Show it to a kid – Part 1: Testing visual storytelling

My son and I started developing a comic idea this week. We chuck ideas around all the time and sometimes choose to do something with one if it sticks with us. In this case, I’d seen a tweet from The Phoenix asking for writer and artist submissions. We thought we’d have a go at turning our fun little idea into something a bit meatier and get a submission over to them. 

This got me thinking about how much of an important a part of my comics creation process my son is. Not only is he full of good ideas, he’s a great sounding board for whether things are working well in respect of visual storytelling. Comics is a visual medium so you need to have your visual storytelling nailed down. Pages need to be interesting to look at, flow effortlessly and not make the reader have to ‘think’ too hard about it. The layout and presentation of the art shouldn’t dilute what’s going on with the story. Being able to create a sequence of images that tell the story at the right pace and over an acceptable number of pages is no mean feat. And testing the success of this is where my son comes in.

As often as possible, I show him thumbnails, page layouts or completed pages (yes, I know some of my work is not suitable for kids – I make sure whatever he sees and reads is appropriate), none of which have any text on them. I ask him to tell me what thinks is going on in each panel, and to tell me what the scene or page he’s just ‘read’ was generally all about. I ask him how some parts make him feel, though he often articulates this anyway. It’s so interesting and often makes me rethink a page, or brings up a point I hadn’t considered. My son is eleven years old – if he can’t ‘read’ a silent page, it probably isn’t working.

toad-webcomic-vers

Here’s my Toad of Toad Hall silent comic from last year. I gave this to my son and he was able to read the scene. He found humour in the ever changing costumes and understood the pleading urgency of Toad at the start. At the end, he told me that Toad was defiant, but ended up going along with the final plan, which he assumed would lead to him feeling angry with himself later on.

The point of this exercise is to see if the visual storytelling is hitting the right notes. It’s not an exact science – there are obviously some layouts and images that do not adhere to a standard storytelling process, or that need to be more abstract and subversive to suit the script. But generally, if I want to know whether a sequence has the right beats in it and moves the reader along with the story, it really helps.

I’ll put some examples of this up in a new blog post next week. However, for a quick reference on visual story telling I would suggest you all have a look at Bone by Jeff Smith and The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. If you look at Bone without reading the text you can see so much going on in the art. Humour and peril are well portrayed by the light and shadows in the panels, and characters feelings are presented in subtle hand gestures as well as body language and facial expressions. The Snowman is a completely silent book, yet Raymond Briggs gives us something that has so much to ‘read’. I remember my dad and I read this book a lot when I was a kid, and we he would get me to tell me what is going on in each panel. I do the same with my kids now too, and find that this is a book which takes a long time for us to read together due to the amount of narrative and emotion that can be interpreted from the art.

Check back next week for the second part of this blog, where I’ll break down some of my comic pages from Heads! with the help of my son’s interpretations.

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