Advice for Those What Want to Make Comics

Hi. I understand if you are surprised to hear from me. I have been absolute rubbish at keeping up my goal of blogging every week or so. On the bright side, the busy days have been reasonably creative. Thank you for your patience.

My friend (and technically, cousin by marriage) June Madeley asked me to speak to her class at UNBSJ about making comics, especially making them yourself. I have given this talk several times in the past and while some aspects of the talk haven’t changed, others have thanks to my own efforts to “level up” some aspects of what I do, from art to publishing and marketing. (Incidentally, if you feel like making a drinking game out of this post, take one every time I say “level up” in the following post.) I had a fine time babbling at the class for just under an hour. What follows is the notes that I more or less followed for that talk.

So if you want a nice long post about making comics from my perspective, you’re in luck. Here it is. If not, I promise the next post will probably be more of my usual nonsense. If you want more art and writing advice, I highly recommend you check out my tumblr devoted to exactly that.

Apologies for the formatting and scattered tone – someday I will pull all of this stuff together into a more helpful package. For now, it’s a bit of a brain dump.

  1. The Inspirational Part

I think, especially when we’re young, we look at other people doing things we want to do, and we think, it’s too much, it’s too big, I can’t do that, they have some kind of natural talent that I don’t. I remember thinking those things myself, and sometimes I still do even though I have been making, publishing and selling my own comics for over 25 years.

These fears are of course irrational. They come from the limbic system of the brain, which is sometimes called the lizard brain. It’s the little part of our brain that is in charge of the “fight or flight” instinct, but it’s not very good at distinguishing between actual danger and just stuff that just makes us anxious because it’s new or strange to us. I recommend that you start building the mental muscle that quickly and firmly tells that part of your brain – the lizard brain that wants you to be careful and safe- to shut up. Except in situations where you actually are in danger, of course.

Sometimes people ask me about writing or drawing or whatever and it seems like they are looking for a magic word or some secret knowledge or shortcut that will get them to where they want to go, which I assume is a lucrative and enjoyable career, perhaps with a side of fame. I’m happy to report that there is a magic word, but you might not like it: it’s “time.”

When you’re young, you don’t have much patience for the word time. You’ve already had people telling you for years to be patient, that all things will come with time. The good news is, you don’t have to be patient anymore. You don’t have to look for secret knowledge or shortcuts. You’re on the clock, starting now, and you have the rest of your lives, which I am sorry to inform you, will sometimes pass far more quickly than you would like.

The good news is that unlike when I started, the general public is pretty into comics these days, sometimes without even realizing it. Comics are all over pop culture and making their way into academia and even the fine art world here and there. In many ways, I see comics as the cannabis of the art world. Disreputable, regarded as kids stuff, but a secret guilty pleasure for many and as it comes into the mainstream, people are realizing that both could have benefits that we didn’t realize before. And much like cannabis, there are parts of the world where making comics (or the wrong kind of comics) will get you killed.

I don’t mean to scare you, or push you somewhere you don’t want to go. You’re here because you want to make comics. And I’m here to tell you: you’re ready. So go home tonight and take a few minutes to assess your goals and your skills and identify what you need to improve so that you can use your skills to achieve the goals.

Pick your first target, something you can achieve, and get it done. Celebrate getting it done. Post the results on the gram or tumblr or deviantart or whatever, as long as it’s a place where if there is an option for people to leave feedback, it should be an atmosphere of constructive feedback. Then pick the next target, and repeat for as long as you want to.

In the end, do what makes you happy. You only get one life, and let’s face it, this life can be hard. Your art can be a place for you to entertain others, but also to learn about yourself, and in doing so, hopefully, give you a regular dose of the happiness that comes with finishing something. Make it part of your process to step back and look for what you should level up next.

As I said in a blog post earlier this year, the older I get, the more I am convinced that fear is the thing that we must fight hardest against. The lizard-brain that makes us hate and suspect any stranger, any deviation from the path we think is safe. Kill it; kill your fear dead, and be free.

  1. My system

I thought it might be useful today to talk a little about my system. I’m not saying that it should also be your system, but hopefully you’ll find something in it that helps you get started on yours. I encourage you to check out my art advice tumblr as well.

During the last couple of years I have developed a kind of loose project management method, inspired by some books that I’ve read and interviews with cartoonists where they talk about their process. I have what I call a “funnel” for creating things. It’s widest at the top, where ideas enter. As they get fleshed out, eventually they progress down to a narrow neck, where they get put into real production; I make a rough schedule for getting each thing in the “neck” done and then start writing and sketching. Eventually I finish the pages and they go to the final stage, publishing in print or online (or both), emerging as a finished project from the spout, ready for distribution, sales, and promotion.

