By Travis Gibb
November 26, 2023
Metal Ninja Studios is dedicated to providing free, high quality education about the comic book creation process. Topics include writing, lettering, production, print prep, and more!
Gotham City, Metropolis, Latveria, Wakanda, and Atlantis. These are a few of the most common places you might find in your favorite superhero comic books. Each has a rich history and are practically their own character after decades of stories. Most fans understand the landscape of popular comic book settings like Oa and Asgard. Readers are familiar with the all-American streets of Smallville and the dangerous alleyways that weave through Blüdhaven. You might even recognize a famous landmark that you visited in New York City while flipping through the pages of Spider-man.
There’s an advantage to writing stories in these settings that you might not have when tackling your comic book script. Unless you’re working on fan-fiction, you will most likely have to build the backdrop of the characters’ environment from the ground up. This is a step in the writing process that should not be taken lightly. Setting has a major influence on the reader's understanding of plot, theme, and overall mood of the story. It not only provides an atmosphere, but it also gives purpose to specific traits of the characters. Additionally, a good setting can provide subtle hints to problems or resources without the need to explicitly explain them. Let’s go over some elements to consider when establishing the setting of your comic book.
First, since you’re telling your story in a visual medium, it is important that you visually familiarize the audience with the setting. Try to avoid listing off wordy descriptions of the environment that will bog down the panels with too much dialogue. Utilize wide shots and splash pages at the beginning of the issue to show the reader where events are taking place. For example, if you’re writing a sci-fi adventure, try opening the story with a stretched view of a galaxy. Then zoom in on a spacecraft flying through space. After that, you could have a character looking out a window of this ship before taking the story inside. No words needed but the reader is fully aware that they are onboard a vessel traveling through the cosmos.
...a good setting can provide subtle hints to problems or resources without the need to explicitly explain them.
Next, use real-life locations to help your readers quickly acclimate to the setting and establish credibility with the places in your story. Readers are familiar with commonplace locales such as churches, schools, offices, and restaurants. Use ordinary places to inspire you when writing your story. You don’t need exact longitude and latitude coordinates, but you can provide your artist with an image reference to what you want the main character’s house to look like. Plus, when utilizing real-life locations, you won’t have to work so hard to convince them these places could exist. It can even be exciting for a reader to recognize a place in your story.
Another aspect to consider when building your comic book’s setting is how it will fit the purpose of the plot. The environment should align with the story so that, even if it's a farfetched, futuristic space drama, it continues to make sense to the reader. For instance, if your comic book takes place on a fictional planet, how will this world help drive the plot? What’s different about it that couldn’t be told on Earth? Ask yourself what type of elements and creatures exist in this setting that are important to the plot. Make it make sense by providing the necessary rules of your new world. When this happens, your readers will organically suspend their disbelief.
To get your audience onboard with the setting in your script, regardless if it's a real or fake place, use immersive sensory details. With comic books, your reader can already see the location, but you can also describe how the environment sounds, smells, and even tastes. Perhaps, your main character is walking through a boggy swamp. You could throw in some dialogue on how it smells like sulfur or rotten eggs. This places them further inside the story without having to meticulously describe everything and overload the panels with word balloons.
Time also plays a critical function in your comic book’s setting. Whether your story takes place in the past, present, or future, you’ll need to consider the time and how it impacts the locations, characters, and plot. You’ll also need to keep in mind the amount of time your story occupies. Is everything happening over the course of a few days, years, or decades? How will you let your reader know? Emphasizing the passage of time will help deepen the realism of your story. It also helps raise the stakes. For example, if your character is wounded on one page, but seems to be miraculously healed just a few pages later, then you have neglected to convey the timeline and why the reader should have cared for the injury.
Lastly, when creating a fictional setting for your comic book, avoid dumping a lot of detail onto the reader. Start with macro elements of the world and as the plot moves forward, slowly focus on micro views that support the story. Remember your setting’s purpose. It's there to affect certain elements of your characters’ experiences. Make sure you set parameters and limits that explain why characters can or cannot do specific things. However, don’t waste too much time on irrelevant details. You never want to bore your readers.
Emphasizing the passage of time will help deepen the realism of your story.
Now that you have some tips on establishing a setting, remember to have fun with it. Developing your comic book’s background environment can be an exciting, yet challenging, task to tackle. There are many things to consider when building the world of your story. A good setting will bring about circumstances that create an action or decision. It will provide insight on why a character interacts with their surroundings in a specific way. Most of all, it will save you from an excessive word count, leaving you to invest that energy elsewhere.