My Comic Life Sundays: Penciling 101: The Layout 2

MCL BannerAnd we’re back! Apologies for the unannounced break last week, the schedule has just been crazy and it finally caught up to me. I’m going to be working this week to try and get a lead built back up so, hopefully, we won’t have to do that again. In the meantime, hope everyone has been enjoying the launch of our Get Creative Tuesdays which will be growing in content over the next few weeks. Now, forward…

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My Comic Life Column 018: Penciling 101 The Layout 2

C. Edward Sellner cropped

Last time I started to focus on laying out a page of sequential art (i.e. a comic page) by discussing the basic structure of the page, using panels and setting them up in simple patterns for readability, such as the grid or stack layout.

This time I want to take that to the next level and begin to touch on ways of improving storytelling by mixing things up with panels and using the composition of the art itself to draw the reader in.

These principles apply whether you are a writer-artist doing your own story and fully illustrating it, or if you are an artist working from a full script. Even in those cases where you are working from a detailed, full, comic script, you as the artist still have a lot of leeway in how you choose to bring that script to life and these tips will help you take that process up a notch.

Let’s Call It a Dance with the Reader’s Eye

One of the fundamental elements of comic art is storytelling, as we mentioned last time (actually several times, but hey, it’s important). Storytelling in art has several levels of meaning, we’re going to focus on the most basic level at this point, and that is essentially how the art guides the reader’s eye through the story. Part of the artist’s job is to unfold the story through the art such that the reader’s eye is drawn naturally, even unconsciously, along through the proper sequence of actions, focal areas, and critical reveals, to engage the reader with the story, to essentially interact with them, by leading them.

Last time I showed a graphic featuring the typical panel layouts used by Jack Kirby, well, I updated that this time with simple directional lines showing reading sequence.

In the English language, we read from left to right, top to bottom, so that is the directional order western comics also follow, though obviously art layouts are more varied than reading line after line of text.

My reason for stressing the basic layouts of these grids and stacks was to create pretty simple reading flow in the story, clear direction for the reader which order to go, and as you can see – most form a Z or a stack of Z’s following that basic flow, left to right, top to bottom.

But this is only one of the means by which the layout can guide the reader’s eye, using basic, simple behavior patterns such as standard reading sequence.

There are lots of far more fun ways to do things as well.

Nudging the Grid and Stack Principle

There are also a number of very simple ways of bringing some variety into play that also help enhance storytelling while not pushing the envelope too much on simple panel layouts. For graphics, I’m using simple panel layouts where able, others showing finished pages to better illustrate the principles.

Staggered Panel Layout – while keeping the tiers of panels simple, vary the width of the panels on each tier so that instead of a locked grid you have a staggered layout of panels across the page. This will help give the page more of an organic flow as opposed to a rigid, locked pattern, as seen on the right.

Closed vs. Open Panels – closed panels are panels with full defined borders, or lines marking each edge, whereas open panels are ones that bleed art on at least one edge, thus no closing border line. Closed panels tend to feel more… well, enclosed, limited. Open panels, you got it, feel more open, more airy, imply greater space, or help focus on a specific element and pop it off the page.

Below are two pages from one of our Deadlands comics with art by Brook Turner. On these pages he kept to a pretty simple grid pattern layout, but each page has one open panel. On the page to the left, the bottom panel opens to make our hero larger than life, popping off the page. On the page to the right, the larger, establishing shot looking out over the water bleeds to the edge on three sides, giving it more a sense of scale and distance.

Dynamic vs. Straight Panel Borders – All the samples I’ve shown so far use straight, neat border lines. Adding some curve, or jagged border lines can add energy to a panel, giving it a dynamic sense of movement. This can be a handy technique for illustrating fight or other action scenes. The sample is a portfolio page from artist Dave Windett that uses curves and line textures to make even the very shape of the panels enhance the action.

We’ll get into some more rules about ‘breaking panels’ when we get a little further in, but for now, the idea is to show you can take very basic panel layouts and put a lot of variety and storytelling just in how those are laid out.

So, what about the actual art, can it also be used to help guide the reader’s eye?

[[SPOILER ALERT: Oh yeah…]]

 

It’s About Patterns and Cues

There are lots of subtle tricks artists can use to guide the eye across the page, to help ensure it moves through the key beats of the story. Here’s some of the most common with a little explanation on how they work.

Pattern Recognition – one of the most primal aspects of our species, and one that helped ensure our rise to the top of the food chain, is our innate ability to recognize patterns. Comics would not exist without this ability, because this is the same ability that allows our brain to interpret simple line drawings as representative of other things, including insanely simple drawings, such as everyone instantly recognizing a ‘smiley face’ as a face, or ‘stick figures’ as people.

Breaking this down more fundamentally, our eyes tend to pick out lines, curves, repeated patterns, and instinctively follow where they lead. So, the superior comic artist will use this fact in laying out the art of a page in order to draw the reader’s eye right where they want it to go.

Below is a page from a classic comic drawn by Steve Ditko, to the left is the page as is, to the right, an overlay using colored lines to show the use of patterns, curves and lines to enhance storytelling.

The blue lines show curving lines implied in the art that help guide the readers eye through each panel, and onto the next panel. The curve to the furthest left, brings us through panel 1 to panel 2, a reflection of that curve then directs us back left and down to panel 3, and a final curve pulls us out of 3 and through 4.

The yellow lines are lines created by the art to direct the action in each, and thus key elements to draw the eye, or frame the panel. In panel 1, it emphasizes the flying figure, in panel 2, a line frames the pilots, giving each a focal point. The pattern of horizontal lines in panel 3 help ensure we’ll look at each row of passengers, and moves us through into panel 4. Panels 4 and 5 put focus on the plane itself, the key element of the art.

The violet lines set up circular patterns which hold the eye, keeping it focused on the key art. That pattern helps us focus on the faces of the pilots in panel 2, shows us the erratic flight of the plane in panel 4, key to the story, and zeroes our attention on that plane in the final panel as it plunges into the wormhole.

Using that same Spider-Man page above, with an overlay we can show a similar but more direct use of lines and patterns, in this case, what we call Action Lines.

Our eyes are drawn to the characters, so their placement, the curves of their body, the angle of their limbs, the direction of their movement, etc. are setup nicely such that the eye will follow along those lines through the page, following the sequence of action. This being a fight scene, the curves, actions and motion is pretty over the top and exaggerated so very obvious and clear.

But, we can also take this to more subtle levels.

This layout is a page from The Dreamer, an excellent webcomic by Lora Innes. Here the action is more subtle, but the characters themselves still help guide the eye.

This page is marked to show flow of dialogue, which is also important (and something we’ll get to on lettering), but let’s also use those arrows to look at the art.

Notice the characters in panel 1 are moving left to right, the eye tends to go where they are going, so it helps reenforce that left to right reading flow.

The foreground character in panel 2 has stopped and turned back, his body now providing a break point, to cue shifting back and down to the mid-page panels.

In panels 3 and 4, as the character looks left, his direction of view, follows the direction we read. In that 5th panel, as he looks back and down, we follow where he’s looking to then go to that last panel.

Obviously a key moment of this page, the characters now are centered to keep the eye lingering on them in their reunion.

In other words, the character bodies don’t have to be in highly exaggerated or forceful poses to provide cues. Simple movement, or where a character is looking can do the same.

 

So, what have we learned? That a lot of thought for a page of comic art goes into how that page is set up, structured, and laid out all for the singular purpose of telling the story. I opened this series saying that the layout is the single most important step in drawing a page of art, and now I’m guessing that makes more sense.

A lot of this are those pieces of the toaster, to use our previous analogy, that someone who just thinks they can draw comics will miss. Why? Because, when done right, the composition and layout of a page that you as the artist sweated and bled over to get perfect, will simply flow into a seamless reading experience for the reader, where the eye glides through each beat without even noticing all the carefully laid signs and guides that made it happen.

That is part of the magic of comics.

NEXT

We’re going to turn our attention to THE PANEL as we explore that individual story beat that bears the heaviest burden of storytelling.

NOW DISCUSS…

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Creative Services, one of the best-known production studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycreativeservices.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: Penciling 101: The Layout

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Welcome back! Our Weekly Visions post last Thursday announced more details about my Smithsonian IMAX Get Creative Get Togethers launching this coming Saturday the 29th with an incredible night of Christopher Nolan 15/70mm films specials. We also announced the second event on February 5th with a double-feature of the brand new hit film about the ladies behind NASA, Hidden Figures and the mind-bending classic The Matrix. Signup for the first outing NOW!

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My Comic Life Column 017: Penciling 101 The Layout

C. Edward Sellner cropped

Last time I started to really get into this series on penciling by going over the basics, including tools of the trade, setting up safe, bleed and trim zones, etc. It was essentially focused on logistics and materials.

This time I’m going to start talking about the first and most important step in actually creating a page of comic art – the layout.

Anyone who’s done art on any kind of regular basis has learned the best way to start is to sketch, loosely and lightly, in order to get a feel for the image. Starting with a light, loose sketch allows the artist to frame out the image, get proportions and anatomy, as well as perspective and lighting roughed out to then build on. It’s essentially a ‘feeling out’ stage where the artist can explore options, angles, composition, etc. Keeping it light if using pencil and paper, means you can erase and make changes easier.

Now, some artists, after they’ve been doing this work for years, even decades, layout and then jump to more finished versions pretty quickly. Others of us struggle a bit more at this stage, trying to get the exact look we want. Every artist sometimes hits a total wall on a given piece and will wrestle with it to no end. Doing all this in simple layout sketches means saving a lot of work once you decide you need to change something.

I’ve included two samples below of my own layout stages for a couple pieces of art. The first set is a cover I’m doing for a short story, the second set is an art print of Wonder Woman for an upcoming event.

As you can see, each successive layout I shift elements, tighten linework, add details, sometimes scrapping a part of the work and starting over, sometimes really defining those parts that are working well.

So, it should be pretty clear that this process really is a process of composing the image – from the basics like getting the proportions and anatomy right (as mentioned above) to the finer elements of framing the main focus of the image, creating elements to guide the viewer’s eye, etc.

Now, the simpler the image, the easier the layout. A quick head sketch is pretty simple to setup and start rolling pretty quick. Make that a full body sketch, little more effort at this stage to get limbs and body in proportion, moreso if that body is at an extreme angle needing foreshortening etc. Add a detailed background? More characters? More effort. Now, take all those elements for a single picture – turn that picture into a panel – and make a page of 6, 8, or 12 panels. Hopefully, you’re starting to see how important the layout stage is to crafting a good comic page.

The layout is when the artist is creating the single most important element of the page and that is the storytelling. Remember, in an earlier column, I spoke about amazing artists who then try their hand at comics and don’t do well? A large part of that is a failure to take into account storytelling from the very beginning, starting with the layout of the page.

