Sunday Mailbag

April 5th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: When you do the splash page for say the “30 Rock” satire you did, how do you figure out how the background fits in reference to the characters? is there some simple geometry that you use? I always seem to have too big of a space, or everything looks like its getting crammed in. I am not really used to drawing characters in an environment, do you have any advise? Also when you do a big ensemble do you ever cheat and draw characters separately and add them or do you keep them the same from the rough stage?

A: Here’s the “30 Rock” splash referred to:

Click for a closer look…

It all starts with having to work out the placement of the “principals” with respect to the dialogue boxes. MAD initially sends me a layout:


This one was pretty easy, as there is very little dialogue compared to some I’ve had to work on. Obviously the characters speaking the lines need to be near their boxes… everything else is totally up to me.

The first thing I do is rough out the basic “scene” or environment, then place the principals in. Sorry I do not scan jobs in at these stages, so I have no visuals to demonstrate. Once I have the principals in place, I fill out the background adding elements and gags. There is no formula or system for this other than basic balance.

Click for a closer look

I add elements to the backgrounds based on the feel of balance in the piece. With the heavier number of principal characters on the right I needed some visual balance on the left, so I added the body guards, Rachel Drach and the visual gag of the “german shepherds” from Tina Fey‘s American Express commercial, plus her kid, the Alfred Emmy and the Lorne Michaels dartboard. Even so it’s a little right heavy, but it’s working. I have a more complete description of working with primary and secondary characters in this post.

Balance also means filling areas that have too much dead space with something to break it up. That’s where objects like the spilled coffee cup, script pages and stage lights come in. It’s a balancing act, because it would be easy to become too busy by filling every available space with something.

What I will do once the important elements are in place is to step back and look at the piece from a little distance, unfocusing my eyes or looking through squinted eyes. This eliminates the detail and allows you to look at the basic shapes and values. You have to use a little imagination, as the values you add later will change the balance. I knew the upper area would be heavy black, and where other black elements would be… in fact I actually roughed those values in at the pencil sketch stage… that helps.

I wish I had a magic bullet for this, but it’s always been a building and balance process for me without a formula or logical set of rules to apply.

As to your final question: I almost never draw the caricatures separately and paste them in… that inevitably leads to a vaguely disjointed and awkward feel to the illustration.

Thanks to Mark Grant for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. […] found this to be a useful tidbit about doing ensemble cast scenes from Tom […]


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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