Robert Marzullo

Are you excited to draw comics? Is your imagination teeming with ideas, but you lack the ability to put them down in a productive way? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Drawing comic strips is not always the easiest thing to do but it’s always rewarding when you get it done.

The challenge is knowing how to organize your project. It’s easy to get lost in our imaginations. Sometimes we overdevelop ideas that could have been simplified or ignore parts of the illustrations that could have pushed the story further along.

In this post, you will learn some valuable techniques for drawing comics. The goal is to move step by step to help you focus on what matters — keeping that pencil moving!

How to Draw Dynamic Comic Book Superheroes – Start to Finish

Last Updated August 2021

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A Complete Step by Step Guide to Drawing Comic Book Heroes | By Robert Marzullo

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Step 1: Know the story and visualize

First we have to write a script or have one to work from.  If you are new to the process I suggest you start with a short story.  Write and illustrate the first 5 pages. 

 To do this properly we have to take time to visualize our story. It’s not always enough to just sit down and start drawing.

We have to understand that even though comics are fun and packed with creativity, they still require a well-thought-out plan to execute properly. It all starts with a great story!

Where are your characters in the story? Are they on a futuristic cyborg inhabited planet, where the cities are in the clouds? Are they humans in a dystopian city scrounging for mechanical parts to repair their battle equipment to fight the oppressors? Are they even human, or maybe some aquatic life form that no one has ever seen that is readying itself to make first contact with the humans?

My point is that each of these requires a very different visualization, and you may need to push your imagination a bit further. Spend time familiarizing yourself with the story and then sketching ideas of what these characters might look like. Where do they live, and how do they live? The better you can paint these pictures in your mind, the better your illustrations will look and you will have a much better idea of what references to gather. 

The preliminary sketches you create in this step will help you get ready for the next step in gathering references.

Step 2: Gather lots of reference images

A collage of random images, including a yellow fish, mountains, an empty street, skeletons posing, a butterfly, and an iguana. 

You might be thinking, “Where do I get a reference for aquatic lifeforms that no one has ever seen?” Well, you make them from life, of course! You start with ideas that inspire and intrigue you about the world as you know it. Then you push those ideas into the world of the unknown.

Every creature design you have ever seen is a compilation of other animals. The artist is just combining the ideas in a way that makes the creature fun, interesting, or even scary to witness. You have all sorts of neat animals, plants, and insects to work with. You can even combine human characteristics to make some of the creatures more relatable. 

A great way to organize all of these ideas together is to create a folder on your computer and put all your reference images in it. Then open them in an image editor and create what’s called a mood board.

I learned this technique when I was a storyboard artist. Sometimes the clients would supply you with a mood board containing all the elements that needed to be in the storyboards.

The type of buildings they might want to see, the look of the lead characters, and even other details like the expression they wanted for a specific shot. Reference images will always yield a better and more professional end result in your comic!

It is up to you as the artist to combine these concepts in unique ways to captivate your audience!

Step 3: Draw lots of thumbnail sketches!

First, let me explain what thumbnail sketches are: They are tiny, little sketches that help convey a story or narrative. They get their name from being the size of your thumbnail.

You don’t have to keep them that small, although smaller sketches do speed up the creative process and tend to have more energy. Every artist may feel more comfortable working at a slightly or not slightly different size for this stage of the work. The main concept is that you draw small so that you can’t get too obsessed with the details. Focus more on the overall layout, composition, and flow of the story.

This also allows you to draw much faster and express more ideas as mentioned above. Just like storyboards for television, you wouldn’t start filming a show without them or you would lose a ton of time and money. Those little sketches ( a.k.a shooting boards) are more valuable than people realize. 

Here are some examples of some of my thumbnail sketches. They aren’t always pretty, but they begin the storytelling process.

three thumbnail sketches of superheroes

To be honest, there are probably some very unreadable details here to a new viewer but that’s okay. Those can easily be explained verbally if you are working in a team setting. And, if it’s for your eyes only, then these rough concept sketches are really all you need at this point.

The true beauty of this part of the process is that you can ditch any bad ideas and not feel committed to them because of large amounts of time spent on the drawing. These are merely the broad strokes of the overall design. 

Changes can be made quickly and bad sketches can be tossed away. Don’t worry, even the bad sketches teach you what not to do and therefore where to go next in the illustrative process!

Step 4: Laying out the page

When drawing your page you want to use the thumbnail sketches to your advantage. Don’t get onto the main board and tense up. Keep the sketches loose and energetic. Simplify the overall page as much as possible at this stage.

QUICK TIP: You can even enlarge the thumbnail sketches and transfer them to your main artboard with a light table or digital drawing application. I find this to be a great way to work since those little sketches sometimes have a lot of energy to them and this can really speed up the process!

Use big forms and focus on the composition and flow of the story. Use the Z pattern method to direct the viewer’s eyes throughout the story. 

Try not to break any panels borders as a new artist. This can pull the reader from the story if you are not careful and editors really don’t like it anyways. Think of the borders as the framing of the shot. They are important and you don’t have to break them to make the shot look amazing.

Keep in mind that the size of the borders is your timing or pacing of the story. Smaller consecutive panels are a quick tempo, whereas a big open panel with lots of small details is meant to slow the story down and allow the reader to become immersed in the shot.

