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Comics Writing

Did Spider-Man just commit suicide?

A Dark Reading of No Way Home

I need to start this by saying I absolutely love No Way Home. Not only was it a spectacular and amazing movie on it’s own, it expertly walked the tightrope of delivering on our expectations, exceeding them, and deftly set-up a new era for Spidey which sees him stripped back from all the Stark Tech and able to embody the wall-crawler we know and love from the comics. So why am I going to a dark place in this post?

Tom Holland in Marvel/Sony Spider-Man No Way Home

The Oscar nominations were just announced and a few people were disappointed not to see the Marvel juggernaut get a nod. With big budget action blockbusters dominating cinema for all of recent memory, it does seem like there is some snobbery in the divide. Kevin Smith thinks Spider-Man should have gotten a nomination for best picture. So, I started to wonder if he was right. Should Spider-Man be up for best picture? What was the theme of the film, what message did it have for the world? And the answer I got was dark. Spoilers ahead.

The Plot

No Way Home picks up where Far from Home left off. Peter Parker has been outed as Spider-Man by Mysterio and all the consequences you can imagine are coming crashing down on our hero’s head. The authorities are pursing charges against him, against Aunt May for child endangerment, against Happy for stealing Stark equipment, his friends are refused admission to university because of their association to him. It’s a nightmare.

In desperation, Peter turns to Dr. Strange and asks the Sorcerer Supreme to work his magic and make it so the world forgets who Spider-Man is. Only things aren’t that simple as Peter soon discovers. It’s a set-up similar to It’s a Wonderful Life with Peter wishing he’d never existed instead of George Bailey.

James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life

That sets the film up to be about suicide. While It’s a Wonderful Life is more explicit with the connection, No Way Home plays its cards closer to its chest, but the connection is there. Peter is going to erase himself from the world, the life he knew will end and he will be gone.

Suicidal Spider-Man

Despite his heroics, Peter is still a high school student, and this sudden attention, pressure, and drama is too much for him. He definitely scores high in the risk factors for suicide.

Loss of a loved one. Even before the movie starts he’s already lost Uncle Ben, his parents, and Tony Stark.

Physical abuse. He is Spider-Man, he’s taken more than his share of hits.

Emotional abuse. Mysterio has betrayed his trust, tricked and manipulated him before destroying his entire world. He’s been tricked and abandoned by fake Nick Fury. The first movie had him go up against his girlfriend’s Dad.

Bullying. This is a defining trait of his childhood with Flash Thompson making his school life hell but now the entire world seems to have turned against him and the abuse is constant with J Jonah Jameson’s giant head screaming round the clock vitriol at him.

Spider-Man #33 (Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Marvel)

It’s not surprising then that things have become overwhelming. Given all his trauma, the reaction of wanting everything to stop is understandable as well as his first instinct to reach for the nuclear option. As Dr. Strange jokes, Peter resorted to erasing himself from existence even before appealing to the university admissions board.

However, on the cusp of his first attempt, a rush of thoughts snap him out of it mid-way through. His mind drifted to MJ, and his Aunt May, and Ned, and Happy. This reminds me of Ken Baldwin who survived a suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge and said “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought unfixable was totally fixable – except for having just jumped.”

The Hidden Antagonist

That thought seems to drive the rest of the movie. Peter talks about his problems, he leans on his excellent support group and he sets out to undo the mistakes he has made. Even though this film has the Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, Electro, Sand-Man, and the Lizard battling Spider-Man, death is the antagonist. It’s the inevitability of these villains’ deaths that Peter is fighting against. He is determined to save them from it, even if that puts him at odds with Dr. Strange.

The villains shift back and forth from enemy to ally but death remains the constant threat. It’s the motivating decision that drives every villain’s action. The Goblin’s fear of death causes him to override Norman and take back control, fear of death convinces Otto and the tentacles to allow Peter to install the chip enabling him to be on the right side of the end battle, it deals the toughest blow to Spidey and the audience when we lose Aunt May, and death is the villain that lingers heavily over the Spider-Man support group of Tobey, Andrew, and Tom.

Zendaya as MJ in No Way Home

Each Spider-Man laments and connects over the losses they have suffered. Three Uncle Bens, Gwen Stacy, Aunt May, Two Harry Osbornes. Tobey’s Peter regrets taking lives, Andrew’s Spider-Man admits he has given up life as Peter, while Tobey’s acknowledges being Peter is a struggle and that his is taking it day by day.

The Spider-Man support group and the final act seem to help each Spider-Man overcome their trauma, acknowledge their pain, and envision a path forward. Tobey is further along, being the oldest and having been working at this the longest. He gets to embody the greatest ideals Uncle Ben instilled in him. By the end he’s helped mentor Tom into avoiding a deep regret, given hope to Andrew, and gathered the resolve to make things work with his MJ.

Andrew has further to go but you feel he has gained the courage to be Peter again, redeemed his mistake, and saved Tom from knowing the greatest trauma he ever suffered. The comradery and shared experience with his “brother” Spider-Men definitely seems to heal him. But what about Tom?

The End

Heart-breakingly Tom’s Spider-Man can’t fix his mistakes without the ultimate sacrifice. He gives in to the inevitable, to the force he has been battling the entire movie, and he asks Dr. Strange to erase him from existence.

A tearful goodbye follows with Dr. Strange declaring that he loves Peter and that many love him and will miss him. Ned and MJ force Peter to promise he will find them and make them remember. Peter agrees and honors half his promise. He tracks down Ned and MJ where we cycle back to the Wonderful Life set-up.

Peter gets to see a world in which he was never born just as George Bailey does. We can see the hole Peter’s absence has left, we know, even if they don’t, that they miss Peter and are poorer for having lost him. But, unlike George Bailey, Peter Parker decides to stay dead. Suicide remains his decision and the MCU Spider-Man is gone.

Spider-Man No More (Stan Lee, John Romita, Marvel Comics)

Should No Way Home have been up for best picture?

That was the question that started me thinking this and looking for depth I didn’t appreciate was there. It’s rare we see the trauma of being a hero explored in a blockbuster and rarer we see that there isn’t an easy answer to recovering from it.

Each Spider-Man copes in his own way and moves through their own avalanche of trauma differently despite them being as close to identical as possible. They may all show traits of wanting to withdraw from those who love them, but while Tobey and Andrew come to realize that the isolation has harmed them, Tom can’t shake the idea that his world would be better off without Peter Parker.

We get to see ways of coping, the importance of support networks, talking through problems, especially with those who can relate and empathize with them. We get to see Tobey and Andrew healing, and we get to see it help Tom, but Tom still chooses death. At the end, we understand his decision, even if we, or one of the other Spidey’s may have chosen a different path.

Without romanticizing, glorifying, or fetishizing it, No Way Home offered us insight and understanding of suicide. It showed us how to cope with the trauma that might lead to it. It showed us that there is hope to heal from pain. And, it also showed us that sometimes, even if we do everything right and support those we love, they might still decide to leave us.

So, in my opinion yes! No Way Home is a movie worthy of recognition. Not only did it expertly play with nostalgia, fan appreciation, excitement and spectacle, it also gave us a deeply profound story worth telling.

What next

This is heavy stuff and a dark take on a fantastic movie. If you are in a place where this is speaking to you more than you thought it would, remember there are people out there who want to help and support you, even if you haven’t met them yet.

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Art

How to stop your characters becoming clones of each other

Making character’s faces different, even in black and white

Drawing believable faces is harder than we appreciate. It’s one of the things we look at the most, and like hands, it’s something where the smallest detail can make it look entirely off, even if we’ve placed 99% of the parts in the right location, one misplaced eye or nose can destroy the whole aesthetic.

