Monday, 25 November 2013

Gilbert & Sullivan & Comics

This weekend I hopped on the train to Leeds for the Thought Bubble Comic Con. It was pretty good. Since I'm the last person on the planet who still doesn't have a phone -- or a camera -- if you want to see some pics of rollerblading young women in gold hotpants you'll have to use that Google thingummybob.

All the big cheeses and head honchos of comics were in attendance (incidentally, I wonder whether Matt Fraction or Ramón Pérez knew they were headed for Leeds when they signed up? Only because I remember seeing Eminem burst on stage in front of 40,000 people at the 2003 Leeds Festival shouting "Yo, wassup, London!?").

There were tonnes of ace comics and art on offer, but the find I was most excited about was a couple of mini-comics by Laura Howell.

Laura Howell's The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan

Yep, that's right, Laura has written comics about Gilbert and flipping Sullivan. And they're brilliant!

As regular visitors to the blog will know, I'm working on a comics project about Oscar Wilde's tour of America, which was set in motion by G&S (the tour, not the comic. Obv.). They wrote Patience, an operetta that satirised the youth culture fad of the day, aestheticism (when people tell you that teenagers didn't exist until the 1950s, James Dean, and Teddy Boys, you can smugly inform them they're out by at least 70 years).

G&S's manager, Richard D'Oyly Carte, wanted to send the operetta to tour the US, but he wasn't sure Americans would understand what an aesthete was. So he offered one of the most well known aesthetes -- Wilde -- a contract to tour America as a walking-talking advertisement for the play. Wilde, broke as a joke after self-publishing a book of poetry (that got him kicked out of his flat when his landlord's father got a hold of a copy), was only too eager to sign on the dotted line.

I'm always surprised that there aren't more comics featuring Oscar Wilde, and it was really exciting to pick up one that does!

Wilde sprays himself with a love potion and all the men in London come running.

But what was even more unexpected was seeing D'Oyly Carte in there too. Carte was a big shot in Victorian London. Not only did he sponsor G&S's operettas, he built the Savoy, London's first electrically illuminated theatre (the first show he put on at the Savoy was Patience in 1881). He plays a big part in my script. Until yesterday I would have bet my right arm that he had never appeared in a comic before. I would have lost that bet. So, good job I didn't make it, hey?

What?! Richard D'Oyly Carte? In a comic? Too chuffing cool.

You can buy The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan at Laura's website, And you should. Right now.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at

Friday, 8 November 2013

Comics panel breakdowns

Before I started writing a comics script about Oscar Wilde, I tried my hand (not very successfully) at writing novels, making music, and directing short films. Each of these art forms has its own attraction (now I come to think about it, the part I liked most was always editing). But none can beat writing for comics, for one simple reason: I love breaking down panels.

The panel breakdown stage is when the writer plans out how a scene will be split up over multiple panels and pages. It's like the best puzzle ever!

It's a process unique to comics. And from what I've read, everyone seems to have their own way of doing it. Through trial and error, I've settled on first writing out panel descriptions and dialogue; next, splitting those panels into page-sized chunks of 3 to 7 panels depending on the pacing I want; and, finally, to sketching out panel shapes and sizes that best fit the content.

When I'm away from my computer I might sketch these panel breakdowns on the back of an envelope, using my eraser almost as much as my pencil. Here are the panel breakdowns for a scene I wrote recently about Wilde's visit to Chicago.

Panel breakdowns for the Chicago scene of Oscar Wilde Conquers America.

But when I'm at my computer I have a different process. I put aside pencil and paper and instead use Adobe Illustrator. I've set up a page template in Illustrator that allows me to quickly visualise any arrangement of panels in a 3x3 grid or a 3x4 grid. Each section of gutter is on a different layer, so by toggling visibility on selected layers, I can get what I'm looking for.

My Adobe Illustrator template for working on panel breakdowns.

As you can see from the close up on my layers panel below, the gutters are split into Horizontal and Vertical. I have horizontal gutters at 1/4 of page width, 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, and 3/4. Each of these gutters is split into four sections: Left (L), Centre Left (CL), Centre Right (CR), and Right (R). Vertical gutters are at 1/3, 1/2, and 2/3 of page height. They are split into 6 numbered sections.

All of these sections might seem overkill, but it means that I can view any arrangement of panels without having to resize any of the paths that make up the gutters. It's super flexible!

Close up of the Layers panel in Illustrator.

Here is an example breakdown of the page on the top right of my back-of-the-envelope drawing. All I had to do was toggle off the visibility of the 1/3 and 2/3 horizontal and vertical gutters, and the 2nd and 3rd sections of the 1/2 vertical gutter. If I'm ever unsure which part of which gutter I need to shut off, I can just select it on the template, and the corresponding layer in the Layers panel is highlighted.

An example breakdown, corresponding to the top right page in the first image.

When I'm happy with a breakdown, I usually save it as a png file and import it into my script. That way, when I read back over the script later, I have a visual reminder of how I intended to break down the scene. Here is the script page that goes with the breakdown above (as you can see, I decided to re-jig the panels a little when I came to write the scene).

An example script page, with the panel breakdown embedded as a png. This helps me to remember what I visualised when I was writing the scene, and may also be of use to the artist.


If you have a copy of Illustrator (CS4 and above), you might like to try the template out. You can download it by clicking here.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at