visual scripting: using InDesign to write scripts native to comics

This is the first of a series of posts I hope to make on methods of writing comics. I’ve gone through a long (and ongoing) process of development of my own process, and finally have arrived at a method I think is very worth sharing. I don’t plan to talk all that much about what goes into the actual story, just how to use tools and formats to get whatever ideas you have onto paper (or screen). A further note: if you are really interested in all this kind of stuff, I mean enough to get all the way through this post, you should definitely have my two textboks on comics, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics. They are the kind of thing you’d enjoy. 

Also, you might be interested in the second in this series: Using Scrivener to create fictional comics.

from page 1, tome 2 Trish Trash

Introduction

Alison Bechdel is an not only a cartoonist, she’s an inventor. Between the Bechdel Test and the Bechdel Method, she’s more than earned her place in the comics pantheon, and her Guggenheim Fellowship.

what’s the Bechdel Method?

Back in 2009 or so, I was talking to Alison Bechdel about her writing process, and she told me about a new technique she’d developed that has since turned out to be absolutely transformational for my comics. And no, it wasn’t the part about photographing herself posing for every single one of her characters. It was the idea of using graphic design software to create a mutable, flexible script with the initial stages of visual storytelling built in. See the first couple of minutes of this video of Alison Bechdel walking you through her technique for glimpse of it. (As an aside: I’m proud to say I was able to simplify her life slightly by suggesting Adobe InDesign as opposed to Illustrator as a basic tool!) I wrote up Alison’s technique in detail in Mastering Comics. Since then, I’ve made a few refinements, and I’ve come up with a name for it, visual scripting. 

This is an incredibly long post, so I’m actually going to make a table of contents. I can’t believe I just said that.

A. What is visual scripting?

  1. why use visual scripting?
  2. advantages and disadvantages

B. Visual script template setup

  1. know your format
  2. create an InDesign document
  3. create a grid structure
  4. create layers
  5. create object styles

C. Using a visual script template to write comics

  1. make an outline
  2. make a page chart
  3. draft using object styles
  4. make panel borders
  5. make scene headers
  6. add images, if you want
  7. preparing for editorial feedback
  8. what else can you do with this thing?

what’s visual scripting?

This is a method that uses InDesign (or other graphic design software, I suppose) to allow you to write comics directly in page layouts, with continuous awareness of panel layout, page breaks, spreads, density of text on the page (or the “color” of the page, in a term I learned from Howard Chaykin), and the scale of a scene relative to the overall work, but without (necessarily) drawing. You create a template that matches your print size and shape (which forces you to think about ratio and readability, as well as the effect of format on the work), lay out guidelines for your standard grid (which gives your overall work coherence, even if you often break the grid), and block out scenes according to pages and space as opposed to just going as you go.

why use visual scripting?

There are a few people out there who seem to think natively in comics pages. Most of us don’t. (Chris Ware has seemed to indicate that he doesn’t do layouts for his incredibly complex pages, he just starts at the top and draws. Could this be true? I’m not sure I even want to know.)  Most of us think in drifts of motion, action, emotional exchanges, which translate in some ways most directly to film or theater. We think about getting our protagonists from one point to another in terms of narrative, but not in terms of a certain number or arrangement of panels. That comes later, as we sit down and try to figure out how to break the action into atoms, and then into panels. We think about where page breaks would work well, and try to fit the right amount of information in between one page break and the next. But actually seeing how it will lay out on the page, in your head, while writing…it happens, but let’s be honest, not all the time, even for very experienced cartoonists. And when it does happen, as often as not, the reality doesn’t match up to what you envisioned, when you finally draw it.

Of course, you can (and should) write directly in thumbnails (aka layouts, aka storyboards (if you’re French)). That is one answer, and it will make all the slack between intention and execution go away. Especially if you’re writing for yourself, you need to work in drawings, panels, and pages. But if you’re a writer? Or even if you’re a cartoonist like me, and just seems to function better when writing scripts? If I’d been able to implement Matt’s comprehensive and serious thumbnailing technique (that we also teach to all our students) in my own work, I would have never embraced this method of writing. But I’m just truly terrible at it. The interior resistance I feel to doing a really thought-out thumbnail, and then revising, is insurmountable for me. And for Alison, it seems, which means that necessity truly is the mother of invention, here.

