the dc comics guide to creating comics

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The DC Comics Guide to Creating Comics - PDFDrive.comCopyright © 2013 DC Comics.
All related characters and elements are trademarks of and © DC Comics. WB SHIELD: ™ & © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (s13)
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by WatsonGuptill Publications, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
WATSONGUPTILL and the WG and Horse designs are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. Selected artwork in this title appeared in previous DC Comics publications.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Potts, Carl. The DC Comics guide to creating comics : inside the art of visual storytelling / Carl Potts ; foreword by Jim Lee. — First [edition]. Includes index. 1. Comic books, strips, etc.—Authorship. 2. Comic books, strips, etc.—Technique. I. Title. PN6710.P68 2013 741.5′1—dc23 2012050026
ISBN 978-0-385-34472-2 eISBN: 978-0-38534473-9
Text design by Ken Crossland Cover design by Ken Crossland Cover art by Jim Lee (top images, front and back) and Bill Reinhold (bottom) Half-title page: Art by Adam Hughes Title page: Art by Ivan Reis This page and this page: Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides
storytelling medium.
A number of people extended themselves to help make this book a reality. I would like to thank Jim Lee, Patrick Barb, Candace Raney, Josh Anderson, Whilce Portacio, Bill Reinhold, Will Rosado, Phil Jimenez, Denny O’Neil, and Marie Javins! Thanks also to Marco DiLeonardo, Michael Wooten, Fred Ruiz, Shelley Eiber, Jeanette Winley, Wanda Phillips, and Steve Korte for their efforts.
Title Page
Chapter One: Comics and Sequential Visual Storytelling
Chapter Two: Your Brain on Comics!
Chapter Three: Goals and Principles of Sequential Visual Storytelling
Part Two: Affecting the Reader’s Experience
Chapter Four: Reduction, Encapsulation, and Juxtaposition
Chapter Five: All About Panels
Chapter Six: Pages: The Big Picture
Chapter Seven: Where Are We?
Chapter Eight: More Ways to Enthrall Readers
Part Three: Narrative + Art
Chapter Twelve: Watching the Pros Work
FOREWORD Nothing gives me greater pleasure than introducing the art of visual storytelling as presented by my mentor and art guru, Carl Potts. For the most part, everything I learned about creating comics can be divided into two periods: the time BC—also known as “Before Carl”— and the time after, which I call “conquering the deep, dark void.” In years 1 to 22 BC, I struggled to learn the art of visual storytelling. Just because you have a love for reading comics and some innate drawing talent, that does not mean you automatically qualify as a comic book artist. In fact, I think it works against you, because you think you know more than you actually do. You think that you draw better than your least favorite professional artist even if you can’t complete an entire page of panel-to- panel continuity by yourself. Ever. That was me. But somewhere deep inside, I realized I needed to improve. (Because
no one was giving me any work, right?) So I learned all I could about comics and visual storytelling through the few books that were available at the local library. However, it wasn’t until I met Carl through another Marvel Comics editor—the late, great Archie Goodwin—that I started on my true path toward enlightenment in the deep, dark void. Because that’s what art can be when you realize you need to start all over again. You have to drop any artifice or defensive shields (the ones you create to preemptively protect yourself from cruel criticism) and accept the fact that there’s a lot more to this artform than meets the eye. You have to learn the basics all over again. For real this time. With feeling. Wax on, wax off. And that’s where Carl served as my guide. My sensei. My Jedi master.
And teach me he did: everything from “the 22 panels that always work” by Wally Wood to “how not to cross the line.” He gave me telephone book–thick tomes of photocopies from books explaining all the ins and outs of cinematic terminology and visual storytelling. Carl passed along handwritten memos explaining what I did well (not much) and what I did wrong (though constructively polite) as I turned in tryout page after tryout page. Carl laid out several of my biggest projects so that I could
tryout page. Carl laid out several of my biggest projects so that I could work over his thumbnails. I absorbed all those lessons until I thought I was ready to snatch the stone from his hand—the initiation all new artists had to endure and complete to take a place at the vaunted table of professionals. Or maybe it was picking up the burning white-hot urn with your forearms and carrying it to the gates of the dojo. Or maybe he offered me one of two pills in his hands—one blue, one red. I don’t recall that with great accuracy; the endless training has that effect on your mind. But whatever the process, it worked. I emerged a comics professional, trained for the very first time—once again. I joke about the Zen mysticism of the whole process, but in truth, there is much seriousness to it all. I learned a great deal at the hands of my mentor, Carl. The years working with him set the baseline and foundation for much of my work even as I experimented, grew, and broke the very rules I was initially taught. Because the final lesson for all things creative is written thusly: Just because it works for you, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way of doing something. And I think that was Carl’s ultimate lesson imparted to me and one that is triply clear in this fantastic book you hold in your hands. There are rules and lessons to be learned, but comics are called art for a reason. The subjectivity of it is as clear and true as its objectivity, and that relationship is explored and demonstrated clearly in the chapters ahead. What took me years to learn can now be yours to enjoy in mere days. May your own journey in the deep, dark void be short and sweet.
Jim Lee Burbank, California
Art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.
INTRODUCTION From a very young age, I devoured all forms of storytelling, especially visual storytelling. I couldn’t get enough of films, TV, and comic books. As an adolescent, I’d watch Saturday morning cartoons on TV before
heading outside to mow lawns. Most of the money I earned by cutting, raking, and bagging grass clippings quickly found its way into the cash registers of the local stores that carried comics. The works of comics masters Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Joe Kubert,
along with many others, entertained and fascinated me. I read and reread my comics until they began to fray. My early drawings were often inspired by the comics I consumed, but
those sketches consisted mostly of single images. My initial attempts to string together sequences of panels often
resulted in frustration. Connecting panels to tell a story proved much more difficult than generating individual and unconnected drawings. There was something I hadn’t yet grasped about creating comics,
something vital that was related to but distinct from the individual panel drawings and the writers’ words. Although it was in plain sight, this elusive vital element of comic book creation was difficult to pin down. Though my genre and subject tastes expanded as I got older, my
passion for all forms of storytelling, especially comics, remained strong. The thought of becoming a comics creator evolved from a fun fantasy to a career goal. Instead of producing only individual drawings, I again began to try to tell stories in sequential panels.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
I encountered the term visual storytelling in comic book fanzines. It referred to something comic book artists did to present a story in sequential pictures. I’d discovered a term for the elusive element that helped make comics such an exciting medium. There was, however, no clear definition of the term and little information on the process comics creators used to tell clear, dynamic, and compelling tales. This elusiveness resulted because many comics creators use instinct or
their gut feelings when picking which scenes to show and, just as important, which visuals not to show. They also use their creative instincts when framing, cropping, and sizing the selected visuals. Instinct again plays a heavy role when creators pick which angles to use, arrange the sequencing of panels, and decide on the relative emphasis to give each of the visual elements on a comics page. By the time I began my professional career as a comics artist, I was
occasionally able to use some of those sequential visual storytelling instincts. More often than not, I was tapping into the subconscious lessons I’d picked up while consuming the works of comics masters and great filmmakers. Early in my career, while drawing comics for Neal Adams and Dick
Giordano’s Continuity Studios, I also began drawing television commercial storyboards for New York ad agencies. This work forced me to learn to use very clear and straightforward visual storytelling. I started utilizing the techniques I picked up from my storyboard work
when I drew my comics assignments. I could “feel” when the storytelling
when I drew my comics assignments. I could “feel” when the storytelling was or wasn’t right, but I couldn’t always translate the reason into words. When I was hired as a comic book editor at Marvel Comics, it became vital that I communicate clearly with my collaborators to articulate effectively why a visual storytelling sequence was not working and to be able to suggest viable ways to improve the work. I closely examined the techniques that comics storytellers utilized instinctively. I also studied film and TV cinematography techniques and spoke at length with other comics professionals, gaining and sharing insights. In particular, the exchanges I had with Archie Goodwin, Jim Shooter, Jim Starlin, Walter Simonson, and Allen Milgrom contributed to my base of visual storytelling knowledge. Later, several books, including those by Joseph V. Mascelli, Will Eisner, and Scott McCloud, further expanded my knowledge. My thanks and a tip of the hat to all the people named above for helping me grasp and articulate various aspects of sequential visual storytelling more clearly. With the numerous aspects, points of view, and personal aesthetics involved in visual storytelling, the subject continually generates new concepts to explore and opinions to consider. This is true more than ever as tools evolve rapidly, as do print and digital formats for comics. Comics creators who are well versed in the subject of sequential visual storytelling are able to:
• Tell clear, compelling, and entertaining comic book and graphic novel stories • Communicate effectively with their collaborators • Think their way out of creative problems when instinct fails • See new ways of approaching visual storytelling scenarios instead of relying on the approach to which they normally default
Most books on creating comics concentrate on drawing and/or writing. With some notable exceptions, the subject of sequential visual storytelling usually is touched on only briefly. In The DC Comics Guide to Creating Comics: Inside the Art of Visual Storytelling, I will cover all the major creative elements that make
comics, with a primary focus on sequential visual storytelling. The goal of this book is to help comics creators, especially developing artists and writers, quickly gain a solid foundation in the basic principles and techniques of sequential visual storytelling, the art at the heart of comics. If the book helps readers avoid the frustration and lost time that I experienced as a developing comics creator, its mission will have been achieved.
