The first stage of page building in comics is doing layouts.
Under deadlines it’s often rushed, but if you have to go fast or you have a bit more time, it’s ALWAYS an ideal way to plan out a comic and have to make fewer revisions later. You’ll find printable templates for thumbnail sheets, to aid in the process here!
You can watch me doing some of my own, in this clip here!
For many cartoonist who write their own work, it’s where the writing starts. When as an artist you’re working with a writer, it’s a planning stage where ideally an engaged writer will read the work as the test audience and co-creator in it’s beta form, before time is invested in final art. A writer who really understands the medium well, probably has even done their own rough thumbs if they had ideas about how the pages will flow, they might not show you them but it’s a good idea for them to do so, to make sure what they imagine is possible.
Thumbnailing is a chance to edit, revise, refine, as much as it is to build. A time to think out the reading structure of the page, do some initial lettering placement planning to make sure the layout will work with the dialog rather than against it. And it’s also pretty critical that the thumbs are done on a page template that matched the dimensions of the final book very closely. Layouts you do for a book using say a Manga template which tends generally to be shorter page height, simply won’t work the same when you put them on a taller US comic book standard page template or the more square Euro BD formats. So get that settled before you start, make sure ALL the pages are laid out on the same aspect ratio, pick your format and design for it.
In this post you’ll see examples from and the full set of thumbnails for a 22 page issue of Ghostbusters. Note the word balloons, the numbers represent the lines of dialog as written in the script.
The script formatting looks like this.
Ghostbusters – Valentine’s Day special
Script by: Dara Naraghi
Suggested Page Layout: Splash
Splash: Interior of a high school gym. Bird’s eye view, looking down at the Ghostbusters in full uniform and gear, who are looking up to the two Gangster Ghosts flying around. The ghosts are both shooting their guns (Tommy with his Tommy Gun, and Vinnie with his twin pistols). The gym is being decorated for a Valentine’s Day dance, so if there’s room, show Tiyah, a couple of students, and the school principal. If not, then show Tiyah at a minimum and you can sprinkle the others in the backgrounds of the next couple of pages.
- Tommy: Dat glory hound Capone and his Chicago boys got all’a da publicity, but New York’s where it’s at.
- Vinnie: Yeah, Tommy. The Five Families own this city.
- Vinnie: An’ it’s high time we had our own St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Suggested Page Layout: 1 x 1 x 1 x 1
Panel 1: Wide. Focus on Peter Venkman shooting up at the ghosts with his proton pack. He’s making wise cracks, as usual. Next to him (or behind him) we see the principal yelling at him. She’s aghast at the damage the GBs are doing to her school.
- Peter: Sorry, slim. The city’s got a strict “no massacres” policy, and we’re here to enforce it.
- Peter: Also, you geniuses realize this is a high school and not a speakeasy, right?
- Principal: Careful! You’re destroying our gym!
Panel 2: Focus on Tommy as he dodges Peter’s beam, which goes on to shatter a basketball hoop and backboard.
- Tommy: Damn coppers!
Panel 3: Focus on Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler. Ray is chomping on a cigar and shooting up at the ghosts, while Egon in monitoring his PKE Meter.
- Egon: Predictable Class 2 apparition flight pattern, Ray.
- Ray: I see it, Egon.
- Ray: Winston, get the traps in position.
Panel 4: Pull back and show Vinnie shooting at Winston, who is running and dodging, a ghost trap in his hand.
SFX: BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM
- Winston: On it.
Suggested Page Layout: 2 x 3 x 1
Panel 1: Peter, Ray, and Egon shooting at the ghosts (off-panel).
- Peter: What do you say, guys? Time to fit these goons with some cement shoes?
- Egon: Affirmative, Peter.
Panel 2: The two ghosts are caught in the beams, struggling to break free and shooting wildly in all directions. Show a disco ball being hit and falling.
- Tommy: Nooo! I ain’t goin’ back to da slammer.
SFX: BRAATTTTT BLAM BLAM BLAM
Panel 3: Focus on Tiyah and Winston. She’s in the background, shouting a warning his way. He just barely jumps out of the way of the crashing disco ball.
- Tiyah (shout): Watch out!
- Winston: Oomph.
Panel 4: Small inset panel between panels 3 and 5. CU on Winston’s boot coming down on the ghost trap pedal.
Panel 5: Focus on the trap, open now, sucking the two ghosts down into it.
- Vinnie: Awww, crap.
Panel 6: Wide. Show the four GBs standing triumphantly around the closed trap. Maybe a dramatic worm’s eye view?
- Ray: Terrific work, guys. This school is once again safe for the students.
- Peter: Not to mention the delinquents and slackers.
- Egon: Feeling nostalgic, Peter?
- Winston: Well, I’m ready for a smoke break.
Note that Dara has thought about page layouts and suggested pasterns to use. Suggested Page Layout: “slash”, “1 x 1 x 1 x 1”, & “2 x 3 x 1”. The first means a image that takes up the full page. The other two are lumbers of panels per row. So “1 x 1 x 1 x 1” is four rows of one panel each, “2 x 3 x 1” is two panels in the top row, three in the middle, and one at the bottom.
SFX means a sound made by something or an event/action.
This is what that sequence looks like in the thumbs!
I read through his script a few times before doing these, and on the second or third started sketching some little visual notes. Once I started them I’d usually do a page an hour, and in this case was doing looser gesture work in red pencil, over printed page templates with full markings [you can see them here]. I then very loosely worked over that and thought out as much detail for the shots as I could at that size using a fine point drawing pen.
I had already created a bible of Ghosbusters reference for this story, and was working from the start to keep the work on model. Here’s what the full 22 pages looks like. They were drawing on sheets of 11×8.5 inch paper, with 8 pages girded out for thumbs on them.
I made a scan when I was half way through these, it’s posted on the right here.
You can see how once I’d gotten to the midpoint, I did page layouts without art for the rest, before drawing in anything.
I still made some changes in that, but it let me just think about the meta reading structure as Dara had planed it out, and how I’d interpreted all that. It let me see the story beats and think about if I was highlighting them well or not.
To complete the journey, at the bottom here you’ll find page one from layouts to final art.
Here’s some more thumbnails with script, these come from Dream Life | a late coming of age. that link will take you to a product page for it with a big sample gallery of many of these pages in their final forms.
Here’s a set of thumbs from my project with Mark Sable, Dracula Son of the Dragon.