That said, I think visual scripting has a lot to offer even those who are stronger than I am when it comes to thumbnailing. For example, if you’re developing a very long work, or a very complex one, you can think through and build in repetitive design features more easily. You can also zoom out and see your whole project at any time. You can create chapters and deal with design elements, more easily than in thumbs. Most importantly, you can shift around whole sections, rewrite, insert material, and have an editor read and respond to your work in detail in a way that you just can’t with thumbs.

When I learned of Alison’s technique, it was a revelation. It took me a year or two to try it, and then another to get any good at it, but I’m never going back. Which is not to say it’s flawless or without problems. Let’s look at the pros and cons.

advantages

  • Most importantly: visual scripting forces you to grapple with the physical space of the page simultaneously with the narrative content of a scene. Never again will you write two or three actions into one panel, or a three-page sequence of dialogue that’s supposed to fit on one page.
  • Once you take the time to develop your template, you have something that will serve you at many stages of your process. You can write and edit, but also letter (even if you hand letter, as I hope you do, you can use your visual script to figure out line breaks, size, placement, etc), lay out final art, and send to print from this same document. You can also use it for future books that have the same format.
  • If you’re a writer only, you’ll create more comics-native scripts that are easier to draw. Even if you convert your work to traditional script after you develop it, you can create panel layouts for pages where your design is crucial to storytelling (see below for important caveats when working with artists).
  • Visual scripts can be edited by not only other cartoonists, who might be intrepid enough to decipher your thumbs, but also prose editors and other non-experts, allowing you to get a real feel for how your writing is working.

disadvantages

  • Learning curve: Some editors might find it tough to figure out how to interact with the document at first, and may be timid about making comments about the visual aspect of the work.
  • Learning curve: You’ve got to figure out the tools. They are not simple. And once you do, you’re also locked into a platform. Technology makes it tough for anyone not advanced in layout to use.
  • If you’re working with collaborators, it’s not easy to work together on the document. I do it using Dropbox, all working on the same document, but we also all have to have the same version of InDesign, fonts, etc.
  • A lot of imagination is still required to understand what’s going on in panels, and how the panel composition will relate to page composition. Unless you do sketches for every panel before editing, you won’t get feedback for your composition. If you use overlapping panels, it will be that much harder to decipher.
  • If you’re collaborating with an artist, be sensitive to how she or he wants to work. Some artists will feel you’re stepping on their toes if you give them layouts. Some will enjoy it. Make sure you’re open to them adjusting and changing your layouts, unless you’re not, in which case make it very very clear up front. If your layouts are not all that important to you (i.e. you’re using visual scripting to nail atoms and panel breakdowns, not design pages per se), think about converting the visual script back to a traditional script before handing it over.

How to write a visual script: template setup

The first thing you’ll need to do is set up a template to work in. I’m going to assume you know the basics of InDesign here—but if you only know basics, don’t worry, this does not strain the limits of the software. Also, keep in mind that this is the system I’ve developed for myself. If you find that you need to make changes, make them.

1. Know or decide on the destination of your work (print size, bleeds or no, screen ratio, whatever).

This can be the hardest part, if you’re working without knowing where you’ll be published. But if that’s the case, just pick a ratio (2:3 or 3:4, usually)1, and set up a print-size version of that ratio to work in. One standard for major publishers is about 6″ x 9″. If you’re thinking of using bleeds, set up with at least 1/4 inch (5 mm) bleed2, or more. More is safer.  I’m working on a series for a French publisher (Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars. Look for case studies on writing this series, to come), so I’m working metric, on standard French album sizes. I wrote the publisher when I started for their trim size and bleed specs, and set up on that basis. First, I did a chart with all the measurements in it, quadruple-checking my math (this chart shows working size and also print size. I have corrected it at LEAST 5 times).

dargaud page layout chart

2. Open an InDesign document.

Make it the same “page size” the same as your final publication trim, 3 columns, facing pages. Your “margins” define your live area: design as you wish, but I recommend at least 1/2″ (1.5 cm) from the trim line. If you’re doing bleeds, click “More Options” and enter your bleeds measurement.  Add your Number of Pages now, or add more pages later. You can save all these measurements as a preset, if you like, to save steps in the future (you can also make your completed template an “InDesign Template”, which is even more useful.) Set your gutters to something reasonable, like 5mm.

visual scripting 1 initial document setup

Here’s my new document window. For some reason, InDesign has decided to display my measurements in picas, not centimeters. Confusing and annoying, but the size is the same (yes, I checked my prefs).

