Backgrounds-Schmackgrounds…

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In my best Asgardian impression let me answer that question by saying: I SAY THEE, NAY! Comic strips do not NEED backgrounds. In fact, I submit to you that drawing backgrounds in a comic strip is more of a luxury than a necessity.

One does not NEED to draw backgrounds in each panel in order for their strips to be funny, popular or successful.

Now some of you might read that last line and say “Oh Chris is just trying to come up with an excuse for being lazy” but you would be wrong. My answer goes much deeper than that.

Sure, on the surface, it may seem as though I’m being “lazy” by not taking the time to draw a bunch of details behind all the characters in my strip. In fact, I have often stated on many Webcomic Alliance podcasts how fast I can crank out a Capes & Babes strip if I absolutely have to – and I grant you, one of the big reasons I’m able to do that is because I don’t  spend a huge amount of time dealing with so much unnecessary details in the background of each of my panels.

WHY I FEEL BACKGROUNDS ARE OVER-RATED…

I come from a theatrical background. In high school and college, it’s quite common to put on what’s known as “one act plays”. If you’ve never been to a night of One Act Plays, this is what happens:

There are a series of plays where a small group of actors will take the stage and act out a scene. The scene could be at a railroad station, a prison cell, a court room or any where else. The stage is usually comprised of the absolute barest of props… maybe a table, a bench or some chairs. There aren’t any elaborate stage set-ups. In fact, the only focus to details might be the actor’s costumes.

When a one-act is complete, the stage lights are cut off and that group of actors take their minimal amount of props off stage with them and a new group comes out with their own minimal props and the cycle repeats.

In all of this, the focus is always on the actors, the scene and their dialog. No one ever laments about the fact there wasn’t a painted landscape behind the actors. No one ever complains there weren’t prison bars visible to help the audience realize the actors were in a cell. Especially if the scene – and the actors – are compelling and entertaining.

If the actors have done their job well enough, they can help paint a picture of an invisible cell for their audience so that the audience can focus only on their words and their scene.

That’s a little bit of what I try to do with Capes & Babes.

I’M NOT SAYING BACKGROUNDS AREN’T IMPORTANT THOUGH…

What I’m saying is that you don’t HAVE to have backgrounds in every…single…panel. In some cases, drawing a background establishing shot IS absolutely essential. This would be akin to the one-act narrator letting the audience know where the scene is taking place before the lights come up on stage.

You will sometimes need an establishing shot to set your scene up but once it is set up, do you need to draw every single detail where your strip takes place? Again, I say thee, nay.

In fact, I would argue very few newspaper syndicated cartoon strips actually have a lot of background details in every single panel. Of course, some of that has to do with the medium itself. Since newspaper strips are getting smaller and smaller, too much detail in every panel can run the risk of a strip looking too busy or messy.

I know it’s quite common for webcomic creators to pretend syndicated comic strips are the enemy but I say go pick up a newspaper and take a close look at all the humor strips on the comics page. Exactly how many of them do you see that have detailed backgrounds in every single panel? I’ll bet you’d be surprised at how many DON’T have backgrounds.

BUT IF DRAWING BACKGROUNDS IS YOUR CUP OF TEA…

Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. If people enjoy drawing backgrounds – and some people do – that is perfectly okay. Again, this is a about whether or not backgrounds in every panel are NECESSARY and feeling perfectly fine without feeling the pressure to draw a bunch of unnecessary junk behind every character in your strip.

MY CAPES & BABES BACKGROUND PHILOSOPHY…

What I try to do with Capes & Babes is to adopt that one-act play mentality. If the strip calls for it, I try to set up an establishing shot in the first panel, but after that, is it REALLY necessary to spend a lot of time drawing tons of comic books on a comic book shelf just so I can drive it in to the minds of my readers that “hey look… these characters are all in a comic book store because LOOK! There are comic books behind them!”.

I don’t think so. Long time readers already know 90% of the strips already take place inside a… comic book shop.  Drawing the comic book shop counter and cash register is usually enough to establish that fact.

