One of the many issues I’m interested in exploring is the potential primacy of prose in the comprehension of comics, a medium which many (such as McCloud) describe as principally “pictorial” or “image based”.
The very idea that words may play a far more important role in conveying comics meaning and narrative than many scholars and practitioners think is enough to get some people frothing at the mouth. To some extent, I can understand why. I’ve approached comics as a primarily visual medium for years, taking care to show and not tell, and got on very well thank you. Some of the finest moments in my comics thus far are purely visual sequences, or deft uses of the visual and verbal. No-one’s trying to deny the visual role storytelling plays in a comic book. The issue at hand is simply the importance of the verbal in comparison to, and in conjunction with, the visual – an importance that seems to me far greater in its potential than I previously realised. And I can only follow the evidence as I discover it, based my own work and various research projects, comics, and graphic novels. ‘The primacy of prose’ is an idea worth exploring.
Stressing the primacy of words in comics storytelling is, at least, an interesting way to approach creating a graphic novel. Realising the images aren’t as important as I thought they were is fundamental to my decision to write and draw comics, rather than just write comics as I have for the previous few years. In this context the fact that I’m not the greatest artist in the world, and never will be, doesn’t seem so important. I feel I can still create something of value.
It’s affected my methodology in creating my latest graphic novel, The Hollow Man, too. Firstly, my script for the graphic novel, while meticulously constructed and tested, contains no panel descriptions of any kind. For me, the images across each page spring from the dialogue and sound effects or, to be more precise, my memory of what was in my head when I wrote the dialogue and sound effects. The visuals in a panel don’t have to have to directly relate to the dialogue, captions, or sound effects at all – though they should otherwise be complimentary and resonate off them in some way – but the idea still springs from those elements. Comics are often at their most interesting when the visual and verbal each convey aspects of meaning or narrative that the other has neglected. The sweet spot is where both visual and verbal come together to form new meaning, or additional layers of meaning, in the readers mind. Alternatively, the panel visuals might be directly related to what is happening verbally, something literal, or straightforward, such as an image of the person talking. Though in that case one should aspire to ensure that the information or aesthetics conveyed by the image haven’t already been conveyed by words, and vice versa. This kind of approach might sometimes mean deleting something from the verbal that has been fully expressed visually. Otherwise the clumsy doubling up of spurious or obvious meaning can become laborious and tiresome to read.
So, my ‘thumbnails’ are largely verbal affairs: arrangements of text. When I take the script and start to rough it into panel what I’m initially interested in the various ways the verbal elements can play across the page. My interest at this point lies in writing on the comics page, in Photoshop using comics font, rather than into a script document. In this way I can play with the comics space, meaning and timing simultaneously, as I’m writing, which is more effective, faster, and more interesting to read and create. I frequently amend the written elements at this point, sometimes changing phrases, more often deleting elements altogether. As I do this, something may occur to me – something which may be better expressed visually perhaps, or not at all, or an entirely different way. I’m free to roll with inspiring notions.
Sometimes that might involve making the page into two pages, which is what happened with the scene where Jay meets Pippa in the woods. I wanted to slow the pace of the panels down to capture the air and rhythm of nature in a forest, and the three-panel page with the butterfly seemed the best way to convey that change in mood. The idea occurred to me by considering the absence of such a page. Sometimes what isn’t there is as inspiring as what is.
Alternatively, inspiration may lead to turning two pages into one, as with the first page in the graphic novel, where the busy rhythm of a 12-panel grid seemed to capture the intensity and intonation of the narrator’s voice with much greater power than the two six-panel pages I originally explored.
Once I have the text laid out, that immediately inspires ideas for the position and size of panel borders. Whatever the number of panels there are generally a variety of different arrangements possible, and it’s at this stage the obvious visual characteristics of each layout will begin to affect my direction. Though much of the decision-making process still rests on how well the verbal elements flow within each option. Roughing in stick figures and environments may help clarify ideas, but much of the visual elements are still imagined at this point.
Once I’ve settled on a page layout I’ll start to draw, letting the position of balloons and narration boxes (which are still fluid within the panels) define where the characters and environmental elements will be. I draw as close to the final inked artwork as I can at this point, using a graphics tablet and Photoshop (a Kyle’s Belgian ink brush and the colour black) trying to keep things as simple as possible. The simpler the artwork, the more powerful and expressive it is, in my view. As I’m drawing, I firm up the final border around the artwork in each panel. So what I’m left with is a page of inked comics artwork and clumps of text.
If that looks good, I’ll add colour. Which is a simple and quick process, keeping things as flat as possible while conveying all the aesthetics and meaning required.
Next, I take this page into Illustrator, and import the text as different vector objects. In Illustrator I add vector balloons, tails, captions boxes, and any final Special Effect fonts required. I may also flip back to Photoshop to adjust the artwork slightly too: trivial things like fixing a colouring issues, or swapping panels about if it suits the final flow of verbal elements better.
This is all within the context of a few basic guidelines I’ve given myself over the years. The first of those is I’ve no interest at this stage in unorthodox panel layouts. Clarity and simplicity in the panel layout is vital. Every panel is essentially rectangular. For me, what is interesting and dynamic is what’s happening within the borders and gutters. The page can still be interesting to the eye because of the variety and action of the drawn characters, environments and props, the angles chosen, the sizes of elements in close up, dropping out backgrounds, inking and colour choices.
I try to encourage readers to lose themselves in the story and characters, and forget this is a comic book. Flashy artwork or panel layouts which introduce doubt or uncertainty as to where to look next are therefore anathema to my approach.
The second guideline is I always begin a scene on a new page, and therefore end it at the end of a page. This is not hard to do and creates a pleasant rhythm and solidity to the narrative flow. It also enables me to insert of remove scenes as I see fit without affecting other scenes, and to shuffle scenes around if I wish. Though I rarely do that, as my plotting is meticulous.
There are still things I want to change about the pages created thus far. Often the inked line is too heavy, a little out of control. To address this I updated to the latest Photoshop and tried a range of brushes that were more precise. I will go back and re-ink some of these panels towards the end of the project. to make everything consistent. Page 4 panel 1 and 2 are particular culprits.
I may also adjust the colouring further, depending on what evolves over the coming forest scenes. Some difference is intended between the pacing and atmosphere of the present day scenes and the ‘flashback’ scenes, and between forest and suburban environments. But the work still needs to look like a cohesive whole. My approach to colouring is simple, and quick to adjust, as I want to keep a certain amount of flexibility in tweaking these elements across the whole book as I work.
The biggest problem I’ve had thus far is drawing kids. I’m not great at it, and I need to be. So I’m practising. Some of the drawings of kids are a little inconsistent in their likeness, and the age looks variable. That’s because I’m still searching for the right approach. I’m aware some of the children look too old for their bodies. I need to work on it. I feel it’s the kind of issue where I’ll suddenly make a breakthrough in my drawing approach, and it’ll start to flow easily. That’s generally what happens if I keep trying. However good I am at drawing kids now I’m going to be twice as good in a few months time, just from repetition. At the point where my standard reaches an acceptable level I’ll go back in and rerender a few of the kids in these pages. I feel that If I do that now, I’ll end up doing it again later, and I only need to do it once to make everything look as it should.