I began this blog post as a dialogue tutorial, but it became something more. I think I’m sounding the liberty bell for webcomic artists. I’ve left the post as it exists, because I think this will soon become a part of a canon for webcomic artists. If you are unfamiliar with what a canon is, check out Graphic Designer Massimilio Vignelli’s totally free Designer’s canon.
I’ve decided to leave the post as-is, and without a rewrite.
I want to address an issue I face every week with my long-form comic Gem of Atlantis. How do you say everything that needs to be said in a page without using words?
When faced with a story, many writers and comic creators feel the need to bring every topic up at once, and answer every question. Every little bit on dialogue must be perfect and spelled out for the audience.
But there is a big lie that many writers and comic creators believe.
It’s the lie that we must explain everything to the audience.
When we are faced with an issue or product we want in life, we esteem it less if it is simply handed to us, rather than having to work for it.
The more we work for something, and the more effort we put into that work, the more rewarding the product will be. Because at that point the product is no longer something we just have but a symbolic representation of our ability to get such an item.
This is why high-end products are more prized and expensive. It isn’t because they are indeed more valuable that something else, but that they represent a psychological goal in the consciousness of society. To hold such an item means you worked hard enough, and long enough, to get it. The product is no longer a product. It is your trophy.
When writing mysteries and stories that do not reveal everything up front, you present a challenge to your readers. You invite them to participate in a treasure hunt. The treasure can be a secret, a plot point, a character or an object. But what you truly present to them is a challenge to find the feeling of satisfaction of having attained a reward for hard work. The hard work could be patience for sticking with your story, reading your literature, and keeping up with your issues.
This leads us into the two types of writers you can be.
Joining the Adventure vs. Look what I can do
There are two types of writers. The first type will invite you to enjoy a journey of discovery with them, and they will act as a guide through the plot, even if that plot is disjointed. In the end, this writer will allow you to experience the moment of awe, when you realize how the story points have tied together and how things actually work to the final answer of the question or reveal of the character. This writer will allow the reader to logically put the puzzle clues together and allow them to experience the moment of awe. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were famous for being very kind to the reader and treating them as though they were standing in the room with them.
The second type of writer will attempt to explain every little bit of the plot to the reader, and will 99% of the time come across as patronizing. They will insist to tell the reader every little detail of the room that has no plot value, and explain the final plot to the reader in a way that demeans them. The details will overtake the plot, and all emotion will be lost. Most of the time these books will simply be detailed outlines of what could be a good book or comic instead of actually becoming one itself.
Visual and Dialogue Balance
A lot of comic artists struggle with this balance. It’s more difficult for indie artists because they write, design, ink, color, and letter their own comics. So how do we find this balance?
A major problem I see a lot in webcomics, and have done this myself, is writing too much dialogue all at once. We all have a desire to see our plots move quickly to ‘get to the good part’, but if we overinflate the dialogue’s space in the composition of a panel, we will miss the visual clues necessary to keep the audience entertained and interested. On the flip side, visuals are great, but if they are presented without native dialogue to give a direction to the scene, they’re simply pictures.
Say everything, say nothing
Everyone has a different view of the ratio of dialogue-to-picture use, but it really comes down to basic composition.
The elements and principles of design will be your guiding light in this problem. In graphic design, heirarchy of elements is essential to balancing visual and text elements of a piece. Usually your characters will be the dominant form, and the text bubble the subdominant. Everything else is subdominant and accents to your main characters and speech bubbles. Sometimes making the speech bubble an accent can be acceptable, but it all depends on the scene and the message you’re trying to convey.
The elements and principles of design will not change, and that’s a big relief! Long form comics and short form comics do not have seperate rules of composition. The elements and principles of design can be applied to both. The outcome will be different, but the same desired affect will be achieved if the elements and principles of design are followed.
There is no secret formula, anyone who tells you there is, is wrong
As a graphic designer, use of elements and principles in the industry is basic knowledge anyone can have. We freely share tutorials, tips, tricks, shortcuts, and new things we find. I was utterly shocked to find that there is some sort of bizarre secret club mentality with some webcomic artists. It’s also a little humorous because they may have found an element or principle of design that worked, and decided it was super pinky-swear secret.
I have no time for secret formulas or club-mentality cliques that only share a sparse, broken and overused element or principle of design. Some webcomic groups have even been created around an isolated element or principle.
This, to me as a graphic designer with a degree who has been in the professional industry for 8 years, is ludicrous and borderline repulsive behavior. I understand that we all have our share of insecurities, setbacks and problems. However to allow this kind of self-consuming and stagnant environment to linger is nothing short of industry killing and this is exactly why mainstream comics don’t tend to take us seriously.
Time to rock the boat
For this environment to end and for our communities to be considered legitimate, we should each do three things.
1. Learn the elements and principles of design
2. Learn composition
3. Share everything we know.
I’m modeling these practices after the graphic design community, in that we share everything, and the only way you improve is to devote time to the principles that everyone knows themselves. It’s encouraging to everyone and no one is left scouring in the dark for clues or having to approach the castle of a webcomic artist who does.
I say we break down the walls of fear and begin a new era of webcomics.