Comics: Parallel Stories on Separate Horizontal Tiers

That’s the most awkward blog post title I’ve probably ever come up with, but I don’t really know what else to call it. Scott McCloud or Neil Cohn may have some term for it, but what I’m referring to is basically this–which I encountered most recently in the Valerian and Laureline volume, Heroes of the Equinox:


What’s going on here is we’re following four different characters’ story-lines and the artist, Jean-Claude Mézières, is showing us each of their stories on an isolated horizontal tier that we follow for a while until the converge back together later in the story. (And note the great Moebius Arzach reference via the winged creature on the third row.)

The thing that stood out to me here was how much this technique is “of the medium.” Comics is often presented as a “nested system” in which each panel is read in a specific, isolated, sequential order without regard to the page as a whole. This sort of arrangement, though, makes use of the readers’ apprehension of the page as a whole. We see the parallel tracks and understand the formal conceit before reading the content of the panels themselves.

I wondered, though, how often this technique was used in comics. I had a few thoughts myself, but also got some good suggestions via twitter. Here’s a French comic, L’Espace D’un Soir, which is an entire BD that has four stories of characters in a building, each on a different tier, all happening concurrently. I really like how each story arc (I’m struggling for terminology here again) seems also to be color-coded with a unique palette.


Another instance that turned up via Twitter was this Multiple Man page by Jason Loo. As far as I can tell, this is a sample page rather than something actually published by Marvel–which is unfortunate, because it’s such a great concept. It’s not exactly an instance of parallel stories/tiers, but it’s similar in nature, combining that basic idea with a maze-like Chris Ware-esque layout you navigate via little “tabs” reminiscent of Jason Shiga’s “choose your own adventure” comic, Meanwhile.

multiple man

Speaking of Chris Ware… if there’s some formal comics hijinks going on, you can be pretty sure that Chris Ware is on the case. I don’t recall any instance of him using a straight parallel stories/tiers setup, but he often cordons off individual stories layout-wise, sometimes tying them into physical relationships/locations with balloon-tail-like connectors.


The most well-known instance of the parallel stories/tiers setup is Fantastic Four #277, in which John Byrne shows us a Thing/Johnny Storm/She-Hulk story on the top row and a Reed/Sue/Dr.Strange story on the bottom. The two rows are separated not just with a traditional gutter, but also with a horizontal black line, a device that encourages you to read the top row all the way across the spread then jump back to the bottom of left-facing page to start the bottom row.


Tezuka’s epic, Pheonix, apparently uses this technique. (Phoenix has been on my to-read list forever.) Here’s a page in which we see characters in individual escape pods, each shown in distinct horizontal sequences. This is from a sequence in the third volume, but the fourth volume, Universe, is supposedly done entirely using parallel stories/tiers. (I’ll update this post if/when I get around to reading Phoenix.)


If you’re thinking that the potential side-scrolling nature of webcomics yields fertile ground for this kind of layout, you’re correct. Here’s one example of what I assume are many: Decrypting Rita by Margaret Trauth. It’s another instance where there’s a distinct color palette setting off each of the parallel stories.


An impressive use of this side-scrolling technique in a physical book is Tymothi Godeck’s 35-foot-long leporello comic, !. While it doesn’t adhere strictly to a parallel stories/tiers layout, it for sure incorporates elements of it in places throughout. Here’s my After-School Comics Club kids holding the unfolded comic aloft:


And here’s a bit of parallel stories/tiers going on:



I saved the most impressive use of parallel stories/tiers, though, for last. Rebecca Dart’s Rabbit Head is a work that shows off what this type of storytelling can do if you really dig into its formal possibilities. It’s difficult to describe how Rabbit Head works without just reading the thing, but basically it starts with a single story/tier in the center of the page. Then, elements from an individual panels “fork off” into their own tiers, above or below the previous. As the story progresses, more and more of these narrative tiers branch off, until there are seven stories/tiers going concurrently. Then, at about mid-point, exactly the reverse begins happening: elements from the outer tiers get re-incorporated into the inner tiers, until finally we’re back down to the one initial tier/character. It’s stunning.





I just started really contemplating this layout technique a few days ago when I read that Valerian story, but I’ve apparently been at least unconsciously interested in it for a while. It only occurred to me while writing this post, that I’ve used this technique myself–albeit in just one instance–in my 2008 book Midnight Sun. In this sequence I have the stranded airship crew’s narrative going on in the upper 2/3 of the page, while the lower 1/3 follows the main character as he simultaneously travels to investigate the story of the crashed airship.


Do you have other examples of comics that use the parallel stories/tiers layout (or a less awkward term for this layout)? If so, feel free to comment or email them to me!



Update (3/15/17):

In addition to the comments to this post, I’ve gotten some good feedback via twitter, so I thought it’d be good to add them here. First, some terminology stuff from Neil Cohn:


And here’re a few suggestions of additional instances of the parallel stories/tiers technique:

Additionally, Pat McKeown did a great parallel stories/tiers piece in Weasel #1. The published version is NSFW, but here’s a blocked-out version:

mceownlayoutclean2Right/control click on that image, open it in a new tab, and zoom in in order to read it. You can find a great analysis of it here.


My Faves of 2016

Here’s a short list of some of my favorite comics–and comics-related–things from 2016. And, as always, keep in mind my usual caveat: these are just my personal favorites; I make no claims for the best!

