The Art of the Hook

Why read comics?  We certainly have no lack of alternative material.  In fact, we are inundated with it!  There are enough web blogs and magazines to fill our entire lives with reading material.  Why should we choose comics, and not something else?

Well, the obvious answer is that comics are a wonderful artform, where fascinating stories abound!  And how true it is, yet the majority of our culture doesn’t seem to concur.  Though social stigma against comics has largely died – the dollars still say that most of the population doesn’t spend much time reading comics.

So the question is, why not?  Well, to be frank, most comics haven’t really given anyone a good reason to read them in awhile.  This is due to one simple problem – the lack of a hook.

1. Defining the Hook

In The DC Guide to Writing Comics, author Dennis O’Neil offers two varying definitions for what exactly a hook is:

Two definitions for this.  The submission guide that DC Comics used to send to writers defines the hook as “the essence of what makes your story unique and nifty.”  I call that a premise.  In the structure we’re discussing, the hook is something on the first page – often the splash page – that a) gets the story moving and b) motivates the guy who’s killing time in a comic shop, casually paging through a book that caught his attention, to buy it.

Dennis puts the two definitions at odds.  However, I’m not sure they are really opposed at all!  While O’Neil’s structural and precise definition is quite sound, the DC editorial definition of “what makes it unique and nifty” is not entirely off the mark either!  O’Neil notes that a well-executed hook is designed to start the story off and draw the reader into it – in other words establish its ideas and problems, and promise to fulfill them in the following pages.  But this definition is not opposed to the “essence of what makes your story unique and nifty” at all!  Rather, it works with it!  After all, if we are establishing the story, should we not also establish its unique qualities as well?  Why yes!  In fact, we should broadcast these unique qualities as loud as we can!  We’re here to make a sale, after all.

In this way, I believe the two definitions of the hook to be cooperative rather than opposed – and a well-executed hook should fulfill all three criteria!

But note that O’Neil also says that the hook must occur on the first page.  We’re supposed to start the story, draw the reader in, and hint at the controlling idea of the story ALL on the first page?  This is quite a tall order.  How will we accomplish that?

Well, comic book creators are a rather resourceful bunch…

2. The Splash Page

It was this very difficulty of presenting a well-designed hook that birthed the convention of the ‘splash page’.  Though the term is now used to refer to any page with only one panel on it, this was actually not the original intent.  Mr. O’Neil specifically defines the splash page as, “the first page, with one or two images, incorporating title, logo (if any), credits, [and] other such information.”

Note that he does not say one of the first few pages, but the first page.  The splash page is meant to be the hook!  It establishes the title, the credits, the setting, and the mood.  Mr. O’Neil even goes on to discuss how splash pages inserted later on in the story can be detrimental to the narrative, as the title and credits tend to take the reader out of the story.  After all, how many movies start the story up for ten minutes, and then stop to get to the credits and the title?  Very few, because it would be obviously distracting!  Thus, the title and credits are relegated, at least traditionally, to the beginning.  They are meant to ease the reader into the story.  The mood is set here, perhaps with a soundtrack playing behind the title and credits.  Then the film begins, and you sit enthralled for its entire duration.

Comics must accomplish all these tasks on the first page!  That’s what the splash page is for!  Dennis O’Neil himself and Dick Giordano offer a sterling example with their opening page to Detective Comics #457, seen to the right.

It has the title, the logo, and the credits, so they need not intrude upon the story later.  It has a large montage image of Batman surrounding a depiction of the story’s locale.  The text, while a bit melodramatic, clearly sets the stage for the story about to take place.  It sets a dark mood and draws us into the story.

Well big deal, it works!  What’s so great about that?  Well, step back for a moment, and consider this page from the perspective of someone who has never picked up a comic book before in their life.  What does this page tell them?  Everything they need to know to enjoy the story. It sets up the conflict, the problem, the setting, and even introduces them indirectly to the hero.

