Iíd like to make it clear that nothing said here should be taken as a must in comics, or as only way of making comics as I see it. Thereís more than one way to make a good comic, but infinite number of ways. Also, if I talk about ways to do something, Iíll surly skip some ways, whether because I forgot it, or because itís yet to be discovered, maybe even by you. Freedom is one of artistís most important tools.
What do comics (specially graphic novels) have, that no other medium has?
One of those things is composition of the page. Comic page has a unity consisting of opposing, contrasting, merging contents of several panels on that page.
Move a comic page further from your eyes, or if youíre looking at it on screen, unzoom it. On this tiny page, can you recognize base contours of happenings? Look at this example:
All you see is a gray, made by merging lines. Nothing to hold an eye for a moment.
As opposed to it, look at this one:
Third panel is replaced with close cut on face, which gives page an identity, together with altered second and sixth panel where heavier shade is added severely.
I made this one because itís an often case in webcomics. Repeating panels with similar construction is not very beneficial for page. Repeating the same panel by copying & pasting it, kills it. Eye gets bored and reader canít take reading your comic very long.
Letís look at this grey surface:
Next, letís look at these few examples: An empty ceiling, a road, a horizon line.
Why do they disturb an eye? Eye follows a line or space, have no place to stop for a moment, no point of reliance, no support. In real life, a roof like that one is likely to be divided with some wooden structure:
or either youíll get the feeling that roof is gonna fall.
A horizon is much more pleasant view when thereís a tree far away, to cut that boring line.
Such as that, when creating a page, you gotta form objects that are gonna stop the eye.
Some artists feel uncomfortable in comics, as if a comic page is too small and crowded to them. They always have a need to put more events on page, but thereís no place for them. However, there are more formats of comics and everyone should find the one that is soothing him.
These are most often used formats:
A4 Ė European comic album:
A3 Ė American comic book or graphic novel:
Comic strip Ė newspaper-style comics;
Landscape format, A4 or A3:
This is my favorite. Most often itís used for Sunday issues of newspaper comic strips.
This format is also sometimes used: A4 page separated in two halves:
It can be printed as either A4 page or landscape A3 page. Itís convenient when it comes to art supplies because smaller sheets are easier to keep and transport than bigger.
Upper half is usually marked as [page_number]A and lower half as [page_number]B
Standard formats can be restrictive to artist, forced to place intended part of the story into a fixed space, but sometimes they can actually be a challenge, or even support, allowing artist to concentrate on other things.
However, web invented loose format, varying size from day to day:
Web also invented a concept of infinite canvas:
A page not intended to fit on screen or to bee perceived in one look. Itís major force is not unity, but rather scrolling down the webpage. Impression of time flow here is stronger than in other comics.
Interesting idea is a page that exactly fits in the screen, together with a navigation system:
However, noone tried this yet, anyway, most of sites have advertisement on top of the page.
Conception of the page:
Now, I already hinted that one of best ways to compose a page is drawing attention to one object on page. It is not only logical that this object is the more important thing in scene, but it helps your comic being readable.
Now, whatís the more important in certain scene? If itís a detective story of Maltese falcon, if Maltese falcon is found and on table, possible solution could be basing your page on close cut of it.
This is not the only solution, you could also base it around the close cut of a negative guy, emphasizing his wish to get a hold of falcon.
You could base it on a cut of window, emphasizing detectiveís wish to walk in park rather than sitting in that smelly office:
If a scene is spanning over several pages, I donít recommend you basing more pages on same object, it gets repetitive.
It shouldnít necessary be one object that page is revolving around. For instance, it could as well be two or more objects, where such artistic decision is logical. For instance, if scene is a dialogue, you can face two characters in opposite panels, and make both faces visible to reader in the same moment. Now that is a possibility films donít have.
Instead of one or more objects, you can base a page on relation of objects. For instance, contrast of two objects usually makes very good impression. Here I have a page of one of masters of comics, Jean-Claude Mezieres:
His page is contrasting gloomy, smoked-up atmosphere of a bar with a brightness of a vision sequence. The rest of space is used for advancing the story.