Children of Captain Grant – (all ages graphic novel) by Alexis Nesme, based on work by Jules Verne


I was gobsmacked when I saw a few sample pages of this posted on an Italian comics website and I bookmarked the page, thinking I might shell out for a French language version just to have to look at. Months later, I was delightfully surprised to see that it was getting an English translation, courtesy of Super Genius Comics (which seems to be a new imprint of Papercutz). The story here is a solid, straight-ahead adaptation of the Jules Verne short story of the same name. It’s a classic nautical Adventure to Foreign Lands-type story–and one that’s largely clear of the colonialist insensitivity that can make stories from this era tricky to deal with for younger audiences.  The real star here, though, is the jaw-dropping painted artwork. Oh, also, did I mention that all the characters are done as animals? Hands-down my favorite comic of 2016.



Manben – (Japanese comics documentary TV show) hosted by Naoki Urasawa 


There are few things I love more than seeing other cartoonists’ studios and learning about their process. There’s a fair amount of information out there about this subject as far as it relates to Western artists, but the world of Manga has remained largely shrouded to outsiders. This year, though, I became aware of Manben, a Japanese TV show hosted by master manga artist, Naoki Urasawa. The premise of the show is simple: in each episode, they record a manga artist at work and then Urasawa discusses process with them. Obviously this is all conducted in Japanese, but some kind soul has fansubbed English subtitles for the episodes to-date. You can find most of the episodes streaming on DailyMotion.



Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist – (prose biography) by Michael Maslin


I’m a huge fan of New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, so this one’s been on my radar since I first got wind of it. It’s a much needed start-to-finish look at this important figure in the history of comics–one who’s not had a comprehensive biography to this point. One of the most interesting sections of the book appears almost as an addendum: pull quotes from currently-working New Yorker cartoonists discussing the influence and impact Arno’s had (or not had, in several cases) on them.



Webcomics Coverage at The Beat – (online comics news) by Maggie Vicknair and Heidi MacDonald

captureIn terms of “eyeballs on the page,” webcomics are surely the most widely-read form of comics–and yet, like pretty much any form of comics that’s not distributed via the direct market, webcomics are rearely covered/reviewed/discussed in most comics circles. And that’s why it’s so great to see that The Beat has been covering them regularly this past year in two features: Webcomics in Review (reviews of ongoing webcomics) and Webcomics Alert (noting newly launched webcomics).



Space Battle Lunchtime – (comic book series) by Natalie Riess


I’m a sucker for comics about cooking and this is a great one. Here’s the setup: Peony is a baker from Earth who’s abducted by aliens so she can compete in an intergalactic cooking competition. The story is tons of fun, the cartooning is loose and expressive, and the coloring is fantastic. What’s not to love? The first story arc (the “partner challenge”) is collected in a trade paperback, or you can follow along with the individual issues as the come out.



Nod Away – (graphic novel) by Joshua Cotter


This came out way back in February, but it’s for sure one of the best GNs of 2016. It’s the first installment of what’s sure to be an epic SF story. Even at 250-ish pages, Nod Away just begins to set up the opening pieces of its Philip Dick-esque story. That the cartooning is beautiful will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Cotter’s previous series, Skyscrapers of the Midwest.



Palomino Blackwing Pencil Sharpener – (art supply)


I’d been searching forever for a good handheld sharpener and I’ve finally settled on the Blackwing. My requirements were: two stage sharpening (one stage exposes the lead, the other sharpens), must fit into a standard pencil case, must have replaceable blades. The Kum model that most people recommend had all of these but also had lead pointers (that I never use), the blades seemed to wear out quickly, and it tended to break colored pencils. The Blackwing has none of these issues. I’ve been using it for about a year and have yet to need to change blades.



We Told You So: Comics as Art – (non-fiction book) by Michael Dean and Tom Spurgeon


This one’s a late entry–it came out in December and I received it for Christmas–and I’m only 200 or so pages into it, but so far it’s definitely one of my top non-fiction books of 2016. We Told You So is an oral history of the the alt/indie publisher Fantagraphics. It’s a huge slab of a book and it’s beautifully designed. There’s a lot of “inside baseball” here and things are occasionally mentioned in passing that could probably use a bit of explanation/context… but it never really impedes the overall narrative. That it’s somewhat self-congratulatory shouldn’t surprise anyone given the title of the book, but hey, it’s Fantagraphics!



Providence – (comic book series) by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows


As literally every single write-up of Providence will tell you, this series is a “slow burn.” Well, the burn turned into an inferno right about the time issue 10 hit the stands in 2016. It’s taken me a while to come around to the art in this series (and I still don’t think it’s well-served by the kind of coloring that’s used here) but it’s become one of my favorites, and a potential late-era Alan Moore masterpiece. If you decide to dig in, I recommend reading each issue twice: once just for the main plot, and a second time referencing the extensive panel-by-panel notations at Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence.



Critical Chips – (comics criticism/writing) edited by Zainab Akhtar


This is another late entry that I’m not all the way through yet… but so far this Kickstarter-funded collection of comics writing has been largely great. The ten pieces herein–by an array of folks including David Brothers, Joe McCulloch, Annie Mok, and more–address a wide range of comics (Krazy Kat to Copra) in a way that’s insightful and smart, but immensely readable. My only complaint: it’s so nicely put-together that I regret getting the digital, rather than print, edition.





In the Weeds Thumbnailing and Naoki Urasawa’s Page Layouts

Having solidified the character designs and done a bit of last-minute story revising, I’m now beginning to do thumbnails for In the Weeds. This will be my first digitally-drawn full book (my semi-recent stories for Creepy and Cartozia Tales were drawn digitally, but were short pieces) and as such my process is somewhat different. With Oyster War, I was using a “two pass” system for thumbnailing: one pass to do page/panel layout, figure out what dialog goes in what panel, and make very basic stick figure staging/composition decisions; then, a second pass roughing in characters and basic backgrounds and laying in digital placeholder text. (Described in more detail here.) With In the Weeds, though,  I’m basically doing this all in one step–giving me “thumbnails” that are somewhere in between true thumbnails and roughs. Here’s an example:




A quick aside: I’m generally agnostic about traditional vs. digital drawing, but I’m pretty firmly convinced now that if you’re not at least thumbnailing digitally, you’re making things hard on yourself. The ability to quickly and easily move, resize, and edit things at the thumbnail stage is an incredible time-saver. (Also, since I’ll be drawing digitally as well, I can now just lower the opacity of my thumb/rough layer and start penciling directly over top.)