I scribble down a lot of random ideas that get thrown into the funnel for later development, and I usually work on a few things at a time so that one thing might be just getting started, one might be halfway done, one might be nearly done and so on. Sometimes I go for a stretch concentrating on just one project, other times I might jump between 2 or 3 projects the same day. I don’t really care as long as I spend at least as much time creating stuff as I do consuming stuff.

  1. Leveling up

  • Take inventory of your skills, your goals, and while you’re at it, yourself. What are you good at now? What do you want to get better at? What kind of person are you? Do you like working with others or are you more introverted? Are you progressive or conservative by nature? (Digress about this if there is time)
  • Start generating ideas. You probably already have some dream projects. Start writing down what they would look like when they are finished. Are there any smaller ones that might make a good first project? Or even just a short scene that you could start with?
  • Don’t worry about tools. Worry about using your projects not just to tell a given story, but to also develop a given skill. Maybe you want to do a tribute to the classic Marvel comics of the 60s; wouldn’t that be an excellent place to work on colour, or action sequences, or hand-lettering and special effects? Or maybe you want to develop more on the writing side – what if you did a short story with next to no dialogue, so that you had to tell it with body language and other devices? Or what if it was all dialogue, with minimal art?
  • Develop your system, as I did with the funnel approach that I told you about. How your system looks and works will depend on how you like to work. But remember, just like your art and writing skills, your organizational and professional skills can level up too. Don’t be afraid to step back and look at where you could improve. There’s no right or wrong system or tools, as long as the system keeps you moving forward and finishing the things you want to make.
  • Don’t let your inner critic or any other lizard-brain tricks, or cultural indifference discourage you. Make your pages. Level up. Make more pages. Level up some more. Learn to be professional. Post your best work in an online portfolio. Take commissions. Charge what is fair for your prints and originals. Fan art is fine – keep making it. But when it’s time to be professional, be professional. That means knowing what questions to ask about an assignment, doing the work well, on time, on budget. Even if the publisher is you. Develop a professional mindset, learn some basic project management skills, and level those up as well.
  1. Best Practices, Tips, and Resources:

Check out my zine called “In No Particular Order” online for more of this kind of thing.

  • Try all the jobs in making comics, at least once, end to end from having the idea to publishing and distributing. It’s OK if the result is ugly. The ugly pages become the foundations for the beautiful ones.
  • Try deconstructing an existing comic. Draw thumbnails of each page and storyboard what happens with stick figures. Take the dialogue and revert it back to a Word document in script format.
  • Look for professionals online who have gotten where you want to go. Chances are at least one of them has written about or been interviewed about their process. If you’re an artist, do what apprentice artists have done for millennia: copy the masters. Learn the techniques they use and try them yourself.
  • There are many, many tutorials online for almost everything you will ever need to do to make comics. Some applications like Clip Studio have dedicated user support resources and channels.
  • Read your scripts out loud. Sometimes your ear will catch things that don’t sound right once they’re vocalized.
  • Get a sketchbook and start filling it. Practice drawing people, plants, vehicles, animals, abstract things. Do life drawing classes if you can. Get in the habit of drawing what you actually see, not just what your brain wants to autocomplete.
  • Remember the magic word: time. Time is what governs comics. We manipulate the flow of dialogue, artwork, and other elements in order to transmit a story to the reader. Do you know who else can manipulate time? Wizards. So if it helps, think of yourself as a wizard. Alan Moore does. (Please don’t turn me into a lizard, Alan. Or do. Maybe that would be for the best)
  • Recommended reading:
    1. On Writing by Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King)
    2. Understanding Comics and Making Comics by Scott McCloud
    3. Comic Book Inking by Gary Martin and Steve Rude
    4. Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner
    5. How to Think When You Draw by the Etherington Brothers
    6. Perspective for Comic Book Artists by David Chelsea
    7. The Human Figure by John VanDerPoel
    8. Directing the Story by Francis Glebas
    9. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
    10. Blogs and newsletters by Jesse Hamm (art advice), Warren Ellis (writing advice and thoughts)
  1. A hopeful conclusion

I hope this has been useful for you. I hope that you go forth and start taking the steps down the road to completion of your comics goals, whether it’s a short minicomic or a phonebook sized graphic novel. I hope that if you have any questions, today or anytime in the future, you will reach out and ask. When you have something ready for people to see, I insist that you send me a link or tell me where to buy it. And I hope to see you at next year’s conventions, at a table with your comics.

So that was the talk I gave. I also wrote answers to some more technical and background questions that June has posed in the past, so for the sake of completeness, here’s that too:

  1. How did you come to be a comics creator?

I loved them growing up. When I was in college I was stuck for an idea for a paper for my Linguistics class and decided to write an essay about comics. Later, in grad school, I wrote a thesis about comics and how they work narratively, using Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen – still relatively new at the time – as a case study. This caused a bit of consternation in my department, but they gave me the degree. We asked Will Eisner, one of the great American cartoonists, to be an external reader but he was busy with a book tour.

