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!

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

C. Edward Sellner cropped

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…

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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!

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