Anyway… My plan for In the Weeds is to launch it as a webcomic–maybe with an associated Patreon–early in 2017.  While Oyster War was technically a webcomic prior to becoming a printed book, in point of fact it was really always a print book format-wise–just one that was being posted online. Oyster War‘s pages were always “portrait” format, a format that doesn’t work well displayed on “landscape”-oriented monitors. I want In the Weeds, though, to be more organically a webcomic–but to be so in such a way that doesn’t preclude potential print publication in “portrait” format. The way most folks manage to do this is by setting up “pages” (for eventual printing) that are actually two landscape-format webcomic installments stacked on top of one another. A good example of this is the excellent webcomic, The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo (Although, interestingly, that comic was picked up for publication and the publisher opted to preserve the landscape format in the print version).

So here, for example, is the top half of the above page as I’ll be posting it online:


Having “bleeds” as with the top panel here in a webcomic is a little odd, but I can live with it.

Urasawa & Formatting for Webcomics

But, backing up a little bit… I happened to be reading a volume of Naoki Urasawa’s manga, Pluto a while back (an incredible series; read it if you haven’t already) and noticed that most of Urasawa’s page layouts can be easily divided horizontally at the mid-point. Here, for example, is a typical Pluto page:


As you can see, it could easily be divided horizontally at the mid-point, making two landscape format “pages,” then put back together to make a for-print page. I decided–partly to give myself a leg up, and partly as a sort of formal challenge–to study Urasawa’s page layouts and use re-purpose them for In the Weeds. I began by going through Pluto and making quick sketches of as many of his horizontally-dividable page layouts as possible. Here’re a few:

ct8w5d2wgaqt2yyEven without anything in those panels, you can already glean some interesting information about Urasawa’s Pluto layouts. One obvious thing is that never bleeds (bleeds are indicated in blue here) toward the binding (shaded in red). All of his bleeds are on the outside edges of the page. You can see in my In the Weeds page above that I’ve mimicked this; that’s a right-facing page and I’ve used top, right, and bottom bleeds–but not a left bleed, as that would bleed into the binding.  I’ve rarely used bleeds at all prior to this (there are none in Oyster War, for example, and the few in Amelia Earhart are full-page bleeds, not the selective bleeding of individual panels that Urasawa–and a lot of other manga–utilizes).

You can also see that he does not avoid the supposedly ambiguous panel arrangement that comics linguist Neil Cohn refers to as “blockage.”


Note that in the Urasawa examples above, blockage layouts will be a left/right reverse of Cohn’s example since Pluto is “unflipped” manga and is therefore read read right-to-left. I highly recommend popping over to Cohn’s blog and reading his writing on blockage. In short: he doesn’t find an real evidence this type of panel arrangement creates the sort of confusion this it’s claimed to by comics-folk. My purely anecdotal experience with this type of panel arrangement is that (a) I have for sure read comics with this arrangement and read the panels in incorrect order as a result, but also (b) think that it’s pretty easy to use this panel arrangement without any such confusion if you pay attention to word balloon placement. (And for what it’s worth, manga also often uses different gutter widths to differentiate reading order–something Western comics usually don’t.)

Talking Heads

Unlike Oyster War with its nautical skirmishes, sea serpents, and fist fights, In the Weeds involves lots and lots of conversations and not a whole ton of outward-directed action. As a result, I’ve had to lay out a lot of pages of conversation–and in studying how Urasawa lays out his pages that are conversations, I stumbled on a fascinating and surprising aspect of Pluto: he almost never uses dialog from off-panel speakers. I’m taking about this kind of thing:


We “hear” a character say, “Used like so,” but that speaker is not in the panel. Presumably, it’s already been established who this person is and where they’re positioned relative to the character we do see. Off-panel dialog is also often used over a tight view of an object, as here:


Another very common use of off-panel dialog is to show the reaction of one character (shown in the panel) to dialog spoken by another character who’s off-panel, as you see here in panels one and three (well, three only kinda I guess, since we’re seeing a part of the speaker).


In all cases, off-panel dialog serves the general purpose of being able to visually juxtapose spoken dialog with something other than the speaker. This allows the cartoonist to draw our attention to an object that’s being discussed or–in conversations–show us a character’s reaction to a bit of dialog.

In Pluto, Urasawa almost never does this.

Here’s an example of a conversation in Pluto:


Note the conspicuous absence of off-panel dialog. When Urasawa wants to show a character’s reaction to a bit of dialog, he uses an entirely separate panel after the dialog panel. In fact, it’s extremely rare (I could’t find a single instance) for two different characters to speak in the same panel even if they’re both depicted in it. For example:


There are several panels here in which we see both speakers, but Urasawa never opts to have them both speak in the same panel. As a result of these choices, his conversations tend to feature long sequences of “talking heads.” He’ll even repeat images of the same speaker over multiple panels, making small changes to viewing angle or staging and varying the character’s facial expressions (facial expressions being one of the many things Urasawa is a real master at).

Urasawa doesn’t completely eschew off-panel dialog, though. I found, for example, four or five instances of it being used in Volume 2. (And do note that I’ve not exhaustively gone through every single panel of Pluto; these are just casual observations.) When he does employ off-panel dialog, though, it always seems to be either so he can have dialog over a close view of an object…


…or when we “hear” dialog being spoken by characters inside a building or other structure.

img_20161121_105359 (And if you want to get nit-pickey about it, the characters are technically IN the above panel, since they’re on that structure; they’re just not seen because of scale.)

