The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. Everyone in this series is a storyteller, even if they may not always think of themselves in that way. Each storyteller has something unique to share. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.
About Patrick Meaney
Writer, director, producer
Patrick Meaney is a filmmaker who has produced and directed six feature films and is the definitive documentarian in the world of comics. His documentary films Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods, Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, The Image Revolution and Chris Claremont’s X-Men dive into the stories behind the stories of the biggest creators and events in comic book history. For this work, he won the Best Documentary award at the Comic-Con International Film Festival. On the print side, he wrote the comic book series Last Born for Black Mask Studios and is currently writing Syphon for Image Comics. His films have played at film festivals and comic conventions around the world, including the Napa Valley Film Festival, Helsinki International Film Festival, Revelation Perth International Film Festival, Leeds International Film Festival, Belfast Film Festival, as well as San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic-Con.
You work in a lot of different mediums – you’re a filmmaker (documentary and narrative), you’re a published author, you just launched a comic book series. What’s your favorite medium for storytelling?
Narrative film is my favorite, it lets me use all the skills I have. I love comics, but I write the script and then hand it off to somebody. With film I can write it, direct it, cast it. I can be deeply involved from start to finish.
That said, there are things you can do in comics that you just can’t do in film. Film isn’t a great medium for big ideas because you need to keep moving. It’s linear. Comics are the best medium for ideas that are hard to wrap your mind around like quantum physics, spirituality, or the nature of reality. A lot of the greatest storytellers in comics have these high level concepts – like the idea that all time exists simultaneously in a 4th dimensional view. You can’t do that in film. It’s best represented in a comic. You as the reader can flip back and forth, seeing the beginning and the ending and the totality all at once. The medium itself lends itself to a lot of meta stuff about the nature of storytelling.
What are the unique challenges and opportunities of storytelling in comics?
The biggest challenge with comics is that it’s the most expensive medium. Think about it. For the cost of two comics that will take you 10 minutes to read, you can subscribe to Netflix or Hulu. So how do you make it worth the audience’s time and money? You really have to overcome this inherent challenge of the cost for a lot of readers. How do you wrap enough spectacle or emotion into it? You can read a comic really fast and half the time it makes no impact.
The greatest comic book writers can write a single issue or page that can make a lasting impact. Through the combination of words and pictures they can create something so much bigger than words and pictures. The Watchmen by Alan Moore is one of the easiest examples. The juxtaposition of the internal comic in that book with the present day action with the dialogue and the captions and the visuals. You’re reading all these different things and getting so much more. There are so many ideas in just a single panel, line or page. Then when you read it again and you know what the purpose of it is, you get a whole other layer.
With comics, just like film, you want the visuals to drive the narrative. You can lay out the panels in interesting ways. The panel is part of the story, it’s an art object on its own. It’s not like a film where you’re locked into an aspect ratio and what’s in the frame is the story. With comics, you can have different panel sizes to convey different ideas or emotions. It’s more like music. If you have a lot of small panels and then one big panel it has a bigger impact.
We’ve all seen comics that just look like storyboards – horizontal squares stacked on top of each other. It’s frustrating how many artists just do a box, then another box, and another box. With the best artists and storytellers, every page the layout is crazy and tells the story in some interesting fashion. J. H. Williams III is an artist who does that really well.
When I was working with Jeff Edwards, the artist on my recent comic Syphon, I’d say ‘Let’s do a little J.H. Williams here.’ He instantly got it and really rose to the occasion. I don’t get super specific about layouts in the script. But I’ll say ‘Let’s not have panel borders’ or ‘Let’s put this in the silhouette of a person’s face.’ Jeff was really excited about that and once I saw what he could do, we pushed it even further.
In comics the writer is the writer and the director. They come up with the story and give basic direction. But the artist is the cast, the production designer, the costume designer, the cinematographer and the composer. In comics the writer is viewed as the autor, but the artist can make or break a scene. So it really is a symbiotic relationship.
When you’re beginning to tackle a story, what do you think about? What’s your process like?
I’ve honed in on a few techniques that served me well recently. When I was younger, I was all about telling these 10 part epic stories that span a whole universe. What I’ve realized is that nobody is as interested in your story as you are. It just doesn’t excite them in the same way it excites you. Especially as an independent creator, you don’t stand a chance if you’re boring. You’re competing against all these big multi-million dollar movies and publishers. It’s like playing against Lebron and you have no shoes. You don’t have the resources or skills to compete at that level. So it’s your job as a storyteller to always sell the story at every moment.
I’ve really focused on the idea of trying to compartmentalize. I want every little piece of the story to be great. Each scene should have something of merit. Whether that’s emotional or something visually interesting. There should never be a moment where it’s boring. We’ve all heard people say “Oh this show gets better after the first season, you’ve just got to stick with it.” Well nobody wants to invest 20 hours or even 20 minutes of their lives before something pays off. So in the more recent stuff I’ve done, I’ve asked myself ‘How can I make each scene its own short film?’.
What’s your favorite storytelling device?
I love sci-fi and fantasy devices to represent the internal lives of characters. One of my favorite films is David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me. Some of Lynch’s stuff feels weird for the sake of being weird without emotional grounding. But that film takes something very sad, the death of a young girl, and renders it through this supernatural view. It’s grounded in something emotional that really happens to people everyday, but it’s a lot more powerful than if it was just a story about what actually happened. The internal life is rendered externally – that’s really interesting to me.
Visuals are also a big part of storytelling. Wong Kar-wai was a huge revelatory filmmaker for me. His style is so subjective and focused on the visual and the emotion rather than the narrative. Seeing the way the shots contribute to building out a character’s world made me realize what you can do with the visual medium. His films Fallen Angels and Chungking Express were very neon and had a lot of pop music and these crazy shots. I loved that and draw big inspiration from him. Whenever I’m doing something visual, I always ask myself “What’s an interesting shot I can do?”
How do you make a story better?
The best skill you can learn is how to take feedback. When you first start out you want to get a lot of notes. I’ve tried to hone in on seeing things from an external perspective. When you write something, you’re very close to the story. It’s good to put it down, and take a step away and view it as an outsider. Ask yourself, and others, ‘Does this really work?’
I like working in film because you get to have actors and other people involved. Actors take ownership of the role. I always want to talk to an actor and make sure character motivations make sense to them. That also helps if you’re writing different types of people than yourself. You can talk to somebody and make sure it feels authentic to them.
A lot of people tell you to make the movie you want to make and people will love it. But that’s not really how it works. It’s not like the Field of Dreams – if you build it they will come. A lot of the movies I love, like Fire Walk With Me, get a very mixed response. So as you can maybe guess, when I went and made the movie that I wanted to make, it got a mixed response.
More recently I’ve been thinking about the audience more. How can I still do the things I want to do, but in a way the audience can latch on to better? One thing I’ve found that works really well is to make the premise of the story based around a question. A lot of documentaries do that. How did Woodstock ‘99 ruin society? I don’t know, I’d like to find out about that. People like to have a little mystery. It’s a good way to get your audience on board.