Getting the Lay of the Page

Now, if you’re working with a full script, the basic layout of the page has already started in the process of the writing – in other words, your script will dictate, basically, the number of panels for any given page. The number of panels can vary from 1, what is more often called a SPLASH page, to 3 stacked, to 4, 6, or 8 panel grids, or more. Some can use very basic layouts, others more complex. A well-written script will be sure to have the story pace accordingly with the number of panels, for example:

SPLASH pages should be scenes worth that full page. They should be great establishing shots to establish scene or mood, great action shots, or critical turning points of the story worth the space and focus.

From there it becomes a fairly simple inverse relationship based on two key content elements: text and art. If there is a great number of specifics needed in the art to show scale or the full complexity of the action (say a city being ripped apart, or two super-teams clashing), or if there is a lot of text, dialogue, captions, etc. then that panel needs to be bigger. If there are fewer elements of art and dialogue (say a headshot of a single character saying a single word) the panel can be smaller.

Again, if you’re dealing with a full script, its important your writer be thinking through this as well (as they learned during the Writing 101 series), but, ultimately, it falls on you as the artist to translate that script to art. In doing so, you may decide the panel count needs to change, or feel part of a given page needs to be pushed to the next page to pace and balance better. These are issues it’s fair for an artist to bring back to a writer, and ones a good writer should listen to from their artist.

Once you start picturing the general content of the panels on any given page, the next important piece to bring into the mix quickly is how you want to then arrange those panels on a page.

Keep It Simple – OR – The Stack and the Grid are Your Friends

To the side are several examples of typical page layouts pulled from the work of Jack Kirby.

As you can see, they show a range of not only panel counts, but how those panels are arranged.

But perhaps the most noticeable thing is also the most common thing about each of these: they are all fairly simple, blocked panels in simple stacked or grid layouts.

A stack is when panels stretching the width of the page are placed one atop the other, like the upper left image of three panels.

A grid is when smaller square or rectangular panels number across the page, then are in tiers down the page, with the most common being the classic six-panel grid seen at the lower left position.

Now, while having complex panel layouts may look cool, I usually strongly recommend artists just starting out in comics do more basic layouts. The reasoning is very simple – a basic stacked or grid layout means your storytelling will absolutely be clear and easy to follow as far as this stage is concerned.

Again, that is the single most important element of a sequential page of art, that the story flows easily for the reader and they are able to naturally and automatically follow through the proper sequence of panels to see the story unfold and enjoy it.

Those complex layouts you see by more accomplished artists that can blow your mind are actually incredible masterpieces of pacing, order, layout and composition in order for them to work. If you haven’t fairly mastered all those skills and try a complex panel layout for some ‘cool effect’ chances are you’ll end up losing a reader somewhere in the midst of it, and that will knock them out of the story and instantly be a turnoff to them.

Variety Really IS the Spice of Life (and Comics)

A final thing to mention this round, and we will come back to it later, is that it’s also important to vary your page layouts. Now, obviously, again, your script will hopefully include a good bit of variety in pacing and panel counts already, but you may find a good run of 4-6 panel pages, which is the general average. If all you do are basic grids, page after page, that’s going to get visually boring to a reader. Pretty much any kind of repetition, even at a basic layout level, becomes distracting and boring. So, add variety where you can. Maybe one 4 panel page would work better with slimmer, wider panels in a stack. Or a 6 panel page can use some varied panel sizes to shift the grid lines (as shown above).

NEXT

We’re going to continue focusing on layouts but start adding in actual composition of the art in panels and look at how artists can use layouts to add a lot of strength of story in the art as well as the basic panel setup.

Resources

Printable Paper has a number of basic comic page panel layout templates you can download for doing layouts and practice.

NOW DISCUSS…

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If you want more great content like this, support his Patreon campaign today by clicking the image!

About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Creative Services, one of the best-known production studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycreativeservices.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: Penciling 101: The Basics

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First, in case you missed our Weekly Visions Post this week, I announced a new, semi-regular time to Get Together and Get Creative. Thanks to a cool new partnership with the Smithsonian IMAX, we’ll be turning select new releases and special showings into Visionary films – I’ll be attending the show, and those wishing to can join me for an informal roundtable discussion on the merits of the movie afterward. Our first one kicks off January 29th at 5pm. Get all the details here>>

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My Comic Life Column 016: Penciling 101 The Basics

C. Edward Sellner cropped

Last time I did a quick ‘sketch’ of penciling comics in general. This time I want to start digging into the topic and getting more concrete on specifics.

But before I do, let me put out two reminders that bear repeating:

First, the 101 round of series on each stage of creating comics is aimed at the basics, for beginners, just as I did with the writing series. So, a lot of what you read here may be stuff you’ve heard already if you’ve been at this any length of time, but, I try to include some pointers and tips I’ve picked up that will hopefully still make it worth your while even if you’re a pro.

Second, very little of what I share are hard and fast rules (though there are those as well). A lot of ‘creating’ is open to any number of options including tools you use, size you draw at, stylistic choices, etc. My goal is to share some of the most common used approaches and techniques for you to use or not as you wish, but are especially helpful if your goal is to produce work that may lead to you getting hired in the industry.

Tools of the Trade

9581209To do pencil artwork all you really need is a pencil and some paper. Once you start, you’ll probably soon after need an eraser, trust me. But if you want to start working to the norms of the industry you’ll start fine-tuning that process pretty quickly.

In fine-tuning that process, the first step is making sure you are producing art that fits the standard specs for whatever kind of comic you plan on doing. Now, again, lots of freedom here to just create stuff, but if you plan to submit this comic for print or digital release, or do it yourself, then you need to be more intentional in how you approach this.

2

Most print comics are printed at a 6.875″ x 10.4375″ size, but the original art for those sized pages are most often done on 11″ x 17″ sized paper. For printed art of most any kind, it’s pretty standard for an artist to work on anywhere from a two to three times larger size space than the final printed format. The reasoning here is simple – the amount of detail you see in a printed comic page would be hard to include if the work were being created at that size. The additional advantage is that any small mistakes that creep into finished art at a larger size are even more reduced and fade out when the art is printed smaller.

Some artists work on different sized paper, to begin with, which is fine, but what is critical is that the ratio relationship stays the same so the page of art can print properly set on a standard comic sized page.

The most common used paper for comic art is bristol board, which is a high-quality, thick paper stock with a very smooth finish. Bristol board has even more advantages for inking, but still stands out even just for penciling work. The smooth finish lends itself to tighter, smoother lined artwork. It’s also sturdy for erasing (I’m telling you… erasers… lots of them) so that the paper does not scrape or tear. One negative is the smooth surface can also lead to smudging or smearing, so it does pay to be careful as you work.

On the actual pencil front, you’ll find a wide range of tools there. A good starting point is a 2B pencil, as it can lay down solid, dark black lines. But as you progress in your work, you’ll most likely find yourself wanting to use different strokes, shading, and varying darkness in the linework. That’s when you’ll want to expand. There are twelve grades of pencils from the hardest (H), to medium (F), up to very soft (9B). You’ll find these useful in creating different tones, shading, and textures.

Of course, beyond pencils, there are all sorts of art tools to create art, from charcoal to pastels, to paints. But remember, we’re talking about penciling comics and for the most part, those don’t enter into this discussion unless we’re talking someone doing full and finished art.

Get In the Zone

Once you get your tools set up, the next important thing is to learn the ‘zones’ for a page of comic art. This is absolutely critical to make sure the art will look right on a printed page. This falls on the penciler, and is being covered in the penciling series, because, understandably, it is the Penciler creating the initial art, which then is handed off to everyone else on the team, so it makes sense to do it right from the start.

There are three zones or areas on a page of comic art, each serves a very specific and important role in laying the art out for print.

articles_artdimensions1

 

From the exterior edge of the paper in, there should be a border outside the art, which is essentially the buffer edge of the page, no art should be in that area, and any that is will most assuredly not be seen in the final printed version once it’s setup and sized down. On a standard 11″ x 17″ art board, this border would run 1/2″ on the sides, and 13/16″ on the top and bottom, defining a space to work in of 10″ x 15-3/8″.

The next zone or area is called the Bleed Area, or Full Bleed Area. This is for a specific form of printing that can print to the edge of a printed page, with no visible border running the exterior in the printed format. Art can extend into this area, but it’s important that nothing critical or central to the image as a whole extend into it, as it may or may not be fully visible in the printed version. (See below to better understand why.) Art that can fill a Bleed Area would include backgrounds, furthest extensions of limbs, or objects that can be cropped without losing definition of the figure or object, etc.  The full work space including the bleed area is the above mentioned 10″ x 15-3/8″ as defined by that buffer zone.

Next is the Trim Line, which on a standard 11″ x 17″ sheet is 5/8″ in from the edge of the paper on the sides, and 1″ in on the top and bottom, defining a space of 9-3/4″ x 15″ in which to work. The trim line is crucial because it is the average line of where the page will be trimmed in the process of printing. As books are run through a printer, there is a trimming or cutting stage, that is pretty accurate but not 100% – so the trim line represents the average line of the cut. This is why there is a small buffer on the outside of the trim line, the Bleed Area described above, and on the inside of the line defining the final zone.

That final zone is the Safe Area, sometimes referred to as the Live Area. It is 1″ in from the sides and 1-3/8″ from top and bottom, defining a work space of 9″ x 14.25″. As its name implies, the Safe Area is that area which is guaranteed to be centered and visible on the printed page – none of that will bleed off the edge or be cut in the process of trimming. So, obviously, it is within this zone that all important, central elements of the art should be fully contained – character faces, important props or elements of the backgound, etc. This is also important when it comes to lettering, as all lettering, captions, dialogue and sound effects should be 100% in this area only, but we’ll cover that more later.

Above is a great graphic from Blambot that shows the various lines and dimensions. Now, if you’re doing this work regularly you’ll find it easier to get art boards that have these lines pre-printed on them, and fortunately, there are several to choose from. My preference, as well as that of many artists, is Blue Line Comic Pro art boards. These not only set off the bleed and trim lines, they include marked notches for dividing a page into thirds, halves, etc. for most basic panel layouts. They also use that buffer area at the edge to provide an artist space to make notes on series, page number, etc. Once you start generating multiple pages of art on various projects, you’ll find it pretty important to label the pages so you can find them once again if needed.

Doing It Digital

Wait, what does penciling have to do with digital? I know at least someone out there is asking that and it’s a fair question.

Penciling in comics is not so much the means or tools used as the step in the process, still referred to by the name it acquired before computers existed. Those of us who create comics fully in digital still go through a process of ‘penciling,’ meaning we set up the page specs (file specs in this case), and create the initial art using custom tools, and the process of composing and defining the art generally looks similar to sketching and pencils on paper.

