Show it to a kid – Part 2: Practical improvements

I got a little side-tracked last week with the pre-order launch for Heads! so didn’t get round to finishing these follow up examples ready. As part two of this blog piece I wanted to give a few more examples of how I have tested my visual storytelling techniques and made changes to my comics accordingly. My eleven year old son is really good at helping me with this – kids in general are, and I explain more about this in the previous blog. Here are a couple more pages he’s ‘read’ and how his interpretation has led to improved panels.

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This is a page from Heads! where I wanted to use the imagery of changing gears in a car to represent part of the plot accelerating. The previous page has fewer, larger panels and shows the characters casually talking in the moving car. When I showed my son the scene, he said the first page was people talking about something important in a car. He reached this page, hesitated and then said that ‘everything sped up’. The rest of the pages in the scene felt more urgent to him after that, which was what I’d hoped the result would be.

Get a copy of Heads! to see for yourself.

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In this page from Rock In Purgatory, a snow leopard creeps through a las Vegas hotel to find its way to a concert stage before it attacks. The text and dialogue bare no relation to this, which I intended in order to draw less attention to it and make it feel more surprising. In the original layout for the page I had not referenced the snow leopard as much. When my son read the strip, he felt that the snow leopard seemed to come out of nowhere – not in a sinister way, but in a nonsensical one! The preceding page ends with a frame of the snow leopard in a cage with the lock open, which I reminded him of. Though it helped him feel more content with the strip, I realised that I wouldn’t be there to point this out to every reader. If my son was missing the point, likely most readers will. So, I added the snow leopard in just a little bit more and showed his journey through the hotel. The final page felt concise but accurate, and my son thought the silhouette of the beast added suspense – which suited me just fine.

Get a copy of Rock In Purgatory to see for yourself.

As we all know, proof reading a final piece is so valuable. I’ve learned that a visual storytelling proof read of a comic can be of massive benefit, and kids are great to do this with. Plus, they are usually a bit more blunt than friends or family may be, which is exactly what we need to make us, as comic creators, realise that something isn’t working and to find a way to make it better.

Had good experiences like this yourself? Let me know in the comments below.

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.

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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.

A (Un)fortunate Tale of art direction

The new Unfortunate Tales script landed in my inbox at the weekend. For those that don’t already know about it, Unfortunate Tales is a webcomic published on the Attack From Planet B website. It’s written by AFPB main man Ken Wynne and I do the art for it. Each strip riffs off of a different horror movie concept, with each strip linking subversively to the next. This edition takes on Return Of The Living Dead, having jumped from a reference in the previous Street Trash inspired strip.
Other than being a great little strip to work on, it’s an excellent opportunity try out new things. Ken’s scripts are particularly detailed for such short pieces and it forces me to very quickly learn how to draw things I haven’t drawn before or tackle compositions that I wouldn’t have come up with myself. This script presented a compositional problem, so for the first time in this working relationship I needed to negotiate how we produce it.

Ken’s original script describes a front facing one point perspective layout. The direction makes sure all the details are captured, but when it came to drawing this I found the camera angle to be very restrictive. Unfortunate Tales is exclusively produced with square panels. The layout Ken described called for a focal character at the front standing with legs apart so that we can see characters visible in the mid-ground. There is then a background layer with a suggestion of activity. In a wider panel, this may have been good, but we can’t change the panel shape. If I could crop to just knees down on the foreground character we could see more detail, but it is essential that we see all of the foreground character in full. So I was limited to roughly this layout:

I decided to try out a few different variants and eventually settled on tracking the camera around to the right, keeping the foreground character in full and in front of the panel, but now off to the left. The mid-ground character remain in the mid-ground, but I can come closer to them, showing more detail. And the activity in the background now appears directly behind them, adding a bit more urgency to their predicament:

I pitched this to Ken to get his take on this and he appreciated what I’d done. Once he saw the two compared to each other he felt that the side angle helped to show off more of what he wanted in the strip. So we went with this layout, and I am now working up the pencils for it. The last time I had to negotiate on scripts and layouts with a writer was when I drew Brutal Bombshells to Craig Jex’s scripts. It can be a delicate process, and sometimes it’s hard to tell a writer that what they’ve written doesn’t quite work. It comes down to not just respecting each other’s particular skill, but also respecting the fact that sometimes an objective eye on something can really help to make something better.

Plots, Bones and print

It’s been a week of frantic Heads! drawing for me. I’ve got myself all inspired by the great responses I’ve had from the webcomic pages released so far, that I have ploughed on with getting a load more of it drawn. The story so far has been piquing the interest of lots of people, and I’ve had requests for advance previews of the rest of the first issue from excitable fans. 

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I really want to get Heads! out as a print edition. The gritty black and white feel that I have gone for would look great as a pulp-style comic. I was going to let things run for a bit longer before I jumped into this, but I am thinking of launching a Kickstart or pre-order to get it out there. What you guys think? Would you like to have a copy of Heads! rolled up in your back pocket, or do you like it just fine as digital for now? 

I watched a ton of Bones recently, and I am still re-watching season 8. As influences go, Bones isn’t really something I refer to, but I’ve been quite intrigued by the plot balancing. Each season of Bones has a single, long running plot which either resolves by the end of reaches a cliff hanger to lead you into the next season. Some are more effective than others, with the Gormogon plot in season three being one of the strongest. But rather than the whole season be focused on that one plot, there are incidental plots each episode, to keep things interesting.

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Loads of shows do this, so it’s not unique to Bones. However, I particularly like the way they often tie the incidentals to the long plot. It gives the opportunity to bring new or supporting characters into something which may reveal them to be of more importance. Mostly, I like how it can be used to divert from things in the main plot and to add red herrings. In writing Heads! I want to be able to throw readers off the scent and lead them to conclusions that are false. I want to be able to drop some surprises along the way too.