How to create an authentic manga comic strip

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While the style and finish of manga art is relatively minimalist in comparison to other types of comics, this apparent simplicity is deceptive. Every line is a choice made by the artist – the thinking is to never use 10 strokes to depict something if just a single, well-placed line would suffice. 

This principle of concentrating on the essentials permeates throughout manga art creation. Every panel is an exercise in choice: size, zoom, camera angle, speech bubble positioning, and type of background. Every page works as a whole to control the reader’s experience, particularly in pacing.

Read on for 15 tips to help you create an authentic manga comic strip…

01. Pace yourself

Aim for fewer panels spread over more pages

When you’re writing for manga, remember it flows faster and sparser than other types of comics. It spreads across more pages with fewer panels per page. There is variation between the types of manga; Seinen manga, aimed at adult males, will be more densely packed than Shoujo manga, which is usually read by young girls. But as a guide, aim for a maximum of three speech bubbles per panel, an average of five panels per page, and around four pages per scene.

02. Consider your reading direction

Traditionally, manga is read from the top right to bottom left

Manga originates from Japan, and Japanese traditionally reads vertically from top-to-bottom before going right-to-left. So for any manga originally published in Japanese, you start reading from the top right corner and finish in the bottom left. If it’s been translated into English, you’ll often find it remains this way. But if you’re writing in English from the start, there’s no need to do this, so it’s up to you! Decide on your reading direction and stick to it.

03. Group your panels

Use gutters to link certain panels

Most manga comics have panels of different sizes and shapes that change from page to page. There are no arrows or numbering to guide the reader, so you must group the panels clearly to make it obvious they must read one bunch of panels before moving on. Separate one group from another by increasing the space between the panels (the panel gutter). Then make sure that any small panel gutters inside a group don’t line up with any panel gutters in another group.

04. Explore abstract layouts

Characters don’t need to be confined to their panels

Manga doesn’t just stick to traditional boxes in rows. It often employs dynamic panel layouts that stretch across the height or width of the whole page, along with diagonal lines and irregular shapes. Sometimes boxes aren’t even used at all, with hazy patterns used as outlines, or the character breaks out of the panel. Panels can even fade in and out as part of the storytelling. 

The difficulty is ensuring that regardless of layout, the panel order remains clear. Try reading some manga to find lots more examples to play with.

05. Showcase different viewpoints

Showcase different angles and zoom levels

Manga is known for its cinematic feel. Every panel is like an action movie, where the camera cuts from a close-up of eyes, to a two-shot profile of a conversation, to a bird’s-eye view of the characters, then a low-to-high angle as a stiletto heel clicks onto the floor. Really make an effort to showcase different camera angles and zooms in your story.

06. Make it dynamic

Manga often features blurred limbs and background speedlines

Manga is a dynamic form of storytelling; when a character is in a full-blown fight, they really look like as though they’re moving, even flying out of the page. Unlike superhero comics that have fully inked characters and points of impact, manga favours limbs that blur with motion, backgrounds that become speedlines, channelling and enhancing the direction of the motion and highlighting the point of impact with emphasis lines originating from it. Most of this is done through inking, but can be done with screentone, too.

07. Match background to mood

These background flowers hint at a budding romance

One key difference between manga and other types of comic is the use of abstract backgrounds to match the atmosphere and the emotions of the characters. Once the scene has had an establishing shot of the physical surroundings, the backgrounds can be anything: lacework and flowers to signify a budding romance; flames if someone is full of burning rage; black shadows and swirling knots to convey inner turmoil; or cookies and cakes when a character is irresistibly cute! This is particularly popular in Shoujo and Josei manga, which is aimed at girls and women.

08. Don't rely on speech bubble tails

Speech bubble placement is used to indicate who is speaking

Japanese people traditionally read top-to-bottom and then right-to-left. To accommodate this, manga speech bubbles are much taller than in Western comics. They’re also roomy, with lots of space around the lettering. Another key feature is the tails denoting the speaker – these are either very small or non-existent. Rather than relying on tails, the speech bubbles are positioned near the speaker’s head – use those camera angles wisely! Japanese dialogue also tends to make it clear who’s speaking, due to special verb endings and slang.