In most art software the Pencil tool is generally not a tool you want to actually use as a ‘pencil’ for drawing. There you go pretty exclusively with brushes. As above, you can use any number of settings to accomplish the same, and different artists will have their own preferences. Personally, when I’m ‘sketching’ or ‘penciling’ art in Photoshop, I used a standard round brush, set to multiply and around 40% opacity. Most of my work I set the brush to 3 pixels, though will sometimes thicken that up in the initial sketch when I’m doing thumbnails or roughs (more about all that stuff later). The point though is the process is similar, even if the venue is different.

Now, if you work exclusively in digital software, but are working on comics intended for print then you need to setup the same specs as listed above, especially concerning setting up your zones on your page. I’ve included download links for my own personal digital page templates I use for art, which are template files set to standard size for original art, and have both a layer with guidelines, as well as Guides you can make visible by clicking View > Show > Guides for Bleed and Trim lines. I’ve even been extra nice and included single page and double-page spreads.

For digital comics, if you’re creating the work for a specific digital venue, the best starting place is to review any and all guidelines and specs for that venue. They tend to differ a lot based on how the venue loads and displays art. However, most of the same general principles apply here, just as above, with differences accounting for format and venue.

As with physical tools, you can create the art at a variety of spec sizes, as long as the final file hits the right ratio and proper resolution or DPI for the art to display well. Art intended for print must be created at a minimum of 300DPI, any lower and you risk the art looking pixellated on the page. More detailed art, like full digital renderings, will often jump to 400, or even 600DPI to keep crisp edges and rich colors defined in print. Digital venues range based on their format. Apps and panel based venues often require higher resolution images so that the art remains crisp and clear even when you zoom in super-tight.

Obviously, one major difference here is that most digital venues for viewing comics do not match fully to standard print size. Reading comics on a computer means you’re going to want to lean more toward horizontal or landscape art to better fit a standard computer screen. Comics that display on a smartphone are usually panel by panel, so if you are targeting this type of venue you will want to lean toward more standard sized, smaller panels that then work zoomed in on the smaller screens. Of all digital devices, tablets are the closest reading experience to print with the ability to display decent sized, full print pages and still be readable.

The Best of Both Worlds

I’ll do a whole series on this somewhere down the road, but worth at least mentioning here – I generally encourage creators to think about all their options when they create a comic. You may start with releasing this comic you’re doing in a digital format on Comixology or Drive-Thru, but if it were to take off and you got that call from a print publisher wanting to do a collection – just how much would you hate yourself if you created all the content only for digital and not a high enough resolution or format to work in print? Don’t do that.

I think DC does the simplest, best answer here with their digital first series like Injustice and Legend of Wonder Woman. Their file specs for digital comics create web-screens that are optimized for most computer screens, but also, happen to line up to 1/2 of a standard comic page. The screens are then paced storywise and artwise to allow each consecutive set of two screens to be assembled into a single page for print. So, keep all this in mind as we press forward.

NEXT

Now that we’ve got those basics out of the way, next time we will start getting into some actual art! Promise!

Resources

Blambot is a definitive resource site for lettering comics, with fonts, tutorials and additional resources.
(I feel it only fair to mention them now since I plugged them above.)

Blue Line Comic Pro art supplies provide perhaps the most popular comic art boards on the market. With Pro and Custom boards marked with bleed and trim lines as well as panel hash marks, these are great time-savers for artists.

Standard 300DPI Comic Page Template TIFF File Download

Standard 300DPI Double-Page Spread Template TIFF File Download

NOW DISCUSS…

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Creative Services, one of the best-known production studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycreativeservices.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: Penciling 101 & Yoda (sorta)!

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Welcome back as we turn our spotlight once more to the creative process. Our last creative series of articles focused on the basic elements of writing, so, now it’s time to turn our attention to the next step in production – penciling – so listen up all you artists and prepare to sharpen some skills!

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Penciling comics is one of the most sought after positions in the comics industry and also the one that probably has the most turnover or burnout. There are a ton of people who want in, a ton already in, and a bunch who were in and then disappeared. Why, you ask? Let’s take a look at each of those.

Why is penciling so popular?

That one’s fairly simple: it’s the coolest piece of comics! I’m mostly a writer; I love writing, but even I get all excited and moon-eyed when a piece of art comes in for one of my projects. Art excites people, it inspires, it draws them in (yep, a second bad pun). The comics industry has long recognized this about artists and as a result, the commercial end of the industry and the popularity end have often leaned toward the artists, giving them the clout, the popularity, and the biggest names in comics. No doubt, that focus goes back and forth from writers to artists, but at times, like near the beginning of the Image days, the writer seemed an afterthought in many mindsets. It was the artist, or storyteller, that drew all the attention (yep, another) and got all the praise.

While comics really require both, good story and good art to succeed, I’m more than willing to acknowledge that much of this falls on the artist, at least initially. It’s usually a striking cover that will get some new fan to pick up a book. Someone flipping through pages in a comic-book store is not going ‘cool’ over the story or the sound effects; they love the art. Heck, artists even have more fun at conventions. It’s not like writers can sit at their tables and jot out a few words on paper to give to long lines of fans wanting an original script!

Now, I’m not trying to sound bitter since I’m predominantly a writer, and yes writers have also certainly made names for themselves in comics, but, comics are, after all, a VISUAL medium, hence some focus on the visuals.

However, for all its glory, it’s also a very demanding job. Pencilers have to create an average of a page a workday if they really want to make it in the comics industry on a monthly series. That’s a lot of pages! That’s a lot of work and commitment. This is why many artists will work on a series for a while, then take a break, do a mini-series here and there, and then maybe go back to the monthly grind, or maybe not. It’s this pressure that results in so many late books when artists can’t keep that pace and the major reason why a good number of accomplished artists leave comics for other fields.

Now, for you aspiring artists, this means you perhaps have the easiest opportunity to break into comics…if you’re good. Assuming you have the talent and the skills, there are always publishers who are looking for new artists, including the big guys. If you remember from an earlier column, you folks also get all the breaks for ease in portfolio reviews as well. An editor can flip through some pages of high-quality pencils and make a decision in like, oh, two minutes.

So here you are, wanting into comics, you’re talented, you got your portfolio, editors are always looking, and find it easy to look through portfolios, so, now what? Well, there’s a good bit more, so let’s unpack what we can.

Talent, of course, is the primary factor in making it as an artist. But talent isn’t all that it takes. Now, I can’t teach talent in a column, but I can teach a lot about those other factors! At the risk of repeating myself, the biggest mistake aspiring comics’ professionals make is not knowing the mechanics of the jobs they want to do. This falls into two categories with aspiring artists. First, there are those who still really need to learn to draw and second, there are those who need to learn specifically to draw comic books.

The Art of the Draw(ing)

Learn to draw? Surely aspiring comic artists know how to draw? You’d be surprised. There are aspiring artists that think all they need to do to learn to draw comics is look at comic books. They study comic art and think that by doing so, they can then recreate it and draw themselves. That’s kind of like staring at a toaster then claiming you can build one from scratch. It doesn’t work because ultimately all you are looking at is the surface and not taking into account the underlying work in crafting it.

Admittedly, some comic artists don’t help in making this argument, because if you look at their stuff, they seem to bypass proper anatomy and perspective as well as other artistic principles themselves. They often do highly exaggerated figures and surreal surroundings that seem to break all the rules.  There is a key word in here: exaggeration.

If you look at the collective body of work of any of the popular, mainstream, lasting pencilers out there, even the ones that might have very stylistic approaches now, chances are you will find plenty of examples of them doing far more straight-laced work, especially early in their careers. When Frank Miller drew his seminal run on Daredevil, his style was much closer to a photo-realistic look. No doubt, he still was a master of light and shadow then, but his people looked like real people with proper proportions. Compare that to his more recent and highly stylized work, on 300 or Sin City, and you will see how he’s progressed. Same with Todd McFarlane, when he started at DC on such books as Infinity Inc., his style was far more traditional and straightforward. It wasn’t until he was solid in his career that he began pushing the boundaries and when he launched Spawn that he pulled out all the stops.

As artists master their craft they can bend the rules, but they don’t outright break them. Artwork may be incredibly stylized, incredibly expressive and use exaggeration to heighten the drama of the work but there is an underlying base of solid art mastery underneath. An artist who has not mastered basic art skills and rules cannot then try to exaggerate them and do it convincingly. You have to know how to drive the car in your neighborhood before you’re ready to go on the highway, and be really good before you can hit the Indy 500, well, at least if you don’t want to end up being a rolled piece of kindling. I’ve seen submissions from artists who simply mimic a popular artist, but clearly show they have not learned the fundamental basics that underlie that style. The resulting art, well, looks like it’s good as kindling and that’s about it.

Do you know the difference between worm’s eye and bird’s eye view? What about a two versus a three-point perspective? Or better yet, stop and try to draw a picture that is not a ‘comic.’ Sketch a friend or family member. Draw a picture of a bowl of fruit. Are you capturing your subject? Can you get down the working of the light source and shading? Can you create a sense of texture and substance? Does your portrait of a person look remotely like them? Can you draw a person with fully functional anatomy? (No, I don’t mean that, get your mind out of the gutter!) Do they have elbows, knees, and ankles that line up and work like a real person’s? Do they ‘carry their weight’?

If you’ve never even tried to draw something non-comic-like, most likely, you’re in trouble as an artist.

So, as is my usual advice…
To learn more, you might want to take an art class at the local community college, take private art lessons, or at the very least check out some books that can teach you how to draw. All those fundamental principles you will learn there apply to comics work as well and they are critical in making that leap to any specialized form of art.

Once You Know It…Use it!

As an editor, I get real frustrated when I see a talented artist take shortcuts. The biggest thing on this is perspective and trying to fake it. I know it’s a pain to do the little grid lines and sync everything up. I’m an artist too, but you got to do it, else it looks bad.

Once You See It…Draw It!

Another important tool for every artist is good reference. Don’t be afraid to use photo reference for your work. If you have to draw a ’85 Ford Mustang get a picture of one. Likewise, don’t be afraid to use reference for anatomy as well. Beyond duplicating a photo in your art, there is also using photos to show you how muscle groups work, how they function under stress or when relaxed. Photo reference can also be good to show a variety of facial structures and how facial anatomy works especially in expressions etc. As an artist myself, I will usually compile a reference folder for any art I’m doing – reference that could include specific objects, elements of a setting, anatomy references similar to poses I’m planning to do, showing the relevant body types, etc. None of those photos will be ‘copied’ in the process, but each will help me capture those various elements to the best of my ability.

Drawing Comics…

Of course, once you’ve developed into a good artist, there is still the task of learning how to draw comics. I’ve met some really great artists who don’t know how to draw comic books. Sure, they might do great pinups or covers, but they can’t draw comics.

Let’s face it folks, the meat and potatoes of comics are sequential pages. So, why can’t every aspiring comic book artist realize they have to draw sequential pages in their portfolio if they wish to draw comic books? You got me, but it never fails that I will get submissions with nothing but character sketches, or pin-ups and not a hint of anything that, you know, actually tells a story.

