Reflections on my First Sequential Art Project
Last July my father and I decided to have a go at one of the exercises from Scott McCloud’s book Making Comics[i]. Each of us would draw a 16-frame comic, one frame at a time, emailing the other a copy of the new frame after each was done. We would then email back instructions for what would happen in the next frame. It was fun, mildly anarchic experience. In this article I am going to share my completed comic and talk about the useful things I got from the exercise as a storyteller.
Scott McCloud’s book is about storytelling. The focus is on visual and particularly sequential art, but it’s a very easy to see how the ideas apply to written storytelling. Each chapter ends with a series of notes and exercises that help you to apply the ideas he has discussed.
Exercise #5 on p56, which I described briefly above, was designed to encourage consideration of choice of frame. When given an instruction to draw (the man picks up the dog), what do you show? What do you include and what do you cut out? Do you pull the camera close or far away? Hold it straight or tilt it to an angle?
These questions sound visual specific, but in essence they are exactly the same PoV questions that a writer asks themselves with every action their characters take. From whose viewpoint do we see these actions? Where do we place the readers focus? Do we want to be close to the action or far away?
Over the course of about four months I exchanged pictures and emails with my father and slowly put together my very first comic. The original blog post, and the entries along with the instructions can be found here.
And here is the full 16-frame comic, Art by Keith and Story by Cliff, in all its surrealist non-sequitor glory:
So what did I learn?
1. Practice makes better
The exercise only asks for quick sketches and the point is to tell the story efficiently not to produce beautiful finished pieces. But one of the most encouraging things about this project is that the drawing gets noticeably better as I go along. I’m not saying it gets good, but it does get morale-boostingly better. This sort of project is a real endorsement for the principal that any idiot can improve with practice!
2. Exercises can be a sneaky way to get over a block and get you to a finished product.
I was starting to believe I’d never write a comic. I’ve always wanted to tell stories, but while verbal stories and getting up on stage came easily to me, and writing stories that I then hid/burned/threw in the bin was mostly straightforward, drawing a whole comic was really just too much for my feeble courage. Breaking it up into small stages like this helped me overcome that obstacle. It may not be much, but it’s my first mini-comic and I’m proud of it.
3. Not knowing where you are going makes it harder to go where you want…
Getting the story step-by-step really emphasised to me the importance of knowing where you are going with your story right from the first page. I know that some authors just launch in and figure it out as they go along, but I’m not really a fan of going in blind. You can’t foreshadow what is coming or set up your frames correctly if you don’t know that the tincan is a giant robot, you don’t know if the robot is friend or foe, and you don’t know that they’re about to run-off through the town centre (so you haven’t drawn the characters near a town). This make the comic feel disjointed, and robs you of all sorts of fun opportunities.
4. But it can also take you to more interesting places.
Working with my ever-so-slightly-unpredictable father taught me the importance of not thinking too far ahead when you’re improvising. He sometimes had a rather, erm, interesting way of interpreting the instructions I gave him, not to mention his habit of completely changing them if he thought they were boring. While this was initially frustrating, once I embraced the spirit it became creatively liberating. Rather than trying to frame a whole story I tried to throw crazier ideas his way, just to see what he would come up with.
Not knowing what is coming pushes you into interesting combinations and situations that you wouldn’t normally use, and presents you with challenges that you must rise to overcome. Would I have given the tin can the same face if I’d known it would be the face of the giant robot? Probably not. But that surprise made the character much more interesting. Equally, not knowing that they would run through the town – and having to establish the scene just to pass through it all super fast – led to me producing some drawings that I really enjoyed and some framing that was far more dynamic than that which I had used previously.
How do we reconcile points 3 and 4? Knowing where you’re going helps your frame the story and keep a consistent tone; improvisation brings energy and creativity. I don’t think it is a good idea to write improvise a whole story. But I do think exercises like these are an excellent way to develop characters, explore ideas, and test your limits and preconceptions; then steal the good bits for later stories. Equally, if stuck in your plan, just run with the characters and see where they take you. You can always change it later.
5. Starting is hard – finishing is harder.
It is difficult to stay disciplined with this sort of work. My Dad still hasn’t finished his comic[ii], in spite of my cajoling – and it took me months to get to the end. With the best will in the world, life stuff will get in the way, and what initially seems reasonable can quickly become burdensome.
So, if you’re going to try this out, don’t be too ambitious with your artwork. Pencil, ink and a quick splash of watercolour was enough, enough, more than enough, and occasionally rather too much. It is easy to underestimate how much time this sort of project will take, so make things easy on yourself and go with simple techniques.
If I were suggesting this project to another person, I’d say the best way to do it would be to get a sketchpad, go to the pub for two hours, and give yourselves 5 minutes per frame. Stick figures could do the job very well, if you fancied.
Similarly, I think if doing this as a written exercise it would be better to do more, faster, then to craft something detailed and beautiful before running out of steam and never finishing.
6. A step closer to the dream
I’m still dreaming of one day going to whole hog: producing a script, designing my characters, and pushing out a comic of my own. I have a lot more work to do to get there. Drawing is hard. I have since started studying at Art School, but there is a long way to go. Writing is hard. Hopefully this blog is making me better, but I doubt I’ll ever reach I point where I sit back and say “yes, I am a good writer.” Being less scared is hard. I don’t really have a solution for that. But I really enjoyed this project, and best of all it made my dream seem a little more achievable.
[i] McCloud S, Making Comics, Harper (New York: 2006)
[ii] Bad Dad.