Oct 27 2009

Sketch your pages to make sure you’re not screwing your artist

After you’ve written the script for a comic book page, I would recommend doing a rough sketch of the page before you give the script to your artist for pencils.  That will help you identify staging problems early.  Here are a few examples.

1.  Will the panels have enough space to comfortably fit the content? As a rule of thumb, I think it’s especially important to check this if if the page has 7+ low-action panels or 4+ action panels.  (Low-action panels, like most dialogue, usually require less space because they don’t need to show as many things happening.  For example, a dialogue panel might just have a person’s head, whereas an action shot of two boxers going at it will probably include at least the upper bodies of two men).

2.  Will the panel’s perspective portray everything you want to show? For example, if two characters are facing each other, it can be quite tricky to show their expressions, particularly if you’re trying to focus on one.  90 degree side-shots get boring fast and have trouble emphasizing either subject.

Another perspective problem is that the writer may script the page thinking that he will be able to show several things in a panel that just can’t be shown well in a single shot.  For example, check out this sample panel.

Panel 4.   Mary looks down at Brian’s shoes, which are spattered with blood.  Brian grins sheepishly at her.

It would be quite difficult to get Brian’s face in a panel that shows the shoes in enough detail to capture the blood, particularly if you’re trying to squeeze eight panels onto the page. I’d recommend either splitting this into two panels or using an insert panel.

3.  Is each character emotionally coherent in each panel? An artist can only give each character one expression per panel.  Your artist would be completely screwed if you gave him a panel like the following.

Panel 1.
JOHN:  I love you.
ALISA:  I think it’s time to start seeing other people.
JOHN:  You filthy whore!

Obviously, there’s no way to make John look both doting/loving and outraged in the same panel.  You need to split this into two separate panels or at least use an insert panel to separate the two emotions.  It’s better to figure out whether your panels are emotionally coherent before a rewrite will blow your schedule.

A parting thought: once you’re convinced that the script is physically possible, I’d recommend giving your artist a lot of latitude to set up the panels on his own.  You might have envisioned it one way, but I’d recommend deferring to the guy that’s actually a visual professional.  (If you actually know more about art than your artist does, you are screwed). Writers aren’t quite as good at setting up interesting poses.  In particular, I think we tend to over-rely on shots that are head-on and level or 90 degree sideshots.  A head-on shot is almost never the most interesting way to portray something.   See this article for more details on staging interesting panels.

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