Then there is the added difficulty of creating unique features for one off characters, or even recurring ones. When deadlines are looming, the pressure is on, giving every character their own look can falter.

Even the professionals struggle with it. Some big name artists are guilty of drawing the same face over and over.

It’s easy to pick on Rob Liefeld as an example seeing as he insists on drawing his own face onto every character, male or female. But, greats like Alex Ross also fall victim to turning every portrait into a mirror of themselves.

When so much of comics is cartooning and creating visual shorthand for things like faces, how can you make sure that you can pick your characters out in a crowd?

The easiest ways are to give your creations different hairstyles, eye colors, and hair colors, but as we’ve seen above, that can only go so far. To truly separate them from one another consider mixing and matching these three features.

Noses

There are around six to eight distinct shapes we can use for a nose without jumping into things like size or if they’ve been broken. These are effective whether you want to exaggerate them into a caricature, or to keep them more grounded and realistic. Here are a few you can use.

A Greek nose which starts at the point between your eyebrows and follows a straight line to the tip of your nose.

A Roman nose, which starts further down the face and creates a bump in the middle.

A Nubian nose which has a long bridge and a wide base.

A Celestial nose which creates an upwards curve leading to the tip.

A Hawk nose which creates a downwards curve towards the tip.

A Snub nose which is short and upturned at the end.

To recreate these simply and easily when you want to add some variety to your character’s noses decide:

  1. How high up the face the bridge will start, nearer the brow or further down between the eyes.
  2. Whether it will bend upwards, downwards, stay straight, or have a kink.
  3. Whether the tip will be level, above, or below the nostrils.
  4. How wide you want the bridge and the nostrils to be.

Mixing and matching just these dimensions can give you upwards of 36 different noses for your characters and can go along way to making it easier to tell your characters apart.

Jaw Shape

Just like noses there are distinct shapes you can give your faces to make them stand apart from the others.

Triangular where it narrows to a point.

Oblong which is half-way between a square and a circle.

Circular where the face creates a very round shape.

Square where the jaw has more defined angles.

You can also add in some extra variations with these by deciding if the jaw is inline with the character’s forehead, falls closer to the neck, or further away. Along with the noses from before, we can now build 432 individual faces.

Eye shape

This is a more subtle one that can still help distinguish different characters from one another. Here you have two key shapes of the eyes themselves, some variations on how much of the eyelid crease is visible, and the angle of the eyes.

Almond is the first shape where the whites aren’t visible beneath the irises and wider than round.

Rounded is the second where the eyes are more circular and the whites are visible under the irises.

Hooded is the first of the lid variations where the crease is very close to the top of the eyelids.

Monolid is where there is no crease at the top of the eyelids.

Downturn is when the inner part of the eye closest to the nose is higher than the outer part.

Upturn is when the inner part of the eye closest to the nose is lower than the outer part.

Does it work?

With just these options for eyes, noses, and jaws we can now build out 5,184 different combinations and we haven’t had to rely on eye color or hair color yet.

If we cycle back to the Alex Ross and Rob Liefeld examples at the top, these are things that are making those faces look so similar despite all the detail in the images. They all have the same jawlines, the same noses, and the same eye shapes. There’s no doubt that Alex Ross is beyond talented and has created some beautiful and iconic images in comics, but, if it weren’t for the hair and costume, could you tell Alex Ross’s Superman from his Aquaman, or even his Wonder Woman?

Now contrast that with something like the Simpsons. There’s a good chance even a casual fan will know exactly who these five faces below are. Even though the only thing visible is their eyes, nose, and jaw, those are distinct and consistent enough that we don’t need the costumes or hair to identify them.

In the Treehouse of Horrors episode where Homer gets a hair-transplant, we still know this is Homer, even though he has Snake’s hair.

And, we could take away the cigarette below and we would still know when Snake has taken control of Homer because his eyes changed to closer resemble Snake’s.

What next

Try creating a few characters of your own by varying the nose, eyes, and jaws. If you want to take it a step further, you could even try grouping characters with similar traits to create a “family resemblance” and add an extra layer of believability.

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Art

Wally Wood’s 22 panels with examples

A deep dive with examples on when to use them

Wally Wood famously once said “never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and paste up.”

The legendary comic book artist strived for efficiency in his work. When page rates are low and deadlines are looming, the ability to churn out high quality work at speed is essential. To that end, he created a cheat sheet that is arguably as well known, if not more well known than the man himself.

Here are Wally Wood’s 22 panels that always work explained …

Big head

Pretty much the entire opening of the Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is dedicated to this first example. We have Bruce Wayne side on, head on, three quarter profile, we have the news reporter. Even the crash is composed to resemble Bruce in his helmet.

Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley, DC Comics)

Miller repeats it across the first few pages allowing us to hyper focus on the characters and how the story is impacting them. It literally and metaphorically brings us closer to that character. It allows us see the character clearer and peer into their thoughts and emotions.

The Killing Joke (Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, DC Comics)

Brian Bolland uses a “big head” panel to great effect in the Killing Joke to show the fear and trauma of Barbra Gordon as she recovers in hospital from the Joker’s brutal attack.

Extreme close-up

This is the big head on steroids and allows us to zero-in on a specific reaction or emotion, bringing us even closer to that character and intensifying that feeling.

The Crow (James O’Barr, Caliber Press)

You can see this at play in O’Barr’s the Crow. The panels get tighter and tighter on the Crow’s face as the scene gets more intense and the mania of the character grows.

Smile (Raina Telgemeier, Scholastic)

You can also use it to narrow in on a specific detail or feature that you want to highlight. Raina Telgemeier’s tale of a girl’s struggle with life and braces has many extreme close-ups that allow us to hyper-focus only the relevant detail we need to pay attention to.

Back of head / front of head

This is your standard set-up for a conversation. It allows you to focus on two character’s talking while putting the attention on the character whose face we can see.

Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (Dan Clowes, Fantagraphics)

Profile no background

Removing the background means more attention on the characters. You can also spice up the panel by playing with the composition slightly. In the rooftop meeting between Batman, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent in the Long Halloween, Tim Sale is able to communicate the change in attitude the characters have towards one another as the scene progresses. The begin all facing different directions as they literally can’t see eye-to-eye on how to deal with organized crime in Gotham.

Long Halloween (Jeff Loeb, Tim Sale, DC Comics)

As the scene progresses and an agreement is reached, they begin to face one-another.

Long Halloween (Jeff Loeb, Tim Sale, DC Comics)

Light background, dark foreground

This is a great way to build atmosphere and a creates a separation between the world in the foreground and the world in the background. This divide can highlight a difference in emotion or circumstances between to characters.

Saga of the Swamp Thing (Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, DC Comics)

Open panel, complete object

An open panel breaks free from the structure of the book. It makes an object stand alone and draws your eye to it. It can create a sense of endless space without borders. That can translate into endless possibility, timelessness, or loneliness and isolation.

Sin City (Frank Miller, Dark Horse)

All black

I probably could have used the example above for this one, or practically any panel from Sin City but that felt like cheating. All black works as a contrast to the white panels around it. In Sin City, the opposite is true. So much of it is all black that it’s the white panels that stand out.

Sin City (Frank Miller, Dark Horse)

But for a page with a large amount of white, or detailed backgrounds and panels, a stripped down version stands out on the page.

Watchmen (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, DC Comics)

One big object

Unsurprisingly, this showcases the importance of the object by having it be the focus.

Hellboy (Mike Mignola, Dark Horse)

More than that though, by making it bigger than the other character in the scene it can make it seem extra important, more threatening, more powerful, than the character.

Demon in a Bottle (Bob Layton, David Michelinie, John Romita Jr, Marvel)

Putting the object in the foreground and shrinking the character in comparison can show the power the object has over them.

