I want to get onto the artwork. Writers pay attention. A lot of this applies to you as well. This is a two-part medium. It’s visual and verbal.
We’re in the business of storytelling. Because of the unique combination of the visual and verbal, a lot of the burden of storytelling falls upon the penciler. The penciler’s not just an artist, he’s half of the writer. And a writer should not be just a writer, he should think visually, be a visual storyteller, he should be half of the artist.
Sometimes, when the artist and writer are the same person, it really works well, but it often works very well when it’s a collaboration like Lee and Ditko, Lee and Kirby, or Goodwin and Simonson. Sometimes a collaboration is even better than a solo act, because two good storytellers in tandem come up with stuff neither one could alone. Two can be better than one. So, writers, if you can’t draw, don’t despair. But learn to think visually. Pencilers, artists, learn about writing. I don’t care if you’re aren’t a wordsmith, learn the principles, understand the goals. As they say in Hollywood, “do the math.” Learn how to do the math.
Let me tell you the secrets of visual storytelling. Again, we’re in the business of storytelling—that’s our number one priority. We’re here to tell a story. What is storytelling? As I was telling you writers, it’s conveying information. CONVEYING INFO. As Frank Miller once said, when he had the epiphany and went from being a talented young artist/writer to being a genius, “I get it. We know the story and they (the readers) don’t, and we’re telling them the story!”
I hear a lot of you thinking, “duh, no kidding.” Listen to me. How many comics have you read in which the artist is more concerned with drawing lots of pin-up shots so he can sell the pages for more money at conventions than getting across what’s happening? How many have you read where the writer is so busy showing how cleverly he or she can do snappy patter that they fail to convey who these people are and why we should care about them?
When you get it into your head that you need a good story to tell, and that telling it—well—is the mission, you’re making the same jump to lightspeed that Miller made that one fine day.
So we’re not just doing patter and pin-ups, not just doing bits and scenes, we’re telling a story and preferably a good one. Something dramatic and powerful, with a point.
How does a pencil artist convey information? What does he have to get across? He’s got to get across drama. In other words he’s got to have his characters be good actors. He’s got to be a good actor, or else he won’t understand how to draw the characters expressing emotion. He’s got to be able to understand how someone looks when they’re upset, or worried, or how they would express the various emotions. He’s got to be a dramatist. He also—well this is a still medium so it presents some particular problems—but he also has to understand how things move, and he’s got to create the illusion of movement even in a still medium. So drama and dynamics are important. It’s even important to drama you have to know how to move somebody’s arm to create the gesture. Another thing is just drawing, not surprisingly enough because if you can’t draw, it doesn’t matter if you can act. If you can’t draw it well enough for people to understand it, you’re doomed. These things really are key to the penciler’s role in storytelling, things a penciler has to master.
Now I’m going to tell you how you can become a much better penciler in a minute, I mean right now. Pay attention, and you will leave this room a significantly better artist than you were when you walked in.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, two new media were invented. Okay, some scholar is going to correct me and say the first movie was actually made in the 1860’s, and Scott McCloud thinks hieroglyphics were comics, but work with me, here. As mainstream, commercial ventures, film and comics got started in the mid 1890’s. Before that, live performances were pretty much the only visual presentations, unless you count stereoscopes. Some books had illustrations, yes, but they were superfluous. Didn’t need them to understand the story. Live performances, of course, were on stage and seen from a theater seat—and that’s exactly how early film and comics were presented, from a point of view as if from a theater seat.
Then, one day, some actor walked up to D.W. Griffith’s camera and stuck his tongue out, and when the film was developed, they discovered close ups! Kidding. But, anyway, filmmakers and comics artists soon discovered that there were different kinds of shots. I will now show you the three kinds of shots.
I always get in arguments with Barry Windsor-Smith over this. He says there are nine kinds of shots. I say there are three kinds of shots. You can say whatever you want, as long as you understand the principles, but let’s use my definition for the moment because it’s me here.