09. Get creative with your speech bubbles

Don’t confine yourself to a bubble shape

Speech bubbles in manga are a lot more organic than in other types of comics. They’re almost always hand-drawn and slightly irregular in shape. Joined speech bubbles are combined rather than linked by a thin line. When one character talks over another, it’s depicted literally, with each speech bubble overlapping. While shouting is depicted with a more conventional spiky outline, thought bubbles aren’t drawn as clouds; more often they’re surrounded by a haze, either drawn or made out of screen tone.

10. Apply screentone

Simply screentone on top of your lines and then cut away the excess

Manga uses screentone as its black and white. To do this, start by preparing your line art – it has to be in pure black and white without any greys, so scan at a minimum of 600dpi. Then threshold-to-convert every pixel into either black or white. The same must apply to your desired screentone: each pixel must be black or white/transparent.

Copy then paste the screentone on a layer above the line art, enough to cover the lines and more. If your screentone isn’t transparent, for example, on a white background, then set the layer to Multiply so you can see the lines underneath.

Finally, remove unwanted areas of the screentone. There are many ways to do this: you can select with a Lasso/Magic Wand tool and cut, use the Eraser in Pencil mode, or use a Layer Mask with a hard-edged brush so that no greys are introduced.

Next page: 5 more tips for creating an authentic manga comic strip

11. Explore screentone effects

Screentone is not just for shading

There are many things you can do with screentone besides just sticking it down for shading. Add white pencil over both lines and screentone for traditional white painted highlights. Try soft, burnished highlights by using an Eraser set to Dissolve. Use screentone just over the lines to give the art a blurry feeling. You can increase the contrast in your shadows by layering different screentones on top of each other, but be careful: you may get moiré if you use different densities or if you align them incorrectly.

12. Use Japanese sound effects

Onomatopoeia is different (and often more realistic) in Japanese

Japanese sound effects are incredibly diverse, using all manner of consonant and vowel combinations to describe crashes, thumps and slices. Pronunciations often more realistic than in English like 'roar' (GA-O-!) or 'slam' (pa-tan!). What’s unique to Japanese onomatopoeia are sound effects for abstract concepts ('shiiin' for a stare, or silence), facial expressions ('niko' for a smile) or even temperature ('poka poka' for warmth). They are an integral part of the artwork, so are hand-drawn at the point of inking, in an appropriate style.

13. Add visual grammar

Background sparks or sweat drops indicate the character’s mood

Many symbols are used in comics to enhance the viewer’s understanding of what the characters are feeling, like punctuation marks for pictures. Perhaps a love heart to show romantic intentions, or a light bulb when someone has a bright idea. 

Manga has some unique examples: a drop of sweat for nervousness or embarrassment, a hash mark on the forehead when someone is angry (mimicking raised veins), and little spirit wisps gathering when someone is feeling depressed.

14. Try out chibi

Chibi figures are cute, squashed down versions of a character

A chibi is a cute, squishy, mini-version of a person, squished down to just three to four head lengths tall, with a large head and a chubby body. Shoulders are rounded off, hips are wider, hands and feet become stubby. 

Although these characteristics are childlike, remember that you’re not actually drawing a child! An adult chibi should still look like an adult, just highly stylised. In manga, characters are often portrayed as chibis when the story takes a lighthearted turn, for comic effect. Spot all the examples throughout this article!

15. Emphasise emotion with anthropomorphism

Cat-like features indicate this character is being sly

Another popular technique used in manga is ‘kemonomimi’, which literally means animal ears. For instance, if someone is being as sly as a cat, you can draw them with feline features like cat ears and a tail. You can even go further with cat eyes that have slit-pupils, and using the shape of cat’s mouth. Why not draw a disappointed guy as a sad puppy dog? A fierce mother as a dragon? Like chibi, kemonomimi can be used for effect in specific scenes, but it’s also popular as a character design technique for fantasy stories.

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX, the world's best-selling magazine for digital artists. Subscribe here.

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