The second day of Cartoon Studio started with a lecture I call “Page Building”. I believe that page composition is one of the most valuable, yet under utilized tools in the cartoonist’s metaphorical toolbox. No amount of impressive draftsmanship can hide poor page architecture.
For an example of effective page composition, I offer this page from one of my favorite short comics, “Flies on the Ceiling” by Jaime Hernandez.
Let’s break this comics page down into basic elements, and label each part. That may sounds too elementary for you, but even master cartoonists must keep these basic concepts in mind when crafting a page.
The first thing we need to consider is page flow, or how we read comics. In this culture, we read them left to right and top to bottom. Cartoonists always need to keep this in mind, as it will effect how every panel you draw is designed.
As a general rule, we always want to “go with the flow”. We want to design our pages to lead the reader’s eye in the direction it wants to go: left to right, top to bottom. You’ll notice that in each panel of this page the face of our protagonist, Izzie, is pointed in the direction of page flow. This is not an accident, Jaime Hernandez designed these panels to lead your eye. I like to say that panel design sends secret messages to the brain of your reader: “look here”.
If panel composition goes against page flow, it can jar the reading experience. Sometimes you want that. When you want to stop the reader in their tracks, it’s a good time to break the “go with the flow” rule.
A horizontal row of panels is called a tier. I like to think of the tier as a paragraph. Like a paragraph, it is a unifying element. The start a new paragraph is the start of new idea, it signals change. A new tier is also great opportunity to signal change. You’ll notice that on this page the two major changes in time and location were made at a tier break (panel 4 and panel 7).
Through panel composition, the cartoonist can control the pacing of their story. Consider this sequence from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics:
What happens when he alters this story slightly, like this?
There are two extra beats before the guy responds “I guess”. Panel repetition is a simple way to stretch time.
“Flies on The Ceiling” is an interesting specimen, because Jaime is using a perfect grid. Every panel is exactly the same size, as in the above McCloud example. What happens if we play with panel size? How does that sequence compare to this one?
Time is stretched, but in a different way. The meaning is for us, the reader, to determine. I interpret it as a pregnant pause–there is something going on here beneath the surface. Playing with panel size is a good ways to give a certain moment significance. It’s sending another secret messages to the brain of your reader: “Look here”. A big panel equals a big moment.
There’s so much to consider when building a page of comics! How do you plan out the perfect design? When you build a house, you need a blueprint. In comics, we call those blueprint thumbnails.
Above are the thumbnails and finished art for Satchel Page: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso. You’ll see that thumbnails are a rough preliminary sketch. It’s not about creating artwork, it’s about recording information.
Creating a good page of comics, and then a good sequence of pages, is a bit like solving a puzzle. Thumbnails let you problem solve on paper before you commit to finished artwork. Don’t be to precious or careful about it, just scribble till you have a plan that works. You’re comics pages are sure to benefit from it.
Next, go to day 3 and 4 of the Cartooing Studio report, by guest blogger Audrey Grieve!