Not only that, it raises important questions. Who is this masked man on the front page?  His size indicates importance, so they might assume he is the protagonist.  Is he ‘Batman’?  Is he the narrator?  What is his relevance?  Who is the woman in the alleyway?  Why is she hunched over?  What will happen after the ‘two brutal slayings’?

These are all great questions to which the uninitiated reader would dearly love to know the answers – but you see, they’ll have to read Detective Comics #457 to find out.  Now that is a good hook.  It’s got the story moving, it motivates further reading, and it gives some insight and clue into what the story is about.  Sold!

3. Today’s Hooks

So what happened?  Why aren’t we getting ravenous new comics addicts every day?  Well, the truth is, many of today’s comic books don’t actually use these kinds of devices well at all.  Most splash pages can happen as late as page four!  Have a look at this particular one from the recent Batgirl #1:

Putting aside the interruption from the title and credits being on page four, what does this page tell us?  Nothing.  It establishes no mood or setting. The only information it might be purported to reveal is the identity of Batgirl – but it’s not a reveal shot.  Batgirl has been present since the last page.  It establishes no specific mood, nor sets the tone for the story to follow.  It does not raise any important questions – in fact it only answers the question of whether or not this costumed woman with a giant golden bat on her chest is or is not Batgirl.  Hardly a revelation.  Even taking into account the three pages preceding it, this page does absolutely nothing to progress the story at hand.

It’s a money shot.  Its only purpose is to be a cool drawing of Batgirl.  Now, it certainly is a cool drawing of Batgirl, but what the hell does that have to do with what’s happening to Batgirl?  Why should I care about her?  The page gives no reason.  It seems to operate on the assumption that I care about Batgirl already, just because she is Batgirl.  This is an incredibly poor way to attract an audience.  The page gives nothing at all of value to a new reader – in fact it does not even offer anything of value to a recurring reader!  It simply banks on the notion that readers want to see images of Batgirl, rather than a story involving her.

Regrettably, this is not an isolated incident.  Almost the entire mainstream comics industry operates on this mentality now.  Full stories are composed where nothing of real significance occurs and the selling point of the comic is simply “more of hero X beating up bad-guys”.  These stories are predicated on an audience who is already hooked, who already cares, and who will shell out $3.99 for 22 pages of almost no story whatsoever.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise why comics are not getting many new readers.  These are some really lousy hooks!  When a new reader asks why he should read today’s comics, the only answer that’s coming back is, “Well, because they’re comics!”

That’s a tautology, not a reason.

4. Conclusion

If comics remain as self-indulgent as they are now, hope of attracting new readers will continue to plummet.  If we want people to read comics, we need to reach out and grab them.  We need to tell them why they should care about these stories and these characters, and promise them some quality entertainment.  And we need to do it at the start of each and every comic book.

We need to hook ‘em.

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David Balan is a current student and aspiring comics creator, studying sequential art at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. He is working on becoming both a writer and an artist, and he plans to eventually script and draw his own complete graphic novels. You can see his most current portfolio at

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  1. You make an excellent point, David, about the static nature of the splash page today. In “Creating Comics from Start to Finish,” Buddy Scalera interviewed Joe Quesada who discussed why some artists will still create these sorts of pages on paper versus going totally digital. A large part of the rationale is that in the collecting market, these splash pages often command top dollar right behind the actual covers. And for many freelancers, as Quesada points out (including himself in the group), these pages can help them generate a significant boost to their income. So I would argue that it isn’t necessarily a case of laziness that is motivating many artists to adhere to this sort of “pinup” image but the buying market who is looking to purchase and collect the original work itself.

    • David Balan says:

      But I don’t see why we can’t have a cool image that ALSO tells a story – in fact telling a story is going to make it that much cooler.

      I would argue that for the collector, the name of the creator and the property for which he works is more important than the actual drawing itself – at least that’s been my experience. I don’t think you would lose any profit from making your splash pages tell a story and set a mood, but rather increase it because more people would read your stories and know your name – because your stories would be better.

