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Since the elections are just weeks away I couldn’t help think of comic art and its obvious similarities to political cartoons.

One could easily write a large volume covering the vast history of cartoons in American politics. In this blog, I’ll spare you all the details. But suffice to say it’s a fascinating art form that has spanned the length of our republic—from the first hours of the War of Independence to the current presidential race. Some cartoons have catered to the darker biases of the American citizenry while many more have simply brought good-natured entertainment to the public.

Here are several books worth checking out that beautifully illustrate this rich tapestry of American expression:

 

American Political Cartoons, 1754-2010: The Evolution of a National Identity by Steven Hess and Sandy Northrop

The Best Political Cartoons of the Year, 2010 Edition, Edited by Daryl Cagle and Brian Fairrington

The New Yorker Book of Political Cartoons, Edited by Robert Mankoff

Herblock: The Life and Works of the Great Political Cartoonist by Herbert Block, Edited by Harry L. Katz, Introduction by Haynes Johnson

Minneapolis based comic book artist Tyler Page, illustrator of one of Graphic Universe’s most popular series—Chicagoland Detective Agency—has come up with a novel idea about how to distribute his original graphic novel series called Stylish Vittles: He’s just giving it away. More specifically, Page has announced he’ll offer a special 10thanniversary issue as a free e-book.          (see Comic Book Resources or tylerpage.tumblr.com/)

Page explains, “Ten years ago I published a book called Stylish Vittles: I Met a Girl. It was the beginning of my professional comics career. (I have) put together a 10th Anniversary Collection e-Book which includes all three original books, as well as the conclusion that came years later: Stylish Vittles 4 – Behind the Page: The Saga of Rob Harvard.”  Additionally, Page is offering a few generous bonuses. One is a “director’s cut” e-book –a condensed version of the original book that is presented in “a shorter, simpler narrative”. And the other— if you want just the opposite—is Page’s “Deluxe Collection” which includes two appendices containing as he puts it, “almost one thousand pages of process material —outlines, scripts, sketches, layouts, etc. (and) all of the material I did which led up to the creation of the Stylish Vittles books.”

This cool gesture is sure to delight fans of Page as well as anyone who just wants to enjoy reading an original comic book series and get a glimpse at the “behind-the-scenes” process of a talented graphic novelist.

I received some positive feedback on my Design Lessons at Comic Book Camp post, so I though I’d share another lesson from comics camp. Today’s lesson is about one of the most valuable, yet underutilized tools in the cartoonist’s metaphorical  toolbox: page composition. No amount of impressive draftsmanship can hide poor page architecture.

Let’s break the comic page down into basic elements, and label each part, and learn how they work. This will also sound very basic, don’t be fooled! even master cartoonist must keep these basic concepts in mind when crafting a page.

For an example of effective page composition, I offer this page from one of my favorite short comics, “Flies on the Ceiling” by Jaime Hernandez.

The first thing we need to consider when building a page of comics is page flow, or how we read comics. In this culture, we read them left to right and top to bottom. Cartoonists always need to keep this knowledge at the front of their brain. It will affect how every panel is drawn.

As a general rule, we always want to “go with the flow”. We want to design our pages to lead the reader’s eye in the direction it wants to go. You’ll notice that in each panel our protagonist, Izzie, is pointed in the direction of page flow. This is not an accident, Jaime Hernandez designed these panels to lead your eyes. I like to say that panel design sends secret messages to your brain telling it “look here”.

If panel composition goes against page flow, it can jar the reading experience. And sometimes you want that–perhaps you want to stop the reader in their tracks. This is a good time to break the “go with the flow” rule.

Next, let’s look at the most basic element of the comics page: the panel.  If we compare comics to prose, I like to think of a panel as a sentence.

A horizontal row of panels is called a tier. I like to think of the tier as a paragraph.  Like a paragraph, it is a unifying element. The start a new paragraph is the start of new idea, it signals change. A new tier is also great opportunity to signal change. You’ll notice that on this page the two major changes in time and location were made at a tier break (panel 4 and panel 7).

Through panel composition, the cartoonist can control the pacing of their story. Consider this sequence from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics:

What happens when he alters this story slightly, like this?

There are two extra beats before the guy responds “I guess”. Panel repetition is a simple way to stretch time.

“Flies on The Ceiling” is an interesting specimen, because Jaime is using a perfect grid. Every panel is exactly the same size, as in the above McCloud example. What happens if we play with panel size? How does that sequence compare to this one?

Time is stretched, but in a different way.  The meaning is for us, the reader, to determine. I interpret it as a pregnant pause–there is something going on here beneath the surface. Playing with panel size is a good ways to give a certain moment significance. It’s sending another secret messages to the brain of your reader: “Look here”. A big panel equals a big moment.

There’s so much to consider when building a page of comics! How do you plan out the perfect design? When you build a house, you need a blueprint. In comics, we call those blueprint thumbnails.

Above are the thumbnails and finished art for Satchel Page: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso.  You’ll see that thumbnails are a rough preliminary sketch. It’s not about creating artwork,  it’s about recording information.

Creating a good page of comics, and then a good sequence of pages, is a bit like solving a puzzle. Thumbnails let you problem solve on paper before you commit to finished artwork. Don’t be to precious or careful about it, just scribble till you have a plan that works. You’re comics pages are sure to benefit from it.

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