One Fan's Opinion: Issue #32

Fri, April 7th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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If you're going to do the job you really should learn how to do the job.

A lot of folks send in their pitches to Image comics. And that's terrific - we're in the business of publishing comic books so if you have a great comic book project we certainly want to hear about it. But if you're drawing yours with crayon on lined schoolbook paper, you might want to rethink your career choice.

One thing I encourage people to do is figure out how to do things. If you want to be an artist one of the best things you can do for yourself is buy a page of original art. It doesn't need to be an expensive one. Look on eBay and find a nice cheap one by an artist whose work you can barely stomach. The important thing is to have it and study it. How large was it drawn? What kind of paper was it drawn on? What tools were used to draw it? When it was reduced to see print, what closed up and what looked good?

Those are the sorts of things you can learn by having a page of original art on hand. If you buy a recent page (say, in the last six or eight years) you'll also begin to get an idea of how full bleeds work. ("Bleeding" a old printers term - it comes from the old school days of printing where, if an image was to go to the edge of the page, the pressmen would build up ink so it would "bleed" out on the press-sheets so that when the paper was trimmed there was no paper-white. The term stuck as extending art beyond the trim size - a drawing which goes to the very edge of a printed page - even after we went digital and the presses didn't work in the same manner).

I can't begin to tell you how much I've learned from owning original art - but it's a lot. There were always effects that, as a comic book reader, baffled me. But with the art in hand I could know that was done by dragging an X-acto knife over the art and tearing up the paper and that was done with a pen and that was done with a brush and that with a sponge and that with a crayon and that by flicking a toothbrush loaded with ink and that with a toothbrush loaded with white out and that by dragging a white out pen across the page and that was cut out and pasted in while that other thing is zip-a-tone. It's an educational experience.

Even getting a sheet of paper helps. Your first question might be, "What are all those blue dotted lines for?"

But you'll soon figure out that the largest box - the solid blue outline - is a full bleed page. Draw to the solid line in insure that your art bleeds. Don't put important storytelling information too near the edge as it may not see print.

The dotted lines on the left and right next to the solid outside line indicated where the paper gets trimmed (it's also trimmed at the top and bottom but there often isn't a dotted line to indicate that, just small marks outside the largest box). In order to do a bleed page - the printers need a small bit of room to play with and this area makes sure that your bleed pages actually go off the edge of the printed page. In addition, if you were to do a double-page spread, you'd cut the art boards on this line (you'd cut your left page on the right side and your right page on the left side and butt the two trimmed edges).

The small dotted box is the area in which all lettering should be contained. It's also where non-bleed pages stop. A good idea is to draw your pages so that bleed pages don't run into each other (unless, of course, you're doing a double-page spread). If you make left hand pages bleed to the right and right hand pages bleed to the left there's a danger that the two pages look as though they're supposed to be a double-page spread. You don't want readers getting confused in that way, trust me. It's better to bleed one page and not the adjacent one or to be selective about what things you decide to bleed. Think of the two pages sitting next to each other and draw with that in mind. Be aware of what is a left-hand page and what is a right-hand page. And you can mix things up - have one page bleed black and the next white, but the important thing is to not to confuse your reader! You don't want your work to be indecipherable.

There's a lot to learn - a lot to absorb. Getting a hold of some art helps.

If you want to write - get a hold of a script or two. There are ones available online and seeing how folks do theirs can be quite helpful.

There are quite a few ways of writing scripts.

There's the real Marvel method that Stan Lee concocted (which is seldom used these days). This involves the "writer" simply talking through the plot with the artist who took notes and used those notes to draw from. In a case like this, it's usual for the artist to include liner notes scribbled in the margins of his original art to jog the "writer's" memory about what was discussed. This method really turns the artist into a co-writer as their contributions are over and above simply following directions.

