“Making Comics” (Pt. 2) – by Lauren Amaro

The following is the second part of a guest feature by Art Ducko alumnus Lauren Amaro. Enjoy!

“Making Comics” (Pt. 2) – by Lauren Amaro

Last week I led you through the beginning of an exercise designed to help guide you through the process of outlining, scripting, and laying out a comic. If you haven’t done so, I would recommend going back (https://artduckomagazine.wordpress.com/2017/11/01/making-comics-pt-1-by-lauren-amaro/) and following through the first steps in the exercise before continuing on here. For those of you who have already gone through the first steps of the process, you should have the following: 10 pages of comics scripted out with stage direction and dialogue formatted according to industry standards (again, see pt. 1 for reference). Again, this exercise is presuming the use of a pre-written work so that you are focused more on the process than creating content. I recommend selecting a chapter from a book you like and boiling it down to its most essential and significant parts to make the page limit.

So, now that you’ve got your script you’re officially ready to start laying out your comic on the page! One of the most important pieces of advice I can give you at this stage is:

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If you’re anything like me, you will have had a piece of paper next to you the moment you first started drafting out the stage direction in the script. I personally find it very hard to visualize something without drawing it out. Thumbnails are a quick and easy way to explore different potential layouts without expending the same amount of effort as drafting everything out at full size.

Thumbnails are a helpful stage where you can catch and address storytelling problems before having to erase hours and hours of work. This is also the first time you can see how the dialogue/captions in your script interact with the art. Sometimes you’ll adjust the art or the dialogue to better mesh together or it may reveal problems with the layout or storytelling that need to be reworked entirely.

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The above is an example of a series of thumbnails that Karen Gillmore did for a short history comic she did called, “Cougar Annie”. You’ll notice that one of the things that Gillmore is doing in the layouts is placing her word balloons and making notes to alter the positioning of her characters to accommodate those placements. This is to check whether or not she’s left herself enough room for all the dialogue in her script. If you can’t find a place in the panel to put your word balloon without covering up something important or squishing your characters into their panel borders, then either you have to change the composition or you need to cut down on words.

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There are several possible relationships between the words in a speech bubble/caption and the art within a panel, these are the basic ones. Words should accentuate the art, not explain it. If you find that all of your dialogue is just explaining what is happening in the panel then you may want to take a step back and examine why you feel the art isn’t communicating the action clearly. If you do run into this problem a good exercise would be to create a silent comic in which the narrative is conveyed solely through the art.

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A quick note about some things to take into consideration when doing placements (placing your word balloons)… You want to make sure the dialogue isn’t squished; it needs room to breathe. Captions are usually in a rectangular shape so they’re a bit easier to format, but you also don’t want to rely on them too much if you can avoid it. If you find yourself using a lot of captions you should be asking yourself: What is being told in the caption that isn’t shown on the page? Is that information necessary to know, and if so, how can you convey that information visually?

Also, avoid having a conversation with two characters in the captions. As captions are usually reserved for inner thoughts or voice-overs, having a conversation in the captions can be confusing for the reader. And as a general rule, speakers should be in the panel unless there is a very good reason for them not to be (like a big reveal on the next page).

If you’re planning on hand-lettering your comic, pick a technical pen (like a Micron pen), something that won’t bleed or smudge. It might also be beneficial to create a lettering grid, such as the righthand image above. That way, you can use a lightbox or even a window to help place your letters without having to draw a new grid for each panel. Note: the leading (space between lines) is slightly narrower than the rows with actual letters.

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These are some of the general guidelines for lettering. First, if you’re lettering digitally don’t use a font with serifs (a slight projection finishing off a stroke of a letter in certain typefaces). All comics used to be hand-lettered and as a result we tend to choose fonts that are more rounded and look more like hand-writing. The only exception is with “I” or “I’m” or “I’ve”. We keep the serif on “I” in each of those words, to help differentiate it from similar letters. You can bold words in your word balloons to imply emphasis, which is a useful tool but you have to be careful not to overuse it (otherwise your character is going to end up sounding like Chandler Bing).

The rule of thumb for word count is about 25 words to a panel. You can fudge this a little, but if you’re not careful you end up with giant chunks of clunky exposition that takes over the entire panel like in this Spider-Men II comic.

Sound effects are a great way to add atmosphere and add another dimension to a scene. They can be big to indicate volume, shaky to indicate roughness or fuzziness, and they can even be integrated into the graphics such as in the Hawkeye panel above. Don’t be afraid to experiment or create your own sound effects!

And while this seems self-explanatory, it’s worth mentioning: people talk from their mouths, so that’s where the word balloon tails should aim. (Note: while the following tutorial comic is very informative, there’s something wrong with the panel layout…can you guess what?)

