Calvin, Hobbes and Mickey

This is going to be a little different than my usual What Did I Learn approach.

A few weeks ago, someone posted a Calvin & Hobbes Sunday comic on their site and I saved it; eventually it wound up in my pics folder. I had noticed some techniques in it and wanted to study it to see what else I could learn from one of the masters of the medium. Now, of course, I realize that the picture must have been named some random alphanumeric title like adflgsdflasdlgfh.jpg because I can’t find it. Google images gave me some other Calvin & Hobbes comics which will have to do.

The thing that stood out to me immediately was one of those obvious things; “duh” if you will. Still, give me a mental drumroll before you read the stunning eureka that I had: Some of the word balloons are colored. See?
I can almost hear you saying “Big deal.” Perhaps those who are comic artists can more easily understand, but I am – by habit – always very careful to keep word balloons a pristine white. I’ve always assumed that was the best way to keep comics easily read. Or maybe it was tradition or something. That’s just the way I’ve usually seen them, so that’s how they are done.

But in the comic above, the attention on the dialog would often have been lost without that color kick. In the fifth panel, it seems the balloon is white because the red E’s are behind it and the shadow on the doorway. In other panels, the balloons are colored differently to contrast the different speakers.

calvin_and_hobbes-dreams_sajwan_dot_comSo this keep-them-white habit I have needs to be reexamined. Have I been passing over ways to better present my comics using color (or contrast)? Here’s another comic showing the same point.  As the panels progress, there are strong splashes of color to clearly differentiate them. Looking closely, I see there are even spotted blacks put in for the same purpose.

This third comic is a little more sparse in the color department but you can see some effective use of color in the fifth-sixth panel transition. It’s also clear that the sixth, seventh and ninth panels have a strong, fearful emotion to them that the color helps convey.


Another thing that comic artists have to grapple with is making room for both the words and action. Disney artists were taught to mock in the balloons first and then draw the scene. Looking back at these three Sundays, it appears to me that when push came to shove, Watterson let the action took first place and the balloons had to worked in around them. It lends a different feel to the comic – see for yourself.


So I learned a few things that were probably very obvious to some. Likely, there is far more to be learned than the two things I have touched on here.


  1. A lot of cartoonists think I’m crazy for blocking in the text first, but it just seems like common sense to me.

    Personally, I used to use speech bubble colors but don’t anymore (except in particular situations). Instead I use fonts to indicate their vocal timbre, and colors to indicate the language or delivery semantics (the latter being a pretty niche thing related to the pseudo-telepathic “direct thought sharing” that a couple of my characters do).

  2. Bengo

    We do ours a bit differently than fluffy. When we go from story board (paper) to digital (Illustrator), we do the balloons, then move them out of the way. When we restore them, the objects and text often need some adjustments, but the essential layout is usually unchanged.

    On another matter, my sense of color is one of my weaker skills and not to be trusted, but in Calvin and Hobbes, could it be that the deployment of color in balloons is to balance the overall image?

    It’s just a thought. Watterson made so many Sundays that break out of traditional panel formatting that he seems aware of the entire strip. This would be in keeping with his origins as a single panel political cartoonist, though that work was black and white.

    I started thinking about his color use last fall, when I read the complete C&H, and I noticed the Sunday title text was line art with color fill. I started thinking about his color choices then, but the notion of balancing didn’t occur to me until I added your commentary to the mix. I didn’t even register the colored balloons until now.

    Very interesting commentary!

  3. Thanks for the comments, both of you.

    I now block in the layouts, add the balloons and then draw the comic. As of right now, unless there’s a special effect like in Fluffy’s comic, I’ll stick to one color for the speech balloons. I am not convinced that it always needs to be white, but any light color might be useful.

    Balancing is probably a good term to describe the technique. The contrast, eye flow, story tone and color itself could be said to be balanced in these strips. (Good to know that I’m not the only one who didn’t even ‘see’ the colored balloons.)

