Sunday Mailbag

February 28th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: This question is concerning line weight with multi-panel illustrations. It’s probably an illustration 101 concern, and I know you touch on it a bit in your inking tutorial, but maybe you wouldn’t mind fielding it for me anyways. Do you illustrate the entire composition on one page or do you pencil and ink the panels separately and then put them together after (example: Two and a Half Wits for MAD)? How important is it to maintain the same average line thickness, with regard to depth, in each panel?

A: I always rough out, draw and ink the entire page of a comic book style page illustration (like I do for MAD) all on one board. Always. I never do separate panels and piece them together.

While your question specifically addresses line weight in inking with respect to doing panels together or separate, that is really a minor point when it comes to the reason why I do this. I’ll address your ink weight concern last, but I’ll get to it.

Doing comic work is like a juggling act. You have to draw individual panels and make them do all the things they need to do, like illustrating a scene, the action within, demonstrating character interaction, providing an image that reinforces the dialogue spoken all the while doing (hopefully) good drawing. At the same time, you have to make each panel work with the ones about it and within the framework of the page they reside on, as well as the page on the opposite side of the gutter. You need to balance the pages and cause the eye to move across them along with the story so there is not only no confusion as to how and where the story continues from panel to panel, but so that your viewer’s eye natural moves to the next panel without having to think about it. This is a major part of good storytelling and layout.

You absolutely cannot accomplish that treating each panel like it is a separate illustration with no regard for how it interacts with the rest of the page.

The first thing I do when I approach a comic-style job is to set up a layout of two pages side by side, as they will appear in print. This is easy for my MAD work, because MAD provides me with that layout and there will never be any ads that interrupt an article. I’ll demonstrate with two pages of story from a MAD job. We’ll use 2005’s “Two and a Half Wits” since you mentioned it in your question:

Click for a closer look

Here I did some very loose roughs directly on the layout paper to “plan out” the story. The darker word balloon “tails” were drawn in for some reason on the black layout by someone from MAD… not sure why as I would likely have to move them depending on my art. I ignore those. I design and draw out the panels treating the entire two page spread as a single entity. I use the positions and directions of the figures, their actions, the angle of the scene, the depth of the “camera” and whatever other devices I can think up to make the panels interesting on their own but also work together as an interesting and balanced whole. You just can’t accomplish this by doing one panel at a time independent of the rest. When you end up piecing it together, you’ll have a disjointed, unbalanced looked collage.

Here’s the final inked spread for those two pages:

Click for a closer look…

This example is hardly a towering paradigm of storytelling genius. It’s in fact rather pedestrian, but it illustrates the point.

Getting back to your specifics about line weight and doing the panels individually rather than together- it’s rather the same concept. You want to vary line weights to create depth and interest to the art in each panel, but you still want to keep a coherent feel to the entire page. When I ink, I ink all the panels at the same time. I move about the page and do not ink one panel and move to the next. I’ll work on boldest lines and foreground figures first, then move on to more delicate lines and background objects, then on to more details, etc. The weight of the line gets consideration both for what it’s trying to accomplish in a given panel AND for it’s place in the page as a whole. If I did each panel separate and pieced them in, I would probably end up with a similarly disjointed feel I was trying to avoid by drawing the panels all together. This would be especially true if I did the panels not only individual but at random size scales. To do on panel at 150% of print size and another at 200% would affect the preception of the lines from the pen itself… better to do everything together so you have the greatest amount of control over the final product.

Thanks to Curtis Horsburgh for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar,¬¨‚Će-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Awesome to see the process breakdown with respect to visual “scales” and harmony. As a “newbie” and art explorer, reading this gives me a some direction with a simple and non-conventional comic page I’m creating to learn bit by bit (an experimental approach in learning I have adopted or fallen upon).
    ( I have fond memories of MAD magazine, and I am lucky to have bumped into your blog )… Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. […] always interesting hearing about how an artist enters webcomicdom. Also interesting is a peek into MAD illustration with Tom Richmond. Have you never wondered at the sheer number of celebrities in Mad’s crowd scenes […]


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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