Can a reader look at your finished pages and follow the story even before word balloons are added?
That’s the standard to shoot for if you want to be an excellent comic book artist. But you can’t get anywhere close to that standard without one basic skill.
Comic book drawing is about more than knowing how to draw one character on a single panel. Plan your panels so that your art tells the story. Learn how to direct the reader’s eye.
I’ll get more into that in a moment, but first I would like to share with you one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received.
That advice, which came very early in my career, was from John Romita Sr. I can’t imagine anyone better to get advice from than John Romita. He’s been illustrating comics since the Golden Age and there are few in the history of the industry who can match his storytelling ability.
In his time as an artist and Art Director at Marvel, he has worked on, designed or co-created just about every Marvel Comics character that you can think of. His Spider-man is arguably the most recognized version of the character. (You can probably tell there’s nobody in the industry that I admire more).
A ten year old comic book fan’s dream come true
When I was about 10 years old, my Mom was taking a trip to New York. In my mind, that meant that she was going to take a portfolio of my work to Marvel Comics’ offices, and if all went well I’d be working on their top-selling comics by my 11th birthday.
While Stan Lee didn’t call me directly to offer me the artist’s job on The Amazing Spider-man, I did receive a pretty great consolation prize: an encouraging, hand-written critique of my work by John Romita. It was filled with advice and valuable insight on how to take my work to a professional level.
After heeding his advice and breaking into the comics industry years later (several years past my 11th birthday!) I was finally able to meet Romita face to face. We were both appearing at a convention in Toronto and I was able to set up a time to sit down and talk with him for well over an hour. He couldn’t have been more congenial and forthcoming with his stories, views and advice. It’s so uplifting when one of your childhood heroes exceeds all the expectations you ever had about them. I consider that time spent with John Romita Sr. as one of the highlights of my career.
After years spent analyzing, emulating and learning from him, I was finally able to tell him how much his letter from years earlier had meant to me. I was able to tell him that following his suggestions lead me to being able to work in the field.
The best advice I ever received
What he told me in that letter all those years ago was something that I had never expected. He told me that to make a living drawing comic books I shouldn’t learn to draw comic books… In a nutshell, John Romita Sr. advised me to NOT learn how to draw comics, but rather to learn how to draw!
His view, which has since come to pass, was that comics were not always going to be the exclusive territory of super-heroes and funny animals. In order to survive as a comic book illustrator, you have to be able to create believable environments where your characters can interact.
In a nutshell, John Romita Sr. advised me to NOT learn how to draw comics, but rather to learn how to draw!
This is true regardless of the type of comic book you are drawing. You have to be able to draw more than dynamic figures. You must be able to draw desks, lamps, cars, trees, and buildings. Quite simply, you have to be able to draw anything that might work to establish where your characters exist.
This is an unheralded skill. If you do it well, no one will notice. Do it wrong, though, and it’s all people will see.
Very rarely will anyone compliment you on the finely drafted chair that your villain is sitting in, but they will notice how awkward the character looks in a poorly drawn chair!
Plan your panels so that you tell the story with your art
Whether you’re just starting out, or if you’ve been a comic book artist for a while, never forget your primary goal. The main intention of a comic book is to tell a story.
In comic book drawing, each panel is not a ‘mini-pin-up’. A reader shouldn’t feel compelled to come to a full stop after viewing one panel.
Instead, each panel is part of the larger story. Plan your panels and pages so that the composition and layout enhances the reader’s ability to follow the story.
A comic book artist who draws character pin-ups that don’t relate to other panels is no different than a baker who’s able whip up a triple layer cake that looks beautiful but tastes like cardboard.
A reader should be able to look at your finished pages and be able to follow the basic story even before the dialogue is added.
Learn how to direct the reader’s eye
In the early days of comics, panels were sometimes numbered to help a reader know the order that they were to read the story. Master storytellers like Will Eisner, Jack Kirby and Lou Fine furthered the art form by developing ways to direct a reader around the page naturally.
When you design your page, think of the page in its entirety. Think of it as a whole. Does your positioning of characters, spotting of blacks, and flow of movement direct the reader’s eyes to where you want them on your page? I’ve highlighted the movement here on the sample page in orange. You can see how the panels work together.
Consider these things and learn how to incorporate them into your art.
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