Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Storytelling in comic medium: part 2 - the Flow

One of the most interesting and unique aspects of comics is it's outright weird relationship between time and space. Most of other visual mediums have very fixed place in time.

Lucifer statue at Liege Cathedral, Belgium by
Guillaume Geefs
A statue stands still, like a silent witness of time that passes all around it.

"Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper
A painting is a window to another place, where time has frozen.

"the Secret of Kells"
Animation is another window, through which we see a series of images, presented fast enough that they create an illusion of movement - the passage of time. But it is still a window fixed in one place, a frame, like a monitor, or a screen in a movie theatre.

"Alieen" by Lewis Trondheim

And then there are comic books, like a weird little fellow, smack in the middle of all of them. The window have been broken, and all the images spilled out on the floor. Motionless, yet still making a notion of timelapse, because they don't move - WE have to move. From image to image, from window to window, in a fascinating land, where time walks hand in hand with space.

Most of the time the windows have a clear-cut reading order. But sometimes...

"A Tale of Sand" by Jim Henson, Jerry Juhl and Ramón K. Pérez

...the windows are buried in the shallow grave in the backyard, and what ensues is a truly spectacular and beautiful mess, where you don't know where time starts, and space begins.

You can't do that in any other medium.

All that is why a comic creator is not only a draftsmith and a scriptwriter, but also a designer. Like an illusionist, if you may, who always controls where the audience's eyes lie. But where a prestigitator controls observer's sight to deceive and obfuscate, the comic creator does the opposite - his or her goal is to engineer a clear pathway for the audience. From window to window, from character to speech bubble, from detail to scene overview. Because even a milisecond of hesitation from the reader, a shortest moment of thinking which panel to read next, can crumble his immersion and break the FLOW.

T-t-t-title droooop!

the Roadmap

As previously, we will use some of the early pages of the comic I'm currently working on to break everything down and ask ourselfes our two favourite questions:




By the way, you can see all of the pages here.

The main rule is very simple - here, in the western culture, we read from left to right and from top to bottom.

So here we are. Page 3 of "the Fourwall Tales: the Collector":

And here's our ideal roadmap of the flow:

It looks like dancing steps guideline sticked to the floor. One-two, cha-cha-cha! One-two, cha-cha-cha!

That's good, because reading a comic should have a rhytm to it.

But let's take a closer peek at some of the more interesting situations, with a picnic blanket and a basket full of questions.

Frame 1

The story of the frame is simple enough; our heroes have entered an abandoned village. Someone we yet don't see beckons them over with a theatrical whisper. They don't hear him because of the rain, so the two continue to banter.

The text-visual-text sandwich here isn't accidental. It creates a nice rhytm, also providing that the reader won't be stuck on text for too long and will run through the wide frame smoothly. 

But there is one "what if" that keeps bugging me off.

 Van (the knight) is facing left. His eyesight is a natural guideline for the reader's eye, pointing down to his action (splashing water). But this creates no natural pathway to his speech bubble, making it counterintuitive.

Let's consider what if Van would be facing right. Not only that would enhance the sense of him not hearing the hidden person (because his back is turned to the direction from which the speech bubble comes), but also the water splash naturally points right and up - the direction of our next stop.

Oh well, it's too late to fix that. Live and learn I guess.

Frames 5 & 6 

 Let's ask some more "whatifs".

The top-right corner of the fifth frame is empty, just begging to place the speech bubble there. Because you don't want to cover your gorgeous artwork, on which you slave over for hours upon hours, do you?

But by doing this you make it easier for the reader to miss the little guy in the distance, jumping straight to the next biggest image in a straight line.

Another scenario is to draw Van smaller in the sixth frame, so to create some free space above him for the speech bubble. It's a natural instinct to put text above characters. But here it would direct the reader to the top-right corner, which in the case of the last frame in the row is inconvinient. To reach the next row, the observer must backpeddle through what he/she already has seen. Which, ideally, should be avoided.

So this is the best scenario. The question mark is lower, creating a convinient path for our next stop (the guy is additionaly highlighted by some red lines to make sure he won't be omitted). And Van's text in the sixth frame is in the bottom-right corner, making it easy for the reader to jump to the next row below.

General rules of thumb

Direction of action

If you're doing a high pace action scene, it's a good idea for the characters to run from left to right, alongside reader's eyesight. That way observer flows naturally with the action and raises the tempo of reading.

Like petting an animal. Go with the fur, not against it.

But when you want to slow down the tempo, for example after an action scene, it's better for characters to go from right to left.

From action to reaction

Remember that in comics time is space, and space is time. That's why what reader sees first - happens first. Because of that rule it's more natural for the action to happen on the left (before the reaction), and the reaction on the right (after the action). Just like in real life.

From character to text

Character first. Then his speech bubble. That way the reader can put a face behind the words upon reading them, not retroactively after.

Natural guidelines

Characters' eyesight, pointing, body language and speech bubbles' tails are all natural guidelines for reader's road-eye-map. Put them to good use!

Closing thoughts

Except for the most vile mistakes in the flow, all of what I've written here is minute details, really. All this roadmap-eyesight-controlling-things won't make or break your comic. If your stuff have a good story and eyecandy art, but poorly planned roadmap, it won't suddenly turn rotten. And if your comic just plainly sucks, even the best flow won't magically make it better.

Also - sometimes you just can't win. Sometimes the story demands a scene or action that just won't cooperate and you shouldn't force it to. For example - characters pointing up or jumping are nightmares counterintuitive to the direction of reading (from top to bottom, not from bottom to top). If you try to draw them in some weird perspective just so they'll go with the plan, you might end up hurting the readability of the comic more than helping it.

But all in all, I strongly believe that thinking thouroughly about your work in space-time terms is what can turn a good comic into a great one. Because, as the polish saying goes:

The devil resides among the details.

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