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TIM PILCHER has worked in the comics industry for over 25 years as a writer and editor. His works include Erotic Comics: A Graphic History, The Little Books of Vintage... series, and The Essential Guide to World Comics with Brad Brooks.
HOW COMICS WORK
HOW COMICS WORK
DAVE GIBBONS has a career in comics that spans over 40 years. He has drawn every major comics character, including Green Lantern, Superman, Dr. Who, Batman, and Dan Dare. His major works include the Superman story For The Man Who Has Everything, Watchmen, Give Me Liberty and the multi-awardwinning UK anthology 2000 AD.
Join Dave Gibbons as he guides readers through every developmental stage of comics creation, from his personal inspiration, such as Frank Miller, Wally Wood and Chip Kidd, through the intermediate stages of initial sketches and, finally, to Gibbons’ amazing finished artwork. Opening his extensive vaults, containing scans of his original artwork, sketches and rarely seen illustration, Gibbons discloses his techniques and provides fascinating insights. Revelations include how to create character designs from preparatory sketches, use initial designs to understand page and panel layouts, plus handy tips for lettering, and the secrets of successful writing with sample scripts.
THE DAVE GIBBONS WAY This book is an examination of the creative process it takes to make a comic, as seen through the eyes of one of the most diverse and respected creators working in the industry today. With nearly 50 years experience in practically every aspect of comics – from writing to pencilling, inking, colouring, lettering and design – there are few today with the knowledge and insight of Dave Gibbons. What this book is not is a definitive guide on how to draw anatomy, perspective or specific objects. Nor is it the ultimate book on how to write scripts or plots. There are plenty of books out there that teach those skills. What How Comics Work attempts to do is to examine how to utilize those skills in order to create comics and, most importantly, tell stories. Using Dave’s vast back catalogue of work, spanning four decades, we’ll illustrate – using real-world examples – how to attempt certain approaches. This is not the only way to create comics, but it is the Dave Gibbons way.
What drove both Dave and me with this project was not only our love of comics, but also our passion for the mechanics of comics – how they work. Both of us can (and do!) talk for hours on the many and varied ways comics can relate a story; how technical restrictions
Tim (left) and Dave
can produce magnificently unpredictable results; and why there seem to be almost limitless ways in which to experiment with the form. In this book, the main body text consists of Dave’s own words, from our numerous conversations in his studio, whereas captions are mostly by me, with additional insights by Dave. We hope the conversational tone will give you the sense of joining one of our chats, and enable you to benefit from Dave’s many years of experience.
Albion #6 Wildstorm, 2006 This final cover by Dave was one of six for the Albion miniseries (plotted and written by Alan and Leah Moore and John Reppion), all themed around the colours orange, green, red, yellow, purple and blue, as well as various classic British comic characters. This cover featured the Steel Claw, who first appeared in Valiant in 1962, written by Ken Bulmer and drawn by Jesús Blasco.
So, whether you are acquiring the narrative techniques needed to create your own stories, or just a fan looking to delve into the creative mind of one of the most lauded comics creators working today, join us on a journey of discovery into one of the most exciting storytelling mediums around. TIM PILCHER
Dave at work in his studio (above and above right)
EARLY INFLUENCES When I was young, I didn’t realize for many years that comics were written by anyone other than the artist. However, looking back now on the comics I liked then, I recognize that the common thread was always the stories.
One of my favourite storytellers was Harry Harrison, who started out as a comic-book artist, and then went on to write science-fiction novels. He wrote the comic strips Flash Gordon for Dan Barry, as well as The Angry Planet (an adaptation of his Deathworld series) and Rick Random for Super Detective Library [1953–60]. I remember a wonderful story by him about a comic-book artist who has his livelihood stolen by comic-drawing robots. Harrison was really at that interface between words and pictures.
Dave’s initial working-out, which was based on Kurtzman’s concept.
I also enjoyed Frank Bellamy’s Heros the Spartan in The Eagle [1950–69, 1982–94], and Ron Embleton’s Wrath of the Gods in Boys’ World [1963–4] – both written by Tom Tully, a prolific writer of British boys’ adventure comics. Tom could always keep a story on the boil and end with a cliffhanger. Although I had no idea who he was when I was younger, I went on to work with him on Dan Dare and Harlem Heroes for 2000 AD [1977–present]. OTHER WRITERS
I loved the way Marvel editor/writer Stan Lee wrote his heroes, such as Spider-Man and the X-Men, as people with regular problems in a fresh, convincing way. And Gardner Fox and John Broome wrote a lot of my favourite DC Comics Silver Age stuff in the 1960s (Green Lantern, Justice League of America, Adam Strange, Hawkman, The Atom, The Flash). Their work was cerebral and scientific; Stan’s stuff was gutsy and emotional. Jack Kirby’s Race for the Moon, published by Harvey in 1958, also spurred me on in my desire to draw comics. My favourites had their own unique qualities, and I enjoyed the variety.
