Welcome back everyone!
Later today, I am running my ever popular My Comic Life Panel at the DC Authorfest at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington DC, come join us if you can! Then, I close out the year at the Southern Maryland Comic-Con at the Hollywood Maryland Volunteer Fire Department on Sunday the 13th, which is also Visionary’s last full convention of the year. Whew!
Get all the Details on our Events Page >>
Look out though, because I’ll be announcing some more ‘informal’ events for local fans I hope will spark interest. Stay tuned!
My Comic Life Column 008: Writing Comics 101: The Page or Screen
Last time, I talked about some of the mechanics of writing comics, especially how mindful comic writers need to be of the finished product. I then talked a good deal about the single panel of a comic script. Let’s crank it up a notch as we take a look at the art of composition and the page or screen if digital.
By the Way…
It’s obviously impossible to focus on one arena of comics without often looking at the other ones. For example, in the last edition, I talked about art a good bit. My purpose there was to remind the writer of the strengths and weaknesses of static images in telling a dynamic story and how that influences the script. I’ll dig a lot deeper into all that when we actually focus on the art itself.
That said, onward and upward…
One of the core considerations of art is composition, the use of elements in the art to create a unified piece that carries the desired mood, tone, and feel. In good art, those elements work together in a way that makes the art engaging. Tools the artist uses for composition can include layout, space, lighting, shading, texture, weight, lines of flow and direction, color palette, etc. Composition is something the good comic artist is always thinking about while drawing. They have to focus on it on the level of each panel, each page or screen, and the overall book or run as a whole, because in a sense, each of those represents a ‘piece’ of art.
The panel itself is a single, static image conveying a single beat of a larger story. In a sense, the panels in a comic are a collection of small portraits of art, each with their own artistic value. But it doesn’t end there.
Visually, as a reader’s eye falls on a comic, their first connection is with the full page or screen. Even if they don’t think of that page or screen as a ‘piece of art’ they nevertheless respond to is as one. Once they take it in they will then zero in to read, to move through it, just as any piece of art engages the viewer. How well that page or screen is composed will impact both the reader’s desire and ease in doing so in the proper sequence, to pick up the flow of the panels and thus the story.
Likewise, certain motifs, tricks, or layouts can be used throughout a book to give it a cohesive and unified feel. When Dan Jurgens did the climactic battle between Superman and Doomsday, in the Death of Superman, he intentionally used full page splashes for every page to re-enforce the scale and scope of that story. Likewise, Alan Moore and David Gibbons, on their series Watchmen, used a lot of nine-panel grids to help create the oppressive, constrained world in which the series was set. In both cases, this element of composition became something of a trademark for those stories.
The artist obviously gives a lot of thought to the compositional elements of any project as a whole, but as the above examples make clear, elements of composition are also something that should be considered at the scripting stage. How the writer addresses and uses composition in their writing is one mark of a comic writer’s skill. For some, especially writer/artists, the effective use of composition comes fairly naturally, for others, who may not even be remotely visually inclined, this can be a major stumbling block.
As a general rule, composition is one of those areas where the collaboration between writer and artist must be smooth in order to generate the best product. Ideally, both writer and artist will have a strong sense of composition and how to use it to tell the most dynamic and involving story. Writers who don’t have as strong a visual sense would be wise to then give the artist more leeway in order to pick up the slack.
If I were to mention series such as Hellboy, Red Star, Watchmen, Sandman, Mouse Guard, Walking Dead etc. fans of said series would instantly be able to summon images in their head of the distinct look, feel, and style of each. In each of those cases that distinctiveness is not just a function of the specific art styles on those series, but the results of intentional storytelling on multiple levels, some of which started with a writer and a script.
A Page is a Page – A Screen is a Screen
As I mentioned above, the page or screen itself is a ‘piece’ of art,’ a larger beat of the story. Since the reader first glances at a whole page or screen, the composition of it will either draw the reader in making the story more involving, or prove something of a stumbling block, making them feel pushed away. This level of art appreciation to the average comic fan has improved in this age of mobile comics that chop the page into individual panels. Page compositions are totally lost in such, and for many die-hard fans, there is a definite sense of that loss even if they can’t always articulate what it is. There is a reason some of the first upgrades to mobile comic apps included the option of viewing the whole page before zooming into the first panel.
Which raises the question, what are the elements of the page or screen itself the writer needs to consider?
In general, you don’t want to transition scenes in the middle of a page or screen. The intuitive sense is that what happens at this level is contiguous, flowing directly from one beat to another. For the reader, the more natural scene breaks take place in the turning of the page, or loading of the next screen. This relates to that fact the eye takes in the whole page first, then moves through the panels. Likewise, each scene should have it’s own distinct feel which is best carried across the whole page. Ending a violent battle in a storm mid-screen to cut to children singing in a sunny field of daisies would undermine the story. The tone you create in one scene directly counters the other.