(AT THIS POINT, ON MY BIG PAD I DREW A CRUDE SKETCH OF A HOUSE ALONG THE SHORE WITH PLAINS AND MOUNTAINS IN THE BACKGROUND. TOOK ME 13 SECONDS, HOW GOOD COULD IT BE…? THERE WAS A LITTLE TINY GUY BESIDE THE HOUSE.)
This is a long shot. You can see a house here. There are the mountains, here are the prairies, here’s the ocean white with foam. We must be in America. That’s one kind of shot, a LONG SHOT. I hereby arbitrarily define a long shot as any shot that shows great scope, where the scenery is the star, where, if there are people, you cannot make out any meaningful information about the figure or figures, other than they are present. You can’t, the guy’s a dot. This is also known as an ESTABLISHING SHOT, and, by TV types, those weirdos, shooting in a studio, as a BARN SHOT.
(I DREW TWO SKETCHES, ONE OF A COUPLE OF GUYS IN THE NEAR DISTANCE AND ONE OF A GUY WHO WAS CLOSE, BUT FULL FIGURE. TOOK SIX SECONDS. IT WAS A REALLY AWFUL SCRIBBLE.)
These are medium shots. I hereby arbitrarily define a medium shot as any place where you can begin to make out meaningful information about the figure, like the fact that this guy’s taller than that guy, up to the place where the figure fills the whole panel, but is not cropped. That’s a medium shot.
(I DREW A PANEL WITH A SLIGHTLY CROPPED FIGURE AND ONE OF JUST AN EYE.)
And these are close ups. I hereby arbitrarily define a close up as anything from where any part of the figure is cropped right up to the big eyeball.
Barry would say, “Well, no Jim. There’s a long, long shot. Then there’s a medium long shot, and then there’s a close long shot; there’s a long medium shot, a medium medium shot and a close medium shot, a long close shot….” You get the drift. Whatever, Barry. You guys can chop the shots up any way you want, but for the moment let’s accept my way just to make life easy.
When cartoonists and filmmakers discovered that there were different kinds of shots, they discovered that different shots were good for conveying different kinds of information. They discovered that the long shot was good for setting the locale, showing where the characters are, showing what kind of area it is. Here you see you’re in America–mountains, prairies, ocean white with foam. They also discovered, by the way, this shot was also good for what I would call big action. In other words if this mountain blows up, you know if Mount St. Helen’s there, you need that shot.
Here’s a medium shot. They discovered that this was good for establishing figures, making it clear how tall the person is, how they carry themselves, what they’re wearing…. Again it could be a car you’re establishing, not a figure, but you get the drift. For the purpose of this discussion we’ll call it figures.
Medium depth is also good for human-scale action. Does anybody watch sports on television? That’s the depth they use 90% of the time. This depth is so important to understanding human action that they use that almost exclusively. Yes, they give you the dramatic close up of the pile up on the goal line, but you don’t know if the guy scored so they show you the medium shot. Ninety percent of televised sports—watch a baseball game. What do they show you? They show you the pitcher, the batter, the catcher, and the umpire, full figures. They show you only four guys, out of the what, 15 on the field…? Because, if they showed the whole field, the players, umps and base coaches, you’d be TOO FAR AWAY to see the pitcher, batter, catcher and home plate ump—the principle actors—well. To show the principle human-scale action, they’d rather leave out the others and show you the main action at medium-shot depth. Otherwise, they’d just be little dots to you. If the guy hits the ball, they pull back to show the play. Watch a tennis match. 90% of the time they show you the whole court, both players, full figure. Medium depth. What Barry would call a long medium. Boxing? Occasionally a close up of the fighters clinching, but 90% of the time it’s medium depth, the whole ring, both combatants full figure. Human action. Establish the figures. So I know this guy is not wearing roller skates.
(HERE I DREW A SCRIBBLE OF A GUY CROPPED AT THE ANKLES.)
This guy might be. He might be wearing roller skates. I don’t know. I know basically what this guy looks like. But, hey, he might be three inches shorter than I suspect, and he might have wheels on his feet. Prove that he doesn’t!
