September 3 – 9: “What can thriller writers learn from the comics industry?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5With so many authors moonlighting as comic book writers these days, the Thriller Rountable couldn’t help but ask: “What can thriller writers learn from the comics industry?” ITW Members Liam Sweeny, Lisa Black, Jeff Mariotte, and J. H. Bográn join us this week to discuss the inevitable overlap between comics and thrillers. Scroll down to the “comments” section and follow along!


Lisa Black has spent over twenty years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police department. Her books have been translated into six languages. One reached the New York Times bestseller’s list and one has been optioned for film. The first two, written as Elizabeth Becka, were followed by seven Theresa MacLean forensic thrillers. Her current Gardiner & Renner series includes That Darkness, Unpunished, Perish, and, in August 2018, Suffer the Children.


Liam Sweeny is an author and graphic designer from the Capital Region of New York State. His work has appeared both online and in print, in such periodicals as Spinetingler Magazine, Thuglit, All Due Respect, Pulp Modern and So It Goes: the Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He is the author of the collection Dead Man’s Switch and the detective thriller Welcome Back, Jack.


J. H. Bográn, is a bilingual author of novels, short stories, and screenplays. In addition, he contributes columns for several notable publications, including Yale Global, The Big Thrill, and TopShelf Magazine. He works at Habitat for Humanity Honduras, and as a part-time college professor of writing, Spanish, and English as a foreign language. Follow him on Twitter (@jhbogran).


Jeffrey J. Mariotte is the award-winning author of more than 70 novels, including thrillers Empty Rooms and The Devil’s Bait, supernatural thrillers Season of the Wolf, Missing White Girl, River Runs Red, and Cold Black Hearts, horror epic The Slab, the Dark Vengeance teen horror quartet, and more. With partner and wife Marsheila Rockwell, he wrote the science fiction/horror/thriller 7 SYKOS and the video game tie-in Mafia III: Plain of Jars, and has published numerous short stories. He also writes comics, including the long-running horror/Western series Desperadoes and original graphic novels Zombie Cop and Fade to Black. He was VP of Marketing for Image Comics/WildStorm, Senior Editor for DC Comics/WildStorm, and the first Editor-in-Chief for IDW Publishing.


  1. I was not super into comics when I was a kid, at least not any more than the average little girl—maybe because if I had a few cents I’d spend them on candy, not comics. It didn’t do much for my teeth.
    But I would get caught up on them when visiting my nephews, who weren’t much younger than me. You may scoff at me today but my favorites were the Legion of Super Heroes series. Then later in college I bought my own Teen Titans and borrowed the entire Elfquest series from a friend.
    Anyway, to today’s question—thriller writers can learn a ton of things from the comics, but the main lesson would be this: 1. The action can never stop moving. Your character cannot stand there pondering his universe for panel after panel. Oh, maybe one square or two or even three, but they’d better be really deep thoughts, against a dramatic background, and the angle of view had better change in each shot.
    2. If characters are going to have long conversations, they’d better be moving around and doing something at the same time.
    3. Melodrama is good. Drama is good. If people wanted to read about ordinary people doing ordinary lives, they’d be reading something else (though it isn’t likely they’d really want to read that).
    4. Everyone has their Kryptonite. Perfect beings are boring. They have to have an Achilles heel—the one case they couldn’t solve, their relationship with their mother, a fear of heights, their affection for Lois Lane.
    5. But everyone also has their superpower—the one thing they’re good at, the thing that will save them in the end.
    There are so many advantages to being able to tell the story in pictures. But there are also advantages to not having pictures. Heroes do not all have to possess cliff-like jaws and heroines don’t need double D-cups or wasp waists, because the reader will imagine whatever they need their characters to be.

  2. What can we thriller writers learn from the comics industry? As always, that probably depends on our willingness to learn, and from what sources. I started my career as a novelist while working in the comics industry, and my first novel was about comic book superheroes I’d also written comics about, so I’m doubly indebted to that industry. Obviously, my experience is somewhat unique.