      • As a reader, your concern is a valid one; however, I think for someone whose simply looking to frame and display a splash page, a “cool” image is probably a greater priority. I was a little taken aback when reading the Quesada article when he admitted to feeding into the OA market. Now, kudos to him for at least being up front about it, you know? Now, I’m not saying he was drawing his splashes to eschew story delivery over pin up shots, but when you realize he (and other artists) are drawing it on paper explicitly for the purpose of selling it later, I do believe it’s fair to question how much this drive to sell the art is influencing the creation of the image? They *know* what sort of art sells better than others… so I certainly think there is an argument to be made that art is compromised by commodification here.

        I also liked Kevin’s remark about some art serving as a form of “emotional punctuation.” And David, I think the fact that these splash pages don’t really contain enough substance (sometimes) to tell us why is what makes them cheapened in comparison to that wonderful Batman example provided prior to the Batgirl splash.

        Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind if an artist include a cool looking action shot. Where I begin to see it as a cheap trick, so to speak, is when the rest of the art alongside the splashes are just that–there are few-to-no examples of artwork driving the story. THEN… we have some “lazy” storytelling (and not showing) on our hands.

      • David Balan says:

        The issue with the emotional punctuation thing is that since the splash page is literally the hook page or at the very least, takes up one whole page out of 22 you have for telling your story… Well, proportionally, that would be 29 pages of Moby Dick devoted to a period, or an exclamation point. It’s not a little ‘wink’ at the end of the story, it’s a big portion of it.

        As for making an image that sells, well yes, artist livelihood is important, and I wish all artists only the best of financial profit, but it would seem to me that making a better story and then gaining profit from that (whether directly through royalties, or indirectly through making a name for yourself and getting more deals) would be a better long-term investment. Now, would a change of splash page necessarily save a story? No, not really. But it’s the mentality behind it I take issue with, and as you said, it’s permeating the entire comics industry – it’s just most obvious here, where the job of the splash page used to be to hook people into reading the comic.

        If the comic book itself is only treated as incidental way to license new characters for companies so they can make films, or as a springboard to show people original art you can then sell for lots of dough… Well, then the comic book is in bad shape.

        Story first. Everything else is secondary. Perhaps I’m naive or arcane to suggest this, but I intend to stick to it.

        (I also still hold to the idea that if your choice is between a cool image that will sell and an image that establishes and creates interest in the story, then you’re not looking hard enough for choice #3: a cool that will sell AND engage the story.)

      • David,

        We’re not actually in disagreement here. I concur that these pages could be better used as you rightfully point out. I just thought it would be interesting to point out why some of these pages appear the way they do from not only a big name artist, but someone who has maintained a major industry influence over many other artists’ work. You say that it’s a “money shot” and I thought I would point out the fact you were even more correct in this assessment than perhaps you initially intended to be. And it underscores the problem you point out: It’s not wrong to have a flashy action shot in a comic, but there are far better places to do so that won’t take away from the ability of the art to drive the narrative.

        On an unrelated note, I’m curious what you’re studying at SCAD? I know you’ve been referred to as the “technical guy” here, and your articles certainly demonstrated an eye for the mechanics of comics. I’m just wondering what side of comics you fall on (artist, writer, both?).

      • David Balan says:

        Oh, I know we weren’t disagreeing – I apologize if my passionate rhetoric made it seem so. I tend to get carried away talking about storytelling. Pretty crotchety about it, heh.

        At SCAD, I am studying Sequential Art, and my personal pathway is both! I take both writing and artistic courses (there are more of the latter, because really that’s the less explored avenue in terms of education, but the two are so intrinsically linked, I find it hard to get a comprehensive look at comics without both sides.) and my aim is to be both a writer and an artist – eventually, I hope, on the same original work of my own creation. But I’ve no particular qualms about how I get into the industry – creator-owned graphic novels, mainstream assignments – doesn’t matter to me. I’m interested in practicing and getting known first, as that’s the first 5-10 years of the business.