The major exception to this rule is when the transition is meant to be jarring, such as a character waking suddenly from a dream or a forced jump to shift the story unexpectedly. Again, these are specific incidents pertinent to the telling of the story, not just casual transitions.
Too Little or Too Much?
One of the things I focused on in the previous column is striking the balance between having too much or too little story take place in any given panel. This is even truer when looking at an entire page or screen of a comic. Many scripts I’ve read waste entire pages with very little actually taking place, or seem to want to cram an entire story in each and every screen.
The panel count on a given page or screen can range from a single splash panel to a dozen or more, with a good general average being four to six. As a writer, you want to make sure the panel count is conducive to the story being told in those panels. For example, over the top action, such as our hero battling his archenemy to the death, will generally have fewer panels per page, allowing the action to unfold, the battle to be ‘larger than life’ and explode off the screen. This is where you would see your splash pages as well as the bulk of your two to three panel screens. A quieter scene, say a private discussion between our hero and his lady fair, wouldn’t be as visually dynamic, so could utilize more panels and thus include more dialogue per page or screen. This balance is important, because use of full pages without visually dynamic events, or little story is going to make the reader feel cheated. Whereas overly cluttered screens that cramp the art and pace of the story is going to push the reader away and make them lose interest quickly.
Another important element in the page / screen setup is how the story flows across it. It needs to draw the reader in at the beginning and direct the eye naturally across the sequence of panels, in the proper order, to the end. The most common and basic storytelling layout for comics is the basic grid, an even number of equal sized panels, or an odd number, with a specific panel dominating the page. While complex layouts, or visual tricks can certainly enhance a page or double-page spread, that often reflects a level of mastery in storytelling less experienced creators lack. Trying to do so as a writer, communicating that in a script, for an artist to then interpret and execute is even harder.
This is another reason to let the artist do the setup and execution because chances are they are going to have a better feel for this. If however, as a writer, you feel the need to step in and give some direction on rare occassions, make sure you are allowing for solid storytelling and story flow.
In storytelling, the entire nature of the beast is to win a reader over, to successfully draw them in to begin with, then keep them until the end. Comics are no different. Covers are intended to entice viewers to check the book out. Comics usually start with a splash page or other headline or hook opening to draw a reader in, making them want to read the rest of that story. A lot of ongoing comics often end issues or chapters with a cliffhanger in order to get the reader to come back.
Just as each panel is designed to lead the reader to the next, the page or screen is the same. Each represents a beat, a panel is the smallest, the page a slightly larger one. As mentioned above, a page or screen tends to be considered contiguous, a small series of events taking place in sequence, at one point in time and space.
A well-crafted comic script will often have ‘hooks’ to make the reader eager to turn the page; this is where the phrase “a real page turner” gets its meaning. Basically, these are little cliff-hangers, key moments leading up to a reveal, or a crux point, that then requires moving to the next page or screen for the payoff.
So, in each page or screen, the reader should have the feeling that the story has advanced, they’ve learned more, gained more insight into the characters and plot, and then they should feel drawn to continue exploring by moving to the next beat.
Two Pages are Two Pages – But Not Two Screens
At times, you may want to throw in a double-page splash here and there (and note this is for print only, as a traditional double-page splash is still a single screen, right?). This is one of those points the writer needs to be aware of the finished book. Obviously a two page spread is only going to work with a pair of pages alongside one another when the book lays open, usually this means an even-odd pair. I’ve seen at least half a dozen scripts in my day that position a two page spread at a break where you would see half the image, then have to turn the page to see the other half. This is a pretty amateur mistake; make sure you don’t make it.
As I mentioned earlier, it has been interesting to see how many people have noticed and commented on the noticeable ‘loss’ of the page in mobile comic apps. It was also very interesting to see a number of those applications quickly move to enable the reader to see the entire page, and then use navigational tools to move through the page, to keep it more in line with traditional comics. That in itself is the strongest argument of what a good page composition brings to the table. It’s also something to wonder whether that aesthetic will survive past this generation of comic fans, many of whom are being introduced to the medium now via mobile comics.
NEXT: Our First Workshop!
Scattered throughout this column are several pages from the comics I’ve mentioned above. Check them out and look beyond the different art styles in and of themselves to see if you can pick up on how those pages use different approaches to composition to enhance the storytelling. Look for general techniques as these are random samples and see how much you pull from them. Next week, I will then do a detailed run through of elements I notice and we can compare notes.
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!