The question is, how?
Thumbnailing a comic is a deep exploration into the how. Drilling down into what story beat needs to occur on the page and how best to communicate this vital next stepping stone in the narrative.
What is the most appropriate way to show the reader how the characters feel, where are the characters moving from and to, and what can we anticipate before they get there?
I would argue that panel layout and composition are the two most vital tools to communicating this through your thumbnails.
Where layouts is primarily concerned with size and placement of the panels on the page, composition focuses more on how the visual elements within those panels are composed - both can be used intelligently to convey story or feeling.
Witch of the West
I'm just going to preface this by saying that nine tenths of conveying meaning is intent! Before you can create layouts and compositions that say something, you have to know what you want to say.
Since I want the majority of my pages to be magical fighting, I've decided to handle the entire setup on the first page, and the entire payoff on the last (leaving the three middle pages for magic shenanigans).
Planning like this puts each individual page into a wider context, so I understand what it must accomplish (in both story and feeling) - and this means I thumb with a target to hit!
Creating mini character arcs is also helpful! Basically, I want to create a feeling of progression and development within the story, so having the characters make some kind of change by the end of the story helps the readers to see the impact of the events.
With only five pages to deliver the story in, it's even more important to create panels that communicate what's happening very clearly. My first step with thumbnails is just to get a lot of visual ideas down very quickly to see which I feel convey an idea, or a feeling. Getting your visual ideas down on paper, fast and rough as they may be, makes sure that you don't forget about them and gives you a starting point to work from.
Above you can see how (amid the sketches), I have begun to blocked out some B+W panel comps with basic shapes.
I was trying to find ways to show the characters in the wagon are being chased by bandits in the most economic way possible. Again, simple blocking helps me quickly get a read on whether this composition is communicating the idea I want it to convey - working simple helps you thumb faster, which is always good when trying to get a lot of constantly evolving ideas down.
I'm also trying to work with the shape of the panel itself to strengthen the ideas. A lot of the panels are very wide to help show the breadth of the landscape and the relative distance between each group. In one panel, I even tried to create a kind of vs. feeling by splitting it centrally and having the characters and bandits facing off against one another.
Planning the Layouts
I started planning my layouts with the final page of the story. This is both because I felt like I saw some of that page clearly in my head already, and also because, as with the story spine, I sometimes find it easier to keep chains of causality when I work backwards through a story. The earlier page planning I did gives me the freedom to hop between them like this!
To recap, in this page the wagon falls from the sky down on top of the bandits. The three characters get the magic gem that was stolen back from their unconscious leader, but then notice something that causes them concern.
You can see I gave up before even finishing the first draft of the page. It often takes a little for me to get into so my first attempts are often stilted and boring. Here, the panels are all so similar and regular and none of the scribbles are saying much emotionally.
The second attempt is a bit better, with more panel variance, which means more rhythm and varied timing. One way I often think about handling timing in comics is time to read = size x detail. There are other factors, like I will often pause on any panel that evokes a strong emotion in me or shows a strong emotion from a character, but as a general rule, the larger the panel size and the more detail that is within that panel, the longer the reader will linger on it.
The first and last panel are both important moments - the wagon falling and the Witch noticing something unsettling. Therefore both of these moments were given more space, and I would plan for the top panel of the wagon hitting the ground to be quite intricate.
See how much the compositions have improved on the second page where I have fewer center frame characters and more multi-character shots where they favor one side or the other. This works much like storyboarding a dialog scene, where each character will favor a different side of the screen to make the cuts clearer and imply the character's spacial placements.
Above left you can see that I've used two panels of the same shape and size to show the Thief rummaging through the lead bandit's shirt for the gem. Mirroring panels like this is super useful when showing two parts of the same action or drawing comparisons between the contents of the two panels. Basically, I'm letting the viewers read it almost like a storyboard for that moment where the movement between panels is the most important thing. Other than that, this page feels fairly static and uninteresting to me.
Above right, I replaced panel 2 (which previously had been them spreading out and searching the bandits) with a reaction shot of the characters after the wagon falls in. I felt like for the impact the wagon was meant to have on the reader, the characters barely react to it. A moment to show how they each respond differently would build character and give the readers a beat to take in the action.
I staged this as an extremely flat composition, which is a great technique when delivering humour. In very general terms, for environments or action scenes, playing with the depth and creating perspective can help to make the sequence feel epic and dynamic. However for comedy, flat staging is awesome for prioritising clarity/readability and keeps the focus on the characters! Once you know this, you'll start noticing how often film and comic makers use this technique to deliver comedy!
Here, I tried to combine them getting off the wagon with the characters interacting with one another. I don't think it's as successful as the straight on reaction shot, but it does help the movement to flow more between panels.
