How to Make Comics: What Are the Elements of a Comic?
Dig into the details that make comics unique, and try your hand at some activities.
Sep 16, 2021
This is the second edition of How to Make Comics, a series for teachers, families, and comics lovers who are interested in learning about the medium. Read on to learn more about the elements that make comics unique and discover examples from our illustrated series Drawn to MoMA. Then, try your hand at some creative prompts inspired by Chris Gavaler’s article and works in MoMA’s collection.
—Larissa Raphael and Arlette Hernandez, Department of Education
By now you know that comics aren’t just drawings of spandex-clad heroes in garishly-colored magazines. The form can encompass any subject and can be found practically anywhere, including museums like MoMA.
Your own comics can be about anything too, and making them involves a dizzying range of possibilities. So let’s focus first on the five features that are probably the most important: image style, words and word containers, word-image relationships, undrawn inferences, and layout. You can spend hours exploring them, but here’s a brief introduction to each.
Illustration by Mohammed Fayaz for Drawn to MoMA
Style Has Meaning
Ask two people to draw the same thing and the styles of their drawings may vary radically. The same is true for drawings in comics. You can have the same plot with the same characters, but the look of those characters—the expressive lines that make up their bodies and the settings they inhabit—will feel different depending on an artist’s style.
On one end of the spectrum, you might create a comic composed of simple cartoon figures, loose gestural drawings, or just stick figures or silhouettes. In each case, the amount of detail is minimal. They are reduced to their most essential parts. On the other end of that same spectrum, you find images with a lot of details, such as photorealistic drawings and actual photographs. Below is an image by Carolyn Capps from a graphic novel she and I are creating together. The amount of detail is unusual for works published in the comics medium.
Carolyn Capps. Into Night #36. November 2020
But most images fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Compare the way Sofia Warren draws herself and two others watching a performance (below left) to Guno Park’s depiction of two Museum visitors resting on a bench. The subject matter is similar, but Park’s detailed style and Warren’s sparse style create different effects that then can elicit different reactions in viewers.
From left: Illustration from Sofia Warren’s “Feel This” for Drawn to MoMA; Illustration by Guno Park for Drawn to MoMA
Images can vary not just in their level of detail, but also in the shapes of these details. A silhouette of a person is extremely simplified yet still realistically shaped. On the other hand, a caricature is unrealistically shaped because certain facial features are enlarged, whether they are detailed or not.
Look at the drawings by Warren and Park again. Notice how Warren’s lines are sometimes so loose they no longer follow the actual shapes of the people they represent, while Park’s tighter lines reproduce those shapes more precisely. Anna Haifisch’s figures in “The Artist,” on the right, are even more exaggerated, showing people that are amorphously blob-like in contrast to the main character’s impossibly skeletal shape.
Style can transform almost any subject matter. Think about what this means for your own comic. If you draw a difficult personal story in a cartoon style, it might soften the difficulty, possibly making the story less upsetting or affecting. Draw that same story in a detailed and realistic style, and your viewers are going to experience it more viscerally. And if you tell the story in a detailed but exaggerated style, the effect could become surreal, reshaping the content to affect viewers in unexpected ways.
And who said a comic has to have only one style? Style can vary from image to image, according to changes in time, location, point-of-view, or even a character’s mood. Bottom line: style isn’t separate from visual storytelling, but one of its main tools.
Illustration by Anna Haifisch for Drawn to MoMA
Words Are Images Too
Words also have to be rendered in some kind of style. This can look like anything from your own personal handwriting to meticulously designed graphic art. In traditional comics, sound effects tend to be drawn by the primary artist in a highly expressive style (“Ka-BOOM!”). Speech and narration are drawn by a letterer in a comparatively unobtrusive style—except when a character’s words suggest volume or emotion through a larger size or a darker rendering. Many comics artists use computers especially for text, but if you decide to use an electronic font, make sure it still relates visually to the images around it.
