’re already able to see in the art.

What should have happened is that the dialogue should have illuminated the story scene more. A brief retelling of what’s going on in the panel, with emphasis going toward emotions. The words are there to illuminate, not to rehash.

This is a short story, I see, but you aren’t telling the story effectively. You started as late as you could (maybe), but you could have loaded up on the panel count a bit more. Five panels for P1 probably should have been seven. Six panels here probably should have been seven, too. Or, you could have cut around a little bit more by having the dialogue act as a bridge between the panels. You’ve robbed yourself of opportunities because of the small amount of dialogue here.

THREE (4 Panels). As MAMA grows, she’ll wear different clothes and have different haircuts. There should be a gradual improvement in her look (from shabby to plain but trim). Each panel moves forward in time – maybe it would be good if successive panels overlapped the previous one (slightly). (This is a good note at the top of the page.)

1.) 9 year old MAMA sits at the same piano, facing us, her hands on the keys at the bottom of the panel. She is playing something harder. A two zombies stand around behind her, facing her, at peace. Behind that, the same street we saw on Page 1, but the broken cars are gone, the rubbish is swept and GRAMPS stands looking at MAMA, proudly. Beside him is a small, diverse crowd of other folk dressed the same as him, looking on. (Is she inside or outside? If inside, that must be a large window to look out of. If outside… I have no idea why this would be outside.)

Mama (caption)

And as Mama got better, so did our lives. (Got better at what? See how the lack of dialogue is killing you?)

sfx (music)

chopsticks (I have no idea what this means. If these are supposed to be musical notes, 99.9% of readers won’t recognize this as chopsticks. If you just want the word in there, I’d say that most people won’t recognize the name of the song. Not unless you played an instrument sometime in your life. And by playing, I mean took lessons. This is a long-winded way of saying that this is lazy and won’t work.)

2.) 13 year old MAMA, same composition of panel. Her hands are crossed, she looks more confident. In the background, five zombies and behind them the street. The houses behind look well repaired and people are going about their business, walking, chatting.

sfx (music)

clair de lune (The same problem as above.)

3.) 17 year old MAMA, same composition. Her hands are spread wide, blur marks. She’s sweating, but her eyes are fierce with elation. Eight zombies behind her. Behind that, a row of market stalls in front of the well kept housing. People are trading, walking, chatting.

sfx (music)

tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto (And again.)

4.) 22 year old MAMA, same composition. Her hands are scrunched up as she does a complex cross fingering. She has her tongue in the same position as Page 2. Behind her, eleven zombies. In the scene behind, all as before, plus children running around amidst the zombies, a woman going past on a bicycle, flags and bunting.

sfx (music)

the rite of spring (And again)

P3, and we’ve got laziness and dropsies and a total lack of a real setting. It’s almost like a carnival of bad, but it shouldn’t be. There was a story to tell. It just isn’t being done effectively.


I split my childhood into two frames: Before The Move and After The Move. I was born out of wedlock, and my earliest memories are of being the ringbearer at my parents’ wedding. (I looked cute in my white suit and small afro!) I don’t know where we lived before we moved into the apartment. We stayed in the apartment until I was 9. This was BTM. The apartment was actually a split-level house. Our landlord was my uncle through marriage. We lived upstairs, and I can remember many a summer morning waking up, that buzz in the air. Living upstairs, I tried to be quiet. Hey, I was a kid, and a boy. We’re supposed to be rough and tumble.

ATM was the house right next door to us. Literally. My mother was good friends with our next door neighbor—an older couple and their adult daughter. She worked for him for a time, delivering newspapers. We lived in NY, and he took me down to NC with him for a week while he took care of some business, just the two of us. Lot of love and trust there. No, he never abused that trust. When they moved, they sold the house to my parents. I love that house.

The weekend that they moved, I was at my cousin’s house. This cousin was like a brother to me. A year older, but we spent a lot of time together. We hardly ever fought, unlike another cousin of mine. When my uncle brought me home, he went to the wrong house. I told him to pull in next door, but he said there was a surprise for me. I went into the house, and there were my parents, smiling. The house was ours! I ran around and explored. It was great.

Well, here I am, growing up, and getting interested in music. I’m a teenager, and I want to learn how to play an instrument. I want to learn how to play the piano. My parents had gotten me a small Casio keyboard to play, but with no lessons, the most I did was make terrible sounds with it.

Now that I’m an adult, I don’t have a passion for music, but I want to learn how to play certain instruments: the piano, the saxophone, the guitar, and the violin. Blame Prince for the piano and the guitar, blame Maceo Parker for the sax, and the violin is just because I think it sounds nice and delicate.

Fast forward! I’m writing a comic book story, and I want to write it around a musician. What happens? It rekindles the urge to really learn an instrument, and so I start trying to be self-taught with the saxophone. But in that learning, I’m learning about music, and in learning about music, it’s telling me how to better tell my musician story. It’s also telling me that if I were to write an original composition, I could literally put it in the comic, publishing it, and having to copyright it. It would be interesting, to say the least.

