Setting the Scene – Creating a Realistic Environment
“All the world’s a stage”, some upstart crow wrote down a few hundred years ago. While the metaphysical aspects of the statement are more than fun to speculate, they are useful and transferrable to the world of comic book creation.
We often take the setting for granted when viewing a piece of artwork, but each drawn line in the background of each panel helps to tell a story. And you tell a story best when you immerse the reader in the world you’ve woven around them. If it ain’t right on the page, it ain’t right on the stage, and if it ain’t right there, you’ve broken the veil of the tale.
For Holmes Inc., the settings are intrinsic to each story. Each setting contributes as much as a character to the outcome of the tale, and while not speaking any lines of dialogue, the background is the hammer that nails your attention span to the floor of the world.
When I wrote and drew “Poker Face” for Holmes Inc.’s upcoming second issue, I knew that the main action would be taking place in a gambling environment. However, since comics are a visual medium, I wanted to have the characters visit an AWESOME casino… one on a boat… but not just a cruise ship or a yacht … a hydrofoil with huge windows! ‘Cause it’s cool!
Never mind that a big wave would send poker chips and little old ladies flying. Never mind that the really thick windows on the front of the boat might cause a problem with structural integrity… I wanted a look that would make the reader go “cool!” when they saw it.
But in order for it to work, one needs to know where everything is. Think of the Batcave. Even if you’re casually familiar with it as I am, you buy it as a “real” location because it has been carefully mapped out. Try it. Close your eyes. I think even those who don’t know what or where the Penny Plunderer’s coin is are aware of a precarious ledge/road that runs from the hidden entrance to the heart of Batman’s command centre. It is referred to often in the Batman animated videos, and in many of the comics, and has been planned out by the artists in exacting detail.
And this kind of detail isn’t only for the cool establishing shots, its for every panel so that the reader knows where the characters are located in the world. From an intimate scene in the cockpit of the Deerstalker to a grandiose battle in an undersea laboratory, knowing the scene sells the plausibility of a story and keeps us rooted to the world.
In order to do this, one has to draw a top-down view of the set and place. Sure, you could start with a cool idea for a panel, but unless you know the geometry of your setting, the moment you change the viewing angel, the lines shapes might not line up, and you risk jarring your readers out of the world you’ve created.
Sometimes, though, a top-down map isn’t enough to capture what you want. As the case with Poker Face’s casino aboard the Un Aire Absent, I had way too many weird angels to deal with. I’ve dabbled in 3D software, but do not have a working knowledge of the accessible programs out there (like Blender – it’s free and awesome). It’s a goal I have for the summer. However, I needed to be able to see that casino in 3 dimensions. I needed to be able to “walk” through the set and choose my shots carefully.
So I built it, at 1:60 scale, out of an old sweater box from the Bay. I then got my camera and shot a number of angles that looked good.
Using the photos as reference, I was able to extrapolate the perspective and drew the set, and the people in it. By doing this, I was able to navigate the set, and bring the casino a little closer to reality.