Full figure, open panel

Much the same as the object in an open panel, the full figure breaks out of the confines of the comic page structure.

Born Again (Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Marvel)

Above, Miller and Mazzucchelli use this break to make Daredevil’s blow more impactful as he literally smashes out of the panel structure.

Maus (Art Spiegelman)

In Maus, Spiegelman uses open panels to separate timelines. The present day conversations with Art and his father are outside the structure of the story being told, and so, do not get a panel border.

Long Halloween (Jeff Loeb, Tim Sale, DC Comics)

Others use this separation to create a sense of loneliness and isolation.

Reverse silhouette

This is where everything around the character is silhouetted instead of them being silhouetted.

The Corpse (Mike Mignola, Dark Horse)

Small figure

This can give a sense of grandeur to the surrounding objects in the panel. A small character surrounded by big buildings, statues, or even monsters can make the scene appear epic by comparison.

Taboo (Jack Kirby)

Depth

This can make the world feel more grounded and lived in, as though there is more to be seen just off the edges of the panel.

Watchmen (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, DC Comics)

Down shot, cast shadows

This can give the feeling that we are spying on the scene, maybe looking at it from out of our bedroom windows. By extension, it can make it seem like the character is being watched by someone else.

Born Again (Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Marvel)

L-shape and silhouette

Watchmen (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, DC Comics)

Diagram eye-level

This puts you in the scene with them, as though you could walk over and join them.

Love and Rockets (Jamie Hernandez)

Side lit or top

Great for creating atmosphere or suspenseful images.

Born Again (Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Marvel)

Reflection

What could be better than one character in a panel? That’s right, the same one again. More than just doubling up, reflections can add symmetry to a panel which can make it more visually appealing.

Sensational Spider-Man (Mark Bagley cover, Marvel)

Frame

This is another way to create added focus on a character or object by creating a panel within the panel where you can put the most essential elements you want people to pay attention to.

Born Again (Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Marvel)

Light background and silhouette

Similar to the light background and dark foreground, this is great at creating atmosphere while adding more focus to the visible elements.

Long Halloween (Jeff Loeb, Tim Sale, DC Comics)

Tim Sale uses the silhouette to also frame the focal points of the panel.

Three stage

This is another way to add depth and richness to the world inside the panel. The zones or stages it creates can tell a story on their own too. With each area being an almost different scene.

Spider-Man No More (John Romita, Marvel)

In Spider-Man No More, Romita shows Peter in the middle ground moving from the trash filled alley in the foreground, to the city in the background. His Spider-Man costume is thrown in the trash, it’s the past Peter wants to abandon and all the garbage that comes with it. Normal life awaits, and hopefully happiness with it. But, Peter isn’t there yet. He’s still between these worlds and his posture tells us all we need to know about how he is feeling.

Other media

Another way to build out the world of your story. By including in-world media, it can show that the non-central characters are experiencing these events as well and that there is a whole population of characters beyond the scope of the narrative with lives of their own.

Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley, DC Comics)

Whether that’s delivering exposition through TV screens and newspapers, or fabricating entire books, comics, novels, and tabloids in Watchmen to expand on the mythos.

Under the Hood from Watchmen (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, DC Comics)

Contrast

High contrast is the defining look of noir cinema and can transpose that tension and feeling into your comic.

Year One (Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, DC Comics)

What next

Take a look at some of your favorite comics and see how many examples you can pick out of the different panels types. If you are working on your own comic, see if there are any panels you could add or swap out to make things more interesting for your readers.

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Using FACS to create emotions

The 64 movements a head can make

If you’ve read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics you’ve probably seen his awesome guide on how to create emotions in your art by mixing and matching six base emotions.

It’s a brilliant guide and there’s even an app now that lets you fine tune the mixtures, dial the intensity up and down, and create a simple base template to draw off. But what if you want to take things a step further? Then you need FACS.

What is FACS?

Originally developed in the 1970s by Carl-Herman Hjortsjö, FACS is the Facial Action Coding System. It’s a breakdown of 64 unique movements that the muscles in your head are capable of making. Things like puckering lips, raising eyebrows, blinking. Similarly to McCloud’s guide, it offers up a template on how to mix in these movements to create the emotion that you are looking for. And, more than that, it allows you to create any shape or action you would want a face to do. Here’s how it works.

The main movements

Inner eyebrow raise

1

Inner Brow Raiser

Frontalis, pars medialis

The inner part of the eyebrows raises and the forehead wrinkles

Single outer eyebrow raiser

2

Outer Brow Raiser (unilateral)

Frontalis, pars lateralis

The outer part of one eyebrow raises and the forehead wrinkles

Outer brow raiser

3

Outer Brow Raiser

Frontalis, pars lateralis

The outer part of the eyebrows raise sand the forehead wrinkles

4

Brow Lowerer

Depressor Glabellae, Depressor Supercilli, Currugator

The eyebrows drop and pinch inwards slightly towards the nose

Lid raiser

5

Upper Lid Raiser

Levator palpebrae superioris

The upper eyelid raises and the eyes widen

Cheek raiser

6

Cheek Raiser

Orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis

The cheeks raise and wrinkle the eyes slightly

Lid Tighener

7

Lid Tightener

Orbicularis oculi, pars palpebralis

The eyelids tighten

Nose wrinkler

9

Nose Wrinkler

Levator labii superioris alaquae nasi

The muscles in the nose pinch around the area between the eyes and along the bridge

Upper lip raiser

10

Upper Lip Raiser

Levator Labii Superioris, Caput infraorbitalis

The upper lip raisers and lines appear on the cheeks beside the nose

Nose deepener

11

Nasolabial Deepener

Zygomatic Minor

Nostrils flare

Lip corner puller

12

Lip Corner Puller

Zygomatic Major

Mouth bends into a smile and lengthens

Cheek Puffer

13

Cheek Puffer

Levator anguli oris (Caninus)

Cheeks expand, mouth bends into a smile

Dimpler

14

Dimpler

Buccinator

Cheeks dimple and tighten at the corners of the mouth, lines appear on jawline, mouth bends into a smile

Lip depressor

15

Lip Corner Depressor

Depressor anguli oris (Triangularis)

Lips bend downwards into a frown

Lower lip depressor

16

Lower Lip Depressor

Depressor labii inferioris

Lower lip thickens

Chin Raiser

17

Chin Raiser

Mentalis

Chin becomes more defined and ridges appear on it, lips tighten and become smaller

Lip pucker

18

Lip Pucker

Incisivii labii superioris and Incisivii labii inferioris

Nose narrows, lips get tighter, ridges appear like a tighened purse string on the upper lip

Lip stretcher

20

Lip Stretcher

Risorius

Lips get longer and narrower

Lip funneler

22

Lip Funneller

Orbicularis oris

Lips get shorter and thicken, cheek skin tightens

Lip Tightener

23

Lip Tightener

Orbicularis oris

Lips get thinner, cheeks get added definition

Lip Pressor

24

Lip Pressor

Orbicularis oris

Similar to 23, lips get thinner, cheeks get added definition

Lips part

25

Lip Part

Depressor Labii, Relaxation of Mentalis (AU17), Orbicularis Oris

Lips open, teeth visible

Jaw drop

26

Jaw Drop

Masetter; Temporal and Internal Pterygoid relaxed

Bottom jaw drops, face lengthens

Mouth Stretch

27

Mouth Stretch

Pterygoids, Digastric

Face gets longer, shape changes, cheeks stretch, nose widen

Lip Suck

28

Lip Suck

Orbicularis oris

Lips narrow and slightly pucker, lines appear around the jaw and cheeks, nose narrows