Here's the Document Setup window. You can find this under File, and is handy to fix measurements when you screw up.

Here’s the Document Setup window. You can find this under File, and is handy to fix measurements when you screw up.

visual scripting 3 margin setup

Here’s Margins and Columns, under Layout.

Here’s what you get.

visual scripting 4 basic page layout

Why did I have you make columns? Because I find it incredibly helpful to have a basic grid in place when I get started. I don’t always use it, but it’s a default, and it helps me structure my pages consistently for a smooth reading experience. It’s also very helpful for making rhythmic panel designs. So:

3. Build up your grid structure.

First, very important, before you add any guides, double click on your Master Pages in the Pages window. That way, the guides you create will apply to all your pages, not just the one active when you build them.

master pages. double click here, where it's blue.

master pages. double click here, where it’s blue.

Use Create Guides…, under Layout, to easily measure out standard divisions, like halves and thirds. You can also change the color of guides to help them be more useful to you (like if you use a lot of four-tier designs, make those guides yellow or something, so you can easily pick them apart from the three-tier guides) using the  Ruler Guides… dialog. Make sure you click “Fit Guides to Margins” and not “Fit Guides to Page”, or the divisions will be of your trim, not your live area. Not helpful.

visual scripting 6 create more guides

Here’s a Create Guides window.

Here’s what a page looks like with divisions for two, three, and four tiers and panels. Different colors help distinguish the different sets of tier/panel divisions. If this looks like a mess, remember that you can toggle these on and off with the W key or “command-;”.

visual scripting 7 basic page

4. Set up layers

Things get more personal here in terms of how you like to work. I only know this works for me.

Add five layers, in this order.

visual scripting 8 layer setup

The order is so that you can easily type into and move objects that are smaller, without them getting blocked out by larger items.

When I first started working this way, I had tons of problems moving the word balloons around without grabbing the panels and moving them, and had to keep toggling the locks on and off. What a pain. This order helps.

5. Set up Object Styles

This is a huge time-saver. I have several standard styles I use in my scripts to keep various parts visually distinguished, and with this technique, you can just click them on, or make it so that, for example, you default to using “dialogue balloons” when you’re writing a talky scene. It’s a bit of work at the outset, but well worth it.

a. Create Paragraph styles. Create dialogue in the style you want to use (i.e. my own hand-lettering-based font, 10 pt, centered). Use the Direct Selection arrow (the black one) to select it. Open Paragraph Style, click the little dogeared paper at the bottom, and name your new style “panel borders”.

visual scripting 9 paragraph styles menu

b. Create Object Styles. Add styles to the textbox containing the lettering. I.e., square with rounded corners, .5pt stroke, white fill. Open Object Styles under View, click the little dogeared paper at the bottom, and name it “dialogue balloons”. Right-click that style, and verify that you have clicked “paragraph styles” under the properties list (this means that the paragraph styles you just created are attached to this object style, and will be applied when you use it). Take note of those strange icons to the right of (one of ) the style(s). You’ll want that later.

visual scripting 11 object styles menu

visual scripting 10 create object styles

make sure the checkbox next to Paragraph Styles is active

c. Do the same for description, dialogue balloons, etc. Use the fonts most similar to your hand lettering for dialogue. I’ll explain “scene headers”  and “section titles” in a minute.

6. Save the whole thing as a template.

Even if you need to change the trim size and so on for future projects, you’ll still save a lot of time setting up layers and Object Styles.

writing in a visual script template

This post is already far too long, but you’re not going to get very far with just a template. Here’s how you use it.

