Laying out a story

  • On April 22, 2010 ·
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2071 started out here on the home page as a text story. I decided at some point to work on it as a comic project. The story evolved considerably over a short time. The characters came pretty quickly, then the story, then a whole lot more as their world opened up. I started thinking of ways their society differed from ours – both in their future and in their history. I also started thinking about bits and pieces of things I’d always been fascinated with. I love early 20th century newspaper comics, scifi/adventure serials, anything archival. Something about peering into a piece of film from another age is like having a time machine. And when you watch speculative fiction where people from the past try to guess at the future, it adds a weird layer to that. Thumbnailing I decided to start with a prologue to set up the story and to introduce the main characters, both to the readers and to myself. In the past I rarely scripted any of my comics ahead of time. I might’ve outlined a few story arcs but dialogue and actual panels got worked out as they came to my drawing table. It just felt redundant to me since I was the one working on it on every stage. Since the Prologue had to function over-all I thumbnailed it on 24 Hour Comics Day.

Thumbnails for the Prologue to 2071

I’d learned before when animating a scene to lay it out and break things down into manageable tasks. Here I gave myself page layouts to work with every day so I didn’t go crazy having to come up with them. Instead I could focus on filling up the page with interesting art. I still changed a few designs on a couple of pages where some shots didn’t work, but it was a load off my mind to have it done beforehand. I found if I had to straighten something out in the story while I was working on the page art I would have trouble switching gears mentally. One problem I ran into with these thumbnails is they’re way too small. I did that intentionally to keep myself from detailing them and wasting time. (You can see the first page where I still tried to go over it with a mechanical pencil before I convinced myself it wasn’t worth it) However being able to read them later was a real issue. I’m sure in my work stride that day they made perfect sense. But the further away from that day I got the harder it became to make sense of my lines. Sub-chapter 1.1 is going to rely on a different thumbnailing system, I’m just not sure how it’s going to work yet.

Thumbnailing Ideas

When I set about telling a larger story than what I was used to doing, I looked to the flickr gallery of Bryan Lee O’Malley who does Scott Pilgrim. Over the years he’s shared scripts, thumbnails, pencils, inks, and various scraps from working on his books. Originally I was trying something like a looser version of thumbnailing as he did here. I agree a multi-value thumbnail like this would be a bit too involved for something nobody would ever see aside from a “behind the scenes” kind of thing. Thumbnails need to be clear enough to get the point across but they also have to be simple enough to not eat time away that would better be spent working on the actual pages. Something closer to this technique might work if I can keep myself from detailing too much. Maybe if I limit myself to working in pen or marker, which would keep me from doing too many passes. (I hear Cathy Guisewite only draws in pen)


As I fleshed out the differences between the world of 2071 and our own I would dump them into a text file. There’s an assortment of different text editors that offer branched and threaded file structures. For bulk brain dumping I likedĀ Journler on my Mac (Which has since ceased development) while I’m also a fan of Keynote on the PC. (Which has also ceased development by the original creator. It’s since been picked up under the name Keynote NF) Eventually I wanted a system that made smaller chunks easier to manage. Lately I’ve been using JustNotes for it’s simple menu bar interface. I know folks like Merlin Mann are big fans of Notational Velocity, which is equally pretty awesome. I just like being able to click an icon, drop in an idea, and click out. I took classes on mass media in college so I’ve had some experience with scripts. My own are pretty slim as I don’t see much need for exhaustive descriptions or formatting for syntax sake. Here’s an example of a script for Sub-chapter 1.0

Page 3 Panel 1 Rocket rollerskating waitress approaches the Blitz

WAITRESS: What can I get ya, hon?

MAX: I’ll have one jumbo cajun crawfish burger, seasoned steak fries, and the large chocolate supernova milkshake.

Panel 2

WAITRESS: Coming right up. And for you, sugar?

VIRGIL: I’ll have the Nigirizushi #3 and a small iced tea, please.

WAITRESS: Sure thing, darlin’.

Panel 3 Max watches the waitress rocket away as Virgil continues typing

Panel 4

MAX: Our last meal on the planet and you order Nigirizushi #3!

VIRGIL: I like Nigirizushi #3.

MAX: That’s beside the point!

Panel 5

MAX: We should be going all out! You should’ve ordered a steak or something BIG! There’s no Buckaroo Bayou Ted’s out in space, you know!

VIRGIL: Not true. They just opened one up on Lunar Colony.

Panel 6

WAITRESS: He’s right – been open ’bout 2 weeks now.

MAX: No foolin’? Lunar Colony, eh? *sips his drink*

The final version came out a bit different due to space restrictions but is pretty faithful to the script. I also like to write at least a week’s worth at a time. I like to do the same with pencils and inks as well, though coloring and rendering needs to be done on a page by page basis because steps get missed if I try to work on more than one at a time. Plus it’s a mental block to have a bunch of half-finished pages waiting to be colored/shaded/lettered. Penciling and inking a batch at a time is it’s own process. Working out all the layers per page is another.