Lid Droop

41

Lid Droop

Relaxation of Levator Palpebrae Superioris

Upper eyelid drops and eyes narrow

Slit

42

Slit

Orbicularis oculi

Eyes narrow, outer edges of eyes wrinkle

Eyes closed

43

Eyes Closed

Orbicularis oculi

Upper lashes meet at the bottom of the eye

Squint

44

Squint

Orbicularis oculi, pars palpebralis

Eyes narrow, outer edges of eyes wrinkle, defined lines under the eyes, area around the temples gets more defined

Wink

46

Wink

Levator palpebrae superioris; Orbicularis oculi, pars palpebralis

A mix between eyes closed and squint for the closed eye

Head turn

51

Head turn

Muscles in the neck activate

Head lift

53

Head up

Muscles in the neck relax, feature lines on the face bend downwards

Head down

54

Head down

Neck isn’t visible, feature lines on the face bend upwards

Head tilt

56

Head tilt

Mucles in the neck activate, head turns slightly

Head Forward

57

Head forward

Muscles in the neck activate, head gets bigger

Head back

58

Head back

Head gets smaller, double chin

Look left

62

Look to side

Irises and pupils move to the side of the eye and become more elipsical than circular

Look up

63

Look up

Irises and pupils move to the top of the eye and become more elipsical than circular

Look down

64

Look down

Irises and pupils move to the bottom of the eye and become more elipsical than circular, upper eyelid closes over top part of the eye

Combining movements to create the base emotions

Happiness

6 eyes on 12 face

Sadness

Sadness

1 eyebrows at 4 height with 15 mouth

Surprise

1 eyebrows at 3 height with 5 eyes and 26 mouth

Fear

Fear

1 eyebrows at 3 height with 5 and 7 eyes and 26 mouth and 20 cheeks

Anger

4 eyebrows with 5 and 7 eyes and 23 mouth

Disgust

Disgust

9 nose with and 15 mouth

What next

Try creating a few of these by drawing the individual components, e.g. the eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, mouths and wrinkles, then mix and match them to create different moods and expressions.

Try creating the actions in a mirror too to get and figure out which movements you use when feeling an emotion. Do your cheeks raise when you smile? Do they dimple?

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From the Ancient Greeks to the New Gods, from the Leonardo DaVinci to Leonardo the Turtle, composition has always been an essential component of art. It is the difference between something being drawn accurately and something being drawn beautifully. So, what is the secret to great composition?

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Creating beautiful women – A colorists guide

Whether you prefer a natural look, bold colors, or something in-between, one thing is for sure, men and women have been using make-up to augment their appearance for centuries. Doing the same in your coloring can add another level to your characters.

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Comics Writing

4 ways to make a good Superman story

Saving the Man of Steel

Superman is hard to write. He’s faster than everyone, stronger than everyone, sees everything, hears everything, and he is practically invulnerable. If it weren’t for the seemingly endless supply of kryptonite on the black market, no-one would even stand a chance against him, and even then he always has an extra gear.

When you can’t be beaten, nothing is at stake. There’s no peril, no tension, no danger. Even world ending catastrophes are little more than an inconvenience and that is boring. Just ask Saitama from One Punch Man. In fact, the greatest danger that faces Superman isn’t Kryptonite, it isn’t Lex Luthor, or General Zod, or Brainiac, or even Doomsday. It is being boring.

Superman v Clark Kent in Superman III

You can count on one hand the number of great Superman stories out there but they do exist. In this article we will break down what makes them work and what it takes to make the Man of Steel interesting without taking away his powers.

Make him the villain

Two of the greatest versions of Superman currently in the zeitgeist are excellently executed villains. Omniman in Invincible and Homelander in The Boys. Both are the Man of Steel nudged slightly onto the path of darkness and result in a terrifying menace that oozes tension anytime they arrive in a scene.

Omniman in Robert Kirkman’s Invincible

These aren’t the only times this has worked either. The Plutonian, and Brightburn are two others, even Kal-El himself has gone rogue in some his best stories. Mark Millar and Dave Johnson’s Red Son is the story of a tyrannical Superman who landed in the Ukraine instead of Kansas. Injustice is another. Both are critical and commercial successes. Then there are the times he has gone up against Superman like in Hush or the Dark Knight Returns. Here, he is the embodiment of danger, the ultimate threat.

It works because all the negatives around him being unstoppable and invincible suddenly become strengths for the story. Everything is at stake, there is constant peril because the protagonists need to somehow do the impossible. It’s not even that they have to beat Superman, it’s that even surviving to the end of the story seems like a victory beyond their grasps.

Superman doesn’t need to be evil for this to work either. Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Luthor is the greatest Superman story no-one seems to talk about. This is the film that Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice should have been.

Mild spoilers ahead. It follows Lex Luthor as he tries to conquer the business world, the crime world, and bring down the Man of Steel. He convinces Bruce Wayne that Superman is a threat leading to the Dark Knight trying to unsuccessfully take on Superman and narrowly escape. He manufactures a new hero to steal the spotlight and love from Superman, and he sets into motion a series of events that threaten to turn the public against Superman.

Superman is still objectively the good guy throughout. But he is also the antagonist and a fear inducing force of nature that Lex Luthor has to use every ounce of wit and scheming to keep at bay.

This could work over and over. A charismatic and empathetic villain trying to make it in the criminal underworld of Metropolis knowing that any moment Superman could swoop in and undo his work in a heartbeat. Imagine something like Michael Mann’s Heat but instead of Robert De Niro being chased by Al Pacino, he is trying to outwit a literal god.

Put him in the background

Giving more narrative weight and focus to the supporting cast is part of what makes One Punch Man a success. We know that when Saitama arrives the fight is over and the danger is finished, but there are perilous episodes where Mumen Rider or Genos are facing down against impossible odds and being torn apart while Saitama is delayed or distracted. It’s a tool used across anime as well. How many times has Goku been stuck away from the action? Superman might be invincible, but his friends aren’t.

Lex Luthor and Superman in Superman For All Seasons (Jeff Loeb, Tim Sale, DC Comics)

Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale’s Superman For All Season’s is a good example of this in action. It focuses on Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang. They are front and center and the story shows how Superman has impacted their lives. We are invested in their arcs and get the benefit of knowing that they are vulnerable adds much needed tension.

Give him something he can’t punch

If Superman can stop any threat with his strength, what happens when it isn’t a villain, or an asteroid, or crashing plane that needs rescuing? Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman pits the Man of Steel against a threat that none of his powers can help him against. The Sun.

All-Star Superman (Grant Morrison, Frank Quitley, Jamie Grant, DC Comics)

Lex Luthor has sabotaged the Sun, overwhelming the cells in Superman’s body and killing him. All that is left is for Superman to spend the last moments he has trying to make the world a better place while the clock ticks slowly towards his doom.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is another example. In that, Alan Moore has Superman face off against his own morality in the climax. After going against his code, he has to reconcile this fact and decide whether to bring himself to justice. No amount of punching can undo what he has done.

Remember who he is

Cards on the table, I hate Superman but I didn’t always. Once upon a time he was the center of my comic book world. I watched the Christopher Reeve’s films religiously, I watched the Dean Cain TV series, I read the comics every month (and this was during the 90s when he was in his Red/Blue phase). I consumed all things Superman.

Young me when I liked Superman

The reason I loved him, was the same as most kids’. He was a power fantasy. In a world of adults who were stronger and faster than you, who set all the rules, and weren’t always just, here was a character you could pretend to be that could put right all the wrongs and move through the world with ease. The lack of tension was a positive as a young kid. It was safe and secure, the bad guy would get punished and the world would be made right.

But, there are other superheroes who embody that better. There’s He-Man, who can transform from a weak prince into the champion of Eternia. There’s Billy Batson who can utter the magic word SHAZAM and become a better, more fun version of Superman.