I couldn’t find any examples of him using an off-panel voice balloon in a conversation.


As a challenge to myself, I’m trying with In the Weeds to follow Urasawa’s example and not utilize off-panel dialog. My chief take-away from this practice so far is that it is indeed quite a challenge. It’s made me realize how much I’ve been relying on off-panel dialog in my other comics. For example:


You can see just in this one page how often I’m using techniques Urasawa eschews: off-panel dialog in panels five and eight (I prefer caption boxes with dialog in quotes to the more usual device of balloons with tales that go off panel) and multiple speakers in panel seven. (I’m not sticking to the multiple speakers/panel prohibition with In the Weeds, though.)

So, why the heck does Urasawa avoid off-panel dialog? Answer: I have no idea. A quick flip-through of some other manga I have shows that it’s not endemic to Japanese comics in general. The only Urasawa volumes I have in the house are Pluto, so I don’t even know if it’s Pluto-specific, or a general practice of his across all his books.

I think one reason avoiding off-panel dialog appeals to me is that it seems like its most common use is a way of shoehorning film’s practice of using “reaction shots” into comics. In fact, I did a quick image search for Golden Age superhero pages and couldn’t find any instances of these “reaction shot”-type panels. I wonder if–like a lot of comics’ other formal language–the off-panel dialog “reaction shot” panel became part of comics’ vocabulary later in the game, via film-influenced comics like Terry and the Pirates.

Whatever the case, noticing this property of Urasawa’s work in Pluto and trying to apply it to my own work in In the Weeds has proved both challenging and rewarding. We’ll see if I can hold myself to it through the whole book! Stay tuned…


Comics at The Scholastic Book Fair

If you read this blog and/or follow me on twitter, you know one of my usual rants is about the large swath of comics that gets ignored when “comics” is–as is often the case–taken to mean “the direct market.” I’ve written before about the huge and often-ignored market for kids’/all-ages comics, but today I want to discuss one aspect of that market in particular: the Scholastic Book Fair.


What’s the Scholastic Book Fair?

If you have a school-age child you probably know about the Scholastic Book fair–and even if you don’t, you may remember the Book Fair from your own school days. If you don’t though, here’s the deal:

Scholastic is a major children’s book publisher and they partner with schools to host short-term “popup” kids’ book stores on school grounds. This is a win-win situation for everyone. Schools get to keep a percentage of the sales, Scholastic gets a guaranteed “captive audience” of customers, and parents/kids get a convenient opportunity to buy well-curated kids’ books at prices that are usually quite low.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that an event organized by Scholastic, whose imprint Graphix played a large part in pioneering the kids comics market with titles like Bone and Amulet, would prominently feature kids’ comics. But what I’m betting would surprise most comics folk is the scale of exposure and sales that these books get via the Book Fair. It really shouldn’t be a surprise, but since the Scholastic Book Fair operates entirely outside the realm of the direct market, it’s rarely discussed in most comics circles–because “comics” is so often taken to mean, “serialized monthly comic books that you buy in a comic book store,” rather than, ya know, “the medium of comics.”

Scope and Scale of the Scholastic Book Fair

So, just how big a deal sales-wise is the Scholastic Book Fair? It’s “yuge.” From Scholastic’s website:

with operations in all 50 states as well as in Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Thailand, and the U.K. The undisputed leader in the field, each year Book Fairs sells more than 100 million books to 35 million children and their families visiting more than 130,000 fairs in preschool, elementary, and middle schools around the world.

As someone who makes comics, the first question that pops into my mind after taking in these (pretty stunning) numbers is, “just how many kids will be exposed to my book if it were in the Scholastic Book Fair?” I crunched a few rough numbers.

To make things easy, let’s just stick to the United States. There are approximately 115,000 Scholastic Book Fairs held at U.S. schools each year. The average middle school in the U.S. has 595 students. The average primary (elementary) school in the U.S. has 446 students.  I suspect that the Book Fair skews more toward middle schools, but let’s just take an average of the two numbers to use as an estimated number of students per school: 521. Obviously every single student doesn’t go to their school’s Book Fair, so let’s just assume, say, only one quarter of the student body actually goes to the Book Fair. If one quarter of the student body (130 students) goes to each of the 115,000 fairs held per year just in the U.S., that’s 19,500,000 kids who’ve potentially been exposed to your book.

I suspect a comic could have been sitting on the shelf of every comics shop in the U.S. since the day Action Comics #1 came out and not have that many eyeballs on it.

And, just based on anecdotal evidence, I’d guess this number is way on the small size. For example, here’s one librarian on her school’s Book Fair:

Similarly, at my daughter’s school 100% of the students go to the Fair; each class is taken during school hours.

How Many Comics Are Actually Sold at the Book Fair?

The short answer is: Nobody knows. Along with school and library sales, sales from the Scholastic Book Fair don’t seem to be included in comics sales data one finds online. The data that usually shows up at places like ICv2 is–you guessed it–just sales to the direct market, as reported by Diamond (with BookScan folded in occasionally for more GN-centric charts).

I did though have in my bookmarks this 2014 Beat interview with IDW’s Ted Adams in which he briefly mentions the Scholastic Fair. From that interview:

The other place that I think is a great feeder system for comics but doesn’t get talked about much is the Scholastic book fairs and book clubs. We’ve had tremendous success with them over the years, most recently in the current Scholastic catalogue there are three IDW products, My Little Pony, Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One each of those books in the current catalogue. I just got the sell through on those and it’s also extraordinary, it’s through the roof.