There's the Marvel method, which is an outline that the writer does. These can vary in length and include some dialogue or not. When I drew the "Amazing Spider-Man" with writer David Michelinie, he wrote plots, but he wouldn't break the story down into pages. He'd describe the splash (or title) page and then ramble on at length and it was up to me to decide how to break it down into pages.

There are drawn plots. Mike Baron, Keith Giffen and Harvey Kurtzman used to work this way (as did I). This involves the writer drawing the story out in comic book form, often with rough dialogue. The artist is expected to follow along as best he can.

There are full scripts. These include all the dialogue and descriptions of every panel. There are several ways of formatting these.

And then there are variations of the above. When I drew Spider-Woman, for example, from John Byrne's script, it was a full script - of sorts. Every panel was described, all of the dialogue was there, but it was up to me how many panels to use on each page. The story was a certain number of panels long, not pages, and it was up to me just how to break the story down.

I've drawn stories where the writer wrote it as a full script, but clearly paid no attention to pacing at all. In one case, the story was broken down entirely into five panel pages plus a title page, with no emphasis or consideration for what was going on in the story. A villain would show up in the middle of a page and their appearance was expected to have the same impact as a guy reading a menu! Needless to say, with the editor's permission, I took a few liberties. The finished book has all the same panels in the same order, but I grouped them together to allow things that should have been emphasized more to be emphasized more.

Know your medium! These are comic books - not movies. When you turn the page, you see the entirety of the following two pages before you. If you want the Red Skull's appearance to be a surprise, don't stick him in panel three of a right hand page!

Think about this stuff. What are you trying to do? If you're an artist - how are you leading your readers' eyes? Are they being sent to the next panel or somewhere else? If you're the writer - is your story clear? Is the reader reading your captions and balloons in the right order? Were they placed well? Does the reader grasp what you're trying to say? And just what are you trying to say anyway?

As a fan, one of my pet peeves is "utilitarian dialogue." Dialogue that can be said by anybody in a story that helps further the plot, but gives no hint of a character's personality. Granted, it can be necessary from time to time, but often submissions will be filled with nothing but this kind of dialogue. A good example of this is that god-awful "Savage Dragon" cartoon. Most of it is filled with dialogue that simply informs the reader what's going on. You may wonder how I allowed this thing to ever get on the air, but that's another topic entirely and I'll get around to it at some point. Needless to say, it was not the crowning achievement of animation on television.

My point in all this is - if you want to pursue comic books as your profession, (and a good lot of you do, judging from your mail) learn a thing or two. If you want to draw - pick up a book on anatomy and perspective. Buy a page or two of original art. Make a reference file for things like houses, buildings, animals, clothes and objects that you might need to draw at some point. And yes, look at comics and see how other people solved those kinds of problems (but don't swipe, okay? Nobody likes a thief). If you want to write - read. Read books, read comics and figure out what works and what doesn't. Get your sweaty mitts on a script or two. And figure out what you want to say. It's not enough to just fill a few pages. What do you as a writer have to say? You're telling stories - what is your story about? What makes it compelling? Don't do some pointless piece of forgettable fluff for cryin' out loud - tell a story!

If you want to color - lay off the goddamn filters! Start with something flat that works and build it from there. I'd rather see good flat color than crappy airbrush effects and textures on every available surface any day. Buy a book, damn you! More often than not you're doing more harm than good.

If you want to letter - again - a book. Get a good one. There's no shame in asking people how to do this stuff. Seriously.

There are tutorials out there. We all want better comics. A lot of folks want to help you to be able to do this better. Don't be afraid to learn. Ask questions.

And don't send me your stuff to critique. I don't have time to tutor you. I've got a fulltime job to do and comics of my own to perpetrate and columns to write. Give me a break, will you?

It's not always easy to find your own voice and blaze your own trail. I'd hope that you could come up with something unique. That you could come up with a signature style - something that you did that nobody else did.

And maybe, just maybe, somebody would want to pay attention to the lines or words that you're committing to paper - or read your idiotic rant about breaking into the biz.

But that's just one fan's opinion. I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong.

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