YOUR COMICS PRIMER This selection of books will give you a great overview of most of the creative, historical, and cultural aspects of the comics medium.
The Power of Comics by Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith (Bloomsbury Academic)
The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques by Joseph V. Mascelli (Silman-James Press)
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (William Morrow)
Framed Ink—Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers by Marcos Mateu-Mestre (Design Studio Press)
Art by José Luis Garcia-López and Kevin Nowlan.
Sequential visual storytelling (SVS) is the art at the heart of comics. Without SVS, prose combined with pictures is just an illustrated story. Illustrated stories are great, but if creators want to make comics, they need to learn to incorporate the principles and techniques of SVS into their work.
Many attempts have been made to define what the comic book form is and is not. All sequential visual media, including film, TV, storyboards, and electronic games, have many elements in common. Each medium, however, has its own unique characteristics.
For now, let’s concentrate on the creative elements that have to be present for a work to be considered a comic, whether or not those elements are unique to the comics form. Three key elements combine to make comics:
Narrative + Art + Sequential Visual Storytelling = Comics
Narrative is usually a story, but comics also include mood pieces, character sketches, abstract works, and instructional content. Art in a comic generally consists of drawings, paintings, or photos. Narrative and art without sequential visual storytelling (SVS) is not
comics. SVS is the art at the heart of comics and other sequential visual media. So what is SVS? Basically, it consists of:
• The visuals a comics creator chooses to show (and not show) • The framing, angle, layout, and rendering of the visual elements • The juxtaposition, order, and sequence of the visual elements • The emphasis that the visual elements are given relative to one another
No matter how well they draw, artists who want to create comics need to employ the principles and techniques of SVS in order to tell clear and compelling stories. Pictures, even beautifully drawn pictures, that do not
compelling stories. Pictures, even beautifully drawn pictures, that do not properly relate to one another in a narrative sequence do not make good comics. Comics writers also need to understand SVS in order to generate scripts from which their artist collaborators can easily work. New writers sometimes do not think visually and include inappropriate instructions in their scripts. For example, a naive writer may instruct the artist to show a character rising from a chair, running across a room, opening a door, and then exiting the room—all in one small panel. Unless this is a story that features the Flash and is told with multiple images of the character moving throughout the panel, it will be impractical for the artist to show this set of actions effectively in one panel. Writers steeped in SVS are able to communicate effectively with their collaborators and can tailor their tales to take full advantage of the comics medium. Comics* are an extremely versatile medium. They can target and appeal to any audience demographic.
* In this book, the terms comics and comic books will cover graphic novels and manga as well.
All comics creators need to understand how to visually tell clear and compelling stories.
Photo by E. Potts.
What Are Comics? In his groundbreaking work Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” Note that even though we normally assume that comics are a
combination of words and pictures, McCloud’s definition does not mention words. In visual storytelling media it’s important not to confuse writing with words. A writer can produce a story that is totally “silent,” with no words on the page. Wordless comics are still comics, if they contain a narrative sequence. That said, the comics form generally involves the marriage of words and pictures. The terms comic books and comics are holdovers from the 1930s,
when comics first appeared. Early comics were collections of humor- based newspaper strips. These two terms stuck even when new material that encompassed a wider range of genres and subjects took over the comic book format.
Like other visual storytelling media (film, TV, video games, the Web), comics can tell stories in any
genre and effectively portray almost any subject.
There are, however, some subjects for which the comics format is not particularly well suited. Sometimes the suspense and wonder of seeing an event happen live in front of you is essential to the enjoyment of the performance. In such cases, the comics form may have difficulty capturing and conveying that essential suspenseful live element. When you watch a stage magician live, a major part of the thrill is being fooled and surprised in real time, with no media barriers between your eyes and the magician. Magic shows therefore lose some of their appeal on movie, TV, or computer screens, since there is always the possibility of after-the-fact special effects and editing being used. Therefore, the odds are that you will not see a comic book version of a live stage magic show
or a juggling act or similar performances that rely heavily on the live element.
Comics versus Moving Media Some of the differences between comics and moving media such as film and TV include:
• Still media can only suggest motion. • Moving pictures can show both time and space. • Moving media formats usually have a consistently sized and proportioned frame/screen, whereas comics panels often vary in size and shape.
That last point—the ability to change panel sizes and shapes— gives comics a major storytelling advantage when it comes to visual design, story pacing, and the ability to emphasize or deemphasize a panel’s content.
When we read comics, the brain processes the pictorial and textual information, with both sides of the brain operating simultaneously. We internally verbalize the words while picking up much of the visual content subconsciously, essentially creating a movie in our brains.
Visual Literacy Contemporary society is extremely visually oriented. Soon after coming into the modern world, children are exposed to a wide variety of visual media, including TV, movies, video games, computers, tablets, print and electronic story books, magazines, and billboards. Visual literacy—the deciphering, utilizing, and crafting of visual communications—is often vital to the success of personal or professional endeavors in today’s world. Reading comics requires and helps develop visual literacy. Readers of comic books expect to experience an entertaining story told
in a clear and engaging way. That means comic book creators have to know how to structure a compelling story and create interesting characters and plots. Most important, they have to tell the tale in sequential panels, using visual literacy skills to combine graphics with words.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
The Reader’s Experience Consumers enjoy the reading experience on a gut level, usually without consciously registering:
• Whether they first read the captions/balloons or look at the visuals in a panel • What information they pick up from surrounding panels or adjoining pages within their peripheral vision • What assumptions they make about the story from the limited visuals and words the comics creator has chosen to present
This is how it should be, at least upon the initial reading. If the readers have to stop to sort out some confusing aspect of the visual storytelling, they are taken out of the flow of the story—something comics creators strive to avoid. It is usually during subsequent readings of a comic that the audience begins to look behind the curtain a bit, taking more notice of comics creators’ techniques. Generally, comic book consumers absorb vast amounts of visual
information without being fully aware of it.
Readers pick up a lot of information while reading comics, much of it on a subconscious level. Using
only the visuals, a total novice to comics and the DC Universe can pick up a lot of information, even
from this relatively uneventful splash page from Justice League #3 (November 2011).
Art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.
Reader Control When they were viewing theatrical films and, until relatively recently, television shows, consumers had no control over the pace of their viewing experience. Each person in the audience received a linear experience delivered at the same pace. Even though comics generally are produced to be enjoyed as a linear
experience (this page is read, followed by this page, and so on), comics readers have the option to start, stop, pause (“freeze frame”), go back (review), and jump forward (preview) with ease. Even if all the readers of a particular comic decided to read the story linearly, each reader would still control the pace at which he or she digested the story, drank in the details, and (the creators hope) enjoyed the experience. Comics creators have tools they can use to try to control the readers’
pace through the story, and I’ll share them in Part Two.