In prose-only texts like novels and essays, the choice of typeface is usually consistent, telling readers that the appearance of a word has no effect on its meaning. But in comics, where typefaces always combine with images, words automatically have a larger graphic presence. Rather than ignoring this fact, use it. What if different characters speak in different typefaces? What if a character’s typeface changes according to the language or dialect they’re speaking?
Most often in comics, words are combined with word-framing conventions: speech bubbles and caption boxes. If you use speech bubbles, remember they’re images too and so they have their own style. Gabrielle Bell uses oval-shaped speech bubbles with hand-drawn borders that match the style of her drawings. Joanna Avillez (seen on the right) avoids word containers and instead uses free-floating captions. Grace Robinson, below, only uses words that appear as part of the scene.
Illustration by Joanna Avillez for Drawn to MoMA
Illustration by Grace Robinson for Drawn to MoMA
You, too, will develop your own preferences. Should the lines that make the bubbles resemble the lines that make the characters? What if each character’s word containers look like that character, so readers know who’s speaking even if no figure appears?
Combining Words and Images
Unlike other kinds of images, words have meanings independent of how they’re drawn. Think about how the meaning of a set of words relates to the image they are part of or next to. There are four basic relationships to consider: words and images can duplicate, complement, contrast, or diverge.
When they duplicate, the words and the image around them communicate roughly the same thing. This is the norm for children’s picture books because the simplistic relationship helps with language acquisition. Illustrated versions of the nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water” typically include a young male figure and a young female figure carrying a bucket up a hill to a well. If you’re not making a children’s comic, though, that redundancy is something to avoid. Words and pictures should each bring something unique to their combinations.
When words and pictures complement, each adds something different to a unified effect. If a caption box frames the words, “Jo watched sitcoms all night,” above a drawing of a figure sitting on a couch laughing, the combination is complimentary. You don’t know that Jo is laughing unless you look at the image, and you don’t know why Jo is laughing unless you read the words.
In this panel from Roz Chast’s “Museumland,” words and images complement each other to produce an immersive effect.
This panel from Ben Passmore’s “This Is Tough” shows how words and images diverge in comics. When one of the characters says, “Some men are kids, right?,” it’s unclear whether she’s referencing the Jackson Pollock painting or her partner.
When words and images contrast, they each still add something different, but those effects don’t blend as smoothly. For example, if a caption box frames the words, “Jo loved watching sitcoms” above an image of a figure sitting on a couch with a blank expression, the effect is more challenging. Viewers have to decide whether the verbal claim is true: Does Jo actually love watching sitcoms? Is Jo someone who doesn’t display emotion in an obvious way? Whatever the answers, the questions only occur because the words and image don’t match. If the figure is frowning, the effect is even stronger, probably suggesting irony, since the image clearly contradicts the words. Shift the image slightly so the figure is asleep on the couch and the irony would instead focus on the word “watching.”
Words and images can also diverge, wandering along parallel but unrelated paths. If the image of Jo is next to the words, “Water always follows the path of least resistance,” it may be difficult to draw any conclusions about how the statement relates to the drawing. That doesn’t mean viewers won’t try though. Place any two things next to each other, and the human mind will try to make meaning of the pairing. Jo’s case might prompt a metaphorical connection: Jo is like water and therefore doing what comes most naturally—sleeping, laughing, or frowning, depending on which image is paired with the caption.
In Ben Passmore’s “This Is Tough,” shown on the left, it seems to one character that his girlfriend is describing her reactions to the artwork, but in the end, he realizes she’s been describing their relationship instead.
Inferences also occur between images. This is a defining element of the comics form, since, whatever else a comic might include, it must have at least two images and so some relationship between them.
In traditional comics, moving from one image to the next usually also means moving between two moments in time. This expectation is so common that it seems to go without saying—and yet, it’s a convention that’s easily broken. Maybe the next image references a memory, as Gabrielle Bell does in the drawing on the right, when she includes the text “Eight years prior” in a dividing margin. Or maybe the images are disconnected in a way that follows no definite chronology, as with Grace Robinson’s sequence of random museum scenes. Or maybe the subsequent image is an imagined scene in a character’s thoughts. Or an image that only relates to the previous image if interpreted metaphorically.