Music in comics is not new. However, most of the time, it’s just a few notes here and there, and they would more than likely either sound interrupted or like nonsense.

Only musicians are going to know what you’re talking about with some of this. If that’s what you’re going for, great. If not, then you’ll have to come up with another approach.

As for the setting—I’m in a white void on this page. No real clue where I’m at. That means you didn’t do your job well enough in order to give me a setting.

Dialogue…you should be ashamed. At least you have more words than cumulative panels, but only barely (so it seems). If one were to only read the dialogue, one would not have a complete story. Nowhere near it. Again, searching for that television/radio signal.

FOUR (Two Panels). DAUGHTER is a mixed race young girl, sharing a lot of MAMA’s features. She is wearing nice, well repaired trousers and a bright T shirt. She must look quite different to YOUNG MAMA. (Yeah, not a fan. Again, this info should be in a different place altogether. Having it here makes the artist work harder than they need to.)

1.) Big panel. Very wide. Aerial shot of the square. At one end DAUGHTER playing the piano (but I fully expect we’re too far away to see that it’s her), MAMA beside her. Facing her is an audience of thousands of zombies, filling the square like a huge festival gig. The few zombies we could see behind her on P3 under-represented the size of her audience. On the outskirts, market stalls, people cycling, children playing, well-kept houses.

Mama (caption)

And to this day, whenever we play music, the zombies never ever want to munch our brains! (Why am I not surprised about the brain reference?)

2.) Medium, profile. DAUGHTER is sat at the piano, arms crossed, bottom lip stuck out. MAMA stands over her, turning a page of music, looking down kindly at DAUGHTER. In the background, a sea of peaceful zombies wait appreciatively.


So that, little miss pouty, is why you need to practise your scales.



I’m just going to run this down.

Format: Flawless Victory. And if it didn’t have it, I’d have been severely disappointed.

Panel Descriptions: These need work. You have to keep character spacing in mind, which didn’t seem to happen. You have to keep in mind what can actually be drawn when you’re going for camera angles.

Now, I call for camera angles a decent amount when I write, knowing full well that I’m going to give the artist the opportunity to come up with a better angle than what I suggested. Other times, I intimate where the camera should be, because of the way I described the panel. Neither is right or wrong, because the only thing it’s doing is letting the artist know what I see in my head.

That’s all the panel description is doing, anyway—letting the rest of the team see what’s in your head. However, while doing that, you also have to accurately describe what you’re seeing. If you don’t, you’re toast.

On P3, you got lazy. I wasn’t properly placed, so I couldn’t really see where I was. Tell the artist! Let them in on it. If it’s the same place as P4, but pushed in so that the reveal isn’t lost, let them know that. Don’t make their job harder than it already is.

Pacing: Four pages, and there’s a story that started to be told, but never was. Extremely little of what I read in the dialogue connected with the story being told. That’s a failure. There seemed to be some jumping about that could have been smoothed over either with a couple of added panels, or some added dialogue. The pacing for the dialogue is a failure, but the pacing for the panels needs just a little more work.

Dialogue: Here is where the story fails, and does so in spectacular fashion. I honestly expected better from you, Sam.

First, we have the story that doesn’t get told. That right there makes me lose my mind a bit, and I’ve already beat up on you on the signal searching thing. I’ll leave that be.

Then, there’s the two instances that Alyssa is going to explain. That made my blood pressure rise a bit, because you know better. And you did it twice…!

Add more dialogue. Tell the story. Because you didn’t do that in this piece.

Content: As a reader, I’d be pissed off. I am pissed off. My head ‘sploded upon reading the last page.

Understand this, Sam: there is no story here. People want to live and zombies want to eat…but you have music soothing the savage beast. From a storytelling standpoint, I can get behind that.

From reading the dialogue, though… I have no idea what the hell I just read. This is not a Grant Morrison The Filth kind of thing, either. From a reader standpoint, we have a story untold, we have music being played, and then we have an ending about needing to play scales…?!?

Know what I just did? I just read the story from the top, reading only the dialogue. It makes a little more sense, but it is still vastly unsatisfying. This is just the opposite of good. I’ve come to expect more and better from you.

Editorially, this needs some shoring up. I’d advocate a rewrite, but it isn’t completely necessary. What’s necessary is the addition of dialogue that actually tells a story. The panel descriptions are an easy fix, but it won’t matter if the dialogue doesn’t tell a complete story. As soon as you hop on that, this story can be read without the reader going Wha…?

Also, the story needs a name change. Something about the story needs to tie in with the title, and none of this does.

And that’s it for this week! Check the calendar to see who’s next!

Like what you see? Sam and Yannick are available for your editing needs. You can email Sam hereand Yannick here. My info is below.

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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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