Comic Sense #4:

The Art of Structure, Part III: Artwork

Welcome back to Comic Sense. The third in our discussion of story structure, this piece takes a look at the role of the artist in the creation of a comic book story.

Comic books are a purely visual medium. Comic book artwork, then, should be considered the defining element making comic books as unique from any other form of storytelling. While it’s true that the written word plays a large role in many stories, it is entirely possible to tell a comic book story through visuals alone. That being said, it is important to note that we not exploring comic book artwork in terms of subjectivity. Rather, we’ll explore comic book artwork in terms of functionality, relative to the larger idea of story structure.

The finished artwork for any particular story is most often the result of collaboration between various talents. Pencilers are usually the first in the creative process to interpret story into sequential imagery. Pencilers are responsible for the initial look and feel of a given book, detailing each and every panel, and in most cases, designing the layout of the page. Once the pencils are complete, inkers give the pencils a sense of weight and proper articulation. The inker interprets the penciler’s lines, making creative decisions as to what lines to emphasize and what visual story information to highlight to the reader. The colorist is then responsible for choosing and utilizing a color palette that best expresses the tone and mood of the story. Texture and depth are added to each panel through color shading and blending. Finally, the letterer draws speech balloons and creates the look of the printed text on the page. Often time characters are identified strictly by the specific fonts created for them by the letterer. Additionally, the letterer, must be careful to balance the text in such a way that the artwork is not overwhelmed by bulky text balloons.

The function of comic book artwork is to tell a story. Just as the writer composes a story to reveal character in the most efficient possible way, the artist creates his or her art with the same goal. Because comic book stories are the products of said collaboration, writers and artists must strive to complement each other. That is to say, in order for a story to truly reveal character, the artist must be responsible for a very different aspect of the story than the writer. If the writer is responsible for showing us what a character thinks or says, then the artist is responsible for showing us what a character does. The chasm between what a character says and what a character actually does is a true measure of character. The tension that exists between saying and doing can be made palpable by the comic book artist and is known as emotional truth. The responsibility of the comic book artist is then to illustrate specific moments within the context of the story that exemplify the emotional truth of those moments.

In the 1920′s, Sergei Eisentstein, a Russian film director, advanced certain ideas that would later become known as the Theory of Montage. In short, the Theory of Montage held that by juxtaposing two separate and unrelated images, the tension between the two images would ultimately create a third new image.

For instance, Eisenstein would first show an audience an image of a man’s face. Eisenstein was careful to insure that the man’s expression was completely neutral. Next, he would show viewers an image of a heaping plate of food. Finally, he would show the viewers the exact same image of the man wearing a neutral expression. Viewers saw the first image of the man with neutrality as Eisenstein intended. However, seeing the second image of the man, the same image of the man, after the heaping plate of food, viewers would insist that the man looked hungry. Eisenstein was able to build a relationship between the two unrelated images to create a new image, hunger, within the viewers mind.

This same tension can be also be created between words and images. Within the pages of a comic book, the potential for visual and emotional tension is extremely high. As discussed in The Art of Structure Part I: Composition, conflict is the root of all well-told stories. While conflict exists between characters and their motivations, it also exists between words and images.

In order to demonstrate this point, let’s create a hypothetical conversation between Superman and Lex Luthor. Lex has, for the moment, prevailed over Superman. The Man of Steel is bound by chains made of purest Kryptonite and is slowly being weakened. Lex, believing that Superman has no chance of escaping, taunts him:


Why do you still struggle to beat me, even though you’re defeated?


Because I still can.


Amusing. Though I don’t believe it’s a question of ‘can’. No, something elseÂ…a question ofÂ…will. Yes, you need me. I give you purpose. Without me, you’d be a novelty. Nothing more.


You’re a deluded megalomaniac.


And you’re pathetic. Extraordinary power. Extraordinary strength. The heights to which you could ascend. But you waste it all, so concerned about ordinary peopleÂ…because you want them to like you.