Other kind of relation you can base your page on, is similarity:
We can also base page on atmosphere. Here we have a page by Regis Loizel, giving an atmosphere of distance, flight, open space which is so often in his comic.
He achieved it with long or wide panels, often showing surrounding rather than characters themselves. He risked readability of the story by this, but he is master of his art enough to do it right.
Ok, but how to do that?
How can you attract readerís attention to one or more objects on panel?
Object can be differed from others in space:
Main figure in this panel is alone on top, while others are all in lower part. This naturally set lone figure as most important on page.
The nicest way to do this, however the hardest too, is to have other objects on panel somehow pointing at main object, so that readers look just slide down other objects to the wanted one:
Main object can be also bigger/in closer cut than the rest:
It can even be smaller/in wider cut than the rest:
Object can be drawn with thicker line than the rest:
This is often used for separating objects in first plane from those in background.
As one sub-technique of this, only a contoure of object can be thicker than the rest. I sometimes use this as a save at the last moment when I don't feel like drawing a new page.
Object can be darker than the rest:
Object can be left un-framed:
Object can be the only one framed:
More dynamic pages:
Panel has to be expressive, dynamic, even if story is not in itís most dynamic point.
In every Marvel-oriented book about making comics, youíll find an example of same page with static characters:
opposed to the one with dynamic:
In second page, a principle of varying planes and camera angles is applied, together with the one of placing camera in the centre of attention: a gun in second panel looks more menacing when it's partly turned towards the reader.
A superhero landing through the window is gonna look much better if you draw it a moment before it landed, with both legs in the air:
then like this:
When drawing a figure, try testing it as a stick figure. It should give you a look on how dynamic/elegant your pose is.
Take a well-known sculpture of the disk thrower (discobolo) by Miron, from ancient Greece:
Strip it to a stick-figure:
You see a resemblance to a bow and arrow. It is this resemblance that makes figure so tensed, lifelike, ready to throw the disk any moment. Itís a support it has in leg that owes it stability, strength. This is the best example for understanding where dynamics of a figure comes from. (examples of a good structure that can be applied to comic panels too, can often be found in classical art)
Important issue is where to freeze the action, what moment to choose to draw? With quick, dynamic happenings, artist is usually gonna those a moment after action happened, to emphasize the movement, as if it was too fast for camera to catch it. A punch is not gonna be shown in a moment when the hand is touching the jaw,
but a moment later:
Richard Corben is one of rare artists who will more likely show the first moment. But in his comics, he doesnít strive for dynamics, but for massiveness, sturdiness.
Note that more characters in the panel reduce dynamics of the panel. Notice this panel:
All those character in it take all the tension out of this scene. Better way to show this scene:
No more than a few characters per panel and one of them contain a close cut of a hand with a gun, central object of the chosen scene.
If you get in situation where you simply have to show a lot of characters in such scene, in order to give an information on all persons is in the room, you can ask yourself if all these characters are really necessary. Some of them might be just standing on the side, not having active role in the story, unnecessarily crowding it.
A necessity for a comic is also a dynamic line. Iím giving an example of Andre Franquin whose line varies from thick to barely visible in one move of the hand:
Jeff smith can also be used as example, specially because he uses this to liven-up rather repetitive pages:
He uses a very loosen-up and dynamic line to liven-up his static and often repetitive panels.
Instead of just letting his line on loose, average American inker is gonna go for technical accuracy and choose thickness based on light source:
Technique is next: lines opposite to light source in scene are thickest. Thatís where the shade is places. Lines facing the light source are thinner. Hereís a simple example of lightning the cube:
This technique adds depth to an object without a need for any kind of shading. Compare and youíll see that object indeed looks more 3-dimensional.
