Process Blog #9: Make Those Panels Count
Like any art, making comics is all about honing your craft. If your comic is composed of pages and pages of evenly sized, full-tier widescreen panels, you’re either doing it wrong or you originally wanted to pitch a movie but settled for comics. To which I say, GTFO, we don’t need you stinking up our medium with your glorified storyboards.
Which isn’t to say that it’s wrong to come up with a page of widescreen panels — sequential storytelling is about what you show, what you don’t show, and how you show it. Big rectangles, small rectangles, jagged broken-glass-style layouts — paneling is something that’s easy to take for granted, especially if you’re scripting.
Here at Ghost Engine Industries, we take our comics making very seriously. Go ahead and check out our archive and see the variety happening in those page layouts. There are some widescreen panels, some repeating angles, but I try to write them when the storytelling calls for it.
When I write comics, I generally sketch thumbnails of my pages so I know they work. When you’re doing full-scripts (as opposed to “Marvel style” where the artist completely controls how the story appears on the page) you gotta visualize what the comic is going to look like when it’s all drawn up. Now, I fancy myself an “artist” and draw my own comics sometimes, but all it takes is drawing squares and relatively straight lines to verify if your idea for a page is as sound as it seems in your head.
(Sure, you can just rely on the artist to tell you when a page isn’t working, but why waste everybody’s time when you could catch mistakes on your own?)
Way back in the now-classic Process Blog #8, Eric showed off a page he discarded — a really good page on its own, but one that ultimately didn’t work for the story. The original page was pretty much how I scripted it, and he knocked it out of the park. I love that sequence happening in the last three panels. The angle is static, but the movement isn’t. That’s effort, my friends.
Eric’s a killer artist, and I’m not just saying that because we work together. Just look at Page 18, which is all about that gag of repeating angles. We know Eric works digitally, so repeating the backgrounds is a cinch. What distinguishes him from other artists is that he doesn’t cut corners with the characters within those panels — in every single panel there’s a clearly different iteration of Julia, drawn specifically for that panel. That’s storytelling, my friends.
On the flip side, I’ve seen major mainstream comics (the kind sold in stores!) where the artist has clearly just copied and pasted the same panel all the way down the page and changed maybe one gesture on a character. There’s certainly some benefit to straight-up repeating a panel or two as opposed to redrawing it, but when you have a sequence on the page (especially if it’s a conversation) and characters maintain the same exact frozen expressions, it’s hard not to view that as an artistic failure. People gesture, roll their eyes, shift in their seats, lean forward, and all that other stuff. Even while typing this I haven’t been sitting still and typing into my laptop — I’ve been swiveling my chair, leaning side to side, taking a moment to stretch. Outside of what I’m doing, all of that further tells a story — maybe I’m stretching because I didn’t get enough sleep last night (a good bet), and maybe I’m swiveling because I really have to pee but I want to get this blog post done because I forgot about it until this morning (yup).
Here’s a real anecdote: When I was a kid, my parents used to watch videotapes of relatives’ weddings that contained the ceremony and portions of the reception like speeches and some of the dancing. These speeches would be guys (no, seriously, they’re always men — lousy Old Country gender roles) standing on a stage and speaking in a language I still don’t know how to speak. Sometimes my parents would fast forward through the speeches and I realized that people don’t really stand still even if they seem to be. They actually move back and forth, side to side — something neither I nor the speaker would have noticed in real time.
All that to say that characters aren’t chess pieces — if you want to treat them like people, know how people actually move and function in reality, and use that knowledge to add to the storytelling.