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.