Creating Comics: Script and Thumbnails

As promised to my comics class, here is the first Friday Night Comics post! If you’re not in the class, that’s OK, I hope this will be useful for anyone who is curious about making comics.

I’m going to use my most recent Quadra Cats cartoon for an example, as it is simple, and I happened to have all the parts handy to scan. I did this for the Hillside-Quadra News, which comes out quarterly. This is the second cartoon; here is the first, along with a bit about designing the characters. I have some more stories planned for the cats, so they may feature as my models in this blog series!

I like to work from a written script when I make a comic. Usually I work from my own ideas, but I have created scripts from other people’s stories. For my own ideas, I usually start with a few lines, that I put in a “comics ideas” document that I keep handy on my computer desktop. A notebook does the same job, but I’m often on the computer, so that’s what works best for me.

This one went like this:

The Alien cat shows up again and is curious about the human’s pre-Christmas activities (lights? gifts? what do the decoration on the lampposts look like?) The Quadra Cats express their theories as to why humans behave so strangely at this time of year. Alien cat wants to get in the middle of things. (alien technology?)

From there I developed it into this conversation:

Tux: Hey Alien Cat, you’re back!
Jazz: Where’s your spaceship?

A Cat: On top of the Fairway landing pad — invisible this time, so it won’t frighten your pet primates.
Jazz: Oh… good. (looking at Tux)

A Cat: Speaking of the big monkeys, what ARE they doing? (people are up on ladders hanging lights)

Tux: Hanging lights.They do that every year. I think the cold brings on some kind of instinctive urge.They keep warm by the increased activity.

Jazz: My theory is that it’s because the nights are longer. They don’t seem to see so well.

A Cat. Hmmmm

A Cat: Come stand over here, my friends! (extends mechanical arm from suit with circular camera)
Jazz: Wh- what are you doing?
Tux: Don’t hurt our pets!


Last picture: The three cats in typical tourist pose (Tux and Jazz looking shocked), with message “Here I am with my new Earthling friends and their strange bipedal primate servants!” (like Facebook post) (Aliencat added one photo to their space-timeline)

Then I had to decide how all this was going to play out on the page:


This is the full sheet of paper, which gives you a sense of the size of the thumbnails at the bottom.  The larger sketch was another attempt at the first panel that I didn't finish.

This is the full 8.5×11 sheet of paper, which gives you a sense of the size of the thumbnails at the bottom. The larger sketch was another attempt at the first panel that I didn’t finish.This is regular ink-jet printer paper; I use 24lb because it’s a bit thicker than the usual 20lb and feels more like sketching paper but is cheaper.

I made a thumbnail drawing (the middle bottom one). Then I tried another first panel shape (on the left at the bottom) because I thought the first panel looked really static. I liked that but then I realized the whole thing would have to change to accommodate the new first panel, which was OK, because the original layout was boring. The new layout is on the right.

Notice that these drawings are very crude; they are only for me to visualize what is happening in each panel, how many panels I’ll need, and what is the best layout. Sometimes I work in  a little more detail on my thumbnails and work out a lot of the composition there, but I didn’t in these. Even when I do, it often changes (sometimes a lot!) when I do the larger sketches. Think of thumbnails as one-person brainstorming!

The full sized layout, first take.

The full sized layout, first take.

Then it was time to do a larger layout sketch (again, regular letter size paper). I decided I needed more room for the first panel, so squeezed the two side panels a little bit. That was OK, because they didn’t have much action in them. I’m conscious of leaving enough room for the dialogue, as I go, a hard won skill — it’s so easy to get carried away making pictures and forget how much space it takes for legible words! I needed more room in the bottom panels than my original 3-the-same-size layout, so I decided the “Flash!” didn’t need a whole third of the bottom tier.

At this point I felt I could make a more fully realized sketch without too much dithering about. I get most of the sketchy, searching-for-the-right-line stuff out of my system in this stage. Pretty messy, eh? Not to worry, creativity is messy.

Here’s the finished, inked comic:

Those Quadra Cats!

Those Quadra Cats!

I started on another piece of paper, slightly larger than my sketch, and of better quality for inking (in this case “Paper for Pens” — great stuff if you’re working in black and white). I used a 2H pencil, which leaves very clean lines that are easy to erase.

Notice that I still made some changes at this stage. I changed some things in the composition of the first panel to accommodate better perspective (yes, I laid it out with horizon line and vanishing points!) In the second and third panels, I switched the second cat, Jazz, to face in another direction from Tux, the first cat, because it mirrored the way they were oriented in the first panel, and was also more interesting. I was able to do the bottom three panels pretty much as I had envisioned them. It was a challenge to get all the dialogue in, and I had to cut some of what I had written in the script (this always happens, I’m kind of wordy; you may have noticed).

After I had this sketch the way I wanted it, I inked the lines with a Pigma Micron 08, 05, and 02. The Pigmas have permanent, fade-proof, waterproof ink, and are very easy to handle. I then went over the whole page with a white eraser (kneaded erasers are good too) to take off stray pencil lines.

Not everyone likes to work from a written script, and that’s OK, too. Sometimes it’s fun to just see what evolves as you draw your idea, putting in conversation as you go. You might like to work entirely with drawings first, sketching the action, and put the words in after, letting the drawings suggest the dialogue. There is no one right way to do this! I cannot emphasize this too much. However, try lots of ways of working; the thing that seems the most logical at first may not end up being your preferred method. I thought I would be more comfortable working first with pictures, but it turns out I like the structure of a script.

There are a few links I’d like to recommend for reading this week. The first one is the article by Sarah McIntyre I put in the class handouts, but I’ll put it HERE so it’s easy to just click. This is an article I wish I’d written — I think it’s a brilliant summing-up of how to get started in comics!

Jillian Tamaki in THIS ARTICLE on the difference between illustration and comics, beautifully articulated.

THIS POST from Brain Pickings about Lynda Barry (I showed one of her books in class) is about keeping a visual notebook — remember what I said up near the top about keeping your ideas organized?

That crazy TED TALK by Scott McCloud that I was telling you about.

Finally, A reminder and a pep talk that it’s not about talent, it’s about putting in the hours, HERE (I’m always saying this, even to myself!), by Yuko Shimizu.

See you next week!




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