On top of drawing sequential pages period, there is drawing them well. For most comic artists the hardest part of the job is laying out a good, solid, well composed sequential page. Composition, in comic art, is the art of laying out a page such that it draws the reader’s eye, flows, and provides a sense of energy, movement, or drama. It takes the elements of the picture, or panels, and combines them in a way that enhances the mood, communicates the key storytelling elements and advances the story.

Some amateur artists don’t think about this at all; it’s one of those pieces of the toaster you can’t see but it’s integral to getting the toast, or in this case, the art, to pop out. Other artists mostly think about composition only in regards to the panel. This is important, each panel must work on its own, but composition should also be considered for an entire page and some elements of good composition become recurring motifs for the entire book.

Art vs. Sequential Art

Comics utilize not only good art but very specific types of art. No matter what your style, there has to be movement, dynamic energy and incredible mood in your work to really make it in comics. This ranges from the layout of panels and pages (composition again) to characters in exaggerated poses, using perspective and variety in camera angles to increase tension or drama, etc. It’s storytelling, pure and simple.

For this series, I’m going to break down the basic skills, mechanics, and priorities for penciling comics and help you start laying a foundation for pursuing your goals as a comics artist. Pease note, this will not be a basic drawing series, so don’t look to learn those principles themselves so much as how they are primarily applied to the art of comics specifically.

I’ve included a few new online resources for artists below and links to some top-notch educational programs for aspiring artists willing to make that leap.

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We’ll start digging in by looking at composition and layout in more depth and focusing on the key elements of what makes sequential art… well, sequential.

Resources

Creating Comics by Dave Law – I’ve mentioned this one before but this link goes straight to the section for illustrators. Once again, it lists numerous links for artists to find online tutorials, how-to guides, descriptions of materials and tools, etc.

Gray’s Anatomy is the famous Gray’s Anatomy online, and no, not the show, but the ultimate reference to how the human body works. It includes diagrams and illustrations that show the anatomical features of every part of the body.

Anatomy 360 is a site with 3-D scanned models where you can rotate the figures 360 degrees and alter the lighting. (This site is still in development.)

Posemaniacs is an active site with uploaded 3-D anatomical figures of various proportions, in various poses, that you can rotate 360 degrees.

SCHOOLS

The Center for Cartoon Studies is a college level program that offers courses in creating comics. They offer a rounded curriculum that includes learning the history of the medium and then everything from writing to illustrating and finally self-publishing and marketing a comic book.

Joe Kubert’s World of Cartooning is exclusively for aspiring comic book artists. They offer a full range of classes and include correspondence courses.

NOW DISCUSS…

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Creative Services, one of the best-known production studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycreativeservices.com!

A Very Personal My Comic Life Sundays Part 2

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My Comic Life Column 014: A Very Personal Message Part 2

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I duly warned everyone – this time was also going to be more on the personal side – but squarely aimed at all my fellow creators, no matter what medium, or level of work you do.

We as creators often face a lot of challenges with our work – how to improve our craft, how to find time, how to earn sufficient income, how to get our work in front of the right people either for publication or to build a fanbase, etc. Most of these are very practical challenges, very logistical.

What often gets glossed over is the internal struggle of the artist vs. the art. Even more so when it gets overshadowed by all those other concerns which often have far more pressing needs for solutions.

But here’s the thing every creator knows down deep, even if we sometimes forget it – the best art we will ever create will ALWAYS come from somewhere down deep in our heart and soul. Our best art will NEVER come simply out of commercial or contract work. We may get paid for it, but our best work will never simply come because we ARE getting paid.

Our best work – whether it be music, writing, art, dance, whatever – will always be a deep reflection of who we are – our priorities, our struggles, our losses, our deepest loves, our biggest questions, our greatest fears and our highest hopes. Why? Well, that one is simple, it goes to the core of what art is really all about. But, it may not seem as simple given today’s norms and perceptions.

We as a culture, as people in general around the world, have become obsessed with entertainment. The Entertainment industry is a multi-billion dollar industry just in the United States. Popular artists, especially actors and musicians, are like royalty, often earning more than just about anyone, with thousands interested in their every outing, thought and personal development in their lives.

Yet, at the same time we’ve become obsessed, many are determined to devalue the art involved and reduce ‘entertainment’ to its most superficial and commercial elements. It’s fun, not meant to be taken seriously, it’s a distraction from our daily lives, it bears no connection or direct impact on the real world. Those self-same artists whom many are obsessed with are likewise often reduced to caricatures of human beings. It’s okay for fans to go on and on about who someone is dating, changes in hairstyle, favorite foods, weight gain, or pregnancy but let any of those artists step up for a cause, make a statement on their values or challenge anything about our society and they are dismissed as ‘simply’ artists. But that’s not art.

Art, since those first scrawlings on cave walls, since those first stories told around campfires, those first songs sung, has always been so very much more.

Art is About Teaching. It has been used to teach tradition, faith, culture, principles of belief and practice. Art has helped to bring to life history and illustrate the power of science. Art has even taught us about ourselves, our fellow human beings, and much about the world in which we live. Unlike many other forms of teaching that simply present dry facts, art teaches by engaging, by connecting with the learner. This means that learning often happens at a deeper, more fundamental level. It also means art can teach things very hard to teach otherwise, including teaching us about our own innermost thoughts and feelings.

Art is About Inspiring. It may be as grand as a painting that inspires an appreciation for the beauty of the world around us, or a song that inspires us to go after a dream, or a poem that inspires us to reach out to one we love. It can be as profound as a super-hero that inspires us to know with great power comes great responsibility, or that with determination we can even overcome the greatest of losses. It can also be as simple as a comic strip that inspires laughter and brightens our day.

Art is About Challenging. Art is not just about the status quo – if it were it would not serve as escapism and would be redundant if you think about it; because of this true art always contains an element of challenge. It may be a challenge to see or think about something different, a challenge to believe in something we felt impossible or to recognize the fragility of something we take for granted. It may challenge something about the world around us or challenge something deep within. But true art should always leave us wrestling with something once we walk away.

001 It Should Be Funny

For us as fans – readers, watchers, listeners – I guarantee you can take every single piece of ‘entertainment’ you’ve ever really, truly enjoyed, the ones that stayed with you and find something of each of these principles in it. Some may be obvious, others you may need to unpack and think about, but when you do those elements will be there, even if you never fully realized it before.

But what then about us as Creators?

We create any given work of art for many reasons, but we create art in general because we feel driven to – sometimes a deep, abiding drive we can’t turn off, much less turn away from. At the heart of that drive is the heart of a student, a heart that is inspired, and a heart that faces its own challenges it so desperately wants to overcome. Now, in other folks, those things may exist as well, but it is for us the foundation of our art – at least when we let it be.

I see this in aspiring artists and even from some established professionals – art with no soul, no deeper connection to who and what the artist behind it is. For aspiring creators, they may be trying too hard to mimic what is already on the market to prove they can cut it as a professional. For professional creators, it may be work they don’t enjoy, that is simply paying the bills, or over time their work may have been reduced to a mere discipline, or distraction. In either case, that art is probably doing little for the fulfillment of the artist.

As a creator, as an artist of any kind – to truly create – dig deep. Face your demons, wrestle with your doubts, push against the rough edges of your life and the world around you and see which ones rub you raw. Figure out what inspires you, what makes your heart sing, what makes you laugh from the deepest part of your gut, or cry tears of joy. Do it for that creator-owned thing you so desperately want to make and find ways to do it for every single paid job you take.

As artists, true artists, we have a calling. It is an awesome responsibility and an incredible honor. We are called to be the touchstones of humanity, to plumb our depths, soar in our heights, and to then transform that into raw fodder and put it out into the world around us so that others might find that work of art that helps them do the same. Your struggles, the ones that keep you up at night, are the same struggles so many others face – the strength you muster to face them and put them out there in the world might inspire another to face their own. A dream that inspires you, might just be a dream that, captured in art, could inspire a generation. Even if it’s not a specific issue, at the core, every hero’s story is a story of overcoming all odds isn’t it?

Last year I swore 2016 was going be the year I got more focused on my own creative work but other than the ongoing My Comic Life strip and a few other things, I’ve found myself struggling. I’ve found myself having a harder time writing and doing full art than I’ve had in a long time. As I shared last column, there’s certainly been a lot going on this year, including a lot of stressful and life-changing things that certainly could disrupt the process, but I had difficulty putting my finger on the exact cause, until recently.

I realized I had been so focused on improving my own writing and art, so focused on managing and overseeing other’s writing and art, thus focused on the form and not the underlying function, that I’d lost touch with some of that deeper passion, that core from which true art arises. Oh, now most of the stories I want to tell come from that deeper core, because I was very much in touch with that when I first formed the seeds for each of those – but now, I think I was trying to start them without tapping the primal energy that originally inspired them in me in the first place.

End result? I realized I first had to do a bit of reconnecting with that fire, that core, that passion. I had to once again truly create in order to create true art, and not just go through the mechanics and motions. That has ended up not only reawakening that art, that creative fire, but it’s also reawakened some other arenas of my life, ones that inspired the column and invitation last week, ones that inspired this column, and ones I will talk more about on my personal sites later on New Year’s Day.

For 2017 and beyond, my resolution is to do the kind of art, to be the kind of creator, whose every piece digs deep, goes to the core, makes my heart sing, and I’m pretty excited about the work so far. Here’s hoping for a very creative year.

NEXT

If you want to follow more personal stuff I post regularly on my personal Facebook page which will include a major post later today (New Year’s Day) and will be relaunching my blog first of the year.

To get first looks at all my creative work, you can check out my Patreon, which will be building up after the new year. Right now, I’m doing a Classic-Print-A-Day for the Holidays, sending out hi-res file versions of my entire classic print library to all my patrons. New stuff will be appearing soon.

Next week in this space, we get back to the creative process and start our Penciling 101 series! Don’t miss it!

NOW DISCUSS…

What’s your story? Share if you like, post here or email me anytime at [email protected].

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Creative Services, one of the best-known production studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycreativeservices.com!

A Very Personal My Comic Life Sundays Part 1

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My Comic Life Column 013: A Very Personal Message Part 1

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Bear with me, this week and next are going to be very different than my standard Sunday fare. Seeing as how this post falls on Christmas Day and the beginning of Hanukkah and next week’s on New Year’s Day – well, how could I help but not get a little more introspective?

Before my comic life, I spent twenty-five years in ministry and outreach – working for a variety of Churches and social service programs. On the ministry side, I am an ordained clergy and worked as Christian Education Director, Youth Director, and Pastor on various levels in various congregations. On social services, I worked in crisis response and management, including a long stint at a teen crisis shelter I eventually ran for two years and an even longer one running an agency I founded and managed for ten years. Needless to say my life was very different then.

