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Comic Tutorial #2: Creating a tangible comic world
How to write a setting for your comic that gets readers gripped.
Hello and welcome to my second comic tutorial - an ongoing series where I share my expertise and experience of how write, produce, print, market, fund and sell your comics.
In this tutorial, I’m going to cover:
How to start building a setting for your comic at the earliest stage
How to nail down all the characteristics of your world before you even write your script (and why it can help keep your plot arc on track)
How to make your world feel like a ‘character’ in your story (so the reader really cares what happens to it, and they can really feel its atmosphere)
How to reinforce your world through realistic dialogue (and not exposition!)
Killtopia #1 art by Craig Paton
Before we dive in, following last week’s user poll, my free newsletter is now going out every two weeks instead of weekly. Theres a poll at the bottom of this tutorial for paid subscribers to vote on how often you’d like these paid posts. I want to make sure I’m always giving you value for money, so please let me know what you’d like.
Ready? Let’s talk about world-building!
1. Starting from nothing
So, let’s say you have a great ‘hook’ for a new comic story - like an elevator pitch you have in your head that you just know would make a great first issue of an arc; how do you actually start to work out where that story should be set?
I’ve come at this two different ways over the years:
I have a story hook and I already know the genre I want to use: for example, fantasy, post-apocalypse, cyberpunk - so the foundation of that setting is already semi-established (i.e. fantasy settings probably don’t have advanced technology, while cyberpunk settings usually do)
I have a story hook but no setting in mind: this also happens, and in the example of my beat ‘em up comic BPM: Beatdowns Per Minute, I knew I
wanted to do a tribute to my favourite genre of video games, but I worked out the story setting after.
Of course, you never do these two steps in isolation. I think most people (myself included) always have even a vague idea of where a story might be set, even if my idea for the world isn’t fully formed yet.
Stone City: the setting of our beat ‘em up comic, BPM: Beatdowns Per Minute with art by Steve Gregson and colour by Matt Herms.
In the case of my cyberpunk comic Killtopia, it didn’t actually start out as a story set in Neo Tokyo - in fact, the setting was just a vague cyberpunk story in a vague, unnamed city in a grounded reality (so no science fantasy stuff like aliens, super powers etc) but if you’ve read the series so far, you already know that it definitely didn’t stay as a grounded story.
So what changed along the way? Well, I really thought about the setting on a deeper level over the course of many months and it all clicked into place by asking myself questions about it, which brings me to…
2. Making the story and world fit
So you have even a vague idea of what your base story might be and you’re thinking about where it might be set. Here are some questions I’ve asked myself to help firm things up:
In what type of world does this kind of story make sense?
Does my world need a certain level of technology to make the plot work?
In what type of settings have I seen this type of story before? (and do I want to use that familiar setting or set it somewhere completely different)
Would it help to set my story in a world with restrictions? (Think the movie Home Alone - if it was set today, Kevin McAllister could have just called his parents’ mobile phones to tell him he was left behind - then boom! - the whole central hook of that movie’s plot falls apart.)
Perhaps most importantly: What kind of world genuinely interests and excites me? This is so important as you as the writer have to be passionate about the world you’re creating, and trust me, that passion will absolutely shine through and be recognised by everyone reading the final book.
The village of Stratum from my Dark Souls-inspired dark fantasy series Vessels (which is on hiatus just now but IS coming back in due time) Also, yes that is a giant teddy bear impaled on a gothic church spire! Art by Rafael Desquitado Jr. with colours by Dennis Lehmann.
These are the kind of questions that I ask myself before launching into a new comic series and I tend to think on the idea for a long time, sometimes months, before I actually start writing anything.
My take on this is - if I’m still fond of the idea after a while and I can clearly see where the arc goes beyond issue #1, then I know the idea’s worth continuing. If I can’t see a clear middle and ending for the story arc, then I’ll move on to something else (but I might also keep some ideas in mind for other projects down the line)
I decide to go ahead, one of the first things I do is write what’s commonly known as a ‘lore bible’ (which is often used in the video game industry). I do this on a far smaller scale than game studios, just as a small exercise to get my brain straight on what I’m working on. I always do this on a paper notepad (I always start my projects analogue as it helps me think about them more clearly) and write down some key basics to firm things up a little, such as:
What genre am I going for? (cyberpunk, fantasy, real life)
When is it set? (near future, far future, a specific year)
Where is it set (in a dystopian mega city, a small rural town)
What is the setting like (oppressive, optimistic, safe, dangerous)
What are the world’s rules (high tech, everyone can use magic)
What does the world feel like (busy, loud, bustling, quiet)
Neo Tokyo’s ‘Death Coast’ as seen in Killtopia #4 - a lawless zone on the sea-facing side of the city’s massive sea wall, where ships crash constantly and are looted by gangs. None of these details are explained through exposition, but reinforced by my panel descriptions, and brought to life on the page by artist Clark Bint and colourist Lou Ashworth.
When I was a games journalist many years ago, there was a buzz term that was going around for a while about games that had strong, engaging settings as having a real “sense of place” - and that has always stuck with me. You want your comic setting to have a sense of place, like it’s a tangible, lived in world.
I mainly get my comic inspiration from video games (not other comics) and I always think of Half-Life 2’s City 17 and BioShock’s Rapture as prime examples of worlds that feel lived in and real. Can you think of any that really stood out to you? If so, think about why they spoke to you and try to tap into that same vibe for your own world.
Do I always succeed in creating a real sense of place? That’s for my readers to judge, but I’ll always try my best to make my settings feel authentic.
Lastly, here’s a look at how you can enforce a sense of place in your new setting through characters, dialogue and the art itself.
