Creating comics can be intimidating at first, but comics as a medium offers multitalented cartoonists the opportunity to tell a story that is completely their own, and scales what could be a multimillion film production down to the cost of art supplies and a few other expenses.
It’s not easy when you're working a day job and making ends meet to find the time to make comics, but it can be done.
I’m currently working on a graphic novel, GRABWELL, about a time-traveling World War 2 veteran, and a series, MONARCH ACADEMY, about a school for witches, with a trans protagonist. Both are wildly different in subject matter and tone. Making them takes time and planning. Most of all, it takes dedication.
Making comics, as with most things, starts with a good idea.
As you might expect from the name, “conception” is the fun part. Inspiration can strike anywhere at any time; what’s important is knowing what story you want to tell, and even more so, knowing why you’re the one to tell it.
Everyone’s process is different, and there’s no right or wrong way to begin conceiving your story. It could be a setting that inspires you. A period in time. A feeling. If it sparks something, you’re on the right track.
So, you have a loose idea for a story. Now it’s time to populate it.
If you’re an artist, like me, it’s often helpful to start with character sketches – introduce yourself to the characters of your story, get to know them. Even though they are likely fictional creations of yours, they’ll start to inform your story themselves. Listen to them.
If you’re writing for an artist, you’ll want to bring them in as soon as you’re ready to develop the visual language of your comic.
List your characters and describe them in as much detail as possible for your artist. This requires more time and collaboration, as no artist is a mind-reader and can’t be expected to draw what you haven’t told them. You’ll also want to give your artist some leeway to interpret the descriptions you give them. They’ll often surprise you and give you new directions to take the characters in, and you’ll want to give yourself some space for these surprises.
A good design could take a background character in your mind to the forefront of the story. Don’t be afraid to improvise in the conception stage. Let the story unfold, and you’ll understand how to explain it to your audience.
Now, it’s time to make the comic. You want to decide what kind of comic you’re making. An original graphic novel? A series? Maybe a collection or anthology of short stories? It’s up to you, and what your story tells you it needs in order to be its best self.
Starting with a short, concise story is a good way to learn the ins and outs of producing a finished work, but some stories demand more pages. Know where you’re taking the story and decide how you want it to be released.
Writing a comic can also be done in many ways, but it’s more like writing a film than a novel. You want to write your panels like shots in a film. You’ll notice good comics have a sort of cliffhanger at the end of every page. Something that makes you want to turn to the next.
It’s helpful to think of panels as story beats. Every panel is like a cut or edit in a film, transitioning from one piece of visual information to the next. Drawing storyboards is very helpful, even if they’re just stick figures; it gives you an idea of what can fit on a page, and it will help your artist act as cinematographer so they can maybe find a better angle on the scene.
When working with an artist, you need to be specific about every panel: who’s in it, what’s being said, the actions the characters are taking. Give them everything they need. Some artists will want to draw panels different than you describe. This is usually a good thing as long as the details you mentioned are all there. Trust your artist, but inform them first. If you’re not drawing it yourself, then it’s likely they have a better idea of how to make it look good, and they’re going to show you something cool.
If you’re collaborating with a writer or an artist, the most important thing is mutual respect. Knowing each other’s place in telling the story and not overstepping. Get to know each other and the kinds of stories you each want to tell. Don’t just take the first artist you meet, find the right artist for your story.
Writing takes time and research. So does art. Be patient with the artist. Make your deadlines clear. And make sure they’re being paid and credited their due. You can’t make comics without an artist, and the writing part is the cheapest part of creating comics.
Drawing a comic is fun. It’s also a lot of work. Find an artist whose style matches the tone of your story, or get your art to match the tone. Some artists have a style that works great for one kind of story and terrible in another. It’s subjective, but you’ll know what you’re looking for when you see it.
For my graphic novel GRABWELL, I have chosen to make it look like the hero’s sketchbook, which he keeps as a comic-book-style journal, chronicling his journey through the horrors of World War 2. It’s a story with serious subject matter. I’ve chosen this black-and-white sketchbook style because it’s literally written into the story, and it conveys the hero’s mood appropriately.
For my series MONARCH ACADEMY, I’ve set a much lighter tone, which allows for humor, magical action, and all sorts of fantastical creatures and characters. I’ve chosen a full color manga/anime style of illustration for this project because it suits the story, and it’s in color because the central characters are a trans woman who wears pride flags and whose light magic manifests in a spectrum of colors, and a Butterfly Goddess, who’s meant to be stunning to behold.
Finding the look is important to establishing the identity of your comic. It’s what either sets it apart, or puts it in good company. Whatever you feel is best for telling the story emotionally.
Keep your script and storyboards by your side while drawing. It saves so much energy to know ahead of time what you’ll be drawing. Knowing what a character is saying in panel is crucial to conveying their body language and facial expressions. Be sure to leave some space in the drawings for word bubbles to be added in later. (Later is almost always best for lettering.)
I find it saves time to draw the loose details for several pages in one sitting. I’ll start with panels, then draw the characters with very little detail at this point, just their posture and the directions their faces are looking. Once I’ve done the rough-posture drawings, I go back in another sitting and fill out the details in full and fix whatever I’m not happy with from the previous sitting.
Comics come in all shapes and sizes. Most of the comics you’ve seen in a shop were not drawn at the size you see them. They’re generally drawn at twice the size, and the dimensions are altered for print and publication.
