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Issue #35

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #35

Storytelling 101:

It must be art season. I’ve recently been deluged by artists sending e-mail samples of their work. (Which I’m always happy to look at, with three conditions: I only want to look at work of seriously professional caliber; only send three or four pages of a single sequence so I can see your storytelling as well as your drawing ability; understand that I’m not in position to give anyone work and make no promises to forward anything to anyone in the business, nor am I under any obligation to comment on the work, and it might take me a long time to get back to you.) It’s funny how many aspiring artists don’t seem to be able to get right some basic things that editors will make instant judgments on. Like basic anatomy, particularly the structures of things like hands and noses. Some artists can’t maintain any consistency across pages, and figures that are bulky on one page will be rail thin on another. Little things like that will kill you instantly with editors.

What I’ve noticed most, amid art both good and bad, is that many artists don’t seem to grasp what storytelling is all about, so it’s time for a primer.

This isn’t intended as a be-all end-all on comics storytelling. It’s a very basic primer covering very basic concepts. A way of thinking about storytelling – not storytelling in general, because every medium faces its own storytelling challenges, but storytelling in comics art.

The central formula for any sequence is extraordinarily simple: Set-up. Action. Payoff. Set-up hooks the audience’s attention. Action develops the scenario, heightens tension, dangles questions. Payoff answers those questions, hopefully satisfying the urges the hooks in the set-up triggered in the audience. In a well-designed story, the payoff for one scene often becomes the set-up for the next. This is how stories are built.

At its most rudimentary, storytelling is simply the clear establishment of cause and effect, of character relationships, of space and time. Cause and effect means every action has a reaction, and every reaction must have an action as well.

Someone throws a pie, someone else gets hit in the face by a pie.

That’s not storytelling. That’s story. Storytelling is how it’s presented, hopefully by the means that most effectively conveys the story to an audience. Unfortunately, there’s no simple formula for this, because storytelling is affected by the story you’re trying to tell. An action story will be told differently from an introspective psychological thriller.

In comics, the burden falls on the artist to make the story visually coherent. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard an artist say “the writer can fix it in the copy.” No, the writer can’t. The best the writer can do is patch over the holes, but if you’ve ever spackled a hole in your wall, you know you can tell where the hole is by the spackle. Same concept. Writing and art in comics is supposed to more or less seamlessly interweave. If writing has to make up for the art (or vice versa) that’s what the audience focuses on, consciously or otherwise. Every distraction from the story is a disruption in the story. Every disruption makes the story harder to swallow. Every time someone decides a story’s hard to swallow, it draws them out of it and makes them less interested. If that happens enough, soon their interest is zero and they’re spending their money somewhere else.

Storytelling is what keeps them interested by making the story comprehensible.

How to approach it? Panel 1 – the piethrower winds back; Panel 2 – the pie thrower throws the pie; Panel 3 – the piecatcher sees the pie coming; Panel 4 – the pie hits the piecatcher in the face. Perfectly viable approach, one action per panel.

But it’s got big flaws, from a storytelling perspective. It breaks up the action too much, demand readers recreate the flow of the action in their heads from the crystallized moments. It creates no spatial relationship between piecatcher and piethrower, and spatial relationships are a cornerstone of storytelling in comics art. Comics art exists to create a sense of spatial relationships so the “world” of the comic strip can take on a quality of reality for the reader. (Don’t confuse this with “realism” in art; that’s not what I’m talking about.)

By adding spatial relationships, it’s easy to compress the sequence to three panels. Panel 1 – the piethrower winds back; Panel 2 – the piethrower throws the pat at the piecatcher, who sees it coming; Panel 3 – the pie hits the piecatcher in the face. It’s tighter, it uses less space, it concentrates the audience’s attention on the story and reduces their need to interpret the action. You could do it in as little as two panels: Panel 1 – the piethrower winds back; Panel 2 – the piethrower hurls the pie, which, though the miracle of speed lines (those arching or straight lines that trail along behind objects and used as a shortcut to indicate movement in an otherwise static medium)hits the piecatcher in the face. The three-panel sequence could work as its own rudimentary story; the two-panel sequence could work very nicely as a sequence in a larger story, particularly if you want to push a sense of immediacy in the action. Immediacy is part of what sucks a reader into a story, what helps them connect with it, what makes them think it’s important to read.

We can take a cue from movies, though it’s a mistake to draw too close a comparison between the two media. As in movies, comics have three main types of shots:

The long shot establishes scene, and lets the reader know in which milieu a story takes place. A long shot showing an undersea vista is generally a pretty good sign you’re not reading a story about Montana.

