This is one of several features we had to drop from Mastering Comics for length, and will be posting here. For more like this, and better, check out the book! (For another sample of the kind of stuff that we just couldn’t shoehorn into our giant book, check out our guide to laying out bleeds.)
When you make comics, you will encounter a variety of things that you need to draw convincingly. This is a nearly-invisible, but crucial labor of cartooning. Great cartoonists don’t simply tell stories well or draw dynamic characters; they also know how to add visual details that anchor us to the reality of the story. Whether the story is set in a Manhattan diner or on the beach in Thailand, we can identify it immediately. Though drawn on paper, the world feels fully three-dimensional. (This applies doubly to non-real worlds, as in sci-fi. In that case, you need to provide us with everything we know about the world, whereas in a story set in the world we know may get away with more elision of details.)
We talked a good bit about research methods and approaches to constructing a world in DWWP Chapter 12. This is just a reminder: A panel of a character walking down a New York street will call for, minimally, streetlights, cars, store windows, and signage. You may be working in a non-realistic style, but if the story is in New York, you’ve still got to put us there. Simplification of details is allowed, but random guesses from your head of what streetlights look like will generally not cut it. Look up some pictures on the internet, and incorporate details from the real world in your panel. It’s easy to do this right; slacking on your research is pure laziness and will come back to bite you in complaints during classroom crits, not to mention gripes that you don’t get to hear later on—the ones readers make in their minds while reading. It’s incumbent on you to create a fully realized, enveloping world for your story.
Longer stories demand a higher level of research, since characters are likely to spend more time in a given location, utilize it more fully, and return to it more often. If you just sketch it in at first, you’ll find that you have to go back and re-draw to make it function as fully as you’ll need.
All objects in our world have certain rules. When you’re drawing a door, for example, you should think about whether it’s an antique wood-paneled interior door, an exterior steel security door, a swinging door, or a sliding door. Each of these kinds of doors has specific kinds of frames, stops, handles, and hinges, which relate directly to how they work. You can design all kinds of fantastic doors, or strip them down to the bare minimum, but if they have a few telling details that describe how they function, your reader will notice that on a subliminal level, and the door will feel more solid. The reader will be more likely to believe your world. If a door doesn’t have a stop, for example, it’s a swinging door.
Pick an object (or category of objects, such as windows) to research. Make it something you’ll need to use in your story. If you’re in a class or group, each person should pick a different object. Find reliable research materials on the object. Learn the names and functions of all the parts of the object in at least one version. Learn the parts of a .38 revolver, for example. Learn how they work, and why they’re there. Then you can look into how the parts of a 9mm Glock differ and are similar. Make notes in your sketchbook, and print, copy, or archive any relevant materials so you’ll have them to refer to later.
On bristol board, draw an authoritative diagram of one version of your object. Label all important parts, and write a short description of the function of those parts. If you’re in a group, make photocopies and distribute your diagram to your colleagues for their use.
This is a pretty straightforward exercise. Drawing style and skill are not at issue. Accuracy, however, is. Look at the diagrams, and compare with the research materials, Make sure you understand how the object works. If you don’t, the artist should revise until you do.
Show your drawings and diagrams to non-cartoonists and see if they can understand what you’ve done. If not, revise until they can. Repeat this activity for as many everyday objects as you’ll need to understand for your story.