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How to Make Comics

Part 2 - From Script to Panels:

This is the second part of some tutorials I've been writing about how I make comics. If you haven't already read the first part, Writing comics, feel free to go back and read that section now.

So you've got your script, either something you've written, or something a talented writer has passed on to you, and you're confronted with a black comicbook page, and you're trying to figure out how to transfer the words to the page as panels, how to lay out the page, how to do what's called "the breakdown" of the story.

The first thing to do is to take that high-quality bristol board away, and find some scrap 8 1/2 X 11 paper to do your roughs... What are roughs? First thing's first, let's take a look at the script again.

Right on Time

©2008 by James Burns

Page 1

Panel 1: Wide establishing shot of an old person's livingroom. Title and credits over panel.

Panels 2-5: Various shots of dusty shelves, old photographs, Last frame is of a mantelpiece, with an old clock on it.

Panel 6: Staircase as seen from livingroom.

Page 2

Panel 1: Old man comes down the stairs. He's 80-something, with thinning hair, carrying a cane, and wearing a cardigan.

Panel 2: The old man makes his way slowly across the room, heading towards the mantle.

Panel 3: At the mantle, he reaches for something behind the clock...

Panel 4-6 (one row): He produces a key, and methodically winds the clock. Detail of the mainspring coiling, the key in the slot, etc.

Panel 5: He finishes and closes the face to the clock.

Panel 6: He stands back and looks at the clock. The time is 7:59am.

Page 3

Panel 1 (small inset panel): The clock strikes 8. Large type saying "Bong! Bong! etc fills the next series of panels...

Panel 2 (wide, largish panel): The old man looks rapt, lost in memory, scenes of him dancing with his (departed) wife, him proposing, and unwrapping gifts at a wedding shower; receiving the clock.

Panel 3 (another wide panel): Another series of flashbacks, blended together: Him and his bride running from the church, holding hands on the beach, laughing and talking. Each panel shows them older.

Panel 4 (wide): Man (almost as old as now) talking to doctor, looking concerned. His wife in a hospital bed, her hair splayed out on the pillow. Him at the graveside, in shadow. The "bongs" trail off into silence.


You may remember this script from the last tutorial... These are the first 3 pages of a story I did back in 2008. It's a story about an old man and a clock , and how the two are connected. I wrote this for myself, so I don't go into great detail about the scenes, or laborious descriptions of each and every panel. Rather, it's a loose outline of the story, with my original thoughts on how the pages will break, and some vague indication about what panels are on the page.

Let's start with the first page:

Page 1

So the first page gives us a look into the old man's life. We see his livingroom, empty, except for the objects he surrounds himself with.

Panel 1: Wide establishing shot of an old person's livingroom. Title and credits over panel.

The first panel is an establishing shot, so I give it a little more space; a wide panel that gives us a wide-angle view of his livingroom. This shot should start to establish the geography of the scene; where are the stairs in relationship to the couch? Maybe he had a cup of tea before going to be last night, and left the cup out. What kind of objects does an old person surround himself with? I chose a series of framed photos; mementos of his past.

Panels 2-5: Various shots of dusty shelves, old photographs, Last frame is of a mantelpiece, with an old clock on it.

Panels 2-5 show us close-ups of these objects, giving us a better idea about what his life is like. The last of the four panels establishes the presence of the clock, which is like the first appearance of a character for this story.

Panel 6: Staircase as seen from livingroom.

The last panel on any page is important to consider. This panel will carry the reader to the next page, so it'd be good if it established some sort of action or link to the next page. In this case, I drew the old man starting to descend the stairs.

Click on the small image to see the larger version in a new window

Here's my rough thumbnail for the first page, roughly laid out on a piece of letter-sized paper:

(Click on the small image to see a larger version in a new window)

Start out by marking some rough margins on the page. A finished US comic book page, including margins, is 6.625 X 10.25 inches, so it's a little thinner than a letter-sized page. Then, roughly lay out your rows. Remember I have a wide initial panel, followed by 4 little panels, and then one more wide panel.

Notice the lack of detail on this page? That's the idea. Remember that a rough is just that; rough. Don't spend a lot of time working and reworking the page. Keep it simple and indicate in general terms the position and size of elements on the page.

If there's dialog on this page (not in this case...), be sure to plan for that at this stage. Put empty ellipses on the page to save room for the required type. This is the time to figure all this out, not later, when you find yourself covering up some great artwork just because you forgot to leave room earlier.

I indicated broad blocking in of blacks with little "x"s and didn't worry about straight lines and creating a finished drawing. That will all come later; we're working too small to do that well, so don't bother now. Feel free to experiment. If you make a horrible mistake, it's no big deal. Crumple up your sheet of cheap paper and start again.

If you get enough on the page to be able to follow the action (and there's not much action on this page, so that's easy...), then you're done.

Next up: Roughs to pencils.