How to Make Comics: Where Do You Begin?
Experiment with different approaches to visual storytelling.
Sep 23, 2021
If you’re interested in creative processes, you might also want to pick up Leigh Ann Beavers’ and my textbook, Creating Comics, which includes detailed examples and exercises. For now though, I can offer the short answer in four words: story, image, layout, and canvas. Though not necessarily in that order.
The Script-First Approach
The Draw-First Approach
Next they redraw their characters. Fifty times. From all kinds of angles, performing all kinds of activities, until drawing the character becomes second nature to their hand. During this process, they also learn new things about the character. When we ask a range of questions the next day—from “What did your character have for dinner last night?” to “What is their lifelong ambition?”—our students have no problem answering them. That’s because drawing is “writing.” As the characters grow more exact on paper, their backstories and plot lines are taking shape too.
Here’s an example from my own art. I began by creating a figure on my laptop—knowing nothing about the character except what I learned through the drawing process. That initial character image eventually developed into the full-page Shine a Light.
Chris Gavaler. Shine a Light. 2018
The Layout-First Approach
Layout-first is a little like image-first because it starts with drawing too. But instead of the image content, you begin by drawing the frames that will define the edges of those images. Though it may sound unimportant, a pattern of frames is often the most prominent feature of a comics page, if not comics generally. Dividing a page into two halves, or into nine smaller units, shapes the rhythm of the images and the pace of the story they tell. Larger frames can fit many more details, inviting a viewer to linger longer. Because small frames ask for less detail, they prompt not only a faster viewing pace but also a certain kind of drawing style.
Begin by sketching a grid of panels separated by even horizontal and vertical white spaces (called gutters). That uniformity will affect how you tell your story, giving each moment equal weight. But what if the panels aren’t all the same size or shape? A larger or tilted or thickly framed panel will accent whatever image content appears inside it, giving that moment greater importance than everything that appears around it. What story moments might fit into the accented panels?
Diagrams demonstrating ways to accent panels (left) and create viewing paths (right)
The Canvas-First Approach
If you like all three of these approaches and can’t decide which is your favorite, you’re in luck because you don’t have to: canvas-first is for you. That’s the combination default mode. You look at each page as its own canvas and incorporate as much or as little of each approach as suits your needs.
Maybe you have a personal story in mind (as any memoirist inevitably does), but you’re not sure where to start. Well, see what image your hand starts drawing first, and shape the material around that moment. Or before you start drawing images, maybe the story idea can tell you something about layout. Is there an arrangement that seems thematically suited to your material? Maybe begin with a vague sketch, a few scribbled words, a rough layout, adding specificity to all three elements each time you redraw on a new piece of paper.
There is no right way to start a comic—which means there’s no wrong way either. Experiment until you find a way that works for you. And then experiment some more until you find another, and another. Each page may be different, asking for a different process to discover it.
Artist Raymond Pettibon is known for works that blend comic book–style illustrations with words from his own mind and texts he has read. When asked whether drawings or words come first, the artist says, “[It] is not that clear cut.” Works like this page from the book Plots on Loan represent a canvas-first approach.
Experiment with the following prompts to see which approach to making comics works best for you.
Start with Words
Choose a text based artwork from MoMA’s collection, like John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art. Imagine the words in the artwork as the dialogue for your comic. What images come to mind? Who is speaking these words? If this artwork was a speech bubble in a comic, what would be around it?
Start with an Image
Find a work that features a clearly defined object, person, or place and build a comic around that image. Start by considering what the people in the artwork might be thinking or feeling, and think about how you could depict this in speech/thought bubbles. We recommend using Barkley L. Hendricks’s Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins). Think about what happened before and what happens next, and draw these additional scenes in frames. Keep adding frames and building your story until you feel it is complete.
Start with Layout
Select an abstract work of art that has a lot of shapes, forms, and lines. Use the composition as the inspiration for your panel layout. For example, what kind of story do you think might fit into Lygia Pape’s free-floating squares? Does each panel tell a single story? Or would the panels be connected? In what order might you read the panels?
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Sep 16, 2021
How to Make Comics: What Are Comics?
Discover the unexpected similarities between comic books and the artworks in MoMA’s galleries.
Sep 9, 2021