It’s pure villainy that Superman survived the golden age and Captain Marvel was almost forgotten. Captain Marvel was the superior product, more suited to that audience, a truer embodiment of the fantasy. Nearly a decade of legal battles destroyed the lead Captain Marvel had over his rival and let DC steal the character from its creator. Thanks to that, Superman was able to whether the superhero cull of the post-war period and the watering down of the Comics Code Authority. He muscled his way into the world of kid’s best fantasy and stayed there, but those weren’t his roots.

Children aren’t the only people who can feel powerless. The very first villain Superman took on, in his very first appearance, was the criminal justice system. Superman kicks in the door of the governor in the middle of the night in order to save the life of a wrongfully convicted woman about to be executed. He has already caught the real murderer before the story starts. The killer isn’t the enemy. It’s injustice.

During Siegel and Shuster’s initial run, he takes on a wife beater, would-be rapists, a crooked politician, a munitions manufacturer, more wrongful arrests and almost executions, evil slumlords. Superman’s villains don’t get fantastical until much later. Early on, he was a champion for the down trodden, the disaffected. The last of his villains that fits this mold is Lex Luthor.

What next

The next great Superman story remains to be written and right now the world needs it more than ever. Superman doesn’t need the flash and the gimmicks. He doesn’t need to be watered down, stripped of his powers, given a new haircut and suit. He doesn’t need an overpowered villain to take him down. He doesn’t even need a supervillain at all. There are enough real villains to be inspired by. What the story needs is to focus on the vulnerable and the weak, have Superman arrive, talk truth to power and deliver justice.

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How to compose a comic panel

From the Ancient Greeks to the New Gods, from the Leonardo DaVinci to Leonardo the Turtle, composition has always been an essential component of art. It is the difference between something being drawn accurately and something being drawn beautifully. So, what is the secret to great composition?

Keep reading

How to plot your comic book

We all know a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. We’ve heard it from teachers, as a handy factoid from our parents, we’ve even heard it as well-meaning advice from friends, but, it’s very rare for anyone to explain what those three things are.

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Art

Creating beautiful women – A colorists guide

Rules of attraction: make-up tips to make your characters stand out

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but make-up is an often ignored tool that can add differentiation between your cast of creations or offer an insight into their personality. Or, it can show a shift in mood, or situation as they move through the story.

If you use make-up regularly, a lot of this will be second nature, but for those with little to know experience in painting their own faces, this is a guide to how to glam up your female characters with some color.

As with everything in this guide, how subtle you choose to go is up to you. If you want a natural look, stick with colors close to the character’s existing skin tone. If you want something bolder, go for it. These rules should still help you.

Eyes

Pick four colors that you want to work with.

  1. Highlighter, a little lighter than the skin tone
  2. Matte, a mid-tone shade
  3. Contour, a few shades darker than the skin tone
  4. Black

Color the area around the tear ducts and just under the eyebrows with the highlighter color.

Highlights added to cartoon eyes

Next, add your matte color to the gap between the highlighted area under the brow and the eye itself.

Eye make-up for comic character

Use the contour shade to add some definition to the crease of the eyelid and just underneath the eye.

defined eye make-up for comic book drawing

Emphasize the outer corners of the eye using the black and add a few lashes.

eyelashes and eye make-up on a comic book character

Cheeks

Use a shade to define the area of the cheeks and sweep up towards the ears.

This color is just to illustrate the area you need. In reality, you may want to use a subtler choice which is only slightly off from the base skin tone.

Lips

After you have chosen the color lipstick you want your character to wear, trace the outline of the lips with a darker version of this color.

You can also add some highlights to the lip to create a gloss effect.

What next

That was our quick guide to creating a made-up look for you characters. To take this further, try coloring your own characters. Experiment with different shades and see how they impact their look. Try out different skin tones too.

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How to compose a comic panel

From the Ancient Greeks to the New Gods, from the Leonardo DaVinci to Leonardo the Turtle, composition has always been an essential component of art. It is the difference between something being drawn accurately and something being drawn beautifully. So, what is the secret to great composition?

Keep reading

How to plot your comic book

We all know a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. We’ve heard it from teachers, as a handy factoid from our parents, we’ve even heard it as well-meaning advice from friends, but, it’s very rare for anyone to explain what those three things are.

Keep reading
Categories
Art

How to compose a comic panel

How to use dynamic symmetry to stage your comic

While studying Greek architecture, pottery, and sculpture, Jay Hambidge noticed that there seemed to be a larger pattern connecting the shapes and dimensions chosen by those classical artists. As a result, he developed a set of rules which he called Dynamic Symmetry and it has been referenced ever since by painters, photographers, and comic book artists, to elevate their work from good to great.

What is dynamic symmetry?

If you are familiar with the rule of thirds, dynamic symmetry is this cranked up to 11. Developed from the golden and silver ratios, dynamic symmetry is a tool you can use to create a grid to guide where to align and place elements of your composition.

The quick and easy explanation breaks down as follows:

  1. Put focal points and areas of importance at spots where the lines intersect.
  2. Create flow to those focal points by aligning the elements of your image along those lines.

From the Hulk Cover above, you can see Banner’s body aligns at various points along the different lines. His back and head fall neatly on one line, which carries on up towards the moon focal point with the Hulk’s face. The tombstone he is leaning on runs parallel to that same line.

Banner’s right leg runs exactly along another of the lines, as does his left foot, and this line is parallel with the horizon. There’s another line connecting his eyes, with his mouth, hands, and knee leading to a focal point of a cluster of graves. Not to mention that Banner’s head is right in the middle of the page.

Here is another example of the grid in action from Alex Ross:

Harley Quinn (Paul Dini, Yvel Guichet, Aaron Sowd, Alex Ross, DC Comics)

The edge of white created by Joker’s face and body align perfectly with the vertical line leading up to a focal point level with Joker’s eyes. The diagonal line leading to this runs perfectly through Joker’s smile, along Harley’s face, her neck, and her body, to a second focal point where Joker’s hand is on her stomach. Practically every line and point of importance sits exactly on the grid.

Setting up the grid

  1. Start with the standard rectangle panel. Draw two diagonal lines from the opposite corners to form an X. These are the Barroque (line from bottom left to top right corner) and the Sinister (line from top left to bottom right corner).
  2. For each corner, draw a new line outwards so that it meets the existing line at right angle (90 degrees or perpendicular). These are the Reciprocal lines.
  1. Create two vertical lines to connect the points where the current lines intersect.
  2. Create two horizontal lines to connect the points where the current lines intersect.

Using the grid

It’s important to remember that this is a tool, not a rule, but having said that, here is how you can utilize Dynamic Symmetry in your art.

Take a blank piece of paper and use a ruler and set square to draw out a grid. For extra ease, try laying out the grid on some tracing paper.

Sketch out your rough layout using the grid.

Line up background elements, buildings, and items so that they run parallel to the sinister, baroque, or reciprocal lines.

Place things that you want to draw attention to on spots where the lines intersect.

Angle your poses so that your characters align with the lines.

Daredevil (Joe Quesada, Kevin Smith, Jimmy Palmiotti, Marvel Comics)

Get drawing.

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Use LICE to flesh out your writing

Mary Robinette Kowal’s formula for building plots and sub-plots in your comic. If you’ve read part one on this series on plotting your comic, you should have a skeleton of plot for your book. This next article is designed to help you put some meat on the bones.

Keep reading

How to pace a story

Blake Snyder’s famous book, Save the Cat, is touted as “the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need”. Its words of wisdom have guided many in Hollywood to success in the 16 years since it was first released, but can they be applied to the world of comics? I think so.