The Reductive/Additive Relationship between Artist and Audience A large part of the work of comic book artists is reductive. Out of all the possible scenes, characters, and actions to show the audience to advance the narrative, the artists pick only those they feel do the best job of telling the story. Artists must use their creative sensibilities within the practical limitations of the format to convey the tale. For example, if the script calls for “Wonder Woman leaping over a
car,” the artist can break down the action in several ways. In some cases, these reduction choices are purely creative decisions on
the artist’s part. In other cases, the number of pages the story is restricted to plays a role in the creative decision making. Though most readers experience comics on a gut level, comics creators
should try to understand how the audience processes the reading experience. Doing this will allow the creators to affect the audience more effectively. If, after learning the principles and techniques of SVS, comics creators
prefer to continue to produce their work using only their gut instincts, they can still do that. Then, if the creators run into storytelling problems that their instincts can’t solve, they will have the tools to analyze the work intellectually, ideally leading to a viable solution. The principles and techniques of SVS also can help creators spot areas where they are not taking advantage of the comics form and to communicate better with their collaborators. Learning the principles of SVS also will help beginning comics creators
save a lot of trial-and-error time!
The comics artist can show numerous images of Wonder Woman at every stage of preparing to jump,
jumping, soaring over the car, landing, and continuing on her path, similar to the sequential frames
in a film.
Art by Will Rosado.
Alternatively, the artist can choose to show far fewer selected images of Wonder Woman making the
Art by Will Rosado.
If desired, the artist can show only one frame to visually express the jump over the car. The fewer
figures that are shown, the more important each figure becomes. When using a single figure from a
large sequence, it is vital to select the figure that best captures the full action, the figure that allows
the reader to imagine easily the actions taking place before and after the selected figure.
Art by Will Rosado.
Filling in the Gaps Although the comic artist’s work is reductive, the comics reader’s experience is additive. Relying on the visuals in the comic, the readers have to fill in the gaps—they have to imagine what is taking place in the gutters between panels. The reader fills in what takes place in the gutters by using the
information supplied in the story and, at least in part, by referring to his or her personal experiences. For example, if the artist creates a martial arts fight sequence, a reader with martial arts training may fill in the gaps with mental images that are different from those supplied by someone who has never set foot in a dojo. Similarly, a reader trained in traditional karate may fill in the gaps with visuals different from those of a reader trained in kung fu. To use an imperfect parallel from traditional cel animation, the comics
creator is drawing key frames and the reader is the in-betweener, filling in the action between the key frames the artist created. This additive activity of filling in the gaps sometimes creates
memorable images in the mind of the reader. It is fairly common for comics readers to retain clear images from a favorite comic book story for many years. When the readers finally review the actual comic, they are surprised to find that not all of the visuals they remembered actually existed on the page. The readers mentally generated some of the memorable visuals when filling in the gaps between panels. This demonstrates the power of the comics medium and the power that comics creators have.
If they are presented with the right visuals, properly juxtaposed, readers can fill in the gaps of what
occurs between panels with no conscious effort. On the basis of the two images in this example,
readers can easily imagine the in-between actions as Superman ascends while throwing a punch. In
his groundbreaking book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud refers to the reader’s imagining of
what’s occurring between panels as “closure.”
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Sequential visual storytelling is not an exact art, but there are consistent concepts, goals, principles, and techniques that have evolved.
Be truly objective in judging a new [visual storytelling] method or idea. Try it. If it plays—if it is acceptable—and the audience comprehends and enjoys it—use it. If it simply confuses, teases or even distracts the audience from the narrative—discard it!
—Joseph V. Mascelli
The principles of sequential visual storytelling are not hard and fast rules. Since there are usually multiple ways to meet each principle’s objectives, different artists can draw the same story, each utilizing the principles of SVS, but produce very different interpretations of the story. The principles liberate comics creators to tell their stories as effectively as possible while maintaining each creator’s unique approach, voice, and style. A solid foundation in SVS principles allows creators to experiment
from a base of knowledge instead of from naiveté (a nice word for ignorance!). It is fine to “violate” the principles occasionally as long as doing so is a conscious decision made to impart a specific effect in the service of the story being told. Picasso’s abstract work probably would not have been as powerful or
compelling if he had not had such a solid grounding in representational art. His knowledge of representational drawing gave him a firm base from which to abstract—he knew what he was abstracting from. The same concept applies to experimental SVS. If you know the basic principles, you can experiment in ways that still keep the reader immersed in your narrative. For all three elements that combine to make comics (narrative + art
+ SVS) it is best to keep a balance between the conventional and the inventional. (An inventional approach utilizes unconventional or unexpected panel design, layout, drawing techniques, or other visual approaches.) That means comics creators can utilize the standards and conventions of the comics medium that enable the audience to easily follow and understand the story while occasionally doing something outside the norm as long as it adds to the audience’s experience without being too distracting. I’ll explore the concept of balancing the conventional with the inventional more in Part Three. The overall guiding goal for the sequential visual storyteller is:
Keep the reader immersed in the story or narrative.
The goal is that simple. Executing the work to support that goal is not so simple! There are some key principles that comics creators can observe to help them reach the goal of telling clear and compelling stories.
DC Comics titles like Legion of Super-Heroes strive to keep the reader immersed in the story.
Photo by E. Potts.
Make All Creative Decisions in the Service of the Story.
All the decisions that comics creators make (what to encapsulate and juxtapose from the range of visual storytelling possibilities), along with the executions of the artwork (drawing, design, script, color, lettering, etc.), should support the goal of keeping the reader immersed. When readers enter the world of the story, they suspend their disbelief
and are immersed in the narrative. Creative decisions and executions that are at the expense of storytelling risk taking readers out of the flow of the story and breaking that suspension of disbelief. As Joseph V. Mascelli indicates in the quote at the beginning of this chapter, this should be avoided. The example of confusing panel and content layout shown on this
page is not from a DC comic, but the page layout, panel designs, and figure placement have been re-created faithfully from DC Comics Style Guide art. Only the top third of the page’s content and the middle tier panel outlines have been re-created to illustrate the problems. However, the rest of the page continued with a string of similar issues. Comics artists are sometimes tempted to show off their drawing
abilities at the expense of storytelling. The commercial viability of original art, unfortunately, sometimes plays a role when artists decide what to include on a page. Original comics art pages with large pinup shots of major characters are generally more marketable than “quieter” pages of original art. However, building a page around a large, beautifully rendered pinup
shot of a character when the story needs an establishing shot for a new scene deprives the viewer of information he or she will need later to get a quick and clear understanding of what’s happening in the story. An artist’s top priority should always be to keep the reader immersed
in the story. Inconsistent drawing levels and styles also can interrupt the readers’
immersion. Drawing ability and consistency will be covered in more detail in Part Three.
The panel and content design for this example present a number of confusing eye-path issues for the
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Supporting Principle One: Be Clear Comics creators should make sure that readers:
• Are visually supplied with all the information necessary to stay immersed in the story • Do not have to break their suspension of disbelief to try to figure out where their eyes are supposed to go to next or what the art is portraying • Don’t encounter unnecessary or distracting elements
On occasion, the creator may want to be purposefully unclear or confusing. For example, if a character is delusional or disoriented and the creator wants the reader to experience what the character is going through, the visual content and/or the reader’s eye path can reflect the character’s confusion. Artists should strive to establish the cast, environment, and scenario
clearly and keep the established environments consistent. Unless there is a story reason for making any changes to the environment a surprise to the reader, alterations to a scene setting should be clearly established visually.
