Body Language: Intro to Comic Craft: Step by Step

In our last Intro to Comic Craft Step by Step, we discussed environment in depth.   In this installment, we're going to discuss body language.

Body language is a form of acting and expression that can make the difference between an engaging comic and a boring and stiff comic.  While not the same as anatomy (there are plenty of anatomically incorrect comics with amazing body language, and plenty of anatomically perfect comics with boring body language), an understanding of anatomy can help you know which rules to keep, and when to break the rules.  For the sake of brevity, I've linked several of the resources I've created over the years, to help those of you who need a brief refresher on comic anatomy.

Figure Construction

It would be pointless to discuss body language without a brief mention of the importance of anatomy, and a decent understanding of how the human body works.  As perspective is for environments, constructive human anatomy is for body language- knowing the basics will take you so much farther.  Here are a few of my favorite resources on human construction, if you don't have a preferred method.

From the blog:
ASE Panel- Anatomy Presentation
Figure Drawing Demo
Facial Anatomy and Construction
Anatomy of a Clay Man
Guest Post: Tips and Tricks for Drawing Women of Various Body Types  (blog post, NSFW)
Anatomical Construction (blog post, NSFW)

Figure Drawing Demonstration (video)
Demonstrating my Sketching Tools (video)
Intro to Comic Craft:  Roughing it  (video)
Chibi Kara Illustration Timelapse (video)
ArtSnacks Challenge February 2016 (video)

Outside Resources:
Figure Drawing for All It's Worth
The Glen Vilppu Drawing Manual

I cannot stress enough that daily practice and working through the two above books, as well as attending figure drawing sessions, have been monumental in helping me not only improve my art, but decrease the time it takes to draw something.  While understanding anatomy is not essential to drawing comics, having a systematic method of constructing your figures will help you stay consistent and allow you to work faster.

For an all ages comic that focuses on kids, character acting and body language are extremely important to 7" Kara, and to my cartooning in general.

For an innocent, young character like Kara, I try to keep her movements youthful, naive, and cute.  Kara in the comic tends to over react- she has no filter, and her body tends to react as much as her face.  I utilize movement in hair and in clothing to further push her actions.  I want young readers to be able to relate and understand her emotions quickly, and I want older readers to feel a sense of protectiveness over this 7 inch tall girl.

Character Acting

Comics and plays have much in common.  The environment is the set, the characters are actors, and body language is acting. 

Body language begins in the script, with character direction.  In thumbnails, its important to overact with your characters, because while refining in roughs, actions tend to get toned down. 

Don't just rely on the face- use the whole body to tell the whole story.

Macro Expression- Entire body gesture gives clues to emotion

Micro Expression- Expression on face

Top is an example of an understated excited emotion.  Bottom is that emotion pushed.  You could continue to push this emotion even further.  Over exaggerated emotions tend to come off as comical in most instances, which can be an excellent way to add a bit of levity to your comic craft.

Even though this illustration is still very much in the rough sketch stage, you can still tell several things about the image.  You can tell the character is female, that the image is intended to have an upbeat feel, and that she exudes energy- just from the body language.

Macro expressions:
Leg positions

In this panel, mangaka Naoki Urasawa uses the character's (Kenji, 20th Century Boys) entire body to push the emotion (startled fright).

Ways to push character acting: 

Hair is part of the expression

Studio Ghibli uses hair frequently as part of a character's emotion and expression.  Fear, anger, excitment, even love all cause hair fluffs in Ghibli films.

A grossed out Sen from Spirited Away

An excited Ponyo from Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

This is an action I've adopted for 7" Kara emotions.

As you can see, Kara's hair is fluffed in the first panel, to help demonstrate excitement and exertion.

Hands are part of the action

Hands should be included whenever possible to help push emotion, as most humans gesticulate frequently.

Clothing can help convey emotion too

Just like hair, clothing can be fluffed or flattened to help convey emotion.  Think of the fur on a cat- when a cat is excited, scared, or playful, it's fur fluffs out.

Push for gesture and expression, don't be afraid to go cartoony or 'ugly':

Ugly crying- Inio Asano

At a glance, her crying is reserved, almost elegant loss, but if you look closely, you'll see the snot about to drip from her nose.  These 'ugly' little touches, these little bits of grit, make the expression feel real to the reader.

Ugly Happy- Naoki Urasawa
Hair fluffs- Studio Ghibli

Western Inspiration:


Golden era Disney animation is a great place to look for whole body acting inspiration.  Many of us fondly remember the Disney afternoon cartoons like Ducktales.


Cartoony characters really rely on body action and expression to convey emotion, especially those with simplified facial features.  Bone is an excellent example of whole-body acting.

Warner Brothers:

Warner Brothers cartoons, especially those from the Tex Avery era, are a fantastic resource for zany, over the top body action and clear silhouettes.

Daffy Duck has great full body acting

Early Disney:

Rubber hose animation during the silent film era had to rely ENTIRELY on body acting to convey story, and is a great resource for acting inspiration.

From Thumbnails to Roughs:

For my thumbnails, I try to push the gesture and acting as much as possible because I have a tendency to tighten things (and lose some of that action) as I work through the roughs.  Here are some examples of my thumbnails vs my roughs from chapter 7 of 7" Kara.

I also utilize gestural close ups and uninflected panels.

In Various Styles:

Black and white, American Indie, Cicada Summer:

Manga and Children's Book Inspired, Watercolor, 7" Kara:

Webcomics with Great Body Language

The Meek
Harpy Gee
Family Man
Prague Race
Camp Weedonwantcha

More on Body Language and Character Acting

Temple of the Seven Golden Camels- Every few years, I fall back in love with this blog, it's always so helpful, so I can't recommend it enough. 

Thinking, Processing, and Reacting


Popular Posts