The Importance of Backgrounds

What makes a staged photo so instantly recognisable compared to your average snapshot from a night out? What is a typical family holiday photograph composed of, where all the family are together, smiling in front of some sight they’ve been to see? What, in essence, is missing when you look at the generic “business” photographs that populate leaflets, brochures and websites the world over?

The answer is backgrounds.

A frame from 'All over the house' showing how effective backgrounds are in setting the scene

Backgrounds are an important part of webcomics. They tell us where the characters are.

Webcomics fall into two general categories: those who use backgrounds, and those that look bland. There is a small intermediate category of comics where backgrounds are simply unnecessary because they’ve managed to walk the fine line between comics and talking heads, but that is a very select group. If you’re in that camp, you’ll know it because you can safely ignore what I’m going to say here and it won’t affect your high page views. For the rest of us, it’s time to develop an eye for scenery.

Comics without backgrounds are simply comics where characters exist in a featureless void. If that’s the point of your comic (and there are some out there where that is definitely the point – see Blank It for an excellent example) then fine, go with it. If it’s not, make sure the reader knows that. There’s nothing worse than someone leaving a comment saying “Your comic is set on Space Station X-17? I thought it was set in the Arctic, during a blizzard!”

So how much detail do you need in a comic? Well the truth is, you don’t need an awful lot. The important thing is to give the reader a clear idea of where the comic is set, and what is going on around the characters. For action shots, you can leave out all but the most important features in the background; implying speed and concentrating the focus on the action itself. For other shots, give enough detail to show that the characters are in a busy café, or a deserted town, and so forth.

Or go up to eleven and paint in layer after layer of extra detail, bringing the world of your comic to life.

A frame from 'All over the house' showing how having no background hinders scene-setting

Where is this comic set? We don't know. Why? The background gives us no information to go on.

Taking a leaf out of 2000AD‘s book once again, it’s fair to say that Judge Dredd has the intricate and wholly tangible world that it does because of a combination of excellent writing and excellent artwork. In the better-drawn Dredd strips, the artist will often put little jokes and other features in the background detail that refer back to previous storylines; or just serve to make the world seem more real

I can recall one episode where during a scene with Dredd arresting a criminal, two alien tourists (complete with hawaiian shirts and cameras around their necks) were stood watching him. They had nothing to do with the story, but they showed how the tourist industry in Mega-City 1 was starting to take off; harking back to a previous storyline about the need to improve the city’s economy before it totally collapsed. It’s these little details that make Mega-City 1 a major character in Judge Dredd in and of itself.

The Dredd comic, and 2000AD in general, is at the extreme end of the spectrum, of course and most webcomic artists don’t have the time to create something that intricate. Although the fact that Dredd is six pages of story per week makes it comparable to a webcomic’s output, the fact that it’s drawn by professional artists whose day job it is to actually draw the comic means there’s still a lot more time to devote to it.

So what can an ordinary webcomic artist do to make their comic come to life, if they can’t devote hours every day to producing intricate detail? It’s simple: drop the detail level to only what’s essential to be in-keeping with the style of the comic, and go from there. Look at Sinfest and see what detail Tatsuya Ishida puts into the comic. On most days, it’s not a vast amount, but because it fits with the detail level of his characters, that’s fine. Where the characters are and what they’re doing is clear from the first glance.

He puts in only what is needed, and no more. That’s all you need, too.

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