BUT SOMETIMES I’LL STILL HAVE TO DRAW BACKGROUND PROPS…

That comes in the form when someone in the comic book store is watching something on TV. When that happens, I have to show it because it is an important element to the strip. There are still places where one must still conform to the rules of good story telling techniques, but that still doesn’t mean I have to draw every panel, every shelf or every long box in the store to get people to buy in to the fact it’s still a comic book store.

In that situation, I allow the audience to paint their own vision of what they imagine Capes & Babes truly looks like – just like one-act plays allow the audience to pain their own pictures of the jail cell, the court room or the train station.

That way, they don’t have to be distracted by all the pretty stuff in the background and can just focus on the characters since the characters of Capes & Babes are way more important to me than how many comic books I draw behind Roy, Marc or any other character that happens to wonder into the store.

Do you agree with my philosophy or do you think I’m just making a very elaborate excuse as to why I’m a lazy bastard?

Discuss in the comments section below.

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Posted in Conversations, Debate, Drawing, Featured News.

17 Comments

  1. Is there any irony in noting that the picture you use at the top has a background? 🙂 BTW, I agree that backgrounds are not absolutely necessary.

  2. Personally, for me, when it comes to backgrounds, I think it’s an artistic choice. Less is more and if the backgrounds don’t really aid the content going on in front of it, why not be minimal about it, if you desire? Arlo and Janice is famous for using next to nothing in their strips, except for the prop that helps with the gag.

    I’ve never viewed newspaper comics as the enemy, in fact, they are my inspirations. Years ago I had a back and forth discussion w/ Brad Guigar [I think it was] over the use of curved rectangle word bubbles vs. oval word bubbles. He’s against them, but comic after syndicated comic use them, from B.C. to Wizard of ID and Zits. Those are the little things I brought to my work and it’s those influences I used in my work.

    You can blame your choice on laziness [I had an art teacher back in the day that said comic strips are made by lazy arists], but I’ve been reading your comic for years and your visual choices have always matched your style of delivery. I think what we deliver, is all part of our own artistic design. We give our work what we think complements it, whether its an elaborate background, or a wall w/ a square to suggest a wall hanging.

    Artistic choice is subjective, what one person applauds, another is there thumbing their nose at it.

  3. Like everything else with a webcomic, you have to weigh the pros and cons with backgrounds. It doesn’t hurt to fluctuate between “background” and “no background” from panel to panel either. Sometimes backgrounds clutter everything up, especially when you add the speech bubbles and what not over the top of it.

    What I’m doing with several upcoming episodes of my new comic, HOLES IN IT, is leave the unimportant backgrounds as simple muted line drawings. No color or detail, just the lines at 50% transparency to give you the idea there’s more to the scene than just a kitchen table, for example, but not enough where it’s competing with the foreground and making the comic too busy.

    My previous comic, FRIK’IN HELL, I did do full details on the backgrounds, and it worked really well. Naturally it was more work, but for that type of comic I felt it necessary.

  4. I’d argue that some webcomics need backgrounds more often than others. For a gag strip, backgrounds are only necessary if the location is part of the joke, but other kinds of strips may find them more essential. Comics with more realism, physical action, or emphasis on storyline would probably be better served by going the extra mile to include more backgrounds. One of my favorite webcomics, Dumbing of Age, makes liberal use of backgrounds, and it really enriches the strip’s college setting.

    • Yeah… you won’t get any argument from me, Jackson, that some strips need backgrounds. I would also say that’s certainly the case for Long Form Comics – I don’t know if I made that proper distinction well enough above. My thoughts were mostly focused only on the gag-a-day type comic strips. 🙂

      Also, on a very personal level, I actually really love comic strips that have really intricate and nicely designed backgrounds. two such strips are Girls with Slingshots and Zombie Roomie. Both of those strips have really fantastic backgrounds and, I think, is part of the charm for both of those strips.

