Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Digital sketch of a comic page containing the image of a dilapidated seaside shack, as well as panels depicting a roughly-drawn character suiting up for some sort of task.

How to Draw a Whole New World
On August 15th, I was halfway through a self-appointed monthly comics challenge to create rough art for a 48-page short fantasy story. I’d been lenient with my goals, imagining that most of my time would be spent designing the environment of the story. The sorts of things I set out to draw (airships, motorcycles, tanks, other vehicles and things like houses, mechanical garbage, and other waste) seemed very difficult because I had never rendered anything like them before.

I’m pleased to say, I underestimated myself. I now have a rough setting for this short, silly action story.

Digital sketch of an airship village filled with various vehicles and junk. The humans are not yet drawn in, but there will be a lot of them and they'll make it look even messier.

In addition to the house above, I also have a mobile village of airships. They set down roots where they can, but the condition of the world itself causes these people to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Little roving villages like this are excellent at scavenging. They’ve taken all the refuse left over from a world-engulfing war and turned it into housing, transportation, farming, and more. While I can’t imagine it’s pleasant to have everything torn away by natural disasters, these are people who will come back and re-scavenge what they can, but also find new useful things dredged up from the ocean depths.

Digital sketch of an airship being open for boarding and then rising up into the air with other aircraft.

Designing this large airship presented two challenges: How do I make a big central vehicle believable, but also function in the layout in a way that makes sense? How do I convey that this was once an industrial and military vehicle retrofitted to become mobile housing? I looked up futuristic concepts of airships as well as the aircraft used to cart other aircraft around.

Since characters are leaving the scene, I wanted them to run from left to right, up the airship ramp. Otherwise they’ll look like they’re arriving into the airship. The motion of left-to-right feels more like exiting. Which meant, in previous scenes, the airship needs to face our left.

In a situation with more resources or higher stakes, I could have explored other methods of quickly boarding a mass of people onto an airship. This would have required redrawing scenes I’d already roughed in. For the sake of keeping a personal learning project going, I limited exploration of this airship design and proceeded to other parts of the setting. I’m hoping that by adding people in the next round of drawing, I can really convey the scale of this thing.

Digital sketch of an underground basement, filled with trash. There's a rough stocky character featured in it.

This basement was a fun exercise in pointing the viewer’s eyes to specific spots, where I will later add more characters. Also love the idea of putting so much random, odd details in that the reader might pause and look at this image more carefully, instead of glossing over it like readers normally do in comics.

Digital artwork of a beach strewn with junk, while some sort of cryptid-like snake monster swims off in the background.

This is going to be the final page and interior liner of the short story. Drawing junk feels so intimidating until I actually start looking up photographic reference and typing prompts into an AI image generator. Then it becomes oddly soothing, almost addictive. Can’t stop drawing junk!!

Comics Tip

Staging Tactics
The direction from which characters enter and exit panels can add or detract storytelling value to each panel. The ways characters are situated near each other can simultaneously add depth to their story relationship as well as allow the audience to keep track of their relationship to each other in a scene. A lot of how readers perceive comics depends on the language they are reading and which direction the words flow in an order that makes sense. This was something I was thinking about as I focused on my environment design for this short comic.

The English language reads left to right. English readers are going to perceive the writing and the artwork based on how it’s laid out. Elements on the left side of a panel are going to be perceived first, followed by elements on the right side of the panel.

Digital sketch of a man entering from the left on a comic panel.

Directionally, elements traveling from left to right may feel faster to the English reader, more fresh and new. When a character walks in from the left side of a panel it feels more like they are there for the first time.

Digital sketch of a man entering from the right on a comic panel.

A character walking in from the right side of a panel feels like they’re returning to the scene from elsewhere because they are walking against the direction of reading English words.

Digital sketch of two men entering a comic panel at the same time, each from a different direction.

When two characters approach each other in the scene, the reader may experience a slight bias towards the one on the left because that is the first character they perceive. The character approaching from the right is going against the flow of reading, which gives the character a feeling of blocking, antagonism. When elements are introduced in a scene, we tend to prioritize the first element we see, often preferring it to additional elements.

DIgital sketch of two people sitting and having a conversation. In the second panel there is a dramatic closeup.

Additionally, comics readers do not fully perceive images as they read. They read the text, and then they observe the image peripherally. If two characters are sitting side by side, then the characters need to maintain that same relationship throughout the scene, even if they get up and walk around.

Digital sketch of two people sitting and chatting. In the second panel, it's hard to tell who's speaking because the character positions have been flipped.

Otherwise, the reader may append the wrong speech bubble to the wrong character and become confused, snapping out of the story. This applies to stage left and stage right concepts rather than literal positioning of the characters in the scene, and why the 180 rule is a good thing to keep in mind. Avoid flipping the positions of characters arbitrarily, unless there is a clear transition between them that shows where they’re moving in relation to each other, or where the camera is moving.

Check out comics from other languages to see how their layouts differ. Japanese comics, reading right-to-left, use different conventions from English comics for how they introduce characters and settings. Sometimes comics in any language use strong visual elements to help the reader find their way through more unconventional layouts, too.


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