Don't Write Comics: How To Write Comics Part 1

Don't Write Comics is a multi-part essay about writing comics, understanding what your options are, finding the right artist, and everything you need to do to get a strong comic book pitch package together.


If you’re interested in comics solely because you think it might be easy or that it might be a shortcut to another end (like having a movie made of your comic) let me just stop you right here and point you towards the exit.  While it's true that some screenplays get reverse engineered into comics, and then after being successful comics are turned into successful films (30 Days of Night springs to mind), there's nothing "quick and easy" about making comics. In fact, if you’re not well connected to artists (and possibly some publishers) and/or willing to lay out your own money upfront in some cases, then it can be the very opposite of quick and easy. In order to make good comics, I truly believe you have to already love comics. It’s the love that’s going to get you through.

IDENTIFY WHAT YOU’RE WRITING

So you’ve made it this far…which means you either do have a love of comics, or you’ve decided to ignore my advice - in which case I’m not sure why you’re reading on, but whatever, you’re here!

First and foremost, I would suggest identifying what kind of book best fits your idea. Because we are assuming you are not already a well-established comics professional, we’re going to assume that you’re not pitching an ongoing series (i.e. a comic series that has no definitive end).  In fact, let’s just list out what your options are and we’ll go from there.

One-Shot: A one-shot is simply that, it’s one comic book (generally between 20 and 22 pages depending on the publisher) that tells a complete story. This is probably not the venue for you as one-shots are not only very difficult to do successfully, they are also not a great jumping in point unless you’ve been commissioned to do one.

Anthologies: Anthologies are collections of short comic stories. And it's one of the best ways to get your foot in the door -- creating a solid short piece and getting it accepted to an anthology, or banding together with talented similarly motivated friends to create an anthology of your own. Short comic stories, just like prose, take a very particular set of skills, but getting a publisher to take a chance on you for one short piece (a short story could range anywhere from one page to more than a dozen) can be easier since they're risking less page space (and money) on an unknown.

Mini-Series: A mini-series is also exactly what it sounds like. It’s a small series of single issue comics – most mini-series run from 4 to 6 issues in length (so if you figure 22 pages per issue you’re looking at between 88 and 132 pages total). There are some 3-issue minis out there as well as the rare 7 or 8-issue series. Anything at 9-issues or above likely falls into a “Maxi-series” category, these are less common and generally run between 9 and 12 issues. 

Ongoing: An ongoing comic is a comic that has no intended end. While it will likely end at some point, it is not designed that way. It is open-ended and continuing. Like a one-shot, this is usually not the kind of book you want to pitch unless you are established already or have been asked to pitch (in which case, why are you reading this? You already know what you're doing).  An ongoing, depending on the ownership of the concept and characters, can continue on, even once the creative team leaves.  For example Batman is an ongoing title.

Trade Paperback aka TPB aka Trade: Trade Paperbacks are collections of single issues that come in two forms. The first collects an arc from an ongoing run, and packages it as one volume. The second collects a completed mini-series into one volume. Most publishers these days like to release a mini-series in single issues and then, once the entire series has released, they will bundle it together into a trade and release it for a price that is slightly less than buying the issues individually. Many publishers have adopted this method of late as it not only allows them to sell the book twice – once as a monthly, and once as a trade - but it also makes it easier to get those trades onto bookstore and library shelves. To add a bit of confusion, technically a Trade Paperback can also be a Hardcover, but is usually still called a Trade (see the Batwoman hardcover edition below). Sometimes collected trades include an intro or foreward. They can also include additional material like covers, sketches, and notes from creators.

Graphic Novel: A graphic novel is considered a longer comic book and it's designed to be released as one volume, as opposed to smaller pieces. Graphic Novels are published by both comics’ publishers and by regular publishing houses with regularity. Graphic Novels are all the rage these days, and they're great things, but you should understand that they're essentially longer and complete comic books. Comics is not a bad word, though in comparison to the much more hip "graphic novel" it seems to have become one.

Webcomic: There are a million ways to do webcomics these days. From posting randomly on a blog or tumblr, to posting with a weekly or daily schedule, from releasing a page at a time that appears like a regular comics page and contributes to a larger story, to releasing only fully realized strips. There are many sites that host webcomics, and there are some VERY successful webcomics out there – like Kate Beaton’s Hark A Vagrant! – which is brilliant. But like any other medium, there's a lot of dreck out there, so while this avenue might eliminate the publisher for you, you’ll still have to find a way to rise to the top and get noticed, which can be difficult.

Most people writing a comic for the first time should aim for the mini-series category, which, if you do it correctly, can also overlap with Graphic Novels, giving you a little more flexibility about where you can pitch and how you can organize things.  We’re going to talk more about how to actually write the comic in the next installment, but you should definitely be thinking a bit about length here. CAN you tell your story in 132 pages? If not, what’s it going to take?

After identifying how you should package your story, you should certainly identify what your genre is. Though I like to assume anyone that does any kind of writing knows the difference between medium and genre, I will admit that I’ve come across a lot of people that get confused about these two categories when it comes to comics, so I’ll break it down just in case.  The medium is comics. Period. The genre can be anything from memoir or horror to superhero to western. You should definitely know, with ease, what genre your story falls under, or if it’s a hybrid of a couple genres – like a superhero comedy, etc.

There are other things to consider here as they relate to the artwork inside, tone, color, font, panel layout, etc., but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, further down in the process.

READ, READ, READ

If you are already a big comics fan, then you probably have already done all the reading you need to do, but if you’re fairly new to the medium then I suggest, the same way I would for prose, that the best education is reading a lot of great comics. Reading great comics can teach you all kinds of things about how much text works on a page, what kind of visuals might be a good fit for your story, and perhaps most importantly, pacing. Pacing is, for my money, one of the single greatest things that differentiate a great comic book from a good comic book. And while a lot of this is going to have to do with your artist (and picking the correct artist) down the line, you can really set the pace and tone by how you initially lay out the story in your script, thus guiding your artist to the result you’re looking for. 