While writing the thesis I took a foundation year art class to try to understand the visual side of comics better, and after graduation I started making comics of my own. At that time, there was a rising wave of personal and autobiographical comics like Seth’s Palookaville, Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte, and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, among many others. My comics have always tended to be in that tradition. I sent some of the early ones to Eisner to thank him and let him know that I was continuing on from the thesis that way, and he replied with an encouraging letter. I think that pretty much sealed it. No matter how much or how little success I ever have selling the comics I make, and no matter what else I get interested in or where my life goes, I think I’ll always make comics of some kind because it’s how I most prefer to communicate with the world.

  1. What specific tools do you use to create and has this changed over time?

The parallel story of my comics career is of the technological changes. When I started in 1990, I went to art supply stores and bought the same tools that professional cartoonists used then, which were basically the same tools that advertising departments used to assemble pages in the 1950s. I had a burnishing tool for applying sticky alphabets of letters and zip-a-tone benday patterns. I had French curves, a T-square, a lettering guide, plastic oval and circle templates, assorted pencils and brushes and nibs and inks.

In the late 90s I trained to become a graphic designer, and my first job in the field gave me access to Photoshop and the other Adobe graphics tools, as well as a big scanner and an expensive colour laser printer. Eventually I was able to afford some of those tools for home as well, and bought a small Wacom graphics tablet. I eventually shifted to an entirely digital workflow, using an application that is now called Clip Studio Paint, and started making more webcomics than print comics.

These days I use whatever tools I like using the most at the time, which at the moment is a blue or graphite technical pencil for a lot of rough drawings, which I might scan and finish in Clip Studio, or I might ink and colour on illustration board or some other analog surface. In fact, the last thing I published was an 8-page comic where all of the original pages were created entirely with analog tools, including hand-lettering. I like doing a lot of analog sketching and colouring now, I feel like my art is leveling up more quickly as a result.

  1. Has comics ever been a full-time gig for you? If not is it hard to fit in time to create around a regular job and other obligations?

No, it hasn’t, and considering the kind of comics I make, I never really expected it would be. As for if it is hard to find time, yes and no. I have gone through periods where I take a break from making comics for one reason or another. In the last few years I think I have found a good balance, because I work from home but my wife is a student with a very irregular schedule, I can usually find a couple of hours a day to work on whatever I’m working on.

  1. What ways have you used to distribute your comics? Have some been more successful than others? do you have recommendations for good ways to self-distribute comics?

Comics distribution is wretched, in a word. I have distributed my comics in person to shops on consignment, through the mail in catalogs like Factsheet 5 or Broken Pencil; on the internet through various avenues; at conventions where I am a guest or tabling in artist’s alley; and now, thanks to the advances in print on demand, my book collections are available to stores, online and to the public through Amazon.

As for recommendations, I think your publishing and distribution options will be very much determined by the sort of material you produce. Everyone can make a webcomic, so that’s a good and low risk way to start. If the kind of comic you want to make is traditional Japanese manga, you may have to figure out that market or try to work with a publisher already in the market, like Tokyopop. I don’t mean to endorse any particular publisher, by the way – just giving examples. If the kind of comic you want to produce is on the fine art side, you might be able to work with a publisher like Koyama Press or a distributor like Spit and a Half.

I don’t do a lot of digital distribution – it’s a genuine deficit on my part that I should work on correcting. When I do, I will look more seriously at getting my books into channels like Comixology, as well as general bookstores and libraries. You can pretty much spend all of your time trying to get the word out about your books, if you have the patience for that. I don’t. As much I like the print design aspect of publishing, I hate promotion, so that’s something I need to start looking for help with.

Unfortunately, living in the Maritimes does not help matters either. The population is small, and while there are some great comic shops and bookstores, self-published and small press comics tend not to have the sales and built-in awareness of mainstream comics. If you live in a larger city like Montreal or Toronto, there would be a few stores that sell zines, and some of them should work with you from the Maritimes through the internet. Thanks to the population and the art school and other colleges, Halifax does have a thriving comic and zine scene despite the obstacles.

  1. How do you come up with the stories? Have you ever worked with a writer? We looked closely at a writer’s script and then at the final pages (Staggar Lee by Derek McCulloch), do you think it is harder to create on your own or do you prefer that? If so why?

I like working on my own because I’m a bit of an introvert, and because it allows me to change my working method or pause a project or drop it entirely if I feel like it. I wouldn’t feel so free to do that if I had collaborators to worry about. I collaborated with a couple of friends who wrote scripts early on, and I collaborated with my wife on a webcomic a few years ago, but otherwise I generally do most of the jobs myself.