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Not only should word balloons point to the mouth of the person they’re talking to, but the tails should never cross over each other. We read word balloons the same way we do panels, left to right and then top to bottom. The first speech bubble we read in a panel is usually the speech balloon closest to the top or to the left of the panel, and if you’re doing your job right the reader shouldn’t have to guess which.

If you’re looking for practice on placements, I would recommend checking out Dark Horse Comics’s website. They have a page dedicated to showing the creative process of some of their comics from script to final product. Go select a comic and print out the inks, and then using the script, place the word balloons where you think they should go. Make sure the dialogue is going to the right person, that it’s occurring in the correct panel, that it follows a clear order, and that it doesn’t cover up any important information (art). When you’re done, click on the final art and see where your decisions differed from the letterer on the book!

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Choice of Flow refers to the arrangement of panels on a page, as well as the arrangement of elements within the panel, that help guide the reader through the page. So, just like we have to arrange our word balloons into a legible order, we have to do the same with our panels.

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Your choice of flow will rely on the unwritten contract between artists and readers which states that panels are read Left-to-Right first, then Top-to-Bottom.

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Because we read word balloons the same way we read panels, left to right then top to bottom, they can help reinforce the motion of the page. The same goes for overlapping panels. This can be a useful tool but it also means you have to be conscious of the power of direction if you choose to have a character or word balloon break out of the panel borders; it may accidently derail the intended path if used incorrectly.

Here are some basic examples of different ways to layout a five-panel page: (nothing overlapping but we do have a few borderless panels, although the structure of the other panels creates a border of sorts.)

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There are more complicated layouts, especially in more abstract comics where panel borders are loose and open to interpretation, although there is still some adherance to form with different aspects of the art creating pseudo-panel borders—such as in this example from Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Pretty Deadly. You guys will probably not be doing anything so complicated, since these layouts tend to work best with fantastical elements.

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Remember that nice word balloon tutorial with something wrong with the layout? As a general rule in Western comics, we don’t stack panels on the left because of the way we instinctively read. It goes against our ingrained reading pattern: do we go left to right or top to bottom? That momentary confusion can be enough to jar the reader out of the narrative.

If you’re unsure if your layout makes sense, turn it upside down. If you can’t tell what is happening within the panels or what sequence the panels are meant to be read in, there’s a problem somewhere that needs to be fixed.

Another problem that frequently arises in the art stage is that of tangents. The following examples and text were pulled directly from Chris Schweizer’s old blog: http://curiousoldlibrary.blogspot.com/2011/10/schweizer-guide-to-spotting-tangents.html

Although he has since moved to a new domain, this blog is still a great resource for any aspiring comic creator.

A tangent is when two or more lines interact in a way that insinuates a relationship between them that the artist did not intend, and can cause confusion amongst the readers. Here are some of the basic types of tangents to look out for.

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The Long Line Tangent: when a line from one object runs directly into the line of another.

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The Parallel Tangent: when the containing lines of two objects run alongside each other, resulting in either one object being “lost” or one object feeling like it’s being strangely contained by another. This type of tangent is a bit harder to spot bet when you do see it you can fix it by just altering the angle of one object to break that parallel.

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The Corner Tangent: When two lines in an object meet in a way intended by the artist, but another (accidental) line runs directly in place where they meet. Something has to move.

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Bump-Up Tangent: when the containing line of one object “bumps up “ against the containing line of another object so it feels like that object is unable to leave that space. Instead of having something bump up against another line, try overlapping or coming up short to prevent two unnecessary lines from meeting like this.

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Directional Tangent: a long-line tangent that’s been broken by empty space or the gutter between panels (known as panel to panel). This isn’t always a bad thing as it can be used to draw the reader’s eye along a specifically determined path; alternatively, it can also take the reader’s attention away from where the artist wants it. Just be conscious of it and make sure it’s working for you rather than against you.

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Fake Panels: sometimes you accidentally create “fake panels” because of the way we read gutters such as in this instance, which mistakenly breaks up the image into two separate moments when it should be one. The quick fix is to just have something overlap the “fake” panel and break up the border.

Hopefully at this point you all have a good idea of some of the basic guidelines and what to watch out for in terms of comic layouts and art. When laying out your ten pages, keep these things in mind to make sure the action and emotions are being communicated as clearly as possible. However, as much as these rules are a good baseline and reference to look back on when constructing your comic, remember that this is a creative medium. Feel free to experiment with layout, try new compositions, and push the form to its limits! If you have any more questions about some of the things we’ve covered or something that you wished we covered, check out: http://www.makingcomics.com/, or send us a message and ask!

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