Comics and other graphic texts are one of the fastest growing areas of publishing, and they seem to be getting stronger each year. If you haven’t considered getting graphic, you might want to.
This post is for creators, especially writers, who are interested in graphic story-telling. Even if your art skills are limited to crooked, one-armed stick figures, comic books and other graphic texts might help you discover new stories to tell, and new ways to build narratives.
I get asked a lot about how I created Broken Saviors as an independent comic, so in the interest of helping out fellow creators, here’s the process broken down into ten basic steps:
Step 1: Discover what’s out there.
If you haven’t looked into comics and graphic texts lately, you’re in for a treat. Right now, the comic book/graphic text world is exploding with possibilities (here’s a list of some traditional trade paperback comics that go way beyond the typical heroes-in-tights genre). Or you could just start here: Broken Saviors Issues 1 & 2
But don’t just limit yourself to comics and graphic novels. Explore all the new ways visual art is becoming part of narratives in hybrid-texts like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Mrs. Pergrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Familiar, and Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to name just a couple. If you discover any good hybrid-texts, please mention them in the comments below!).
Changes in technology are leading to changes in what’s economically possible in publishing, which are leading to some exciting changes in how art is being used to create texts.
Step 2: Learn to think visually.
This takes practice. When I travel, I like to keep a visual journal. Although I’m a terrible artist, I’ve found that drawing helps me pay attention to things I might otherwise miss. And the more I draw, the more I notice and remember things. Also, the way I perceive experiences changes when I draw them. By learning to think visually, you’ll discover stories you might not have thought of before, and ways to tell them that you might not have considered.
Try it—with enough practice, you’ll see what I mean.
Step 3: Find a story that demands to be told visually.
Creating a comic book is a lot of work. I’d wager it’s at least twice the amount of work you think it is, even if you already think that it’s a lot of work. But it’s also extremely rewarding. That said, if a story could be told with just plain words, I’d write it with plain words. Don’t force something to become a comic or a graphic text. The art needs to be an integral part of the story (not an after thought, or an illustration).
So if a story comes to you that demands to be told visually, and it won’t go away, then welcome to the journey.
Step 4: Determine the format that fits the story and the audience you want to reach.
Some folks might suggest doing this after you’ve written a script, but I think it’s best to do it before, because the format is more than just a publishing platform or the shape of the page. It’s going to determine how the story is structured and paced, and what the style of the story might be. So ask yourself early on, “What do I want this story to look like, and where do I want it to end up?”
Are you going for a traditional trade paperback comic format? A graphic novel? American manga? An online, digital comic? A black & white graphic memoir? A collaboration or writer/artist work? An art book or short letter press book? And are you looking for a commercial publication, to self-publish, a small independent press, online publishing, or something else?
Consider what the size and shape of the pages will be. What colors and styles the story demands. And what effect you want the format to have on the reader. Then find the form that best fits those needs and the needs of the audiences you want to reach (reading other books that are reaching that audience is a good way to do this).
Step 5: Write a Script.
The most important thing to remember in writing the script is that the images must tell part most of the story (that’s why it helps to think visually first). Also try to advance the story as much as possible through dialogue (rather than text blocks). And try not to crowd your pages with too many words or panels. Artists usually like to work with larger panels that can show more rather than a bunch of small panels. Note: with different formats, you’ll have different numbers of panels per page. For instance, with a typical trade paperback comic book format, 9 panels per page should be considered the max. Less is better though, and variety is good.
Also, as you’re writing the script, think about what will be on the left or right hand page (depending on the format), and try to get opposing pages to either complement or contrast with each other. Try to pace scenes out so they happen on one page, and so moments of tension happen on the page turn. Try to vary backgrounds and settings, and keep things active and visual.
There is no industry standard right now on how to format a script, but Dark Horse’s handy Script Format is good for most publishers. Read and follow these guidelines carefully. And remember, panel descriptions are also part of the script (just don’t go crazy with them like certain famous writers have been known to do).
Step 6: Revise your script many times.
Two things to keep in mind here: 1) Less is more; and 2) it’s much easier to revise things in the script than in later stages. So revise like crazy.
For instance, with traditional trade paperback comics, a typical issue will be 22 pages. Some publishers are stricter than other ones on this, but with publishers I’ve worked with, 22 pages on the nose was demanded. So, to come up with a good 22 page issue (like this one), I’d start by writing at least 40-50 pages for the script. Then I’d cut it down relentlessly, removing every word, scene, or moment that wasn’t adding something good, or that was getting in the way of the art, until I arrived at that magical 22 page. In comics, you can imply a lot more through the art than you might think (and the audiences demands for the pace of the story are faster than you might think), so it’s best to start with a longer script, and make the writing minimal. Finding a writing group can help you with this.
Even with a lot of script revision, revision will also need to happen during the production phase, so make sure you find an artist who’s willing to revise (see Step 7). Ask the artist to share layouts, pencils, and inks with you, and look over every panel careful as things are developing. Chances are, when you see the visual story, you’ll want to go back and make changes in the script.