While he declines to cite actual sales numbers, he does say this:

…virtually 100% sell through in significant six figure quantities for all three of those books.

It’s worth noting what Adams says about BookScan numbers–that they don’t accurately reflect the sales of books through the Book Fair.

There’s also the recent curious case of Marvel’s Champions #1 which boasts a stunning 400,000 issue pre-order. The explanation apparently is that it’s been picked up for the Book Fair.

How Does a Book Get Into The Book Fair?

There’s not a ton of information out there about this, but I did have this one short blog post by a Scholastic representative bookmarked. There’s a week-long “boot camp” held where publishers present books to a committee which is tasked with deciding what books get into the fair. This reminded me a lot of the process of selecting Eisner Award nominees (I was a judge one year) and, like the Eisners, the committee is deliberately made up of people with specific backgrounds:

…former teachers, media specialists, booksellers, authors, and veteran Book Fair organizers – along with representatives from our Book Clubs and International divisions…

Also like the Eisner judging process, it seems pretty grueling:

Collectively, they’ll spend more than 10,000 hours reviewing more than 4,000 books this year from publishers across the globe to find the books that will turn kids into lifelong readers.

Comics at this Year’s Book Fair

So, why am I writing about the Scholastic Book Fair all of a sudden? Because I went to the Fair at my daughter’s school yesterday… and I took special note of what role comics currently play in the Fair. Comics are relatively new to the Book Fair, but thanks to the growing critical, academic, and educational acceptance of comics (and of course kids’ readership!), they’re there in force now.

Kids receive a catalog in advance of the Fair and this year’s catalog prominently featured (not surprisingly) Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts–certainly the most anticipated kids’ GN of the year–on the front cover.


How about the Fair itself? Here’s what I saw comics-wise…

So here’s a half-table that was all comics. This is the first year that Scholastic supplied “Graphic Novels” signage. You can see that this display skews heavily–but not entirely–toward licensed books: Powerpuff Girls, Grumpy Cat, etc. I was generally surprised that there wasn’t more manga, but you can see a few here. I suspect  stand-alone stories are selected pretty much exclusively for the Fair, which excludes most manga, since the majority of it is multi-volume.


I was surprised at first to find only a single stack of Ghosts in a middle shelf. Roller Girl, by the way, is an incredibly popular GN that I don’t think I’ve seen mentioned once anywhere in the comics press. I’ve read my daughter’s copy and (despite having really weird lettering/word balloons) it’s a wonderful story. If you get a copy for your kid, be prepared to immediately invest in some roller skates!

Here’s the other big comics display. This ran prominently along the top of several shelves, again with the new “Graphic Novels” signage. It featured some manga, including Yona of the Dawn, that are exceptions to the stand-alone rule (although they only had one volume of each). Night School seems like an interesting choice: OEM horror.  Zelda, Dr. Who, and Halo are licensed properties. Marvel’s Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel were the only superhero books there, but direct market folks likely know Lumberjanes as well. Sunny Side Up (by the folks who do Babymouse) is also incredibly popular with kids, so no surprise there.

Here’s something interesting: I’d not heard of Trouble Makers, so I looked it up. It’s apparently a “Scholastic Book Fair Exclusive.” I didn’t know that was a thing. The book sounds interesting, though.

At the checkout, the Ghosts mystery was solved. It’s apparently so popular that they just kept a stack of them right at the cash register. They were down to two when I was paying for our books.

img_20161102_132657Also: not comics per se, but it was nice to see Kate Beaton’s Princess and the Pony for sale:


The Bottom Line

Well, we don’t actually know what the “bottom line” is, but my suspicion is that this is pretty much you if you get your comic into the Scholastic Book Fair:


We may never see any hard numbers on comics sales at the Scholastic Book Fair, but I think it’s pretty clear that the Fair is a major sales/reading vector for comics that we should probably be paying more attention to.


Rob Liefeld, The Enchantress’s Enchanted Butt, and Comics Lettering

So, this 90’s Rob Liefeld page was making the rounds recently on Reddit’s /r/comicbooks message board:


Taking digs at Rob Liefeld’s art is one of comics fandom’s favorite pastimes (which is as lazy as it is unfair–but that’s a subject for a different post, perhaps) and this page is a favorite because The Enchantress in panel eight really shows off Liefeld’s (in)famous female anatomy quirks. Looking at this page anew, though, the thing that really stood out to me was panel three, in which The Enchantress’s butt apparently speaks:


Mis-pointed voice balloon tails are fairly common in comics but this one’s particularly notable (and hilarious) since it’s pointing to a butt cheek instead of the speaker’s head. As I started thinking about this particular bit of lettering, it occurred to me that this whole page is lettered in a way that’s very different than the way I’d have lettered it were it one of my own pages.

I don’t know who lettered this page and I’d never presume to “correct” a professional letterer, but I thought just for fun that I’d go through and re-letter this page and talk a bit about what changes I’d make and why.  Just to reiterate: this isn’t necessarily a better way to letter this (well, except maybe for the butt thing), just a different way.

So, here’s the result:


So what’d I do?

Panels 1, 2, 4, 5 – In all these panels I’ve done the same thing: I’ve moved the balloons to the top of the panel.  To do this, I’ve moved the figures lower in panels one and two. In panel three I’ve shrunk the figures slightly to create more room up top and I consequently had to add a bit of the Enchantress’s shoulder up top. I’m guessing you’d get in trouble if you did this to someone else’s work you were lettering, but I do it with my own work as needed.

So, why’d I do this? As a general rule, I think all lettering should be at the top of the panel–especially with small panels–unless you have some really compelling reason for it not to be. Partially this is to keep the balloons as unobtrusive as possible. Let’s face it: voice balloons are an awkward device. Try to draw as little attention to them as possible. And for sure, avoid putting them over figures as if you can.

