What Is a Comic Book and What Are Its Main Features?

We look at the features and uses of this popular narrative format made up of pictures and words

If you want to tell a story, you can be really experimental using a comic format. You can write humor, social commentary, or fantasy, and even tell secrets. You can fit all sorts of genres and ideas into a comic if you know how to exploit it.

To evaluate all these possibilities, it is important to understand what exactly is a comic, and what are the main elements it consists of. Once we know this, we can start to structure and organize our messages on the strips.

Illustrator and artist Sol Díaz Castillo (@soldiazcastillo) is an expert and explains some of the essential technical notions.

Learn to express your ideas with comic strips.
Learn to express your ideas with comic strips.

What is a comic?

Technically, a comic is a text expressed through illustrations on strips or frames. Some or all strips can contain text of various lengths. This simple definition explains why this is considered such a versatile format: the creative use we can make of the cartoons, illustrations, words, and other elements we'll talk about later, demonstrate that the possibilities are almost endless.

Comic art, just like cinema, is considered sequential art, as it aims to tell stories in a sequence. This art is not new: sequential art made its first appearance in cave paintings, in Egyptian hieroglyphics, and in the pottery of Ancient Greece. During more recent times comics were considered children's literature. From the Sixties onwards, they also became a form of expression aimed at adult audiences dealing in more serious themes.

the classic comic format is made up of four strips, illustrations and text.
the classic comic format is made up of four strips, illustrations and text.

What are the most popular formats of comics?

Bearing in mind that a comic does not fulfill only a standard format, Sol explains that there are three more popular formats for a comic:

- Those consisting of images alone, and tell stories through graphic elements, without the need for words.
- Those who consist of images and words. The most classic format presents four separate images, I.e strips, in which characters either interact in dialog, or there is a text that explains what is being shown.
- The graphic novel. This is the longest comic format. You can create a much larger universe. with it. The strips, for example, have different sizes depending on what you want to represent. The graphics are more developed and the narration moves at a different pace. Sol explains that this type of format is similar to that of a movie script.

Quino's 'Mafalda' is a classic comic mixing humor and politics.
Quino's 'Mafalda' is a classic comic mixing humor and politics.

What are the themes of a comic?

Although it is highly impossible to reduce to a single list all the themes a comic can deal with, Sol explains that some frequent and consistent variables appear in a comic.

These comics explore fictional universes and talk about beings beyond humans and push the limits of reality. The reading can be chaotic. These themes fit well within the graphic novel genre because it needs to develop slowly.

These comics are based on real facts and aim to critique, revise, or contextualize. They reflect the opinion and questioning of the author and, in time, can become a valuable testament to understand social contexts. They are also best developed as graphic novels.

When this theme is developed, there is a lot of text, and personal writing included. As a matter of fact, Sol explains, often there are no strips or speech bubbles, and the text surrounds the illustrations.

In these stories, told in strips from start to finish, themes are explored through funny situations. Humor fits shorter formats, as it requires quick comprehension to get to the punchline.

This theme can be developed in a dense narrative style but works really well in short format and mixed with humor. In addition, it creates a connection with the reader.

In 'Peanuts' we find a fantasy world in which one of the protagonists is Snoopy, a dog.
In 'Peanuts' we find a fantasy world in which one of the protagonists is Snoopy, a dog.

The main elements of a comic

In addition to the strips, the illustrations, and the texts, all comics, as a genre, share certain elements that must be taken into account by the author:

- The plane: the profile of the character or the setting.
- The angle: where is the 'camera' positioned, i.e., what are we showing, what can be seen.
- The representation of the moment or passing of time: these elements give us details about the time of day, the date, the seasons in which what we see takes place.
- Representation of movement: ways that express the dynamism of bodies or objects
- Speech bubbles: they express what the characters say or think.
- Onomatopoeia: the verbal representation of a noise or sound.
- Symbols: a lightbulb can represent an idea, or a 'zzz' representing the act of sleeping, are part of this language.

An escape represented as onomatopoeia.
An escape represented as onomatopoeia.
Onomatopoeia in Batman.
Onomatopoeia in Batman.

What is a webcomic?

According to Sol, a webcomic has all the features of a comic but is not so linear. This means that it is not generated at any particular moment and has no objective apart from commenting reality. Webcomics are shared on social media, either on Instagram or Twitter, and consist of four to five strips. They are similar to comics published daily where nothing, in particular, happens to the character but accompanies the life of people as if they really existed somewhere.

Webcomics are specifically created for social media.
Webcomics are specifically created for social media.

What skills do I need to create a comic?

To create a comic you need basic drawing skills, for illustrating, as well as observation skills and creativity. Also, obviously, you need basic technical tools, for example, a working method that allows you to be able to transfer your inspiration into real strips.
Some experts recommend you also have good general knowledge and are interested in different fields. The bigger the inner universe of a creator, the more interesting what they can tell. In any case, the ability to tell stories is innate in humans, and you can make the most of it by acquiring the tools that work for you.

Tips for publishing your fist comic

The first thing to consider is that the 'independent comic' label covers several genres and ways to conceive this medium, as many as there are comic strip creators. Each publisher will follow a distinctive line to match the (multiple) personalities of the creators. Of course, there are also smaller and bigger publishers: perhaps aiming to the top might be just a way to start out. In order to be published, you need talent, a definite style, and a whole lot of perseverance. Most of all, you need to know what the publishers are looking for.

Sol Díaz Castillo teaches how to express your ideas on comic strips.

Would you like to learn to create your own comic strips based on your own personal experiences? Sign up to the course Creating an Autobiographical Webcomic , in which Sol Díaz Castillo will teach you all you need to begin, starting with five stories and four strips.

English version by @acesarato.

You may also like:

- The 6 Most Expensive Comics in the World
- History of Comics: a tale of thousands of years
- 10 Great Manga Artists and Their Work

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