During the last couple of years I have developed a kind of loose project management method, inspired by some books that I’ve read and interviews with cartoonists where they talk about their process. I have what I call a “funnel” for creating things. It’s widest at the top, where ideas enter. As they get fleshed out, eventually they progress down to a narrow neck, where they get put into real production; I make a rough schedule for getting each thing in the “neck” done and then start writing and sketching. Eventually I finish the pages and they go to the final stage, publishing in print or online (or both), emerging as a finished project from the spout, ready for distribution, sales, and promotion.

I scribble down a lot of random ideas that get thrown into the funnel for later development, and I usually work on a few things at a time so that one thing might be just getting started, one might be halfway done, one might be nearly done and so on. Sometimes I go for a stretch concentrating on just one project, other times I might jump between 2 or 3 projects the same day. I don’t really care as long as I spend at least as much time creating stuff as I do consuming stuff.

  1. Do you have some sort of art training? Are you self-taught. Which path would you recommend?

I had the aforementioned foundation year art class in graduate school, plus an art history elective in my BA. Otherwise I am self-taught. I know that there are programs out there where you can learn to make comics  – the earliest ones like the Kubert school were essentially updates of the illustration schools that used to advertise in comic books. Now, there are so many options that you should probably just do what works for you. Some people thrive in a classroom, with a bunch of peers to interact with in a specialized program. Or, you could watch instructional videos for nearly anything you want to know about on YouTube, or you could start going to drink and draw events if your city has one, or find other erstwhile cartoonists who want to rent a workspace together.

I’m a big believer in trying everything you can. Why not? My only cautionary note is not to spend money you don’t have. Fortunately, it is cheaper than ever to make near-to-professional-grade comics and get them in front of people. My main hope for today’s beginning cartoonists is that they will try all the jobs involved, really get their hands dirty making something new and personal instead of just trying to be the next Spider-Man artist or even the next Chris Ware. Be the first you in comics. No one else can do that.


Finding the People

Last year around this time, maybe a little later, I was thinking about how I could “level up” my creative work and complete a worthwhile challenge or two. I’m generally happy with my progress and my output in a lot of respects, but I don’t always feel like I’m good at getting things in front of the audience that would appreciate it.

So, I thought a good way to start would be to level up my publishing. I explored my options for print on demand and wound up trying CreateSpace, Amazon’s in-house solution. I was pleased with it, so I published more books, and now I have several that I can bring with me to shows or just sell online.

Now that I am planning for next year, I am excited about a few potential projects but I also want to continue trying to extend how I reach the audience. It’s been obvious to me for some time that I probably won’t ever create something that has mass appeal, like Spider-Man; but there is definitely a group of people out there who seem to like my work, and I want them to be able to access it easily. And I’d like to be able to access them easily too, to let them know first if I’m doing something I think they’ll like.

So, I think I will start a Patreon. In fact, I already have, but I haven’t activated yet while I’m still figuring out how it will work. I plan on keeping it as simple as possible, basically with a level where subscribers can access a bunch of digital exclusive stuff and another where they can access both digital stuff and periodic physical shipments of comics, little bits of art, and so on.

It’s intimidating, but I think I need to get out of the habit of assuming that people would not subscribe to such a thing. I didn’t expect them to buy as many copies of my books as they did this year either! So why not try?

Not that it’s about making money. I don’t expect to profit from a Patreon- at best it will pay for the time it takes me to make and ship patron-exclusive stuff- but having the additional “channel” of Patreon to point people to could be very useful for building and maintaining an audience and giving them a sort of virtual convention table to go to for the 48ish weeks a year that I’m not doing shows.

So, that is kind of the big effort for next year. I already have a long list of ideas for Patron-exclusive stuff to do in addition to everything else I want to do- more details as they come, including the Patreon link after it launches.

What else to talk about this week? We started a new month, so my participation in Inktober ended and my participation in National Novel Writing Month began, as it has for the last few years. I was overall quite pleased with the stuff I did for Inktober this year – some of the illustrations will definitely be included in an upcoming art book of some sort and one or two favourites might also get used as cards or prints. Again, I’ll keep you posted.

The novel this year is a comedy and a Western, something which we don’t see as much as we used to – I grew up with the “They Call Me Trinity” movies, Blazing Saddles, and so on. Not that I expect the novel to turn out to be a classic like the latter of course, but I am enjoying where it’s going so far.

As for the week coming up, it’s Remembrance Day next weekend here in Canada, which is a big deal to me and many others. Thanks to those who have served to defend their country and others from tyranny. May you never be called to action by poor commanders.