Imagine the given conversation as a scene in a film. Using various editing techniques, the scene could be put together in such a way that each and every word is perfectly heightened by the specific framing of the shot, the angle of the camera, the lighting, etcetera. We’ll say that the scene plays out over fifteen seconds. Film is shot at twenty-four frames per second, so in order to determine how many individual frames make up our scene, multiply twenty-four by fifteen and we end up with three-hundred and sixty frames available to the director to tell the story of the scene.

In comic book vocabulary, a ‘frame’ can be translated to ‘panel’. Imagine now that the comic book artist has been tasked to illustrate the same scene using a one-page layout. Common sense would indicate that there is no way any artist would attempt to fit three-hundred and sixty panels on a single page. The artist, then, must decide how to best express specific emotional moments using only a few panels.

For the sake of the example, let’s assume that the artist has decided to illustrate the scene in six panels. Right from the beginning of the scene, the artist must make choices. Do the readers need to know where the scene is taking place? If the location is integral to the scene, then perhaps the artist will use the first panel as an establishing shot of the underground lair. By the same token, perhaps by choosing not to give us a location for the scene, the artist is subtly placing us in Superman’s predicament and forcing us to wonder with him: where am I?

Perhaps the artist wants emphasize an element of duality between Superman and Lex. In this instance, the artist may use the first panel to establish who is speaking within the scene. The next five panels may then be used to slowly confuse the reader as to who is speaking which particular line, blurring the distinction between ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy.’

While there are similarities between cinema and comic books in terms of the use of images, there are also some important distinctions to be made that truly set comic books apart from any other form of visual communication.

In the cinema, the rapid succession of images is displayed so fast that mind is tricked into believing it is seeing actual motion. The camera thinks for us, acts as our eyes, and directs our gaze by showing us what we need to know. We have no control over what the camera shows us or how fast. We are a passive audience. When reading a comic book, this is not the case.

The number of panels on a page is set, yes. However, should we desire it, we could begin with the last panel on a page and work our way up to the first. We could start on the last page of the book and read backwards towards the first. While reading a comic book, we are active. The flow of information is completely up to us.

Understanding this idea, the best artists design each and every page in order to guide your eye in a direction that is consistent with the story being told. On top of page design, the best artists will design a whole book in order to properly pace the story out, allowing small moments to lead naturally to big moments.

A single page of a comic book can be manipulated in myriad ways to pace a story. For instance, the artist may wish to convey that, within the world of the story, everything is status quo. This can simply be done by illustrating the first page of dialogue using a traditional nine panel template. The action flows gracefully from one panel to the next, the reader is lulled into a sense of the familiar.

At the same time, however, the artist may use the very next page of the book to shatter all of your expectations. This could be done by dividing the next page into uneven fragments, diffracting the action all across the page in a conscious effort to distract and confuse the reader.

Great comic book artists use the conventions of size and perspective to show you exactly what is important to the story. Often times, an integral story event will be showcased across a splash page. The splash page can also be used to drive home certain information concerning the character’s emotional states.

As artists, if we wanted add psychological weight to Lex’s last lines in our hypothetical exchange above, perhaps we might use a splash page. While the dialogue is straightforward enough, imagine how the moment might be heightened if we were to sketch Superman, arms stretched out to either side by Kryptonite chains, head hung low on chest, and behind him, a vast array of oversized video screens displaying various members of the population of Metropolis screaming fervently, “Save us!” This particular choice of illustration and page design may serve to heighten tension not only between Superman and Lex, but between Superman and his own sense of alienation.

The best comic book stories are almost always the result of a successful collaboration between writer and artist. Collaborations that afford either side of the creative team both the necessary respect as well as the room to experiment usually yield the best results. The best writers not only tailor their stories to the strengths of their artists, they stretch them, push them, and encourage them. Likewise, when beautiful finished pages are returned, the storytelling bar is set higher for the writer. There are a number of documented anecdotes telling of writers cutting swaths of dialogue from a page simply because the artwork was so functional. Words were simply redundant.

Every element points back to structure. Everything must have its place in telling the story. Everything must fit. Writing or artwork, or anything that is not functional to telling the story is superfluous.

Stay tuned for the last installment of The Art of Structure where we’ll put everything we’ve taken apart back together and see if it still works!

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Ted lives in Portland, Oregon.

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