How to properly tell a story with pictures
August 3, 2010 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Tips for creating a comic book?

I have some artistic ability and what I think is a pretty good idea for a comic book, but while writing down my ideas it became very obvious to me that there is much more to consider than a story and a few drawings of characters. Are there any good resources--books, websites, even blogs or how-tos--on how to practically approach things like page layout and pacing specifically for the comic book medium? Similarly, are there any common n00b mistakes that should be avoided at all cost?
posted by Kirk Grim to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Scott McCloud's Making Comics. There are a few quibbles to be had with McCloud's theory, but his books are pretty good primers for n00bs.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:25 PM on August 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

Comic books as such currently have a small readership - video games are more popular, in general. The aspiration of comic book writers is to have their book developed into a movie; that's where the money is. Meanwhile I would just like to advise you that the odds are that your comic book won't be developed into a movie and that it won't sell large numbers of copies, even if it is very good. So if it is a labor of love, that's terrific, but don't count on a large financial payoff.
posted by grizzled at 2:37 PM on August 3, 2010

Just do a five page comic first. or a 2 page comic. Do it, decide if it's good or not. If it's good, do another one, because it's good. If it's bad, do another one so you can get better.

Use whatever materials you like, chalk, pen, ink, pencil computer, whatever. The point is to do, figure out what worked and what didn't and learn from the process. Time spent reading about comics is time spent not creating comics. You can look up the how-to's later, for now just get busy with it.
posted by nomadicink at 2:38 PM on August 3, 2010

Response by poster: Definitely a labor of love--my subject matter basically precludes any sort of Hollywood ambitions. I'm just looking to do as good a job of it as I can.
posted by Kirk Grim at 2:41 PM on August 3, 2010

Seconding Shakespherian's suggest - check out the various books by Scott MCloud on the Art of Comics
posted by Flood at 2:44 PM on August 3, 2010

Seconding nomadicink -- people talk a lot about tools and format, but the most important thing is to get SOMETHING on paper and completed to get comfortable with the medium and decide if it's right for you. I'm terrible at short stories but I'm glad I forced myself to do a few before I started in on my graphic novel.

And as others have said, Scott McCloud's books are excellent resources for learning to think about the structure and theory of comics. While it's less nuts-and-bolts practical, the first book -- Understanding Comics -- has always been the most helpful for me personally.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:48 PM on August 3, 2010

The author/artist of Dresden Codak just started up a comic process/art blog that you may find interesting, particularly the posts on layouts.

Rad Sechrist has an interesting howto blog which is more storyboard oriented, but he's got advice on panel layouts when he posts about his comics. Lots of great stuff about forms and shapes and character design too.
posted by Mister Cheese at 2:49 PM on August 3, 2010

If we're recommending books, there's also some Will Eisner books, particularly "Comics & Sequential Art" though McCloud's book covers a lot of the same ground more thoroughly.

Also, what do you count as "some artistic ability?" Compositions that can read clearly are valuable, but a lot of noob illustrators will overlook that in favour of highly-detailed rendering.
posted by RobotHero at 3:29 PM on August 3, 2010

Response by poster: Also, what do you count as "some artistic ability?" Compositions that can read clearly are valuable, but a lot of noob illustrators will overlook that in favour of highly-detailed rendering.

That's a good point--I've never tried to tell much of a story with pictures beyond a single image or maybe 2 or 3 max. I was referring to the fact I can draw and/or paint pretty well rather than possessing an ability to create and arrange a series of drawings together to form a story that's readable.

So far it sounds like Scott McCloud's the way to go for that--thanks guys, looks like I may have my answer within 3 minutes of posting. You guys are good.
posted by Kirk Grim at 3:47 PM on August 3, 2010

I walked into my local indy comics store today and asked this same question. I left with Alan Moore's book on writing comics and a huge stack of local and other small press first time comics for inspiration. The owner was super thrilled and helpful, and encouraged me to come by anytime for advice and encouragement.

He also sent me a link to a website full of comic scripts. Haven't gotten it yet (gave him my work email), but I'll post it once I get it.
posted by mollymayhem at 3:58 PM on August 3, 2010

May enjoy the tips in this interview with Dr. McNinja's Chris Hastings.
posted by oblio_one at 5:45 PM on August 3, 2010

By "read clearly" I wasn't even talking about multiple images. Just drawing one image where it's clear what the most important figure is and what they are doing.

Oh, and you can pick up a few useful things from other fields, like painting and photography composition, and from movies and seeing how they handle establishing shots and continuity editing.
posted by RobotHero at 6:06 PM on August 3, 2010

A long time ago I read an interview with Howard Chaykin, and he recommended the book Screenplay, by Syd Field. There's a technique explained in the book, where each plot point is written on a 3x5 card, and you juggle these around to build your story.