The great Walt Simonson once drew an entire issue of Thor that never once showed Thor’s feet. I honked at him about it. Walt, who doesn’t take honking well, honked back and we snarled at each other for a while. We later made up. If you ever see Walt, mention that I complained about no feet and he’ll honk at me retrospectively for you!
So what do you get in a close up? A close up is good for establishing details, faces, whatever you want to call it, let’s say faces here. It’s also good for interaction, reaction, emotion, expression. Let’s “face” it, this is how we recognize each other. Faces. We recognize each other by our faces. So this close up shot, our pioneers found, was good for establishing what a person looks like facially, and if he’s crying, or happy, or sad, or whatever, that’s a good shot.
So, they discovered that there are three basic kinds of shots. There are no other kinds of shots. If it’s a bird’s eye shot, of a worm’s eye shot, it’s still either long, medium, or close. These are the three kinds of shots. They also discovered that using these different kinds of shots convey different information, that they could let the picture carry part of the burden of telling the story.
Yes, of course you can combine them, have a face up close and someone jumping rope in the background. These are tools not rules.
Yes of course, one can intelligently VIOLATE the non-rules. In the movie Rocky, there’s a great scene, shot from across the street, of Rocky making up with and hiring the Burgess Meridith character as his manager. Ordinarily, you’d do a conversation, an emotional scene close up—but Stallone had just done such a scene inside Rocky’s apartment. So he chose to do the hiring/reconciliation scene at what Barry would call long medium depth, getting across the exchange and emotions with big gestures and body language. Brilliant.
Once you know, once you have command, you can play.
Grasp the principles. Be bulletproof clear. Then go for the gusto.
Before film, before comics, when you were watching a stage play they couldn’t do different shots. You, in the audience, had only one POV. You always had a medium shot. So in Shakespeare plays the Roman generals are always talking about the battle over there, offstage, because he couldn’t show it! No long shots! Forget the fact that they didn’t have the budget to hire the actors. Even if he had 10,000 actors, he couldn’t have shown it. Once they discovered with a camera they could do that, worlds opened up. And they don’t have to explain it. No need to have generals giving kind of dorky soliloquies about the battle that you can’t see. Once they discovered VISUAL STORYTELLING it opened up all these new worlds. It let the art, the picture carry a lot more of the story so that the writers didn’t have to have kind of dumb discussions of things you couldn’t see.
The first great secret of drawing better is using your eyes. Don’t laugh. Once, with another group, I leaned an umbrella against a door and asked them to draw it. I gave them a minute, I think. I watched them. Most of them glanced at the umbrella, then hardly looked up from their paper. Some got the umbrella more or less right, but made it too tall or too short in comparison with the door. Some made the door too narrow or too wide. Some were so worried about the umbrella that they got the door handle entirely wrong. One guy drew an umbrella that wasn’t furled and strapped—basically, he just made one up, rather than draw the one in front of him.
A lot of people just don’t use their eyes enough. You need to really look, measure and compare elements of your drawing to each other. How tall is the umbrella compared to the door? Does it come up past the door handle? And you need to draw the actual umbrella.
I find that even people who draw pretty well just plain don’t look with care at all the elements. They’ll get most parts of a figure right but fake the wrinkles on the sportcoat. You see, without trying or even noticing, we’ve all learned a bunch of glyphs—symbols for things—and they have a way of creeping into and weakening our drawings. You get the sportcoat right, but do your wrinkle glyph on the sleeves at the elbows. You’ll get a person’s face right, then do your hair glyph. You’ll get the building right but draw window glyphs instead of the real windows.
The way to avoid weakening a drawing with glyphs is by using your eyes. Look carefully at what you’re drawing and keep checking the marks you’re making on the paper against it. Every mark you make on the paper sends a message to the viewer. Make sure the message is right.
I’m not talking about style, here. That’s an entirely different subject. I’m talking about learning to use your eyes and learning to draw. Once you can draw, then your style, whatever it may be, in built on a firm foundation. Said another way, C.C. Beck did a very simple style—but Captain Marvel’s collar bone is always exactly where it’s supposed to be. And Barks? The perspective is always correct in Duckburg.
