Catching a Vision 021
Writing III: Composition and
Catching a Vision, the weekly column on Comic Related from C. Edward Sellner, Founder and Creative Director of Visionary Comics Studio. CAV provides practical guidance on how to break into the comics industry, as well as insights into this medium we all love. With resources you can order online, interviews and debates with comic professionals, and online workshops, this is your best introduction into the wonders of creating comics!
Welcome back to CAV! I'm grateful for you taking some time to check this column out in the midst of the media frenzy over a certain little acquisition this week. I'll have more to say about that at the end of the column, but for now, let's continue our focus on writing. Last time, I talked about some of the mechanics of writing comics, especially how mindful comic writers need to be of the finished product. I then talked a good deal about the single panel of a comic script. Let's crank it up a notch as we take a look at the art of composition and the page.
By the Way...
It's obviously impossible to focus on one arena of comics without often looking at the other ones. For example, in the last edition, I talked about art a good bit, how it shows or implies movement etc. My purpose there was to remind the writer about the strengths and weaknesses of static images in telling a dynamic story. It's important that a writer be mindful of such. Some of these I will bring up again, and focus on in much more depth when I get to penciling the script.
Likewise, there are some important aspects of writing comics that are a bit more general than focusing on a single panel or page that I will focus on a bit later in this series.
That said, onward and upward...
One of the most central elements to any good art is composition. Composition is the use of elements in the art to create a unified piece that carries the desired mood, tone, and feel. Tools the artist uses for composition can include layout, space and negative space, light and dark, shading and texture, weight, lines of flow and direction, color palette, etc.
Composition is something the good comic artist is always thinking about in the process of drawing a comic. They have to focus on elements of composition on the level of each panel, each page and the overall book because in a sense, each of those represents a 'piece' of art.
The panel itself is a single, static image conveying a beat of a larger story. In a sense, the panels in a comic are a collection of small portraits of art, each with their own artistic value. But it doesn't end there.
Visually, as a reader's eye falls on the comic, their first connection is with the full page of the comic (or screen for web-comics). If, even at just a glance, they see the page itself as a collective piece of art. They will then zero in to read that page, to move through it, but before they can do that, they have to be aware of the page as a whole. How well that page is composed will impact both the reader's desire to zero in and move through that page as well as the ease in which they can do just that.
Likewise, certain motifs, tricks, visual plays, layouts and setups can be used throughout a book to give it a cohesive and unified feel. In the Death of Superman final battle, Dan Jurgens intentionally used full page splashes for every page of the ultimate battle, to re-enforce the scale and scope of the story. Likewise, Watchmen used a lot of nine-panel grids that helped enhance the oppressive, constrained world in which the Watchmen lived. In both cases, this element of composition became something of a trademark for those stories.
The artist obviously is going to give thought to the composition elements of the panel, page, and project as a whole, but as the above examples make clear, elements of composition are also something that should be considered at the writing stage.
How the writer addresses and uses composition in their writing is one mark of an amateur versus experienced comic writer. For some, especially writer/artists, the effective use of composition even in the script stage comes fairly naturally. For others, who may not even be remotely visually inclined, this can be a major stumbling block.
As a general rule, artistic composition is one of those areas where the collaboration between writer and artist must be working smoothly in order for the team to generate the best product. Ideally, both writer and artist will have a strong sense of composition and how to use it to tell the most dynamic, involving story. However, for the book to look good, it's important for at least one member of the team to have that ability to tie the story together artistically.
For a writer, this is very definitely an acquired skill and one that all writers should take their time growing into. In this case particularly, it's one skill that has a bit of a circuitous route to reach. The first thing in this arena a writer should learn is how to boil away their art descriptions to focus on what is needed to tell the story, something I mentioned in my column on scripting. Most writers, when starting in comics, add far too much fluff that isn't necessary and usually only cramps the artist's style. Thus, the first skill is the minimalist approach to your writing, focusing on that which moves the story forward.
Once you've accomplished that goal, you can then work on developing new and intriguing ways to tell that story on many layers, hopefully in collaboration with your artist. One of the richest layers in comics to tell a story is to tap the power of the art, to use compositional techniques to enhance the mood or themes of a story, and to thus make it work on multiple levels. The best comics definitely make use of this.