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Writing

How to pace a story

Save the Bat: Using screenwriting tips to pace your comic

Blake Snyder’s famous book, Save the Cat, is touted as “the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need”. Its words of wisdom have guided many in Hollywood to success in the years since it was first released, but can they be applied to the world of comics? I think so.

This is a quick breakdown of the main story beats from the book, what they mean, and when they need to come up in your story. The page suggestions below line up for a single 24 page issue. If you want to work out where they would line up for a longer issue, or multi-issue arc, you can use this handy tool on the save the cat homepage.

To bring the idea’s to life, we are going to be pulling examples from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s classic Batman story, The Killing Joke. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

Opening image – page 1

A strong image the brings readers into the story and establishes the tone you are going to tell. The Killing Joke opens on rain drops hitting a dark puddle. It’s night and raining hard. That image of dark liquid will recur throughout.

If we take the whole page as an opening image, we also get Batman’s arrival at Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane, and we see Jim Gordon and a regular uniformed officers differing reactions to the Dark Knight’s presence.

You could also take the cover as the opening image. The Joker taking our picture and telling us to “smile”.

Theme stated – page 1-2

What the story is about, “the moral”, or the question you are trying to answer. In the Killing Joke, a story where the Joker attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, we open in Arkham Asylum. Page 2 is dedicated to the theme. Gordon is front and centre of the top six panels.

We see him walk past cells and we see him framed between the bars, as though he is the one imprisoned. A sign on the receptionist’s desk reads “you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps”. This is raises the question of what separates those behind the bars and those with the keys.

Set-up – page 1-2

The world as it is before the story starts. Exploring the status quo for the main character. The opening pages of the Killing Joke set out Batman’s relationship with Gordon. How the two operate together and the level of freedom Batman has to interrogate criminals while Gordon keeps watch. We also see Batman’s detective skills in action as he deduces something is wrong with the Joker.

Catalyst – page 2

The inciting incident, the event that sets the story into motion. Here, it is that the Joker has escaped and someone else has taken his place.

Debate – page 2-5

Our hero is on the edge, they haven’t committed to the story yet and may be reluctant to leave behind the world they know. For Gordon, he has to decide how far to let Batman interrogate the false Joker, for Batman, it’s the same, how far is he willing to go to stop the Joker?

Break into two – page 5

The middle of the story, we’ve left the beginning and now things can get going. Batman now needs to hunt down the clown prince of crime.

B-story – page 6

Here’s where you add a subplot. In a good story this will echo the main plot, or explore the them from a different angle. For Killing Joke, we get Joker’s backstory as he presents it. Like the main thread, this is about a descent into madness. Joker’s one bad day, that turned him to lunacy.

Fun and games – page 5-11

The opening half of act two. Here things are going to plan (or not), the hero is on the front foot and the stakes are lower than they will become. Gordon cuts out newspaper clippings of the story for his collection. Batman crunches data in the Batcave.

Midpoint – page 12

A false ending. The hero is almost at their goal, or it looks like they’re destined to never achieve it. For Batman, he’s failed. He can’t predict what the Joker will do or where he will strike. An example where the goal is achieved would be in the film the Dark Knight when Joker is captured and his reign of terror seems to be over.

Bad guys close in – page 12-16

After the hero has almost achieved the goal (or failed), consequences follow. The forces working against them grow stronger and exert themselves. In the Dark Knight, it’s the revelation that Harvey Dent and Rachel have been kidnapped. In the Killing Joke, Joker breaks in and attacks Gordon and his daughter Barbara. Batman’s failure to predict where Joker would strike has had dire consequences.

All is lost – page 16

The villain strikes a devastating blow. Or the hero loses something that they hold dear. In the Killing Joke, this is Batman discovering that Barbara has been paralysed and will never walk again. Simultaneously, Gordon’s mind is being assaulted by Joker’s horrific rollercoaster.

Dark night of the soul – page 16-18

This is the lowest point of the story for the hero. It is similar to the debate in that the hero dwells on the seriousness of what has happened and decides whether to give up or continue on. In the Killing Joke, this is Batman comforting Barbara while she worries over what the Joker is inflicting on her father.

Break into three – page 18

This is the beginning of the end. The hero finds new resolve and develops a new plan of action. Batman brutalises his way through the underworld for information, eventually receiving Joker’s invitation to the carnival.

Finale – page 18-23

The final showdown. This is the end confrontation. Both the A and B threads are brought to a conclusion. Here we get the resolution to our theme. Batman tears through the carnival to rescue Gordon, his psyche intact, and defeat the Joker.

We also hear Joker’s telling of falling into the acid vat, the dark pools of liquid repeating in the visuals.

Final image – page 24

This is the companion to the opening image. They should relate to one another and book-end the story. Looking at the two together, you should be able to see what has changed. The Killing Joke closes as it opened, on raindrops hitting a dark pool of water.

But, if we take the page as a whole again, the brooding Batman from before has changed. He has smiled, and laughed, and maybe, his psyche hasn’t withstood the assault as well as Gordon’s. To cement this idea, the back cover has a playing card showing the Joker and Batman as mirrors of one another.

Book page image

What next?

Now you should have all the elements you need to create a layout for your comic. You know what is going to happen, in what order, and even on what page. The only thing left for you to do is to write the script. So, get to it.

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More to read

How to pace a story

Blake Snyder’s famous book, Save the Cat, is touted as “the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need”. Its words of wisdom have guided many in Hollywood to success in the 16 years since it was first released, but can they be applied to the world of comics? I think so.

Keep reading

How to plot your comic book

We all know a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. We’ve heard it from teachers, as a handy factoid from our parents, we’ve even heard it as well-meaning advice from friends, but, it’s very rare for anyone to explain what those three things are.

Keep reading
Categories
Writing

Use LICE to flesh out your writing

Mary Robinette Kowal’s formula for building plots and sub-plots in your comic

If you’ve read part one on this series on plotting your comic, you should have a skeleton of plot for your book. This next article is designed to help you put some meat on the bones.

Last time we went through Little Miss Muffet with Jim Shooter to build out the six elements a good story needs. Character, Location, Status Quo, A Problem, Conflict, and Resolution. Now we are going to use those to expand our story, develop a more detailed plot, as well as some sub plots with the help of Mary Robinette Kowal.

How LICE or MICE make a better story

Multi-award-winning short story author, Mary Robinette Kowal, lays out her formula for writing better stories during Brandon Sanderson’s lectures at BYU

According to the writer, this is the method that helped her land multiple Hugo awards, Locus awards, and Nebula awards for her novels and short stories. Mary breaks down her stories into multiple story threads of which there are four types:

  • M. Milieau or L. Location: The location, environment, setting, or atmosphere. This is a journey thread. It starts with a character in a place or location, they want to get to another place, and it ends when they succeed or fail. E.g. Sam and Frodo are in the Shire, they need to get to the Prancing Pony to meet Gandalf. This thread beings when Gandalf tells them to meet him there and it ends when they arrive.
  • I. Inquiry or Investigation: A question or mystery that needs an answer. This starts when a question is asked and ends when it is answered. Who killed the Comedian? Where are the Infinity Stones?
  • C. Character: The internal problems, personality, values and goals of our character. This can be an external goal like Lex Luthor wants to become president. It starts when he decides he will run and ends with him being elected. Or, it can be an internal change. Spider-Man thinks he should use his powers for fame and fortune, but learns that with great power comes great responsibility and instead decides to use his powers for a greater good.
  • E. Event: External problems, catastrophes, or events that occur. These aren’t just limited to acts of god, they can also be more everyday such as the start and finish of a basketball game. While the event is happening, this thread is active. From tip-off to the final buzzer, or from the first rumble on the volcano to when the lava cools.

