Thoughtful consideration of the differences and similarities between comics illustrations and storyboards can lead to a better understanding of what makes for good visual storytelling in comics.
The art forms of comics and storyboards have long been intertwined. Veteran comics writer and artist Larry Hama (who has also worked as a storyboard artist for advertisements and video games) remarked in a 2012 interview that storyboards and comics illustration are “not much different at all.”
Indeed, in practice, we see a lot of crossover between the two fields in terms of personnel and associated skills. Prolific comics artists such as E. R. Cruz (G.I. Combat, Savage Sword of Conan), Romeo Tanghal (New Teen Titans, Green Lantern), Teny Henson (Ghosts, G.I. Combat), and Adrian Gonzales (Sgt. Rock; Arak, Son of Thunder), Mike Vosburg (G.I. Joe, Savage She-Hulk) were also very much in-demand as storyboard artists for animation, working on many of the most popular Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s and the 1990s. In more recent years, we’ve seen animation directors like Bruce Timm and storyboard artists such as Darwyn Cooke working on comics projects for major publishers and established comics artists like Brandon Graham and Emily Partridge dabbling in creating storyboards for animation.Related as they are, it would be a mistake to assume that the techniques and concepts for one art form are completely interchangeable with those of the other. Each art form requires of the artist an understanding of the specific format’s demands of the reader in terms of participation (as defined within the context of McLuhan’s media theories) and cognitive load.
Before we go further in our discussion, it is important to get our terminology straight. Scott McCloud, in his landmark book Understanding Comics, defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”
Let’s compare McCloud’s definition of the comic with veteran storyboard artist Giuseppe Cristiano‘s definition of the storyboard. Writing in his book Storyboard Design Course, Cristiano defines the storyboard as “a means of describing and planning the continuity or shot-by-shot flow of a film using sequential illustrations.” Elsewhere in the book, Cristiano also emphasizes that “[unlike] comic or book illustration, the storyboard is not a stand-on-its-own art form,” and that it is “a means to an end—a tool that uses sequential drawings to help take an idea to its finished moving-image form.”
McCloud and Cristiano’s respective definitions provide a sufficient basis for distinguishing comics and storyboards in terms of purpose and even target audience. However, it remains to be elucidated how different the two art forms are when it comes to the application of sequential art techniques.
One of the best ways to see the technical differences between comics and storyboards as far as sequential imagery goes is to compare how an artist composes a comics sequence and how that same artist interprets that sequence as a storyboard for an animated or live-action adaptation of the comic.
There aren’t very many Western comics artists who have gone on to work as storyboard artists for the adaptation of the comic they drew. Frank Miller, who wrote and illustrated Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and served as a co-director (alongside Robert Rodriguez) and unofficial contributing storyboard artist for its live-action film adaptation, is perhaps the name that most readily comes to mind. In Japan, however, where manga serve as a major source of material for reinterpretation as animated and live-action TV shows and films, such an arrangement is more likely to happen. And there is perhaps no more notable example of a comics creator who went on to write the screenplay, do the storyboards, and provide direction for the adaptation of his comics work than Academy Award-winning animated feature director Hayao Miyazaki.
Below is a seven-panel sequence from the first volume of the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga, written and illustrated by Miyazaki and originally published in Japan in 1982 (it spans two pages, so I’ve just stacked the relevant panels for the sake of clarity):
And below are the storyboards of the scene Miyazaki drew for the 1984 animated feature film adaptation of the manga (Miyazaki also directed the film and wrote its screenplay):
The fully animated sequence as it appears in the film can be seen at the 1:05 mark of the video embedded below:
Here is the animated GIF of the sequence for those unable to access the video:
By comparing how the sequence appears in the comic/manga, the storyboard, and in animation, we can get a sense of the similarities and the differences between them, even as they’re all just variations of “sequential art.”
The comic demands the most participation from the reader, in that he or she has to “fill in” what happens between the panels. For example, it is up to the reader to infer (perhaps subconsciously) that in the time and space between the sixth and seventh panels in the page above, the girl started her playful pirouette and the fox squirrel on her shoulder also started its journey along her outstretched right arm. The reader isn’t explicitly given this information by the art, but both events have to have occurred for there to be any logical continuity between the events portrayed in panel six and panel seven. In the storyboard, the transitions between panels are shorter—the key poses in Nausicaä’s pirouette are actually illustrated and there are no great inferential demands for the reader—he or she must merely connect the dots, so to speak. In the animation, the sequence is seamless and the viewer actually gets to see every second of the character’s movements.
It all sounds terribly basic and obvious when we’re looking at the examples in front of us, but any experienced comics reader will have more than a few memories of reading a comic where the events depicted in the panels don’t flow cohesively in the service of the narrative and there seems to be important information missing in the panels for the reader to make a plausible assumption of what happened in between them. In comics, choosing the right event to depict in a panel, selecting the appropriate panel shape and size, and being mindful of what to leave out of a panel can make all the difference between a clear and easy-to-read sequence and a confusing and disjointed sequence. It helps the comics artist, then, when breaking down a script and thumbnailing a comics page, to keep in mind that each panel in a sequence must “read” as a moment in time in a continuous, dynamic, and seamless progression of events, and not simply an isolated incident.