3. Kick it up a notch in your script
So, by now you might have a far clearer idea of where your comic is set, how the world ‘feels,’ what its rules are and you can probably even close your eyes and imaging what it would be like to walk around in it. Honestly, give it a try, you might be amazed at how clearly you can envision your world in your own head.
When it comes to introducing and fleshing out your world, you want to do so primarily through character dialogue, background details and light (not heavy!) exposition. Literally every story has exposition to some degree, for better or worse. You can do it in an effective way that’s not heavy-handed, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
I’ll break down this example of background world-building I’ve used, because while it might look like a simple scene out of context, in the context of the whole Killtopia series, there’s so much more going on here:
Killtopia #3 art by Clark Bint, colours by Lou Ashworth and lettering by Micah Myers
In Killtopia, most of the story takes place in the neon-lit, cramped and busy city of Neo Tokyo, with its tall skyscrapers and constantly overbearing corporate messaging and social media hype.
This scene takes place in the hunting grounds of Sector-K (AKA ‘Killtopia) which so far have always been shown to be like destroyed city blocks that have been reclaimed by nature over a decade.
I deliberately tried to make this scene look beautiful and serene, as the sequence culminates in an expected burst of shocking violence that comes out of nowhere (like a calm before the storm), but I also wanted to show that there are remnants of the old world to be found within the metallic, man-made sprawl of Neo Tokyo.
The red Torii gate in the bottom panel was worked into my panel descriptions to show that Japan’s history and identity still exists in this chaotic new place that’s been built over it. But, if you look closer you’ll see the wires hanging off it - a small sliver of this man-made world, threatening to consume everything natural and historic that went before it.
Lastly, by this point in the Killtopia arc (no spoilers!) there is a real struggle between humanity and the natural world, against a synthetic threat that seeks a mechanised, unnatural world. This scene in nature shows the kind of world and future our cast are fighting for.
Exposition without overdoing it
This Killtopia #4 panel takes place in the “Deep Web” - Neo Tokyo’s version of the Dark Net. Art by Clark Bint, colour by Lou Ashworth, letters by Micah Myers.
Here are my a few favourite ‘go-tos’ for explaining elements of your comic world in a way that feels natural:
TV broadcasts: as a fan of satirical shows like Brass Eye and The Day Today (Google them!) I love writing silly TV skits in my comic worlds, where you can get a feel for what’s going on in the world without if feeling like it’s just a huge, unnatural info-dump - because it’s a newscasters job to tell you what’s happening in the world. However, their dialogue still has to feel natural (more about that in point 2)
This example - drawn and coloured by Craig Paton, with lettering from Rob Jones - is a TV skit that airs literally moments after Neo Tokyo thinks the city’s top Mech Hunter, Stiletto has died (she hasn’t) and how fickle people have become thanks to the city’s reliance on social influence. It was also an attempt to satirise how, when musicians die, their music suddenly hikes in value, which is pretty grim, when you really think about it.
This scene seems like a joke, but it’s a huge catalyst or Stilettos growth as a character in the next issue - she sees her fans turn on her like this and it makes her feels replaceable, hurt, and willing to change as a person.
Also: note the background details - the big sign behind them that says “DEAD” just reinforcing how quickly this news pundit has jumped to the conclusion that Stiletto is dead, without seeing a body first, because hey, it makes for good TV. Also, look at the shirts the two studio guests are wearing - they were huge fans of Stiletto moments ago, but now they’re big fans of cashing in on her apparent death. All these little factors add up to reinforce your world and the kind of people in it.
Cut-aways help to make detail dumps feel natural: One of the most important rules in comics is “show, don’t tell” but when you really do need to explain something, make sure it’s a character explaining something to another character and not just a monologue that’s basically telling the reader the raw details.
Killtopia #4 art by Clark Bint, with colours from Lou Ashworth and letters from Micah Myers
For example, the above example started in the script as a vague cliff note “Character A explains this key plot point to Character B” (I’ve removed their names to avoid spoilers!) But whenever this happens, I’ll always cut away to show the thing that the person is explaining, so you can visualise and firm it all up in your mind.
Flashbacks are also a good tool for doing this and showing readers what the characters world and existence looked like in the past, which also adds to the setting’s sense of place. All these things are cumulative and do add up, trust me.
Keep your expository dialogue natural, while working in some world-building slang and tone: I love writing dialogue. It’s the most fun part of scripting for me. I’ll do a whole tutorial on dialogue in future, but basically, write it, speak it out loud or in your head and refine it until it feels real - then add in the world’s influence with things like slang and terminologies unique to your world.
Killtopia #2 panel by Craig Paton, with letters by Micah Myers
The above example, has Shinji explaining something to Omi, as she’s confronted him about the secret double-life he’s been leading as a Killtopia mech hunter - so naturally, he has some explaining to do. This situation-based exposition feels more natural as there’s a good reason for him to say all this stuff to Omi.
But, we learn so much about the world of Killtopia through what Shinji says here:
We know that access to the Killtopia hunting grounds must be heavily restricted, based on the effort Shinji goes to get in and out
We know he’s technically skilled, due to him hacking the laser grids
We know that the ruling powers of Neo Tokyo don’t want Mechs to get into the city for some reason - due to the laser grids
We learn that Shinji learned everything he knows from his dad, so his dad must also have been someone with technical knowledge
Shinji mentions black hat scripts and something called the Deep Web, which we don’t see until Killtopia #3, but it exists in this world, so he mentions it.
This is why every word of your script matters, but we’ll dive into dialogue in a future tutorial.
I’ll do a part two to this guide in future, but the last thing I’ll add is, this takes time to get right, and many draft iterations and refinement. It all starts with imagining your world as a real place and taking it from there.