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Thinking like a comic-stripper

At its basest form, comics are just a series of boxes assembled on a page, but that’s much the same way that music can be said to be simply a series of notes. Those descriptions belie how complicated they both can be. Those boxes can be manipulated in countless ways, to change the way people read the work, how fast they take in the pace of the action, and the mood communicated.

As this is tutorial is for Brick Comics, I doubt anyone here is aiming to win an Eisner award for their work, and if they were, they probably wouldn’t need my advice. All the same, consideration of how images are arranged can make your work look that much more exciting and fresh.

Placing a series of photos online and calling it comic is all well and good, but it’s not making use of the screen, and not adding much for the reader. With a little effort, you can dramatically improve the quality of your brick comics.


Comics have gone through a lot of shifts over 100 years. If you check out an old comic from the 30’s to the 60’s, each panel often represents a fair chunk of time, usually assisted by narration.

(Click images to enlarge)


Art by Steve Ditko

Looking at that work now can often feel clunky and slow, not to mention shallow. Even the greatest artists of the past feel pretty dull by modern standards. These days, the trend is toward something called “decompressed story telling,” where scenes are spread out into multiple panels.


Art by John Cassidy

It’s generally more pleasant to read (in my opinion), but the result is that what used to be told in one page is now told in ten, and story arcs that used to be told in one or two issues are now told in six. Within these polar opposites of story telling, a tense moment can be blown up and magnified, so that a second seems to take a minute to occur.


Art by Frank Miller

It’s up to you and the story you’re telling as to how you choose to approach it. Ideally, you should want to be comfortable with a wide variety of techniques to suit your story, but not feel compelled to use them all.

Comics have time built into them, and they convey it in different ways. After a series of medium shots, throwing in a long shot in a larger panel dramatically slows down the page. Conversely, having a number of smaller staccato close-up shots has a brisk rhythm. Generally, you’re going to want to have a somewhat consistent rhythm, except in places where you want to highlight something out of the ordinary. For example, a series of small panels are used to show Batman quickly tossing off batarangs and incapacitating a number of small time crooks, to emphasize his efficiency. Or the end of a heavy fight scene pulls out to a long shot with multiple subjects and their surrounds to let the reader take in the awesomeness of what has come before them. In comics, you can even have the subject in multiple places in one picture, and the reader reads it as time passing, rather than somebody being cloned. This sort of technique is used with the Flash all the time, but it could be used to show someone puttering around the house. With multiple mini-figs, the choice it yours.


Art by Chris Ware


One thing that I strongly recommend is to start with a simple structure, maybe four to six panels a page, in a clear sequence, regardless of how ‘compressed’ your story is. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that this is the easiest way to tell a story clearly. The reason people have done it for 100 years is because it works. Crazy lay-outs can be mind-blowing, but they require a lot more thought from the reader to process, and can be tiring. The second is that the simple approach allows you to be mind-blowing when you want to be. If you always have big splashy images, then the end result is none of it is very splashy. Rather, keeping your images restrained allows you to have an effective punch when the time calls for it.

Let’s imagine the panel is a video image, and we’ll rank the image from 1 (boring) to 10 (zany). 1 in this case is a static image, just the same image repeated, as if the camera was locked in place. 10 is a crazy, Men In Black-style flying around the room and between people’s legs camera. 5 is in the middle; your average movie, with close ups, establishing shots and the like. Enough camera changes to give the scene a mood, but not enough to make an octogenarian sick.

In the 90’s, comics got splash page heavy (a splash page is a page with a single large panel), and the effect was that they had little effect. Rather, a splash should be saved for a big moment. A comic book like the Walking Dead is a great example of something which uses effective splash pages, with usually one per issue, always the most emotional moment of the issue. It hits you like a punch in the gut. If you’re creating an action sequence and you repeatedly have in-your-face images, the reader will be as numb as someone watching a Michael Bay film marathon. Rather, save it for the right time.

Techniques like this should be used sparingly.

In modern comics, there are lots of images overlaid on images. Whereas in the past, every panel had its own white space, now most artists layer panels on top of panels, like windows on a computer screen. This can be exciting, but the best artists are still showing the action in a fairly traditional way, where the order of the panels is never in doubt. Design should never overwhelm your page.


Art by Frank Quitely


Okay, enough theory. Let’s put it into practice.

This being a Brick Comic forum, there is a good chance of humor being used here, and all the stuff about drama and effect still holds true for comedy. Actually, keeping a straight face can be very important in humor, so utilizing these techniques can improve your comedy even more.


Art by The Perry Bible Fellowship

For my example comic page, I'm going to work with something already completed, since I'm not here to tell you about taking photos or even writing. The idea is to punch up and present something to the best of our abilities. I use Photoshop to throw things together, though for a simple project like this, other programs might do the job. I'm merely assembling pictures, not editing them or doing special effects on them.

