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:
Even 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.)
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.
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…