The Things You NEED to Know to Make a Great Comic
By Nate Piekos of Blambot Fonts & Comic Lettering
I see a lot of indie comics and indie comic websites.
And by a lot I mean... well, a shitload. Being the webmaster of Blambot means that I get dozens of e-mails each day from all kinds of indie comic folks, who like to show me their stuff. And that's great!
Don't get me wrong, I love seeing other people's work. You can't be an artist without being an art fan.
But many people are making similar mistakes, myself included.
I've also had the opportunity to meet some of the "mainstream" comic artists, either in person or over e-mail, some who's names you'd recognize instantly, some who have been doing incredible, solid work for years, but are unknown.
And I've learned as much as I could from each of them.
We all can do better. Now, I'm only going to say this once, and then I'll get off my soapbox and you can either benefit from my experiences, or disregard them completely.
But I guarantee you, if you don't learn from your mistakes, they will come back to bite you in the ass.
If you don't want to read this whole thing (but you should), the most important points are underlined.
I WANNA BE FAMOUS
Forget it. If that's your goal, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. It's a remote chance. Do this because you love it. Period.
There are thousands of people just like you who are doing what you're doing, and some of them are doing it better... and none of them ever get famous.
Getting famous means you either "know someone" or you got lucky. But it doesn't mean you can't hope for that someday.... but before you even have a chance you need to learn....
BORING STORY SYNDROME
A comic without a story is NOTHING. Sergeant Six-Pack jumping around with his UZI killing everything in sight will bore the piss out of 99% of your readers after issue 5.
Only little kids and the immature really stick with comics that offer nothing but action and titties. You NEED a story. And not just any story, but a really good story. With substance.
And how do you get ideas for such plots? DON'T JUST READ COMICS. Read books. Watch movies. Listen to music. Comics in general don't get the emotional reaction that a great novel or movie do.
And to make a great comic, you must engage your reader's mind and emotions. You can be sure that almost anything you come up with has already been done. What you need to do, is spin it in a direction no one's seen before.
HOW CAN IT SUCK?
It took me a whole weekend to write it!
So you've got your plot... now you need a story and/or a script. Now before you do anything, just chill out. I know you're excited. THINK about it.
Take a week, take a month, take 6 months. Think it all through. You're young, you have time.
Don't just sit down at the computer and type without an idea of where you're going with this. Make notes. Make a chart. Ask yourself the questions that a novel writer asks, "What is my point?"
"Does the story have a solid intro, an engaging middle, and a great ending?"
Ask yourself if the reader will identify with your characters and situations. Ask if anyone will even give a crap about these characters and what they're going through. When I created LINT McCREE MYSTERIES, my partner and I created backstory for the characters and setting for at least 4 months before we even wrote a first draft.
Learn how to write a script. Yes, there is a fairly standard way to write a comic script. It varies from writer to writer, but it's very similar to writing a movie screenplay. Here's how I usually write script: (By the way, (P) stands for "new panel")
(P) Int. Blambot Mothership arena. Eddie and Gus are being pummeled by the monster. Closeup of the monster's hand. Eddie is in it being squeezed in front of the monster's face. He's struggling....
(EDDIE THINKING) any minute now I'm gonna wake up...
(P) Profile of the monster with mouth open, getting ready to eat Eddie.
(EDDIE THINKING) - any minute minute now... any minute...
(P) Closeup on Eddie surprised
(VOICE OFF CAMERA YELLING) - STOP you filthy inbred spawn of an infomercial host!
See? That's not so hard. Since I usually end up drawing my own stories, I don't have to get overly detailed with description.
WRITE MORE THAN ONE DRAFT.
When you're done with the script, let someone else read it.
They will notice things you might not. The story is crystal clear in your head because you wrote it, but the most important thing is that someone who knows nothing about your comic, must be able to pick it up and understand it.
Write and re-write and re-write again. If you get stuck, put it down and go do something else. I play guitar, or work on something else when I get stuck. If that still doesn't work, ask someone for their opinion. It helps if you have a partner(s).
Learn to write good dialogue.
PLEASE, I beg you. Write through the personalities of the characters, and don't overuse your Thesaurus. Again, read novels and watch movies.
Of Course I'm a Good Comic Artist!
I've Been Reading Comics All My Life!
... And that shall be your downfall. It's great that you read a lot of comics, and admire certain artists.
But if the sum total of your art history knowledge and training comes from reading comics, you will fail. As certain as I prefer briefs over boxers, you will fail.
Do you think most of the artists in mainstream comics JUST read comics to learn how to draw? NEVER.
I bet you every one of them have at least some professional training, whether that be college art classes, private lessons, or even apprenticeship. YOU MUST know the rules of art before you can break them and be the art-badass you dream of. There's no way around it.
I spent 5 years in Rhode Island College's graphic design program, learning figure drawing, painting, typography, computer design, Corporate Identity design, and hundreds of hours of Art history from the Stone Age to Modern Art... and I still have a long way to go before I'm happy with my art.
These are the points most commonly neglected in indie comic art:
If you're going to draw Carrie Cleavage with 36 double F boobs, you damn well better know what a 36 double F boob looks like and how it sits on the chest of this poor woman.
I swear to God half the artists in comics today have never even held a real breast. It's a fact that titties sell comics, but fer chrissakes, can't we draw them the way they really exist? Or at least draw them to obey the laws of physics?
