You know that saying; good artists borrow, great artists steal? That’s all well and good until you get sued for plagiarism. Seriously, though, there are lots of influences on my comics, some more direct than others. The interesting part is not using a source in place of your own drawing or writing; it is being able to incorporate an idea you like into your own style.
Today I’m thinking about panel compositions. Comics can be irresistible to read, partly because each panel is so fun to look at (see also my previous post on the Panel Project). A pair of talking heads with dialogue above them is the opposite of this. You could give the excuse that comics can’t be too busy looking – a single character with a word balloon is easier to read than a half dozen characters, the Hindenburg, and the entire continent of Antarctica in the background (although I’d like to maybe try that someday).
A good composition can lend interest to an otherwise painfully boring panel. This is especially true if your characters are talking about something, rather than doing something. Calvin and Hobbes’ great philosophical debates wouldn’t have been nearly as gripping if they hadn’t also been sledding downhill at an unbelievable pace. Bill Amend (Foxtrot) would put little things in the backgrounds, just to give the reader another joke on the way to the final panel. In crowd scenes, you could sometimes spot other cartoon characters. When Andy or Roger read the newspaper, there were headlines about an unnamed wealthy, sexy cartoonist. This is all to say, the more interest you create in each panel, the more fun it is to draw and the more likely a reader won’t bail out before the punchline.
All that said, I’ve found a few inspirations for panel compositions: movies and woodblock prints. Movies are great to watch for interesting light/dark balances. It is easier with black and white films, because you’re more focused on the light/dark, rather than the color. Some filmmakers who are especially good at cinematography are Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, the previously mentioned and, sadly, recently deceased, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini. Part of the reason I love DVD so much is you can pause a movie and get a crystal-clear image. Remember the fuzzy lines when you paused a video tape? I hated that. It was especially annoying when I was trying to draw from a single frame of film. Thanks, technology, for allowing me to steal compositions from great directors. The only downside to using a film’s composition is, they’re horizontal. My comics panels are vertical. I do that to allow more room for the word balloons – the last thing I want is for Ernesto’s head to be cut off by extra verbosity. Otherwise, it’s great to learn from people who know how to balance a shot.
Woodblock prints are great for composition as well. I love the Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) especially. They are almost the same height to width ratio as my comic panels, and they began some of the visual shorthand still used in comics today. It always amazes me how much they could do with a limited pallet. They could show rain, distance, mountains, houses, mist, sunlight…anything they chose. This should hold true for comics today, where we have essentially the same tools. Plus, we don’t have to carve every panel out of a block of wood, so really we have it a lot easier than, say, Hokusai.
I don’t do this all the time for my panel compositions, but when I see a great composition, I really want to try and use it in my comics. I also feel that the more I notice composition in other artists’ work, the better I get arranging them myself.