Also, though, as Eddie Campbell astutely points out in one of his “comics rules”:

In spite of what you may read, comics are not a nested system; a reader will read a balloon and then read the next nearest balloon even if they haven’t already read all the ones in the current panel.

Basically: what really controls how people move through a page isn’t the left-to-right/top-to-bottom way panels are arranged, but how the word balloons are positioned. I chatted a bit about this “rule” with comics linguist Neil Cohn on Twitter and he seemed to confirm that his studies pretty much back this rule up as fact.

So, what I was trying to eliminate with these changes are the places where balloons from an upper tier are more adjacent to the balloons on the tier below than to the balloons in the next panel:


I should probably have shoved the second balloons in panels one and two up a little closer to the first balloons… but, you get the idea:


Panel 3 – Given the way this panel is staged, there’s really no getting around the fact that you’ve got to put a balloon over a giant butt, but I at least changed the balloon tail a bit so that it’s pointing upward to where her head presumably is:


Panels 6 and 7 – The main thing I had to deal with in these two panels is the dreaded Manga Eye Panel™. (Blaming stuff on manga is another popular pastime for comics folk, by the way!) A tightly-cropped panel of an eye (or both eyes) is a pretty common occurrence in manga and it’s gradually seeped into the vocabulary of western cartoonists. Wisely, though, when you see it in Japanese comics it’s usually a silent panel, often employed as a “beat” within a fight scene. Here, though, we have to deal with placing speech over the eye, which is tricky.

There’s really no good way to place a balloon into panel seven and not have it look like the eye is speaking. It’s not a great solution, but what I opted to do is this:


I’ve added an ellipsis to the end of the dialog in panel six and to the beginning of panel seven and then enclosed panel seven’s dialog in quotation marks–indicating that the dialog in panel seven’s caption box is a continuation of the dialog begun in panel six. This is similar to a “voice-over” in film. It’s still a bit odd in that this kind of lettering device is usually used when the dialog in the caption box is not coming from the character in the same panel. (Or, if it is, it’s the character at some earlier time. This is a common way to transition to a flashback scene: present tense caption box narration over panels of past events.)

Panel 8 – This was a pretty minor tweak, but again: I just wanted to get that voice balloon as far away from panel three’s voice balloon as I could. I shrunk The Enchantress just slightly  to accommodate this.


Well, that’s it!

One thing to note here: What Liefeld is trying to pull off with this page is pretty difficult. He’s having to set up an eight-panel conversation between two characters, one of whom is never seen until the final, eighth panel. (This setup makes things pretty challenging for the letterer, too. They’ve got to place seven panels of balloons for a character that’s not actually in each of those panels.) And he’s done a pretty effective job of it I think. He’s got different panel compositions throughout via the device of gradually getting closer and closer to Loki in panels 1-7. Also: the way Loki’s staged in panels 1-3 really accentuates the character’s movement: going from prone to kneeling/looking up.

I’m betting page length constraints prohibited him from doing what seems to be the obvious layout trick here, though: having this as a right-facing page and moving The Enchantress/panel eight to the following page so that the reveal occurs at “the flip.”


In the Weeds Progress: More on Character Designs

As I mentioned in my last In the Weeds progress post, one of my post-Oyster War take-aways was that I need to spend more time working on character designs before I sit down and start drawing pages. To that end, I’ve spent some time over the last few weeks focusing on the badger character (I really need to give all the characters names!). I won’t give every single character this kind of time and focus pre-drawing, but since he’s the main character I thought he merited some extra attention design-wise.

I started out trying to get used to drawing his body in typical stage poses. I figured that if I could nail a few of these, everyday actions/poses would be pretty easy. Here’s one of the more successful ones:

body study 01

…and the photo ref I based it on. That’s Mike Watt, one of my favorite musicians of all time.


One thing I noticed when practicing full body poses was my tendency to revert back to more human-like body proportions, rather than the more animal-ish proportions of the original design. You can see that going on pretty clearly in the bottom drawing here, where I’ve inadvertently shortened his torso and lengthened his legs, making his body much more human-like:


This character was originally going to be the guitar player, but I decided just for purely visual reasons that the rhino character should play the smaller of the two instruments–so, this guy became the bass player. He’s playing a ’75 Gibson Ripper, by the way. I have handy photo ref of that particular model in the form of my bass from back in the Dark Ages of the 1990s when I was in a band:


Another thing I noticed when doing some of those full body drawings was that I was having a particularly difficult time drawing his head. I like the way it looked in the initial design, but I was struggling to draw it from different angles. This isn’t an uncommon problem; you can get a good looking drawing from one angle but be at a total loss to draw it from some other angle. The reason for this is usually a lack of understanding of construction—that is: the basic shapes that make up the form you’re trying to draw. Here’s a page of me struggling with getting his head to look right:


I continued for a while to try working out a good construction in my sketchbook, but wasn’t making much progress. Eventually, I decided to pull out the big guns and make a quick maquette of the badger’s head. I’m a bit wary of maquette-making for a few reasons, but I do feel like they can be really useful in situations like this because in making the maquette you’re forcing yourself to settle on a construction and learn it. I made a point not to spend a ton of time on it, but here’s the result:


As an aside: I was struggling with a similar problem with the rhino character a while back and tried building a model of his head with Silo, a 3-D modeling tool. I eventually gave up because I felt like I couldn’t justify the time I’d have to commit to learning the software vs. working on paper or with Sculpey. Some day, though, I’ll revisit some 3-D software. It’d be a great tool to know how to use.