You wanna draw boobs but don't have a girlfriend or wife or nude model on hand? Buy an art book or look at some porn. It's OK. I'll let you. You're online right now, and we both know where to find it.
So you have no excuse.
But in general you need to study the human form and how it moves and looks. And that means male and female, fat and skinny, old and young, buff and weakling.
Learn it all and learn it from every angle. Study faces and expressions too. That's important.
OK, there's only one way to say this... If you have delicate sensibilities, don't read ahead...... OK, DRAW THE FUCKING BACKGROUNDS.
I see this problem every day and it's just a symptom of laziness. I know it's boring. I know the reader is only going to see it for 2 seconds, but it's soooo important. I hate drawing backgrounds. HATE IT.
But I learned that it is necessary. You don't have to draw it in EVERY panel, but an establishing shot on a page that indicates to the reader WHERE a scene is taking place, MUST have a background.
If you flip through some comics, you'll notice establishing shots. You'll also notice most action scenes have very little backgrounds unless the background is intrinsic to some part of the action.
This is to keep your focus on the excitement, and to mimic the mind's tendency to block out extraneous info during intense moments. (Do you remember the colour of the building across the street from where you had that awful car accident? I didn't think so.)
I had the good fortune to talk to Walt Simonson a few times, and he gave me this advice, "You have to draw every cigarette butt, every trash can and every seatbelt like it is just as important as your main characters." And he's absolutely right.
You know how creative you are at designing costumes for your superheroes? That's how creative you should learn to be with your backgrounds.
Go outside and look around. Soak it all in. Remember how things look. Remember all the things you see on a street so when you're drawing one, you don't forget that, "Oh crap. I didn't put one single mailbox on Main Street."
I catch myself slacking on this all the time... I'm still trying to drill this one into my head.
Build yourself a reference Library. Collect pictures from magazines, take photos and go out and see everything you can.
Use the internet too. I do that all the time. Need a picture of a rat? Search online? A firetruck? Search online...
This one has always been one of my problems, and I'm still learning it after all these years. Learn perspective. Readers will, "fall out of the story" if they suddenly realize something is terribly wrong with the depth of the panel.
Whether the artist realizes it or not, 50% of each page is graphic design and 50% is illustration. The page has to flow and has to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Grab the script and do thumbnail sketches of each page, do a dozen if you want.
A thumbnail sketch is a small, very quick drawing where you make some decisions about how you want to lay out the panels and maybe even the dialogue balloons. I usually use some cheap 8.5"x11" copy paper and a pencil and just do 1/4 sized layouts. usually 2 or 3, sometimes 6 or 10.
Watch movies and study directing. When I first started doing comics, I was amazed to discover how closely setting up each panel of a page is to directing a movie. Study which angles suit the mood you're trying to convey.
People will tell you that you have to use a brush to ink, or you have to use this brand of paper, or you have to draw the comic at this size... you know what? You don't. Use whatever the hell you want, BUT try out everything first.
Have a working knowledge of lots of different media, you never know when you'll be asked to use it by the writer or editor.
The average comic artist works on 11"x17" bristol board, that has been ruled off to an area of 10"x15" comic dimensions.
Eh... it's just Lettering
Yeah, it's just lettering. It's just the visual representation of every audible clue and every line of dialogue in your book. I don't consider myself a letterer, I never did. Blambot was the result of not being able to find many free comic fonts online.
I decided to make my own and the rest is history. But my degree from college is in Graphic Design and I was lucky enough to have to study typography. It doesn't really interest me much, but I have a working knowledge and you should too.
Lettering is important. It must fit into the graphic design of your pages and enhance the "feel" of your comic. Choose your fonts wisely young jedi. If you're hand lettering, more power to you. I can't hand letter to save my life... how ironic is that?!
But with the advent of computer lettering, now everyone can have decent text in their comic.
Put on your Tie, you are a Businessman Now
So, your comic is done. Awesome. But guess what? No one can read it can they?
Whether you're doing it hardcore indie style, a la Xerox machine, or your having it professionally printed, you MUST learn how to promote your work, and get familiar with the politics of making comics.
Use every avenue at your disposal: Build a website, Tell people, show people, get online and find out a few hundred comic shop addresses and send out fliers to them, get a distributor like Diamond, take out ads, convince your local shop to do a small book signing for you... the list goes on and on.
But remember, don't plan the rest of your life on the success of your book. Even if you put your very heart and soul into this... you probably will not be able to make a living doing it. Always have a "Plan B". That's just the way it is. You must do this for the fun of it first, and the profit second.... speaking of which...
Congratulations! You're Poor!
If you're doing a xerox produced comic, expect to spend a hundred dollars per 100 issues on copy costs, and who knows how much on promos.
If you're having it professionally printed, expect to spend about $1000 per 1000 issues you have printed. Prices vary from printer to printer (and call them all!). Every penny you spend should be considered non refundable.
Go into this with the conclusion that the 3 grand you just spent is GONE. Because you may not make it back in sales.
With all this said, you may think I have a bleak outlook on self publishing. I don't.
I have the facts, and you just read em. Remember: Do this because you love it. And if you love it, you owe it to yourself to do it the best you possibly can.
I hope you learned something by reading all this.
I'm not some mainstream bigwig, I'm an indie guy, like you (unless you're an indie girl), and I've been where you are.
Nate Piekos firstname.lastname@example.org
(Reproduced on urban75 with the author's kind permission)