Tag Archive: Storytelling


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.

 

Picking up where we left off last time then, my goals when planning out The Happy Samurais #1 were to try and do what the first issue of a good manga does:  introduce the world and characters, setup the status quo, introduce some story problems/conflitcts AND get across the series premise/hook.  On an even higher level, I wanted to craft a story so strong, that if someone picks up this new series from an unknown creator, they’d not only enjoy the first issue, but be compelled into picking up the ENTIRE series.

Now, that’s a damn tall order in your typical 22 page comic.

That’s why my plan was to do what I mentioned previously and go with a double-sized first issue.  Somewhere during the writing process though, that double-sized issue became a triple-sized issue and the final page count is pushing 60 pages. (Now whether a 60 page first issue is an idiotic idea or not is a discussion for another day, but I will say the whole point of making this comic is to make it exactly the way I want and fuck everything else.)

So The Happy Samurais #1 has ended up feeling somewhere in between a single issue and a trade paperback (most TPBs collect 5-6 issues, which would be 120-130 pages).  I’m used to working on 22 comics.  It’s familiar.  The finish line is always in sight and that’s a VERY comforting thing.

Doing a long form comic though presents it’s own unique set of challenges.  And I will admit that 60 pages BARELY qualify as long form –especially if compared to say, Craig Thompson’s 600+ page Habibi (which I had the privilege to read last fall).  But 60 pages is still half of a standard trade paperback and it feels radically different from a 22-pager to me.

And that brings me to the point of this post.

As I draw The Happy Samurais #1, I kinda feel like I’m only making progress on the project when I see the finished page count tally rise.  For whatever reason THAT and ONLY THAT seems to be how progress is measured (maybe because it’s the simplest quantifiable way?).  I might do six character designs, three location designs and five pages of layouts over a couple weeks, but because I didn’t add any pages to the tally, I feel like I didn’t accomplish a damn thing.

And feeling like you’re spinning you’re wheels (even though you know that’s not true) can depress the hell out of you.

One of the biggest factors in seeing things through to completion is handling the inevitable ups and downs that accompany a project that requires such a long period of work.  Day to day and hour to hour, you’ll go from believing you can slay dragons, to convinced you’re so awful that you need to find a new line of work.  For me, the surest way to feel good about myself again is to draw pages and add to that tally.

But making comics isn’t JUST drawing pages.  Well, at least for ME it’s not.  Even though finishing pages is the only way you feel like you’re getting closer to your goal, you can’t jump the gun and rush to start them.

You have to have something to say in your pages.

You have to build the pages on the foundation of your world and the story you want to tell in that world.

If you’re in too big a rush to draw the pages without laying the proper groundwork, they’ll ring empty and hollow.  You can’t just toss stuff out there.  If you want people to notice, if you want to them to give a shit, you have to world build.  And that means thinking how one character, one object, one prop, one location etc. is going to affect EVERY other thing in that world.

And to do that right takes time.

Don’t get distracted by things you WANT to draw (design that one character, setting or maybe that promo image that you’ve been dreaming about for years) and make sure they’re things you actually HAVE to draw in order to get the next page done.  That’s always a good test for me.  Do I HAVE to draw this model sheet super-tight to make the next page work?  Or can I just do it medium-tight and still have it work?  What’s the “endgame” for this piece?

The pages will come.

You’ll add to your tally.

Just keep plugging away.

Complete each step.  Move on to the next and stop worrying about how close you are to the finish line.

As discussed a few weeks ago, you’ve got to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

 

Note: click here to read a couple of Craig Thompson’s thoughts on long form comics from my time at ACA with him.

Most new manga in Japan launch with double-sized stories (somewhere between 30-40 pages).  The page count is high enough that it leaves room to establish the world, setup the status quo, introduce some story problems and ultimately get across the story premise or hook.  Sure, the series might not really hit it’s stride for a few issues or even volumes — it personally takes me 2-3 volumes before I’m really sold on a series — but you have a pretty decent idea what the story is about and where it’s headed based on that first story.

Contrast that with the first issue of most new American comics.  You’ll read the first issue (generally 20-22 pages) and basically only be introduced to the world and/or the characters. You have NO idea where this story/series is headed.  I’m rarely COMPELLED in any way to pick up the next issue — because there was no series premise/hook or even just an issue-hook to bring me back.  They kind of just say, “here is this character, and here are some of the people he interacts with but that’s all we’ve got time for this issue.  Come back for the next few issues when we’ll explain just what the hell this character wants and what’s standing in the way of him getting it.  Just trust us…it’ll be worth it!”

Usually then, I’ll only pick up the next issue based on the creative team — they’ve got a proven track record of work I like, or the creators are doing something that seems like it has potential and I’m gonna give them a chance.  But it’s not that I’m COMPELLED to come back because the story they setup was SO AMAZING that I just HAVE to see where it goes.  And honestly, I think that’s an essential part of the job for the first issue’s story.  Introduce things, but also HOOK the reader with that issue.  MAKE them came back for #2.  Don’t just HOPE they come back.

Often times, even the best comics fail to do this.  Take Invincible by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley (current artist) and Cory Walker (original series artist).  I picked the series up initially because I love Cory Walker’s work.  I stuck with it and gave it a chance because Walker’s art was so badass — not that Kirkman’s story was bad (it was actually pretty good), but it didn’t MAKE you pick up the next issue.  At least not until the stuff happened with Omni-Man, which was probably issue #10 or #12.  That’s when Kirkman and the team started to hit their stride and they MADE me pick up the the next issue to find out what happened next.  I’m not trashing Invincible.  I think it’s one of the best comics around.  Just talking about it failing to hook me with issue #1.

I’m trying to remember what the last #1 that DID hook me for the whole series was.  Not sure, but probably Jonathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 from Marvel.  After reading that first issue it was just about impossible NOT to buy the subsequent issues.

Maybe just how important it is to hook a reader with the first issue depends on what kind of “name” you have in the industry though.  Someone like Brian Azzarello (random choice) has a strong enough track record with his past work, that he probably doesn’t HAVE to hook you with issue #1.  You’ll probably give him 3-4 issues before you make any decisions on continuing to pick up the book.  But when you’re an unknown creator like myself, I don’t feel I have that luxury.  I think I’ve gotta hook you right off the bat and MAKE you come back for the rest of the series.  If I can pull that off remains to be seen, but that’s the goal of issue #1.


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