Illustration by Gabrielle Bell for Drawn to MoMA
Two consecutive panels by Grace Robinson for Drawn to MoMA
You can still move forward in time, but why not make the leap unexpectedly long? A newborn baby in a woman’s arms placed next to a gravestone could suggest a range of story events: The baby was born, lived a long life, and died. Or maybe the baby died shortly after being born. The first interpretation assumes that decades occurred between the two depicted moments, while the second might imply that only a week has passed. Add words, and the possibilities widen. The meaning of the baby and gravestone changes when paired with the caption, “After meeting her niece for the first time, Jo visited their mother’s grave.”
Putting It All Together
We’ve talked about the ways images and words look and how they relate to one another. One last thing to consider is their arrangement. Once you have a couple of images, start experimenting with their placement on a physical or digital surface. Some comics only have one image per page, and that’s fine, but if you have two or more, you’ll need to consider how they go together—which is called layout in traditional comics.
Layout guides a viewer’s eye through the images, creating a path. If your comic starts with two images, are they side by side, creating a row? Or are they arranged vertically, creating a column? Add a third image and the options grow more complex—though not necessarily. You might default to a Z-path, the most conventional viewing path, because it imitates the flow of words in English prose, offering the easiest path for the viewer to follow. There’s nothing wrong with using conventions—as long as you know they’re just optional.
Danica Novgordoff’s Drawn to MoMA deviates from conventional reading paths. Instead of organizing pages with a grid of multiple images, each page contains a single image.
Conventions also give you a way of highlighting certain moments by suddenly breaking from expectation. If all of the images on a page except one are the same size, the content of the larger image becomes more important. You can also accent an individual image by giving it a different frame, or no frame, or a differently shaped frame, or a tilted frame, or a different amount of white space around it. You might also group certain images together with the same techniques, drawing further connections between images that share size, shape, framing, or spacing qualities.
Experiment with different arrangements to find something that feels true to the content you’re creating. Usually that content is called a story, but like everything else we’ve discussed, this is just another convention. If you’re creating an abstract comic (picture an evolving sequence of Pollock-like drawings), then you might throw that convention out, too. The comics form has remarkably few rules. Don’t box yourself in unless you decide to.
Illustration by Joanna Avillez for Drawn to MoMA
Now that we’ve heard from Chris about the elements that make comics unique, we invite you to consider the relationships between words and images with these creative prompts.
Play with Style
Partner up with a friend or a classmate and draw an illustration to accompany the following sentence: “Jo watched sitcoms all night.” You can take as long (or as short) as you’d like. Just be sure to keep your illustrations a secret until you’re both completely done. Then, compare your drawings. What elements in your drawing represent your style?
Take some inspiration from Ed Ruscha’s OOF and think of a word or sound that you find intriguing. Say it aloud and reflect on how it makes you feel. Type your word using Google Slides or any app or program that can design and customize text. Select a typeface and size that best illustrates your word. For example: if it’s a “soft” word, you may want to use a small curvilinear typeface, or a large angular typeface for a “loud” word. Play around and try out different colors for the letters and the background. How do the colors react to each other? How do they make you (and others) feel?
Words in Pictures
Artists like Dorothea Lange understood how including signs, such as billboards and hand-painted notices, could help convey the story of a place, time, and people. Explore your home or neighborhood and take a photograph that includes words. How do the words influence your understanding of the photograph? What stories could you craft around your photo?
To make his Marginalia series, artist Iñaki Bonillas pulls out photos from the books on his shelves and makes inferences by combining them into one image connected by a single theme. Find two images from different sources—we recommend looking through magazines, advertisements, books, family photographs, or even old drawings you’ve made—and place these images side by side. Take some time to find similarities between the images, either in subject matter, place, characters, or symbolism. What relationships do you see, and how would you explain your reasoning? If you had to put the images in sequence, which one would come first? If needed, write a caption that will make your inferences clearer.