Camera angles: manga introduced them into a comic and western art readily accepted them. Here is an example page of possibly the best known manga artist, Katsuhiro Otomo:
However, you gotta be careful with camera angles, and use them either constantly or in particular places. Putting them severely into a comic without second thought can ruin it, because they have a particular effect on page. About that effect, a little lower:
Another way of achieving dynamic page is facing contrasts:
Facing sharp angles:
Unusual camera positions change angles of lines on page, and force sharp angles into the page. This is that particular effect I mentioned. However, when done well, contrasting diagonal lines of such panels with mainly vertical and horizontal lines of others, can have a good effect:
This is such powerful weapon that even inserting a tiny bit of black makes page more expressive. See this:
as opposed to this:
A page with black skillfully applied is one of comicís highest points:
Example given is Frank Miller's "Sin City".
Close cut as opposed to wide cut in next panel. It leads to variousity of object sizes on page too. Varying cuts is one good way to bring more dynamics into a conversation scene:
Contrasting panel size:
This technique was mastered particulary in "Le garage hermetique" by Jean Giraud Moebius.
A queue of big panels forced from the start of the comic are abruptly cut with a series of small panels, bringing a positive shock together with much more intimate atmosphere.
Dynamics through breaking up a panel:
This can be used in a scene with sudden, fast movement:
As well as in a very static scene:
Benefit is the same.
Personal input on this issue:
Some other ways I use to achieve the unity of the page:
Grouping black masses:
Notice this page:
Now notice this one:
Second one is further from the reality, shadow behind the character is not supposed to move. However, comics are not reality, which allows us to form a black mass at the top of the page, with clearly visible contour spreading through panels.
Note: Artist has to be in touch with reality even if what he's working is totally surreal. However, he has to know when to step back from reality to achieve a certain effect. It's not an easy thing.
Grey masses can be grouped as well:
Here, a big face is shaded so that it forms a grey mass in the left part of the page.
One of problems Iíve bothered with was so called ďchessboard problemĒ. Itís the urge to place black areas on page so that they donít reach each other.
Itís similar to a game of filling out areas with colour, without same colours touching:
When you move from ďchessboardedĒ table, black and while all over the page might merge into one gray area, especially if black and while areas are small:
Black objects can be safely placed next to each other, itís even good for a page as itís forming big black areas. If you have to distinct two black objects, white line between them will be enough:
A line achieved by not-inking is often more expressive than the one achiever by drawing with a while ink over black:
Here is an example where black object merges with black shadow:
This is an example where distincting object from the shadow is achieved by shading it thick grey instead of colouring it totally black.
A page can be based around movement, spreading through several panels. Look at this example:
A guy has a hand stuck in a jar. First thing I drawn when I started this page was this line:
Page represents struggling movement through the page. Theyíre not necessary all parts of one movement, bur can be logically connected several movements as well (maybe even in different scenes).
Artists often use this technique:
It resembles camera movement that is following the character. I donít particularly like the effect, but I have to mention it for the record.
Itís beneficial for the page not to cut scenes at the end of the page. For instance, if you slip the first panel of the next scene at the end of the page, abrupt environment and atmosphere change can give a good effect.
Iíve felt a certain boredom reading comics that always cut scenes at the end of the page. Theyíre like that floor or horizon line I mentioned at the beginning.
Theyíre a burden for lots of artists, they have to be placed on page but they often stick out of art, like some outside objects, or cover areas intended for other things. On the other hand, they can be a great tool in directing your reader through a comic, and fitting them into page isnít so hard once you find a suiting style for them.
Often, when speech balloons are crowding panels, problem is in script. If you feel that way, if you have five or four balloons per panel, go back to a script for one moment, and rethink it: Is every comment in it really necessary? Are some of them just random screams from characters in background?
Are some of them saying something that is already visible from the art?
Are some of them containing more information than itís needed to follow the comic?
In those cases, some text could be removed to unchain the panel.
All in all, text in balloons is an open window towards readers, text is sometimes more open than visual presentation, I even know cases so severe comic readers who only follow text, forgetting about art.
But with a dedicated reader, amount of text is not an issue of if heís gonna read all through it, but rather how much time will it take him to read. Time is a touchy thing in comics, because basically, comics are always trying to create an illusion of time in 2D space.
