The 5 Choices of Comics Theory and What It Has to do with You

by . August 11th, 2014

Hi. My name is Hoogie Espinosa. I’m the Senior Editor of YTD’s sister blog, You the Entrepreneur. If You haven’t met me on any other platform, you probably don’t know that I’m deep into arts: most specifically, comics.

Spiderman Blue
Spiderman Blue by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
It’s just a great and diverse platform. Sure, most of what we see are either American superhero ones, or Japanese manga with quick and dynamic action or literally flowery romance. But other than being pictures beside each other in a certain order, there’s no rules to it.

But what do comics have to do with you, the usual visitor of YTD who probably has nothing to do with comics? I’m here to tell you a few points on comic theory and how you can apply it to further your practice, whatever it may be: illustration, typography, graphic design, web, whatever.


Let’s begin.


Comics, like any other form of art, needs a message. Sometimes, we want it to be hidden or mysterious. Don’t do that unless there’s reason behind it. You want to hit your audience with clarity.

Blankets by Craig Thompson
With that goal in set, we have to learn how to communicate clearly and understand what we need to persuade our audience to stay with us. This “stay-factor” is defined not only by our message but how we choose to portray it. In the world of comics, these choices are broken into five types: moment, frame, image, word, and flow, according to Scott McCloud’s Making Comics.

  • Choice of moment – which moments to include
  • Choice of frame – the right distance and angle to portray a moment
  • Choice of image – the characters, objects, and environments
  • Choice of word – words that add valuable information and work well with the images around
  • and choice of flow – how readers go through and between panels on a page or screen.


These choices can make the difference between amazing storytelling and horrid babble. They’re also what I want to focus on for this post.

Choice of Moment

Anya's Ghost
Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
In comics, a choice of moment decrees the number of frames to use to portray a scene and the stuff inside those frames, such as if you needed a guy running, any number of frames would do, but you only really need one. However when portraying something more complicated, like picking up a key on the ground, you’ll need more than one frame to fully depict your message. Removing a single frame can change the story entirely, or maybe that frame wasn’t needed at all.

This may apply to other forms of art. Removing a certain stroke can be the difference of an “F” and a “T.” Removing an element off of a poster change an informational to a teaser. Or perhaps there’s a part of your design that has no substantial value and is just needless distraction. Consider what you want to do with your piece, the various things needed to illustrate your message, and apply them justly.

Choice of Frame

Swamp Thing
Swamp Thing (New 52) by Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette
A choice of frame can seem more obvious when it comes to other forms of art, but it is quite interesting to see it from a comic artist’s point of view.

When a comic frame is zoomed out, it is usually to show where the story takes place and lets you relate to the surroundings. Where as frames that are zoomed in are for focusing on something.. By adjusting things like balance and tilt, you can affect your audience’s impressions of a piece and their relation to it.

By framing things in specific ways, your website could look friendly, or maybe prestigious and elite. Do you think that next word should be widely kerned or narrowly? Should your illustration show fluidity, or solid structure? Framing can change the total effect of your work, between past and present, power and humility, etc.

Elements within your piece can be viewed from so many different angles and compositions. You may even have multiple ones in a single set. However when one’s purpose is clarity, keeping things uniform may be best. You could have things in odd angles and placements, but just make sure it works and does not distract people from your message.

That said, sometimes these crazy angles are not distractions, but actually needed. There’s no reason to stay within what’s hip or what everyone’s used to.

Choice of Image

Underwater Welder
The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire
Comics come in different styles, from Marvel to manga and everything in between.  One of the reasons why comics are so endearing is that the styles work with their narrative. You won’t see a horror comic in the style of the Peanuts, or an action-packed saga in the style of My Little Pony (maybe some Brony fandom works, but they still look cute rather than portraying bloody-fisted action.)

This applies to other art forms as well. There are many ways to do a signage, or an ecommerce website, or an infographic, but choosing the right style to convey your message is important.

Remember this image?

Oogmerk Opticians ad

As stereotypical as it is, it does have a point. Just like a choice of moment, removing a piece gives you a whole new puzzle.

However, a choice of image is not always about style. Sometimes, it’s about tiny details that make your image work. Whether it’s that certain roundness to your bowls, or a texture to your design at 5% opacity. Tiny details can foreshadow events to come. Different levels of abstraction can push your audience towards a specific mood or emotion. The clarity of an artwork can be defined by the piece as a whole, but also by the tiny details that make it. You may have all the talent in the world with art, but if you can’t communicate well, you’re going to die out against the newbie that does.

Choice of Word

Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba
Choosing your words effectively helps deliver your message with clarity and purpose. Out of the types, this may be the one with most likeness between that of comics and that of everything else. However, depending on your work, you might not need this at all as it only has to do with well… words.

Words are beautiful things. You can get an image so vague and surreal like a Salvador Dali painting, and make it whole by giving it words. They help us communicate faster. Even deaf people have their own words through hand gestures.

A change in words could make an open and friendly wedding invite to a mysterious and intriguing concert ticket. You could get a long and tiresome website and making it simpler by wording things clearly and concisely. Sometimes though, the image does a better job on its own, and you just need to let go of the text.

Choice of Flow

I Kill Giants
I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura
This is the part of the post I’ve been waiting to write. It’s what makes comics so different, but can still apply to different works of art.

Flow is how you guide the audience from beginning to end. Have you ever read a comic but didn’t know what frame to look at next, or be confused with a certain scene only to realize pages later that the way you read it was wrong? Those comics have bad flow. In most countries, people read left-to-right, then up-to-down. This applies also to comics and images. Even when scanning a room, people tend to look left-to-right.

In design, the flow of your elements makes things more harmonious and readable. In a lot of advertisement banners, the most important information is either a center-aligned vertical stream from top to bottom, or a diagonal one from top-left to bottom-right with the prime focus on the center. An off-center focus with no “counter weight” can lead to the information in other areas being ignored, which could be good or bad depending on your intentions. Doing anything out of the norm can confuse the subconscious, This is also why magicians are great at what they do.

There’s no way to force viewers to a certain path or element, but you can somewhat guide or predict what they’ll pay attention to. By understanding human psychology, you can make this work for you, whether you’re going for a clear image or a sneaky illusion.


Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun
Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun by Izumi Tsubaki
By making smart choices, you can grasp clarity and head towards your artwork’s ultimate goal: comprehension. Juggle them your own way and find that sweet spot so that your audience can follow your story with whatever you do.

If you want to read more on art and design, follow You the Designer through Facebook and Twitter. If you want to follow more of Hoogie’s writing or are interested in enhancing your freelancing or entrepreneurial skills, follow our sister blog, You the Entrepreneur.

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