I think anyone in that line of work, as well as anyone who pursues a creative life can identify with the concept of a calling, even if we don’t all see it as coming from the same source. For me, it came in my high school years. Like most, that time was a dramatic time for me – lots of change, difficulty fitting in, sometimes feeling the world was against me. Things got bad at times, even once to the point of being ready to give up. When I was in my darkest time is when that calling came and changed my life. It opened me to see those same struggles I had in others, often including those whose lives had far more real challenges than my own.

It first centered around an invitation to teach Sunday school, despite being a naive sixteen and eventually getting shanghaied into taking on a small Junior High Class of four boys. Each of those guys came out of broken homes, had lived through things no kid ever should and yet still showed up every week. Two of the boys were brothers, being raised by their grandmother, and I will never forget the day when she, in tears, asked for my help with them.

That was when I began mentoring, the single most important outreach I ever did. The opportunity and the chance to help them, be there for them suddenly seemed far more important than my own issues. Even though I was not much older than they, we became inseparable on all fronts. I spent most evenings at one home or another helping with homework, spent weekends taking them out to events, attended school, sports, and concert activities, and every time they messed up or needed help, I got the call.

I went on to mentor over forty young people through that chapter of my life, some in limited programs for a few months, others were part of my life for decades. I mentored kids who were dealing with abuse in the home, substance abuse issues, problems in school, kids who lost their parents to suicide and violence, kids with disabilities and many who society was in the process of giving up on.

Through my mentoring and other ministry work, I stood with so many people at the absolute best and worst moments of their lives. I had a chance to witness miracles and more than a few times ended up walking through Hell with someone to see them through to the other side. My time at the teen crisis shelter, my work at my own outreach center, the various youth groups, they all formed a tapestry of a truly wonderful life in many ways, a truly challenging one in others.

Then in 2006 one of those first young men I mentored, Danny, one who had in so many ways been a brother and a son to me, died. He committed suicide after years of struggling with his own personal demons. He had been in my life for decades, our relationship sometimes his safe haven, sometimes strained. He would disappear, sometimes for a year or more, and then out of the blue call when he hit bottom and wanted to come home. When I got the call from his grandmother, that same one who originally invited me into his life, I fully expected her to tell me he needed help and to ask if I could go to him. Instead, she told me he was gone.

My life changed again. There had been other challenges, other losses, and together with Danny’s death something inside broke. I took a six-month sabbatical from most of my responsibilities, although I found myself still often getting called in for one situation or another. I finally realized the only way to truly step back was to step away – completely. I chose to move to the other side of the country and decided now was the time to focus on my fledgling studio. Charlie Hall and I had launched Visionary around that time, but it was always a side gig as long as my other life was central, so it seemed as good a time as any to then focus on it fully and completely.

The next few years opened a new life to me, one I also found rewarding, but I was also still very much a lesser man – much of the time I was angry, depressed, withdrawn. I pulled away from just about everyone and everything other than my work. Over the years, though I didn’t realize it fully at the time, I shut myself off from so many and so much.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of healing and built a life that has truly been a joy in its own way as much as my previous life. But there has always been those missing pieces, ones I often tried hard not to think about because inevitably it would lead me to feeling the loss. Holidays especially became challenging because there had been so many great memories surrounding those.

Most of those missing pieces are people who in the time since have been lost to my life. That happens, people come and go in your life. But there were many, especially among those mentored and youth group members, and good friends in various places I served, I had hoped to have in my life forever, and if things had been different, may well have still been part of my life today.

Now, part of the joy of my current life is that I have made many friends through my years with the studio. I am very fortunate to work with a great group of people and count a number of my colleagues, my staff, and my peers as good friends. This past year, like for many of us, was an especially difficult one. There were many reasons, most critical of all for me was a brutal reminder of the fragility of life when I stood with my cousin as he held his three-year-old son while he died after being removed from life support after a tragic accident.

But through that what spoke to me most was the support from all sides, for him, for his family, even for me – from clients and colleagues, from staff and friends, even at times from total strangers. Oddly enough, coming out of this year and loss what I’ve found is that it has once more awakened a part of me I thought gone. I’ll talk more about that next time.

X-mas copy

Art and Greetings from Ishan Trivedi

For today, whatever tradition you celebrate, beyond the glitter and the gifts, after the food and drinks, the laughter and celebration – remember the most important thing about these holidays – the people surrounding you. The ones you fight with, laugh with, cry with, the ones who drive you nuts at times, and the ones you’re nuts about. Hold tight to the ones surrounding you now, remember the ones you’ve lost who still surround you in your heart, and spare some compassion for those you haven’t even met who still share this spinning blue dot we call home.

For beyond today, to my readers, remember no life is just about one thing. Be a creator, pursue it with all the passion you can muster, but keep that balance, keep in touch with those around you, continue to be part of the larger world we all live in. Many of us on the creative side tend to be introverts, we sometimes get lost in our work, our worlds, and don’t come up nearly often enough to be present with others. Sometimes it may be an intentional escape, sometimes it may sneak up on us, but it’s always harder to get out of then to slide into. Remember, for all its drama, for all its ups and downs, it’s those parts of our life that we live outside our studio, our office, our neverending work that fuel our creative energy, that gives us raw material to process in our art and stories. Simply put, our life? It’s our story, make it a work of art.

To all my friends and family near and far, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Kwanza, happy holidays whatever they may be. Thank you for all you do, for your presence in my life and others, may I be worthy of it every day.

In closing, I need to put out an invitation. I’m not always good at apologizing, or explaining stuff going on deep inside. I’ve always been a much better listener than talker. But today, today I’m also thinking a lot about the people who made my life special in years gone by. Mentees, former youth, friends, all of you. I miss those of you who over the last several years have slipped out of my life. For some, you may have reached out at a time when I wasn’t ready to reconnect and I may have not been welcoming then. I hope you can forgive me. For others, things just seemed to slip away. For a few, there were issues that seemed to throw a wall between us. I don’t want that to be the way things continue. Know I love you all, always have, always will, I think about most of you on a regular basis and if any are so inclined, I’d really love to hear from you, to catch up, to reconnect, to reflect on old memories, and start making some new ones. That would be the best gift ever, one I may not deserve, but would nevertheless treasure.

Sorry for the deeply personal, but, I did say this column would cover every aspect of a freelancer and creative life and I know many out there who struggle with the same things even if not for the same reasons, hope this helps.

NEXT

Some profound (for me at least) New Year’s resolutions, and then I absolutely promise, back to the creative stuff.

If you want to follow more personal stuff I post regularly on my personal Facebook page and will be relaunching my blog first of the year. You can also always check out my Patreon which will be building up this week and after the new year.

NOW DISCUSS…

What’s your story? Share if you like, post here or email me anytime at [email protected].

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Creative Services, one of the best-known production studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycreativeservices.com!

My Comic Life Sundays & Star Wars

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My Comic Life Column 012: Lessons from Star Wars

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Welcome back for round 12 of this little corner of comicdom! First, I’m going to apologize because last time I promised to start a series on penciling this round. However, as I write these columns a few weeks in advance, to keep content on track, I kind of forgot the timing.

I had my heart set on doing my first look at a popular franchise with the premiere of Star Wars: Rogue One, and then doing something a little different for Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. So, penciling will debut the first week in January, for now, let’s take a little side trip on a few other topics, I think you won’t be too disappointed.

 

 

The Magic of Star Wars

Like this week’s My Comic Life strip says, I’ve always been more a Star Trek fan, literally consuming everything to do with that franchise, from watching every episode of every series and every movie multiple times, to reading every comic ever published, and slowly working my way through every novel ever done. I’ve even watched most of the fan-films out there. That series speaks to me on many levels that I’ll dig into elsewhere. But, Star Wars has always held a special kind of magic all its own in my life.

The original Star Wars, now known better by its subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope, premiered in 1977 when I was ten years old. I distinctly remember going to see it at the Ranch Drive-In Theater (yes, they really had those) on opening night with my parents and my grandmother. I remember being very excited because it was my first big sci-fi film on screen with entire new worlds to discover. For ten year old me, it hit all the right marks – great heroes and heroines, awesome villains, and a scale so much larger than life it seemed truly fit for the stars. I was hooked.

Now, the really cool thing is our family farm was a couple fields and a thin band of trees away from the Ranch Drive-In, so after seeing it that first night, I got to open my window every night when I went to bed and listen to it for it’s entire run. I would be ready for bed in time, open the window, lie in bed and listen to that story over and over again, until I could quote most of it.

Of course, when Episodes V and VI came out, those were must sees as well, and I loved the original trilogy with a passion.

From There…

After that, to be honest, the series lost interest to me. I, fortunately, missed the infamous Christmas special until I finally tracked it down a few years ago – yeah, lucky me. I did try to watch the Ewok movies that came out in the mid-80’s but I was on the cusp of graduating high school by then, and they were clearly aimed at younger children, so felt disappointing. I read the Marvel Comics when they came out, and stuck with it a while, but those also seemed to get silly and off the grid in terms of the feel of the original movies. As a result, I pulled away and didn’t follow most of the content that came out in comics, books and elsewhere over the intervening years.

When the prequel trilogy premiered, I checked them out in theaters and personally enjoyed them overall, but they still felt off when compared to the originals. More campy, more flashy, most of the typical complaints you read online. However, they renewed my interest in the franchise enough I did some investigating into what all else was out there and found a whole extended universe and timeline that, to be honest, put me off immediately because it seemed too complex to wade into.

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An Awakening…

Now, when the news hit about Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I decided to re-try the franchise, and this time make an effort to explore more of it. So, first I re-watched the films, prequels first, then the originals. Being a completist I then watched the Ewok movies, and even tracked down that aforementioned Christmas Special (yes, I am OCD thank you very much). I then, for the first time ever, watched every episode of the animated Clone Wars (thank you Netflix) which re-kindled some of that magic. Then of course, I absolutely loved Episode VII. Later today, I’m going to be checking out Rogue One and find myself pretty excited for it.

I’ve also decided I’m going to start digging into the books and comics next year and explore this broader universe I missed out on for all these years.

The Lessons to Learn?

As this column is geared toward aspiring creators I would recommend you do a bit of research and read the history of the franchise itself; it’s a rather storied saga of ups and downs, triumphs and travails all centered around the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas. Just starting with the Wikipedia article on it should hook you pretty quickly.

Lucas’ story is the consummate story of a creator’s journey. From his first getting noticed for his film THX 1138, two movie deal that spun out of that, his initial space-fantasy plans to do a Flash Gordon film, hitting walls there so deciding to do his own thing, struggling to give shape to that thing, only to create something few people initially believed in, only to then launch a cultural phenomenon that would change the landscape of science-fiction forever.