This is an establishing shot of Gotham City at night.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
In this reestablishing shot, the same section of Gotham that was shown earlier in the story is now
ablaze. Showing such a large and previously established area of the city on fire makes it immediately
clear that the inferno is not confined to one or two buildings.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
MAKING CHARACTER ACTIONS CLEAR Making the actions of the characters clear to the reader is vital. Whatever action (or inaction) a character is involved in needs to be shown from the correct angle so that the action is immediately clear to the viewer.
shown from the correct angle so that the action is immediately clear to the viewer. If the script calls for a shot of Batman leaping up while holding a Batarang in one hand and his tether line in the other, an artist needs to figure out the best pose and the best angle on that pose to show the action clearly. In the image below, using a DC Direct statue inspired by Tony Daniel’s art from the Batman Black and White series and sculpted by James Shoop, you can view a possible pose from a variety of angles to see which ones best show the action clearly. Many artists do this by imagining a pose and mentally circling around it to see which angle best expresses the action. The first and second angles are both fairly clear, but the first angle looks more dynamic and the shapes of Batman’s head, the arm with the tether, and most of the Batarang are clear. In the third angle you see little of Batman’s body and the cape covers the leaping action, making Batman’s action unclear. The fourth angle is interesting, but Batman’s left arm is aligned with and covering his torso. Also, as a result of the overall similarity in the dark tones of Batman’s costume and equipment, the Batarang’s shape is not clear in this angle since most of the Batarang overlaps Batman’s cape. In the fifth angle, not only is the Batarang’s shape lost but the shape of Batman’s whole head is lost. The first angle looks like the best choice. Part of keeping a character’s actions clear involves keeping the character’s direction on the “stage” consistent. If a character is established moving from right to left within a panel frame, ideally, subsequent panels showing that character’s continuing action will maintain a right-to-left axis. Maintaining this action flow continuity is an important concept that does not get as much attention in comics as it used to. This is due in part to the influence of chaotic, quick-cut, documentary-like music videos and 3D game environments that have affected film, TV, and comics. Part Two will go into this subject in more depth.
You can show action from a variety of angles and distances. Generally, comics artists should pick the
shot that most clearly displays the action to the reader.
Photo by E. Potts.
On this page, Batman’s movement in each panel consistently has a left-to-right bias, making it clear
that he is not changing direction as he travels through this sequence.
Art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams from DC Comics Style Guides.
Supporting Principle Two: Be Invisible Good visual storytelling is usually invisible to the reader. That is, if comics creators are doing their jobs well, the reader will be immersed in the stories and will not be consciously aware of the visual storytelling techniques the comics creators use. Distracting page design or confusing panel layouts that draw too much
attention to themselves may be pleasing for the creator and the viewer on some levels. However, if these techniques draw the reader’s attention away from the story, they can break the reader’s suspension of disbelief and negatively affect enjoyment of the tale. When it comes to making their efforts invisible, comics creators can
look to ballet for a parallel. Accomplished ballet dancers put tremendous effort into their performances. Many of the moves they execute are very stressful and painful. However, the best dancers make their performances look effortless. They do not want the audience to notice how hard they are working or how much pain they feel. Dancers who do show their effort or suffering during a performance may get some sympathy from the audience. However, by drawing attention to their effort, these dancers pull the viewers out of the performance’s beauty and its narrative. Artists sometimes spend a lot of time figuring out the best way to
present a story and make their drawings just right. They can have many frustrating false starts and trash a lot of work before arriving at storytelling decisions and executions with which they are happy. Like great ballet dancers, comics artists should strive to keep the audience from seeing the blood, sweat, tears, strain, and pain they sometimes undergo when performing or creating. If creators do their jobs well, the readers will have no idea of the
difficulties the creators endured while producing the stories. The creators’ choices and execution will appear seamless—seemingly self- evident as the best way to execute the stories! That’s the way it should be.
Supporting Principle Three: Show, Don’t Tell Clearly show all the visual information so that the script does not have to include descriptive information. That way, the script, if any is needed, can concentrate on nonvisual information, additional detail, and subtext. In the example on the following pages, the script calls for the
“Batman rides the Batcycle down a Gotham side street,
straight toward the reader. The sunset sky burns red as a
Gotham police airship hovers just above the building
tops, its searchlight on Batman.”
For most stories, the visual storytelling choices and execution should enable the viewer to tell what is happening from the visuals alone. For most comics, this level of clear visual storytelling is highly desirable. Part of showing and not telling is “setting up and paying off”:
establishing visual elements in the story ahead of time if they will affect the narrative directly. If a character enters a room, the establishing shot should show where everything in that room is in relation to the character and to all the other objects in the room. Included in the establishing shot should be any visual element that will appear later in the sequence. For example, if later in the story a character retrieves a laptop computer that was sitting on his coffee table, the laptop on the table should be included in the scene’s original establishing shot. The mood of a scene or a character can be set up in advance so that it pays off later when that mood more directly affects the narrative.
It is awkward when copy has to cover for information that should have been supplied visually.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
When all the needed information is supplied visually, the copy can concentrate on subtext and/or
information that visuals can’t easily impart.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Art by Bill Reinhold.
For most comics projects, the artist has more power to affect the audience than do his or her counterparts who work in other collaborative visual media. That is the case because the comics artist often serves a number of roles that usually are split up between different people in other visual media, including the: Director Cinematographer Casting director Lighting director Set designer If the artist is also the writer of the comic, he or she serves as the
screenwriter as well. When the artist designs the sound effects, he or she serves as a Foley (sound effects) engineer too. Thus, comics creators, who are not strangers to the concept of power
being coupled with responsibility, have to wield all that visual storytelling prowess for good! Let’s take a look at some of the ways comics creators can affect the ways readers experience their stories.
To a large degree, sequential visual storytelling is accomplished through the creative choices comics creators make regarding reduction, encapsulation, and juxtaposition.
Reduction As stated earlier, a major part of a comics creator’s work consists of selecting “snapshots” from the overall narrative to show the reader. The artist must reduce the possibilities to a visual, or a sequence of visuals, that are encapsulated into panels. Many comics creators rely on instinct to choose which moments to
encapsulate. Relying on instinct alone, however, may cause creators to fall into a storytelling rut, executing similar scenes the same way time after time. Analyzing how and why to encapsulate some parts of a narrative and leave other parts “between the gutters” can help creators stay fresh and innovative. Even if the creator wanted to, showing all the story’s events in relative
real time would be impractical and might result in boring storytelling. For example, in a war story, much of a soldier’s time is spent digging and waiting in foxholes, cleaning weapons, standing guard duty, eating rations, and so on. Relatively little of the scenario’s time span will include the exciting external action of combat or dramatic interpersonal conflict that is usually the focus of the story. That said, important moments in a story often include scenes with
little external action. If they support the story, panels that show landscapes, characters in silent contemplation, or other “quiet” scenes are at least as important as those featuring dramatic external action. For example, it may be important in a war story to show and contrast the extensive periods of inactivity with the bursts of terrifying action. In such cases, the comics creator needs to decide how best to show those mundane moments in a visually interesting way and how much space to devote to them relative to the rest of the story. The storyteller’s goal should be to isolate and show the movements
that best support the narrative and build the story arc. Anything that does not contribute to that goal is possibly superfluous and probably expendable.
Different artists may make different decisions about how to reduce on the basis of their personal
creative preferences: which visuals they feel best convey and propel the story at the pace at which
they want to tell it.
Art by Will Rosado.
When deciding what to show and not show, comics creators have to determine which parts of the
overall narrative are expendable. Sometimes, even in action genres, periods of relative inactivity can
give insights into characters, add mood, and provide a contrast to the scenes of overt action. Such is
the case in this Sgt. Rock scene drawn by the late legendary artist, editor, and teacher Joe Kubert.
