An Introduction to Graphic Novels: Sequences 1

by Anise Shaw

July 6th, 2011

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

These lessons are intended for beginners, those just trying their hand at comics for the first time and feeling overwhelmed. Feel free to discuss more advanced concepts in the comments!

Recently I was asked to teach an adult graphic novels class at Bonsor Community Centre in Burnaby. I jumped on the opportunity to work with an adult group, something that I don’t always get to do. As I was creating my lesson plans, I immediately had the idea that I should also put them on the Internet for others to follow along with the class. I also gave out my website address so my students could come back here to refresh their memory and look for supplementary material.  These lessons were originally posted to my website, Epidigm, but I thought that people who frequent the Cloudscape website might also find them useful.

Feel free to follow along with these lessons. I will be including the exercises and projects we did in class so you can do them at home as well. If you want to post links to your results, I may be able to come by and give critique (which is a hugely important part to learning, don’t avoid it!).

To see more tutorials about making comics, check out Cloudscape’s Comics 101 page.

Introduction to Graphic Novels

Before we get started on the actual learning, sometimes it’s nice to understand why you might be taking this course. I like to ask a few preliminary questions to find out what we already know.

  • Why are you interested in making graphic novels?
  • What is a graphic novel to you?
  • What do you hope to be able to do after these 8 weeks are over?

A graphic novel is a long form comic that can be about any subject your heart desires. The graphic novel has become a popular medium due to its breadth of content and long, involved storylines. Many graphic novels are one shots, like Craig Thompson’s Blankets, while others are serialized. In this class I will get you started on starting your own graphic novel, but we will not have time to do more that a short story.

In this class, I will consider you a comic artist and help you from that context. The next question, of course, is what does it mean to be a comic artist?

  • We think in sequence and pictures
  • We are prepared to show our art to a wide audience
  • We work in a reproduced medium, and must always have technical restrictions in mind
  • Our goal, no matter what kind of comic we make, is to make something clear, understandable and interesting.

Being a comic artist will take a bit of extra work, and there are things you can do outside of class to help improve your skills and get you into the mindset of making comics.

  • Try to do life drawing, I like to go once a week whenever I can.
  • Your sketchbook is your lifeblood, have one with you all the time. Having a pencil in your hand and actually drawing in this sketchbook will help too.
  • Spend time pulling apart TV shows and movies, comics’ sister sequential mediums, shot by shot. How do they deal with the camera, audience, story, etc?
  • Copy down conversations, listen to how people speak.
  • Read actively, especially comics, and pull it apart.
  • Start small. Short stories, one page comics and work yourself up to something bigger.


We’re going to study six sequence transitions as discussed by Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics. The essence of a comic is its panels, and the magic between those panels is our sequence. All of a reader’s assumptions happen during this sequence in what is called closure. Closure is our ability to take similar looking images and create a relationship between them. I highly recommend picking up a copy of McCloud’s book, as it’s essential reading for all comic artists.

McCloud has conveniently categorized these six transitions for us, but it’s important to remember that all categories are meant to be broken. By learning how to use these transitions, you may warp them to whatever benefit they will serve for your comic making purposes. Our panel is time. The particular unit of time that the panel takes-up is dependent upon its transitions.

Moment-to-moment sequence from Alan Moore’s “Watchmen”

1. Moment to Moment

This is the transition that uses the least amount of time; changes in panels take only seconds.
Moment to Moment transitions help to give a “slow motion” feel to a comic, making each second an important one, and bringing each action into stark relief. A great use of moment to moment transitions is to slow down the pace of a comic, and allow the reader a moment to breathe (haha, moment).

Action-to-action sequence from some old “Iron Man” comic.

2. Action to Action

This is often the transition you may find yourself using the most. This is because it uses closure to show the action of the body while not being as painfully slow as a moment to moment transition. With Action to Action, our first panel is the beginning of the action and our last panel is the end. We may need to put panels in between depending on the complexity of the action.

Subject-to-Subject sequence. “Psycomm” can be found at

3. Subject to Subject

We can push action in our panels one step further by using a Subject to Subject transition. Working within a singular subject or idea, this transition shows whatever might be necessary to get the idea across. This is also where we start to see subjective action, which is really prominent in Japanese comics.

Scene-to-scene sequence from “Watchmen”

4. Scene to Scene

All of the transitions up until this point have dealt with small amounts of time. However, Scene to Scene deals with jumps between large amounts of time and/or space. The scene to scene transition is a powerful tool that we can use to transport our audience to different times and places, with little to no explanation as to what has happened in between. Masterful use of the scene to scene transition even allows a comic writer to compress time, dealing with multiple moments at the same time, as shown by Alan Moore in Watchmen.

We know where we are, what has happened, and how we feel in this aspect-to-aspect sequence

5. Aspect to Aspect

Our fifth transition is a bit of an anomaly. While all of our previous transitions have dealt with the passing of time, Aspect to Aspect deals with no time at all. It effectively freezes time to establish a mood, feeling or emotion of a scene. Think of this transition as “the wandering eye”, looking around and taking quick snaps to understand what’s going on. Aspect to Aspect has not been a popular transition in most mainstream North American comics, mostly due to page count. Japanese comics and graphic novels, with their longer format, use aspect to aspect as a tool to help the reader become emotionally invested in what is happening. The master of the aspect to aspect transition will use it to help pace a comic, create a mood and establish something that has happened all at once.

6. Non-Sequitur

The final sequence places panels together with no relationship to each other. McCloud argues that the existence of non-sequitur sequences tells us something important: that no matter how dissimilar two images are, when we put them together we automatically start to look for a relationship. This is a crucial point to remember, because it means that during our quest for clarity, we don’t have to over explain. In fact, we can explain very little and readers will look for the understanding themselves.


Today we’re going to warm up with a simple exercise. We’re going to write a short one page comic, in which something simple happens, and we are going to focus on using at least three of the above transitions. Extra credit for anyone that uses the first 5 and an extra point for anyone who throws in a non-sequitur. The story of this comic is not so important as mastering the sequence of the panels. For now, keep your panels a uniform size to help emphasize this sequence. When we finish, we will take a look at what everyone has done and quickly discuss it.

Basic Drawing tips

  • Hold the pencil loosely and at least 2 inches away from the shaved wood of the tip. We want to put little pressure on the pencil while we are sketching
  • Create the overall page first, the meta details like quick panel layouts, main foci, speech bubbles and general shapes. Then move into the details.
  • Your eraser is not for erasing mistakes, it is a broom to be used to clean up your sketching work.
  • Draw lightly, or you will absolutely regret having to erase anything
  • Use your whole body to draw. Sit comfortably. Use your shoulder and elbow for large details and your wrist and fingers for small details.
  • Stay loose at the beginning, refine later.

Recommended Reading for Sequence

  1. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  2. Bone by Jeff Smith
  3. Anything by Jamie Hernandez
  4. Nausicaa by Hayao Miyazaki

Good luck and keep drawing!

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

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One thought on “An Introduction to Graphic Novels: Sequences

  • Logan

    I am working on a school project and I am choosing to work on a short comic book. I was really hoping you could answer a few questions to help me with the process. Thank you!
    What does creativity mean to you, as an artist?
    Why is creativity important to you or why might it be important to this world?
    Have you ever created something with the intention of publicly sharing it?
    Was the response you received the kind of response you expected?