1. Make an outline

In future posts, I plan to walk through some case studies of how I’ve written various books, and especially how I use Scrivener to draft them. A couple of books ago, I would use that Scrivener document to write the script itself. Now, I’ve started using its research and corkboard features more heavily, and I script directly in InDesign. Which is to say, writing a visual script is not by a long shot the first stage of writing for me. I do tons of research, writing about characters and backstory, and for non-fiction projects, interviews and analysis. I then use all that to create corkboard cards (virtual ones) to outline my scenes. Then I can rearrange them and get a global view, making sure I’m maintaining all my narrative threads.

You can use whatever you want to write your outlines. Alison Bechdel uses a spreadsheet (I’m not sure how that works. Future post, maybe?). You can use the back of envelopes. But I encourage you to develop your scene structure in some comprehensive way before launching into writing pages of comics. That said, everyone is different. Do what works for you.

2. Make a page chart

If you do have a full outline, and especially if you also know what your final page count is meant to be, the next step is to assign scenes to physical space. This is necessarily a super-rough estimate, and will change as you work, but if you’ve got 25 scenes and 32 pages, you’re going to get a sense right away of what kind of editing you need to do. Likewise, if you have a scene you think will take 10 pages, and then all the rest are 1-2, you may want to rethink, to gain more balance. This stage is one I dip into repeatedly during the writing process, checking where I’m at and making decisions on where I need more, or less, real estate.

Using paper or InDesign, block out how many pages you think you’ll want to use for each scene. For an action chase sequence, you’ll probably take four or more pages. for an intense, brief verbal encounter, maybe it’s two. You can do this on paper, setting up little sketches of your spreads. But, if you have your page template set up in InDesign, you can add the blank pages for your whole book, and this is where I use the “section title” style. It’s a style I created that has such large type that I can scale the preview of the book down to thumbnail size, and still read it, offering me an overview of whole chunks at a time.

a. Select both “section titles” Layer and “section titles” object style. Note the little icons to the left of “section titles” in the Object Styles menu. Those denote that the default style for object and for type will be dictated by the section titles style. You can drag these around to make your default what you need at the moment. The reason you put these in a separate layer is so that you can turn them off (click the eyeball next to that line) when you don’t need them.

visual scripting 12 section titles

b. Using the Type Tool, make titles for all your scenes/sequences (i.e. if a scene is continuous in both space and time, a sequence is one narrative unit. “Stranger Arrives” might cut from the saloon to the interior of the bank, but it’s one narrative unit. Screenwriters have to really worry about stuff like technical scene changes, but we don’t.

visual scripting 13 page chart

3. Zoom into the scene you want to work on, and start drafting.

If it’s a visual scene, your main tool will be “description.” Select that layer and object style, and move your default object styles icons to that line. Make a textbox and start writing. Note that I use color and style (italics) to help my description stand out, and not be mistaken for type that will appear on the final page. Description is in a separate layer so it can also, separately, be turned off.

visual scripting 14 drafting

4. Add panel borders before or after drafting.

Whenever it makes sense, you can add panel borders by shifting the default object style icon to the panel borders row, and using the rectangle tool. Sorry for the hackneyed “example” writing. I should just use lorem ipsum, but you know.

Once you have your panels in, you can lock that layer (lock icon next to the name of the layer in the layer menu) so you’re not always accidentally shifting them around. You can always unlock and move them.

visual scripting 15 panel borders

Panel one is a bleed. Note the edges go beyond the page trim.

It can be hard to see what you’ve actually done here, so try hitting W or command-; and looking at what it will really look like.

visual scripting 16 command-semi

I also turned off the “section titles” layer for better visibility

5. Scene headers

This is an idea directly from screenwriting. I learned it when I learned the basics of screenwriting, but it never occurred to me to use it in a comics script until I had one edited by Ron Wimberly. I steal my ideas only from the best.

Use a block, bold style to add “scene headers” a la a screenplay that identify the location and the time of day, every time you change location or time. Notice this is different from the “section headers” which identify narrative sequences and which you turn off before handing your script out to be edited. They’re confusing for anyone who’s not you. Maybe I should rename them “sequence headers”?

