Category: Making Comics

Layout work for a scene in The Happy Samurais #1.

Gabe Bridwell's Desk Shot 12.22.11

Happy Samurais issue #1 Layouts

Happy Samurais issue #1 Layouts

When working on a comic, I usually layout and draw one scene at a time. My fear has always been that if I laid out something like sixty pages, that my drawing, storytelling and layout abilities would improve so much during those first twenty or forty pages that I’d have to re-layout a ton of pages to incorporate all that I’d learned. I’m not sure if there’s any truth to that at all, but it made sense to me for a number of years.

Two things have recently helped change my thought process on that. One, during my time at the Atlantic Center for the Arts residency last year, I talked with Craig Thompson about his experiences working on Habibi. (Though Habibi just came out this September, Craig had finished it as of October, 2010, so I’d seen the completed book while I was there). Craig had laid out the entirety of the 600+ page Habibi at least three times (I wanna say it was actually more like five). Each layout wasn’t just a change of camera angle or adding another panel, it was completely changing the way he was telling the story or more often, changing the story itself. He felt laying out the entire book was the only way to really see how the story worked. You sat down and read it from beginning to end.

Craig’s group at the residency was working on longer form comics — stories with page counts at least 100 pages in length. Members of his group each had to have a huge chunk of layouts done for their story, which they’d then share with the rest of Craig’s group in a workshop type of session. Craig said he was more convinced than ever after his experiences workshopping with his ACA students, that laying everything out ahead of time was the way to do it.

The second thing that made me change my thoughts on layout was hearing details of how Pixar develops their movies. Directors at Pixar screen their films internally every 16-20 weeks for their “Brain Trust”. The “Brain Trust” is considered to be John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars), Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo), Pete Docter (Up, Monster’s Inc.) and Brad Bird (Incredibles, Ratatouille) — though I believe other key people like Bob Peterson, Ronnie Del Carmen, Michael Arndt etc. are involved in some form as well. They “screen” the film in whatever form it’s currently in to get feedback on how it’s progressing. So during the first screening, the film is probably still an animatic (animated storyboards), the next version is maybe an animatic with temp voices/music, then onto a version with blocked in 3D models etc.

This screening process isn’t necessarily a straight line through to a finished film. Often times they get three or four steps into the process only to decide things aren’t working and go back to square one — both Monster’s Inc. and Up went through multiple false starts. Andrew Stanton has said, “I don’t believe in a scene until I see it on the reels.” As Stanton describes Pixar’s process, it’s essentially making the film three or four times to get it right. (Incidentally, Stanton feels that Pixar isn’t the best at making movies, but that they excel at re-working them). What Pixar doesn’t want to do is waste time making a story that doesn’t work. They want to, as Stanton says, “Be wrong as fast as we can.” So Pixar turns it into a movie (even if it’s animated storyboards) as soon as possible to see how it’s working out. Thus it only makes sense to turn your comic into a comic as soon as possible to see how it reads.

Before I can lay out a scene though, I need to know what the characters and environment for that scene look like. If you design a characters that’s super-wide, or maybe has some ornate costume detail that sticks out three feet off each shoulder, you’re going to compose a shot with that specific costume differently than you would a generic mannequin figure. Same thing with a location. The shape and design of the architecture is going to suggest unique angles, framing, composition and backdrops to set your characters against. The background should never be an afterthought to the characters.

I currently have about half of the triple-sized Happy Samurais #1 penciled (not all consecutive scenes, I jumped around a little). To apply my new strategy of laying out the rest of the issue, I had to finish off all remaining character and location designs. I like to make a reference packet for each character/location (see stack in the photo below). The packet will have printouts of whatever designs I’ve drawn and any other reference I might need. As of yesterday, I FINALLY finished off all the design work for issue #1 and this morning I start laying out the remaining scenes. The design phase always bogs me down (when I think back on many of the projects I worked on that fell apart, the design phase was almost always where it occurred.). It just happens to be the most time-consuming task for me. Super-happy with the designs I came up with, but honestly more psyched to be done with it and back to drawing and telling stories.

If you’re interested, I highly recommend checking out the following links to Pixar related podcasts:

Andrew Stanton – talks about upcoming John Carter movie & Pixar’s film-making process.
Pete Docter & Bob Peterson – talk with Jeff Goldsmith of Creative Screenwriting about Up.
Brad Bird – brilliant interview about Brad’s career and work in animation.

Design Work for The Happy Samurais Issue #1


While debating which of seven different character design variations to choose today, I came to a pretty big realization. It’s actually something so simple and basic that it prompts a “no duh” response.

To work faster, you need to make decisions faster.

It’s as simple as that.

Ask yourself this: what stage of work are you slowest at? I’ll just about guarantee whatever stage you’re slowest at isn’t actually the most labor intensive, but the stage you take the longest to make a decision on. Could be anything– plot, script, character design, location design, page layout, figure drawing, expressions, rendering, inking, lettering, coloring — but on one (or many) of those stages you AGONIZE over what direction to go.

