Ba and Moon on the Making of ‘Two Brothers’, Part II: The Story of a Script
Set in the vibrant port city of Manaus, Brazil, Two Brothers by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá is an intense tale of blood ties, love, loss, and estrangement, adapted from the novel Dois irmãos by Milton Hatoum. In anticipation of the book’s release this week, the brothers have shared with us an exclusive three-part look at the making of Two Brothers. In part one, they explained what drew them to the book. In part two, they talk about adapting the novel into a comics script.
If I write books, I’m a writer. If I make comics, I’m a cartoonist, but it’s quite common for people to refer to me as an artist. Well, yes, but I’m a writer, too.
Words are everything in a novel, and the script is everything in a good comic book. Yes, the drawings will draw the attention of the reader’s eyes and carry the magic of translating the world into strokes and lines, and many cartoonists become cartoonists because they like to draw, but the images in a comic book are there to help tell a story. The story is more important. After some pages, the reader dives into the story and doesn’t pay attention to the art anymore, because good art is invisible. And the story is a lot more than just the words written inside the captions and the balloons — more than narration and dialogue. The story is the union between words and pictures that was built in the script.
When we were invited to adapt The Brothers, we saw that we had a great story on our hands, but that was no guarantee of a good comic book. Just like an adaptation to theater, TV, or cinema, the work lies in telling the story in a different language that might not work at all. The hardest part when writing the script is retelling the story using the tools that comics have to offer that weren’t there in the original medium. After all, the most important thing is to make a good comic book.
There’s not a correct way to write a comics script. Every author has their own method. When Fábio and I work on an original story, there’s a lot that doesn’t need to be written down or explained in the script, because it’s already in our heads; it’s part of our mutual repertoire. But adapting a novel has demands that are different from creating a story from scratch. We need to get inside the original writer’s head and understand the story in order to retell it. In the novel, everything is in the words: the actions, the images, the era. You need to understand these words in order to know how to transform them—and when to abandon them.
We read the novel many times over. We wrote three summaries of the story. We understood its universe and each character’s role. We had everything we needed to start making choices, changing things, and actually writing our script. We used a technique we learned from the book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee, called Step-Outline, where you write every scene on a card, producing many cards, in order to visually organize your ideas, line up your story, and play with the sequence of events. We began by grouping several scenes on each card; then we narrowed them down, dividing them into smaller and more poignant events. We ended up with thirty-seven cards.
We tried to write a formal script, panel by panel, with captions, dialogue, and everything else described in words, but right at the beginning we realized this method wouldn’t work.
This kind of script is good for explaining the story so the writer and the artist can understand each other, as well as the editor and everyone else that might be involved in the process. But taking the story from the book and describing the images we’d like to create just seemed like a pointless exercise. So we decided to make a different type of script, one where we lay out every page and write the text right on it.
It’s a process that takes a little longer, calls for more thinking, and demands making constant choices. We have to choose the exact text, the angle, the rhythm, the silent moments. On the other hand, once these choices have been made, the script is written, and the art layouts are done, the story is as good as ready. Some creators like to work this way, like Craig Thompson (Blankets) and Jeff Smith (Bone).
We made a timeline with every event in the story, divided the plot into three acts, and listed every character, every place, and all the plants and animals mentioned in the book. With the novel and a notebook always by our side, we finally started to build the script — or layout — of our story.
Ideally, we like to write the whole story before we start to draw the pages, in order to know the size of the story, how many pages it will be, and where it’s heading, so we can measure how much has been done and how much is left to do. We don’t like to blindly start walking. We worked on Two Brothers in between many trips and events (you might have heard of the “Wonder Twins World Tour”) and the wrangling of other projects (I drew 128 pages of Casanova: Avaritia, written by Matt Fraction, and Fábio and I wrote and drew B.P.R.D.: Vampire, a 110-page story set in Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe), and after two years, we were still in the first chapter, and things were not moving forward.
We realized we needed to start drawing, to build something more concrete that would motivate us to keep working, because the goal seemed too abstract and far away.
We wrote and drew twenty-five pages of the script to take to the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée in Angoulême, France, in January 2013. We had it translated and showed it to French and American editors (opening the channels to foreign editions) and returned very excited to Brazil.
We finished every other project we were working on and traveled to Portland, Oregon, in May for a conference, where we seized the opportunity to meet with editors and talk about the book. Our next destination was the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, where Brazil was the focus country and we had been invited as guest authors. We produced forty-seven more pages of the script, but we only managed to draw thirty-three to take to Frankfurt. We talked again with the French publisher and started a dialogue with an Italian publisher.
At the time, we felt very proud of our book, although it wasn’t nearly ready, we didn’t know how long it would be, and we had no completion date in sight.
After returning from Germany, with all other projects wrapped, no more distractions, and no more commitments, we focused our efforts on writing the script to the end so we could plan the rest of the work. In January 2014 we finished the last rereading of the book, making notes and choosing dialogue and captions. In March, at last, the script was done, along with every layout; we had the whole story figured out, planned, and sketched. The graphic novel was finally there in front of us, all written. We knew there was a lot of work ahead of us — 166 pages to draw — but that was no longer a problem. We had our script. The story was there. The work of the writer was over. Looking at the horizon, we knew there was a bright spot, a light, an end.
To be concluded in part three, 'Drawing Manaus'. Two Brothers is available in stores now.