The medium shot is where most action takes place, where specific spatial relationships between characters are generally established.

The close-up shot is where the emotional content of the story is presented via character expressions and reactions, and where extremely specific information about objects in a story appears.

In between and within those three types of shots are a host of variations (a type of close-up, for instance, is the two-shot, in which two persons appear yet it’s essentially a close-up and serves the function of a close-up) but they’re the three basics.

In western culture, our intake of material on the page tends to go from left to right, from top to bottom, from far to near. Those are your touchstones. This doesn’t mean they’re absolute or inviolable. We screw with them all the time. Like I said, it depends on the story. But, if your goal is to convince an editor you know what you’re doing, they’re your touchstones.

What means, in general, to be easily understood by most readers, comics pages should be laid out like books: the eye starts at the top of the page and moves left to right across the panels there, then drops to the next tier of panels, returns to the left and scans across to the right, then drops to the next tier and repeats the process, etc, along however many tiers are on the page. On the next page, the process begins again. So, in general, for maximum clarity, that’s the way a page should be laid out. If you’re interested in facilitating reading the story. You may not be, but don’t be surprised if editors and readers don’t share your priorities.

“Far to near” means you establish your scene, then move to increasingly specific information as the story calls for. In other words, you don’t start with a close-up then move to a long shot unless there’s some specific story need for it, some information only that technique will impart. The next shot after the long shot is generally the medium shot, setting up participants of the story and establishing some sort of visual relationship. From there you might move to a close-up to focus in on a character or story element, or you might go to another medium shot. Reversals of the order in mid-scene – going from medium to long shot – are rare and generally don’t work. Long shots are mainly used to enter a scene and establish an environmental context, or to exit a scene.

Lights appear on the horizon of a lonely desert road, a small town visible far ahead of the lights. The lights move closer, sinister shapes seem to be forming around them now, and townspeople are now watching the lights and are worried. Then menacing bikers burst at “us,” the headlights on their bikes blazing. Do a setup like that in any other visual order and it just doesn’t make visual sense.

There are those who feel comics stories should largely be told in medium shots, and those should mostly be the same angle and distance from the “viewer.” Again, it depends on the story you’re telling.

Except that readers, like everyone else, like variety. If you don’t vary things a bit, readers get bored. Editors get bored. The flip side is that you don’t mix things up just for the sake of it. It must serve to tell the story. So you don’t necessarily break up an action scene with a close-up unless there’s some reason to focus on that specific character at that specific moment.

There are other ways to break things up. Vary the angles: an overhead shot can be used to convey different information than a head-on shot can. A skilled artist thinks of comics panels as three-dimensional, not two-dimensional, constructs, with a foreground (close-up), mid-ground (medium shot), and background (medium-long shot) inherent in each shot (though, I should caution, not necessarily realized in every shot): a character in the mid-ground punches a character who falls backward toward us, agony on his face and blood and spittle flying from his lips – drawn well, that can a far more potent image than constructing the shot as a standard medium shot or breaking it up into two shots. Learn to think of panels as photographs being viewed through a camera lens. Three-dimensional constructs add drama to a scene, and, again, immediacy. They add up to dynamic storytelling.

Just don’t vary your angles to the extent that a character heading left in one panel is heading right in the following one. That’s an amateur’s mistake, unless your story somehow specifically calls for it.

Perhaps the most important element of storytelling is the hardest to describe, so let me just say it: every aspect of the art should exist for the purpose of pushing the story along, and keeping it interesting. Whittle out the extraneous, but keep in mind that what’s extraneous and what isn’t depends on the story you’re trying to tell. An internalized rendering of a descent into madness will make different storytelling demands than the story of a cop shooting it out with a bank robber, and if either the cop of the bank robber are descending into madness, that’s another story altogether. Be sure you know what story you’re trying to tell before you try to tell it.

If you know what your story is supposed to be, that gives you a frame of reference for designing the art. Emphasize in each panel the element of that panel that will best push the story along. Don’t be afraid to put actions right out there in view, don’t “hide” actions or important characters.

As many have pointed out in dissertations on the language of comics, every panel represents a unit of time. The “time length” of a sequence is inversely proportionate to the number of panels it’s broken down into. Meaning a four panel sequence perceptually covers more time than a two panel sequence. This can be used to approximate SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN slow motion effects, but, remember, storytelling is about establishing a link between cause and effect. The more panels used to delineate an action, the wider the gap between cause and effect, and the less immediate the action feels. I would suggest, just from my own experience, that different shots also connote different timespans; more time is perceived to pass in long shots than in medium shots, and medium shots are generally perceived as being of longer duration than close-ups.