Making the maquette seems to have really helped me out, as I had a much better grasp of basic construction after that. My final exercise with the badger was do do a round of facial expressions. I’d usually not do practice facial expressions to this degree of finish, but I’m still figuring out how I want to ink/tone these characters, so I figured it’d be good practice:

facial expressions

facial expressions

These aren’t perfect, but I’m definitely starting to learn my way around his facial features and basic head construction.

Now, onward to to some of the other characters (but maybe not in such depth)!


Last Two “Oyster Tour” Appearances… and Commissions!

Oyster Tour Final Appearances

The Oyster Tour is winding down! It’s been great fun, but I’m looking forward to being done with travelling and holing up in my studio here to work on In the Weeds.  I do, though, have two more appearances before things wrap up:

Heroes Con – Charlotte, NC – June 18th and 19th – I never miss this one! I don’t have my table information yet, nor info on the annual “Mega-Panel” I do with Craig Fischer yet, but when I do, I’ll update this page. Note that Heroes is a three-day (Friday-Sunday) show, but that I’ll only be there Saturday and Sunday.

Update – Here’s the info on this year’s Mega-Panel:

Creatures Imagined and Real

HeroesCon, Saturday, June 18, 4pm

For this year’s mega-panel, cartoonist Ben Towle and critic Craig Fischer corral a host of talented creators to discuss the improbable animals (fictional and real) that stomp and slither through our favorite comics. Craig begins by presiding over a chat with Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon about the elegant vampires, saddled bears, and Lovecraftian monsters they introduced to the Mignolaverse flagship title B.P.R.D. Then Ben presents the preliminary work he’s done on his future graphic novel In the Weeds—and why he’s chosen to draw his central characters as badgers, rhinos, bears, and other animals. Finally, librarian and Women Write About Comics contributor Jennie Law leads three world-class dinosaur artists—Dustin Harbin, Budd Root, and William Stout—through a talk about the challenges and joys of drawing giant reptiles.

Update – I’ve received my table location. I’ll be in artists’ alley, table AA-34. That’s dead center of the hall, all the way on the back wall behind Indie Island. Here’s a map:


Comic-Con International: San Diego – San Diego, CA – July 22 & 23 – AKA “San Diego Comic-Con.” Yep, the big one! I’ll be there mainly to attend the Eisner Awards ceremony, but I will be signing at the Oni Press booth as well. Again, I don’t have info yet on Oni’s booth location or my signing schedule, but I’ll update this page as I get that information. I’ll be there just Friday and Saturday.

Update: I’ll be signing copies of Oyster War at the Oni Press booth (1833) from 4:30 – 5:30 Friday.


If you’re interested in a commission to be picked up at either of these shows, get in touch with me at or tweet at me at @ben_towle. Here’re a handful of pieces, just to give you an idea of size and cost. All are done on either 2 ply Strathmore Bristol board (for just pen and ink stuff) or good quality watercolor paper (for ink with sepia wash). These are mostly superhero characters, but I’m up for almost anything as far as subject matter goes. Just let me know what you’re after.

Single characters with or without sepia wash (7″x 4″ish) – $50:

Two characters with or without sepia wash or single character with color (8″ x 8″ish) – $85:

Large images, multiple characters, complex scenes, etc. (10″ x 15″ish) – Contact me about price. These were all between $175 and $350:

You want some original art. You know you do! Gimme a shout.


The Stunning Japanese Star Trek Art of Toru Kanamori

Yesterday in a far corner of the Star Trek interwebs I stumbled on two really beautiful cover illustrations from Japanese Star Trek books.

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There’s a lot to love about these images. I particularly like how loose and expressionistic (for lack of a better word) they are. I don’t know exactly when these came out in Japan, but they’re apparently translations of the James Blish episode adaptations that came out in the US between 1967 and 1977. Obviously book covers vary widely style-wise even in the same era, but just by way of comparison, here’s what I’d consider a pretty typical example of North American SF book cover illustration from the same era–a Chris Foss cover for James Blish’s Midsummer Century from 1975:


(I adore Chris Foss’s work as well, by the way!)

After a bit of digging, I discovered that those Trek covers are the work of Toru Kanamori, a now semi-retired illustrator living in Ome, a suburb of Tokyo. The only English-language information I could find about Kanamori is here, a website set up by David Bull, a woodblock printer who’s a neighbor of Kanamori.

According to Bull, Kanamori was once a very popular illustrator in Japan, but his name at least is now largely forgotten there.  When Star Trek first made inroads in Japan, Kanamori was selected to do the artwork for the translated novelizations. For each book he would supply a cover image, a color spread frontispiece, and a number of black and white interior illustrations. Bull’s site has scans of a handful of interior illustrations… and they’re amazing.

It took some dedicated internet scouring, but I managed to turn up a few websites that have scans of his covers. These two seem to be the most comprehensive. Here’s a quick gallery I put together of some of my favorites, but there are more to explore at those two sites:

Sadly, I couldn’t turn up any of Kanamori’s frontispiece paintings other than the one on Bull’s site.


One final thing I did turn up: there was a collection of Kanamori’s SF illustrations released in the U.S. via manga publisher Tohan in 2008. The book was called Toru Kanamori SF Art Original Sketches and retailed for a hefty $55.00. I’ve so far not turned up a copy for sale here, but I’ve got a saved Ebay search set up. Here’s an image of the cover:


I’d love to see Toru Kanamori’s Star Trek stuff in particular collected and made available in the U.S. After posting those initial two images to Twitter it became obvious that even Star Trek fans in the comics/illustration community don’t know his work. I sure didn’t. Maybe with the 50th anniversary of Trek, some adventurous soul will figure out a way to give Kanamori’s work the exposure and appreciation it deserves. Live long and prosper, y’all!


