1st Disclaimer: Points of Impact contains so many spoilers it can practically replace reading your comics. Know what that means? Read your comics first!
2nd Disclaimer: For the sake of simplicity and since it’s impossible for me to know exactly who did what for the specific elements I usually examine, unless the creators come forward themselves to set me straight, from now on I’ll assume that everything in the comic stems from a joint decision by both the artist and the writer. I figure I’ll get it right most of the time if I give each 50% of the credit. I apologize in advance if I’m off from time to time, but I’d rather give too much credit than not enough where it’s due.
The Lessons in Jeremy Holt and Selena Goulding’s COBBLE HILL #1
Writer: Jeremy Holt
Artist: Selena Goulding
Colorist: Adam Metcalfe
Letterer: Ed Brisson
Design: Tim Daniel
Script Editor: Brittany Matter
Publisher: 215 Ink
You know, I usually write this column using comics from the big names and the big companies out there. I’ve have had some good buzz from Fraction and Aja’s HAWKEYE recently over at Marvel, and Snyder is still one of my favorites over at the DC stables with great books like BATMAN and AMERICAN VAMPIRE. I also stepped off the beaten path on numerous occasions with some really cool Image stuff, Edmondson and Brubaker being some of the luminaries flying that particular banner.
More and more however, I get to read some remarkable comics, comics that hit every quality note that the big guys hit, from creators who’d have no reason to blush next to the other people I mentioned in that previous paragraph. More and more small publishers are popping up all the time on the comic market horizon. What they have to offer is often astoundingly good. These are companies who take chances and are handsomely rewarded for it.
So today we’re looking at a book from one such company – 215 Ink – and the book is Jeremy Holt and Selena Goulding’s COBBLE HILL #1.
COBBLE HILL tells the story of young Samantha Charles as she tries to unravel the mystery of her parents’ disappearance. Is she hallucinating all of these inanimate objects initiating conversations with her, or are those messages from someone trying to help her make some sense out of the tragedy in her life?
The reason I chose this comic is not only because it’s a fantastic read. If that was the only criterion for getting a mention here, I could write one of these twice a day for months on end. No, what really set COBBLE HILL apart in my mind is that it’s a patent demonstration on how to write a comic. There are some very basic concepts that you could actually study by reading Holt and Goulding’s comic, so simple, clear and efficient is their execution.
So sit back with your pad and pencil and prepare to take a lot of notes as you’re about to learn…
How to do exposition
Exposition is a huge stumbling block for a lot of comic creators. It’s not easy to get across to the reader all the information he or she needs in order to fully appreciate every nuance of your carefully-crafted plot. This can result in some unfortunate mishaps: clumsy name dropping, large info-dumps going for panels and panels or, even worse in my opinion, shameless butler-maiding.
Holt and Golding make it seem easy as they spend a mere page giving the reader some crucial information:
Here’s what we have:
- Establishing shot of the house where Samantha lives (in fact, every new location in the book is introduced by a classic establishing shot of the same type)
- Samantha’s last name, its use justified by the fact that her butler is an old-fashion guy who won’t use her first name (and that’s exposition/characterization in itself)
- The butler’s name, as a simple reply
- Samantha’s sleeping habits, which lead into…
- Samantha’s use of medication.which leads into…
- The name of the doctor who is treating Samantha, which leads into…
- An unknown illness plaguing Samantha, which leads into…
- The closeness between Samantha and Max, as revealed by his knowing her favorite breakfast (he’s not just an impersonal caretaker)
As I’ve said many times in the past, they key to doing exposition is plausibility. If you can pass off the transfer of information from one character to another as relevant to the situation you’ve placed them in, the reader won’t even be aware that he’s receiving exposition.
Here, every tidbit of info is justified either by the context itself or introduced by another part of the conversation. Information justified by context is first used to get the ball rolling: the establishing shot, the names and the short night’s sleep. As soon as that last subject is broached, Holt and Goulding latch onto it to reveal more about the situation: the medication, the doctor and the illness. You can see it every time I used the expression “which leads into”.
As is the case for the rest of this issue, exposition is always supported by at least one of these elements: context or previous mention. It’s a simple trick but, like the two other simple tricks I’m about to reveal, it’s one of those things that give COBBLE HILL its intangible aura of “good”.
How to do page-turn reveals
Another point on which I keep harping is the undeniable physicality of the medium of comics: how we’re stuck with the physical limitation of showing only one two-page spread at a time, but also how we can use that limitation to produce various effects, like simulating the passage of time, creating transitions between scenes and – as it will be discussed in a bit – to set up revelations upon the page-turn.
COBBLE HILL contains quite a few examples of page-turn reveals done right. For example, take this scene from the beginning. Samantha has come to the cemetery to pay her respects to her parents’ empty graves when she hears a strange voice (also notice how previous exposition at the breakfast scene has foreshadowed this happenstance).
These panels are located on the bottom of the right-side page. Notice how all we get as readers to intrigue us is the unusual lettering for the “voice”. It’s not much but it’s enough to build up a small amount of tension and expectation, thus making the act of turning the page even more enticing. Here’s what greets us on the next page.