  4. Yeah, the text vs. art layout is definitely a balancing act. I find it easier to start out by writing the text and laying it out, then sketching the panels behind it, and then futzing around with the text until things look right. Even then, in the end things don’t always work out. Lately I’ve also been a bit more adventurous in where I lay out my text – normally all the text goes above the action, but after rereading this nice article on dialog balloon placement I’ve been feeling a bit more experimental. (Sadly, my dialog still ends up way too verbose, but that’s a side-effect of there being a lot of story to convey in only three panels. I actually spend a lot of time editing and revising the text for brevity, if you can believe it! I try to balance how fast my comic progresses with how wordy they are. I really hate ending up with several comics in the exact same room in a row.)

    Oh, another thing is I always make the speech bubbles semitransparent, so there’s always a little bit of subtle color which shines through.

  5. You know, back when I was drawing comics in college it was always the art first, and then the word balloons. Doing it in the reverse never even crossed my mind! Yet I sorta like Disney’s rationale, here. I have a collection of Uncle Scrooge comics at home (both old and new) and i seems to fit well with the narrative-driven structure.

    Also, thanks for doing “Calvin & Hobbes,” Delos. I know that this is primarily a webcomics site, but I wouldn’t mind if you did more analysis of print comic strips. Art is art in the end regardless of the medium, after all, and the successful ones (Watterson, Shultz, Lynn Johnston, Breathed) caught the public eye for a reason.

  6. Bengo

    Say, don’t any of you draw the panel frame first, then the art and balloons?

    Actually, my first step is to ransack the room in search of a healthy pen or pencil. Of course, it’s always in the last place I look: inserted in the spirals of the sketch pad.

  7. Bengo

    Change a few words and it sounds like Dolly Parton getting ready for a concert. *Heh*

    I use a pen or pencil because I write and draw all the comics on paper first so we can discuss and refine them. Pug’s a good writer/editor. In fact, the last several episodes of Scratchin Post are her writing.

  8. My base template has the outer border and the signature (which these days is just some lame font-based text, because I couldn’t draw a satisfactory 9 for the ’09).

    So my full process is like:

    – Lay out the text
    – Block out the figures and background
    – Move text around a bit around the figures
    – Draw the inter-panel borders
    – Ink the figures
    – Paint the figures
    – Ink the background
    – Paint the background
    – Apply shading
    – Draw the text bubbles

    At any given time I may go back and tweak some of the previous steps.

    I never have to find a pen since I just keep my Wacom stylus in the little holder.

  9. Thanks for the thoughts. Tuesdays are busy for me, so I had no chance to respond until now.

    @ Fluffy: Talking about experimenting with text layout, I’ve seen a few example comics with the text beneath the strip. Unless it is a one panel, that seems like a ‘wrong’ technique to me. I still wonder why. I find the process that other artists use absolutely fascinatng, so thanks for sharing that.

    @ El Santo : Once you try it, putting in the text first is so much less trouble that the other way around. I’ve avoided reading Calvin because of the similarities in that strip and mine. (It’s in progress, I swear.) However, I’m sure there’s more to be gleaned from looking at Calvin and other newspaper strips. I’ll make a point of it.

    @Bengo: My process begins with a scribbled script and then I place the word balloons. I create the layout around that and then start drawing. At various points, I might get an idea about a certain view or thing to feature and that gets added to the scribble. Must be nice to have a live-in writer/editor. :)

  10. Bengo

    Working in a joyful collaboration makes me respect people who do it all alone. It’s true, we take on more, so we probably feel similar pressures, but I admire anyone who is going to school or working full time while managing a comic, web site design, site programming, advertising, etc., all while maintaining their self-confidence in the face of people who don’t give them respect.

    Also, I recently learned that comics with text on the bottom were first called cartoons because they resemble animation story board panels, which were known as cartoons. So, New Yorker cartoons, Newspaper comics. Some. like Marmaduke, could be called cartoons by this logic, especially if they were funny. 😛

  11. Bengo


    I’m trying to find the college papers I saved with his work. Even then, I had an eye for good cartooning. At the very least, since they seem to be really scarce, they should go to some museum or something. Not that eBay isn’t a possibility, though I don’t dabble in that much.

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  13. The Mouse cartoon shows that the Disney comics are created by blocking in the word balloons first and then drawing the characters. Calvin appears to have been drawn the other way with characters first and dialog second. It’s an interesting choice to make, either way one goes.

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