How to take your visual storytelling across mediums
Lately, the indie comic scene has seen a surge of talent from animators, storyboarders, designers, and illustrators who want to dip their toes in the comic world and try making their own comic books.
Some creators are wildly successful, while others tend to miss the mark. But why? Shouldn’t someone who knows the ins and outs of animation and art, be able to handle a comic?
If you want to try your hand at comics after studying storyboards as your main craft, I want to at least point out some things that might help you make better decisions and have an overall better understanding of some of the subtle differences between the mediums. And if you aren’t really into comics, this post can still help spotlight some traits of both mediums that you may have never thought much of before.
First and foremost, let’s talk about the obvious: formats.
Film is meant to be seen in motion, while comics are meant to be read.
Yeah, I know that seems obvious, but really think about those things and think about what that will allow you to do differently in both mediums.
Typically, (at least for me anyway) you don’t pause or rewind a film or tv show too much while consuming it. While comics are a lot easier to flip through, move at your own pace, back and forth to various scenes.
This difference allows filmmakers a little more freedom to….cheat, if you will.
The actual events and details leading up to a plot reveal can be staring a viewer in the face without them realizing it, or film makers use speed to rush through a plot point that isn’t exactly thought through all the way. But since the film keeps going, viewers have less time to react to and analyze such information.
In comics, the viewer can easily flip back to a mentioned past scene, reread, reanalyze, until everything is right there for them.
This is a very big difference between the mediums and one of the reasons we sometimes leave summer blockbusters analyzing all the blatantly obvious plot holes that we didn’t catch while in the theater. That same feeling comes across far less often in comics.
Why would Tony Stark put his most valuable cargo on an unmanned, unguarded, auto pilot plane? Just for a convenient sky battle it seems.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to tell you comics is a better medium, or that you should make a habit of rushing through the storytelling. I’m here to point that difference out and you as a storyteller can try to use it to your advantage.
You may have noticed the giant plot holes after the fact, but the thrill and rush you experience while watching that blockbuster movie is just as important.
In the heat of the moment, a plot hole in film can be forgivable, in comics, not so much.
This sense of motion is also why chase scenes rarely work in comics, while they are the bread and butter of any blockbuster movie. One of my favorite attempts at a blockbuster style comic, is J. Scott Campbell’s, Danger Girl, from Image Comics. There are several great examples of action in motion early in the series. While it’s rather cheeky in nature and not everyone’s cup of tea, I highly recommend Danger Girl as a great example of showing motion in comics.
In this snowmobile chase scene from issue #3 of Danger Girl, we get a great sense of motion. The action is brisk and keeps the story moving along. By the third panel of the scene, Campbell goes with a more traditional movie sized panel ratio. Once the action picks up a little more, he mixes up the panel sizes a bit more, then hits us with a double page spread, to show the enormity of the avalanche.
You’ll also notice the reveal of the avalanche requires you to flip the page from the great mini cliffhanger of the two heroes looking with shock on their face to some unseen menace (I’ll talk more about this later). My only negative critique of these pages is that Campbell decides to have the characters move from right to left throughout the scene. We naturally read (in English) from left to right and that usually carries through to other storytelling mediums, like comics and even film. But even with that, he still manages to do a great job of keeping the storytelling clear and consistent. It really is as close to cinematic action in comics as we can get.
Another difference that the lack of motion in comics allows for is more complicated cuts. For instance, here you have a standard scene of back and forth dialogue between two characters, where each subject stays on his side of the screen.
That’s a very standard camera setup for a conversation and while you can get away with something more complicated on film, you run the risk of confusing your audience.
Meanwhile, in comics, the static nature of the comic medium and the actual placement of dialogue gives you the ability to try different and possibly even more complicated setups for the same conversation.
Even if you aren’t 100% successful at the clarity, your viewer has the ability to slow the pace and double check what is going on.
The same cannot be said for shoddy camera work in a film. That’s the fastest way to lose a viewer!
Here’s a great example of a complicated layout from one of the masters of comics, Bill Sienkiewicz, in Marvel’s Moon Knight:
This example is very clear and clever, using the surrounding panels to literally circle his prey in the center panel. The protagonist, Moon Knight, circles around the page, dodging gunshots.
If you notice, we clearly start in the top left panel, but end on the middle row left hand side. While this normally, might be an unorthodox set up, the clear storytelling flows and we never get lost as a viewer.
Another great use of complicated panels drawn by Chris Bachalo in Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man:
It might not be 100% clear without reading the dialogue, but our pal, Spidey, is fighting a monster that can jump through time, attacking him from different panels. It’s a great use of comic layouts that can’t easily be duplicated on film.
My all time favorite, complicated layout in comics that does a great job of holding the storytelling together, is Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile, published by Abrams.
Shiga’s, Meanwhile, is a master class in complicated.
Using a system of pipes as seen on the cover, you control the story in this choose your own adventure time travel tale. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. If you can understand how he put it all together, you’re beyond anything I can understand!
Moving on, another big difference is the delivery method of both mediums, including the differences in each medium itself. Is it a long form movie, TV show with commercial breaks, streaming content with no commercials, VR, etc? Comics also have different delivery methods, like a standard 22 page comic, a webcomic, digest version, large format, trade paperback, etc.
All these formats can change the way you choose to tell your story.
The main difference between the two mediums of film and comics would be the natural scene break of comics. When you get to the end of the right hand page, that shot better want to make your viewer flip the page, click, or scroll and continue on with the story.
The last panel of that right hand page should act as a mini cliffhanger. (Like I noted in the above, Danger Girl example with Abbey and Barracuda looking back at the avalanche, in fear).
The equivalent in film would be, I’d say, a commercial break, or right before a scene change in a movie. In comics, your pacing should make use of every page.
Every right hand bottom shot, a cliff hanger and every left handed page, a reveal of some sort.
Of course, like I’ve mentioned, most of the differences between the two mediums comes from the format. While watching a movie, you’ll seldom find a change made to the screen ratio. While in comics, it’s common practice to change panel sizes throughout a page (again, like in the above Danger Girl example).
In film, each board or “panel”, is created equally. In comics you have the option of varying the size, amount of detail and layout of panels to create different impacts. If you want to highlight a certain panel, you may make it a different size than the rest on the page, or if you want to show the monotony of a particular scene, you can go with several of the same, small sized panels. Got something exciting? Go large!
Some animators attempting comics for the first time tend to forget the huge variety of panels they have available to them, sticking to a more monotonous variety of panels.
Another common mistake I see in first time comic makers is the amount of time they let pass between panels, showing every little detail from beginning to end of the story.
Depending on the actual story, you should pace accordingly.
Some scenes in a comic should be handled more like beat boards, showing only the most essential parts of the story.
In comics, a lot of the story happens between the panels, or what we call, the gutter. Learn to use that space like you would use off screen action to insinuate something. Like a sexual moment that you want to make more risqué by moving it off screen, or amplify fright by leaving it to the imagination of the viewer.
One last thing I want to mention is the amount of detail you can put into your drawing. With respect to clarity, a comic can typically be more detailed than storyboards. After all the boards are some of the first steps in the filmmaking process, while a comic is the finished product.
I can go on and on with this subject, but I want to hear from you.
Let’s get those synapses firing and think about any other major differences and share them in the comments section below.
Remember the most important thing, no matter what the medium, keep the clarity in your storytelling!
Until next time,
Board on and panel on!