Panels & Pictures: Things to Think about When Creating a Comic

I've been wanting to make this list for over a year now. Few would argue against the proposition that comics are a hybrid form, and in such the parameters of comics are manifold. For the creator of a comic, a plethora of formal, narrative (non-narrative), visual, stylistic, and linguistic (plus more I'm sure) choices are there to be made with any endeavor. Too many of these choices go unmade by creators: a choice made in the past by some precursor becomes a default; avenues go unexplored or unconsidered. Part of my goal for this column (and probably my comics writing in general) is to expose these choices that are made and how they offer new opportunities and avenues of working.

I don't want to give the impression that one should break all the rules just for the sake of breaking the rules. I think we see that enough, and it often becomes a mishmash of unreadable garbage (to put it kindly). Rather, one should break the rules to find new and better ways to reach one's goal, whether that is to express a feeling, make the reader laugh, tell an exciting story, or simply create an aesthetic object. On the flip side of this, one can start with an element of comics and, in finding new ways to manipulate it, be lead to some kind of narrative, expressive, or other goal. (I tend to work in both ways in my comics.)

The point being that the goals, content, and form of a comics are not mutually exclusive. They work in conjunction with each other, and the more one takes that into account the better one's work will be.

As a personal list for my own work and hopefully as food for thought for others, both creators and readers, I offer this, no doubt incomplete, list of different things to consider in comics:

Page Layout:
How many panels? Where are they on the page? What shape are the panels? Are they all the same size? How many tiers of panels? How many per tier? Imbedded panels? Do the panels have borders? What color are they? Are they regular (squares, rectangles) or irregular (trapezoids, stars, circles)? How thick are the borders? Does the image break from the borders? Are there borders at all? In print, how do the two pages in a spread relate to each other? How do the panels shape, size, and location relate to their content and/or the pacing of the story? How big are the margins? What color are they? Is there anything in the margins? How big are gutters? Are they all the same size? What color are they? How do the margins and gutters relate to the pacing of the panels?

How is the image arranged in the panel? How does the content of the panel lead the eye through the panel? How does the composition of the panels act as part of the page as a whole? How do the composition of the panels relate to each other (pairings, repetitions, contrasts)? How does the composition work to stress or downplay certain elements in the image? How is perspective used: traditional (1, 2, or 3 point), atmospheric, flat, skewed, none at all? How is point of view used: consistent, changing, through a specific character in the story, through a invisible "third person", from a fixed point?

Silence vs. Wordiness (Jason vs. Sim)? Captions? Word balloons? Thought balloons? Sound effects? Text blocks? No balloons at all? What shape are the balloons? the caption boxes? How are balloons/captions/effects arranged in the panel? How are various text elements arranged on the page? How does the arrangement best facilitate clear and ordered reading (or a confused/disordered reading)? How does the placement of all the baloons/captions/effects work in the context of the page as a whole? Consistent or varying font/lettering styles? Varying style for different characters/situations? Spacing of letters/words/lines? Color of baloons, caption boxes, effects, words?

Full color? No color (just black and white or grey tones)? Monochromatic? Two color? Four color? Colored line art? Flat colors? Painterly colors? Color as shape? Color as shading? Color as design/composition element? Color for emotional impact? Color for emphasis? Color as symbolism? Consistent use of color? Varying colors?

Consistent style? Varying style? Varying style within the same panel? Varying style as related to narrative? Level of representation of the image (abstract to photorealist)? Exaggeration/caricature? Line: geometric, scratchy, dense, dynamic, static, squiggly, smooth, graceful, etc? Minimalism/maximalism? Refined vs. crude? Ordered vs. chaotic?

Pacing: slow, fast, consistent, dynamic? Transitions: time, movement, space, etc? The independence of the panel/strip/page/chapter? The relation of one panel to the next? The relation of the end of one page to the beginning of the next (the action of turning the page/clicking the link)? How do the panels pace out/withhold information? How does the breakdown of the narrative/information control emotion/rhetoric? (It's hard to list all the options in this category, so much can be done with this basic element of comics as far as dividing or building up a narrative.)


Pamphlet, strip, book, web? Serialization: daily, weekly, monthly, as its finished? Size: tiny, mini, traditional, oversized? Page shape: rectangle, square…? How is the comic strip/page presented (book/pamphlet and/or web design)?

Pencil, pen, ink, paint, photos, collage, cut paper, sculptural, digital?

That is a start though I know as soon as I send this in, I will think of more. Ideally I could have examples for variations on all these questions, but that must wait for another time.

And then you don't want to forgot your actually concept, usually the story: character, setting, plot, theme, objects, etc. which is a whole other set of criterion, questions, and concerns (such as my previous column on narrative ordering).

Any suggestions for additions?

Derik Badman

Derik A Badman is a web developer (for Springshare, Inc) and comics artist/critic living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA with his wife and two cats. His comics are often abstract or poetic in nature, frequently drawing from appropriated sources.

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