Unlike section headers, scene headers provide concrete info for you, for editors, and for artists who might be working on your book. Stick them in wherever you change time or place, even in the middle of a page. I put them in my “description” layer, so they can be turned off an on with the descriptions.

visual scripting scene headers

6. You can add images, research or sketches, to this document at any time by selecting a panel border and using the “Place…” command, under File.

7. Editing and getting feedback

When you’re getting ready for feedback…

  • Make sure you’ve clearly identified who is speaking at all times (it’s easy to lose track of this, since YOU know). I add a “Doc:” or whoever into each word balloon.
  • Beef up your descriptions so that anyone can understand what you’re talking about. This is great discipline for you to figure out what you really want to say, and what it really looks like.
  • Double check that you haven’t stacked actions in any panel (i.e. more than one action). Picture in your head exactly what’s happening.
  • Where necessary, do a sketch, and drop it into a panel for clarity.
  • Turn off your section headers layer before export.

When you’re ready, export the file as a PDF, and send it out (ideally you want people to see the work in spreads, but that can be tricky if they’re reading on an iPad or something. consider this when you’re exporting). You’ll want to explain the format a bit, but reading it should be reasonably straightforward even for regular prose people. Ask for response verbally, or in notes directly on a printout.

8. What do you do with this thing now?

Whatever you want.

  • Convert it back to a traditional script (cutting and pasting. No shortcuts I know of.)
  • Selectively turn off layers, export to PDF or screencap, and print out to draw thumbnails by hand.
  • Import in some form into Illustrator, Photoshop, or Manga Studio to work digitally (haven’t figured out the ideal way to do this–ideas? please post in comments)
  • Use this same document to compile your final art (however it’s produced) into a layout for a printer or an ebook.
  • More ideas? please post below.

In a future post, I’ll deal with how (and why) you can use visual scripting if you’ve already started (or finished) a draft of a traditional script. It’s also quite valuable, in perhaps a less elaborate version, for prose writers thinking through their prose work.

Conclusion, finally.

So so much to say, and there’s more yet to come! If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll give visual scripting a try, and if you do, please comment here with improvements and drawbacks. This method, like everything, is very much a work in progress. Have fun!

 

1. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, get yourself a copy of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and study chapter 6.?
2. Check out our tutorial on layout and bleeds here.?

Comment

  1. [...] talked a lot over the course of the past few weeks about how comics are constructed. This is an excellent process post by the American cartoonist Jessica Abel on how she has begun doing scripting and [...]

  2. Jamie says:

    The easiest thing to do to get this into Illustrator is to export as a pdf or eps, then open that up into Illustrator. I’ll have to experiment with it, but I know going the pdf route will sometimes change the fonts to shapes. If you have any InDesign questions, hit me up. I work with InDesign for a living and can probably help bridge some gaps.

    • Jessica says:

      Jamie–I’ve been turning off all but one layer at a time (panel borders alone, or dialogue alone), exporting as PDF, and importing into photoshop, then saving as jpgs and importing into Manga studio. It’s a PAIN. it works, but not pretty. If you’ve got any ideas there, let me know! MS has very limited import capability, as far as I can tell, but I’m a novice at that. Thanks for offering to help with InDesign, may well take you up on it. I’m an experienced user, but self-taught. Tons of holes in my knowledge.

      • Jamie Fickes says:

        The import on MS is terrible! I just got MS 5, I haven’t seen if they have improved on that at all for this current version.

        As for Exporting THAT is an easy solution. Under file: export. In the dialogue box that pops up, at the bottom you should see Format:. Select JPEG from the drop down.

        Have you tried Multiple Master pages with different column breakdowns to keep down on the clutter. It’s kind of hard to see where you are with all those guides. I was going to try that, but I got stuck on dialogue balloons.

        I was having problems setting dialogue balloons to center vertically. I was selecting it in the object style panel but it wasn’t reflecting correctly.

        • Jessica says:

          I can’t believe I missed that option! Well, that’s one step less.

          I leave all the guides in one master page because I want to have all my options open as I design pages. But I do toggle them on and off with some frequency with the command-; and W key. When I’m writing, they’re usually off. If I were doign a book with a stricter grid, I’d limit the guides, and using multiple master pages is a good idea for that.