I've chosen to work on the four-photo zombie tale that Darkdragon has done recently (at the time of typing). Please go look at it now, I'll wait :classic:

Pay Attention

It's well-thought out and conceived. Not exactly as a comic strip, but as a story. If it were conceived of as a comic page in the first place, I would have done a few things differently, which I’ll mention after looking at the finished product. Anyway, there is a lot to work with. So, my first thing is to sketch it out. THIS DOES NOT REQUIRE TECHNICAL SKILL. Just a concept. My sketch was done on the back of scrap paper while I was 'working.' The point is to decide on the images you’ll need when taking photos, and have an idea of how they'll flow on the page. This can be changed of course, but it's a heck of a lot easier to draft it on paper than it is just to start with a blank computer screen.


The key points I went for are these:

-The first photo is broken down into two panels. The main one is a larger establishing panel, with a quieter one to establish the zombie danger. Essentially, it's now got two beats, despite being one cohesive scene, and also makes the happy face on the character even more natural, since there is no 'danger' in the first panel.

-The second photo is broken up into two close up shots, and shown at Dutch angles. The original was a full body shot, but all that info wasn't necessary to the story. The key info is the fear on the human's face, and the violent action. The smaller panels done in close-up give it a faster pace, and the tilt on them make them a little more action-y.

-The third photo donates an image to the violence mini-panels, though the whole of the main picture is used in the next panel, with a little cropping to fit the page. Because the first one is a close-up, you don’t even notice the image is used twice. I give it an enlarged border to give the image a stronger beat. This is a technique Calvin & Hobbes used a lot, and, sparingly, it's neat.

-The final one is large panel, pulling back to shown the punchline/true scene. By making it larger, the characters can stay near the same size, helping keep the rhythm, but also slowing down for a dramatic final image.

The rhythm of the page should go: Bum-da-da-da-DUM-duhhhhhhhh!

Let's see how it turns out.


I like it :sweet: Love, no, but it's satisfying. If I were to change a few things with the original pictures, I would take a one more action pic to throw into the violence montage, like of the arm swinging. Also, in the final pic, I would change the expression of the main character to an "oops," as he realizes what’s happened, simply because the facial expression is repeated and it doesn't add new info to the page. Much like I took out the background in picture two, there is no reason to repeat info, unless it's for a purpose. Each panel should portray something, be it narrative or simply mood. These things are in order to create a comic page, as opposed to a critique of the original, which works as it is. As for what I might change with what I did, I like most of it, but the second-last panel could have had a colored border instead of a white one. Maybe something in red might give is more zazz. As well, I’m not deeply attached to the color of the page or the lettering, but those are not so related to the paneling. The three violence panels could have sharper borders, to get that action across more. But, overall, I think the page works, and has made the original story more readable.

Now, how about you give it a try? Create something dramatic, something romantic, something gut-busting! It’s up to you.


For this lesson, you need to create a comic page (or even pages, if you like).

Step 1: sketch out your idea. It doesn't need to be fancy, just get an idea of what you're going to do. Do you have a variety of panels? If not, why not? Is the information in each panel important to the mood or the story? Has anything superfluous been removed?

Step 2: Build it, photograph it, use the other tutorials here.

Step 3: Put it together, tweaking your original idea as you go along to see what works.

Step 4: Explain it. A good comic stripper usually doesn't over-analyze their own work, or get very conscious about it when making it. But, after the fact, there are things that work and that don't, and part of being a competent artist is understanding why things work. So, much like I explained why I did my page the way I did, I'd like you to give some conscious thought to what you've done. In the future, you never need to do this again

For this assignment, you need only show the finished product, and an explanation of it, though if you want some guidance early on, you may post your sketch.

Please start a new thread to show your WIP strip.



These are some artists whose page designs I respect, just if you're curious, or want inspiration outside your sphere.

Eiichiro Oda- artist on Japan's number one manga, One Piece. A vibrant, kinetic artist. I'm not a fan of manga, but his work stands out for its liveliness.

Frank Quitely- A Scottish artist known for slowly-produced, but impeccable work. Mind-bendingly exciting work on Batman & Robin and All-Star Superman. He has a very flexible structure, but always clear story-telling.

Bill Watterson- The creator of Calvin & Hobbes. He had a brilliant jazz-like page, especially in the later years. His Sunday strips put the rest of the comics page to shame.

Chris Ware- In my opinion, the greatest comic artist alive. His page and panel design drastically overshoots what most on this site would aim for, but his stuff is simply the most complicated, intricately created comic work ever done. You don't have to love it (and a lot of people consider it overly depressing), but you need to respect it (like this bastard of a page that needs to be turned in all directions to read). He might be the only comic artist in the MOMA in New York.

There are many others, but those are the artists which jump out at me when I think of exciting pages, you will likely have your own inspiration. Go for it! :sweet:

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