This starts getting into more complicated material that I’d rather save for some other time. Again, I want to reiterate what I’ve mentioned above are basics. These are rules of thumb, not laws, and any of them can be broken if there’s a reason for it. There are as many variations and ways to mix things up as there are stories, but many editors want to be able to see that you know what you’re doing and the best way to prove that is to show you understand the basics. Storytelling is the primary job of comics art (of comics writing too). We’re all aware different artists have different capabilities and you should be too. Figure out your strengths and work toward them. Figure out your weaknesses and overcome them. The comics medium makes unique demands on artists. No one expects anyone to be Will Eisner right out of the gate, but if you can’t master at least the fundamentals, you’re not ready to work in comics.

The SPIDER-MAN movie continues its box office onslaught, with another $100 million or so in its coffers in the past week. Meanwhile, there were several responses to last week’s article. Former Spider-Man writer and editor Danny Fingeroth mentions that he follows his review of the movies with interviews with Laura Ziskin and Marvel head honcho Avi Arad, while SAVAGE DRAGON wunderkind and former Spider-Man writer/artist Erik Larsen had this response:

Just to toss in my 2¢ – I think the big reason that X-MEN failed to ignite the funnybook field is that the public did not perceive it as being a comic book property. As was the case with ROBOCOP, DARKMAN and THE MATRIX it had superhero trappings, to be sure, but it wasn’t a “name” to the man on the street. There weren’t comics based on the previously mentioned properties prior to their movies adventures – why would anybody expect there to be a comic book connected with the X-Men? Batman, Superman and Spider-Man are “name” comics and while I don’t expect the field to explode again I do expect folks will at least realize that comics exist. It might be a good time to push for better distribution at the very least. Ultimately, however, these movies all-too easily illustrate how inferior the current source material is to what’s on the screen. Would a person who thrilled to Spidey in the movies get the same thrill to the multiple worlds of Spider-Man and the various story fragments being foisted off at $2.25 a whack? I suspect not. And when it becomes obvious how much more exciting a complete story on the screen than a multipart Aunt May lecture in the comics pages we’ll soon be back where we started.

Ah well.

I’d comment on Erik’s comments if I could find much in them to argue with.

Meanwhile, those who thought I was a bit over-skeptical about the odds on the movie resuscitating Marvel’s fortunes and the fortunes of the business should take a look at an article published in the financial pages of the New York Post. Maybe I wasn’t cynical enough.

On the other hand, one of my predictions seems to be coming through: Hollywood appears on a feeding frenzy for options on comics material. Personally, I’ve been getting lots of calls about my properties from WHISPER to MORTAL SOULS from producers over the past few days (thanks, Spidey!) and some other comics creators have also mentioned interest in their creator-owned properties is up. I’m sure the success of SPIDER-MAN and SMALLVILLE helped to ensure the presence of BIRDS OF PREY on the WB’s fall schedule. Of course, nothing’s a done deal in Hollywood until it’s done…

Speaking of TV, the networks are now releasing their fall schedules. As of this writing, NBC, ABC and the WB have announced and… isn’t this becoming something of a ritual joke? Every year it doesn’t seem as though things could get much worse on network TV – and the following year it always does. The ritual dance continues this year. BIRDS OF PREY on the WB at least has the potential to be a little different, but everything else sounds utterly listless. I notice a spate of shows set against the backdrop of TV shows, which indicates the networks are so busy gazing at their own collective navels they haven’t yet figured out that nobody watches TV shows about TV shows. ABC, which often found themselves fourth behind Fox and sometimes even behind UPN this season, underwent radical surgery and completely rebuilt their schedule – with what certainly sounds on paper like stale warmed-over tripe. The only element of interest there is a drama, scheduled for the Thursday 9PM death slot, that’s actually a game show where viewers could win lots of money, so it looks like they’re banking on the greed factor (and maybe vestigial interest in producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) to put that one over.

I can’t wait to see what Fox, CBS and UPN have on their minds for next year…

Meanwhile, I was momentarily thrilled to see the cable channel BBC America rerunning the Britcom THE YOUNG ONES (Thursdays, 8PM Eastern), which I had fond memories of seeing years ago. Until I watched a couple. I still remember seeing them, but now recall it’s the epitome of the smug dimwit lout brand of British humor, saved only by occasional musical guest-stars of interest and by dimestore punk Vyvyan lapsing into fits of random violence and usually accidental self-mutilation. In other words, it’s trash. After conversation with my British pal Rob Beddard, I realized that, in fact, it was not THE YOUNG ONES I fondly recalled, but another Britcom called THE GOODIES, a half-hour show that used to run Saturday mornings on PBS in New York: basically MONTY PYTHON as anarchic kids show. Way too brilliant to be forgotten, so let’s hope someone decides to rerun that very soon instead.

