Drawing A Comic Strip Classically

My friend Bill Riling loves drawing comics and he is a master of the classical approach to creating and drawing a comic strip. His creation is called The Adventures of Lewis and Cluck. In this article, I’ve included some behind the scenes insight into Bill’s creative process. I hope you will pick up some valuable tips and also check out Bill’s comic. Once you start following the adventures of the “Explorer Chickens” you are sure to become a fan, just like me.

Bill works as a feature animation story artist at Dream Works and his story boarding approach shows in his comic strip planning and layout. Below is a sample of a future Lewis and Cluck strip where the “Explorer Chickens” are searching for the mysterious Big Foot. As you can see, Bill has roughed out the Sunday page style layout and then written himself  lots of editorial notes, in red, on how he wants to improve the final strip.

Below is the final strip. You can compare the two and you will see many of the notes incorporated in the final as well as some changes that weren’t originally noted. It’s a great example of the classical approach to drawing a comic strip and worth some study.

Colorfully Setting The Mood

When I began planning to create a web comic, one of the early style decisions I had to address was whether or not I wanted to do a black and white “classical newspaper” look or whether I wanted to go to full color. My background and love of  animated cartoons helped me to lean toward full on color. In cartoon making, color is an integral component used for setting the mood, so to just do a black and white comic strip seemed, to me, to be very limiting. The trade off being a significant amount of additional work in producing each strip, which is no trivial matter when working on a tight schedule and with frequent deadlines. But I felt that colorful mood setting panels would be a huge plus for my storytelling. An important creative note is that if your comic strip idea is more of a random gag per strip and not a mixture of  humor and story, then you might not find setting a visual mood to be that significant.

Bug Pudding is a satire and an adventure. Early on as I began to introduce the characters and the world of  Tuberville Georgia, I wanted to present a very colorful and “fantasy-like” rural atmosphere.

As the story has progressed, the atmosphere of the strip has been gradually shifting to foreshadow the changing mood. It was still bright and sunny but occasionally a subtle change was injected.

The blue skies still prevail but the other background colors began to be muted. Even the grass started to turn more toward warmer shades.

Then as I began the more mysterious part of the adventure as Monroe stumbles into the Beauregard Bug Bombs testing range, a more pronounced mood shift has begun.

The Mysterious Beauregard Bug Bombs Headquarters

The fantasy world also has a more Gothic and malevolent side which is set up by the purple vapor clouds and the darker lighting of recent strips.

It’s a pastoral fantasy world moving into a direct collision course with a more veiled and threatening world of evil; all being reflected in the colorful mood setting backgrounds. Yes, adding color to a comic strip is a lot of extra work but it adds a lot dimensionally to the cartoonist’s tool set.

A Banner Day

I just updated the Bug Pudding comic site with an improved look and a new top banner. Part of publishing a comic on the web is constructing and maintaining your publishing platform. For many people this is a difficult task due to the “roll your own” aspect of customizing a website. I use a plug-in called Webcomic as the backbone of my site and a theme called Inkblot. To get a good idea of  how these components work together here are some great video tutorials. A special thanks goes out to Michael Sisk the creator of Webcomic and Inkblot for all his patience and helpful support.

More on setting up and customizing a comic website in future articles.

Slapstick

One of my favorite forms of  humor is slapstick. A comic strip, like Bug Pudding, explores humorous situations and certainly plays around with words to create both humor and extra meaning, but occasionally all heck breaks loose and it just gets visually funny. Here are a couple of recent panels:

Choke Slam Ala Monroe

In this first example Monroe, a turtle who has experienced a lot since he lost his shell to climate change, is losing it after inhaling strange vapors and turning orange. It’s a “Hulk-A-Maniac” moment with a full on “choke slam” ala the WWE.

Off To The Races

In this second example, Agile has given Monroe a gift of a replacement shell made from a pumpkin. And we get to enjoy the road rage that follows as Monroe wants to show his “appreciation” by ringing Agile’s neck.

For a cartoonist, some of the most enjoyable moments in drawing a comic strip come from doing the slapstick panels.

Visual Fun

One of the best parts of drawing a comic strip is doing panels that are just plain visual fun. I particularly enjoy drawing action poses or “in your face” poses. Here are a couple examples from a recent Bug Pudding strip.

Monroe Running Sketch

This was a really interesting sketch to draw. I wanted to capture as much of the explosive action as possible when Monroe leaps screaming from the trash can after becoming the main snack at the Flea Brothers impromptu party. And also capture his out right shock and terror at being their munch food.

Final Published Panel

Pen & Ink Sketch of the Flea Brothers

I’m not totally happy with this rendering of the Flea Brothers, but I always have to remind myself that characters which I haven’t drawn many times before never look as good as they will after I really get more familiar drawing them. Character design is an evolutionary process. In this case this was a really early interpretation in their evolutionary design cycle. A lot more repetition in drawing them is in order.