      I just don’t know if I’d be able to maintain a regular schedule if I personally drew backgrounds as detailed as Danielle Corsetto and John Wigger do. That would just drive me insane. 😀

  5. Good advice, Chris! I generally use a semi-detailed background as an establishing shot in my first panel, especially if it’s essential to the outcome of the punchline.

    Sometimes I’ll make the first few panels background appear to be obscure if the punchline relies on an exact setting (for instance, a “gentlemen’s club”).

    If my comic is basically dialogue-driven, then the background is unimportant but I will include a light one merely as character-position in one or two panels.

    I really appreciate your sage advice!

  6. Great article. I never compared webcomics to one act plays before, but you make a really solid point. When I remember comic strips that have really stood out to me, I remember the characters and dialogue, but I don’t even recall if those strips used backgrounds or not.

    • Kathleen, there’s no wrong with that. In fact, from a purely artistic standpoint, there are a lot of benefits to doing what you’re doing…

      Drawing backgrounds will force you to become a better perspective artists as well as force you to draw objects you may not feel confident in drawing… say animals or cars and things like that.

      I’m just saying you don’t absolutely NEED them in order to tell a really good joke in four panels. 🙂

  7. Interesting discussion. Yeah, I think sometimes backgrounds work and sometimes you don’t need them at all. It can be fun to try it both ways with your webcomic. It really is up to personal preference and what you think is best for any particular comic strip.

  8. With every aspect of a comic, you should be asking yourself “What am I trying to communicate?”, and then “Does this element help or hinder that goal?” If the scene is a couple having an argument, you probably want the focus to be on their expressions and body language, to show how upset they are…a detailed background is just going to be a distraction. But if your story is about a small-town girl visiting the big city for the first time, then drawing in the crowds of people and looming skyscrapers might help convey her feelings of being overwhelmed. Whatever helps you get the point across.

    Charles Schulz was the master of judicious use of detail. If the gag was about Charlie Brown pitching a baseball game, you’d get a shot of Charlie standing on the pitcher’s mound. That’s it. He didn’t draw in all the baselines or the chain-link fence or even the opposing team. You see Chuck on a little hill with his hat and glove, and you instantly understand where he is and what he’s doing, and he could get on with telling the joke.

  9. You’re spot on. Admittedly, at HH2B, we’re drawn by one of the worst artists in the history of comics, so not having a background is not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s a creative choice. Do the backgrounds add to the plot, the gag, the punchline? Then you don’t need them.

    For my part, I try to occasionally use a changing movie poster somewhere in the apartment to show passage of time — you can often guess when the strip was written — if not by the topic gag itself — by the movie the gang’s currently favoring with wall space.

  10. The idea that a creative choice is less valid because it can be perceived as lazy is kind of silly. Admittedly I’m a bit biased since I’ve chosen a style where I don’t have to produce a new background for each frame. That could be perceived as lazy, but for me it’s a creative choice to get the look and work process that I want. Basically I’ve just traded one type of headache for another.

    Since I’m doing this one-gag-a-day, yet serial, webcomic, I try to use the background to occasionally give clues about the story world surrounding the characters, hopefully without taking too much focus from the gags. Having a background in every frame allows me to do it a bit more discretely, I think. That’s one of my reasons to go with backgrounds in every frame, but this of course isn’t relevant for everyone.

  11. I think the background is just part of the style that makes your comic unique. If it’s part of your package, that’s great. If not, that’s another good choice. In Strange Quark I tend to spend a fair amount of time working on backgrounds. But then I usually end up covering the best parts with dialog. “There’s a really cool radar dish here that you can’t see . . .”

  12. After reading this, I realized that the presence of background in my strip vary all over the map. The reason became clear very quickly.

    My comic looks at various aspects of comics, from doing cons to merchandising to drawing techniques. Most comics have minimal (like none whatsoever) backgrounds to very detailed. The detailed ones are almost always when I’m doing a (mini-long-form) story line and the minimal ones are gag strips.

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