In my scripts, I always provide a lot of reference for the artist, or links to places he can get reference online. I think it’s important to use reference. Sometimes, it’s just so the artist understands what I’m asking for, a certain angle, expression or gesture. For instance in Magnus Robot Fighter #1, I provided this photo as reference for a gesture and expression I wanted for Leeja…
…because it was easier to find a picture than to explain it.
Mostly though, the reference is because I want something specific, so they get whatever I’m calling for right. For instance, a certain kind of car or a real location, like the Wallkill River Bridge:
I actually provided a number of shots of that bridge from different angles.
But, beyond those sorts of specifics, I recommend that you find reference on anything you don’t know how to draw. Once you use reference for something a couple of times, you’ll learn how it looks and you won’t need to look it up any more. Don’t fake it! If a script calls for carousel, and there doesn’t happen to be one handy, find pictures of carousels, find out what you need to know and draw a convincing carousel.
Once again, I want to point out that this is not about style, not about photo-realism. It’s about using your eyes, learning to draw and developing whatever your style is on a firm foundation. I don’t know whether Russ Heath or Carl Barks ever drew a carousel, but if they did, Russ’s would look right and real and Barks’ would look proportionally correct and proper within the context of his style—because, I guarantee you, he knew or would have found out what he needed to know about carousels. Get the info. Do it right.
A word about swiping. Don’t do it. Swiping, in case you don’t know, is tracing someone else’s work. It is a not-uncommon practice in the comic book business, but I think it stinks. It’s good to look at Ditko Spider-Man figures to get a sense of how Spider-Man moves, but don’t rip him off. There are some guys, even well-known guys, who shamelessly swipe. I’d give you a few examples, but you probably already have noticed that, “hey, this guy crawling up out of the water looks just like a character Neal Adams drew crawling up out of the water.” Etc. Neal Adams’ work is swiped relentlessly. Ask him.
And now, the down side of reference. The old saw goes, “Use reference but don’t let it use you.” If you use reference too literally, especially for figures, it can make your work stiff and posed. For example, once, an artist, Fred, experimented with using friends, fellow creators, as models, having them act out a sci-fi fight scene. Archie Goodwin’s comment was: “It looks like Joe and Susan shooting each other with blow dryers.” The names, except Archie’s, have been changed to protect the innocent.
Now, I’m going to tell you a whole bunch of other stuff that may not mean anything much to you yet, but then I’m going to walk you through a particular comic book and I’m going to show you examples. These are little miscellaneous tidbits of info that I’ve had beaten into my head by various Learned Masters over the years. Simple little concepts and observations that are useful for artists. As always, writers should understand these things, too. They’ll help you be a better visual thinker.
As you walk around the world you see things at eye level. Am I right? You don’t usually walk around standing on your head, or with your head tilted. You see things like you’re seeing me now, from your eye level, looking directly at the subject. That is the most common point of view, obviously. That is the easiest one for people to grasp instantly. Show something, anything, in the way people would ordinarily see it and they have the best chance of understanding instantly what you’re showing them. So, if I have one shot to let somebody know we’re in a theater, this kind of shot, eye level, is most likely to be clear at a glance. It’s what you’d see if you were there. A natural point of view.
Here’s another thing to think about regarding natural point of view—let’s say you want to show that a scene is taking place in a restaurant. When you walk into an actual restaurant, what do you see? You see the ceiling, the floor, the walls, a big part of the entire room. Just looking straight ahead, think about all you can see, all the information you take in. Almost any room you walk into, from your natural, usual, eye-level point of view, you see the ceiling, the floor, the walls, without ever moving your eyes, just looking straight ahead.
(HERE I MADE A SCRIBBLY SKETCH OF A RESTAURANT SEEN FROM EYE-LEVEL AS YOU ENTER.)
That’s an eye level perspective. You’ll see tables.You’ll see people sitting at the tables.You see waiters. Here’s another table. Notice that you’re seeing all these people full figure—that is, head to foot, except, of course when they’re behind something.
(HERE I ADDED A MAITRE D’ IN THE VERY CLOSE FOREGROUND.)