That gives us our MICE threads which we can weave together to produce our over arching story. Although, I like to change the M to an L, Milieau to Location, as I find that easier to remember. And so, MICE becomes LICE.

Think about what locations, questions, character changes, and events you want to happen in your story. But remember, the more of these you have, the more ink you will need to tell the story. Every character you add, every location they visit, and every subplot you add, need extra panels and pages to show and explore properly.

Each thread should behave just like your plot outline that you put together from the Little Miss Muffet article. It needs to establish the characters involved, their location, the status quo at the beginning, the challenge and what is at stake, the conflict and the resolution.

How long you make each thread is up to you. You may want a short thread that only lasts a panel or two, like the travel montages in Indiana Jones showing their plane’s progress across a map. Or, you may want to increase the tension and have threads stretch much further, like the long walk to Mordor.

Yes, but … No, and …

Ok, the length you can make a thread might not be entirely up to you. Although, stretching out the plotline can create tension, if you do it poorly, it can also create fatigue and boredom in your reader. So, how can you avoid this? The key is in creating a sense of progression.

Break the plot thread down into a series of milestones that you need to move through to achieve the goal and reach the end. Your character needs to steal a gem, but first, they have to:

  • Climb the wall
  • Get across the courtyard
  • Open the locked door
  • Avoid the laser alarm
  • Grab the gem and escape

But, you don’t want moving through these to be a breeze. To get that excitement that you need, your character needs to suffer difficulties and set backs. This is where the conflict lies and makes up the story part of your story. To do that, use “yes, but”, “no, and”, or what Mary Robinette Kowal calls a Try-Fail Cycle. Do they achieve their next objective? Yes, but something bad happened. No, and now things are worse than before.

With our example from before. Our hero fires a grappling hook up the outer wall. They start to climb. Do they reach the top? Yes, but their bag gets caught on the barbed wire at the top, spilling their lockpicking gear over the ground and it’s too dark to see where they went.

A spotlight sweeps across the courtyard. They try to get over to the main entrance but a dog’s bark sounds in the night. Do they get across? No, and they can’t try again because the dog’s have their scent.

So, they are forced to go around, dodging the guard towers and patrolmen. Do they make it? Yes, but they’ve wasted too much time and now their window of opportunity is closing.

Without their lockpicking gear, breaking through the door is difficult. They go through a window instead. Do they get inside? Yes, but they cut themselves on the glass. Now for the lasers. Can they do it? No, as they are almost through, a drop of blood breaks the beam, and now the alarms are going off.

Closing a thread

They snatch the gem, we’ve reached the end of the plotline. There’s no more progression to be had and no more tension to be milked, so here we switch things up for the conclusion. Instead of “yes, but”, “no, and”, it becomes “yes, and”, “no, but”. Do they succeed in their goal? Yes, and they get even more than they hoped for. No, but there’s a glimmer of hope.

Does our hero escape with their gem? Yes, and the police suspect a rival burglar. Or, no, the police arrive and put our hero in handcuffs, but, they spot their lockpick on the ground next to them, allowing them to open the handcuffs.

Weaving your threads together

In a good story, these multiple threads will interconnect, adding meaning to one another, sharing beats, and feeding into the greater story being told. Our thief from before might also be an over-planner and this moment is when they learn the value of improvising and thinking on their feet (character thread).

They may need the gem in order to pay back a debt incurred in an earlier event thread. The scene of the heist is a location thread, it starts when they climb the wall and ends when they escape. It may also be part of a larger investigation thread, if we (or our hero) don’t know why this gem is so important to the person who hired them.

Think of elements that could pop-up across multiple threads and how the threads can interact and intertwine. This is a chance to play on themes and motifs. Threads might mirror one another, they might be a foil to showcase the differences in two characters. They can interact multiple times in multiple ways. There’s only one key rule to keep in mind, they have to nest.

Threads should be opened and closed in reverse order. The first thread opened, should be the last to close. The final thread opened should be the first to close. You can close multiple threads together, and doing so at the end can create a very satisfying conclusion, but they have to close in the correct order.

Think of it like computer code. When you open a thread, for example an Investigation thread <i>, we can only close it <i/> when the threads opened after it have been closed. For example, Watchmen begins and ends with Rorschach’s character thread.

From Watchmen (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins, Len Wein, Barbara Kesel, DC Comics)

In the opening page we are shown that Rorschach is matter of fact, values the truth, that this frightens the city. He documents everything, believes the world is ending and isn’t worth saving. In fact, he says that when the end comes and he is asked to save them he’ll “look down and whisper, no”.

A character thread has three possible conclusions. They can change for the better, they can change for the worse, or they can stay the same. Which does Rorschach’s follow? Watchmen closes on the image of Rorschach’s journal, where he has documented the whole series of events across the book in brutal, matter of fact prose. He has been asked to compromise himself, to lie in order to save the world. His answer was no. He wants the truth to be known, no matter the consequences. Rorschach’s character has been tested and has remained the same.

As well as adding a nice symmetry to the book, this elevates a specific plotline or element into becoming the main theme for the story. The next thread that opens is an investigation thread and the question of who killed the Comedian. Which closes when Rorshach and Nite Owl break into Ozymandias’s office and discover he is responsible. This opens another question of “why?” which is answered when they confront Ozymandias at his polar base. Nite Owl gets his own arc in the middle of these too, moving away from living in the past to create a new life with Silk Spectre.

If we write them out they would look something like this:

  • c1 open: Rorschach’s character arc opens
  • i1 open: Who has been killed?
  • i1 close: The Comedian is the murdered person
  • c2 open: Dan(Nite Owl) is living in the past, reminiscing with Hollis Mason
  • i2 open: Rorschach thinks someone is killing superheroes. Who?
  • i2 close: Ozymandias is the killer
  • i3 open: Why is Ozymandias killing people?
  • e1 open: Nite Owl and Rorschach fight Ozymandias to save the world
  • e1 close: They lose the fight
  • i3 close: Ozymandias explains his plan for world peace
  • c2 close: Nite Owl and Silk Spectre create a new life together, looking toward the future
  • c1 close: Rorschach’s journal is about to reveal the truth, no matter the consrquences.

Nestled in between are dozens of other plot points, like Dr Manhattan’s arc from disinterest in life to wanting to create his own, or Silk Spectre discovering the truth about her father. Each of these subplots is flanked by a larger plot with the most important questions closer to the edge.

What next?

Using Jim Shooter’s Nursery Rhyme guide to plotting and LICE, create an outline of what you want to happen in your story. Remember to break down each subplot into smaller milestones and whether your characters succeed or fail in reaching each one. Next time, we are going to steal some ideas from Hollywood on how to pace your comic book.

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How to pace a story

Blake Snyder’s famous book, Save the Cat, is touted as “the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need”. Its words of wisdom have guided many in Hollywood to success in the 16 years since it was first released, but can they be applied to the world of comics? I think so.

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How to plot your comic book

We all know a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. We’ve heard it from teachers, as a handy factoid from our parents, we’ve even heard it as well-meaning advice from friends, but, it’s very rare for anyone to explain what those three things are.

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How to plot your comic book

Writing your story the Jim Shooter way

So, what are the main parts of a story? The beginning and the end seem obvious enough, but what about the pesky middle? You know, where the stuff actually happens.

Instinctively, we might sense when one of these three is missing or lacking, but articulating what is wrong is harder. If we’re lucky, maybe someone has brought up the concept of a three-act-structure before falling back on “you know, the beginning, the middle, and the end.” So what are they?

According to comics giant, Jim Shooter, the answer lies in a children’s poem.