Behold the reveal in all of its full-bleed glory! In this case, the image was striking enough to warrant the use of a splash page, but you’ll find plenty of other page-turn reveals throughout the book that lead to a single-panel treat instead.
The mechanic however is always the same: first comes the hook – a simple element of dialogue or art to pique the reader’s curiosity – and then, on the next page, the payoff. The hook can be anything that promises a change in the status quo, no matter how small in scale. In COBBLE HILL, I’ve seen hooks as simple as off-panel dialogue from an as-of-yet unknown character or the facial expression resulting from a character seeing another in a nice dress. As long as it gets the reader to say “I need to see where this leads,” and turn the page, you’re golden.
As an added bonus, Holt and Goulding even subvert the classic page-turn at some point. When Samantha visits an antique shop, she’s suddenly accosted by a talkative and insistent doll. Instead of doing it the usual way and leaving the image of the doll reaching out for the protagonist for the next page, they instead place it at the bottom of the right-hand page.
But there’s still a reveal in the fact that Samantha’s reaction to the doll is what’s kept for the other side of the page. Tension is created by the reader’s expectation of either a confrontation or flight, and the real outcome of the event is what constitutes the payoff.
As you can see, a page-turn doesn’t always lead to a shocking image. The release of tension is all it takes as a promise for the reader to want to turn the page more readily than usual.
How to do silent beats
I think I should have titled this article “Things I Often Say” because it seems I could preface every section with that sentence. Indeed, for the third and final time, we’ll be looking back at something I talked about at length in the past and of which Holt and Goulding show their mastery. This time, it’s about that invaluable skill that so many writers should acquire: that rare ability of shutting up and letting the art do some of the talking. Granted, shut up too much and your comic will be a terribly fast read, but talk too much and it quickly becomes a chore to get through it. Comics are a visual medium and we shouldn’t forget that the artist can tell a big part of the story with his art alone.
For now, let’s look at this page; it contains two examples of silent beats done right, albeit for different purposes.
The first half of the page shows a silent beat used as dialogue. Yes, that does make sense, let me explain. Samantha asks the group for their input for the school journal. Instead of having her be greeted by a barrage of “dunnos”, Holt and Goulding wisely opt for a silent panel. Coupled with the postures and expressions of the group – looking anywhere but at Samantha – this makes for a much more telling panel than if it had been filled with speech balloons.
Now the second half of the page instead uses a silent beat as characterization. Here, instead of replacing a few lines of dialogue, the silence replaces a whole batch of exposition that might have otherwise occurred in inner monologue, namely Jared’s affectionate feelings towards Samantha. Thus, used this way, the silent beat can potentially replace pages worth of exposition and so keep all of that precious real estate for use to actually tell the story itself instead of a story about the story.
I’ve just spent a whole article extracting very basic lessons that Holt and Goulding have demonstrated in COBBLE HILL #1, yet I’ve neglected to talk about the most important and basic lesson from that book: do the work.
Let’s talk a bit about Jeremy Holt. The man has been doing comics for such a long time, in such a selfless and absolute manner that there’s no doubt as to where such a product as COBBLE HILL comes from. It comes from hours, days, years of practice, of writing with no other purpose than the simple and invincible desire to make comics. Why didn’t he give up through all this? I strongly suspect it’s because he had understood that you don’t get to COBBLE HILL and SOUTHERN DOGS right away; rather you work your way there, and some day – after you’ve grunted your grunts and sweated your sweat – it happens.
I know more about Jeremy’s budding career since he’s been so open about it for so long on Twitter, on his blog, in podcasts and now in his column on Multiversity, but I’m certain from the results I see here that Selena went through something equally admirable, otherwise her artwork wouldn’t seen so accomplished and mature.
Sit down, do the work – even if you can’t see the results right away – do the work and the work will get done.
And hey, it might not be much, but you might have a shot at getting a mention on Points of Impact!
Thus, for the invaluable lessons in their comic, Jeremy Holt and Selena Goulding score a BULLSEYE for COBBLE HILL #1!
There are basic techniques that you can use that not only prove very useful for crafting your narrative, but they also demonstrate that you know how to fully exploit the medium that is comics. Exposition: use it sparingly and only when it’s plausible for the information to come up in the context of your story. Page-turn reveals: they’re a great way to keep your reader reading – hook him with a small mystery at the bottom of a right-hand page and relieve that tension on the other side of that page. Silent beats: they’re basically shortcuts for exposition and dialogue potentially replacing single lines or entire speeches – trust your artist to be as eloquent with his art as you can be with your words! But most of all: never stop working at your craft. Results come from breaking through the long painful parts of the practice they’re not gifts that you receive at the end of 30-second training montages.
By the way, check out EPIC KILL #6 coming out on Wednesday November 7th. Not only is it a kick-ass comic overflowing with action and drama, but you’ll also find, in the back, the first installment of my newest series or articles, UNSCREWED PANELS. If you like Points of Impact, you should like UP as well. It might be the complete opposite approach – building from the ground up instead of reverse-engineering – but I promise you the same insight and commitment to helping you make comics that you can find here. So have a look, won’t you?