Lucas has met with a lot of unfair treatment over the years and often not given enough credit for the things he’s accomplished. He’s a creator who clearly struggles with his work. The vast and numerous changes made to Star Wars before it finally hit the screens, the ongoing changes in the story as the sequels rolled out, the additional changes made in updated releases, the additional changes introduced into the backstory with the prequels etc. show a man who spent a good portion of his life trying to figure out this story he created that sparked a cultural revolution (or perhaps rebellion).

Judging from his own statements, and the reaction of the fans, sometimes he nailed it, sometimes he fell short. The increasing antagonism between many of the fans and Lucas was a large part of why the prequels took so many years, and why Lucas eventually stepped back and sold his franchise to Disney.

I can think of few other franchises and creators whose story is so powerful in and of itself, showing the full range of the challenges, pitfalls, and peaks of being a creator – and even more – a successful creator (which isn’t always a bed of roses).

When I first saw Star Wars as a kid I loved it, and the magic was completely in the epic story of good vs. evil, heroes, heroines, and villains. It was in huge Death Stars and exploding planets, in cool droids and faraway worlds. I’d like to think as that magic has been rekindled in me, that this time it’s still all of that, but mixed with a healthy appreciation for the saga behind the saga, the work of a creator in bringing a dream to life, sometimes succeeding beyond everyone’s wildest expectation, sometimes falling flat on his face but persevering and ultimately creating something that will touch generations.

Isn’t that pretty much the dream of every creator out there?

NEXT

The next couple columns will be holiday focused and start setting the stage for 2017 on multiple fronts. Hope you’ll join me!

NOW DISCUSS…

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Creative Services, one of the best-known production studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycreativeservices.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: Contracts and Conventions!

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My Comic Life Column 011: The Contract!

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Welcome back, and let me apologize for the extra week away. We do try to keep those to a minimum, so hopefully, it won’t happen again!

Last time around we wrapped up a multi-part series on writing where we looked at script format, panel, page, and storytelling. You can get the whole back catalog of columns over at our always up to date Archive page, which also collects all the creating comic resource links I share through here.

In between longer series on creative work, I’m going to try and introduce a number of single column practical topics that can be just as important to aspiring creators and freelancers.

Today’s topic may not tingle your creative urges, but you may end up thanking me tremendously someday anyway.

Why a Contract Is a MUST!!

If you’re going to be a professional creator or freelancer it’s important you realize that professionalism is embodied in a lot more than simply talent or creative skills. It’s embodied in how you conduct yourself, how you relate to colleagues, clients, and employers, and how you present yourself and your value with any potential job opportunity. I’ll be doing a number of columns on important aspects of conducting yourself professionally and the many ways that’s important, but let’s start with one of the simplest, most basic indicators of your professionalism – the contract!

Contracts are legally binding agreements between two parties for the exchange of goods and services. They can be fairly simple and straightforward, or incredibly complex and labyrinthine. I’ve had one-page contracts and forty-page contracts. If you’re just starting out, simpler and straightforward is better. By the time you get in to more complex ones, you really should consider having an attorney at least as a consultant to review those.

But the biggest mistake I see new and aspiring creative freelancers make is the assumption they don’t NEED a contract at all. “Oh, it’s for a friend” or “it’s just a simple commission piece” or “they told me not to worry about that” are never good reasons to not have an agreement in place to protect everyone’s interests. Why, you ask?

First, the fact of the matter is that most contracts are never really needed in good, solid professional relationships. They are set out, agreed, signed, filed and maybe reviewed every couple years to see if they need to be renewed yet or not. That’s good, that means things are going well, that means there is dialogue, negotiation, and everyone is happy with the arrangement. Doesn’t that contradict the admonition to always have one then? Nope, because good relations are not what contracts are for.

Contracts are for when things go wrong. They are the seatbelt, the life-vest, the airbag, the backup parachute, the helmet, etc. for the professional – kind of annoying, a distraction, and maybe even irritating – right up until that moment that you end up REALLY glad you had it. And yes, hopefully, for the vast majority of jobs that moment will never come – but someday – it will.

If you are providing a service there is absolutely nothing out of place or inappropriate about asking for a contract. It is the norm, it is expected, it is a right. Now, your ol’ Aunt Nellie who asked you to draw a picture of Schloopy the schnauzer may look at you funny if you ask for one, and maybe for Schloopy you can let it go. But remember this, the only individual or company absolutely guaranteed to not want a contract in place is the one planning to rip you off.

Second, contracts aren’t magic solutions to every problem but they can be life-saving stop gaps or firewalls that can protect you and your interests. For a lot of smaller freelance jobs, the client not paying, would not even be worth the price of getting to a courtroom to sue them (which is why you put in place other protections we will talk about). There will also be times that despite limits set in contracts clients will push for more and expect it anyway. The beauty of a contract, however, is that, if nothing else, it empowers you to draw a line in the sand and stop things spiraling down. It gives you a signed, legal document where, if it’s written well, you can point to and say THIS is what we agreed.

Visionary, in our experience, has had maybe three times contracts became life-vests on a fast sinking ship. But those three times? We kept control of rights we otherwise may have lost and saved us collectively over twenty-thousand dollars. Glad we had them? You bet.

So, what should a contract cover? Let’s hit the highlights.

The 411

Contracts should include names, contact info, dates, and specific terms of the agreement. They should state clearly who will own the completed work, what rights if any are retained by the creator, and what services are expected, with specific guidelines, along with the costs and payments for those services.

Work-For-Hire

Usually, if you are a creator doing work-for-hire, in other words, being paid for your work, then the material you create is generally owned by the person or company paying you. Every writer and artist working on Marvel and DC main universe titles are doing work-for-hire, they don’t own those characters, those stories, or that art. But, there are exceptions to this general rule, such as the fact that with most standard agreements the artist retains ownership of the original art and the right to sell that original art for personal profit, but does NOT retain the right to print it in collected form and sell it. It’s a small concession, but for many artists with established fan bases original art sales end up generating a steady stream of income.

Workflow – Approvals – Payments – Deadlines

This is getting a little more into the details, but contracts should at least provide some answers to all these questions:

How and in what format or file spec will the work be submitted to the client?

This matters. Especially when getting into digital files it’s important specs be set out at the beginning to make sure all the hard work you put in as a creator is going to end up being work the client can actually use. Be aware, you may need to educate your client a bit on some of these things, but make sure you know their expectations up front and make sure those expectations are what is really needed.

How and on what timeline will the client respond with feedback regarding the work?

This also plays into deadline considerations. Just as it’s important that you as a creator commit the time needed to complete work, it’s also important the client commit the time to respond effectively and fairly quickly, especially in those cases where you can’t really do anything more until you do hear back. Setting limits on responding and noting that extended delays will impact deadlines is one way to help draw that line in the sand early.

What limits are there to corrections, changes, or ‘tweaks’ before additional fees should be charged?

Very important! It’s fair a client have some approval over the work they are paying you for. Build in steps to help protect your time. Doing a script? Submit a plot outline first. Doing pencils? Submit layouts for review. These steps help make sure you are moving in the direction the client wants before you finish something they won’t like. It’s also fair to set some limits so clients can’t just endlessly needle things to death. Allowing three revisions is common – any beyond that, means you get paid additional time for your work.

How will payments be made? How often, how will they be processed, what is the process to GET paid, etc.?

Many companies, Visionary included, require creators to submit invoices. Most clients will have a preferred way to send payments. Make sure tax forms are filed if needed. Have all this in place before you have a payment due to avoid delays once you’re counting on a check.

What deadlines are there, and what understanding is there for factors that could impact deadlines?

One of the biggest challenges for freelancers is learning how to gauge their work speed and amount of content they can regularly produce. Deadlines are important, but it’s also important to understand, by the nature of the work, that things happen. If you are a single creator and you end up in the hospital for a week, not much you can do about that work wise. Discuss this going in and have some backup plans or at least considerations in place for various possibilities.

Defaults

Perhaps the most important piece of any contract is the section that lays out options and limitations for what happens if either party fails to meet their end of the deal. (Remember? It matters the second something goes wrong.)

This is the section where it is spelled out what options the client has available if you fail to produce the work by a deadline. Likewise, this is the section where your options as a creator are spelled out if the client fails to pay for work, or fails to approve work. The reason this section is so important is because it limits the backlash, clearly states how the contract can be terminated if necessary, what can and can NOT happen. This section is literally the emergency exit. Give it careful consideration.

Negotiations and Protections

Part of the vital process of putting together a contract is negotiations. When negotiating anything, it’s important to remember the principle of the act is a sharing of risk and a balance of expectations. Good contracts are not exclusively in the favor of any one party, no matter how much more they bring to the table. Good contracts protect the interests of all parties and put in place steps and processes that assure that.

For an example, I’m going to use the standard process we use at Visionary.

When a client approaches us for a job the first thing we have to do is assess – we have to discuss terms of a contract, we have to look into what resources we have to fulfill that contract, what resources the client has to make it happen etc. This can mean investing anywhere from three to thirty hours of effort that is essentially an act of good faith. No money is exchanged, no agreement is in place, but I’m already working on the client’s behalf.

At the end of that process, we then require a signed contract in place and a deposit paid to the studio before we do anything more. When someone balks at a deposit, I remind them we’ve already invested work to get the contract in place, plus, to move forward, we now need to hire creators, which means we will have contracts in place with them. We need to know we can pay our people timely, and to do that, we need the client to now make an act of good faith by paying a fair deposit.

Details vary depending on the size, complexity, resources etc. involved in any given job, but inevitably there are times the studio is in the hole and owed money by a client, and times we have an installment or payment from the client in the bank, entrusted to us to then pay to creators as they invoice for approved work still in process.

One strict art policy we follow in all cases is that finished work is never sent until the final full payment is processed. We will send lower resolution preview files for client feedback but not final hi-res files for print. If money is still owed at that point, it means it is money we now owe a creator that we will pay no matter what, else that’s on us and out of pocket. So, we don’t hand over the final product until that payment is in, because really, what reason would we have to NOT do so once that check clears? How long would we stay in business if we played those mind games? But, how many clients have failed to make final payments once they have everything they need? Enough to be common horror stories among freelancers.

In Closing…

Now, every creator and every job is going to be different, and there is no way I can write a single column that addresses every aspect of every contract. What I can say is this…

-Require a contract.
-Make sure it protects you as well as your client.
-Make sure it sets limits and boundaries for all parties.
-Make sure you’re fully prepared to deal with every single possibility and clause included in that contract, else don’t agree.

If you’re just starting out, it may feel like this kind of stance may rule out possibilities that could be your big break. It could, but it could also end up saving you a lot of time from con artists, cheats and thieves who will steal your work, your time, and your kindness. So, keep that part in mind also.

I’m including a template contract similar to the one Visionary uses. This is simple, basic, but solid and written specifically for freelancers and creative work-for-hire. The file is in WORD so you can download, add in your information in the highlighted sections, and use it yourself as a starting point. It can be used by you when you are agreeing to work with a client, or when you may be hiring someone to work with you on a project.

