Comic characteristics


“A comic strip is a series of sequential images arranged in panels, that may or may not use words and symbols to tell a story or part of a story.”

So a comic is basically a visual story that is arranged in panels that follow a sequence. Today we are going to go a little deeper in to this statement and take comics apart to take a look at some characteristics of the medium.

The volume

Comic strips and comic books aren’t exactly the same thing. Where I come from we call all comic mediums “stripi” but that’s because we only have one word for it (except for graphic novels we call them “grafični romani”).

Comic strips are short stories that are published in magazines and newspapers. They usually feature just a few panels and can be self-contained or have a larger story arc. Usually they have a universe established but a larger story arc is rare. Some more popular comic strips are Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes. They can be gathered in to a single book and that technically is a comic book but since they were originally published as short strips the book doesn’t change the fact.

Calvin’s first comic strip

Comic books are comics that feature multiple pages. The books can have more than just one specific comic the point is they are gathered in a volume. These can also be self-contained but more often than not they entail a larger story arc that combines stories over multiple volumes. Think of the super hero genre. Comic books that don’t follow a larger story are usually more child friendly or of a more humorous nature. Think of comic books featuring Mickey Mouse or the Smurfs.

A graphic novel is the largest comic book medium though the terms is used broadly and can also refer to anthologies that contain multiple comic book stories. The genre was first recognized in 1964 but became popular in the 80s with Spiegelmans Maus and similar novels. The stories in graphic novels are usually self-contained. They can be printed in volumes but they are not periodicals like comic books. Examples of these are Blankets, Watchmen, V for Vendeta, Maus, etc.

Craig Thompson – Blankets
The panels

The panels in comics can take every imaginable shape or form. Usually they are square but you can come across round, romboid, trapezoid or freeform shaped panels. The pannels can be the same size or vary dependeing on the content. Sometimes they even overlap. Some comic strips don’t even use panels to arrange the story because the short medium is pretty self-explanatory and don’t need them to outline the story. For longer stories panels are almost a must because they frame and arrange the story for the reader. Every panel has it’s own setting (even if the location of the story doesn’t change) and atmosphere. Artist like Jack Kirby even arranged panels in such a way that they narrated the story and didn’t rely only on text.

The speech bubbles

The speech bubbles are used to contain the text that translates in to the characters speech. Again some artists don’t really use bubbles but just draw a line that connects the character and text. I think that bubbles can express a certain character of… Well… The character. Not only mood but a certain characteristic that belongs only to that character. More angular speech bubbles express harshness and seem rough, rounder bubbles are softer and gentler…

There are also specific bubbles that express a specific action of the character. A jagged bubble is used when the character is yelling or screaming. A cloudy bubble is used for what the character isn’t speaking but rather thinking.

Text bubbles
Text bubbles

The speech bubbles are usually linked to the character or other bubbles (to express linked sentences) by a small tail. If there is no tail that means the speach or other sounds are coming from an unknown source or a general source (like explosions or telephone rings).

Placement of the bubbles is VERY important because they dictate the order the reader reads the text. Also they can be arranged in ways to for dialogs and longer conversations with multiple characters. It’s very important to include the position of the bubbles in to your sketching process. The composition of the bubbles in relation to other elements in the panels is also important. A panel can look nice on it’s own but if the speech bubble throws it of balance you wasted hours of work because of a technicality.


We all know the dreaded comic sans font. DON’T EVER USE IT! It’s not that it’s a bad font. Far from it… Actually it is very well designed and fits fairly well with comic strips. The problem comes from its overuse and people thinking, that comic sans is a font that is universally used for informal texts.

VERY wrong use of comic sans
VERY wrong use of comic sans

The best thing in comics is to write in the text by hand. Why? Because typography can express more than just speech, but also the tone and character. There is nothing really wrong with using a computer for texts as long as you don’t overdo it and choose some extremely over the top font. Remember… The reader needs to make out the words. For special texts (yells, explosions, roars, ringing, etc.) we usually use a heavier font. I like to use outlined fonts for this but it’s not a requirement.

Special signs

Special signs are signs that express something without the use of words. The classic light bulb over the head that signifies an idea is good example. These sings are not limited to anything but need to be understandable and correlate to the actions in the panel. An exclamation mark can signify shock but if the character looks bored the sign doesn’t come across like it should.

Werner has a bolt over his head to express anger
The stories

Comics (even the short strips) follow the classic 3 or 4 act structures of story telling. The short strips just have to make out every arc in one panel.

The 3-act structure contains a setup, confrontation and resolution. The 3rd and final act is usually the shortest. The 4-act structure is basically the same but splits the third act in to two separate acts. That makes all 4 acts the same length. It contains a setup, response (the confrontation), attack and resolution. There is also a 5-act structure but from what I understand that is just a more detailed 3-act structure. I could be wrong (maybe a drama student can correct me). It contains exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and a resolution/catastrophe.

My next post is going to be a bit shorter and I’ll delve in to the creation of comic book characters.

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