How To Make Your Comic Better – 1

I want to start sharing some of the stuff I’ve picked up along this journey of creating comics. I’m no master, and so I must eagerly recommend you check out such amazing resources as Words for Pictures by Brian M. Bendis and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and basically every resource you can get your hands on– always read, always learn, always strive to improve!– but even so, I think it might be of some worth to share some real, on-the-ground indie comics experience with my readers.

At the Panel One convention this year, I was privileged to have a table beside Steve Colle, who among other things is an editor for comics. He had a great set-up on his table with laminated, published comic pages and a grease pencil- and invited folks to circle what they thought was wrong with the comics pages. It was a great game designed to help us see the page better, to really understand what we were looking at. I felt like I learned more listening to Steve in one day than I had absorbed in a year!

As a writer, I have to plan a page in my mind, see the flow of action and ensure that what I write is going to make sense visually. However, I don’t control the outcome as such: that’s the artist’s purview, and hopefully they and I have reached that magical telepathy that lets us each understand what the other meant. In a best-case scenario, the page I get back is a wonderful fusion of what I intended blended with the artist’s unique flavour and vision.

Sometimes though, it needs tweaking. I need to stress that this is not a failure on anyone’s part– it’s a progression. It’s step three of the process:  Write, Draw, Edit. If you don’t think your work could benefit from editing, you’re fooling yourself.

Let’s look at today’s Hello, Punch! page.  Here is the script I wrote:

As you can see, my panel breakdowns (in blue) are minimal. Because Jeremy and I have worked together for a long time, and because he knows the character of Punch, I only use a very light amount of “stage direction” for the purpose of narrative flow.

“Punch dodges the bullets.” As the writer, I don’t need to obsess over how he does it. I’ll leave that up to the artist to decide. I have faith in my partner – my ARTner- to deliver something suitable and cool.

“Punch’s eyes glow and his hands light up with magical energy.”  What’s that look like?  Who knows? All I care about is that his eyes are magical, and his hands are the direction and focus of what’s about to happen on the next page.

As the writer, I know I will be referencing Punch’s eyes a lot throughout his story; he’s the type of character who talks directly to the audience, looks directly at the camera, hypnotizes with his eyes.  They’re important, they’re core to who he is.  His hands are the device that directs what he’s thinking into becoming reality, and the way the audience sees how things happen, how they begin with Punch and end up with an effect.  So: eyes and hands are mentioned, but the execution of them is up to the artist.

This is the first draft of the page Jeremy sent:

As you can see, all the elements are there. Punch dodges the bullets. Runs down an alley, turns with a “ready” stance at the end – and doesn’t it just look like this was his plan all along? Great visual, here. And then- the payoff that is also a cliffhanger.  Close-up, his eyes are holding the reader, while his hand floats in the foreground.  Love it!

But there are a few problems:

One, this is a black and white comic; we won’t get to use colour to make things pop, fade out the background, highlight, accent, differentiate. We have to deal with what we’ve got right in front of us.

Panel one looked confusing to me.  As the writer I knew that Punch was dodging bullets, but that doesn’t come across very clearly from a visual standpoint.  There seemed to be TWO Punches, each with an almost equal footing in the visual “real estate.”

I double-checked with Jeremy what his intent was, to see if I was interpreting it correctly: the bottom Punch was actually the foreground Punch, and the top Punch was in the background, and was the Punch from a second ago before he dodged.

I felt that all the action lines were a problem; they created a flurry of confusing motion for the reader (to the point where we almost miss the actual bullets whizzing by his head).

So I tried a bit of a Photoshop edit to see if I could clean up the panel.  Here’s what I came up with:


I faded the background Punch, to make him look more like an afterimage; I added grey tones to his make-up to help his face “pop” a bit; I also removed all the lines from the foreground Punch to make him look more solid, more present, more “now” and in the moment.
  Jeremy came back with this suggestion. Note how the grayscale gradient in the back helps the characters pop and implies motion. However, I still felt that the action lines on the foreground Punch visually confused him with the background Punch.
   Finally, we decided to use inks instead of grey tones for foreground Punch; I coloured in his hat and Jeremy coloured in his coat and fingernails to give him a strong, anchored, “present and in the now” feel.

Too, the motion lines around his shoulders and under his arms are now more visible.

….and also I realized that the fist behind his right shoulder should be faded as well.  Whoops! Editing, kids. Sometimes you get so close to your own work that you stop being able to see things- a second set of eyes always helps!

We gave similar consideration to the other three panels, and we ended up with the page we published today. Here it is again for your consideration:

I think you’d agree that this was worth the journey; visually, Punch is now much more the central character, all in black; the “phantom Punch” in panel one has been relegated to the background (with a bit of narration panel placed over him to further de-emphasize his visual importance); and the all-important fourth panel has a full complement of rich black and intense greys that keep us focussed on the character.

I’m sure there are other ways this could be improved, and perhaps even better ways than Jeremy and I discovered here; but the point of my sharing this with you is to show you my process, share what I’ve discovered, and hopefully inspire you for your own work (which I then hope you will share as well)!

Good luck, and keep creating!


2 thoughts on “How To Make Your Comic Better – 1

  1. Thank you for sharing this with us! This is so insightful. I always love to see different people’s processes when it comes to writing, art, any sort of creating.

    1. Thanks, Sara– I’m the same way! Especially with those other indie creators who are on similar journeys in their own work!

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