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Conquering Creative Challenges

Howard Wong is a writer, who actively works in the animation, videogame, toy and comic industries. He has been nominated for a Joe Shuster Award - Outstanding Canadian Comic Book Writer - and received numerous accolades for his work including After the Cape (Image Comics).

This is the second of a three-part article where Howard shares his insights on writing and storytelling through years of experience collaborating with artists, editors and producers.

If you missed the first part of the article, you can read up on it here, A Writer's Perspective.

Conquering Creative Challenges By Howard Wong

When I last left you, I talked about the importance in understanding what you contribute and how it affects your ability to tell a strong story. What happens if you want to do something in a medium you never tried before? How do you approach it? What do you do if you can't figure it out? How do you convince others that you can do it?

The Last Mage - Written by Howard Wong and art by Justin Wong

The dynamic challenges you face in creative industries can feel daunting and may hinder you from creating. Sometimes all you need to do is look for a solution that bridges the problems you're facing by looking at things differently.

A recent problem became a very interesting experiment in sequential storytelling with someone not familiar with the comic book medium.

Justice Wong is an artist I met while working on an animated film project. He's a terrific digital character and environment concept artist who works in animation, video games and trading card games. He knew nothing about North American comics. After talking about doing a comic together, I shared what I knew about the art side of things through my comics. I explained how the different elements came together as a whole using my core books I've read countless times and continue to draw things from: Will Eisner's Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, Comics and Sequential Art and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. I also directed him to the most used (and for good reason) cheat sheet for making talking heads look exciting, Wally Wood 22 Panels That Always Work. Even if you don't think you would like to get into making comics books, I suggest that you pick up these books for their wealth of knowledge in how to construct powerful visual storytelling narratives.

Wally Wood Panels That Always Work © 1980 & 2013 Wallace Wood Properties, LLC (Thanks to Joel Johnson for the high resolution scan)

We were well on our way to many, many false starts. The hurdle for him was panel layouts, which I even tried to help by roughing them out for him. He just couldn't wrap his mind around that aspect in sequential storytelling. Though he thought it was over, I just couldn't let it go. Here's this talented young artist, whose digital art style was just screaming to tell a story. 

This is a typical five panel inked page from a comic I'm doing with Monica Munster called, Parka Samurai. It shows how we use perpetual visuals in sequential storytelling.

The epiphany came to me while watching TV -  "Along the River During the Qingming Festival". A famous Chinese scroll painting was being recreated into a living panoramic painting for the 2010 World Expo. It told many stories all on one long scroll - without panel layouts. If Justice couldn't wrap his mind around panel layouts, why use them? Could we tell a sequential story in a long scroll format? There was only one way to find out: dive head in and see what happens.

You shouldn't shy away from new challenges. Instead be daring and face them. We took ideas and techniques from different narrative mediums that we were familiar with and threw them into the creative blender. We looked at storyboards, oil paintings and comics. We went back and forth, figuring things out as we went along. 

We needed to capture the pinnacle of each scene since we had no build up from sequential panels to do so.  I went to film as inspiration for a way to show transitions between scenes. You've probably seen in movies where they use one continuous shot of a character walking from one environment into another, or along a street while all the seasons change. I sketched layouts showing how I thought we could mimic the film transitions, showing one environment slowly changed into the next scene's environment. Justice loved the idea and built on them, layering scenes with images that help drive the visual emotional aspects and themes of the story.


This is from The Last Mage, the long scroll comic I'm doing with Justice. This is an example of a scene transition from a burning village to a burnt down forest, using burning trees and bellowing smoke to bridge them together.

You gain perspectives outside of the one you're working in by drawing upon different media when creating. Though we thought out of the box, I wouldn't say we reinvented the wheel. We took parts of mediums we understood and applied them differently than the norm. 

It was challenging and exciting, frustrating and rewarding, and in the end we found a way to tell a story through our collective knowledge. When you have the freedom to break rules, you have the chance to accomplish something you might not thought possible.

This is from The Last Mage, where you can see there are no panels used to breakup the sequential visuals.

I mentioned that taking a risk gives you the opportunity to gain experience through your trial and errors. Your experiences mix into what becomes your knowledge that will guide your decisions and help with problem solving situations you encounter.

Left: Here's something interesting I did to show Justice that he was indeed doing a sequential story. I did this to illustrate that we were taking the traditional format and changing it up, but still telling a sequential narrative. Right: This is an example of Justice adding emotional visuals to scenes.

Thinking out of the box seems a natural course to take when you work in creative industries, but the opportunity to do so isn't as abundant as you may think. There are parameters to follow so that your project satisfies the conditions to be successfully accepted in the market. With that said, what if you had to stay in the sandbox and think in the box? Can you still be creative playing by the rules?

