How to draw a comic when you already have the story

By | January 26, 2021

Guest post by Chris Gavaler and Leigh Ann Beavers

The below is an excerpt from Creating Comics, part of Bloomsbury’s series of Writers’ Guides and Anthologies.

Begin with story events and let them guide page arrangement. When an artist receives a script from a collaborating writer, the process emphasizes story. Standard scripts divide page content into numbered panels, but the artist decides their layout. Less commonly, a writer will describe all content and let the artist decide how to divide it and into how many images. Single creators sometimes use this approach too. Miriam Libicki drafted her ongoing memoir series Jobnik! in page-by-page textual descriptions, returning sometimes years later to adapt each into visuals. All memoirs involve a story-first approach since the story content is predetermined—though not entirely. Selecting and shaping nonfiction details offers almost as many creative choices as inventing details. The story-first approach begins with those details, letting them determine the elements of the page that follow.

Story-first can pre-determine which images to accent by placing important story moments in prominent frames. Big moments in the story can be literally bigger, overlapping the edges of less important moments or extending behind them as the foundation of the page. But the page’s reading paths and visual phrases come second. Vertical action might lead to phrases grouped in columns and so N-path reading. Story-first can also lead to frames and gutters that reflect the story-world.

Recall Benjamin Percy’s sample script in Chapter 2. He describes thirteen panels, which are usually too many for a single page, especially if each includes dialogue. So the content must be divided. Since the page is the unit of composition, make the break meaningful by coordinating it with story content. In this case, consider the locations: the kitchen where they drink and smoke, the hall where they put on their coats, the stoop where they step outside, the street where they walk, the bus stop where they wait, and the bus where they sit. Maybe page one takes place entirely in the kitchen, and page two everywhere else. Or page one includes the interior images, and page two the exterior. And why not place the opening refrigerator in the first panel and the opening house door in the last? Whatever the specific choices, the content isn’t arbitrary, because each page is both a physical and a conceptual unit shaped by the story content.

Illustration 6.2 is a one- page comic that Leigh Ann developed from her own following story-first description:

When I was three, I liked to catch fireflies on our farm in Virginia. I caught them out of the air and put them in a jar. I liked to watch them up close from the top of the jar—I couldn’t get enough of how their abdomens lit up slowly, slowly, slowly until there was a full glow. One night at dinner, after a session of firefly-catching, I smelled fireflies so strongly that I said it over and over again. My father looked and laughed to see that there was a firefly blinking far up in my nose. He tried to get it out with tweezers but couldn’t. We went to the hospital where they took it out with longer tweezers. My father always remembered that I said, “Don’t hurt it!”

Leigh Ann then developed a script based on the story idea:

Panel 1: Small hand reaching up into dark sky. Sky is sparkling with fireflies.

Illustration 6.2 A story-first comic. Drawing courtesy of Leigh Ann Beavers.

Panel 2: From left: Same hand holding jar of fireflies. From right: Forefinger and thumb grasping a firefly headed to jar.
Panel 3: Girl smelling or looking very closely into firefly jar.
Panel 4: A lit firefly.
Panel 5: Girl rubbing nose saying “I smell lightning bugs.”
Panel 6: Close- up of nose with lit firefly blinking deep inside. Voice saying, “Hold still, Pumpkin.”
Panel 7: Tweezers held by thumb and forefinger pinching out a firefly. Voice saying, “Don’t hurt it.”
Panels 2, 3 and 4 are memories/thoughts held in the little girl’s head as she rubs her nose.

Note how the final comic differs from the script.

Chris Gavaler is Assistant Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, USA. He is also the author of Superhero Comics, which is part of our Comics Studies series.

Leigh Ann Beavers is Instructor of Art at Washington and Lee University, USA.

Creating Comics is part of Bloomsbury’s series of Writers’ Guides and Anthologies.

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