Here, the compositions are doing much more work to convey story and character relationships. The position of the Thief and Old Man in panel four shows that the two feel comfortable with one another and hints that they have been friends a while. Having them so close to the camera that they are cut by the panel borders creates a sense of intimacy with the audience - we are privy to what they are saying but the girl in the background facing away from them is not, she is excluded from this moment. The simple block shades I added to help separate foreground and background elements adds another layer of meaning, implying that they are being shady in their conversation. They are shadowed and secretive, as they discuss whether the Witch has proved her worth to the team or not.
Adding simple shades and colours when I have a strong idea for a panel can really help you to nail the feeling you are going for. The splash of orange over the last two panels is to add a sudden intensity spike and imply a sense of danger to add to the uneasiness of the last panel and foreshadow this in the panel beforehand.
You can also see a few notes I made regarding the decision to make the top panel semi borderless and how I might take panel 2 forward and squeeze more meaning out of it.
Considering flow is important when trying to get your panels and compositions to work harmoniously together. As well as having individual meaning, the way that one panel leads into another can also help to tell the story. In the last two panels, I use a speech bubble to pull the reader and the two characters over to the Witch's discovery. This helps create the impression that their moment has been interrupted by something outside of their field of vision. If I had just put the witch in the background, the interruption wouldn't have felt as unexpected.
Important to remember is that western readers will almost always start reading from the top left of the page, so plan your flow from there. See if you can use it in interesting ways to convey story points, like dragging their gaze naturally over aspects of the panel you want them to notice, or creating the feeling of a character's panic by having a frenetic flow line. See what you can come up with!! One of the most fun aspects of comic-ing is playing with the rules to try and come up with the best ways to convey meaning!
Beyond the layouts themselves, I tend to make lots of sketches exploring how to deliver acting points. Some of these make it into the pages if I like them a lot, others just allow me to play around with character ideas and deepen my understanding of their relationships.
I'll continue thumbnailing on WotW and share more of my thoughts and hurdles as I go. For now, we'll share a quick case study on The Girl and the Glim to show how we tried to create meaning using some of the aforementioned methods!
Conveying Feeling - The Girl and The Glim
In this example, Page 27 from The Girl and the Glim we explored how to show Midge in a state of loneliness and vulnerability and how she works her way through that. This was an appropriate moment to dedicate a whole page to because it ties in so heavily with the main theme of the book, and directly followed a fast paced montage sequence. After such a loud couple of pages, it felt like we needed a bit of space to be alone with Midge.
Although the reader is here spending time alone with Midge, we wanted there to be a sense of distance there, like an invisible wall between her and the reader. Usually I would populate a page with a lot more face on close ups and reaction shots that help us to feel more intimate with the characters.
However in page 27, though we are seeing her on her own we tried to make the reader feel they were being kept at arm's length. This is because Midge is still avoiding facing/expressing her true feelings. I wanted to close this gap between her and the readers in the following page, where Midge looks directly at the reader (though really she is looking at herself) and shows her vulnerability for the first time - though she still hides her eyes when she sees it. She doesn't want to witness that perceived weakness in herself.
I wanted to keep Midge feeling isolated in this page, so I chose to have her parents voices come from offscreen rather than show them in panel with her. Part of the reason I can do this is thanks to the colour of the speech balloons, which are character specific and shows you who is speaking even if they are off shot. For this, I can thank our fantastic letterer, Hass -- speaking of which!
A lot of our comic grammar comes through watching the marvelous video series Strip Panel Naked, created by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. It's a must see for comic artists as well as storytellers in general - each episode centers around how comics create feeling and meaning through the visuals, and are packed full of great insights you can use in your own work.As someone who started from ground zero with making comics, his videos are a constant inspiration to me. Thoroughly recommend giving him a watch!
Raven King Character Concepts
Doig here! I've been trying to narrow down the character design for Robin by studying portraits of face types that have similar qualities and painting studies of them to further my understanding of how to draw them.
This approach involves a lot of feeling out in the dark since I'm not aiming toward any one concept in particular.
I struggle with the tendency to repaint the same face, so I use reference photography to break myself out of that loop/pattern, and then nudge the painted study or concept more into the direction that feels appropriate.
The last concept feels the closest so far both in colour and face shape, though I'll need to simplify the design further for the sequential panels.
Next up, I've been painting mood thumbnails to explore moments that stick out or feel significant.
Of these panels I feel like the rightmost panel with it's narrow width and tallness is beginning to scratch the surface in showing the relative scale of the world. This panel is intended to demonstrate how far the character has fallen, and where they fell from is cropped out of the frame, making it feel unreachable and unattainable.
Ask Midge Anything
Thank you to the Jubilant JP for this great question!
If you want to send in any questions for the Girl and the Glim characters, I will attempt to answer them through doodles :)
More drama! More art! More comics talk!
I will continue developing both Girl and the Glim book 2 and the five page Witch of the West application and share my project scheduling tips to help you create achievable and trackable project calendars and deadlines.
In the meantime, let me know what some of your favourite thumbing/storytelling techniques are when it comes to composition or comic layouts. Is there anything you want to try or that you've found has worked particularly well for you?
~ Doig & Swift