Why Learning Comic Composition Is Like Accidentally Learning German

2014 Artwork Comic Composition German article sketch

I can’t remember exactly when this happened, but I vaguely remember someone (possibly on DeviantART) asking me how I’d learnt how to lay out comic pages.

At the time, I was at a loss for an answer and I think that I just said something like “I dunno, I just do” or something like that, since basic comic composition is pretty much instinctive to me.

But, thinking about it more, I’ve worked out how I learnt to lay out comic pages- I read a lot of comics. It’s as simple as that.

Whilst my comic collection is probably pitifully tiny compared to collections belonging to lifelong comic enthusiasts and I only really read about one or two webcomics regularly these days, I went through a massive comics phase a few years ago and I read a lot of really excellent comics and webcomics.

And, well, this is how I learnt to lay out comic pages and draw the art in interesting ways. I just kind of “absorbed” techniques and layouts that worked well in the comics that I’d read and used them in my own comics.

"Paradox Of Difficulty" By C. A. Brown

“Paradox Of Difficulty” By C. A. Brown

For example, in this comic I made last month, I probably got the idea to show the computer dialogue box in the middle of the first panel from countless similar things I’d seen in other comics on the internet. Yes, it isn’t particularly “realistic”, but it’s a really good way to get the information across to the reader quickly without having to create a new panel.

This is just one of many little tricks I’ve learnt from reading lots of comics, in fact I didn’t even really think about it that much when I added the dialogue box to the comic. It just seemed like the logical thing to do.

Apart from learning a few general rules from instructional books, learning comic composition is something that you’ll probably do gradually, piece-by-piece, over the course of at least a few months. But, saying this, you’ll get to read lots of cool comics and/or webcomics in the process.

In many ways, learning comic composition is like unintentionally learning a different language.

For example, I’ve never had any German lessons and I could probably only hold the most basic and primitive conversation in broken German. But I know some of the language because I’ve picked it up unintentionally through listening to songs by bands/musicians like Rammstein, Equilubrium, Blutengel and Nena and through various textbooks I had to read when I was in school.

But, carrying on with this metaphor, the main reason why I can only probably hold a primitive conversation in broken German is because I haven’t really practiced speaking it much.

In fact, on the one occasion that I’ve actually been to Germany (when I was about sixteen), the sole extent of my conversations in German was “Eine currywurst bitte” (which means “one currywurst please” – a currywurst is, as the name suggests, a sausage covered in curry sauce).

Of course the guy at the currywurst stall then asked me if I wanted a bread roll. I raised an eyebrow and looked puzzled and then he just asked me again in English. Yes, I know, I’m still kind of embarassed about it.

So, yes, I can’t speak very good German because I haven’t really practiced it. But, I can lay out a comic page reasonably well because I’ve practiced doing this literally hundreds of times over the past four or five years.

So, remember, it’s not enough to pick up lots of cool compositional tricks from the comics that you read. You actually have to try them out for yourself and see what works and what doesn’t.

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Sorry that this article was so basic, but I hope it was useful 🙂

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