Storytelling in Comics

By almost any standard, Comics are a curious business.

As many of you know, I am a long-time fan of the form.
It is my good fortune to work on Starstruck with Elaine Lee and Mike Kaluta, as well as collaborate on the occasional comic and cover (Aquaman, Axe Cop, One Nation, et al.).

But recently I’ve been working on a different sort of comic project.
I’m not drawing or inking it, I’m just working to make it better – often through tone work, but more importantly through editing, tweaking and reworking for narrative thrust and clarity.
And as I’ve worked on this book with author Drew Kafoury, I’ve been speaking to him a great deal about story telling.
With Drew’s permission, here’s a sample before and after:



The BEFORE page (well, pages, it’s meant to be a two-page spread to begin with) is deeply problematic.
And without drawing all new art, I needed to make it read better. But where to start?

When designing comic pages, it’s important to ask what the pages you’re creating are about.
This spread is about the super-powered father showing his son his own amazing abilities, and gently trying to get his son to manifest his powers.
What it is not about? Giant ruminant animals with stick figure Dad carrying stick figure son up up and away: “Come see the world with me son. Don’t worry that you need me to carry you!”
Also, the original layout has neither panel borders nor sufficient room for word balloons. And there’s nothing here to suggest it needs to be thought of as a double-page spread.
With that in mind, I took the huge bottom panel and moved it right to the front. It’s about a quarter the size it started out, but still conveys the same data.

In addition to creating clean and regular panel borders so the reader can better parse the action, I rearranged the pages so that the focus is on the relationship between father and son.
The first page might be summed up as “Dad can fly and I can’t”.

The top two panels in the upper right of the Before page are not just insufficient to show the heart of the story, the artist has chosen to switch the positions of the two lead characters.
So, in addition to keeping the characters in their places for better reader comprehension, I added another two panels to the second page (repurposing and tweaking its surrounding art) to create feeling of wide-screen almost cinematic continuity, and ending with the son’s dismay at his inability to express his powers. That page (now mercifully freed from grazing livestock) is all “Dad can blast innocent termite mounds and I can’t”.

I find it frustrating to see the work of someone who can obviously draw being careless and, probably in his mind, cool; designing strange random panel borders because they look “neat” is perforce silly. And in this case doubly so in that the angles keep the characters in his first panel on the “ground” plane the panel suggests and literally harms the narrative at every turn.

In the Before page, No’madd – the Hero of the book – is not drawn to model and for some reason was given a haircut, which makes him far less identifiable, and also diminishes the contrast between the two lead characters. This was corrected by having the original artist draw the proper hair on overlay. Compared with the challenges of the rest of the page, some digital toupée work was easy.

The special effect of the hero’s flying ‘halo’ differed between panels 1 and 2. This is not something many readers would care about, but following the models (whether characters, backgrounds or special effects) is important. Continuity is one of Comics’ great features and should be used!

The changes I made to the son character are probably the most subtle – but the short form is that lines are associated with age. Why crowd a young person’s face with lines? I tried to restore as much youth to the son as I could – focusing on expression.

In reworking the panels on Page 2, I added space between the characters – partly to better fill a tall vertical column, partly to make room for word balloons, and partly to show the father being physically “superior” to his son. Even small changes to simple panels can make a big difference.

Comics have a reputation for being simple – for being a lesser art form than a film or novel. But simple is the one thing that they are not.
Every panel presents opportunities for storytelling excellence or – all too often – storytelling mediocrity.
The best work is always the result of taking the work seriously and thinking it through.

This entry was posted in Art and Illustration, Elements of Illustration and tagged , , , by leemoyer. Bookmark the permalink.

About leemoyer

Lee Moyer creates original artwork, branding and design. His clientele includes: Film: 6 Laurel & Hardy classics, The Call of Cthulhu and Spiderman 2 Theater: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen King and Stephen Sondheim Music: Andre 3000, Tori Amos and John Mellencamp Book: Raymond Chandler, Iain Banks, and HP Lovecraft Web: BET, CareerBuilder and Paramount Pictures Game: Electronic Arts, Hasbro and Sony Education: McGraw-Hill, The National Zoo, and the Smithsonian Institution His work has been featured in Communication Arts, The Society of Illustrators, and the New York Times.

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