          I think MS is heading towards a more photoshop-like interface, which would be good, but the new MS5 looks like a beta to me…I’m going to wait a bit on that. Let me know if I shouldn’t!

  3. Florentino says:

    Hello it’s a really interesting workflow.
    It’d be interesting to combine with this:
    http://blip.tv/gareth-hinds/odyssey-process-video-1-layout-2480592

    • Jessica says:

      Interesting. I prefer to use layers in photoshop or Manga Studio when sketching, rather than vectors. The I can turn off or lower opacity, and sketch right on top. But yes, something in common, for sure.

  4. Amy says:

    This is very very helpful for me to put my ideas into words in a more graphical manner. I have always been a very visual person, so after I followed your instructions and got everything set up I’ve planned the first two scenes for a manga I’m creating. I could only get partway through the first scene just scripting it out in writing. This added the needed graphical part my scripting was lacking in order to flow. So thank you thank you thank you for this exorbitantly long but well-worthwhile post. :)

    • Jessica says:

      Glad it was helpful! It is a long description, but the process itself is more and more transparent as I continue to use it. Totally indispensable for me, now. I can’t remember how I managed to write comics before!

  5. Gordon says:

    I’m guessing one of the reasons Bechdel uses Illustrator is that — because you can place AI files (saved with PDF compatibility) directly into InDesign — if you’re lettering digitally, it saves a little time because you’re getting basically all of that lettering work done at the layout stage. I know Bechdel uses a font for the letters themselves — or did on Fun Home, anyway (her font has great alts, so it’s not super obvious). It looks like she light boxes/redraws her panel borders and balloon outlines by hand at the same stage as inking her panel art for a little more of that hand-made touch, but you could just as easily add the pointers in Illustrator and call it a day if that’s your style. (I do that, myself.)

    I also find Illustrator’s Blob Brush helpful to get some (very) rough scribbles in place, to help figure out the panel layouts a bit more precisely (I think) than you can if you’re just mentally picturing where people will fall in a panel.

    My work is strip-based, though, and there are definitely some things that would need to be figured out to use this workflow well in a book-length project where you might shuffle around scenes a lot.

    Bit of a tangent: When I do hand-drawn comics, I like to pencil on paper, and so along with this Illustrator workflow for layouts and lettering, I tend to print out my letters and panel borders in 10% cyan to continue doing roughs by hand in green Colerase pencil. Then I’ll do tighter pencils in BLUE Colerase directly on top of that so that when I scan it, I can separate the two colors in Photoshop: my blue lines end up in the green channel (the green roughs are in the blue channel) and then print out just the blue (plus letters and and borders) as 10% cyan again to ink over. (Obviously, this requires an oversized, color inkjet, so unless you need one for other reasons like selling prints, it’s probably a waste of money.) I find that this process give me many of the advantages of pencilling digitally (backups in case I mess up, editability) without needing to use Manga Studio, which I’ve never gotten the hang of. It works okay for me, anyway!

    • Jessica says:

      This is actually kind of crucial info for anyone wanting to letter digitally (and also do the balloons digitally)–you can’t do those tails in InDesign, I don’t think. So you’ve got to add and export of some kind and a re-import into your workflow. Sigh. Why can’t Adobe just like merge Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign?? (OMG can you imagine the clusterf*** that would be??)

      for me InDesign is crucial, you can’t skip it, because I’m working on very long, complex narratives, and I do a lot of adding and subtracting pages and scenes, cutting and pasting bits into different pages, and so on. I need the full canvas of the book available to me at the same time. A page at a time would be just useless and actually downright confusing. But yes, if I were doing a strip, one page at a time, Illustrator could be the right way to go.

      I do hand-draw my comics after laying out and writing in InDesign, then exporting to Manga Studio and doing medium-tight thumbs there. I print them out on whatever printer is at hand at 150% and lightbox, doing final pencils (in graphite) and inks on bristol. Then I scan in again and drop into Indesign. But I haven’t had to digitally letter yet!! Argh!