Final Published Panel

Comic Strips Part 3

Last article, I  talked about the number and the relative size of the panels in a sequential comic strip and how they can be used to provide pacing and timing in visual storytelling. In this installment, I want to explore some other aspects of the classic comic strip, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, in order to talk about some of the other tools and techniques that are often missing from usage in many of today’s comics. These tools and techniques, like the use of panel variations for timing and pacing, are subtle ways for the cartoonist to enhance their strip and storytelling.

Click on the strip to see an enlargement.
Click on the strip to see an enlargement.

In the comic above we get a great example of how the use of different font types can be applied to provide an additional form of personality and characterization. The vulture, a great bit of stereotypical casting himself, has a very unique and formal speech font that tells us as readers something more about this character’s “voice”. You also have to love Kelly’s humorous way of naming characters, like a mortician named Sarcophagus Mac Abre.

Then we also see that the character Deacon Mushrat (instead of Muskrat, accent on the mush) has his own characteristic speech font. A very nice “Old English Script” that tells us that his voice is full of self righteousness and pomposity. Additionally notice how Kelly shaped the Deacons speech bubbles to add to his “straight laced” and “sanctimonious” tone of speech. And also notice how Kelly creates a special very ominous speech bubble style for Sarcophagus Mac Abre. Subtle little ways of accenting these characters that would be lost if they just “spoke” in ordinary fonts and balloons.

Click on the strip for an enlargement.
Click on the strip for an enlargement.

In this next strip above, we see another classic example of character specific speech fonts. This time for P. T. Bridgeport (named for the famous circus showman P. T. Barnum ) we see that his “voice” is a constant show in itself. His every phrase is a spectacle of colossal magnitude. Again when P.T. speaks we as readers know so much more about the character and his personality because of Kelly’s use of a unique font style.

Click on the strip for an enlargement.
Click on the strip for an enlargement.

In the strip above we get an example of not only the usage of a character specific font type for the Deacon, but we also get to see Kelly’s characteristic usage of font boldness as a means to focus his readers on specific words or phrases in a character’s speech. An interesting side note is that because of the often political and social commentary involved in Pogo, there were extensive studies made by “government intelligence” organizations ( an oxymoron in itself ) to try to determine if the bold type words formed some sort of subversive code. If they had just understood the purpose of the cartooning technique they would have realized that Kelly was just wanting to make sure that his readers weren’t missing out on the word play and all the subtle implications of his use of specific words and their implied meanings beyond their context as a character spoke. For example the term “Jack Acid” was actually referring to a bunch of “jack asses” which was Kelly’s satirical dig at the John Birch Society. And his word play about combining acids and bases producing “salty doings” was expressing his perception of the society’s ultra conservative right wing views. All leading to the gag in the third panel about their thinking being “off base and half assed”. Kelly had some strong ideas and opinions embedded in these strips and he used the bold type to make sure the accents were not lost.

Click on the strip for an enlargement.
Click on the strip for an enlargement.

In this last strip, we see another example of Kelly’s use of bold type for accents. It is important to note that this technique wasn’t just used to highlight important word play and implied meanings, but it was also Kelly’s method of providing a comedic timing and rhythm to his comic strip. Much like a stand-up comic uses phrasing and beats to set up and deliver their monologue, Kelly was using bold type to punctuate and time his gags. Kelly loved music and he naturally added rhythm to his dialogue.

Again by studying the work of Walt Kelly we can learn more about the techniques and tools of creating masterful and highly entertaining sequential comic strips. Today’s web cartoonist has the opportunity to revive these techniques and apply them as part of their own craft.

Comic Strips Part 2

In this article, I want to re-introduce some often lost aspects of comic strips based on my own personal study of one of my most influential cartoonist heroes, Walt Kelly. These are strictly my own artistic opinions.

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Click on the comic to see a larger version.

If you ask most fans of Pogo, Walt Kelly’s famous comic strip, they will probably tell you about his great political and social satire, his amazingly detailed backgrounds, his great characters or his superb visuals. But in this article I want to point out his layout and mastery of visual story telling. In the strip example above, Kelly is using a four panel format. Notice that the panels are not the same size. This is not arbitrary or accidental. Panel sizing is an important tool for the sequential story teller. The relative order and size of the panels is to a sequential comic what pacing and timing are to an animated cartoon sequence. In this first example, Kelly starts with two even sized panels to give the story a balanced beginning. Then he inserts an accent in the form of a compressed panel. Wider panels slow the reader down, narrower panels speed them up or sharpen their focus. The last panel is wider and acts as a resting point to allow the gag and or the message of the strip, in Kelly’s case, to settle in.

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Click on the strip above to see a larger version.

In this next example above, we get a different example of Kelly layout skills. Walt Kelly was a master of generating tremendous visual energy in a tiny strip. The first panel is stretched out and designed to create a sense of visual anticipation. It’s an antic for the pending action. Then all hell breaks loose as he fires two compressed panels at us back to back. Then another stretched out panel to settle us down as the action tails off in the distance. Great graphics amazing visualization and most importantly enhanced story telling through his layouts.

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Click on the strip above to see a larger version.

Finally, in this last example above,  we once more get to see the master story teller at his best. Panel size and arrangement is used to focus the reader and move them visually to the climax. It’s a comic strip and a story board at its best. The strip cartoonist has the opportunity to be a story teller, a cinematographer and a humorist all rolled into one.