Encapsulation Comics creators need to consider a number of factors when deciding what to encapsulate from a narrative. These factors include (but are not limited to): • Advancing the story: – Showing the information necessary to move the plot forward. • Establishing or reestablishing a scene, characters, or other information: – In most cases, the first time a setting is seen in a story or issue, the artist needs to establish the scene’s characters and physical environment clearly. Also, when an established environment or character has not been seen by the reader for a while during the course of an issue, it is good to reestablish that scene or character when the focus returns to that locale or character. This reminds readers of information they may have forgotten and also shows them if there have been changes since the scene or characters were last seen. In addition to the need to establish physical environments, creators
need to establish the mood of the scene. • Suspense/tension: – Does the creator wish to conceal or only partially reveal some information to build suspense?
• Emphasis: – What information should be stressed or made blatant to the reader and what information should be revealed subtly or subconsciously or even withheld?
• Pacing: – At what pace does the creator wish the reader to experience the various aspects of the story?
• Marketing: – Covers and some splash pages are designed, at least in part, to entice the viewer to pick up and purchase a comic. If the writer creates a full script, it is his or her job to make all the
reduction decisions, sorting out which moments to show in each panel. Full scripts include descriptions of the visual contents for every panel on each page, along with all dialogue, captions, and sound effects. This is part of the reason writers need to understand the principles and techniques of sequential visual storytelling. In some cases, writers also make encapsulation decisions, describing how far the “camera” will be from the subject or subjects in the panel, how the shot will be cropped, how the panel will be shaped, framed, lit, and so on. However, in many cases, when working from a full script that does not go deeply into panel descriptions, it is the artist who will make the bulk of the encapsulation decisions. If the artist is also the writer or is working from another writer’s plot (as opposed to a full script), it will be his or her job to decide what to encapsulate and emphasize panel by panel. Doing so involves another group of decisions:
• How close or far will the camera be from the subject(s)? • At what angle will the subject(s) be seen? • Which subjects will be of primary focus and which ones will be secondary? • In what shape and size will the panel be in which the subject is encapsulated? • How will the subject or scene be cropped and framed? • How will the subject be lit and rendered? • What sort of design balance works best?
If artists need to show Superman flying over Metropolis in a single panel, they have to decide how to frame that scene: the angle of the shot, how to crop it, and how much of the page’s “real estate” it will occupy. For this page, the plot calls for five panels:
1. Superman flying over Metropolis in the daytime. 2. Close-up of Superman. Something has caught his attention. 3. A military helicopter is falling from the sky near a bridge. It trails smoke. 4. Superman streaks toward the helicopter 5. He supports the helicopter from underneath, letting it descend safely.
If artists decide to open up the scene to give the reader more of a feeling of scope (and have the page space available to do so), they may use more space and alter the number of panels to achieve this effect. In the version of the page here, the first panel is opened up to give the reader a better feel of the scope of the city scene as Superman flies over Metropolis. The actions in the second and third panels are combined, as are the fourth and fifth panels. The last panel bleeds off the bottom and sides of the page, giving it greater scope and impact. There are numerous ways to get across the same information and to prompt responses in the reader. As long as the story is told in a clear and compelling manner, the decisions on how to encapsulate the content for
compelling manner, the decisions on how to encapsulate the content for each panel are a matter of the artist’s personal aesthetics.
The level of importance artists place on a scene and the number of pages they have to play with both
affect the way artists frame the scene.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
If page count and space allow, the artist (with his or her editor’s blessing) may use larger and/or
more visuals to give the scene a sense of scope, elapsed time, and/or emphasis.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Juxtaposition The artist must combine the encapsulated visuals (panels) into a sequence on the page by juxtaposing them next to one another in a desired order. The order in which the panels are meant to be read should be clear. If
a reader’s eye path does not follow the one that the artist intended, the reader will experience a very different, and probably confusing, story. In addition to juxtaposing the panels, comics creators juxtapose the
copy elements (captions, word balloons, sound effects) with the visuals and with other elements within each panel. The addition of words to a panel creates a juxtaposition that can result
in a range of effects. The juxtaposition of the chosen panels and other visual elements tells
the story for the readers, along with the visual information the readers conjure in their heads when filling in the gaps between the juxtaposed panels.
Sometimes the words are redundant and simply reinforce what the visual shows. Generally, this is
not considered good form and usually is reserved for titles aimed at a young audience or for scenes in
which a point has to be made absolutely clear.
Complementary juxtaposition between art and words creates a fuller “picture” of the scenario for the
reader, going beyond what either the visual or the words could produce alone.
When the juxtaposition is contrasting, the visual and the text generate opposing feelings or present
contradictory information and/or sentiments.
When the juxtaposition appears to be unrelated, having no obvious connection, the reader may
experience confusion, transcendence, profound insight—or make a poetic association.
All images composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
A comics panel is visual content that encapsulates a moment from a larger narrative. Panels usually juxtapose visual content with words.
The edges of a panel are often defined by a border and are usually, but not always, rectangular in
Sometimes a panel will have no border or be contained only partially by a border.
Vignettes are panels containing art that fades at the edges of the visual area.
Inset panels are placed inside or superimposed on the frame of a larger panel.
All images composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Panel-to-Panel Transition Types There are a number of types of transitions that occur between comics panels. These can be used to elicit varying reactions from readers. Comics scholar Scott McCloud established the following categories:
Moment-to-moment: These types of transitions require very little closure on the part of the viewer.
Closure refers to the action taking place between panels that is imagined by readers.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Action-to-action: Following the action of the same subject or subjects from panel to panel.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Subject-to-subject: Switching the focus from one subject to another within the same general scene.
Requires more work from the viewer to achieve closure.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Scene-to-scene: Transitions across large distances of time and space can require a lot of work on the
part of the viewer to generate closure. Such transitions are often aided by captions or dialogue.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Aspect-to-aspect: Panels focusing on different elements of an idea, scene, mood, and so forth.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Non sequitur: These transitions do not have an immediate logical connection between the content of
their panels.
Panel 1: Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Panel 2: Art by Carl Potts.
Neil Cohn, a visual language researcher, identified several more transition categories:
Inclusionary transitions use panels within panels and/or concepts within concepts to draw attention
to elements that are part of a larger panel.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
In overlay transitions, a superimposed visual element affects several panels. The superimposed
element can be a panel, an isolated object, or copy (balloon, caption, sound effect). In this case, the
falling Green Lantern ring overlaps all three panels and is the focus of the different characters
appearing in each panel.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Embedded transitions follow multiple images of the same subject through a single panel scene. This
example has no panel borders separating each incarnation of Clark Kent’s transition to Superman
within the overall scene.
Art by Phil Jimenez.
In this great example of an embedded transition, top Hollywood storyboard artist and graphic
novelist Marcos Mateu-Mestre uses panel borders, breaking up the character’s descent of the fire
Art by Marcos Mateu-Mestre from his book Framed Ink. © Design Studio Press.
Panel Sizes The size and shape of a panel can affect the reader’s impression of elapsing time, the importance of the panel’s contents, and the panel-to- panel transition category that is taking place.
If a panel is preceded by and/or followed by smaller panels, it implies that the larger panel contains
the most important or dramatic information in that sequence of panels.
Long horizontal panels can give the impression of a slow pace due to the relatively long distance our
eyes travel between left and right panel edges.
Thin vertical panels give the impression of a fast pace as a result of the relatively short distance the
eyes move between the left and right panel edges.
Of course, the panel content can have a dramatic effect on the sense of time. The use of a series of
long vertical format panels, showing the same tree as it changes through the four seasons, indicates
time passing very slowly despite the short horizontal space in each panel.
In the classic epic Watchmen, the artist Dave Gibbons often used pages composed of nine panels in three tiers, with each tier having three identically sized panels. This set a very even “pace” for most of the story. It also made the instances where Gibbons varied from the nine-panel grid greatly affect the reader’s sense of the story’s pacing, as well as the importance of each panel’s content.
A grid of nine identically sized/shaped panels is used for keeping a steady pace.
In this example, differing panel sizes are used to show things slowing down, speeding up, and finally
slowing down to end on a long beat.