If I were to mention series such as Hellboy, Red Star, Watchmen, Sandman, Mouse Guard, Artesia, etc. fans of said series would instantly be able to summon up images in their head of the look, feel, and style of each. They are each distinct and remarkable. Part of what makes that work for any of these series is storytelling on multiple levels that meshes into a harmonic whole that we respond to. In each of those cases, the distinct look and feel is not just a function of the distinct styles of art. They are also, each, a case of the artist being uniquely suited to the feel of the story in terms of their style, which is usually a blend of first selecting the right artist, then also adjusting the story to play to the artist's strengths. But they are also the results of intentional storytelling on multiple levels where distinct layouts, use of panel art, use of composition and pacing, etc. all mesh seamlessly. Some of these started with the writer (even if it was the writer-artist first writing the story) being intentional in using the art to enhance the story and masterful in doing so.
Doing so is not only a function of a writer who has developed to this level of writing comics, but an artist they work together well with.
That being said, there are some elements of composition that the writer is going to have to be involved in from the very beginning and most of those elements pop up as we look at the full page (or screen) of the comic.
A Page is a Page
As I mentioned above, the page itself is also a viable 'piece' of art. Since the reader first glances at a whole page, the composition of that page will either draw the reader in, making the story more involving and good, or prove something of a stumbling block to the reader, making them feel pushed away.
This level of art appreciation to the average comic fan has improved in this age of mobile comics that chop the page into individual panels. The page compositions are totally lost in such, and for many die-hard fans, there is a definite sense of that loss.
Which raises the question, what are the elements of the page itself we need to consider? First le me say, I've seen writers who set up pages in their script, sometimes with specific panel size directions, sometimes even going so far as providing a simple panel diagram for the page.
My first response is why? Again, if there is a specific STORY related reason, such as my 'cinematic' sequence I mentioned in the first column on writing, that's one thing. But why would a writer, in general, feel they need to outline part of the artist's job? Wouldn't the artist, the more visually inclined of the two, be better qualified to do so? Of course they would.
Ironically, most of the writers I've seen do this diagramming in their scripts are usually the ones with the least dynamic or decent visual sense. Some looked like hectic collages, others were consistently boring.
Keep in mind, the writer is already contributing to the setup and layout of the page in terms of the script itself. Let the artist have some say as well in this by giving them leeway in how they bring to life that script.
When a writer is working on a page, there are several composition elements they should be thinking of that have to work well at the script stage, else the artist will not be able to save it at the drawing stage. Let's consider those.
In general, you don't want to transition scenes in the middle of a page. The intuitive sense of a page, added to by its composition, is that what happens on it is contiguous, flowing from one beat to another. For the reader, the more natural scene breaks take place in the turning of the page (or loading of the next screen).
This is especially true for radically different scenes. A battle happening at night, meant to convey tension, fear, violence and death is going to be portrayed very differently, composition wise, then a lighthearted romp of gaily singing youth conveying joy and love. Weight, darkness, color palette etc. would be radically different between the two and look jarring sandwiched on one page.
The major exception to this rule is when the transition is MEANT to be jarring, such as a character waking suddenly from a dream or a forced jump to shift the story unexpectedly. Again, these are specific incidents pertinent to the telling of the story, not just casual transitions.
Too Little or Too Much?
One of the things I focused on in the previous column is striking the balance between having too much or too little story take place in any given panel. This is even truer when looking at an entire page of a comic. Many of the aspiring writers I've worked with waste entire pages with very little actually taking place, or seem to want to cram an entire story in each and every page.
The panel count on a given page can range from a single splash panel, to a dozen or more, with a good general average being between 4-6. Again, as a writer, you want to make sure the panel count is reflecting the story, moving with the story and in sync with the events portrayed.
For example, over the top action, such as our hero battling his archenemy to the death, will generally have fewer panels per page, allowing the action to unfold, the battle to be 'larger than life' and explode off the page. This is where you would see your splash pages as well as the bulk of your two to three panel pages. A quieter scene, say a private discussion between our hero and his lady fair, wouldn't be as visually dynamic, so could utilize more panels and thus more story per page.
This balance is important, because use of full pages without visually dynamic events, or little story is going to make the reader feel cheated. Whereas pages overly cluttered that cramps the art and pace of the story is going to push the reader away and make them lose interest quickly.
Another important element in the page setup is how the story flows across the page. It needs to draw the reader in at the beginning of the page, and easily and directly flow such that the reader's eye is drawn across the sequence of panels in the proper order to the end of the page.
