I once read a piece of short fiction in which a comics book creator sat up one night and wrote, drew and painted his entire story, from scratch, in one go. Evidently there are authors out there who imagine this is how it works. Maybe some people do it this way, but if you’re new to comics and try to just hit the first blank board and make the whole thing up as you go, this can be hard work. With short sketches, Garfield style, you’ve more chance of getting away with it, but on the whole, planning saves headaches.
Storyboard is, really speaking the term used for films and layout is the term some people prefer to use for comics. However, ‘layout’ suggests just that, pinning down what’s going on the page and we think ‘storyboarding’ captures the more dynamic aspects of this process.
There is an event called 24 hours comics day, when you go in with no notes, and no script and do a story in 24 hours – as many pages as it takes. Part of what makes this interesting is that it isn’t what comics creators normally do.
Where to Begin…
Tom and I start out with a script – which I write in much the same way as I would a radio script, focusing on the way characters are telling the story in voice alone. Then we sit down together with the notepad and rough out how each page is going to work. I have some idea of how much dialogue we can squeeze onto a page, but if you’re new to it, you may need to figure that out at the storyboarding stage as well.
Breaking it Down…
We break the page down into its component panels and figure out how the dialogue and action are going to sit on the page. Every now and then we find we need to tweak the script as a consequence. Sometimes I underestimate how much art will be needed to put across the action. At the story board stage this gets obvious. You can also tell if the page is going to be too cluttered, or too static, or too much like the last page. This means changing it when all you have are a few words and a few roughed out figures in boxes. It doesn’t cause a vast amount of pain.
Imagine having carefully drawn, painted and inked three quarters of a page only to find that you couldn’t make the last panel fit.
Discussing the Page…
Working as a team, the storyboard stage is the point at which we discuss the page together. I write on my own, and once Tom is off doing the art I don’t have much to add. This is the time where we figure out how my words and his art are going to get along on the page, how to make them best serve each other, and we get chance to tackle it if there’s a problem in the making. I get a say in how the art will happen and he gets opportunity to have input into the script and fine tune it. I think for anyone working as a team, this method is a great asset because of the kinds of discussions it allows. You don’t have to spend vast amounts of time on it, but in those sessions, you learn so much about how the other person works and thinks, and about the bits of the job you aren’t doing, which feeds into how you continue.
For someone who does the whole comic by themselves, I still advocate the storyboarding approach, on the grounds that it saves time later on. Going from nothing to page is a big leap. I’m sure there are people who can do it, but I also think it pays to assume you aren’t one of them. If you are the sort of person who thrives on winging things, don’t imagine this process will inhibit your style. I’m a ‘panster’ the kind of author who flies by the seat of their pants, making it up as they go along. We get round this by having me make up the whole script that way, well in advance. This works fine for me. Tom hates over planning as well, so what this means is that his storyboards have the basic layout on them – the gist of postures, roughs of key features, and the text for reference. It also gives advance warning of any visual elements that might need some research, sets that need more considered designing, or poses you might need a model for. You don’t get many nasty surprises this way, and when you are working to a deadline, these kinds of issues really matter, because you budget research and design time alongside drawing time.
Things change between the storyboard and the page, because there’s been more time to think about it, to fine tune the body language, add in details and otherwise tweak the content. If you have a better idea as you’re working on the page, it pays to go with that. The process of making a first draft allows you to unconsciously mull over where the work is going, and creates time for ideas to mature and develop. Having a framework to work in makes it safer to improvise and also means that your improvisations are likely to be of a higher quality than the work you would probably have drawn if you just went for it from cold.
We both get plenty of space to improvise, but having the storyboard in the middle of the process means we also don’t find pages go awry half way through. It makes for a good balance.