In The Weeds Progress: Character Designs

In the past I’ve not spent nearly as much time working on character designs for my books as I really should have. Certainly this was the case with Oyster War and as a result, I wound up having to do a substantial amount of pre-publication redrawing of the main characters–especially in the early pages where I was still basically working out the character designs as I went along. I vowed to avoid this pitfall with In the Weeds and indeed I’ve spent the last couple of months with my nose to the grindstone, really trying to come up with solid, fully developed character designs.

Design Challenges

As mentioned in my last post on In the Weeds, I’m using animal characters for the book. One consistent question I get when I’ve described this book to people is, “Why animals?” Short answer, “Why not?”

Comics (and children’s book illustration for sure) has a long and rich tradition of using animal characters. It’s part of comics’ formal tool kit–and a part of it that doesn’t seem to be utilized as much as it could be. The animal comics tradition seems to me to be more vibrant in Europe than in the North America. Is this maybe because of Europe’s historical infatuation with Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics? I don’t know. Whatever the case, though, with a few exceptions (Usagi Yojimbo comes immediately to mind, as does Mouse Guard) most modern North American comics with animal characters are coming out of the furry subculture and few manage to penetrate into either mainstream or alternative comics readership here. I’d love to see more animal comics front and center in the North American comics scene.

One of the main challenges I faced in designing the animal characters for In the Weeds was making them sufficiently human-like to be able to walk and interact, while also giving them distinctly animal-like features. There’s a reason a lot of animal comics default to a sort of “house style” of essentially putting an animal head and tail on a human body: a human body interacts well with its environment and other human-like characters in a way that can be difficult for more animal-like designs. You can see, for example, how this sort of design (by Jen Suzuki, in this case) is very well suited to being just dropped into a real world environment:


For me, the gold standard of animal characters that really look a lot like animals yet are able to work in a real world environment are Richard Scarry’s characters:


I love how Scarry’s characters retain many of their distinctive animal features–hooves, haunches, etc.–and yet are sufficiently anthropomorphized to walk upright, use their hands like people, and otherwise interact with a fairly realistic environment. I knew my characters would need to be somewhat more human-like than Scarry’s, but I definitely took my cues from him design-wise.

Another big challenge with animal characters is scale. Again, it’s obvious why the default way to deal with this is to normalize the body sizes of the characters–regardless of what animals they’re based on. Not doing so creates a very tricky problem, given that the real world around us is designed mostly for interaction from similarly sized creatures: us humans. If you don’t standardize the size of your animal characters, you have to radically re-imagine the environment–something that the recent film Zootopia did brilliantly. Here’re the relative scales of the main animal types in Zootopia:

New canvas

If you’ve seen the film, you know that the makers of Zootopia went to some pretty impressive efforts to create a unique world in which characters of radically different scales can interact.

With In the Weeds designs, I wanted to preserve some of the size differential, but because of the nature of the story I also want the characters to be able to operate in a world that’s fairly similar to our own. So ultimately, what I wound up doing was just decreasing the “dynamic range” a bit. There’s still a size differential among the characters, but it’s just been normalized enough so that they can function in a largely real life environment.

And of course, the biggest challenge for me design-wise is simply that this is all new to me. I’ve never done a comic with animal characters before, so I’m really just figuring it all out as I go along.

The Final Designs

I tried out a lot of different animals, but eventually settled on a cast that I thought looked good together and showed off a wide variety of shapes and features. Here’s me sketching/designing from photo reference of various animals:

animal practice 01

So, here they are. The protagonist of the book is employed as a chef at a country club and plays in a band on the weekends, so I needed to develop two sets of character designs: the work characters and the non-work characters. He’re the former:


That’s our protagonist second from the left. (These characters all had names at one point, but I’ve decided to change most of them; I’ve just been referring to them by their animal names.) I initially had a pig character in place of the yak, but I decided it would be best if none of the characters were animals that are commonly used as food.1 It just seemed weird, ya know?

And here’re the non-work characters:


The four on the right comprise the rock band in the story. I tried to give each of them a nineties-appropriate dress style. The badger has a Happy Mondays/nineties 70s revival look. The poodle is loosely based on the great drummer, Cindy Blackman. The rhino’s body shape and stage moves (but not clothes at this point–I’ll probably change his style of dress) are coming from Minutemen guitarist D. Boone.2 The hyena, Kathleen, is an amalgam of various riot grrrrl band members style-wise. (“Katheen Hyena”/”Kathleen Hanna“… get it? Har har har.)

One nice thing about using animal characters is that it’s pretty easy to get really recognizable, distinctive body shapes–something that I’ve always struggled with when using human characters. Without even really thinking about it during design phase, the characters easily pass the “silhouette test.”

silhouette kitchen

silhouette band

So, what’s next? I’m probably going to spend a bit of time doing loose sketches of these characters in various poses and with various facial expressions, just to make sure I’ve got all that well ironed out before I put pencil to page. But, beyond that and a few small revisions to the script, I’m just about ready to start thumbnailing!


1. Yes, I know that people sometimes eat sheep, but it’s not like people are regularly chomping down McLambchops.

2. Yes, I also know that The Minutemen are from the 80s, not the 90s. The Minutemen are so awesome that they transcend all eras and are not bound by the normal constraints of space/time.


Come See Me at TCAF in Toronto!


I’ll be appearing this weekend, May 14-15, at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) in Toronto Canada. If you’re in the area, please come out and say Hi! It’s held at the Toronto Reference Library and is free and open to the public. You can find out more details here:

I’ll be seated at: Q13 on the second floor of the library.

Additionally, I’ll be participating in the following programming:

11:00 – 12:00 Saturday — Historical Comics panel with Chester Brown, Tony Cliff, Ben Towle, Sarah Winifred Searle. Moderated by David Humphreys.

2:00 – 2:30 Saturday – Draw Along! live drawing in the kids’ area.

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