Step 7: No one wants to read your script, so find an artist or draw it yourself.
You’ll have an easier time finding hippies at a Donald Trump rally than publishers looking for unsolicited scripts from writers, so save yourself some time and either create the art yourself, or find an artist interested in a collaboration.
Personally, I love collaborations. Writing is a lonely enough business as it is, and a good collaboration can bring unanticipated synergy to a project. In order to create a good collaboration, though, you need to have clear expectations for what the artist will do (pencils, inks, colors, letters?), and you need to know what sort of art you’re looking for (hand drawn, painted, digital, collage, realistic, abstract, other?).
Deviant Art is a great site to join to discover artists and get a sense of their work. One note: Artists for comic books rarely fulfill all the visual roles. Some might just do cover art. Some might be great with layouts and sequential images, but not so good with inks or colors. Some might be masters at painted colors, or digital colors. And some might be skilled at lettering (hand or digital) and design. It’s rare to find an artist willing to do all of this, or skilled at all of this. Don’t be surprised if you end up collaborating with different artists for the inks and the colors. Make sure you spell out the artist’s role and payment clearly (with clauses on revision, deadlines, image rights, and such) in a contract you both are willing to agree to before starting work.
And if you end up doing the lettering yourself Manga Studio is great for this (see step 9).
Step 8: Pay the artists.
Yup—pay them! You’re asking them to do an incredible amount of work on your project. Even if they love the story, they should be paid. Why? Because it will vastly improve your writing, and the economy of your prose, if you need to pay an artist $100 for every page.
Besides, artists (and writers) deserve to be paid for their work. Granted, you’re a writer, and you’re probably going to lose money on your project. I know I usually do. But if you believe in a story, then it’s worth it. And if it’s not worth it to you, create something else. Great art requires dedication and sacrifice.
Also, if you offer to pay artists a decent amount, you’ll get a lot more portfolios sent to you for consideration, and you’ll attract more professional work.
In regards to how much to pay, that depends on what the artist is doing. I would try to budget around $100 a page with colors for sequential art. So if an artist is only doing pencils and inks, you might pay them $60-80 a page. Some artists get paid per panel ($20-40 per panel). A decent colorist might work for $20-40$ a page.
Note: These are all below industry payment standards. Artists working for big publishers often get much more than this (depending on the publisher and the project), so if you want a true collaboration, know that you’ll need to offer the artist more than just upfront payment (like their name on the cover, and a share of the royalties after publication…). Think of the payment as a small advance against royalties for their work.
Step 9: Lettering
The lettering usually comes after the art and colors are done, so make sure the artists you’re working with are leaving room for it. Also, decide on the style of the lettering you want to use. Depending on the format, you might go old school and do hand lettering, but most letters are done digitally these days. You’ll probably need to purchase the font you want to use.
Step 10: Publishing or sharing your work
You’ve created something brilliant—now share it! There are a lot of possibilities here, and it seems like I discover a new one every day. Still, breaking into traditional publishing with comic books is incredibly hard because the cost of producing a new comic is so high.
Crazy as it sounds, most big comic book publishers are only interested in comics that are already produced and have a proven following. Most publishers will not accept unsolicited manuscripts or issues.
Every now and then, some creator-owned publishers (like Oni Press, or Shadowline, or Image…) will put out a call for pitches. When they do, they usually request 5-10 finished pages, along with a short synopsis of the first few issues. So, get started right away creating sample pages or a sample issue that you can send out. And make sure to follow the submission guidelines exactly.
There are a lot of other ways to publish comics and get a following than traditional publishers, though. Comixology, Graphicaly, and iVerse are some great places to check out (especially for digital comics) once you’ve created a few issues. And self publishing through print on demand services is another possibility.
Many comic creators these days are using crowd-funding as a way to support production costs. Personally, I owe a lot to Backers on Kickstarter for funding Issues 2 & 3 of Broken Saviors. If you’re going the crowd-funding route, though, I highly recommend creating at least one sample issue first. And know that the most successful projects tend to be ones that offer a full printed volume (so you might want to develop several issues before you turn to crowd funding to fund a print issue) Also, crowd-funding is a community thing, so if you’re considering this route, start by Backing some comic projects yourself. For more tips on running a crowd-funding campaign, check this out.
One final note: If you’re sharing your comic online, or sending it to friend, or posting it on a website, please for the love of all that is good and digital keep the file size small and accessible! PDFs that are under 10mb are generally the easiest to share and download, although if you’re going to go digital you might consider other formats. To shrink your file size, you might need to shrink your images first. This can be done by opening them in iPhoto (or a similar program), then exporting them as Medium quality 1000px (or less) images (experiment to find what works best for your format). Then take those smaller .jpegs and join them together into one easy to download .pdf on Adobe or using Preview (or other programs).
That’s it! Let me know if you create a comic.
You can share a link to it in the comments below!