This was Dave’s more fleshed-out design: ‘Kurtzman would often lay out his stories on tissue paper, as I discovered when working with him. The artists would then draw over the top, creating a consistency in the storytelling. That rhythm appealed to me, even before I knew that Kurtzman was behind them.’
Dave Gibbons thumbnail
New Two-Fisted Tales cover
Two-Fisted Tales cover EC Comics, 1991 This fax layout for an unused new Two-Fisted Tales cover is by Harvey Kurtzman. Kurtzman edited, wrote and designed stories for EC Comics, and he was the founding editor of MAD magazine (1952–present). His creative approach to storytelling had a strong influence on Dave.
IDEAS Ideas may begin with a specific brief from a publisher (as when DC Comics asked me to do a Batman versus Predator story), or you may start with your own germ of an idea, which is why it’s always good to keep a notebook. Things you see on TV, things people say, quotes in books – if it tickles you, jot it down. You can then build up a reservoir of ideas to draw upon later.
Batman versus Predator  was clearly a fight, so I imagined a boxing match where two ganglords had their fighter in the ring. I took the main theme and created a mind map around it. A battle to the death went in the middle of the page, which inspired thoughts of gladiators, which brought to mind armour, weapons, ways of fighting, crowds cheering – so that was the TV audience. Soon, one idea links to another elsewhere on the map, and when those connections happen, the whole thing starts to take shape. But it’s still quite loose. You’re not writing the script just yet, just shaping the theme.
Once you have your theme worked out, you then have to turn all of this material into a story with a formal structure – in other words, a beginning, a middle and an end. One of the most commonly used forms is the classic Hollywood three-act structure, which consists of Set-up, Confrontation and Resolution. Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces describes how all the major myths fit into this format, from Jesus and Buddha, to Luke Skywalker. The ‘Hero’s Journey’, when broken down, consists of the following steps: The hero receives a call to adventure; he resists it, then goes on a journey; he meets mentors; he meets antagonists; he has a final showdown; apparently all is lost; no it’s not; then he goes back to where he came from, but now everything has changed.
The Originals mind map Dave recommends the use of a mind map like this one, to both sort out your ideas and suggest others. Start with a large piece of paper, then, in the centre of it, jot down what the story is about – not necessarily the plot, but its themes. This graphic novel had a simple starting point: being a Mod.
Batman versus Predator DC Comics/Dark Horse Comics, 1991 The starting point for Dave’s story was quite literally ‘a fight’, so it opens with a boxing match. As he says in his introduction to the collection, ‘Conflict is the essence of drama’.
13 I’d written Rogue Trooper in 2000 AD before I had actually read Campbell’s book, but my story automatically fit that template, since this breakdown relates to the basic human experience. I tend to write the first draft of a story as if I am delivering a pitch: X happens, then Y happens, and so on. But understanding how formal structure works is essential. You need to know what is underpinning the events of your story. And if you find that your story is lacking something, then thinking about its core structure can really help.
The Originals pitch document Vertigo/DC Comics, 2004 This illustrates Dave’s early thoughts and ideas about the mood and tone of the book, which was initially called Mods. Creating a document like this will help you explain your ideas to others. Try boiling your concept down to a single page, then a paragraph, then a sentence. If it’s a solid idea, it’ll work at all three stages.
PLOTTING AND WORLD BUILDING Your story’s location is a character in its own right. You’ll have your protagonist and antagonist – those are crucial – and you’ll have supporting players, but the setting is really important, as it’s the thing that unites all the characters. If you’re telling a story about magic, you’ve got to have a magical universe, where you focus on the magic of that world as well as that of the characters. RECEIVING TREATMENT
Treatment is set in a crime-ridden society of the future, in which TV offers relief to the depressed masses. The word ‘treatment’, in fact, was my inspiration for the story. I heard the disturbing story of Millwall Football Club fans who would visit distant towns wearing surgical masks to conceal their identities, assault local football supporters, and leave a card saying, ‘You’ve received treatment’. I wanted to use the phrase in the opposite way – to describe something beneficial instead, so I developed the idea of a sick society needing treatment.
