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November 22, 2015 - Cartooning Overview

Writing & Presentation

1. Script

Drafts and Revisions:
I’d recommend at least two full written drafts and revision passes before putting pencil to paper. It’s a lot more difficult to make changes in a story once you’ve started drawing!


  • Drafts of your script can be written similar to a screenplay. (Reference: “Demo” by Brian Wood.)

  • Written in this format, 1 written page can equate to 3-5 drawn pages. (The average graphic novel might have around 180 pages, though this can vary.)

In terms of pacing, the medium of comics is similar to film. It’s always a good idea to refine your story down to the most effective, “necessary” scenes and lines of dialogue. Not only will this keep your audience engaged, it will also keep production time reasonable.

2. Panel Layout


  • This step can be combined with Page Composition (below) when you feel comfortable enough. The goal of thumbnailing is to communicate your story as clearly as possible through image selection and pacing.

  • Go through your script and determine the contents of each panel (actors, camera angles, beats, etc.) so that every spoken and unspoken word can be effectively communicated. If you can discard a panel and it doesn’t affect the scene or what you’re trying to convey, do it.

Page Composition:

  • Once you’ve selected what will go in each panel, arrange the panels to fit comfortably on a page. (General rule: When reading, panel priority flows Eastward first, then Southward.)

  • This also applies to objects/actors which are placed in your panel. If “Bob” speaks before “John”, Bob should be on the left and John should be on the right.

Dialogue Balloon Positioning:

  • If you aren’t sure where to put balloons, a safe move is to keep them aligned to the tops/top corners of your panels.

  • To check the flow of your dialogue, draw an imaginary line between each balloon, making sure none of them “interrupt” the path from one to the next. (This same rule applies to laying out panels.)

  • When Page Composition is completed, you should be able to read your entire comic from start to finish. (Excepting some more polished art, reading the final product should feel exactly the same.) If you’re unsatisfied with any aspect of the story’s flow, this is the time to change it.

Anatomy of a comic page:

  • Safety Area: An imaginary space far from the edges of the page, where you will put your most important content, including dialogue balloons.

  • Trim: The area of your page which will get “sliced” off during the printing process.

  • Gutter: An area of the page beyond the trim, which is healthy to draw past if you plan to have a panel extend to the edge of the paper.


  • The steps above can be accomplished using only stick figures and rudimentary drawings. (This is even a step in professional manga production and is called a name.)

  • Iron out any unclear compositions ensure that reading the page should be effortless for your audience.

Panel Types:

  • Key panels are used to convey dramatic, meaningful events. Generally, the bigger the panel on a page, the more important the author feels its contents are. (Even if there are almost no contents except for a couple of words, like in shojo manga.)

  • Bridge panels are for conveying information between key panels. These will make up the majority of your stories.

  • Beat panels are used for pacing. These include contents ranging from meaningful silences to scene transitions.


Western-style composition:

  • Traditionally, western comics are dense, offering more information and dialogue per page. This is owing to the common publishing format of 28-page “Issues”, in color, sold monthly.

  • Panels are often smaller, and are laid out in a grid without too much size variation.

  • It’s not uncommon to see up to 9 panels per page.

  • Word balloons are often minimal, less expressive, and use a small font. Examples:

“Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
“The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson
The work of Will Eisner

Eastern-style composition:

  • Traditionally, each page of manga is designed to be drawn and read quickly. This is because manga is published weekly in 18-page chapters, in black and white, sold weekly and then collected into volumes (AKA “tankobon”.)

  • Panels take up more real-estate on a page and often offer less background “clutter”, which is believed to slow the reader down.

  • Panel counts can range from 2-6 per page.

  • Special effects like speed lines and big, expressive dialogue balloons are used to communicate with the audience subconsciously: “Look over here!” “Keep reading!” and so on. The use of onomatopoeia is more frequent as well.

  • Empty space (also known as “ma”) is often employed as a storytelling tool, both for emphasis and pacing. (Incidentally it also makes production go a lot faster.)

  • Shonen (boys’) manga generally employs more right angles in their panel composition, and features more detailed art. Notable authors:

Akira Toriyama
Takehiko Inoue
Osamu Tezuka

  • Shojo (girls’) manga is considered more expressive, if minimalistic, utilizing freer panel composition. The art is usually less detailed, too, using special effects to reflect characters’ emotions. Notable authors:

Erika Sakurazawa
Fuyumi Soryo
Masami Tsuda

Hybrid composition:

o        Examples of hybrid styles between east and west can be found in Alternative or Independent comics. Some examples:

·         “I Kill Giants” by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura.

·         “Scott Pilgrim” by Brian Lee O’Malley

·         “Demo” by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan

·         “Blankets” by Craig Thompson






Drawing Figures:


Building faces:

·         Create a plus-shaped grid to overlay onto a character’s face. Using this grid as a “ruler”, you can apply features like a Mr. Potato Head. Using this technique you can move features around fairly easily until you find the sweet spots.

·         To practice individual facial features (eyes, nose, mouth) etc., draw them individually until you feel comfortable applying them to the grid above.


