Survival of the Fittest – The Evolution of a Page
by Rae Wells
Thumbnail drawings are the primordial soup of the comic page: messy, and full of potential.
When I’m working on a set of thumbnails, I keep the drawing very loose, and often open to a bit of interpretation. These drawings are fairly small, only two or three inches high. This keeps me from getting bogged down in detail, and makes it really easy to erase and start over if I change my mind about any of the design decisions I’ve made. If I’m working with a writer, it says “this is just an idea, feel free to suggest changes because this isn’t set in stone.”
Thumbnail Drawings, Part 1
For Holmes Inc.’s second issue story “Safe” by Aaron Feldman, I took the story map that Aaron had created, and copied out the beats for each page onto a comic layout page. In general, I make my written notes first and then make my initial drawings from them, but as I’m sketching I think up new ideas and make additional or replacement notes based on those ideas. There is about an equal balance between notes inspiring the sketches and sketches inspiring new or different notes.
Once I made up my notes, I thought about what would be the biggest and what would be the most important panels on the page. (It’s not always the same thing.) Next, I started marking out the panel boundaries, and started roughing in the gesture of each pose, as well as giving a little thought to which story beats should be close-ups and which should be more wide-angle. I also started giving a little thought to what camera angle I would use for each panel.
The feedback and direction I got from editor Ty Templeton on this version was that although I had done okay with choosing camera distance and angle, the overall page wasn’t as dynamic as it could be. the panels are too boxy, and the overall composition is a little too panel-by-panel. I was encouraged to use more variety in the panel types, and to think of the composition of the whole page, not just of the individual panels within the page.
Thumbnail Drawings, Part 2
Based on the feedback I got, and the script that was by now ready, I made a new set of thumbnail sketches. I already had a pretty solid idea of the action from each panel, because Aaron stuck close to his original story map. Because the script matched the original plan, the camera distance and angle I chose still made sense, I didn’t need to make any new notes. With this thumbnail I was able to pay more attention to incorporating feedback and refining my original concepts for the panels. Panel 1 is still about the emotional reaction of the character, Panel 2 is now about the character’s pose guiding the reader’s eye along the story thread, Panel 3 is still the biggest panel, Panels 4 and 5 have been rejigged to give Panel 3 more space, and Panel 6 is still about the main character carrying us through the page turn. I decided to use the jungle undergrowth as the border for this panel, to further emphasize the transition from the location where this page takes place to the location where the next page takes place.
The feedback and notes I got on this set of thumbnails was that it was almost ready to go, as long as I kept in mind that the figures needed to be smaller within the panels to give them a proper sense of mass and breathing space, as well as to make sure there was room for dialogue.
Once the basic structure of the page was approved, I did a set of layouts. These are about twice as big as thumbnails, so I can start being a little more definitive with my figure work, and start putting in a hint of background. For this stage, I paid more attention to continuity, and keeping track of which leg was injured.
When I am working on layouts, I take a copy of the script and mark out the page and panel breaks, and number of lines of dialogue so I can plan some unimportant areas of artwork that can be covered with word balloons later. I use a balloon guide so that the room I’m leaving is appropriate for he number of words in each line.
Even though I know that some of the artwork will be covered, I try to make sure that my page can stand alone as a piece of art, and doesn’t have blank spaces. This also means that I’m not tying the letterer’s hands later on, and they can choose where the balloons best fit in the narrative flow of the page. If a character is totally monologuing, I’ll go pretty loose and indistinct with the background, but I won’t leave it completely blank. I’ll put in at least a suggestion of an environment, unless it’s an intentionally backgroundless panel where I want to isolate the figure to really emphasize the figure to really emphasize the importance of whatever is going on or being revealed in that panel.
The next link in the evolutionary chain is page construction. These drawings are about half the size that the finished art will be. Some artists do their layouts at 100%, and if it’s a very complex page with a lot of characters and a lot of action, I’ll do my layouts at 100% print size, but for this page the 4.5 by 8 inches was enough. I like to do my perspective grids at this scale, because it’s big enough for me to see what I’m doing, but small enough that my vanishing points don’t need to be three feet apart. At this point, the page is really starting to take shape. I can start spending more time on drafting, because I know the basic concept is solid and approved. I finalize the placement of the horizon lines, and for the most important figures I indicate what direction they will be looking.
At this point, because the drawings are big enough and detailed enough to see what’s going on, my writer Aaron could see what I had taken a bit mis-step; the character wasn’t supposed to continue using the stick from page 3 as a support/weapon for the rest of the story. And that’s why it’s important to have regular communication between the artist and writer. Once I knew that, I went through and edited out the stick from the page constructions, adjusting a pose where need be to show the character battling though her injury rather than accepting and accommodating it. And because I still hadn’t spent lots of time yet on details, I could just make the adjustments in Photoshop rather than having to re-draw much of anything.
Having made the required fixes, all that was left to do was blow the constructions up on a photocopier, and trace them onto comic board for final penciling.
I noticed when I blew up the page construction, there wasn’t a strong enough connection between panels 2 and 3, so the reader’s eye could easily skip the panel. To prevent this happening, I poked the main character’s feet out of panel 2, and made the central tree in panel 3 more dominant. I also disconnected panels 4 and 5 both in distance and angle from panel 2. Although there are dialogue/caption bubbles associated with these panels, I felt that as these are observations that that the main character is making, it would make sense to show these panels as snapshots, and the captions could cross the panel borders, like labels in a science journal.
I adjusted the way the character is balanced, to show her having a little more trouble getting around but not giving in to it.
The rest of it was just straight-up illustration, based on the natural selection that occurred at each step along the way.
Survival of the fittest.