Here’s the maitre d’, he’s real close to us. We can see him from the waist up because he’s very close to us. He’s happy to see us. He’s got a bow tie. That’s what you see if you walk into a restaurant. So if you have one shot to tell people that they are now entering a restaurant, that’s probably a good one to remember. You COULD do a worm’s eye view, but I’ve never walked into a restaurant on my belly. I’ve come out of a few that way. [laughter] Shots like that are harder to understand at a glance because it’s not what we’re used to seeing.
Now, once you’ve done this shot, once you’ve made the location unmistakably clear, then you can do the dramatic Jerry Robinson “through the wine glass’ shot,” or other angles. Hold that thought, I’m going to show you examples in a while.
But back to our maitre d’ for a moment. Do you realize how close you have to be to someone NOT to see them full figure, head to toe? Try it. Get someone to stand there for you and, looking straight ahead, move closer to them until you can’t see their feet. You’ll be surprised.
I hear a lot of talk about panel shapes. My reputation is that I want everybody to draw what they call windowpane grid. Nah. Beginners, I ask to start that way. That did fine for Jack Kirby for his whole career, so I figure for a beginner it’s okay to make him do that till he learns the craft.
But, let me explain to you the theory of panel shape. You didn’t know there was one, did you? When comics books were first created they were a little wider than they are now. Remember? Comic book panels were shaped like that.
(HERE I DREW A RECTANGLE WIDER THAN IT WAS TALL.)
Why were they shaped like that? Have you ever noticed how a movie screen is shaped? Why is a movie screen shaped that way? It’s because human beings have two eyes side by side, and your viewing area is roughly oblong. If you could mark the edges of your vision, that’s the shape you get, well sort of rounded at the edges, but basically like a movie screen, or comics panels originally. Comic book panels weren’t quite movie screen shaped, but, aha! They had balloons at the top so the viewing area was basically a movie screen.
Then when paper shortages arrived during World War II, they made comic books smaller, narrower. Comic book panels, therefore, became more square. Since then, though they have balloons at the top, they’re not quite movie screens—but still close. That’s a good thing to remember, that the oblong shape is close to your natural viewing area. It’s a very comfortable view. It’s what you would see if you were there. That’s why THIS type of panel in comics…
(I DREW A 1/3 PAGE HORIZONTAL PANEL.)
…the third of a page shot, is so good for showing people that a scene is in a restaurant or whatever.
Does that mean you can’t use any other shape? Of course not, but when you do it remember what you’re trying to do.
(I DREW A “FLAPJACK” PANEL AND A TALL, SKINNY PANEL.)
You give them this (the flapjack) you’re making the readers feel like they’re looking through a mail slot, this, (the tall skinny panel) you’ve got blinders on, or you’re looking through a keyhole. That’s what you’re telling them. Can you not do that? Of course you can do it. Just understand what you’re doing, and do it for a reason. Understand the logic behind these things and use them to serve your purpose. Now, about action. Any action you can imagine has a direction, a direction of movement, or else it isn’t an action. It has a direction, a vector. The clearest way to show anything is perpendicular to the vector of the action.
(I DREW A STICK FIGURE HITTING ANOTHER STICK FIGURE.)
Here’s Fred hitting George. Draw a line between them, which of course, is the vector of the action, the punch, in this case. The clearest way to show this action is 90 degrees away from that line or vector. That’s why this particular angle is called a “diagrammatic shot.” It’s as clear as a diagram. So if Fred is hitting George, and we’re seeing it from that angle, that’s the clearest way. It may be the most boring way too in some situations, but if you’re ever stuck for how to show something, start with a diagram! Imagine the diagrammatic shot first. Put your mental camera at 90 degrees, eye level. Then, kind of mentally move your camera around—a little higher maybe? A little lower? One figure closer than the other? Do this until you find the best shot that is still clear. Gil Kane often used to do shots like this from a 70 degree angle. That way one figure gets a little larger than the other, the design is better, you get that great foreshortening going on, it’s cool.That what he did. It’s not the only way. Keep that little thought in mind. I’m going to show you examples of all of this.