Woodland Hills is a funny, heart-warming middle grade graphic novel about a loner kid who lives in a trailer park and unexpectedly becomes friends with the well-liked, athletic son of the school principal.

How to Break Down a Comics Page: Josh Smeaton's Process

Middle grade graphic novel Woodland Hills, by Josh Smeaton: hero image of the main characters

I love reading and watching different comics creators' process at all different stages of producing a graphic novel. You might think there would be certain "best practices," but what I've found is that there is huge variation in how people tackle the process!

Josh Smeaton is working on a graphic novel called Woodland Hills with Pixel + Ink. It's about a loner kid from the trailer park who unexpectedly becomes friends with the popular, athletic son of the school principal.

Graphic novelist Josh Smeaton with his family.
Graphic novelist Josh Smeaton with his family.

He's fun to "talk shop" with because 1) he is particularly analytical about process; and 2) his process is a bit unusual in certain ways.

Below is a complete description of how Josh breaks down a comics page, in his own words.

How Josh Smeaton Breaks Down a Comics Page

Step 1: The Script Stage

I’ll start with the caveat that there’s no set way to make comics. Find what works for you and get it done. 

I write my stories like a screenplay. I don’t worry about panels and page breaks at this stage. When it’s complete, I’ll then go through and figure those out. Once that’s figured out, I’ll thumbnail it.

Sample page from the script for Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel.
I print out the final script and then go through and break it down by panels and pages. When figuring out page breaks, I do not include more than one scene on a comics page.

Step 2: The Thumbnails Stage

I thumbnail in a cheap notebook. This does two things. One, it enables me to work small and keep it to essential details only. I’m not working digitally here, so I can’t zoom in and add bits that are unnecessary at this point. 

Two, I’m able to draw the left and right pages next to each other as they’ll appear in the final book. When thumbnailing, I’m thinking about page turns and how the side-by-side pages work together. Is it clear what’s going on? 

Clarity above all. I like a gorgeous spread as much as the next guy but I am here to service the story, not make a cool pinup.

Sample page of thumbnails from Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel
I thumbnail in cheap notebooks. Drawing the pages side by side enables me to see how they'll read next to each other in the printed book.

For me, the thumbnailing is probably the most exciting part. This step determines how the story is presented to the reader. I occasionally make changes when working on the final art but for the most part, this is where the visual storytelling is determined. 

Keeping my art style and the print size of the book in mind, I try to keep a page to five panels or less. I also don’t want a text-heavy page or panel. A big block of text is an express ticket to skimsville.

Step 3: The Lettering Stage

Lettering guide for Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel
I letter the page before drawing to see how much space I have for art. That word balloon in the second panel takes up quite a bit of real estate. But knowing that in advance saves me from drawing something that would have just been covered

The common practice in comic making is to do the lettering after the art is completed. But I do it first.

I include word balloons in my thumbnails to make sure the order of the balloons is clear to the reader and also to not have the tails of the balloons crisscrossing. 

Doing the lettering before the art allows me to know exactly how much space I have for the art. I want to make sure nothing essential is going to be covered up. I can move the balloons around later on the final art if I find something that works better but doing it first ensures that it works.

Step 4: The Pencils Stage

Penciled page from Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel
I didn't have much in the way of pencils on this page. I went straight to inks in the second panel.

Next are “pencils”. I draw in Clip Studio Paint so the line between pencils and inks is often blurred. I still work out some things that are more complicated for me in a rough pencil layer. I find though, the further I get into the book, the more I just work it out in the “inks”. That’s one of the benefits of working digitally.

In the example shown above, the trailer in the first panel was created with SketchUp. Using a 3D model also enables me to quickly try out different angles and use the one that works best.

Step 5: The Inks Stage

Inked page from Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel
If there is a clear establishing shot, you don't necessarily need backgrounds in every panel.

Here are a few extras in my process not covered above. If I have a location that’s going to be used a fair amount, I’ll make a model of it in SketchUp. It’s fairly easy to use and you can still download the 2017 version for free. 

I like it when I’m able to create a page with no words and the storytelling is only pictures. But when there are no words on a page, the reader may rush through it. So sometimes I’ll add a line of dialogue that wasn't in my original script if I want to slow the reader down. 

I want to keep things visually interesting. I default to medium shots so I remind myself to mix it up with a combination of wide, medium, and close-up shots.

Inked and lettered page from Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel
Here's the finished piece, aside from color.

Final full color page from Josh Smeaton's WOODLAND HILLS graphic novel

The final page! Only 160 more pages to go.

And that’s how I break down a page.

Joshua Smeaton is an award-winning cartoonist, husband and father. There is a comma after cartoonist. He has not won awards for being a husband or father. Though, there has been considerable buzz during awards season that Josh could take home a “World’s Best Dad” mug.

Josh lives in Los Angeles, California with his wife, two children, and Catfred, the world’s friendliest cat. His middle-grade graphic novel, Woodland Hills - The Paper Plane Party comes out Summer 2025. 

You can find Josh and his socials at www.joshdrawscomics.com.