In February 2016, the Australian Comics Arts Festival held its inaugural festival here in Canberra. The minion and I know several of the comic book people from Melbourne so we headed down Northbourne Avenue and into the Novotel to catch up with the guys.
You may have seen pics on instagram from the festival, including Jason Franks’s panel and the launch of his Six Smiths trade volume II at Reload. Not knowing much about comics, we thought Jason’s panel — about how to write and compose comics 101 — was a good place to start.
This article is a prelude to more frequent comic book reviews, which will also be informed by Impact Comics’s comic books club. The book club meets monthly to discuss a set comic. So far I’ve attended three of these discussions, which featured BlackSad volume I, Master Keaton volume I and Invincible volume I.
One of the benefits of attending this book club is the wealth of knowledge the participants bring to the table, including a generalised history of comics and specific knowledge about the context of the original publication of the set comics. I started attending the comic book club before listening to Jason Franks’s talk about comics. However, Jason’s insights enriched my experience as a reader, providing insight for my reviews, so I’m sharing my notes here.
Any errors are mine and there are omissions; I was only jotting down dot points.
Jason Franks writes comics, prose and source code. His first novel, BLOODY WATERS, was short-listed for the 2012 Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel.
He is the author of the graphic novels THE SIXSMITHS and McBLACK, as well as numerous short stories in prose and comics. A collection of his mainstream short stories was collected in UNGENRED by Black House Comics.
Franks has published work in most genres, but he is most comfortable at in the speculative fiction spectrum–particularly at its darker reaches. Franks’ writing is often humorous and his stories frequently engage in metafiction. His protagonists are likely to be villains or anti-heroes and the Devil is a recurring figure in his work.
Franks has lived in South Africa, the USA and Japan. He currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.
Jason’s Sixsmiths duology has been shortlisted for a Ledger Award. Congratulations.
Introducing Jason Franks’s Comics 101 Masterclass
In the beginning in a galaxy far, far away, Jason said he would discuss mechanics of comics not of creative writing; he’d also discuss scripting styles: the differences between the media; how the story reads, text and content of panels.
Screen has continuous motion but comics breaks motion into panels. Comics need a balance between story and space allocated for action; for example, a character opening a cigarette packet and smoking a cigarette.
Comics need to show a passage of time between panels and pages.
Iconic comic book publisher Marvel gives a synopsis of the story to the artist who breaks it down and creates the visual aspect of the story. However there are other ways artist and author can collaborate. For example, scripts in thumbnails can help artists.
Creators’ first priority must be clarity in storytelling because lack of clarity turns off audiences and artists as collaborators. The artist might also draw something unexpected, wasting valuable creation time.
Screenplays have specific layouts. Likewise, there needs to be consistency of layout when writing comic scripts as an author to give to an artist. When collaborating Jason gives a full description of an opening scene even if a lot of the detail doesn’t appear in the first panel. This way the artist can visualise the space for use in future panels. Instructions give point of view as well as setting the scene then the dialogue is incorporated.
Dialogue is centred in the instruction script page unlike surrounding text. White space is the creators’ friend; a written script can be longer than the finished story.
Visual storytelling is generally the artists job not the authors’; it’s important not to micro-manage artists.
There are comics that break all the rules, like comics written without images eg Alpha Flight. The story is told by varying panel sizes, text, fonts etcetera.
Finished comics should not feature characters telling readers what they can see in the artwork but characters can tell you something that’s contradicted by the artwork.
- A page is a single sheet of paper like in a book. A spread is two pages like when you’re reading a paper book and you can see two pages at a time. Panels are the spaces (usually rectangles) on a page inside which the story is told; there are usually several panels to a page but this varies. The space between the panels is called the ‘gutter’.
- Splash pages take up the whole page for one panel. Double splashes take the whole spread (both pages). These can have inset panels but, generally, there’s one big image.
- Images that go across a full spread are problematical from a printing perspective, expensive and tell little story for the visual real-estate cost. They’re even more problematic when published in electronic format because the software may split the spread into two, losing the cohesiveness of the image, or the spread may appear too small or cropped in some way.
- Elements of panel layout in an author script for the artist include grids, pacing and shot calling (describing what’s inside the panel).
- Usually artists provide a grid layout for the page. Grids are rows or tiers and columns. Common grids are the four grid (2 up 2 across) and 6 grid (2 across, 3 down).
