Sunday, May 5, 2024

On-Location Comics: A Sequence of Being Alive


4/21/24 Maple Leaf and Northgate

A couple of months ago when I first viewed Drewscape’s video about how he makes urban sketches as if they are comics, it blew my brain wide open. A short time later, he made another brief video about an activity he calls “real-time” autobiographical comics –basically sketching on location and completing a diary comic on the spot instead of further refining it in the studio later. While I’ve had intermittent interest in comics for a few years, what Drew was talking about opened my mind in a new and different way.

As is my habit whenever a creative idea grabs me, I dove in deep, first on the Internet (which was mostly unsatisfying) and then in books. I’ve had my nose buried in three of Scott McCloud’s books ever since: Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, which preceded McCloud’s books, has long been considered “the bible” of comics creation. However, I think McCloud not only goes deeper and wider in his probe of all things comics-related; I also find his books to be more readable and less academic than Eisner’s.

Other books I am planning to re-read are Lynda Barry’s Making Comics, Syllabus and Picture This. I had initially devoured these “bibles” of autobiographical comic-making a few years ago when I was working on developing imaginative drawing skills.

Although I’ve read a few graphic novels that I’ve enjoyed, I’m hardly well-read or knowledgeable of comics, especially fictional stories. For example, I’m not sure I’ve ever read an entire action/adventure superhero-type comic book. As always, my primary interest is in urban sketching, and my fascination is with how it can be approached as a non-fiction comic – a form of autobiographical comic.

4/24/24 Maple Leaf and Northgate

Throughout my reading of McCloud’s books, I kept getting hung up about two aspects of comic-making that he believes are integral: the “sequential” nature of comic art and the “story” aspect. A comic tells a story through a sequence of drawings (and usually, but not always, with words). Yet when sketching on location without the opportunity to edit or rearrange panels later, it is very difficult to know what the sequence should be or what the “story arc” will be (in a traditional fictional way).

McCloud is very clear about one thing: The medium of comics is not defined by content. Any type of content can be presented in comic form if the result falls within the definition that his vast research (not to mention geeky pondering) has led to:

Comics (n.) plural in form, used with a singular verb. 1. Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.

I could have chosen to be like Drew and simply enjoy sketching on location with a comic approach (he doesn’t discuss the concepts that trouble me; he just happily sketches). But I’m too much of a geek myself and maybe also a bit of an academic: If anything could be comics, then I wanted to understand the comics genre enough to find a way to make comics from urban sketches. (I also enjoy the study to find the answer.)

It was obvious from both McCloud’s and Eisner’s books that sequence is a key criterion to qualify as comics. McCloud goes so far as to state that single-panel comics appearing frequently in newspapers (he showed The Family Circus as an example), which typically include a drawing with words, technically do not qualify as comics because one drawing is not a sequence.

4/28/24 Maple Leaf

If I made a series of related urban sketches (all from the same location and within a small span of time, for example) and put them with words, would that qualify as comics? Drew would probably say yes, and I wanted to, but I was troubled by the term “deliberate sequence” in McCloud’s definition. If I rearranged the sketches, wouldn’t my page of panels have the same effect? I might have a common theme, but if there’s no story arc to determine the sequence, it’s not a deliberate sequence, is it? Hmmm.

4/29/24 Northgate

I kept reading, and the answer came in McCloud’s second book, Reinventing Comics: the Evolution of an Art Form, which continues where Understanding Comics left off. I realized that I had been taking the term “sequence” too literally – a series in a particular order such as A, then B, then C. Showing a simple example, McCloud indicates that a “sequence” does not necessarily have to follow a story arc or logic:

For even a few simple lines, when placed in sequence, can capture the rhythm of the unbidden images our eyes encounter every day.

In the very next panel (all of McCloud’s books are written in an ingenious comics form), he puts to rest the other aspect that I had found troubling:

The rhythm, not of a narrative, a story, or a play put on for our benefit, but of the simple experience of being alive on Earth.

From Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud
(apologies for the poor image; the book will not lie flat in my scanner,
so I had to shoot it with my phone)

What is an urban sketch if not a drawn observation of the simple experience of being alive?

And with that, I felt satisfied: My urban sketches – the simple stories from my walks – can be comics, too.

Geek-worthy study


  1. Very well written, Tina. Very satisfying to read - and also because I understand what you’re talking about. I’m struggling, not in a violent way, but happily exploring, like Winnie the Pooh looking for honey, the meeting point of urban sketching and making comics about my daily visual experiences.

    I also have those 4 books - but reading takes time away from drawing comics - so I’ll just read your nerdy-yet-friendly blogposts.

    ­čśÄ Roy

    1. Thanks, Roy! And happy to be exploring the comics world with you!

  2. I'm glad you worked out how your sketches could work in comic book form. I never had a desire to make comics, but I can see how your sketching several items a day would lead to that.

    1. I haven't always been interested in making (or even reading) comics, but it must be the right time in my creative life to explore this form, and I'm excited to do it!

  3. I have been enjoying your comic-styled Insta posts. This blog is nicely written and helps me appreciate this new approach. Maybe I will try "comic-on-location" and see if I like the fit. You never know.

    1. Carol, I appreciate your comments! I have kind of surprised myself by how much I am enjoying this approach! I hope you try it! :-)


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