11×17 is the closest thing to an industry standard. Bristol is great paper for drawing and inking comics the traditional way. You can find it at most art stores. You’ll want some markers of various sizes. I use Microns 02, 05, 08, and a brush pen to ink my comics.
What they often don’t tell you about preparing comics for print is that you need to leave space for what are called the Trim and Bleed lines. If you don’t, you’re likely to end up with sections of your comic cut off when the book is bound, that results in an ugly, unprofessional look that can’t even be read properly. That’s the last thing you want.
Another important thing to think of that could cause big problems down the line is page number. It’s important to know what page you’re on. If you’re planning an epic, two-page splash on pages 11 and 12, you want to be sure the reader sees those two pages together in a spread, or it will throw the rest of the book out of sequence, along with that one mistake. Make sure you know what pages are odd and which are even and plan accordingly for print.
So, you’ve drawn and inked the comic the traditional way. So far, your costs should be relatively low. The supplies add up fast, but you can get everything you need for a 25-page comic for between $50 to $100, depending on how much ink you put to page.
Now comes scanning, coloring, lettering, and printing.
If you’ve drawn your comic at 11×17 like everyone recommends, you’ll notice something when it’s time to scan. Your comic is too big for the average scanner! You need a large flatbed scanner, and they can cost over a thousand dollars. That’s not cheap, and it might be out of your price range.
I encountered this problem with MONARCH ACADEMY, and it set me back, as I couldn’t afford a flatbed scanner. Plus, once it was scanned, there are some quick formatting issues I needed to fix myself, and so it’s difficult to pay for a scan somewhere and get the cleaned-up image I needed for color.
You can scan your drawings in a smaller scanner and stitch multiple scans together to recreate a finished page in your computer, but that can be tedious and you have to make sure it lines up perfectly.
For a good scan, you want to scan at a minimum of 300 DPI (Dots Per Inch), turn the whites and the blacks up to max, and erase any blue pencil lines from the art. (If you draw in blue, it’s easier to separate blue pencil from the inks once scanned.)
It can be difficult to find a quality scan for cheap. There are apps for your phone that can produce decent quality scans, but most aren’t free and you’re likely to lose some detail from the drawing.
A good scan is important when you make your comics the traditional way. It’s disappointing to see a big, beautiful page of art lose details or become blurry once scanned. You want your comic to look crisp and clean, not like a fax.
This step can be frustrating. It’s the least artistic aspect of making comics. It’s tedious and can be disheartening when you didn’t expect the ballooning expense of getting a good scan at home.
You can draw on smaller paper and print at size to fit the average home scanner but that presents challenges, too. 11×17 is a great size for drawing comics. It allows for big panels, and more expression and detail in the art. If you go much smaller, it limits the scale of the art significantly. It can be done and look great, but small is better suited to more cartoon-style illustration than it is a glorious tale of battle. In that way, the size also sets the tone for the comic.
Whatever size you choose, make sure it not only scans, but prints looking good.
Now that you’ve got these big, beautiful pages of inked art, you may decide your comic doesn’t need color. As usual, the important thing is matching the tone of the book. Color accordingly.
Coloring is cheaper than scanning. There are tons of free apps for digital art. Some are great, some are terrible. A dedicated comic illustration program is ideal, but not everyone can afford it. Finding free comic-making apps that create quality comics is next to impossible. But as long as you’re happy with the colors and how it looks printed, it really doesn’t matter how cheap you made it. What matters is the finished product. Just make sure you haven’t reformatted the dimensions of your scan. You want it to print at the size you’ve determined before you drew it. Not the size the program defaults to.
Always use a comic-making program if you have one on your computer. There are tons of manga ones that aren’t specific to creating manga. They work for comics in general and they’re often amazing programs. Take a little time to research what programs your favorite artists use and, if you can’t afford them, look for something similar. Many are quite cheap or even free.
While the words are one of the first steps, the lettering is generally one of the last. You can do it by hand during the drawing stage, but you run the risk of a sloppy-looking, illegible mess.
Lettering the word balloons, thought bubbles, narration, sound effects, etc. is usually better done on a computer for a consistent font throughout.
The most important thing is legibility. It has to be easy to read. Change fonts for different characters if it suits, but keep it readable.
Once the lettering is finished, you’re ready for print or digital release! Just make sure the pages are all formatted at the same dimensions, every page is in its place, and it all looks the way you want.
Print on your choice of paper. Glossy generally, but maybe you want another look or texture to the finished book.
Get a cover illustration that tells the story in one image to the best of your ability, without giving too much away, and get it bound as you see fit. It doesn’t have to be shaped like a traditional comic. It could be shaped like a coffin with leather binding if you have a vampire story that you conceived that way. There’s no reason not to get creative with the tangible book itself, if it fits the tone and themes therein. Have fun with it. Make something unique. Stand out.
You did it! You made your first comic. You’re now ahead of me. The student has become the master. Congratulations!
Now all you need to decide is how to get it out there. You can look for publishers. You can crowdfund. Self-publish. Release it on your website or social media. Have a plan ahead of time, and see to it. If you want to keep it yours, you need to insist it stays creator-owned. If you want to sell it, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you could be handing someone their next big franchise.
Know what you’ve got, and what you want for it, and shoot your shot. You’re officially a comic creator now.
Welcome to the league, hero! It’s good to have you in our company.
And you can find GRABWELL on Kickstarter right now!