Andy's Art and Whatever

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Comic Tricks I Live By

*Sorry, Another LONG Read*

Everyone has their own way of telling a story, and in comics there are literally an infinite variety of choices in telling your story. Over the years I have tried many different methods and techniques. Some worked for me, and some didn’t. So I decided to make a list of 10 rules that I try my best to follow whenever I write comics. Maybe in this way I can identify what I can do to improve, and possibly give you all some insight into my comic process.

1. Eyes and faces are the window into the soul. I try to put a lot of care in choosing the right facial expression for any given scene so that my characters feel more alive. I don’t like using “stock” expressions like they have in a lot of Japanese Anime, but they can be useful if used in moderation. This does, however, make me not focus on the rest of the bodies and as such my anatomy work is not as perfect as I’d like it to be.

2. This is probably the most important one. Stories are driven by characters, not ideas. In other words, you can have the most epic story in the world, but if the characters are wooden and unappealing, then everything else falls apart. Many a summer blockbuster movie has failed because of this problem. Too much emphasis on the glitz and glamour and not on the characters.

A helpful trick I have found is to give each character some random positive and negative qualities. These + and - traits help you predict how they’ll react to different situations and will allow them to sometimes make up their own minds rather than you forcing them to follow a set story. Always give your character 1 crazy trait about them, because everyone can relate to knowing/being someone with an irrational trait.

Example: A character who really loves cheese will react differently than one who once accidentally ate a moldy piece of cheese. Already in your minds eye you can imagine how each one would react if someone handed them a huge hunk of cheese.

3. Catch your readers immediately. Always start off with a bang. You need some sort of hook to draw the readers in before you start elaborating on your story. I like to start my stories right in the middle of an action and not explain it right away (such as the opening sequence to Formera which still has yet to be explained). If you read the first issue of any series, a main problem is usually established immediately, but then takes a back seat for a time, while characters are developed and explored.

4. Take time between actions. This has been the hardest for me to work on. It’s very tempting, when drawing a comic, to want to keep going with action because it’s the most fun to do. But taking time away from the action, slowing things down, pondering important moments... these are all very important to the flow of your story.

I like to use Jeff Smith’s “Bone” as an exemplary example of this. He can spend several pages in his stories with very little camera movement (if at all) focusing on his characters (be it arguing, or doing something by themselves). This lack of camera movement forces you to focus on what DOES change between panels, and it makes you more aware of the characters personalities, much more than if the camera kept on trying to find the most dynamic angles.

Which brings me to...

5. Don’t be afraid to keep things simple. Another thing I’ve had a hard time forcing myself to do. When I began making the pirate comics for the internet, I deliberately kept things simple. I used a single fixed camera angle for nearly all panels, and I kept the pages to a simple 8 panel layout. By doing this, I was able to focus on the characters personalities and make them easier for new readers to identify with.

6. Try to make everything clear. This is a very important rule, which I dedicate a lot of time to. I want the actions in every panel to be as clear as possible. I try my best to choose the most direct, simple, and explanatory moments for all of my stories. You have to remember that sometimes your audience may not be on the same page as you are. You know where your story is going, but they may not, so it’s important that they can follow without being hindered by confusing layouts, awkward camera shifts, inconsistent information, etc.

However, this sometimes causes a problem for me. Because I focus so much time on making everything clear and concise, I have a real problem with breaking out of the panels and doing more elaborate layouts. Panel bleeds, characters overlapping boxes, elaborate page designs... all of this is very challenging for me to focus on because it goes against my strict “make things clear” rules. I don’t like doing abstract stuff like that (so girls manga would be a very difficult style for me because it’s usually abstract and emotional rather than concrete and practical).

7. Important actions/information should be in larger panels. This just helps the story flow better. If a very important piece of dialogue or action happens in a small panel, it’s sometimes easy to overlook and readers might not attach any importance to it. So always try to have the most important thing on your page be in the largest panel.

That brings me to this fun little trick...

8. Leave the reader hanging at the end of each page. For book 2 of “Formera” I started paying a lot more attention to the page numbers and always ending the odd number pages (the right side) with a little hint of something to come. This causes the reader to want to flip to the next page and see what happens. It’s a simple trick, but one which is very VERY useful. For “Formera” book 1, I wrote it as a web comic, and as such EVERY PAGE was designed to have some sort of “OH NO!” moment ending it. When reading it as a book, it makes the pacing a lot faster and more urgent, which isn’t always a good thing. Lol.

9. Seed your comics. I like to leave deliberate plot holes in my stories when I write, because often I have no idea where it’s going when I begin anyway. I make vague hints of stuff, reference to things, or have a character do something unexpected. When I have enough of these little “seeds” planted throughout the story, I then begin to go back and explain them. It would be best to write the whole story out first, and then go back and plant these seeds BEFORE you start drawing your comic... and my method can sometimes lead to really challenging explanations if you planted a wrong seed early on. But it works for me, so do what you think is best. When you plant little seeds at the beginning of the book and eventually pay them off at the end, it makes your stories feel much more unified.

10. Don’t be a slave to the closeup. It’s very tempting when writing comics, especially as I love to focus on the emotions of the characters, to focus a lot of attention to the faces. If you do this, however, you’ll get nothing but closeup shots and your comic can feel claustrophobic. Do some establishing shots to allow the reader to understand where all the characters are in the scene, and to be more aware of the surroundings too. Drawing backgrounds shouldn’t be a chore. They should be fun to do. Think of the environment as a character unto itself. It needs it’s share of the spotlight too. That’s what I’m trying to do with world of “Formera” in my books.

Finally I just wanted to say, don’t stress out about consistency. Your fans are going to find mistakes no matter how hard you try to keep things 100%. You could go over and over and over your comic with 3 or 4 different people 50 different ways, but someone out there will probably be able to find a small drawing mistake, an inconsistent background, a color error, etc. Don’t let it get to you. You’re human, and humans make mistakes. I have problems with this because I like to focus on the characters and what’s going on, and little nitpicky details like that bother me. I try to find them beforehand, but sometimes I just miss things and some fans can be really persistent about them. Just do the best you can and don’t worry about what they have to say. (Of course I don’t mean to ignore mistakes completely either lol)

So there you go. There are some tricks and techniques that I like to follow. They’re pretty general, but if you have any questions feel free to ask. Also, check out Scott McClouds books “understanding comics” and “making comics” because those go SO much more into detail about things I’ve touched upon here. They are the comic bibles, and a lot of their information can be used for film too.



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