Visually, the cheat sheet Wally Wood put together is a nice thing to hang on your wall: 22 panels that always work.
posted by Bron at 7:26 PM on August 3, 2010

Read the best comics and your own favourite comics and analyse why the work and why they work for you. Look especially at the story telling and the transitions between panels and between pages and how the story is broken up into pages and panels. Think less is more all the time - one of the main beginner problems is too many panels with too much dialogue. Develop and experiment with layouts with thumb-nail sketches first.

A pro-comics artist friend of mine PJ Holden talks a lot about composition etc in his blog.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:02 AM on August 4, 2010

I also suggest that you check out someplace like Webcomics Nation or Keenspot as a set of examples of independent comics, as well as other new-to-comics efforts. Not a place to find a list of rules, or a perfect comic to emulate, but just a place to look at what a lot of different people are doing in a lot of different styles. For example, to take what you learn from Scott McCloud or Will Eisner, and look at some good and bad comics, and see how your opinion of "good" and "bad" relates to the suggestions from the comics-craft experts.

(Webcomics are also something to consider as a route to getting your work out there and show your comic to somebody other than your roommate - much cheaper than printing up minicomics at Kinkos and handing them out at a show.)
posted by aimedwander at 6:26 AM on August 4, 2010

Best answer: McCloud's book is a good place to start, for sure.

Piling onto that, here's my distilled advice for making comics:

Set up your process so you're only making one kind of decision at a time.

If you stare at a blank sheet of paper and try to figure out how to turn it into a comics page, you're dooming yourself for frustration and failure. Break it down into discrete chunks. So, like:

1. Plot out your story
2. Convert that plot into a script with dialog and panel breakdowns, broken into pages
3. Look at Page 1; sketch out a layout for how those panels should fit together on a page
4. On decent paper, rough out the panels from step 3, and draw your figures in as stick figures, and your backgrounds as raw geometric shapes
5. Pencil in the figures and backgrounds
6. Figure out where your word balloons need to go and ink them in
7. Ink your figures and backgrounds
8. Scan, and then color and letter in PhotoShop
9. Repeat steps 3-8 for page 2.

Your process might be different (I know my word-balloon approach is unusual), but the key is that you don't want to be worrying about layouts and dialog at the same time, or trying to get figures exactly right when you're not sure where the next panel goes, etc.

Feel free to MeMail if you want to hear more; I can talk about this shit forever.
posted by COBRA! at 7:32 AM on August 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is something that helped me: pick up a comic, any good comic. Take a scene from it and study it intensely. What I did to do that was to draw the pages and panels out on scrap paper using stick figures, to make myself really study the images (because when reading it I often skim and miss things) and get an idea of the thought processes of the artist when she or he was composing the panel and the page. Also, I drew action lines though the page to see how the art and text directed my eye through the page. Then I typed out the dialogue form the scene and described what was happening in each scene in stupidly fine detail.

Might be too much work for others, but it really helped me get into the mind of the writer and artist.
posted by telophase at 8:56 AM on August 4, 2010

Here's that email from my local comics store guy:

There are a ton different scripts from different creators on here. I think Andy Diggle's scripts are amazing in that they are very visual and have an great economy of words.

posted by mollymayhem at 10:39 AM on August 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

PJ Holden on Composition and storytelling. He's working from a script there though.
posted by Artw at 11:57 AM on August 4, 2010

The only real way to learn to make comics is by making comics. It has been my experience that following any one set of rules, steps, or methodology only leads to dissatisfaction.

Nomadicink is right. Do a one-pager, or a very short story. See what worked, and what didn't. Make another, and another. Find a rhythm and a process that works for you, let's you create the kind of artwork and comic that you are happy with, and only then try to tackle a long story. Do not dedicate yourself to such a labourious undertaking without having that intimate experience with the form and process.

Most importantly, do not listen to buzz-kills like grizzled up there who says, "no one will read it, it will never be a movie, and you won't make any money." Most of my friends are cartoonists who all make a living at it, and all love the art form for what it is (comics) and not for what it isn't (movies).
posted by Robot Johnny at 10:07 PM on August 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

So much good advice here! Read Will Eisner, and Scott McCloud, and Aaron Diaz. Read as many of the kind of comics you want to write as you can (your local comic book shop can help you with this). Make comics. Make more. Make your first ones over again.

Kazu Kibuishi, who draws "Copper" online, edits the Flight anthologies and draws the Amulet series, twittered this several months ago:

"I always put my best ideas forward as soon as possible, and I trust myself to come up with better stuff in the future."

Don't save the idea you have. Just go for it!
posted by blackunicorn at 10:10 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

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