Monday, February 18, 2008

The Art of the Comic Strip Narrative

For many people, the daily comics are something to scan and forget -- which is why the gag-a-day strip continues to thrive. In previous posts, I've talked about the importance of the narrative in the continuing story strip, and the skill it takes to keep it interesting when you have three panels to recap events and advance the plot.

But comics are a unique artform where both words and pictures combine to tell the story. Comic art at its best can set the scene, show action, and portray the characters' inner thoughts or emotional states.

How important is the art? Thanks to an unusual turn of events, we have a chance to compare two different ways of illustrating the same story -- and see how the art shades the narrative.

Steve Bryant was under consideration as a fill-in artist for Gil Thorp and was asked to provide some sample strips. Below is the strip that originally ran drawn by current artist Frank McGlaughlin, and underneath that, Bryant's tryout version.

(click on image to enlarge)

Notice how, even with identical dialogue, the dramatic emphasis and pacing of the story change. McGlaughlin uses three equal-sized panels. The eye travels across the strip at an even pace, keeping the narrative flow moving along in a similar fashion.

Bryant, on the other hand, makes the second panel bigger, which causes the eye to pause. Just like an actor who pauses before delivering his line, Bryant has given Cully's words more dramatic weight.

Notice also the placement of the word balloons. In the printed version, they're all in the top third of the panel. It's possible to read all the dialogue without ever really looking at McGlaughlin's pictures.

Bryant uses word balloon placement to further the narrative. In the first panel, he breaks Gil's lines into two connected balloons. This suggests a slight pause between the two lines. A little more dramatic, and (if you say the lines out loud) a bit more natural, too. There's nothing wrong with the way McGlaughlin did it -- but without that visual clue, the reader will assume both lines are delivered with the same pacing.

In Bryant's second panel the word balloon is placed to the right of Cully's head. The reader sees the resolute expression on this young man's face before he speaks. Again, there's a suggestion of a pause, as there's a visual interruption between Gil's word balloon and Cully's. We get the impression that Culley chose his words carefully before responding on this topic that's clearly difficult for him to talk about.

And while the two lines are in overlapping balloons, they're not as separated as Gil's speech. The balloons show a shorter pause between them than the lines in panel 1.

Bryant places Gil's response in panel 3 in the lower right corner. It suggests the speaker's location -- Gil is in the foreground, just off-panel.

The careful placement of the three balloons draws the eye across the strip in a downward diagonal motion. With McGlaughlin, we can skip the top of the strip and never become fully engaged with the comic. Bryant forces us to notice expressions, and indeed, take in all the art.

In any form of drawing, choices are made about what to put in, and what to leave out. In cartooning, those choices impact the narrative. McGlaughlin gives us enough background detail in the first panel to know we're in the stadium. Those details remain in all three panels. When Cully runs off at the end, the short distance between the two characters shows that Gil's comment comes hard on the heels of Cully's response (the overlapping word balloons show the same thing).

Bryant also gives us a stadium background, although with less detail than McGlaughlin. Once the scene is established, we don't need to see it again, and so we don't. The second panel shows Cully alone. In McGlaughlin's version, we see Cully, Gil in the foreground, and some fence in the background. There are many things to draw our attention. Bryant strips away all the distractions. He wants us to look at Cully's face and has taken everything else away to ensure we do.

Bryant's third panel has Cully in silhouette. By putting his entire body in the panel, Bryant shows distance. He's clearly walked away from Gil, who's now calling after him. Clearly a few seconds have passed between panels 2 and 3. By showing Cully in black outline, Bryant hints at the weight of his burden. In the first panel, Cully's facing forward in full light, looking up. In the last, he's in shadow, facing away and looking down. Culley's mood has changed over these three panels.

A lot of thought -- and work -- went into these panels.

And all of this is for a daily comic strip that takes most people fifteen seconds to read.

I like to linger over my morning comics and savor the details of the artform before me. Now that's entertainment!

- Ralph

(Special thanks to This Week in Milford, where I first learned of Steve Bryant's artwork)


  1. I am in your debt for a link to that blog.

    The joy of Gil Thorp is the background detail, which renders Milford in such a wonderfully comic way. Bryant's work may have been another strip.

  2. By putting Cully on the left, the traditional position of the villain, Bryant also turns him into a more morally ambiguous figure. Is he telling the truth about his stretch in juvie? We're much more confident that McGlaughlin's Cully is telling the truth -- he's on the right, he's full face, and he's fully lit. Nothing to hide.

    The silhouette with his back turned to us in that last long shot is not just carrying a heavy burden -- he's completely closed to us. *That *Cully has something to hide.

  3. An excellent observation. In the story, Culley moves to Milford in part to get away from his past crime (which is real -- he accidentally caused a death).

    Although the whole community eventually finds out (big surprise), at this point, only Gil Thorpe and the two players who Googled Culley's name know.

    He does indeed have a lot to hide.

    And to Sean's point, there is something charmingly goofy about McGlaughlin's art. It's workmanlike, but it doesn't get in the way of the story.