Panel Borders Different panel borders and gutters can give various impressions. The border’s meaning often is affected by the panel contents and vice versa. Some possible impressions that borders can imply: normality, emphasis or importance, casualness, fantasy/dream, explosiveness (emotionally or physically).
The same visual juxtaposed with different border styles can alter readers’ impressions of the content.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Panel Arrangements on the Page Making sure that page and panel designs are in tune with the readers’ natural eye path is vital. The reader should be able to follow the panel- to-panel sequence intuitively. There may be rare cases in which a comics creator will purposely
arrange panels in a way that confuses the reader’s eye path for a specific storytelling effect, such as imparting the same sense of disorientation that a character in the story is experiencing. However, in most cases in which the eye path on a page is confusing, the artist was careless, assuming that his or her thought process when laying out the page would be clear to the reader.
In the West, the eye path is from left to right and then top to bottom.
Stacking panels on the left side of the page creates uncertainty in the readers about where their eyes
are supposed to go next.
OVERLAPPING PANELS When needed or desired, overlapping can help lead the eye or establish connections. Panels, objects, copy, and sound effects can overlap on the page.
In a pinch, overlapping helps direct the eye onto the correct path when the panel arrangement on the
page does not make the eye path clear on its own. Such overlapping is, however, an inelegant
solution and is best avoided by not stacking panels on the left side of the page.
INSET PANELS Inset panels are placed inside or overlap a main panel to add emphasis, focus on detail, cut to a parallel action, and/or alternate the point of view.
Make sure the placement of inset panels works with the reader’s instinctual eye path.
Types of Shots There are many considerations in deciding how best to present the visual content for each panel in a sequential narrative. As Joseph V. Mascelli states in The Five C’s of Cinematography, “Proper
camera angles can make the difference between audience appreciation and indifference. Every change in camera angle should count. Visual variety should be the keynote, so that the audience is kept interested in what’s happening and what will happen next.”
DISTANCE Here, categorized by the distance of the subject to the camera, are some generalizations about the different types of shots that are used to encapsulate. Keep in mind that these are broad generalizations and that there are countless situations in which these various distance categories are used in different ways in the service of clear and compelling storytelling. However, in trying to figure out a way to approach encapsulating the visual elements specified in a script, these broad guidelines may prove helpful.
Long Shots Generally used to establish or reestablish a scene, long shots show as much of an environment as is needed to establish where all the objects and characters are in relation to one another. These shots set up where the following sequence takes place and serve as a map of the scene so that no matter where the camera moves in succeeding panels or where the characters move within the environment, the environmental elements will be consistent.
Artists often use long shots to establish a scene, showing where everything and everyone is in
relation to each other. In this case readers are introduced to Batman (in full figure) seemingly alone
in the Batcave. He looks determined and serious as he marches down the stairs. Readers don’t see
the whole Batcave yet, but they see enough to tell it’s a large unfinished natural cavern with
installations of modern industrial style work areas and equipment, including a gargantuan computer
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Often, there will be more than one establishing shot at the beginning of a scene: one from a very long distance (the exterior of a building situated in its surroundings) and a closer shot in which the characters are established within the environment (often a room within the building). Occasionally, the order is reversed. When the story returns to a previously established scene after being away from that scene for a while, it is helpful to reestablish the scene with another long shot. A reestablishing long shot lets the viewers know where they are without the need for a caption and reveals any changes the environment may have sustained since it was last seen.
Sometimes two long/establishing shots are used to introduce the scene. Here readers are introduced
to the fact that Wayne Manor sits atop the Batcave.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Medium Shots Often used to show action, medium shots are closer to the subject or subjects in a panel. When people are the subject of a medium shot, they usually are shown from at least midthigh to the top of the head, if not in full figure. Medium shots can therefore show characters in action very clearly, assuming the artist is depicting the action from a suitable angle. Action does not just mean large, dynamic physical actions; it can refer
to much more subtle acts, such as picking up a pen, walking across a room, or pulling on a shirt.
Medium shots often are used to show action clearly. That’s why many of the shots used in sports
coverage, especially instant replays of major game actions, are from a medium depth. Here
Catwoman leaps down onto the computer console in near full figure.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Close-Up Shots Close-ups are great for showing reaction or detail. When the focus is on the characters, close-ups can be shots focusing on the midtorso to the top of the head or can be panels that focus totally on the head or face. When the shot is so tight that the face fills the frame, or close to it, it is called an extreme close-up. Close-ups also are used to show detail, including such things as the
writing on a notepad, small items kept in a desk drawer, and the buttons on a cell phone.
Artists often use close-ups to show characters’ reactions to a preceding event. Here we get an
unexpected reaction out of Batman to Catwoman’s invasion of his secret sanctuary.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
In extreme close-ups, a face or the panel’s subject fills most or all of the panel.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Sequences By properly combining these basic types of shots—long/establishing, medium/action, and close-up/reaction—comics creators generate panel sequences that range from simple to very complex.
Artists can juxtapose the three basic distance shot categories to create narrative sequences. Here we
begin with exterior and interior establishing shots, move on to a medium action shot, and finish with
a close-up reaction shot.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
POINT OF VIEW Comics creators can show the readers the story world through two different sets of “eyes.”
Objective Shots Most panels are from an objective view, meaning the camera is placed wherever in the environment the comics creator deems appropriate and is unseen by any character. It is the eye of an invisible observer.
Most shots are objective, from the point of view of an invisible and omnipresent observer.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Subjective Shots When the contents of a panel are seen through the eyes of (or over the shoulder of) a character, they are called subjective shots. They are taken from the point of view (POV) of a particular character.
Subjective shots let the reader experience what the character is seeing. As long as a POV sequence of
panels is maintained, the reader can see only what the character sees and is unaware of whatever the
character cannot see.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
HEIGHT ANGLES Several categories are used to describe the height level of the camera when composing a shot. The term angle also refers to the position from which the camera is
seeing a subject, irrespective of height.
High Angle Shots When it is looking down on a subject, a panel is categorized as being a high-angle or bird’s-eye view shot.
High angles give the impression of a godlike perspective on the characters and environment. They
also can create steep perspective and foreshortening (drawing an object to appear shorter than it
actually is, when angled toward the viewer).
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Medium Angle Shots If the camera and the horizon line of a panel are near the center of the frame, it is a medium-angle shot.
Medium angles present a fairly objective view of the scale of various characters and objects. Subjects
advancing or receding in distance still create foreshortening.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Low Angle Shots In a low-angle or worm’s-eye view shot, the scene is seen from a very low level.
Low angles can cause steep foreshortening and make characters and objects look tall and imposing.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
Tilt Angle Shots In a tilt shot, the horizon line is shifted so that it’s no longer at a 90- degree angle to the page. This can instill a sense of suspense or unease.
Creators should use tilt angles sparingly since their overuse will kill their uniqueness and become
annoying to the reader.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
MOVES Comics do not create the illusion of movement that film and TV do. However, sequential comics panels can emulate some of the camera moves used in moving media.
Zoom Shots When a series of panels progressively move in on a subject, it is called zooming in. If the sequence goes in reverse order, with the subject progressively getting farther away from the camera, it is called zooming out. Zoom shots can be either objective or subjective.
Zooming in or out on a subject in a multipanel sequence can add extra mood, action, or emotional
emphasis to a scene. Zooms can focus on still or moving subjects.
Art by Will Rosado.
Tracking Shots If, in a series of panels, the camera moves within an environment, it is called a tracking shot.
Tracking shots often are used to follow a moving subject through an environment, as seen in this
example from Sgt. Rock.
Art by Joe Kubert.
Pan Shots If the camera pivots in place, revealing a series of shots in an arc, it is called a pan shot.
When the camera pivots in place during a sequence, it is creating a pan shot. The above example is
also from Sgt. Rock.
Art by Joe Kubert.