This is another reason to let the artist do the page setup and execution, because chances are, they are going to have a better eye and feel for this. If however, as a writer you do at times feel the need to step in and give some direction on the page layout, make sure you are allowing for this.
When inexperienced writers, or non-visual thinking writers step in here, they may end up setting up a page that is too complex in its layout, or confusing in its panel flow. Often when they do this its because they originally visualized doing something 'neat', a visual trick, or something to mimic other comics they've seen. However, more complex layouts that use such technique are hard to master and require someone pretty experienced in pulling them off. (Chances are someone far more advanced in their craft than anyone reading a how to column online.)
For example, personally, I feel whenever a page has to insert some sort of directional cue, such as arrows pointing from one panel to the next so the reader knows which way to go, they have failed on some level in crafting a good page.
So, just starting, it's best to keep the script straightforward and minimize your use of complex or tricky layouts in order to allow your artist to bring solid visuals, layouts and compositions to the page.
In storytelling, part of the entire nature of the beast is to win a reader over, to draw them in successfully to the story to begin with, then keep them until the end. Comics are no different.
Covers are designed to entice the impulse buyer to check the book out. Comics usually start with a splash page, or other headline opening in order to draw the reader in making sure they want to read the rest of that issue. Each panel is designed to lead the reader to the next. A lot of ongoing comic issues often end on a cliffhanger in order to get the reader to buy the next issue, etc. etc.
The page is the same. Each of the elements of the art in the story represents a beat. Just as a panel is a small beat in the story (a single moment, 15 seconds, whatever), the page is a slightly larger beat. As mentioned above, a page tends to be considered contiguous, a small series of events taking place in sequence, at one point in time and space. Again, this is why scenes break at page (or screen) breaks.
A well-crafted comic script will often have mini-cliffhangers at page breaks to grab the reader and make them eager to turn the page. This is where the phrase "a real page turner" gets its meaning.
This means that in each page, the reader should have the feeling that the story has advanced. They've learned more, gained more insight into the characters and plot, and feel drawn to continue exploring by moving to the next beat.
Two Pages are Two Pages
At times, you may want to throw in a double-page splash here and there. This is one of those points the writer needs to be aware of the finished book. Obviously a two page spread is only going to work with a pair of pages alongside one another when the book lays open, usually this means an even-odd pair, except when ads are throwing off a page count.
I've seen at least half a dozen scripts in my day that position a two page spread at a break where you would see half the image, then have to turn the page to see the other half. This is a pretty amateur mistake; make sure you don't make it.
As I mentioned earlier, it has been interesting to see how many people have noticed and commented on the noticeable 'loss' of the page in mobile comics. It's also very interesting to see a number of applications now coming out that enable the reader to see the entire page, and use navigational tools to then move through the page, to keep it more in line with traditional comics.
That in itself is the strongest argument of what a good page composition brings to the table. It's also something to wonder whether that aesthetic will survive this generation of comic fans many of whom are being introduced to the medium via mobile comics.
Speaking of which, scattered throughout this column are several pages from some of the comics I've mentioned above. Check them out and look beyond the different art styles in and of themselves to see if you can pick up on how those pages use different approaches to composition to enhance the storytelling. I've used pretty random samples from each, so, you should be looking for general techniques, not specific page techniques.
AND NOW ON A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT NOTE...
THE INDUSTRY ROUND-UP
I suppose I would be negligent if, as a duly licensed comic-column writer, I failed to comment on the Disney-Marvel buy out. You know, since it swept like wildfire through the industry after its announcement this week.
I see there being good news and bad news about this, and I'm not pretending to be the first to mention any of the specifics...
First, the Good News ...
As far as the business end and the characters themselves, I see this as a win on all counts. Marvel and Disney, are both aggressive, innovative and creative corporations that have shown a clear desire to expand their respective audiences and to leverage as much as possible out of their intellectual properties. They have done this by exploiting them in multi-media development and licensing. They have also shown a solid understanding of utilizing creative and innovative means of introducing the characters to an ever expanding audience.
The timing here is also pretty solid. Marvel clearly dominates the direct market. This in itself is the best reason to expect Disney to have a hands-off policy in terms of what Marvel does there. So, for all of those of you in a panic on this front... breathe. Everything coming out of this whirlwind from the powers that be supports this as well and it simply makes good business sense.
In recent years however, Marvel has shown an increasing desire to develop themselves in broader markets. Their Adventures all-ages line, their adaptations of classic and popular novels, their licensing efforts, and of course, their growing movie slate are all ripe for development by a larger entertainment giant like Disney.