Maybe it’s choosing between three possible panel layouts. Or two different color palettes for the scene. For me, it’s definitely sorting through endless character design possibilities. Should I use this body type on this character or save it for the cool guy in issue two? Who gets this sweet haircut, the girlfriend or the tv show hostess? The amount of decision making that goes into a character design, just bogs me down.

It reminds me of some advice Joe Kubert gave me when I asked him about drawing faster. At first he said the answer to drawing faster was to just force yourself to draw faster. Typical Joe Kubert answer! Thankfully he went on to elaborate a little and basically said that you force yourself to get into the habit of drawing faster. He forced himself to draw faster, setting limits on how long he’d work on something, which in turn forced him to make decisions faster. And the more he pushed himself to make decisions faster, the faster the decision making process became.

It’s much easier said than done, but I’m hoping now that I’m more conscious of it, when I start to get bogged down on a certain stage, I can realize I just need to evaluate things, make a decision and get on with it.

Want to work faster?

Sit your butt in the chair and make some decisions.


Thought it might be cool to take a look at all the development work I did for a new character in my Happy Samurais comic. I compiled all the drawings I did for it in the images below.

In the past, I’ve almost always designed characters with pencil and paper and I still did most of the “daydreaming”, “what if…” type of stuff that way. But when it came time to try out all the subtle variations on the designs (what if these lines go up instead of down, or what if I make that part fat instead of skinny…) I started using Photoshop. When drawing on paper and I’d want to compare design variations against each other, I’d just bust out another drawing — which invariably would be slightly off (proportions, shape, silhouette) from the original. I gotta say, I really loved being able to just keep tweaking the same image over and over and end up with dozens of variations to chose from. Admittedly, I went a little overboard (60 + variations!) but the process also helped me arrive at what I think is one of the coolest character design I’ve ever done.

Character Design Development Sketches

Character Design Development Work

Is all this a little much for one character design? I guess that all depends on your point of view. Monthly comic book guys would NEVER spend this much time on a character design. They just don’t have the luxury to work on something this long that’s NOT a page. And I get that. Monthly comics gotta get out the door. But I also think that’s one of the reasons most comic book character designs are so average. Seriously, character design skills among comic artists are way inferior to our brothers in video games, animation and film. Hell, half the time, comic artists are designing characters on the page. There’s no way you’re going to come up with a strong fundamental design that way.

I’m also trying to make a different type of comic than most. One that’s developed more like a film than a comic — where tons of time and effort is placed on character design, prop design, location design and special effects, etc.

Yes, that’s a lot of work for one character design, but badass shit isn’t made overnight.

Will it all be worth it in the end? Only one way to find out.

And I know I’m being a tease by not showing the final design, but I’m still trying to figure out how much to hint at and how much to show in this making-of process stuff. After all, I don’t want to ruin any of the comic reading experience.


You come up with a ridiculous idea that you think MIGHT be brilliant. You IMMEDIATELY want to call a friend so they can pass judgement on the idea and confirm (or deny) its quality. It’s AGONIZING wondering if an idea is genius or utter shit — and that line is much finer than you’d imagine.


“If an idea is any good, it’s on the verge of being stupid.” — Michel Gondry


That’s probably my favorite quote on creativity, ever. Seriously. That’s basically my litmus test for an idea. When I think back on their conception, all my best ideas made me laugh out loud. Because they were ridiculous and they were awesome. And that’s how I’d hope that people would describe my work. Ridiculously awesome. Which in my mind, ridiculously awesome = fun.

Truth is, you’ve got to let your “brilliant” idea rattle around in your head (and subconscious) for a few days. I like to print a cliffs-note version of my idea out on a piece of a paper and leave it around everywhere (in the studio, bedroom, copy in the car) so it’s constantly confronting me (not even making that up). Be patient and sleep on the idea for a couple days. Come to your own conclusions, THEN call your consigliere (in my case, Ben Dale) and bounce the idea off them.

Opinions of your inner-circle are invaluable, but if you call on them too soon, the idea (and your ego) are too fragile to get true assessment of the idea’s worth.

So, Ben, expect a call in couple days, cause this one just might be brilliant.


Here are the character designs for The Happy Samurai’s rival band, Pink Dragon Dirt Bike. The overall design theme was “sci-fi glam”. Darth Vader meets David Bowie. We’ve got Red Nozaki, the brilliant guitarist, vocalist and songwriter. Goken (literally translates to strong fist) on drums. Fastest guitar player in Tokyo, Uzi Suzuki plays lead. And Lady Blitzkrieg locks down the low end on bass.

Red Nozaki of Pink Dragon Dirt Bike

Goken of Pink Dragon Dirt Bike

Uzi Suzuki of Pink Dragon Dirt Bike

Lady Blitzkrieg of Pink Dragon Dirt Bike

Pink Dragon Dirt Bike


Super-interesting video of Sara Pichelli inking the new Ultimate Spider-Man in Photoshop.

The reference madness that goes on in my studio while working. That’s all for one building!