Montage A montage consists of visuals from different scenes, usually borderless vignettes, arranged together in a panel or on a whole page. Ideally, the visual elements should be arranged in a way that leads the
viewer’s eye through the various vignettes. A montage is often used to review a lot of history or information or
summarize previous events quickly. Sometimes a montage is used to give the impression of a character experiencing information overload, hallucinations, or dreams.
The top and bottom sections of this two-page spread from Batwoman #1 (September 2011) are
Art by J. H. Williams III.
Combinations Each page in a story contains a combination of panel categories.
On this page from Batman #3 (November 2011), penciller Greg Capullo employs a nice variety of
Creating pages containing a series of juxtaposed panels requires a strong sense of design to keep the audience immersed in the narrative.
Story Pages Each page of a story usually contains multiple panels arranged in a way that:
• Propels the story forward in a clear and compelling way • Keeps the reader’s eyes moving in the correct path • Is a semi-self-contained unit of design • Is also part of a larger sequence
The key is to make the reader’s eye path clear while telling the tale in a way that
compels the reader forward.
In Swamp Thing #1 (September 2011), artist Yanick Paquette uses stable rectangular panels as the
story begins in the city. He then uses a variety of more complex panel sizes, shapes, and
arrangements as he introduces the supernatural elements.
Script by Scott Snyder, art by Yanick Paquette.
Inventional Panel Arrangements Sometimes an unusual panel arrangement can help convey information effectively.
The trick to inventional panel/page design is to use an unusual arrangement that does the
storytelling job without being overtly disrupting to the reader’s experience.
Script by W. Haden Blackman and J. H. Williams III, art by J. H. Williams III.
J. H. Williams’s two-page spread from Batwoman #12 (August 2012) is another example of his
inventional visual storytelling. Searching within a fun-house mirror maze where warped reflections
mirror their confusion, the characters literally circle around the same issue that Wonder Woman is
tackling elsewhere. The panel layout, along with the arrows built into the fun-house floor, ensures
that the reader’s eye path is clear.
Script by W. Haden Blackman and J. H. Williams III, art by J. H. Williams III.
Covers The biggest marketing tool a comics creator or publisher has is the cover. A cover should entice potential buyers to grab that comic and take it to the checkout, whether in physical shops or online. Usually, the cover has to grab the potential buyer’s attention while
competing with numerous other covers surrounding it on physical or virtual racks. Cover content usually falls into several categories.
A dynamic or dramatic scene from the story contained in the comic.
Art by Tony Daniel and Julio Ferreira.
A symbolic cover that presents the characters and/or a situation that may or may not relate directly
to the story inside that issue. Pinup-type shots of characters in dramatic poses or engaged in a
dynamic physical action fall into this category.
Art by Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund.
A montage of elements from the interior story.
Art by Walter Simonson.
The cover for each issue of a title needs to have some consistency so that regular readers can easily find each month’s new issue on the racks. The consistency should include the logo design. However, the covers for a series should be different enough so that covers for successive issues are not confused with one another. If two covers in a row feature a pinup-style shot of the lead character
or characters in a similar action pose, colored in a similar fashion, buyers scanning the racks may assume they have bought the latest issue of that title even when that is not the case. Unless there is a compelling creative or marketing reason not to,
logos, while retaining the same design in every issue, should vary in
coloring from issue to issue. This helps prevent the “I already have that issue” mistake from happening, especially on some styles of physical racks where only the upper parts of the cover are viewable. If there is a trend in the market to do covers with lots of detailed backgrounds and highly rendered dark coloring, a cover that has lots of light, open negative space will stand out. If the store racks are filled with lots of covers displaying medium shots of characters in combat, a cover featuring a really great close-up of a lead character (especially if that character has a captivating expression) can help a comic stand out. In most cases, a comics creator or editor can’t tell in advance what the competitive comics cover landscape will be like when a particular issue hits the racks. Therefore, while maintaining a consistent logo design, it’s a good idea for the art on the covers of an ongoing series to vary the types of shots, design balance, level of positive/negative space, and color palette from issue to issue. That way the consumer can easily differentiate the various issues of a title.
Sometimes a big event taking place across a number of titles will prompt a publisher to use a similar
layout, or trade dress, across the associated titles. This makes it easier for buyers who are trying to
obtain all the issues involved in the event.
Characters, vehicles, and other subjects often are shown moving through environments in sequences composed of numerous panels. Making sure the direction in which a subject is moving remains clear can be tricky when a wide variety of shots and angles are employed over a sequence of panels. There are techniques comics creators can use to keep those subjects and the reader properly oriented.
Map Orientation Sequential visual storytelling media use rectangular formats, usually in the form of horizontal rectangles. The audience has grown up looking at rectangular maps where north
is at the top, south on the bottom, east to the right, and west to the left. Viewers of visual storytelling media have this map orientation stored in their subconscious, and creators of visual narratives can use it to their advantage. If it’s important to the story that the character, the vehicle, or any
subject is traveling in a specific compass direction, comics creators can position that object in the frame to reflect that direction. This will resonate with the map orientation in the audience’s heads. For example, cinematographers and directors of old Western films
usually showed wagon trains moving west with a right-to-left bias within the frame, echoing the western direction of a map.
Subconsciously, most of the audience associates a north-on-top directional orientation with
rectangular formats.
Wagon trains departed from Missouri and headed west toward California and Oregon. That is why, in
many Western films, the wagons are shot heading to the left, or west.
Art by Will Rosado.
If the wagons gave up and headed back east, the directional bias of the wagons’ movement would
change to left-to-right.
Art by Will Rosado.
It’s usually best to keep the action direction in a scene consistent. If a right-to-left flow is established in a scene, all subsequent shots in that scene should follow the right-to-left direction unless a new direction is clearly established. When the action moves directly toward or away from the viewer, it is
called a neutral shot. Neutral shots can be used in any sequence, no matter which direction has been established for the scene’s action bias. However, when using a neutral shot, it is best to establish the action flow bias before the neutral shot or shots and then reestablish the action’s bias after a neutral shot or shots.
All shots in a sequence of a wagon moving west—long, medium, and close-up—should maintain the
right-to-left action bias.
Art by Will Rosado.
Directionally neutral shots show action moving directly toward or directly away from the camera.
Note that in this panel, even though the horses are moving directly away from the viewer, the dirt
trail they follow bends from right to left, maintaining the sequence’s action flow bias.
Art by Will Rosado.
Action Flow Continuity Action flow continuity involves establishing and maintaining the movement direction of characters, vehicles, and other objects in the story environment. Even when the viewer doesn’t consciously register contradictory
action flow, it can be unsettling on an unconscious level. If, in a story, a character madly dashes around, looking all over for
something in a chaotic fashion, showing the character changing direction from panel to panel in the frantic search sequence is actually good storytelling. Otherwise, it is best to establish and maintain each character’s action flow continuity. In film and TV, this concept is referred to as the 180-degree rule. When filming on a stage or a set, filmmakers usually establish a line,
an action axis that runs through the scene. To keep the action flow continuity consistent, they keep the camera on one side of the action axis. They do not cross the line. It can help to think of the scene as being on a theater stage. The action
axis runs along the rear wall of the stage, and so moving the camera beyond that line is impossible.
It’s important to maintain the proper action flow continuity when characters head toward each other
for a clash. In the first sequence, Batman and Killer Croc head toward each other, resulting in their
meeting and clashing. In the second example, inconsistent action flow in the panels leading up to
the clash makes it unclear if they are headed toward each other.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
If a character is established moving from right to left in a panel, succeeding panels should maintain
that right-to-left bias. If, during a series of panels, the character’s movement keeps changing, it can
cause confusion for the readers. They may wonder if the character has changed direction even if that
was not the comics creator’s intent.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
If Batman is pursuing Killer Croc, then, as is shown in the first example above, both characters should
maintain the same action direction bias in the sequence. If the inconsistent action flow of the second
example is used, it is unclear if one character is in pursuit of the other or if they are headed toward or
away from each other.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
The gray area on the floor shows the semicircle that gives the 180 degree rule its name. The flat side
of the gray area is the action axis. As can be seen by the positions of cameras 1, 2, and 3, filmmakers
generally do not move the camera over the action axis. If a camera moves beyond the action axis
(camera 4 view), it makes the characters or objects in the environment switch the side of the screen
they are facing. Camera 4’s view makes it appear as though Batman is running away from his foe.