Building figures:

·         “Skeleton figures” come first when drawing bodies. This will make it easier to apply changes. When comfortable, this step can be combined with the next item:

·         Fill in details of limbs (AKA “Sausage figures”), like those faceless wooden dolls. Try to break down every limb and joint into simple shapes like squares, rectangles and cylinders.

·         Apply finer details to your characters (faces, hands, fingers, etc.).

·         Then, finally, fill in details like clothing.

·         Size ratios = Estimating a character’s height by comparing the size of their Head vs. their Body.

o        “The ideal human” is traditionally considered to be 8 Heads tall.

o        The average adult is somewhere around 6-7 Heads tall.

o        Children might be around 4-5 Heads tall.

o        Chibis are around 2-3 Heads tall.

·         Proportion tip: A person’s arm span from left fingertip to right fingertip is often equal to their total height.

·         Another proportion tip: To make a character look cuter, give it more baby-like features. (Big eyes, small nose/mouth, and so on.) To make a character appear intimidating, do the opposite.


General Notes:

·         Body Language: Do the characters’ poses convey their emotion? (For instance someone slouched over might seem depressed at a glance, or standing tall with their shoulders back will seem confident.)



Drawing Backgrounds:



·         Rendering spaces in three dimensions. The three dimensions:

o        X-Axis = Width: Right to left.

o        Y-Axis = Height: Up to down.

o        Z-Axis = Depth: “Inward” and “outward”, (AKA toward you and away from you.)

·         A ton of information on drawing in perspective can be found on YouTube. In most instances, you can get away with drawing in One-Point or Two-Point perspective. When you’re used to the technique, you’ll be able to eyeball it.

o        Each “point” in perspective represents the line on a horizon where lines seem to converge somewhere on the Z-axis. As you practice, make a habit of looking for vanishing points everywhere you go, from the interior of a room to walking along a street.

·         When drawing in perspective, treat each building and object as simple shapes. (A building can be a cube, for example.) Once you get the hang of this, filling in surface details (doors, windows, etc.) becomes easy.



Techniques and Discipline:


Practice (Getting your hand to obey you):

·         Training your drawing hand can be time-consuming and repetitious, so any chance you get to have fun while practicing is very useful. In the end, all you have to do is put in those hours, like the basketball player shooting hundreds of baskets per day.

·         A good mantra to keep in mind when practicing with real-life subject matter: “Draw with your eye, not your memory.” Real life is full of rich details that sometimes go against what we think those objects “should” look like. In other words: Draw what you see, not what you think you see!

o        This is to help build your mental library for when you’re drawing comics, when you likely won’t have time to look at reference.

o        By observing the world around you intently, you can even practice this without a pencil in hand.


Some exercises:

·         Draw a bunch of short stories, 5-20 page length.

·         Draw several copies of the same object next to each other. The objects can range from simple to complex – the goal is to boost your consistency.

·         Draw the same face with different expressions. Do this with as many different “characters” as you can, and with different camera angles.

·         If you can, practice drawing objects and people in person, rather than from photographs or from a screen.

·         With time, make a list of what you’re comfortable drawing vs. what feels difficult to draw. Continue developing your skill with the easier things until they become almost effortless, then switch to what you feel intimidated by.

·         Practice drawing cubes and rectangles with 1-Point and 2-Point perspective. Then, pretend the shapes are buildings and try to draw a city block, complete with small people.


Checking your work:

·         The “mirror trick: Periodically as you draw, hold your sheet of paper facing away from you, against a light source like a lamp or window. You should see your drawing mirrored, revealing areas that can be improved which slipped past your notice. Even expert artists like Da Vinci used this technique.

·         Always sketch lightly and perform checks like the mirror trick before filling in details. That way, you have less work to erase if you want to make changes.


Relationship between Speed vs. Quality:

·         Art quality in comics can be important, but never at the expense of speed. If we only have one week to draw a chapter, for example, it serves the story better to draw 100 medium-quality pictures than 10 high-quality.

o        For this reason, getting comfortable with your drawing hand is very important.

·         An extreme example of Speed vs. Quality is the “24-Hour Comic”, an event where participants draw 24 pages in 24 hours. This exercise forces creators to decide what is, and isn’t, important to draw within that very short time frame. (I did it once - while it was a valuable experience I definitely wouldn’t want to do it again!)

·         To further illustrate this point, the work of Jeffrey Brown is notable because his earlier art could be considered to be unrefined, but his stories are numerous, well-constructed and interesting to read.  

·         Professionally speaking, a good goal is to be able to draw at least one page per eight hours. After that point, you can decide whether to spend more time on quality per page, or whether you’d like to draw even faster. (Remember, many manga-ka draw 18 pages per week. Even with 2-4 assistants, that’s still notable!)

·         Working on one’s own, I would recommend only key panels should receive special attention.






Reference Material

  •  “Making Comics” – Scott McCloud

  • “Understanding Comics” – Scott McCloud

·         DVD Series: “The Story of Painting” – Sister Wendy Beckett




·         Light pencils, maybe 2H or higher, for your under-drawings

·         Micron Pens for finishing art

·         A Triangle Ruler for measuring panels.

·         Larger paper for your pages (I like 11”x14”)


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