Gabe Bridwell Desk Shot, what's on the drawing table 8.22.11

Last October, I had the pleasure of attending an Atlantic Center for the Arts residency with Paul Pope, Craig Thompson and Svetlana Chmakova (see previous ACA posts – part 1, part 2, part 3, & part 4). One afternoon, I went over to see what was going on in the Craig Thompson group studio. There sitting on the table was a stunning new comic page by Craig. It was his introduction to Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s Daytripper trade.

I was utterly enthralled with the piece. First, it was an original piece of Craig Thompson’s art in my hands!! Second, it was such a gorgeous page, I got lost looking at Craig’s lush brushwork, patterns and hand lettering. Third, I found what Craig said in the page to be a very insightful. But more than anything, I was mesmerized by the idea that Craig had done the introduction as a COMIC. Now maybe doing an intro as a comic isn’t a groundbreaking idea to everyone, but it was to me. It hit me hard and I began to think or rethink lots of different possibilities. You could take virtually anything and “do it as a comic”. I was so captivated by the piece, I actually stood there and drew it in my sketchbook (see below) so I could have it for inspiration until the Daytripper trade came out. After I got done staring at the piece for an hour and a half, one of the artists in Craig’s group, the amazing Jake Wyatt, told me that Craig was really worried the introduction wasn’t any good and that he hadn’t actually “said anything” with it.” Over dinner that night, I got a chance to tell Craig how amazing and powerful I thought it was. I worry he was too humble to accept my sincerity.

Craig Thompson's introduction for Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba's DAYTRIPPER

Gabe Bridwell's study of Craig Thompson's DAYTRIPPER intro

I was reminded of that Craig Thompson story because I’ve recently seen a couple creators do promos/ads for their projects as a comic instead of just the typical static illustration or poster. And I LOVE that idea of just “doing it as a comic.”

Jay Faerber and artist Simone Guglielmini have a new series coming out from Image Comics called Near Death. To promote the comic, Image did a sweet poster of the cover of issue #1 by Tomm Coker. Doing a cool promo poster is always a good idea (especially when you have someone as amazing as Tomm doing it), but it doesn’t really get the logline of your average series across. So Jay and Simone did a 3-page promo story that spells out the premise of their book. The promo straddles the line and is basically a comic and an ad at the same time. They’ve even managed to work in testimonials from Brian K. Vaughn and John Layman. The idea and execution is absolutely brilliant! And extremely effective as well. I’d be way more inclined to pick up Jay’s book after reading the promo comic than if I’d just seen the cover to #1 (and I don’t mean any offense to Tomm Coker with that remark).

Jay Faerber's NEAR DEATH promo

Jay Faerber's NEAR DEATH promo

Jay Faerber's NEAR DEATH promo

Another example of “doing it as a comic” I’ve seen recently was for Shane and Chris Houghton’s comic Reed Gunther. I think Shane and Chris felt Reed Gunther was being unfairly categorized as an “All-Ages Kids Book”. But instead of just slapping a blurb on their book saying, “A comic for everyone” or something like that, they did  2-page comic explaining the idea instead. And I think it turned out great. It honestly made me take notice of the series more than any of the other promo images they’ve done.

Shane and Chris Houghton's REED GUNTHER promo comic

Shane and Chris Houghton's REED GUNTHER promo comic

And the last example I thought of is some of the promos that J. Scott Campbell did for Danger Girl and Wildsiderz. The Danger Girl promo was a fun little 2-page comic that not only got the series premise across, but also showcased it’s fun factor and sense of humor. With Wildsiderz, Jeff pushed things quite a bit more and basically did a 10-page comic trailer for the series.

Now I’m sure I’m missing some really obvious ones, so help me out if you guys think of any and mention them in the comments.

J. Scott Campbell's DANGER GIRL Promo

Wild Siderz #0 Preview Comic by J. Scott Campbell

Wild Siderz #0 Preview Comic by J. Scott Campbell

Wild Siderz #0 Preview Comic by J. Scott Campbell

Wild Siderz #0 Preview Comic by J. Scott Campbell

Wild Siderz #0 Preview Comic by J. Scott Campbell


From Axel’s recent interview with CBR:

“What do readers want from an event? Huge stakes, a satisfying climax that brings about some sort of lasting change to the status quo and a few loose threads to keep them guessing where the ongoing story is headed. And let’s face it, usually those threads come in the form of something bad looming on the horizon. If there’s one certainty in comics, it’s that victory always comes at a price. It’s our job to find ways to keep the inertia going 24-7, to keep the pressure on our heroes.”

I couldn’t agree with Axel more. The comics I find really entertaining are ones that change up the status quo, explore that new situation to the fullest, then change it up again. The catalyst for the changing of the status quo doesn’t necessarily have to come from an event or crossover though. It can just be a regular arc of the book. Either way, Marvel is on the right path with their event comics. It’s about what stories they can tell. Not what gimmick people will buy. That’s a lesson DC has still failed to grasp.


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