There’s another show I’m trying to think of that ran in syndication in the early ’80s. Seemed to be British in origin, can’t remember if it was a half-hour or an hour long, and it ran music videos you rarely saw anywhere else in America. There were dance numbers, comedy bits, and this DJ who sort of resembled a leering Satanic David Thewlis dressed in Dr. Who suits (Colin Baker era). Can’t think of the name to save my soul, but if you can let me know. Thanks.

If you’re a PC user on the Net (and I have to presume not everyone reading this is a Machead) you’ve probably been deluged by Klez messages (my virus whacker keeps the worms out but doesn’t do anything for the thousands of messages inviting me to check out various websites that will install Klez onto your computer), by invites to look at naked women, etc. If you’re like me, it gets pretty irritating. But there’s a free program that takes the pain out of it: Mailwasher. It’s a front end for your e-mail program – works with any of them – that downloads headers, sender names and originating e-mail addresses of e-mails on your ISPs server, without downloading the messages. It makes a list of what’s waiting for you so you can delete what you don’t want from the server and download what you want. If you want to get nasty, it’ll send a bounce message in reply that’ll tell the offending point of origin that your e-mail address doesn’t exist, then it’ll blacklist and automatically remove anything else coming from that account. When you’ve chosen, the “process mail” wipes out what you don’t want, automatically starts your e-mail program, and downloads what you do want. A freeware program (the creator does accept donations, by the way) worth its weight in gold and time savings. Just remember to let Mailwasher, not your e-mail program, do any automatic checks on your account.

To make sure nothing’s accessing your computer without your permission, pick up the Tiny Personal Firewell, very effective as software firewalls go and also free.

To keep up on lots of great freeware utilities for Windows, subscribe to the LangaList e-mail newsletter by tech writer Fred Langa and twice a week (usually) you’ll be sent not particularly Microsoft-philiac coverage of a variety of Windows issues and solutions. Great information. Just send an e-mail to subscribe-langalist@lyris.dundee.net.

Not exactly sure what the point of ZOO FORCE (Candlelight Press; $2.50) is, but it’s very well drawn by Jeremy Smith and cleverly written by John Ira Thomas, mostly from an intelligent polar bear’s point of view. True, it’s a loathsome superhero parody, but as there’s no superhero action and it deals more with the sociology of the idiom, it’s easy enough to set that aside. For some reason it reminds me mostly of James Robinson’s STARMAN, in both the writing and the art styles, and I suspect fans of that series might find this pretty entertaining. Far less satisfying is the “Not Zoo Force” strips that round out the book, which is much more typical of this sort of material. Writer Thomas should eschew the mock-traditionalism and go for the outré; it’s clearly his forte. He better get all the mileage out of Smith he can, ’cause it’s only a matter of time before some company tries to snatch Smith up.

Steven Roman’s LORELEI Magazine(Starwarp Concepts, 101 W 23rd St #2152, New York NY 10011; $4.95) is a (sort of) new entry in the Bad Girl vein one pretty much mined out by VAMPIRELLA and Chaos Comics. I wish I could say otherwise but LORELEI doesn’t do a lot to dispel that impression, and, aside from her being a succubus rather than a vampire, there’s not a lot new here: a killer heroine with a flair for T&A, evil cults, spell books, murderous wizards, homicidal gangsters… Not that it probably matters a lot to fans of that kind of material – when I was writing VAMPIRELLA it was made very clear to me that the fans expected a fairly narrow and rigid range of material in the book – and for them this is likely to fire on all cylinders. The main point of interest for me is art by Steve Geiger, who doesn’t produce nearly enough. Unfortunately, the bulk of the work is by David Matthews, whose decent but bland work Geiger’s brutally overshadows. Neil Vokes, Ernie Colon, and Bob Larkin also provide some pretty nice art. I wish I could give this higher marks because it’s clearly Roman’s labor of love, but if you’re a fan of Bad Girls and ultraviolence, it’s probably worth your while to seek it out.

Just a reminder: MORTAL SOULS #1, my new horror/crime comic from Avatar Press, has been getting a very good reception and is still on sale, while my DC FIRSTS: BATGIRL (from DC Comics, obviously) with both Batgirls’ first encounters with The Joker, drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz and Terry Moore, is coming up sometime before the end of the month. You can still get MORTAL SOULS #1 by pestering your retailer for it; if he doesn’t have it he can get it easily enough from Diamond, so he has no excuses.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the newly redesigned Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions.

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