Download it here>>>

PLEASE NOTE: The author of this column is NOT an attorney and his advice here should not be construed as legal advice, just some common sense. (Basic disclaimer my attorney made me add…)

NEXT

Time to get back into creative stuff as I start a series on penciling! So, yes, pictures!!!

NOW DISCUSS…

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About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: A Wrap on Writing!

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My Comic Life Column 010: Writing Comics 101: The Story

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Welcome back as we wrap this round on writing (say that three times fast). Remember, this column looks at the entire process of creating and selling comics, so, I’ll focus on one arena for a series and then move into another.

Writers, you’re going to want to stay tuned to future editions simply because the more you know about creating and selling comics, the more skills you bring to any project you’re signing on for. Not to mention after the penciling series, I’ll be focusing on collaboration, then not too long and another writing arc for more advanced stuff. Ok?

So, we’ve looked at the mechanics of the script, the panel, and the page, now as we bow out on the art of stringing words together, let’s look at…

 

Telling the Story

There are tons of resources out there that can help you learn the basics of storytelling in general, from character development to plot, pacing, etc. There is also a good number that focus on storytelling and writing comics in particular. I’ve already started listing some great resources on our Archive page and will be adding to that a good bit before the end of the year with my own recommended reading for everyone’s wishlist this holiday season.  Any of those listed would be great resources for aspiring writers to check out.

For here and now, let’s focus a little on the specifics of telling a good comic story and some of the general principles you need to be aware of.

Beyond the Panel and Page

In previous columns, I focused a lot on the mechanics of the script as well as the comic book panel and page. I talked about how each of those represented ‘beats’ in a story and the potential and limitations for each. However, once you start linking those small beats of panels into pages, then those larger beats of pages into something more, then you’re getting into storytelling.

And just as I mentioned how important it is for a writer to be thinking visually at each of those levels, that becomes even more important here, because the broader story being told is one that is a meshing of word and art, a flowing sequence that will be breathed into life by art, so it’s critical that you as a writer are thinking on some visual level. You’ll see what I mean as we go.

There are several general factors a writer should be aware of when working in the comics’ medium, in order to make their comic writing as effective as possible. Let’s take a look at each.

1) Let the Art Tell the Story

A common mistake among aspiring and neophyte comic writers is when they feel the need to describe the action in captions or dialogue that could much more easily just be shown in the art. This includes settings, actions, even emotions. It’s true, a picture is worth a thousand words, which is what our medium is built on, so, when you can, let the art tell as much story as possible and get out of the way.

Double-page spread by Ale Aragon

Double-page spread by Ale Aragon

2) Make Sure the Art IS Telling the Story

The flip side of the above coin is when the writer passes up great opportunities to let the art carry more details of the story by failing to give proper direction to the artist. I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read that fail to include any body language, facial expression, or other visual emotional cues to the artist that can add depth to the story. The majority of scripts I read in submissions and from new writers mention WHO is in the panel, but only in the rarest circumstances mentions anything to give more insight into those characters.

Telling us our heroine is in the panel is fine, but pointing out “our heroine should be standing hands on hips with a broad smile on her face” helps carry the emotion, mood and depth of the story, especially in those times it may not be clear to the artist just what those feelings and emotions are. Only you, the writer, may know the deeper motivations of your characters so it’s on you to communicate those underlying elements.

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Page art by Ale Aragon

Now, if you’re working with a great artist who recognizes the importance of such subtle elements to the art, such as body language, expression, etc. then they may be great at adding it in anyway, but without direction, they may assign different motivations than you had in mind. If it’s a character you both have worked on a while, then even those deeper motivations and little character bits may come naturally.

But if it’s a new story, and a newer artist still feeling their own way, and you as the writer don’t share some of those cues, you may also end up with a bunch of listless, boring people just standing around, and that will be partly on you.

Beyond expressions and emotion, this kind of visual storytelling can happen on a lot of levels. Establishing a setting of ‘a city street’ is basic, but establishing a setting as ‘a city street in a bad neighborhood, with boarded up windows, trash littering the sidewalks, etc.’ sets the tone. Letting an artist choreograph a fight scene is best, but pointing out ‘one fighter is clear, smooth, skilled and simply defending themselves, while their opponent is desperate and savage’ helps the artist add layers of depth to that fight scene that will tell more story with the art.

You can even craft a story such that this ‘visual storytelling’ element is crucial to the actual story working. Some of the best comics, to me, are the ones that once you finish the story, you want to go back and read it again for all the little visual clues you missed. For example, if you’re writing a mystery, make sure certain props or features are clear in the art, so that they can be revealed later as the clues that lead to the solution.

Use of iconic visuals, as mentioned previously with Watchmen, also adds elements to a story. They can be specific symbols, or simply powerful, iconic shots that bring the story to a critical focus, such as a drop of blood falling into a pool of blood, a character sitting with their head in their hands, dejected and lost, or someone cradling the corpse of a fallen loved one. Think about some of your favorite comic stories and I can pretty much guarantee you there was at least one image somewhere in that story where the art told it all, no words were even needed, and that image stayed with you a long time.

Incorporate these things to add depth and detail to your work and help your artist tell the full story.

3) Use an Economy of Words

Because comics are a visual medium, you want to strike a fine balance of text and art. Make sure you aren’t overwhelming your story with narrative. Lots of words on a page make it look cluttered, detract from the art, slows the pace and tends to drag for the reader, increasing the chance they will get bored or frustrated.

Of course, there are going to be exceptions. There are times when there may be a need for heavier narrative. It may be an expositional scene to give necessary backstory or an important dialogue between two characters that explores their relationship, but these should be exceptions, not the rule.

4) Comics Are a Visual Medium So Make It Visually Dynamic

This is obviously something we will explore more in the art end of things, but it’s an important concept for writers as well. There is a reason the abundance of comics have over the top storylines that include lots of action, fantasy, and other visually dynamic plots. Simply put, dynamic, exciting visuals grab reader’s attentions and interest MUCH faster than pictures of people sitting around talking.

Yes, there can be perfectly good comics that do not include world-saving battles requiring two-page spreads for all the explosions. However, whether it is a use of setting, a purposeful focus on mood and tone to add dramatic tension, or any other tool, the more visually dynamic you can make a scene, the better it will play in an illustrated book.

For example, say you’re writing a scene where our hero is talking with his lady love about their relationship. It’s an important story element. It has emotional drama, people love the characters so they will be invested in it, but can you help make sure it plays out better? Sure. Do they decide to chat in her apartment? Or maybe he flies her to a mountaintop at sunset? Think about what choices you can make to give room to and ensure the art stays as dramatic and dynamic as possible, no matter what the content of the scene itself.

5) Comics Are a Visual Medium, Play to That Strength

As a comic writer, keep in mind you have multiple levels you can tell a story on. There is the narrative caption box, the actual dialogue, the internal monolog, and the actual portrayed events. Those portrayed events give you a whole level of storytelling you don’t have in prose so exploit it where and when you can.

For example, a prose novella I wrote, Legend of Fire-Mane, that was published in our first run with Visions, was later being adapted for a proposed original graphic novel. The opening scene in that story is a prophetic nightmare of the aged Dwarven-Lord in the story. In the prose edition, I had to focus on ‘painting’ the dramatic scene of crows feasting on mounds of dwarven corpses and the two elemental giants that then appear and fight. But, once the artist, Revin Denisya A Putra, illustrated those pages (seen above) and brought that scene to life, I didn’t need to use words to do it. So, I added the haunting words of a Dwarven funeral dirge that anchors the images, alludes to them, but adds more to the story.

Work on ways to maximize the story being told in the comic. Don’t include tricks for the sake of including tricks, but ask yourself how you can enrich or deepen the story by playing to the unique strengths of comics.

6) Write to the Format and Know the Limits

As I started this series I pointed out that one thing that makes writing for comics unique is the need for the writer to continually be mentally aware of the finished product. I kept a tight focus on that as I discussed the panel, the page, composition, etc. This also applies on a larger level in terms of the story as a whole.

Most comic writing opportunities are going to come with a set of expectations and thus limitations that will need to be considered in your approach to the story. This will often include having a certain page count to hit, which could range from 6 to 240 pages. It will also include the means by which the story is going to be released – serialized chapters, or a single collected edition, digital or print.

This will even be true if you’re creating your own thing alone, or with an artist. You’ll need to have a platform to release your comic, set up a schedule that can be met, and however those logistics play out, should then be considered once you begin writing.

The point here is that you need to know WHAT format you are writing a project for and write accordingly.

A stand-alone story should, obviously, be a complete story with beginning, middle and end. You’ll need proper pacing that will carry the story through the allotted pages, if that is a limitation in place. That story will also need a definitive enough resolution that the reader feels they got the desired payoff and the story wrapped up for a satisfying finish. Sure it can hint at more, set up a sequel if desired, but by and large, THIS story comes to a definitive end.

Serialized writing, such as doing issues of a comic series, or chapters of an ongoing webcomic, begins to introduce new elements to storytelling that are also important. Here, each issue or chapter becomes yet another beat to a still larger story. Oh, sure, maybe any given story – an origin, a specific conflict, or adventure in general – may end in any given chapter or issue, but the nature of serialized writing is that that ‘story’ then becomes part of the larger story for that series.

So, once you get into serialized writing of any kind it becomes even more important to be able to craft overlaying storylines, plots, and sub-plots, etc. that can weave in and out of the spotlight of the larger, ongoing storyline. It will also become important to be able to learn to write each chapter or issue to serve two very distinct purposes. First, each chapter or issue has to provide the reader sufficient payoff to make them feel the time invested was worth it. Second, and just as important, each chapter or issue in some way, shape or form, needs to provide enough of a hook to ensure the reader will want to come back for more.

And that will form the basis of our next writing series!

NEXT

We break next week for the Thanksgiving holiday, so HAPPY THANKSGIVING to everyone who will be celebrating! We’ll return December 4th for a one-shot column topic critical to freelancers everywhere – The Contract!

NOW DISCUSS…

My Comic Life Patreon Promotion

If you want more great content like this, support his Patreon campaign today by clicking the image!

About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!

My Comic Life Sundays: Writing Comics 101: Composition Workshop

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Heck of a week, huh? I understand, so, if you need to decompress, get your mind chilled out, later today, I am running my ever popular My Comic Life Panel at the Southern Maryland Comic-Con at the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department, which is also Visionary’s last full convention of the year. Come join us if you can!

Get all the Details on our Events Page >>

I also want to do a quick shout out to the DC Authorfest from last week, I had no idea what to expect and ended up with a great crowd of awesome folks, very engaged, lots of questions, good dialogue – it’s just so sad these things only last an hour! But pretty awesome a bunch of us adjourned to a nearby room and chatted a bit longer. Loved it! Thanks DC Library and everyone who attended!

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I’ll be announcing some more ‘informal’ events for local fans I hope will spark interest soon, and Visionary announced our new Get Creative online feature debuting early next year, so lots of fun coming! Stay tuned!