        My propensity for the technicalities of comics is partially spurred by my education, but I’d say that the topics the school covers are more of a seed from which all the observations I have made spring from, along with fertilizer such as books by industry stalwarts. In this case, Denny O’Neil, but of course I reference Scott McCloud and others as well. I have a very analytical mind, and I’m rather obsessive (what artist isn’t? :P) about knowing how what I do works. That’s really why I write a lot of these – I consider it part of my education, actually. Thinking up and throwing around an idea in my head is one thing, but to parrot it back to another person and make them understand… It usually greatly broadens my understanding of the subject itself.

        I guess that’s what teachers mean when they say they learn a lot by teaching!

  2. Great article, per usual.
    “It seems to operate on the assumption that I care about Batgirl already, just because she is Batgirl.”
    Great line, but also indicative of where the comics fan base and the industry are.
    Which is why an article like yours is important because it lets people know there was another option available other than adding a splash page because it’s an issue coming out.
    Splash pages act in a different capacity now, as I just learned from your article. Now, they act as emotional punctuation rather than a hook. Like, Batgirl’s splash page in particular is supposed to get readers to go: “Man, she looks cool, I wanna be that cool.” Which is where Grant Morrison’s influence and philosophy plays in here.
    What we are seeing is a change from story to lifestyle. Meaning, DC doesn’t want to draw you in with the splash page because then you will only read the comic. Instead, per Morrison’s philosophy of super-heroes as aspirational figures, it turns the splash page into: Don’t you want to be this cool? Well, continue to buy this and any other Batgirl miscellanea and you might be able to!
    It has become a bit too much of a new age sigil than a hook into a story.

    • FYI: I posted a link to your article on my Tumblr…cause I am a wanna be hipster I guess.

      • David Balan says:

        Thank you for the compliments, and especially for the promotion! You’re too kind.

        That’s an interesting idea, that they act as an ‘emotional punctuation’ rather than a hook a sort of “This is cool!”. I suppose I would rebutt such a claim with the statement that these splash pages don’t tell us why. They don’t progress the story or show any character traits – they’re merely an interesting visual. You can have both interesting visuals and engaging story – they really do only help one another.

        You’re right that the implication of these is “You want to be like Batgirl!” – but it’s a cheap implication. It’s an implication which lacks any understanding into who Batgirl is other than a girl in tights who beats up misanthropes and swings from rooftops. Those are surface qualities. The page offers no insight into who Batgirl really is.

        The best superhero stories are absolutely meant to make us feel as though we want to be them. (Well, the second best. The best make us feel as if we already are, or at the very least can be.) But these pages are operating on the assumption that surface understanding is what spurs emotion. It doesn’t.

  3. No problem!
    It is totally a cheap implication. I believe you to be correct in saying that we have no understanding of the characters or “story” beyond: WOW, THEY LOOK COOL!

    “The best superhero stories are absolutely meant to make us feel as though we want to be them. ”
    The only caveat I have to this is that there was nothing in Watchmen that made me want to be any character. Super-heroes are fucked up. haha

  4. Miguel Rosa says:

    Regarding hooks, I just read this in Jim Shooter’s blog:

    “The one place Bill and I parted company biz philosophy-wise, however, was on the subject of covers. Bill thought they should all be pin-ups. Character glamour shots. Period. Generate iconic branding images and use them everywhere. Period. Who gives a damn what’s in the book?

    Well, I do like the occasional pin-up, especially on a first issue. But there’s no reason a cover illustration can’t be a powerful, iconic image and relate to the content. Offer a “hook.””

    • David Balan says:

      Love Shooter’s blog, I became a follower today actually! Rather serendipitous. I really like all his comments about clarity and weight in art – as a visual editor, I think he’s right on the money.

      I would even argue that an iconic branding image and a content-exploring image are not at all separate ideas that can be interchanged – the more directly related your branding icon is to your content, the more powerful and effective as a symbol it will be, and the more iconic and powerful your content-related image is, the more people it will draw into the story. They’re almost the same thing!

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