  6. As I mentioned on the other thread on Facebook, i use a similar method for picture book design, but simpler, since I have about images, or panels, or roughly 15 spreads. This means I don’t have to contend with scenes in the same way, since a scene can be as brief as a single page or spread, though can go on for 2 or 3, so things like scene headers aren’t necessary.

    I break down the initial text into what I imagine will be page breaks, and then see how that works visually. I make brief descriptions of the images just for me. The whole document is dynamic, always changing as I cut out text where the illustrations will better do the job, or figure out where I can get more mileage out of one image than two, or add more spreads to expand a scene.

    All of this has a huge relationship to comics. This is why we call it “sequential art.” The words are diminished, or even rendered incomprehensible without the pictures in the true picture book. Picture books ARE comics for all practical purposes.

    This is why we should include Caldecott and other historical innovators of the form as a part of comics history in general, and why both picture book makers and comics makers should pay attention to both forms. In a just world, Raymond Briggs would be a huge figure in the comics world (and his stuff actually IS comics in the traditional sense, with panels and word balloons).

    The term “sequential art” was originally used by Eisner to refer to the general formal qualities of comics, but comics practitioners often ignore the broader ramifications of what that means. It’s all about panels and balloons, when it should be about storytelling with pictures in general.

    I don’t make any real distinction between my comics work and picture book work. It’s the same thing as far as I’m concerned.

    • Jessica says:

      I agree–you’re certainly using images to make the story happen. I’m not sure it’s useful to cram picture books into the “comics” box, but it’s certainly useful for all practitioners of visual narrative to learn from all other types of practitioners. there’s no reason to stay in your little box, and lots of reasons not to. I do think of Raymond Briggs as a cartoonist though. Do others not?

      As for the visual scripting angle: I have a few different templates I use for different kinds of visual scripts, and the possibilities in terms of how you conceive of the page unit are pretty much endless.

    • Gordon says:

      Raymond Briggs and in a few cases Maurice Sendak are absolutely cartoonists. Briggs’s Ethel and Ernest is one of the greatest comics ever; I’ve gifted it to friends more times than I can count now.

      But the distinction between comics and picture books/illustrated prose — no matter how big the pictures are — is where the narrative is conveyed: if it’s carried by the images, then it’s a comic.

      There are, of course, times that comics use text-heavy sequences. People mix media all the time. Jules Feiffer’s Man in the Ceiling mixes a prose novel and comics, for instance, and while I cringe a bit to use this as an example, Cerebus has massive stretches of text-driven story.

      I agree that it’s not useful to cram picture books in the comics box, because (in my opinion — I don’t want to put words in Ms. Abel’s mouth) without that distinction, it loses sight of what makes each approach effective.

      • Jessica says:

        That’s pretty much what I meant. I just gave a lecture to students the other day where I ran through this whole, “how do we define comics” thing, looking at things like art exhibitions (curators juxtapose images in an order to convey some kind of meaning) as contrast/comparison. I mean, names like “comics” lose meaning and become useless as ways to draw connections between things when you just say everything with similar qualities is one, but it’s extremely useful to look at how these art forms overlap and can speak to one another. On the the hand, when you split hairs, saying “Family Circus isn’t comics because it doesn’t juxtapose images” what’s the point of that?

        My mission with the students was to get them to see that there is a large spectrum of visual narrative, of which what we call comics takes up a large chunk, but range from talky Cerebus to abstract images. then you’ve got everything else that shares some or many qualities with comics. I mean, look at it all, isn’t it great?

  7. That would be “about 30 images or panels”

  8. I’m not suggesting putting picture books in a comics box, so much as putting both comics and picture books under the subheading, of “sequential art.” The objectives are very similar, word balloons or not.

    I think about Milton Gross’ He Done Her Wrong which is, for all intents and purposes, a picture book, one image per page, no words. People often call this one of the first graphic novels but I think it very much illustrations that the distinction between the two is not clear cut.

    I think Briggs is regarded as a cartoonist and what he does is comics, but he’s so rooted in picture book culture, he often falls under the radar of comics culture.

  9. That would be, “it very much illustrates that the distinction between the two is not clear cut.”

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