With Disney's target audience and prime retail locations, I wouldn't be surprised if the Adventures line grows and increases in sales exponentially in the next five years. Likewise, with Disney's long reach, Marvel's adaptations of classic books, popular novel series, and high profile licenses will no doubt expand as well. Through Disney they will most likely move into far wider distribution circles than the isolated direct comic market can dream of.
In both these instances, it's quite possible that those lines of books will see increases in sales that could even far outstrip the sales of the current direct market titles. In both its also quite possible this will have a huge impact on growing a larger fan-base for comics in general that will then move into the direct market stores in order to explore their new interests. Meaning, all those kids that check out the Adventures line from Disney stores, or other mass market retail places will get older and eventually check out comic stores.
Not to mention Disney is one of the largest and most successful TV/Movie studios in the world, giving them every resource needed to maximize the development of films, cartoons and other media projects focused on Marvel characters.
So, on this front, I think everyone will be happy.
Second, the Bad News...
There will no doubt be bumps in the road and some shuffling of things that may or may not go smoothly, and will no doubt leave some people angry, others scrambling to fill in holes left for them, and still others who will lose their jobs.
I don't foresee much of this in the direct operations of either Marvel or Disney to be honest. Again, Marvel has shown themselves quite knowledgeable on comics in general and the comic market in particular. I see no reason for Disney to start laying off or firing Marvel employees attached to the books, editorial or creative.
However, the wider circle of Marvel, their infrastructure employees, legal, marketing, finance, day to day operations...some of them could spend the next few months being very nervous. After all, Disney has a much larger infrastructure in place that could, most likely, easily absorb a smaller, niche business like Marvel and make a number of those positions redundant.
Likewise, both companies have many fingers in many other pies that would now seem counter-productive. Marvel has film and animation properties setup with Fox, Sony, Lionsgate and others. Disney has license deals with comic publishers like BOOM! and their own, in-house, ever in development and still nothing to show for it, Kingdom Comics.
To use an analogy, it's a bit like a couple who get married, but both have several affairs that now seem to be begging the question of how they will be resolved. It seems terribly counter-productive for Disney to own an IP company whose highest profile characters are making money for the competition in their main arena of movies. Likewise, it seems somewhat naive to think that Disney will continue to farm out comic work in the form of licenses or home grown efforts now that they have bought the largest publisher in the US.
That means, over the next few years, there may be some aggressive, and potentially heated efforts to re-align those efforts into the new model and bring the disparate ones under the one roof of the new House of Mouse.
Likewise, there is some valid concern that with Disney's size and strong focus in publishing and book markets already, that Marvel's relationship with Diamond Distributors will be seriously examined. While Diamond may be a powerhouse in the direct comic market, they are also a niche business compared to much larger and more extensive book distributors, which Disney already has connections and deals with. Marvel, even on its own, made efforts to break away from Diamond in the past. With Disney now owning them, and established elsewhere, it's not inconceivable that they may pull out of Diamond in the next five years. This would have far-reaching ramifications for an already struggling Diamond that has just lopped off significant chunks of low end income product and could then settle only to lose its largest client.
Of course, only time will tell!
First, I'll do a bit of workshop on what all I've outlined above using the sample pages included this round. I'll break down compositional technique, what's happening in these pages and how the story is enhanced by each. Then, we'll look at the comic BOOK, meaning, the full issue.
Join the discussion and add your thoughts on this edition, or the column in general. If you have any questions or suggestions for resources, post them or email them to Sellner so they can be included in future columns. Are you an aspiring or up and coming creator and would like to share your story? Email Sellner and let him know who you are and what you've done.
C. Edward Sellner is the co-founder and Creative Director of Visionary Comics Studio, a studio that within its first three years has drawn high praise from the media and attracted the attention of legendary creators in the comics industry. They have been digitally and print published in the mainstream market and their creators currently work with over a dozen different publishers. Their work has been featured on television news shows, radio programs and internet podcasts as well as featured in every major comics news site online.
Contact him directly at email@example.com
You can find him at...
Comic Related Forums
Visionary Comics Studio
The official site of the Studio where Sellner serves as Creative Director.
Visionary's Networking Sites:
VCS' Facebook Group
VCS' MySpace Page
VCS' ComicSpace Page
VCS' Twitter PagePage
blog comments powered by Disqus