- Regardless of the grid, the number of panels can be changed. For example, one panel can take up 2 or more squares in the grid.
The final product: tips for creators
- In final comic book layouts, scene breaks almost always coincide with page turns. Likewise, visual twists and plot twists tie in to page turns.
- Scene changes in the middle of a page can be confusing especially to the new reader although interleaving scenes can work.
- End a page with a joke, a revelation or an ellipsis.
- Debut comics often have page breaks all over the place — overcoming this is something artists and authors need to develop over time.
- Caption panels may include location, narration, time/date, editorial comments and, sometimes, dialogue — especially voice overs.
- Generally a lot of captions is a problem, it implies the visual storytelling may not be adequate.
- Speech bubbles with tails point to where the sound is coming from. No tail implies either off-panel or an unidentified source. A splash around the tail implies the source is within the scene but is not visible eg speaker is in a box.
- Joining balloons with a tail implies time between statements although this can also be to fit text around artwork or interleaving comments in a conversation between people.
- A spread with a character going down a spiral staircase can be illustrated with bubbles joined in a spiral.
- Dialogue is displayed in a balloon, thoughts are bubbles (with cloud-like edges).
- Thoughts are usually first-person present-tense but are rarely used now, these days they’re generally presented in a caption instead.
- Bleeds are where the artwork goes to the edge of the page. Manga usually begins and ends with bleed panels. The first panel bleeds from top while the last may bleed to the right and/or bottom but never to the left
- Inset panels feature detail from the encompassing panel but that’s a bit old-fashioned.
- Montage sequence: there are no borders between the artwork even when there is a time lapse.
- Fewer panels are often a faster read because there’s less work navigating the page eg Manga.
- If you have 4 panels on a page with lots of text it will be a heavy read.
- Repetition of panels can control pacing by slowing things down. No text moves the story faster. A lot of negative space around panels gives an impression of things being disconnected in time, which is an element of controlling gutter size.
- Usually a scene starts with an establishing shot to orient the reader; this tends to be a wide panel, taking space. A long shot is a full-length of the character. A medium shot is a bust. A two-shot is 2 characters. A close-up is of the whole face. An extreme close-up is part of the face, usually the eyes.
- ‘Left’ for creators is left for the reader. Motion and height (low or high) of camera is more useful in film but it can be used across a sequence: when panning and zooming, the camera physically moves.
- There are 3 planes in any image: foreground, middle-ground and background.
- Mix up your shots within a page. For example: as a way of creating variety, one artist tries to include 1 panel that shows feet if people are talking.
- Extreme close-ups aren’t seen too much in cinema and there’s a reason for that: there’s no context.
- Comics feature obvious writing more in dialogue than at any other time. A common mistake is to use too many words.
- Good dialogue sounds natural but isn’t.
- Good dialogue indicates character, including lies, omissions and silence. Silent panel (no copy) can be very powerful as a contrast.
- Good dialogue doesn’t overwhelm the artwork.
- How much dialogue per panel? Panel sizes vary so it’s hard to have a rule of thumb. 1 balloon or 2 per char, with 1–3 sentences per balloon.
- More dialogue becomes difficult to orchestrate (and read).
- Cut to a new panel when characters move to a new thought.
- Rule of thumb: the character speaking first is on the left. When the right character speaks first, maybe give them a solo panel or a new panel with order flipped (from the other side).
- To deliver exposition, ignorant characters can ask questions. String out captions over visually interesting panels. To deliver exposition: stop, do a solo and make it interesting. Don’t have talking heads.
- Superheroes are the mainstream in English-language comics. It’s changing but other genres are still considered “alternative”. The Walking Dead is still considered an indie comic although it’s a bestseller.
- Superhero comics are a mix of genres.
- Horror was once the biggest genre in Western comics and is possibly the 2nd biggest genre today. It’s difficult to control: it’s all about the suspense, making you wait for something you don’t want to see.
This is where my notes ended. The session wrapped up well; I didn’t write it all down because the wrap included recaps and question time. Jason is a good speaker, presenting his information in an informative and interesting manner. I’m interested in hearing Jason speak again as well as other Melbournians like Bruce Mutard and former Melbournian Greg Gates. All feedback I received about ACAF was that it was a positive professional experience. I look forward to future ACAFs.