The sizing of the panels can help convey certain shots better. Try using wide panoramic panels for establishing shots such as a city or a stadium with an audience. You can use tall skinny panels for close-ups or a full-body shot. Use triangular panels for added movement or intensity. You can really create any shape that you want but be sure to keep the continuity of the story flowing and moving in a Z-like direction (at least for American comics).

Outerspace comic page with red z showing direction

By the way, make sure as you layout the page that you keep an eye on the amount of text that is needed. There’s nothing worse than packing in lots of detail only to see it covered by text because of poor planning! 

Step 5: Refine the drawings

Now it’s time to make those rough sketches look polished. Keep in mind that as you refine the work you want to still stay loose. Tightening up the work too much will take the energy from the lines.

I battle this one all the time! I like my work to look “clean,” but that can drain the life right out of it if we are not careful. Think about how those little sketch lines have so much energy to them. You want to keep some of that energy in the finished work.

three stages of drawing a man behind desk pointing

Use straight lines for buildings and engineered items. Use curves for soft anatomy and organic forms. Use jagged lines for energy and effects. That all sounds easy but using them in the right place at the right time is a bit harder to figure out. The main thing is that you experiment with these ideas and over time you will see what works and why.

For instance, when I begin drawing the basic anatomy of my characters, I’m not favoring one line over the other type of line. It’s a balance of the two, using both organic curves with angular lines. The angular lines help to explain the rigid forms or bony landmarks and the organic curves help to explain the softer parts of the body. Even the hair is just a bunch of flowing and interconnected “S” curves. Keep this in mind when you draw your characters.

Some styles will rely heavily on either organic or angular lines, but most have a nice balance of the two that is pleasing to the viewer and explains the nature of the forms.

Step 6: Inking the work

Drawn male superhero and inked male superhero

Now it’s time to really clean things up. Again, be careful not to make everything too tight. Just because you’re inking doesn’t mean every line has to be precise and clean.

Try different brushes and pens together. If you are working digitally, then try the same thing. There are lots of neat brushes that you can use for background effects. They will contrast nicely with your clean neat lines elsewhere in the illustrations.

Remember to use larger areas of black to add contrast as well. It’s best to use solid black areas strategically to push the viewer’s eye around the page. This can also save you a lot of time from putting in details that might not be noticed. A famous saying by Wally Woods is, “When in doubt, black it out!”. Of course, you’ll need to plan this out in the pencil first, but it also applies to how you might ink the work.

If you are working traditionally on 11”x17” Bristol Board — I prefer the smooth finish version — remember that this work will be reduced for printing. When inking you don’t want to have a lot of extremely thin lines since reducing the work will sometimes make them difficult to see. This is where line weight can really help the art pop off the page. 

Practice using bold lines here and there to separate elements of the comic panel. You can use thinner lines on the light side of the forms and heavier lines on the shadow side of the forms. The thicker lines on the forms, coming towards the viewer, also help a great deal with foreshortening.

QUICK TIP: If you are inking digitally, fight the urge to zoom in and detail everything. It can really hurt the end result and waste a lot of time on something that might not even get seen by the viewer! Try to view the art from a distance and make sure it all pulls together.

Step 7: Adding the speech bubbles

For speech bubbles, I like to use the Clip Studio Paint program. It’s a really powerful software and it’s pretty easy to get the hang of the speech bubble (word balloon) feature. You can simply drop in the shape of the bubbles in any way that you need.

Generally, we use ovals for speech, boxes for narrations, rows of little ovals for thought bubbles, and jagged shapes for sound effects. You can also edit the tail of each speech bubble to match the tone of each narrative as well.

For the text font, I like to use “Action Man” but you may want to mix things up there as well. You can really push your storytelling with all sorts of cool fonts, symbols, and even drawn lettering. The occasional bold feature is also great for intensity.

Five examples of comic word balloons

Final Thoughts — You’ve Drawn a Comic, What Do You Do Next??

A finished example of a comic book layout with speech bubbles and narration boxes. 

My first few comics were only five pages long. This allows you to put all of the “how to draw a comic” steps you learned above into action. You’ll see that completing even a short story is a lot of work, but is highly rewarding!

Once you have these finished pages, you can print a smaller comic sample for conventions, or you can start your webcomic, or you can give some out at local comic book shops. By creating your own comic book, you can show others that you have what it takes to create a finished product.

These short comics are great for getting your work out there and getting the essential feedback you will need to grow as an artist. Not everyone (or hardly anyone for that matters! ) will create a great comic on their first couple of tries. Amazing comic artists are a product of lots of trial and error. 

The best way to get better is to keep drawing lots of sequential storytelling and keep challenging yourself to draw a variety of concepts in your style. Avoid thinking that everything needs to be perfect, and just make things look as good as you can today. Keep pushing forward!

I hope this has been informative for you, and good luck on creating amazing visuals for your comics! Here is a Youtube video I created on Drawing Superhero Poses for Comics. I hope you enjoy the content!

If you are looking to learn more, you may want to also check out this informative post on drawing cartoon characters!

Page Last Updated: November 2021

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