Oct 19, 2012

HOW TO: Comic Book Storytelling: Pt1 Relating Panels.

Have you ever heard a comic fan say something along the lines of, "I don't mind if the art is bad, as long as the story is good"? I've heard this claim a lot of times, and it frustrates me a bit. I think that it shows a misunderstanding of how comics actually work.

Ugh. I still hate looking at this page.
The idea that you can separate the art from the story itself is a misconception. It's understandable. As readers people are taught to accept the idea that the 'prose' part of a story is the story. But that's not strictly true. There's a big difference between the plot and the dialogue and the story as a whole.

A brilliant idea in a prose story that's badly described, is a bad story. The same is true in comics. the difference is that in comics the story is described by pictoral art and prose working together, not just by prose. A well written script can be destroyed by badly drawn art that doesn't convey what the script is trying to get across. Likewise a mediocre script can be propelled into a much higher status by really good art.

Today I thought we'd take a look an example of comic book storytelling done very poorly, and how it can affect the quality of the story as a whole -- how a badly laid out page can damage what a writer is trying to say. To be fair to other artists out there, and to give me an excuse to redraw a page I'm not happy with, how about we use a page from my own comic as an example? You might want to open that page in another window or another tab so you can refer back to the image more easily as we go through.

I really appologise for making you read through this page -- because I think it's awful. But I also think it's a good starting point for a little lesson on comic storytelling.

This individual page contains seven panels. The panels are divided into three tiers. It's really obviously divided into these three tiers. That's because the three tiers don't interact. In fact if you were to pull them apart they could easily be three separate comic strips. This isn't a virtue, or a design feature of this page. This is just really bad storytelling.

So that I can talk about them by name when explaining the page without confusing you here's a quick guide to the characters on the page (except for the Minotaur, I'm fairly sure you'll be able to work out who she is).
Yes I'm a character in my own comic. So what?
You'll notice that the page itself assumes some reader knowledge of the events leading up to the action, and of the characters involved. This is fine -- but a comic should never assume too much reader foreknowledge, and allow itself to become lazy in establishing locations and characters (as this page does).

One of the most important jobs of any comic is to establish where your characters are in relationship to each other. To do this they have to be placed in an environment -- or at the very least they need to be positioned with special attention to the geographical relationships between them. This page completely fails to do that.

Because we never see where the characters in the first tier are in relationship to the characters in the second tier it appears as if the action is not interconnected. It's possible to glean from the dialogue that Bearded Jack and the others are watching Thomas fight, but in terms of the geography of the page they just seem to appear from nowhere.

This is compounded by the fact that, in the third tier, it happens again. Gerber just appears from nowhere to be menaced by a Minotaur who also appears to have magicked herself into existence. An astute reader might be able to make the connection and work out the fact that the arm in the top tier belongs to the Minotaur in the bottom tier... but there's really not much visual information on the page actually TELLING you this is the case.

So what could be done to integrate all three tiers and tell the reader how one action flows into the next? Well it wouldn't take much, actually. Let's just add a caption box to the first panel:

Yeah, I put a lot of time and
effort into that new caption.

Despite what modern American comics might have you believe it's perfectly acceptable to plug gaps in the art with a well-placed text caption. Remember comics are an interaction between pictoral storytelling and prose storytelling. So why not establish that this arm belongs to a minotaur by mentioning it in a caption box?

You could even make the caption interact more directly with the art, just by the way you word it. Like so:

I put almost a full line's worth more
effort into this caption!

The repetition gag helps tie the caption to the action -- though in a story not focussed on humour you'd probably go with something more like the first caption.

Now what we need to do is link the third panel with the fourth panel.

We have a lot of dead space in both panels. In the third panel it's taken up by wavey lines to indicate Thomas is in pain from being grabbed (but these were just added because his pose wasn't working). In the fourth panel the empty space is kinda taken up by text -- but you can still see how empty the panel is.

You might even notice that for no reason Pont is holding a hot dog in the fourth panel. That's because there was meant to be a hot dog vendor in the background behind the four characters, but I got lazy and didn't put this detail in either the third or fourth panels. So let's clean things up and add the hot dog vendor back into the background of both panels. At the same time I'll put some silhouettes of the cast of panel 4 into panel 3.

Better, but still bad...

Even though you can't really make out who the guys in the background are in the third panel, you can count them -- their numbers line up smoothly with the number of people in the fourth panel. That's all you need to suggest to the reader that these are the same characters.

(Obviously these additions aren't perfect -- and anyone who reads my comic will know that the hot dog vendor in the actual story looks nothing like this. His placement in the fourth panel is obviously bad owing to the fact that he wasn't drawn in there; he was sketched on another piece of paper and then photoshopped in.)

Now we have one final element that needs tying into the narrative -- where did Gerber come from in the fifth panel? Well, actually... this is one of the stupidest flaws on this page, because as a writer I knew it was a problem so I actually added in dialogue to explain it! Here's my original "script" for this panel (I actually work in a thumbnail style when writing, rather than writing out a prose script.)


Notice that the dialogue doesn't actually explain where Gerber came from, or where he was standing or anything that specific. But because Thomas calls out to Gerber the reader does know that this character isn't just a random bystander -- he's meant to be part of the story. That's all you need to do to make this read just a little bit better than it did before.

So heck, why don't we add this text back to the panel and see what the whole page looks like put together?

It still ain't perfect, but I think (at least I hope) that things are starting to look better. The first three panels are still kinda messy. The new art elements are a bit thrown together, rather than properly filling the space they're meant to. Still, now that we've established some relationships between the panels things don't seem so bloody disjointed.

Building the relationships between the panels so that readers understand the progression from one panel to the next is a foundational part of comic book storytelling. Some artists do this in incredibly sophisticated ways, some completely fail to do it at all. Hopefully today we've managed to take this page from completely failing to at least being somewhat sophisticated.

Personally I think we can still do better, so there's going to be a part 2 later and I'll really dig in and redraw some of those panels from scratch and see if we can't improve the hell out of them.

--Andrew S.
(You can find my web comic here: http://www.townsvilletale.com.au if you're interested in checking it out.)

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