PINNING DOWN THE SETTING
In Treatment, certain cities have no-go areas for the police. I looked at pictures of old Detroit and extrapolated that into the future, which was a perfect setting. I had to ask, why are these people working for the Treatment? My breakthrough thought was that they’re on a reality TV show. People want to tune in and watch these gladiatorlike heroes going into places where normal people wouldn’t go and collecting the bad guys for the bounty or advertising fees. Then I had the idea of it being like a sport, with a league, where they move from small towns up to bigger cities. So, as you develop your characters, evolve a situation in which you think they will work well. That setting will then feed back into the characters.
Treatment Dark Horse Comics, 2011 Dave’s initial thoughts for Treatment included quotes from Ovid on medicine and ideas for chapter headings: Disease, Diagnosis, Treatment and Recovery.
Locations, characters and scenes for The Originals Not all of these world-building notes were incorporated into the final work, but they helped Dave envisage a fully realized and believable universe.
Treatment logos Dave took the Rx symbol for US pharmacies and started developing that as a logo, but eventually settled on the more powerful ‘T’ design.
Treatment character designs Warm-up character studies and further costume designs for Treatment.
The ‘T’ design also made up the look of the characters’ helmets
PLOTTING AND WORLD BUILDING
PACING AND MOVEMENT When creating comics, you can control both time and pacing to serve the needs of your story – speeding things up for a fight or rapid-action sequence, for instance, or slowing them down when you want a reader to take their time.
The easiest way to speed things up is by giving the reader less text to read. Less to read means less time. You might be able to tell the story just with pictures that flow very fast. And the smaller the panels are, the quicker time will pass, as you won’t be able to put as much information into each one. A panel that’s a tenth of a page will pass much faster than one that’s a quarter of a page; the smaller the panel, the smaller the sliver of time it represents. Each panel might contain a small aspect of a scene, but a series of panels will quickly build an overall sense of time and place.
You will therefore have to trim your writing down so that it’s a quick read with no confusion – unless that is what you want. If so, then you can deliberately complicate the storytelling, which in turn will slow the pace. You can also slow things down by putting a lot of words on the page, or by giving the art a lot of detail, which the reader’s eye needs time to decode. Or you can lead their eye around the page, making them take in all the elements before moving on to the next panel.
Aliens: Salvation Dark Horse Comics, 1993 Dave’s script was illustrated by Mike Mignola and Kevin Nowlan.
When it comes to movement, there are several techniques you can use. You can have repeated backgrounds, or you can have a series of panels with exactly the same background but with an element moving within them, for a satisfying sense of motion. Alternatively, something tracking across a big background, and small things moving through it, can create a sense of scale. Or you can do the opposite, focusing on one object and having the background change, which gives a similar effect, but the reader identifies with the still element in the panels.
Aliens: Salvation ‘Reveals,’ Dave explains, ‘are a classic comic trope where you may have a shocking or surprising scene, like an explosion, which is best done on a page turn on the left-hand page because when people open a comic they tend to look at the full two-page spread and any surprises are given away if they are on the right-hand side.’ A good way to plan for these is to create a flat plan, like this, which lays out every spread in the book in a grid and will help your pacing.
PACING AND MOVEMENT
WRITING FOR OTHER ARTISTS In my experience, the best writers are also the best collaborators, because often, the real skill of a scriptwriter is providing the artist with something to draw!
When writing for others, it’s crucial to know what is better drawn than explained, and when to give the artist some room. All good writers have an understanding of ‘thinking in pictures’, and successful writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman draw thumbnails for their own enjoyment, so they’re thinking about the pictures even as they write the words. The worst kind of writer simply writes the words without thinking the pictures through at all. I try to provide something that is drawable, and something I’d enjoy drawing myself. When I’ve worked with artists such as Steve Rude and José García-López, they’ve drawn things just as I would have – if I was able to draw as well as them!
Often, it’s not what’s drawn, but where, or how big. A figure can dominate a panel when drawn as an up-shot, or with its head out the top of the panel. Conversely, using a down-shot and reducing its size in the panel will make a character seem insignificant. So you need to consider these elements at the script stage. An artist may also say, ‘Actually, I’d rather split this into three panels’, and they may be right, but you need to demonstrate you’ve considered these things and attempted to pace the story. On the other hand, with a particularly actionpacked story, it can be better to let the artist run with the events, telling the story pictorially, and then add the words after – the ‘Marvel style’ of scripting.
Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, Wednesday Comics DC Comics, 2009 Ryan Sook interpreted Dave’s minimalist script perfectly, as well as handling the lettering chores. It’s clear that Dave trusted his artist enough not to overburden him with endless descriptive text.
23 KAMANDI - ZERO DRAFT PAGE ONE (CONTD.)
PAGE ONE his dinghy towards us, the of Kamandi #1. Kamandi is rowing 1. Big picture. Very like the cover behind him. He looks wary. Gulls skyscrapers tilted at crazy angles Statue Of Liberty and smashed wheel above. CAPTION ted a forgotten apocalypse, uncoun Alone in a world torn apart by OUR STORY: The boy is alone. city. s the drowned remains of a mighty years before. Ever vigilant, he navigate
6. Deep inside the bunker, we’re looking past ruined high technology to where Kamandi is picking up a framed photograph from a desk. There’s a doorway behind him. CAPTION Though Kamandi had never known his parents, there had yet been one who nurtured him. Protected him from the mutant beasts that now roamed the world. CAPTION Until, old and weak, he himself fell prey to their savagery, on this very spot. Every year to the day, Kamandi has returned to mark his passing. . .
paddles the dinghy far gulls nest and hover. The tiny figure 2. From a deserted building where below, alone on the water. CAPTION haunted by the cries of birds. there are now but empty ruins, Where once proud humanity teemed CAPTION ever called home. river to the only place that he has Alone, the boy moves onward, up
7. Close on Kamandi as he looks at the photo. It’s an old man, his grandfather, seen in Kamandi #1. Kamandi is sad. A poignant moment. CAPTION And to blame himself for the death of his GRANDFATHER.
the dinghy ashore by its debris-strewn bank. He’s pulling 3. Kamandi has landed on a muddy, ropes. CAPTION toxic waters, the boy the splashing of his paddle in the The long hours marked only by finally reaches a familiar shore.
CAPTION Though, lost in grief, he barely hears a stealthy footfall behind him --
8. Pull back, looking at Kamandi from the doorway, past the legs of a shadowy figure. Kamandi has whirled round in surprise, dropping the photo and bringing up his gun.
creepy, deserted. a complex of bunkers. It looks 4. Long shot as Kamandi enters CAPTION lessons, heard stories bunkers, he learnt his childhood Here, in these military command n. warnings of the ravages of radiatio of the GREAT DISASTER and heeded
CAPTION Kamandi’s survival reflexes instantly kick in. His gun is suddenly ready in his hand. CAPTION But then he hesitates, as a gruff voice growls his NAME.
open. A sign on it reads on one of the low bunker mounds 5. Kamandi pulls a heavy door ‘Command D’. CAPTION KAMANDI. Here, too, he gained his name. CAPTION call him. No-one left to care. But now, there is no-one left to
CAPTION Next week: OUTNUMBERED!
WRITING FOR OTHER ARTISTS
Text is only half the story when it comes to comic books and graphic novels, and
their success. This chapter explores a multitude of characters, as well as their props, clothes and vehicles, and the locations they inhabit, all of which are required in order
physiology, costumes and personality (even that of inanimate objects) always improves sequential storytelling.
to breathe life into their worlds. Examining
creating visual groundwork is vital to
CHARACTER AND COSTUME DESIGN When I get a script, I’ll read it several times. First, just to see what’s happening; second, to see what images it conjures up for me; and then a third time to work out what I will need to get references for. Then I work out what background elements I need to create: what buildings I need to draw, cars, and so on – all the trappings. This is the stage where you start to become set designer, casting director and costume designer.
Initial Starlord designs Dave’s brief for this project presented Starlord as a gun-toting skateboarder, but ‘Starlord’s skateboard should be a much better version than the ordinary Star-Trooper’s. Maybe a small gunport on the front, even a dashboard?’
Next, I’ll write a list of what needs to be done for the main protagonists. When designing characters, you need to plan their facial features, their body builds, their clothes – everything! It’s always a good idea to get these details sorted out before you start drawing the pages, because you’ll then be able to visualize the story better.
Starlord IPC, 1978 This was Dave’s original brief to devise a titular character for this British sci-fi comic.
The Originals model sheet As demonstrated on the sheet shown here, characterization shouldn’t simply rely on detail. Ideally, you should be able to tell who each character is from their silhouette and stance.
Dave’s brief for this project envisaged Starlord as a gun-toting skateboarder
‘Variations on a Theme’ Several Kirk Douglas– inspired facial looks and hairstyles were explored for Starlord. Dave’s notes read, ‘His mother was once frightened by Dan Dare! Star on forehead represents implant, which enables Starlord to extend his perception. . . The star glows with an eerie blue light, which could be used to good visual effect.’