As you can see from these examples, before the big squeeze in the newspapers, the comic strip was very different than today’s print examples. That is sad in many respects, but the joy and beauty of comics delivered over the Internet is that all those constraining policies that have driven newspaper comic strips to be shadows of there former selves no longer apply. The restrictions and constraints are totally controlled by the web cartoonist. These are very exciting and liberating times if you want to be a future Walt Kelly of the web.

Comic Strips Part 1

The classical newspaper comic strip is a form of sequential art. This particular cartooning form has undergone many changes over the years and some historical perspective can be quite revealing. It is interesting how things follow a cause and effect relationship, and even more interesting how policies can be implemented that create constraints that continue to exist even though the reason the policy was instituted has vanished. For newspaper comic strips this seems to be the case. Over time beginning in the late 70’s, newspapers began to reduce the space available for comic strips. They slowly began to squeeze the comics into increasingly smaller and smaller amounts of space. The first step was to cut the daily comic’s section from two pages down to one and a half pages and then down to a single page. This had the effect of killing off many good comic strips by reducing the number of strips that a paper would continue to publish. Shortly there after, the individual “footprint”, available space on the page, of each remaining strip got the big squeeze and four panel strips pretty much were forced down to three panels. Additionally this print size reduction made it increasingly difficult for the cartoonists to maintain their desired level of visual detail in their work. The smaller the print reduction the less detail.

This policy shift toward marginalizing comic strips in newspapers caused two resulting effects. First, it greatly tightened the field of opportunity for cartoonists to draw comic strips, less space meant papers bought fewer strips so drawing a comic strip became less accessible as a career. Secondly, smaller “footprints” forced cartoonists to move toward simpler more graphically stylized cartoons with minimal layouts. There was less white space, so there had to be less visual information in each panel. The age of the “clip art” comic strip was born.

Then along came the Internet and a whole new distribution medium for the sequential comic strip was born. This made self publishing possible and created new opportunities for cartoonist to return to drawing comic strips. But as many of these new breed web cartoonists were born after 1980, they had grown up in the post “clip art” comic strip era. They had little knowledge of the art form before the “big squeeze”. So as they approached drawing comic strips they continued to work under the policies of the newspapers even though the Internet held none of those restrictions. They were constrained by policies that had no reason to exist in their new world. The numbers of panels per day, the size of the space for the artwork, all were no longer restricted by some arbitrary publisher and yet these constraints were translated to the web. The new cartoonist didn’t realize they were blindly following policies that had no basis. In many cases this trend still continues. The Internet offers tremendous creative freedom and opportunity for the sequential comic strip, and a chance to explore new visual styles and formats. As I said in the beginning, it is interesting how things follow a cause and effect relationship, and even more interesting how policies can be implemented that create constraints that continue to exist even though the reason the policy was instituted has vanished.

In this and future articles I will be discussing my own work in developing a comic strip for viewing on the internet.

Writing In The Sand

There are a lot of talented people who want to publish there own web comic. I want to share some insight about this type of  undertaking. If you are someone who wants to have your own comic or you have already begun trying to publish a comic, keep reading , because I want you to succeed.  First off, you must embrace certain realities that exist. (1) There is a lot of competition for eyeballs. (2) Nothing matters beyond attracting and holding readers because playing to an empty house is not fun or profitable. (3) Doing a comic is fun, but also really hard work. (4) Writing and drawing the comic is only part of the job.

An Early Model Page of Monroe, a turtle.

To attract readers requires significant work in the form of promotion. And promotion is like writing in the sand on the beach, it has to be done over and over relentlessly, because the waves keep washing away your writing. Also, promotion is totally outside of your comic web site. The comic web site is your publishing platform, nothing else.

When you get a potential reader to land on your site, you have to grab their attention and convince them to return regularly. And, because most people have the attention span of a house fly, they have to be constantly re-attracted. Fancy websites are out there by the millions, it’s the content of the comic and the other content provided by you, the cartoonist, that makes or breaks your presentation. If your content provides the reader with what they want, they will come back, if it doesn’t they won’t. It is just that simple. So focus on what your potential readers want and provide that through your content.

The site itself needs to provide a comfortable place to view the content and clear easy access to the content. Beyond that, it should be totally invisible, the site isn’t the content. I see that mistake all the time, where would be publishers spend all of their time and effort on the look of the web site and totally miss the important stuff.  If you want to publish a comic, your goal is to get yourself up and running on a decent publishing platform. Then your real work begins, which is producing great content and the relentless self promotional work. It doesn’t matter if your comic is great, if no one ever sees it or reads it. It will just die of loneliness. And don’t be confused by the fact that you are a brilliant writer or a super great artist, talent is essential, but there are plenty of talented people who never get discovered or recognized. So, get yourself a big stick and get busy writing in the sand. And, if you get tired of writing with your right hand then switch to your left hand, but don’t stop. If you don’t want to promote, then you don’t want to publish. They are all part of the same thing.