    As a writer, one lesson comics can teach us is economy of language. Comics are stories told through art, with dialogue as needed. Although in most cases the writer came up with the story, plotted it, scripted it, then handed it off to the artist (usually via the editor), all the reader can “see” of the writer’s work is the dialogue. The rest of it remains behind the scenes, interpreted through the artist’s hands and mind. And because it’s a visual medium, the emphasis remains on the art–the writer isn’t supposed to fill the page with dense word balloons, because they hide the art, and the art is paramount.

    So a comics writer has to learn how to write brief, succinct, crisp dialogue that conveys character and tone and helps the art move the story forward. That’s a skill that thriller writers would do well to embrace, as well.

    I don’t think Elmore Leonard or George V. Higgins ever wrote comics, but they’re masters of dialogue, and I’d love to read comics that they wrote. Another dialogue master is Joe R. Lansdale, who has written comics, and in them one can hear that distinctive Lansdale voice. It’s worth finding some of his comics work to see how he pulls it off.

    I’ll have more to say about economy later on, but this post is already trending away from economy, so…

    …to be continued

  3. Posted on behalf of author Liam Sweeney:

    Comics were, and are, a lens through which we can view our times from a place of power and safety. In the 30s and 40s, you had the Depression, and WWII, and you had Superman’s “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” So at one point Superman represented what we hoped to be, and as he and Captain America were fighting Nazis, they were representing who we were as a people. But if you go a few decades, as comics gained in popularity, we had different lenses. We had the X-men, mutants who fought discrimination and bigotry, and a generation of young people could see the civil rights struggle from that position of safety and power (even if it wasn’t always the people being discriminated against in real life.) And in the 21st Century, comics have come out with antiheroes, with themes of nihilism, or moral relativism… again, lenses of the ideological searching that goes on now.

    To some degree, thrillers are also a lens, but instead of being from a place of power and safety, a good thriller brings the reader up close. If the protagonist is a superhero – impervious to everything, nothing ever stands in their way, zero vulnerabilities – they can’t keep a reader’s interest. And I think that thrillers can learn a lot from comics by recognizing the fact that both are a lens through which a reader can process what’s happening in the real world, but recognizing the difference in where the’re being asked to sit when they peer through that lens.

  4. Another quick thought on economy:

    The standard-length comic book has 32 pages–22 for story, and 10 for ads and other editorial matter. In those 22 pages, a story has to be told. It has to have drama, characterization, action (whether it’s superhero-type punching action or whatever action is appropriate to the type of story being told–and every type of story is told in comics today). It has to put the reader through some kind of emotional wringer. Many comics today are continuing stories, usually told over 5- or 5-issue arcs, because that binds up nicely in a trade paperback for the bookstore market–but even in those cases, each individual issue has to reach some kind of conclusion. It might be a cliffhanger to bring the reader back next month, it might be more or less definitive, but something has to be wrapped up in those 22 pages, even if there are plenty of threads left dangling.

    I admit I don’t always apply the lesson of economy myself–my current thriller-in-progress clocks in at 104,000 words. But the lesson still has validity. You can tell a good, complete story concisely. It’s about choosing the telling details, keeping the dialogue tight, not losing focus. Comics do a wonderful job of this. Take a look at a couple and see how they do it.

    1. It’s not surprising then that movies are presented to the crew as ‘storyboards’! Lately I’ve been writing screenplays, thinking at first that they would be easy–nothing but dialogue, which I’m better at than description or characterization. But I swear I could write a 90,000 word novel faster than a 90 page, mostly white space screenplay. When you use less words, every single one has to be perfect.

      1. Comics have another similarity to screenplays–while it used to be commonplace to use “thought balloons” to go inside characters’ heads, that’s now frowned upon. In some cases narrative captions do that, but the contemporary trend is to also avoid captions as much as possible, so any insight the reader has to the characters’ thoughts comes from dialogue and visual. In essence, the artist has to allow the drawings to “act” the part, through facial expression and body language. It’s not an easy way to tell a story, but it’s effective when done well.

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