Starlord after the face and hair had been selected by the editor
Martha Washington character designs Dark Horse Comics, 1990 The original design for Martha’s outfit in Give Me Liberty (1990) was based around an old US cavalry uniform, which fit the story’s theme of a second American Civil War.
Starlord colour rough
CHARACTER AND COSTUME DESIGN
DESIGNING SUPERHEROES What makes for an exciting comic is a lot of movement and action, so you want a superhero to move and act as explosively, graphically and expansively as possible. Someone in a skintight suit is ideal, and, generally speaking, you want them to be as colourful as you can make them.
You don’t want your superhero to look like any other type of superhero, though – not just for copyright reasons, but because their costume is ultimately a visual shortcut that sums up their personality. You need to get a feel for who your character is and what they do, so that what they look like expresses this.
I’ll often try and get an overall sense of the hero: are they a bright, active type or are they a character that needs to blend into the background? Do they have a big, heavy muscular body or a slimmer athletic body? And if you just glimpsed this superhero, what you would see? Just a swirling cape, glinting goggles or some armoured gloves? Details like these help to define a character, which in turn will define the costume.
Superman As Dave explains, ‘Quite often, with a superhero, you want to have a symbol that sums the character up. So in Superman’s case, it’s a big “S” like a shield, which acts as a stamp of authority.’
This symbol is a stylized version of their power ring
Green Lantern Corps The Green Lantern Corps are essentially a space police force, so these characters all wear a green uniform with a symbol on their chests.
Predator This character sheet takes into account every element of the costumeâ€™s pragmatic design. Dave has even demonstrated how the elbow and knee spikes work in combat (top right). Paying attention to details like these will help you avoid problems when it comes to repeatedly drawing the same character.
CHARACTER STYLE GUIDES Once you’ve got a good idea of what your characters look like, you then have to be able to draw them consistently, and the way you do that is by creating a model sheet, or style guide. A model sheet consists of a front, side and back view – and maybe an action view – of a character, and allows you to completely nail down how that character works from every angle. A model sheet ensures two things: that you have created something that you are able to draw, and that it will remain graphically powerful. I often create ‘turnarounds’, which are full-on, profile and three-quarter views of headshots to make sure that each character is clearly differentiated from the others. I also
draw lines across the faces for positioning the eyes, nose, mouth and so on. Then, every time you draw a particular character you can refer back to these pictures, rather than to the previous panel the character appeared in, to guarantee a consistency in your art.
For the Superman Annual #11 (For the Man Who Has Everything...), I made a plasticine head of the villain, Mogul, so I could visualize it in 3D and see how the light fell on it. But, once I made it, I never had to look at it because I’d completely internalized the 3D aspects.
Chinese whispers Turnarounds avoid the danger of distortion, where slight exaggerations are amplified over the pages so that by the time you finish the story, a character looks nothing like they did at the start. Frequently referring back to model sheets avoids this problem. The examples shown here are John Stewart from Green Lantern (right), and Mitch, Pod and Spark (the ‘Dirt’) from The Originals (opposite).
Martha Washington This inked model sheet for the cast of Give Me Liberty was an essential piece of early character design and a constant reference tool. ‘Because we would be seeing Martha at various ages, I needed to make sure the size relationship between her and the other characters was consistent.’ Here we can see the young female protagonist, in the front row, at birth, 6, 7, and between 12 and 15 years of age.
PROPS As with everything else, any props need to be to scale, drawable from all angles, and plausible. Even if you’re designing a ray gun, the reader still has to believe that it would actually work, and a ray gun that shoots gamma rays still needs a handle that is sized to fit into a hand.
You’ll also find that you can often infer the use of an object by its shape. For example, if it has a really pointy end it probably shoots out fine laser beams, but if it has a big barrel, it probably fires out fat bullets. By the time you’ve completed all of your visual groundwork – your character designs, backgrounds and props – you will have internalized this information and should be able to proceed with drawing your story with some confidence.
Martha Washington action-figure model sheet This schematic shows the weaponry utilized by Martha in Dave and Frank Miller’s Martha Washington Goes to War series (1994).
Martha Washington Goes to War Dark Horse Comics, 1998 This was the back-card art to the Martha Washington action figure, featuring her with all the accessory props. Dave redrew this image, basing it on the cover of Martha Washington Goes to War #1.