Teacher's Lounge

Teacher’s guide chapter 11: Setting the Stage

Lectures & discussions

11.1 Panel design

We’ve touched on composition before, but this chapter is our most in-depth and explicit discussion on the subject. There is a lot of material here, and it would be easy for a student to feel overwhelmed, so you might start the discussion by pointing out the three items that end the first paragraph: panels should be legible, efficient, and expressive as possible. The order of these ideas is intentional. The most important goal for a panel, as it’s part of a narrative, is for it to be legible. So the best choices for composition will always make legibility job one, even if that means very simple compositional choices are called for. We’re not arguing here that every panel needs incredibly complex thinking to produce it.

The first half of this essay, on four basic considerations for designing a panel, focuses on panels as narrative, as carriers of specific meaning. Thus, the focus is on characters and word balloons, and how you can draw the reader’s eye through a panel, or influence readers’ understanding of relationships between characters through design. We had fun thinking up the 60 panels that just might work, but please don’t take it too seriously: it’s important that students understand that they don’t have to perform this level of scrutiny on each and every panel they draw.

That said, a fun alternate activity might be to have students do a 60- or 30-panel grid on one of their own panels, just to get the sense of how very open the decision of composition can be. Here’s how it works:

  1. Start with framing. Students should draw a medium shot, a close up, a long shot, and one other framing idea, all of the same panel content. Have them cut out backgrounds (indicate the horizon line with a dotted line, as we’ve done here) and other extraneous detail to simplify the process.
  2. Move on to blocking. For each of the previous panels, make two new versions where the placement of the characters in the panel changes.
  3. Now make two possible transformations of each of the eight blocking panels, where the characters are made to act differently.
  4. Now make two small thumbnail versions of each of the previous 16 acting panels, but changing and adding Mise-en-scene elements: black spotting, camera angles, panel shape, style choices, the list goes on.
    Have the students, possibly in a small-group crit, assess their panel choices and decide which of their panels really would be the best choice in the context of the rest of the story.

Please send us your best sets of panel grids: we’d love to see them and post a few here.

The second half of the essay, after the “Film terminology” sidebar, deals with composition in a much more purely visual sense. If you have training in the visual arts, a lot of these techniques will be familiar.

Here, a good in-class aid to discussion, or basis for an activity, would be to bring in photocopies of interesting panels, or ones with excellent composition, and have students analyze them, pointing out the various techniques to their classmates.

11.2 Titles

Title design is easily cast by the wayside in the rush to impart more central comics-making techniques. But even if you choose not to spend classtime on this section, make sure you assign it for homework. Students do need to think their titles through, and have some basic skills to lay them out well. If they’ve worked through this section, they’ll be more successful in designing the first page of their six-page comic.


Rethinking composition

If you've had your students do the panel grids, you may want to skip this, though there are real benefits in having students trade work to practice on. The additional distance afforded by trading work will allow students to be much more brutal in their compositional re-workings. You just need to make sure no one is slacking and not really engaging with the story they are working on. It's important that they try to find real solutions to problems there, not just play around. On the other hand, you could use this activity to reinforce the visual composition ideas from the second half of section 11.1. Simply change the directions so that students are asked to choose X number of visual composition techniques and apply them to a given panel in 3 — 5 versions. Click to see examples of the activity by students with some comments from Matt and Jessica.

Plan, lay out, and ink a title design for your six-page comic

If you do cover titles in class, this activity is designed to give you an opportunity to troubleshoot. If you have students read sections 11.2 on their own, however, this can get added to the homework.

Type Terminology

Further reading

There is no Further reading for this chapter

Revise your six-page story thumbs and start penciling

Emphasize again that students must take the information from their crit and do something with it. Simply deciding, "I like it this way" is not an acceptable option. Thumbs are made to be unmade and remade—students should erase, cut up, paste down, and/or start over if they need to. It's up to you how many, if any, of the specific revisions listed in the assignment you require of your students. The important thing is to get them revising. You might want to review penciling strategies and the order of work on page 99. If you have students begin work in class, you can troubleshoot their page layouts and Ames guidelines, as well.

Draw a folk tale

This Br'er Rabbit story is useful to study timing and composition more carefully. If you assign it, note that there are a couple of likely spots for page breaks: the first is around where Rabbit tells Coon his plan, and the second is where the frogs start digging. If students don't get to the third page around that point, they won't have room for the three exchanges between Rabbit and the frogs, which are essential to building up to the finish.

Chapter 11: Revise your six-page story thumbs and start penciling

The main focus of this homework is revision. First, revision according to notes students took during or just after their critique, and second, revisions based on the instructions in the assignment or any instructions you've given in class. It's important to hold students to a high standard for revision; it's a big psychological hurdle for most young artists (and old ones, for that matter). Once an idea is down on the page, it takes on a feeling of permanence that requires some effort to dislodge. A few approaches to take:
  • Compare previous versions of thumbs (if available) with current ones. Pick out some revised panels and discuss the ways those revisions affect the reading of the story.
  • Compare penciled pages with thumbs and see how the new compositions work in context.
  • Compare the kinds of changes that came up in crits to the ones the author decided to make independently.
  • Make sure to troubleshoot lettering at this stage, and get students who have rushed it to do it over. Also check what reference and preparatory sketches students are using. This can lead nicely into the body of Chapter 12.