 As a writer in video games you find yourself often in this situation. You're doing a balancing act between what is already there and adding new content that furthers the gamer's experience. You can't ignore or drastically change what's already there, since you'll end up alienating players who have connected with the established content. Yet if you simply rehash things gamers lose interest and you'll lose them. It goes without saying that isn't a good thing.

Here's grayscale panel layout from a project I'm working on with Mark Torres. Notice that there's an inset panel and one without panel boarders. There's a lot of freedom with what you can do, even with the constrictions of the physical page size.

I've walked that fine line as an English localizer on a massive multiplayer online game in China. In a role like this, it's seldom that you only have to translate the content. You usually end up creating new content like non-playable character banter, item descriptions, character dialogue, and quest details. It's to deal with content inconsistencies I find when auditing content, as well as the nonuniversual cultural differences that make the game inaccessible for English speaking players.

For artists, it's pretty much the same dance. You find visual inconsistencies, which results in making changes to what you're asked to originally do. The mindset I have is to refine and enhance what's there, add what's needed and not to automatically take a hatchet to it all. You strive towards making subtle accessible changes that resonate with and move the gamer's experience forward.

 There's no question that you're going to edited, which you'll have no control over the end results of. And you're restricted with the predetermined characters, situations, animated cut scenes, etc. that were all created with little thought of a story or even a theme to tie it all together. To top it off, you're usually on an impossible deadline.

I go into this by figuring out how to gravitate all the elements I'm given and make it all work in a cohesive manner. You create relationships and situations that connect everything through the content you're building. Try to give purpose to what the characters do and why things look a certain way in the game.

I found that working to solve such situations is a lot like building with Lego bricks. After learning how to build sets, you gain knowledge of building techniques that you can now use to free build things from your imagination. So, even if you were building a set with missing pieces, you could figure how to replace them with pieces from your assorted Lego brick bin.

So many of us race towards reinventing the wheel for the sake of doing so, but sometimes you just need to look at what's in front of you to find what you need. When you understand the structures and purpose in building something, you're able to see and discover solutions that may only require you to use the wheel in a different way. Think of the potential in having a team thinking this way; people from different disciplines providing a variety of paths to take the project to fruition. It's creativity perpetuating creativity. This is why I love working with people from different backgrounds.

Creativity empowers our resiliency and versatility to problem solving, and perspective in the potential of the world that's in front of us. It gives us the ability to see hidden possibilities and opportunities, as well as alternative ways to act upon them.

Using creativity to see and seek opportunities is something I'll talk about in my next article. As well, I'll take some time to talk about contracts, intellectual property and other dirty bits you'll encounter when you create something and put it out there. 

Until then, do something creatively different.


*All images and logos in this article are property and copyright of their respective owners.


Reader Comments (11)

Howard, I love that you can see the talent and know the outcome is worth attacking from all different directions. Thinking outside the box is always good (to me at least) But to successfully cajole it out of others is amazing and a testament to your experience and vision. And congrats Bing on your help to present it to us.

April 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSuzi54241

another Excellent read, Howard. Inspiring as always.

April 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteradsk.kyle

Thanks for the kind words Suzi54241.

Thanks adsk.kyle. I hope that I can inspire others to do something. The world needs more active creative people.

April 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHoward Wong

Really enjoying this series, Howard. Lots of truths and wisdom. I also really appreciate how you are sharing projects that you are actively working on. Great stuff.

April 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoland

Thanks Ronald! Wisdom? Well, I hope what I'm saying is somewhat constructive. I'm still learning about it all on a daily basis, which I think in the end I'll gain some wisdom. I learned more from my mistakes than anything else, which I guess means to never be afraid to make them. Its those who make them, whom become innovators.

April 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHoward Wong

Terrific look into solving creative predicaments...the kind I wouldn't have realized. A big BIG thank you for the 22 panels advice. I love those and hoping to use them soon for hungry flowers lurking on Route 66.

April 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah MN

Thanks Deborah MN, I'm glad you found it useful.

April 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHoward Wong


I find this series fascinating. You mentioned three (3) books.
I'm particularly interested in Wally Wood's Panel book. It is not listed in Amazon.com, where is this book available?

April 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndre

Hi Andre,

There's no book to Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work, it's really a sheet he drew up to contend with scripts that didn't factor in visual storytelling; yes, even talking heads should have the visual narrative working them. The original was purchased by Joel Johnson, who made a high resolution scan available to the public. It has since been copied, redone by other artists and shared by everyone. Try your local library for the books I mentioned and other books they may have. You never know what great tidbits of information you'll find between them covers.

April 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHoward Wong

Thanks Howard!

Since you made that clear, I found the panel online plus another artist's rendition of it. Great stuff.

And, yes, I love to read and own several dozen art books.

Thanks again,


April 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndre

Hi Andre,

Glad you found it useful. Good luck with your endeavors!

April 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHoward Wong

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