Jim Shooter’s nursery rhyme

Valiant Comics and Defiant Comics founder, and ex-Editor-in-Chief for Marvel, Jim Shooter explaining what makes a good comic at Buffalo Comicon

Jim broke into comics aged just 13 after spending his summer trying to crack the code of what makes a good comic story. The answer he came up with is in Little Miss Muffet. According to the ex-Marvel Editor-in-Chief, the nursery rhyme is the template we should keep in mind when laying out a complete story, beginning, middle, and end. It might not be a complicated story, but it has all the elements we need. He breaks it down as this:

  1. Little Miss Muffet: Introduce your characters
  2. Sat on a tuffet: Establish the world
  3. Eating her curds and whey: Show the status quo
  4. Along came a spider: Introduce the threat to the hero and the status quo
  5. Who sat down beside her: The conflict and ask the big question the story is about
  6. And Frightened Miss Muffet away: Answer the question and set the new status quo.

1. Little Miss Muffet

Introduce your characters, who they are, and the core thing about them that is important for the story. Jim was infamous for demanding that his staff introduce Marvels famous characters in every single issue, often dropping exposition on how they got their powers, or what those powers were. It didn’t matter that Spider-Man or Daredevil had been running for decades. Each issue needed to let us know who the characters were as if we’d never met them before. As he puts it, “every comic is someone’s first comic”.

Now, you don’t have to be heavy handed, having your characters announce “I’m Matt Murdock, I was blinded with radioactive waste as a child that gave me superhuman abilities and now I fight crime as the vigilante known as Daredevil” but do think about ways you can show who your characters are in the limited amount of space we have available in a panel. Make that space work as hard as possible.

Matt walking down the street with a cane, lets us know he is blind. Him walking out of the court house with a cane and legal briefs lets us know he is lawyer too. Him stopping someone from stepping out into the street as car comes racing by lets us know he has powers. Him stopping someone from stepping out as a car is being chased by police, with a grim look of determination on his face might tell us more.

2. Sat on her tuffet

Introduce their world. Tell us where they are, how things work and the rules of how they work. Batman sits brooding on a gargoyle high above Gotham City. But, again make the panels work for us. A generic cityscape is no good at telling us how Gotham is different to New York or Chicago? Beautiful Art Deco towers bordered with shanty towns and police blimps circling above as sirens blare below. That tells us more.

The setting needs to add something to the story too. Sitting on a tuffet is very different to sitting on a gargoyle. It enhances what we’ve learnt about the character or emphasises part of themselves that we want to explore. Changing location should change the story itself. Think about how a Tarzan story changes it you take him out of the jungle and drop him into New York, or how tough a time Spider-Man would have getting around in rural Kansas.

3. Eating her curds and whey

Show us the status quo, what life is like under normal circumstances for this character, or what life has become if we are in the midst of a multi-story arc.

The status quo is Luke Skywalker grinding out a life of farming rocks for moisture on Tatooine, dreaming of one day becoming a pilot. Or, the status quo could be Superman stopping a robbery with no fear of bullets unaware that Lex Luthor is about to change everything with a lump of Kryptonite.

How can we make the status quo work harder for us? Use it to show what the character wants or needs. When Luke looks up at the sky or complains about wanting to join the academy, he is telling us that he wants adventure. Show their character through how they deal with the status quo. Luke Skywalker is loyal and self sacrificing, forgoing his own dreams to help his uncle earn a living. Those traits stay with him through the series when he later abandons his training to save his friends.

These three parts, Little Miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey, are the beginning. They are the world as it was when the story starts. A world in balance. But, soon, the middle will come along to upset that balance.

4. Along came a spider

Introduce the danger, the obstacle that needs to be overcome. This is where you show the stakes, what is standing between the character and their goals. Or it’s when things get real and those stakes are raised.

In Watchmen, Rorschach has spent the beginning being Rorschach. A gruff, no-nonsense vigilante with a strict black and white morality. He has made his way through this alternate reality of superheroes, electric cars, and Richard Nixon run America, breaking bones and stealing beans on the hunt for a mask killer. That was his status quo until … some unseen mastermind sets him up to be arrested.

Now the story can’t continue as before. Rorschach can’t slink around in the shadows, closing the net on his mask killer anymore. He has been trapped and now he has to react to his new reality just as Miss Muffet can’t carry on eating her lunch as before.

This should be something that directly attacks what we know about the protagonist. For Rorschach, someone who refused to curb his freedom and remained a vigilante despite government pressure, who refuses to conform to society or expectations, who has come to identify his mask as his true face, is robbed of his freedom, his mask, and is forced into the ultimate symbol of government control, a prison cell.

5. Who sat down beside her

This is the conflict. The clash between the antagonist and the protagonist where our hero is tested and we find out what they are truly made of. The end of the middle and the beginning of the end. This is Aang squaring off against Fire Lord Ozai. Everything has been leading up to this confrontation.

Climactic battle for Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Avatar the Last Airbender on Nickelodeon

To elevate your work, this should also be asking the big question that your story has been hinting at. The two sides of the fight should be two (or more) opposing philosophies or points of view. Aang believes that life is sacred and should be preserved, even when it is the life of your enemy. Ozai believes that might makes right and that you need to be willing to sacrifice others to get ahead. Throughout the story, the Fire Lord has been willing to throw away the lives of his soldiers, his father, and even his children to achieve his goals. This fight not only determines the fate of the world, but will answer the question of who’s philosophy is right. Aang’s or Ozai’s?

6. And frightened Miss Muffet away

Finally, the ending. This is the resolution and the answer to that question from before. If you’ve done your job leading up to now, it will tie together all that has gone before. After this, the status quo will have changed, the hero will have changed, and a new order will be established.

This is Neo, finally becoming the One at the end of the Matrix, mastering his powers and soundly defeating Agent Smith. After that, the world is changed. He is unleashed and now it is the machines who are in danger from him. Neo’s philosophy of truth and authenticity has battled Smith’s philosophy of conformity and Neo has won. The question has been answered. A hard truth is better than the easy lie.

What next?

There you have it, Jim Shooter’s easy guide to plotting your story. Armed with this, you should be able to build out the skeleton of your story. So, lets do that. Ready for the next lesson, work out the beginning, middle, and end of what should happen in your story so that you can explain it in a quick paragraph like Little Miss Muffet. For example:

  1. Indiana Jones, resourceful adventurer, archaeologist and professor, who is afraid of snakes.
  2. Ventures into dangerous remote areas, filled with local tribes, deadly animals, and booby traps.
  3. To retrieve lost artefacts for museums, competing with his rival, René Belloq, who often is one step ahead of our hero.
  4. The government enlist Indie to find the Ark of the Covenant, a biblical weapon, before Hitler’s team can uncover it in Egypt.
  5. Indie faces off against Nazi agents, Belloq, a pit full of snakes, assassination attempts, and the wrath of God himself.
  6. He recovers the Ark and delivers it, not to a museum, but into the hands of the US government.

What you may notice is that point 5 is looking a little cramped. A lot of the story happens in that middle section, so, if you’re still scratching your head on your plot, check out part two on how LICE can help you flesh out your writing.

Our latest book:

David Fincher’s Se7en crossed with X-Men’s Shadow King

140 pages of suspense as journalist, Lina Santos, hunts for a child abductor no-one believes exists.

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Use LICE to flesh out your writing

Mary Robinette Kowal’s formula for building plots and sub-plots in your comic. If you’ve read part one on this series on plotting your comic, you should have a skeleton of plot for your book. This next article is designed to help you put some meat on the bones.

Keep reading

How to pace a story

Blake Snyder’s famous book, Save the Cat, is touted as “the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need”. Its words of wisdom have guided many in Hollywood to success in the 16 years since it was first released, but can they be applied to the world of comics? I think so.

Keep reading