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What Is a Comic Book?
Comics are a visual form of storytelling that pair images with text. They are often presented sequentially in panels, which are self-contained frames that tell one story beat (for example, one moment, one look, one establishing shot of the scenery).
The medium is conducive to innovation and artistic expression, allowing comic creators freedom to experiment with the real estate on each page.
As the popular author and comic book writer Neil Gaiman says: “When you get to comics you have a whole different area of territory...We get to use the pictures and the words to try and do things inside the head of the reader that you might never be able to do in prose or in film.”
When Did Comic Books First Become Popular?
The so-called “Golden Age” of comic books spanned from 1930 to 1950 and introduced the superhero archetype to the canon. This era saw the creation of some of the most well-known comic book characters of all time, including Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Wonder Woman, to name a few.
After World War II, the superhero genre gave way to other genres including romance, Westerns, and science fiction.
The modern age of comic books (the 1980s through to today) has experienced a dramatic expansion of form, as independent publishers and the internet have paved the way for previously underrepresented voices to shine through.
What Are the Elements of a Comic Book?
A comic book is typically composed of a number of elements which all work together to tell the story.
- Panel. A panel is one illustration on a page usually surrounded by a border. A comic book page is made up of one or more panels. Each panel moves the story along, by depicting an action with figures and speech bubbles.
- Gutter. This is the space between the panels. These spaces can be large or small, impacting how easy it is to read the pages.
- Tier. A single row of panels.
- Splash. A full-page illustration which often is used at the beginning of the comic book to introduce the story and establish setting and mood.
- Spread. An illustration that is spread out over more than one page.
- Caption. A box that is separate from the rest of the panel usually used to provide context for what’s happening through the voice of a narrator.
- Speech bubble/balloon. These contain the dialogue of the characters and inside the panel. Each balloon has a “tail,” which points to who is speaking the dialogue.
How Is a Comic Book Made?
While it is entirely possible to construct a comic book by yourself, this is a rare talent. Most writers create the story, then collaborate with other artists to bring that story to the page.
Consider the various collaborators who contribute to a comic book.
- Writer. The writer develops the elements of the story, like plot, setting, characters, conflict, and dialogue. They also create an outline as well as a script, which serves as a roadmap for the other collaborators.
- Editor. Every good writer needs an editor. Ideally, an editor will know a writer well and understand her objectives, but still be able to offer thoughtful criticism, especially if something isn’t quite resonating within the story.
- Artist. The artist translates the writer’s instructions into panel illustrations. The artist has the power to add subtle dimension to simple direction; for example, the line “the character looks away” can be shown in myriad different ways, with either a sorrowful expression on the character’s face, the character’s face in shadow, or perhaps, the back of the character’s head angled just so. The artist enhances the writer’s script with her creative interpretations.
- Letterer. A letterer conveys the story via typefaces and sizes, and calligraphy. Story titles, sound effects, and speech balloons are all part of the letterer’s domain. The letterer also fills in the artist’s pencil lines with ink.
- Colorist. After the story is drawn and the ink set, the colorist fills in the black and white lines with color. Historically, this was done with brushes and dyes. While some colorists still opt to do things by hand, others use digital tools; neither is better, it just comes down to personal style and preference.
10 Examples of Great Comic Books
- Action Comics #1 by DC Comics (1938)
- Two-Fisted Tales, No. 25 by Harvey Kurtzman (1951)
- The Acme Novelty Library, No. 6 by Chris Ware (1965)
- Fantastic Four, No. 51 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (1966)
- Watchmen by Alan Moore (1986)
- Maus by Art Spiegelman (1980)
- The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman (1989)
- The Walking Dead, No. 1 by Robert Kirkman (2003)
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006)
- Lumberjanes, No. 1 by Grace Ellis and Noelle Stevenson (2014)
How to Come Up With an Idea for a Comic Book
- Think of a short story idea that would work well visually. You want large, easy-to-define moments and larger-than-life characters and a lot of dialogue. If you are already working on a novel, try adapting your characters and setting to comic form as a creativity exercise.
- Next, work out the rough structure of your comic book. Think about the grand opening, the big plot points, the climax, and the resolution.
- Write brief personality profiles of your main characters. Who are they? What do they want? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Where do they start out, and where do they end up at the end of your story? What central conflict do they all face, and overcome?
- Think of extraordinary settings and strong, powerful emotions like love, death, anger, good, evil. How are these represented in your comic book?
How to Structure a Comic Book
Like films and other narrative art forms, most comic books tend to follow a three-act structure.
- Act 1: Introduction to the central characters, as well as the comic book’s setting, mood, and dominant conflict.
- Act 2: Character development, individual story arcs, setbacks, challenges, what is learned, and finally, the climax.
- Act 3: The post-climax resolution in which the characters undergo a transformation following what they have learned from their ordeal.
Learn more about story structure with our comprehensive guide on plot here.
Step-by-Step Guide: How to Outline a Comic Book
- Gather paper. Anywhere from a handful to 15 sheets, and staple the pieces down the spine.
- Create a numbered list of your pages. This will help give you an idea of what should go on each page. As long as you have a beginning and end jotted down, you’ll be able to navigate the rest.
- Determine the beats of your story. A good starting point is to allocate one page per beat, though some beats can occupy more pages. Jot down the story beats next to the corresponding page numbers.
- Turn story beats into panels. Starting at the beginning, determine how you will use each panel to tell that specific part of your story. Be mindful of the amount and type of information you need to present on each page, and try to attribute space accordingly (play with panel size to give more room for beats like establishing shots and less room for beats that don’t need to present as much detail).
- Sketch out action and note dialogue. These sketches are seen by you and you only; they can be stick figures or symbols, as long as they make sense to you and show an estimate of what should be in each panel. Think of what your dialogue needs to do to help the reader transition from panel to panel. Write notes to accompany the images in each panel.
- Write your script! Using your thumbnails as a reference, write a script for your story which will eventually be turned over to your artist. Work panel by panel communicating things like framing, point-of-view, scene and character description, and dialogue. Think of this script as a letter to your artist in which you give them all of the information they will need to visually create the story you have in your head.
Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise, or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, making comics is an iterative and collaborative process. Use your first draft as a starting point and let creativity take over from there.
Learn more about comics and comic book creation from Neil Gaiman here.