Clone's Dream

Tuesday and Thursday

Comics Craft

Some notes about good comics creation

So this is my beginning. It takes care of some scene setting, because details on the biz card give some clues. But of course, after I did it I looked around to see how some masters of the craft did it. This looking around is one of the things you do if you're ever going to be any good. Of course doing it doesn't guarantee you'll get good; goodness only comes with practice and lots of it. But doing it does help you consider and get the best from your practicing.

And I found a lot of bad beginnings, a few unpromising beginnings, and one or two that show a profound mastery of the form. Like Phil Foglio. In some ways he's one of the most depressing artists to write about, because at some point, my forty-year-old self, who took up a pen and got semi-serious about drawing last year, must come to terms with the fact that no matter how long I live and no matter how much I practice, I will probably never be as good an artist as Phil Foglio.

But never being that good doesn't mean I can't look at his stuff and find ways to be better. And one of the first things I noticed when I went to his current magnum opus (this is the second page of it) is how he crams ten thousand words of exposition into the background of a single panel. Foglio is a master of what artists call the background business. Here is a page that looks down a busy street set in the world of his story, and without saying much of anything explicitly, it does a lot of exposition and introduces his protagonist.

Click on the
thumbnail for
full-sized
background
business!

His protagonist. That's the central figure at the bottom of the page, the young woman wearing the coat, skirt, and waistcoat that draw your eye. How do they draw your eye? Well, the coat does it by constrasting with its surroundings: it's the biggest, deepest black on the page, with high-contrast white bits to bring it out. The skirt and waistcoat do it by having texture. Take another look at the drawing. It's a line drawing. Other things have shadows and outlines and hatching to suggest texture, but the protagonist's outfit has texture. He doesn't overdo it; she's still a part of this scene, not cut in and clearly wrong, like a photograph. Her head, her face, and her general outline belong to the style of the drawing, so she fits in. But because of the way her outfit is rendered, she immediately draws your eye. And that is perfect, because this is the starting point of a story that's about her, this is the first time you see her, it's in a busy crowded scene, and as a viewer you're already aware of her, as opposed to anybody else in the crowd. If the story had turned out to be about the guy in the lower left, with the rug over his shoulder and the funnel instead of a hat, you'd feel confused, because there was nothing about him and the way he was rendered (not even the funnel for a hat) that drew your eye. But this works without you even being aware of it. You find yourself looking at the girl naturally, without there being anything in the context of the drawing (other than her central position) that points her out.

But the rest of the drawing isn't just a background, no. The rest of the drawing is the background taking care of business, and the name of the business is exposition. Take a look at the only high-contrast lettering in the scene: It's a smallish sign at the upper left which says, "Long live the Tyrant". That tells us what kind of political society this image is set in. The cobbled street and horse-and-wagon is set in a stark contrast to the mechanized whatever-it-is that's right in front of it and the guy with his "walking machine" just behind the protagonist. And the attitude of the people toward the mechanized whatever-it-is and the walking machine and the guy with the mechanical arm is telling. Check it out, nobody's giving these incongruous elements a second glance. They are accepted as normal, and the fact that most people don't have any mechanical anything working for them is also accepted as normal. While advanced machinery has apparently been built, it just as apparently hasn't been applied to any affairs of plain living such as construction or paving or air conditioning. Some soldier can use a walking machine, but the ordinary people still have to care for horses and deal with cobbled roads, the shopkeeper has no mechanical devices for keeping her fruit fresh, and the kids are listening to a raconteur rather than a recording or some other mass-produced media. And this reveals factoids about the world and setting that Foglio is setting up for this story; that in the story the advanced machinery is a socially recent development and that mass production for commerce is not yet being widely pursued, and taken together with the sign, it hints at a deep class division that the rest of the story develops.

And it doesn't end there. Now we get to the other thing that focuses attention on the protagonist, and oddly enough it's the lack of interaction and dynamic elements affecting the protagonist. She is just walking, by herself. She looks sad. Everybody else in this scene is interacting with other elements of the scene. The kids and the storyteller have their interaction. A soldier appears to be buying fruit from the shopkeeper. A woman is sniffing suspiciously at an apple, and her child is clinging to her skirts and looking nervously at another shopper. The soldier in the walking machine is taking a report from the guy with goggles and a clipboard. The barmaid is making happy eyes at the storyteller. The guy leaning on the gaslamp looks like he's talking to somebody in the wagon. The wagon driver is shaking his fist and yelling at the driver of the mechanical whatever-it-is to get it out of the way so he can get his wagon through. The horse is scared of the mechanical whatever-it-is. The guy with the mechanical arm looks like he's trying very hard not to be seen; he's probably more badly disfigured than just the arm. Even the guy with the funnel on his head is busy getting his rug, or whatever it is, from point A to point B.

Everybody has something to do, some way to interact with other elements. Everybody in this scene has their own little story. Everybody except this woman, who's walking by herself, and looks sad. Her clothing, with the gigantic coat, is almost so fine as to be called splendid; she clearly doesn't belong here, she has nothing to do with the rest of these people's stories. Why is she here? What's her story? Well, that's the hook. You have to turn the page to find out. At least I did.

So here I've gone on about this one scene for what, three pages? There's that much stuff in it! There's even more stuff in it! I haven't even touched the inside jokes and the dedication to his wife that Foglio packed in here!

Most comics artists, myself included, when we draw a story, we draw the story - and not the background. We've blindly accepted a style that we saw in newspaper strips, conveniently forgetting that newspaper strips have to be printed on something about the size of a postage stamp and that one the prices of shrinking that small has been that they've pretty much had to give up background business. Newspaper comics back when they were printed large enough had backgrounds that worked for the stories. You go back as far as Pogo Possum and Krazy Kat, and you'll find backgrounds that are part of the story. But the backgrounds tend toward stark white in my art, because I tend not to be thinking about how to use the background to advance or enhance the story. And Phil Foglio is there to show me vistas undreamt of in taking background and making it work; for presentation, exposition, interest, and just plain beauty.

This is what a mastery of the craft looks like. Phil Foglio can draw panels like this. And if I'd never seen Foglio's work, I'd never have realized how much can be done with it. So if I ever meet the man, I'm going to have to buy him a tall glass of lemonade and say thanks.



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