Composed using art assets from DC Comics Style Guides.
In a sequence in which the subject is established as moving in one direction, the Batmobile traveling
right to left in this case, all the shots in the sequence, no matter what the distance or angle, should
ideally maintain the established direction or be directionally neutral.
Art by Will Rosado.
When the action flow direction is not maintained, it can give the readers the impression (consciously
or subconsciously) that the subject is changing direction.
Art by Will Rosado.
ESTABLISHING A CHANGE IN DIRECTION If in the course of a story a character or vehicle changes direction in its environment, it is best to show that change clearly. Ideally, comics artists should show the turn relative to the previous direction and establish the new direction.
establish the new direction.
When a subject changes direction in a story, the artist should show the turn (third panel) and
establish the subject’s new directional bias.
Art by Will Rosado.
REVERSE ANGLES There are times when the camera has to travel across the action axis. In those cases, there are ways to minimize any disconcerting effects on the readers.
Often, these reverse angles are done during sequences with multiple characters conversing while sitting and facing the same direction. They may be seated next to each other in a restaurant booth, in a car, on a train, in a plane, or on a sofa. After establishing the action direction, focus on a character who is facing the established direction. Then reverse the angle (hop to the other side of the action axis) to focus on another character when he or she is speaking or is otherwise the focus of the shot. End the sequence by reestablishing the original action flow direction. Including reverse angles in sequences that are “bookended” by shots of the established action flow direction helps keep the audience directionally oriented.
When it is done carefully, action flow continuity can be maintained while incorporating reverse
Art by Will Rosado.
If possible, when using reverse angles, keep the characters on the same sides of the panel as was
established originally. In both of these panels, even though they are on opposite sides of the action
axis, Robin remains on the left of the panel and Batman stays on the right.
Art by Will Rosado.
MORE OBSERVATIONS ON DIRECTIONAL CONTINUITY There are several other ways visual storytellers can think about and utilize action flow. Using the action direction in a picture to help tell a story is a very old
concept. Alternatively, a creator might have all the protagonists in a story move with that natural left-to-right eye flow until the protagonist experiences a defeat, hits an obstruction, or experiences a reversal in his or her journey. When that occurs, the character changes direction and moves from right to left in the frame—against the natural eye path. The antagonists in the story would move in the direction opposite to that in which the protagonists move. This is an interesting approach, but it can be too restricting. Whatever action flow approach the artist uses, the action flow continuity should be a conscious and consistent effort and not haphazard. Do whatever works to tell the story in a clear and compelling way.
Cultural Considerations As readers of Japanese manga are aware, in some cultures, people are trained to read from right to left before reading from top to bottom. Thus, if a comics creator is producing work for a foreign audience, it is a good idea to check on the reading conventions of that culture.
THE IMPORTANCE AND RELEVANCE OF ACTION FLOW CONTINUITY TODAY Maintaining action flow continuity may be more important in moving media than it is in still media. It is, however, a concept that many comics artists and editors do not pay enough attention to. Unless there is a conscious decision by a comics creator to violate
action flow continuity for a reason he or she feels supersedes the need to maintain that continuity, it is best to practice consistent action flow. Why might a comics creator purposely go against the established
action flow bias in a sequence? One possibility is that the artist felt that prompting the reader to the next panel or the next page by using the direction of a panel’s action flow was more important than maintaining the action flow continuity within a sequence. In recent years, the use of—or even the knowledge of—action flow
continuity or the 180-degree rule has diminished. This seems to be the case across all sequential visual media. At one point, maintaining action flow continuity was such a priority
that if a film director screwed up the action bias while shooting, film editors would flop (create a mirror image of) the inconsistent shots to make the sequence consistent. However, doing that could generate other problems. A left-handed character might suddenly use his right hand for a while, or a character with a scar on one side of her face might appear to have a scar that migrated from one side of the face to the other and back! In such situations, the editor had to choose which was the lesser of two evils—inconsistent action continuity or the issues created when a mirror image was made of the negative.
Sometimes artists feel it is important to urge the reader to go to the next page by having the action in
the last panel of a page move from left to right.
Script by Grant Morrison, art by Rags Morales and Rick Bryant.
Why is action flow continuity/the 180-degree rule not observed as much today as in decades past? Here are some possibilities:
• Classic visual storytelling and cinematography skills are not taught as often or passed on by mentors as much as in the past. • When viewing modern GPS, radar, or sonar and when experiencing 3D
• When viewing modern GPS, radar, or sonar and when experiencing 3D game environment maps, the direction at the top of the frame or screen is whatever direction the user is headed at the moment. Thus, if a driver is headed south, the top of the GPS screen will be south, not north. This may gradually create an audience that can cope with some action continuity inconsistencies better than could those in the past. • Film/video making technology and the “surface flash” of quick cuts and other film/video techniques that help generate visual excitement seem to have taken precedence. MTV got hot in the mid-1980s by showing music videos, and many of the video directors used a documentary approach married to exciting surface flash techniques.
However, unless there is a compelling reason not to observe consistent action flow continuity in any visual storytelling medium, it should be maintained. Doing this will help readers stay oriented on the conscious and subconscious levels.
If a mirror image is created of a character to make it conform to the established action flow bias,
sometimes problems arise. A character with an asymmetrical costume design, as is the case with
Firestorm’s chest icon (correct in the left-hand image), will have his or her costume design flopped. If
a character normally carries a weapon in the right hand, creating a mirror image will cause the
weapon to switch hands.
In addition to everything covered so far, comics creators have even more techniques at their disposal for affecting readers.
Visual Metaphors or Themes If they are used in an artful way, design metaphors or visual themes can add an extra layer of creativity to visual storytelling. This may involve using a visual element or elements that repeat
throughout the work to foreshadow or reinforce a specific mood or event. Creators can use weather, lighting, color, setting, panel border design, lettering, and other visual elements to do this. Water, especially falling water as seen in dreary rainy weather and
tears, is a common metaphor for sadness in film, TV, and comics. Sometimes it’s interesting to go against the usual or clichéd
expectations of the audience. If rain and tears are typically associated with depressing situations, try turning that expectation on its head. Visual storytellers also can use falling water as a symbol of rebirth and joy, as when spring showers help grow a lush green landscape or when tears flow as a mother and child are reunited. It’s usually better to be restrained when using design metaphors than
to go over the top, hitting the readers over the head with your cleverness and drawing attention from the story instead of enhancing it. In his Batman Black and White story “Good Evening, Midnight,” Klaus
Janson used several visual metaphors and themes. Food was used as a symbol of love at the beginning and end of the story. Each of the three settings in the tale had its own distinct weather. Echoing throughout the story are parents’ hopes for and fears about the vulnerability of their children. (See Chapter 15 of Janson’s The DC Comics Guide to Pencilling Comics to learn more about his thoughts and process for creating this story.)
Klaus Janson’s “Good Evening, Midnight” uses visual metaphors and themes to enhance the
effectiveness of the story.
Script and art by Klaus Janson.
Action/Reaction During sequences with two or more characters interacting, whether they are in a conversation or a shootout, some comics creators tend to cut back and forth between the characters, rarely showing both or all of the characters in the same shot. If the sequence does not include shots with both or all characters in
the same panel, it becomes difficult for readers to know where the characters are in relation to each other and the environment. For example, in a gunfight between two characters, if the artist does
not occasionally show where both shooters are in relation to each other and the environment, it will not be clear how far away the shooters are from each other, what environmental objects are nearby, or where the characters are moving within the environment as the scene progresses. Related to