Sometimes you can use bigger bulks of text when you want a pause in comics, a place where reader will stop for a moment (enough to read that bulk of text).
But I donít know much people who want deliberately to slow down their comics. People mostly want to get them faster, more dynamic. When you have a big bulk of text, you can speed up reading it by dividing it into smaller balloons, connected.
Also, sometimes you can place balloons conveniently to turn readerís attention to an object you want to. Here, Iím placing a few balloons over the page:
Forcing a reader to read through this page the way I want:
Another interesting placement of balloons:
I actually want to explain that reader's eye follows baloons rather than other objects on panel. Neglecting this leads to a mestake I've seen a times in webcomics. Let's look at this panel:
Artist who expects readers to follow characters on pictures, will expect them to read baloons in this order:
While they'll be reading them in this order:
Baloons mustnít look as if they were taped onto a page by some strangerís hand. They have to belong to the page. Usual look of balloons is this:
Here, it makes a nice effect, contrasting the arch of the balloon with the straight line of the frame. However, I prefer square balloons with smoothed corners:
They follow frames rather than contrasting them, leaving any needed mild visual shock to art itself. Plus, it's hellova lot easier to fit in text.
When drawing ďBlueberryĒ, Jean Giraud Moebius used this balloon style:
Baloons, getting squeezed between panels.
Jean Claud Mezieres used various balloon styles. This had particular weight in his SF comic environment, where every alien used different balloon style:
Something similar was done by Neil Gaiman is ďSandmanĒ, where every character owns his own lettering style.
I reccomend various baloon shapes over various lettering styles (or fonts). That rids you of problems with filling baloons in style of the page, and sometimes lettering styles are not all equally readable.
Pete Abrams skips balloons and leaves only a tail. Text, placed directly into panels, forms a gray area:
Alex Raymond in his later stages, abandoned classic balloons as aesthetical and also placed text directly into panels. Harold Foster also did it in his ďPrince ValiantĒ, but instead of dialogues, text was containing narration.
Balloons can, instead of following frames, follow the style of art itself. They can be drawn by the same tools used for art, they can be under objects in panels, or even contacting objects in panels.
Be careful with placement of balloons on black masses. Being very important, black masses are sometimes not to be broken by white balloons;
However, sometimes itís just what gives page an edge, as is breaking contour of the black with a balloon tail:
What you have to know is, take care of placement of balloons and have in mind that they can easily disturb the balance on your page. You can, instead, use black balloons with white letters:
Recent invention is transparent balloons.
No important part of scene is to be placed under them, although visible, it will be undistinguishable. But enough of the scene is visible to make them fit into page easier.
Be careful not to make them too transparent or letters on them wonít be readable.
Reading in right order:
Letís look at this page:
Some readers will read panels in this order:
Some, however, in this:
Itís a common problem with this particular order of panels. We can solve the dilemma by drawing a couple of arrows :
I donít really like arrows, I donít like the way they brake two neighbouring frames at close places. However, you can Ďinstructí a reader to move to the long panel after the first one or to skip it, by placing the important part of content of long panel into either upper or lower part of panel:
Here is a similar example:
Order of panels is pretty clear, although theyíre mixed up. Problems start when, for instance, you place a speech balloon at the top of panel 5:
Whatís going on now? A reader is being attracter to read this balloon, fitting into space of 2nd balloon, right after the 2nd balloon. So he reads it this way:
Just to show how a content of panels may force the order of reading. And a warning to be careful with fancy panel arrangements ;-)
Short input on time-flow in comics:
I already said that comics try to form an illusion of time flow. Concearning that, letís look at next two panels:
After reading first panel, time has passed, and reader reads second panel a moment later that the first. In accordinance to that, content of the second panel is happening later (from few moments later up to whole hours, days, later) than the content of the first page. Time flows from left to right.
This is more interesting example:
Here, we have an example of time flow within a panel. First character is obviously saying his sentence before the second one. Second character already seems surprised by what the first character is saying, because he is presented a moment later in time than the first character.
And there you have it.