Part 2: Words & Pictures

Exercise: Wordplay


Make 4 copies of the provided comic, which shows some of the typical visual elements of a comic’s page:

  • An opening scene
  • A conversational interaction between people
  • A facial reaction
  • An action scene
The comic strip provided with the brief

Make written notes about each page in the following ways:

  1. Dialogue only: think about what the people might be thinking to themselves or saying to each other in each panel. Write down this dialogue script.
  2. Captions only: narrate the scene in each panel. Your writing could add to the image or be a parallel narrative, describing something that happened in the same scene in the past or that might happen in the future. Write down these captions.
  3. A third person narrative: this means describing or discussing the pictures or adding detail to them, but using the ‘voice’ of a character. It could be the inner monologue or someone pictured in the panels, or a character describing the scene form their perspective, like a secret agent or newsreader. Try to be inventive and write down this descriptive text.
  4. A combination of all of these three approaches.

Once you have made notes on the possible texts, write your selected final text up clearly as speech balloons, bubbles or captions and stick them on to your pages with a glue stick. Think about where to place them so you do not cover up important parts of the pictures.

Idea for Back Story

I began this exercise by trying to think of various scenarios that the comic could be depicting, such as the couple being friends or going on a date, but I wanted to expand on this with a small back story to make it more interesting to me:

She is a young, undercover agent who has been sent to a nondescript town to investigate potential extraterrestrial infiltrations and unexplained activities (she is not a local, but pretending to be visiting a relative). In order to blend in, she agreed to go a on date with a local ‘jock’ type, but is not interested at all, although he is fairly keen on her.

They have just been to see a movie and are walking back to his car, he is talking about speaking to his football coach about a promotion. She is pretending to be interested, but her mind is elsewhere – thinking about why she has been sent to the town and if it is a punishment...

Just as they reach the car he points up to the sky and cries out…a spaceship is coming toward them, hits his car, which causes him extreme grief, and crashes into the road. Her mind begins to race about what the implications of this event will be.

I then moved onto noting down some ideas for the different pages in terms of words. The drafts I came up with can be seen below.


Note: the words in brackets indicate thought bubbles.

Panel 1

Him: “So, I’m thinking of asking coach about using me more because I’m being undervalued, y’know?

Her: “Mmm.” (Why HQ would think anyone, from any planet, want to infiltrate this place is beyond me…)

Panel 2

Him: “I’m injury-free, so I just don’t geddit. Y’know what I mean?

Her: “Uh-huh, sure.” (…really beyond me.)

Panel 3

Him: “Yeah. I’m gonna tell coach tomorrow.”

Her: (I need to speak to HQ.)

Panel 4

Him: “So, d’ya wanna get a burger or…What the hell?!

Her: (It can’t be…)

Panel 5

Him: “Whaaaaa……

Her: (They’re here!)

Panel 6

Him: “My car! My dad’s gonna kill me!

Her: (This cannot be good…)


Panel 1

It was a bright July morning in town and the couple were walking back to his car.

Panel 2

He was outlining plans to speak to his football coach about being promoted.

Panel 3

She was feigning interest as her mind was elsewhere…

Panel 4

Suddenly, he cried out and pointed up at the sky.

Panel 5


Panel 6

A spaceship crashed into his new car and landed in the road!


Panel 1

She knew she had messed up, but could not believe HQ had sent her to this godforsaken place…

Panel 2

…having to endure such tedious people. She was certain there would be no extraterrestrial activity here – there wasn’t much terrestrial activity to speak of either.

Panel 3

She did concede such mundane ignorance and self-absorption would sometimes be a relief, but still…

Panel 4

She could not quite believe what she was seeing, not here.

Panel 5

HQ was right…

Panel 6

…and now she had to prove her worth to them…and herself.


I decided to wait until I had put the words on the other three pages before moving onto this final version, in order to see what combinations might work.

Adding Words to Comic Strips

Not having access to an A3 printer or photocopier meant I was not able to work on paper for this exercise. I created four A3 artboards in Illustrator to work with instead. Although I was extremely tempted to use digital fonts for this exercise, I recalled the the introduction to this course stated that hand-drawn lettering was preferred to gain experience, and made myself take this approach. I am not very confident at all with lettering of any kind, so it certainly tested me.

I scanned in my speech bubbles, etc. and used Image Trace to convert these to vector format so I could manipulate them, e.g. remove the white border. I was very tempted to clean up the letters, but kept this to a minimal.

I found that working out the placement for the bubbles was much more complicated than expected, in terms of logical flow, sizing and not covering up essential parts of the pictures.

I draw the outline of each bubble/caption using pencil, along with guidelines for the letters. Once I was relatively happy with the size and layout of each (some I scanned in to experiment with positioning on the pages), I went over these with a black fineliner. I scanned these and placed them in each panel as required.

I did change some of the words from the drafts as I felt they needed improving.

Example of workings for bubbles/captions

Version 1: Dialogue Only

The placement of speech/thought bubbles was really quite tricky, as previously noted, to ensure nothing essential was covered. I also felt that using bubbles alone did not really allow me to expand on the background of the story very much, especially in such as short strip.

Dialogue Only Strip (click on image for larger version, opens in new tab)

Version 2: Captions Only

This version was the least inspiring, in my opinion, as it felt quite disjointed and as though I was mostly stating the obvious. However, I did find it much easier in terms of placing the captions on the panels.

Captions Only Strip (click on image for larger version, opens in new tab)

Version 3: Third Person Narrative

I particularly enjoyed coming up with the captions for this version as I could get inside the character’s head and explain what she is thinking.

Third Person Narrative Strip (click on image for larger version, opens in new tab)

Version 4: Combination Of All Three

Although the brief did suggest the possibility of being more experimental with the final version, I decided I wanted to consolidate my other three attempts to create a complete story.

Combination Of All Three Strip (click on image for larger version, opens in new tab)

Final Thoughts

I found this exercise extremely beneficial as an introduction to the use of words in comics.

I discovered a great deal about the different aspects that should be planned for and that it is not a case of simply writing out words, placing them anywhere in a panel and hoping for the best.

I also learnt that adding too much descriptive text can be unnecessary and distracting – if the pictures are already visually communicating the same message.

I am pleased that I forced myself to handwrite the words and I felt the result suited the style of drawing. I do need to improve my skills in this area, but it was good to take a first step.

Overall, I was reasonably happy with my final version in terms of the story and layout. I think the last panel may have benefited from some type of ‘sound effect’ to add to the impact of the ship crashing, but hopefully this is something I can consider for future work.

Reflection After Tutor Feedback

My tutor commented on the graffiti in Version 4 of the strip and the fact that it is close to the girl’s speech bubble – raising the question whether the text of the graffiti could be integrated into the story in another context, for example complementing the speech or allowing the illustrator/writer to add his/her comment to the story. I thought this was an excellent idea and I particularly felt it would be a good way of adding clues to a story, keeping the reader engaged. It would not even have to be textual as, for example, in this particular exercise there could be an alien graffitied onto the wall. I will certainly keep this idea in mind for any relevant future work.

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