Got these bound copies of The Happy Samurais #1 dummy comic last week. It’s the full 80+ page comic with rough lettering—some pages just layouts, some penciled—but the whole thing as a readable comic.
A number of months ago, I wrote about my new layout theory—“Make it a comic as fast as you can”, which helps you follow up on Andrew Stanton’s advice to “Be wrong as fast as you can.” That dummy is the result of trying to apply those principles.
Make it a comic.
Then read it and see if it’s any good.
If you’re going to “make it a comic”, then you need to recreate the experience someone will have reading the comic. And that means a couple things:
One, you’ve got to be able to actually READ it. You need to letter your pages—even if it’s just rough lettering to get the basic dialogue across. Dialogue changes the pacing, rhythm and beats of a scene. There’s no way to know if your story “works” without it in there. Don’t just give them pantomime pages and figure that’s “close enough” to how someone will read/experience it. Your story is words and pictures TOGETHER. Stop thinking like a writer or an artist and start thinking like a storyteller.
Two, you’ve got to setup your dummy comic as spreads (two facing pages) to simulate the reading experience. When someone reads a comic, they’re not seeing one page at a time (well, unless it’s digital, and that’s another topic…). Readers see both facing pages of a spread at the same time. And sometimes they can’t help but kinda skim ahead to what’s on a right-hand page a bit before they start reading the left-hand page. For good or ill, that’s part of the printed comic book experience and you need to consider. Whether something is a left or right hand page is something I take into account at every stage—from script, to layouts, to finished page. When and how you setup and reveal information on pages and page turns is absolutely crucial to telling a compelling, page-turner of a story. Plus, seeing your comic in spreads can also help you avoid any awkward tangents that make you read two separate pages as one continuous spread, or vice versa, a page that is supposed to be a spread with panels, but reads as separate pages, both leading to a confused reader.
This process couldn’t have worked any better for me. I sent my dummy off to my inner circle of creative confidants. They read it and told me what they liked and what could use some work. That feedback helped me shore up the story and figure out why the ending didn’t have the emotional impact I was trying to convey. I made a second dummy book with a reworked ending that is easily five times better than the original version.
No matter how smart you think you are, or how well you think you know your story, you’re ALWAYS going to be too close to see it objectively and that’s why getting objective, honest feedback is so crucial. When do you want to find out your comic doesn’t work? When you did 80 pages of layouts, or 80 pages of pencils and inks?
Now, truth be told, I didn’t EXACTLY follow this process. I didn’t layout the entire comic before I started drawing pages. As I mentioned in that previous post, I didn’t think I needed to. I actually penciled the first 20+ pages of the story based on my script (which I had worked to death), doing layouts scene by scene. Those first 20 pages were all setup, hooks and teases and I just knew how they should be laid out. As I worked on the second act of the comic, I found myself asking questions like: Should this be a splash, a double-page spread or a paneled page? Can you really do this scene in two pages, or should it expand to four? If the establishing shot is done this way will it slow the pacing down too much at the wrong moment?
That’s when I realized I needed to layout the rest of the comic. That there’s no way to know the answer to those questions except by reading it in comic form. To quote Andrew Stanton again (yes, I’m trying to set a record doing that), “I don’t believe in a scene until I see it on the reels.” Not “in my head”, or “in the script”, or “on the set.” But when the scene is in the form it’s gong to be consumed by the audience in.
So, who knows? I’m still making this shit up as I go along. Maybe you don’t need to layout the entire comic from the beginning. But I think at a certain point it’s necessary to help you bring your story home in a more satisfying and complete way. I know my comic benefitted from it.
Oh, and since a few of you have asked, the cover is just something I mocked up for the dummy book, not necessarily the actual cover for the first volume.