Just a note, this week’s strip is a bit of a PSA from yours truly, something I felt needed to be said after some recent events in our industry (which were really just repeats of other events similar), triggered by a certain cover image…

I think anyone who knows me would know my general take on this, but, far be it for me to be subtle. Right?

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Catch up with the My Comic Life comic strip on our Reader>>

My Comic Life Column 009: Writing Comics 101: Compositional Workshop

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Last time I focused a good bit on composition, a term used to refer to bringing various elements of an artistic work together in smooth harmony to better enhance the overall finished piece. We looked at how composition needs to be considered in the panel, the page, and touched on it in terms of the entire issue, starting with the actual script.

Believe me, this is a critical piece for good comics and I will do an entire series on it when I get to drawing the comic. However, as I mentioned last time, the composition of the comic is something a good writer is also going to be thinking of, to help ensure the script has lots of potential for the artist to run with.

Along with discussing all this last time, I included a number of pages from various comic series that incorporate very effective use of composition, meshing art and story together to create truly outstanding work.

Many of you no doubt noticed a number of these are by writer-artists as opposed to the more traditional writer / artist teams. Why? Well, that one’s pretty simple. An excellent artist who is also an excellent writer is going to visualize their story and knows how the art can truly enhance the themes and mood. They are going to have the easiest time in bringing all that together in a script that gives plenty of potential and room for the art to bring it to life.

However, it is also VERY possible for a writer and artist working together to bring this to the table as well, as can be seen in the Watchmen samples as well as plenty of other notable comic series that have been published. I’ll revisit this after we examine these pages and let all you aspiring writers in on a little secret that might literally change the way you create comics.

The Watchmen

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Watchmen – Writer: Alan Moore / Artist Dave Gibbons – copyright and trademark by DC Comics

This series redefined comics on multiple levels. It was a brilliant collaboration between Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that showed just how powerful a story can be when told effectively in the graphic medium.

It is also very clear this collaboration started long before finished scripts were written. The world itself, the character designs, both the people and their costumes, the environs in general, every visual element re-enforces many of the themes of the series. There are also many visual plays and cues used throughout to tell the story on multiple levels, to illicit intuitive reactions and feelings that enhance the story. This includes the page layouts.

Throughout the twelve-issue run, by far, the nine-panel grid layout dominated (as seen in these sample pages). This layout is one that has been used many times in comics throughout their history. Keith Giffen is also quite well-known for his preference of this layout. However, it was used so much in Watchmen that it has since been seen as one of the identifying trademarks of it.

The grid layout has several strengths logistically. It is the easiest layout to follow, standard grid pattern allows the reader to very easily move through the page. In a way, it is a nice balance to a story far more complex on the intellectual and emotional levels. It allows the reader to use less focus in following the art, to give more focus on what’s happening IN the art and in the actual story.

The grid also allows a good bit of story to unfold with every page. It makes it easy for cinematic sequences, where the panels seem akin to animation cells, one following after the other in sequence. In a dialogue and character based story, it also allows for a wealth of dialogue, narration and story to unfold.

However, the layouts also enhance the story stylistically and emotionally. Watchmen is a dark, oppressive story, filled with violence, people trapped in various ways by their decisions, their lifestyles, etc. Many of the themes of the story revolve around some form of restraint or constriction. The rigid grid pattern enforces this. Even action scenes are often constrained in smaller panels making them feel almost claustrophobic.

When panels DO open up in that series, they contain something truly remarkable. I don’t claim to know and have never read any in-depth review on how Moore and Gibbons collaborated on this series, but it is clear the story focuses on visuals in a way that was brought in at the writing stage. The famous happy face with the blood smear, the ticking clock ticking down to doomsday, at the same time being a visual for WATCHmen, these are all ways the story was brought to life using visual cues and images that were an effective combination from writer and artist.

The Red Star

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The Red Star – Writer / Artist / Copyright and Trademark: Christian Gossett

This series, primarily from creator Christian Gossett, is another comic that has defined itself visually and compositionally from the outset. A sweeping, alternate history, fantasy-sci-fi epic, the art and story work together hand in hand to bring to vivid life a story well-crafted and well-executed.

Almost the opposite of Watchmen that uses a paranoia, clinging, restricting oppression to tell its tale, The Red Star is a sweeping epic that needs lots of room to breathe. My guess is this series has more two-page spreads than any series in history. Gosset defines this series visually in three ways. First is his own unique art style. Second is his blending of 3-D CGI images with more traditional art. Third is his use of page layouts and specifically 2-page spreads to enhance the storytelling.

His style itself is very energetic, dramatic, and emotionally powerful. His blending of traditional or ‘organic’ art for people and environs, but CGI rendered images for machines, ships, weapons, etc. is very nicely done. The people remain more dramatic, more ‘earthy’ and natural. But with the CGI images, he can add a level of 3-D, realism, depth and scale that opens the scenes up more. Pages that spotlight the Russian warships in the sky are truly impressive pieces that feel like they have a scale befitting a mile long, 20,000 crew floating fortress.

Part of what makes this work for Gossett is he allows the pages to open up to really show the scale, the size and scope of this epic he is telling. Very cinematic, movie quality images from that series make this world detailed, complex and feel very real, despite how different it really is.

While it might be argued the typical issue of The Red Star seems to have less content story-wise, there can be no argument that the story that is told leaves you with an impression. There is a sense of grandeur, a sense of the epic, even mythological levels of this story that want you to pause and stare at those wide open pages, and the art does just that.

Hellboy

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Hellboy – Writer / Artist / Copyright and Trademark: Mike Mignola

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, like the rest of these, doesn’t really need much in the way of introduction. One of the most well-known creator-owned series ever and one that has successfully made the leap into film.

When Mignola talked about creating Hellboy, I remember him saying that he had been invited to do a creator-owned series at Dark Horse and decided if he was going to do one it had to be one that let him draw all the stuff he REALLY wanted to draw. He accomplished just that.

Hellboy is a series so defined by Mignola’s style that fans once found it hard to accept other artists, even very good ones, drawing the iconic adventures. It’s because Mignola succeeded in creating a character whose appearance and world seems only right when drawn by him.

If we look at how Mignola enhances his story through the art, his style in general is obviously first and foremost. He does not have a distinct layout pattern that defines his work or the series, as he varies it a good bit in keeping with more traditional graphic storytelling. However, he does add some of his own quirks that are purely Mignola. His use of shadow and light, minimalist approach, and some of his distinct camera angles and close up shots also help define the look and feel overall.

Did You Catch It?

Yes, I absolutely did pick one series each that shows key art composition where the story shapes the art at the panel (Watchmen), the page (The Red Star), and the larger, overall series (Hellboy).

Let’s look at a couple other examples that are literally world’s apart.

The Walking Dead

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The Walking Dead – Writer / Copyright and Trademark: Robert Kirkman / Art: Charlie Adlard

Arguably one of the most successful creator-owned series ever, Robert Kirkman created a powerhouse in The Walking Dead. He originally launched the series with artist Tony Moore, who left after the first several issues. He was replaced with Charlie Adlard who has carried it ever since. While I love Tony’s art, and there is no doubt he is an incredibly talented creator, I think this was one of those lucky breaks in terms of the series. You’ve seen Charlie’s work in the samples above, now compare it to a single page from Tony.

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The Walking Dead – Art by Tony Moore

Tony’s art, again, excellent, but his style isn’t as perfect a match with the story as Charlie’s who seems born to do this series.

Adlard uses a much simpler, minimalist style similar to Mignola, with stark light and shadow, very realistic looking characters, more gritty, grim, and haggard looking all of which creates the stark and forbidding contrast of this world.

Tony’s work has much more detailed linework, slightly more cartoonish bent to the characters and more going on in the art which dilutes the world to some degree.

Would the series have gone on to be such a major franchise if the change hadn’t happened? It’s obviously impossible to say, but any long term fans who’ve been with the series now for a while, without looking back at those original issues might find it jarring to do so and that says a lot about the power of art and story.

Mouse Guard

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Writer / Art / Copyright and Trademark: David Petersen

Last but by no means least is David Petersen’s amazing series Mouse Guard. This series is printed in a square format, typical of children’s books, as opposed to standard comic dimensions. A very smart move for an all-ages series for a number of reasons. The shorter, stouter page leaves less panel transition over a longer, narrower spread for the reader to get lost in, which is good for a younger reader who may not be as versed in comic flow. David also keeps his layouts pretty simple and straight-forward. It’s also smart marketing – it looks more like the product a parent might typically buy for their child, targeting the primary demographic.

Now, this is another example of a writer-artist series, and David’s dream series of choice, but let’s ask an interesting question… What if David’s ‘dream series’ he wanted to do had been Walking Dead? Yeah, I don’t see it either.

See, the synergy between story and art, for a single writer-artist planning their own dream-series is going to start at the very first stages of conception. Artists who want to write are going to doodle, sketch, do designs, and the world, characters and story will start forming in their head as they go and naturally, that story will reflect the art, because that is where it was nurtured. One informs, shapes, guides, and fine tunes the other.

So, What Does All This Mean?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this series on writing, one of the challenges to the writer in comics, more so than any other medium, is how much the quality writer is going to need to focus on and visualize the finished product. That needs to start at the very beginning of the conceptualization of the series and run right through to the final editing of the script.

Which leads me to my closing point on this column: introducing the topic of collaboration, one I will explore far more in-depth after this writing series and the following penciling series.

I am continually amazed at how many writers fully visualize their comic, write story bibles, full scripts, character descriptions and bios, literally fully plot out everything, THEN go looking for an artist. They’ve just made their lives ten times harder than it needs to be because now they are looking for a single artist to match a singular vision that has to fit inside the box.

Don’t get me wrong, it can work, and obviously with longer running series, especially big-two series spanning decades, there will be multiple teams over time. But if you think about it, how many writer and artist (or writer-artist) team runs on those specific books REALLY stand the test of time as a milestone? Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Christopher Claremont and Dave Cockrum then John Byrne on X-Men, Byrne solo on Fantastic Four. More recently I’d add Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman run. That magic can be hard to capture when creators are stepping into a ‘thing’ already made.

So, if you’re a writer, thinking about creating a series you want to do, don’t build it out in exhaustive detail and then try to find an artist – find an artist you want to work with and then create something together. Ask them what they want to draw? Let their art shape the world, the characters, the story. You just might be surprised what comes out of it.

Next…

Now that we’ve explored a lot of the comic-specific dynamics of writing comics, we’re going to close out this series run with a focus on “Telling the Story” and look at some of the important aspects of telling good stories that work well in comics. Hope to see you there!

NOW DISCUSS…

My Comic Life Patreon Promotion

If you want more great content like this, support his Patreon campaign today by clicking the image!

About C. Edward Sellner

A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Comics, one of the best known comic studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycomics.com!

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