I would suggest reading a wide breadth of comics, so you can get a feel for everything that’s out there, but you should certainly look at books in your genre especially closely. Really examine what works and doesn’t work and why, the same way you would with prose. And while reading great books is always helpful, sometimes reading mediocre or bad books can be equally as helpful in illustrating what not to do. While I don’t urge people to waste money on bad comics, a day spent at a comic book store, reading through a lot of different books (but make sure to buy some good ones – support your local comic book store!) can teach you a lot. The library is also a great resource if you have one with a good comics & graphic novel section. Every book I mentioned above I'd recommend reading, as well as these and these!

GETTING PROFESSIONAL HELP

Writing comics is simply not the same as writing prose. Though it's closer to writing screenplays, it's still quite a bit different, even when it comes to formatting. So you may need some more specific (and more professional) help as you continue your research. While there is certainly a deluge of information out there, much of it bad, some of it is also very good. One book on my reading list when I was at the Savannah College of Art and Design studying comics (yes, that’s an actual major, if you’re insane, as I apparently am) was Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It was then, and is now, one of the best books I’ve ever read about comics. It breaks down both the broad and the detailed into easy to understand pieces. It’s a book I would never part with and have referred to frequently over the years. If there is a single book you buy in your attempt to begin writing comics, this is the book.

If you’re looking for a little more guidance, I’ve found Alan Moore’s Writing For Comics is a great resource about the writing side of comics, and Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s Mastering Comics, a sequel of sorts to their popular Drawing Words & Pictures is also good. Mastering Comics is not for the light of heart, as it’s more like a great textbook and includes activities, homework, and even extra credit.

So now you have your story idea, an idea of what format it should be, what genre you’re working in, and you’ve researched your competition and looked at some educational books…I think you’re ready to write.

So come back next month to figure out where to begin. I’ll be using an example from a mini-series pitch I put together with artist Meredith McClaren this past spring to help illustrate some of the hurdles we faced and how we solved them.

Image of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
Author: Scott McCloud
Price: $12.98
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (1994)
Binding: Paperback, 224 pages
Image of Mastering Comics: Drawing Words & Writing Pictures Continued
Author: Jessica Abel, Matt Madden
Price: $24.79
Publisher: First Second (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 336 pages
Image of Alan Moore's Writing For Comics Volume 1
Author: Alan Moore
Price: $5.95
Publisher: Avatar Press (2003)
Binding: Paperback, 48 pages
Kelly Thompson

Column by Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson lives in Manhattan and writes the column She Has No Head! for Comics Should Be Good, reviews for Comic Book Resources, and runs the 3 Chicks Review Comics Podcast. Her first novel THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING was a Kindle best seller and her new novel STORYKILLER is out now. She's represented by the Irene Goodman Agency and managed by Principato Young.

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Comments

Tim's picture
Tim from Philadelphia is reading approximately eight different books. Most unsuccessfully. June 11, 2012 - 3:57pm

I look forward to the rest of this series as I'm currently in the middle of deciding if I want to dive into the world of comics/graphic novels. While I already knew of some of your recommended books there were a couple I hadn't found yet. So thanks for that.

I'm currently listening to the iFanBoy/Comics Experience podcast. I'm also excited about the brand new Kids' Comics Revolution podcast which focuses on making/writing comics and graphic novels for kids. If anybody knows of any other good making comics podcasts I'd love to hear about them.

And yes, the library is invaluable for reading as many graphic novels as possible especially if they do inter-library loaning as they do in my county's library system. I'm a big fan of First Second Books and I'm pretty much going to be able to read their whole catalog via the library.

Yorek's picture
Yorek June 11, 2012 - 10:51pm

Hi Kelly,

Great article. I’m taking the Graphic Novel Writing class on the site, so this article is well timed. The Aqua Man comic is hilarious. I just bought a bunch of how to books on comics including the McCloud and Moore book you list here. They’re both great reads, but McCloud takes it to another level. It’s such a good book. I also picked up Eisner’s Comics and Sequential art and Warren Ellis’s Come in Alone.

I can’t wait to read the rest of the articles.

Alex Hollins's picture
Alex Hollins June 12, 2012 - 3:41pm

One thing I've noticed is that there is a big difference between writer/artists and writers. That is, even if the writer ISN'T the artist for the comic in question, they are still an artist, and approach the writing differently than someone like myself, who can, in a pinch, draw stick figures. I know I personally vaccillate between thinking im too sparse and not giving the artist enough description, and thinking that I'm trying to do their job for them with my words, rather than letting them create from my basic descriptions.

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 June 12, 2012 - 4:55pm

@Tim: Great! Then I hope this series is helpful to you. :)

I have a podcast but it's not regularly about process. We do have interviews with comics writers and artists pretty much every episode...so a little bit of process always does get discussed. So far we've had on Scott Snyder, Cliff Chiang, Kelly Sue DeConnick, J.H. Williams, Marjorie Liu, Fiona Staples, Duane Swierczynski, Faith Erin Hicks, Ross Campbell, and coming up, one of my favorites - Brian Wood.

Here's the link if you want to check it out.

http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/category/3-chicks-podcast/

@Korey: Good luck to you in the class! It's true that McCloud's book is really above and beyond. I haven't read the Ellis yet, but he's a favorite comics writer of mine, so it's on my list.

@Alex: I absolutely agree with that. And that will be discussed (to a degree) in part two and three of the series. I would also say that every artist is different and you have to learn how to write for each of them...some definitely need more and some do better with less. It's an art. ;)

 

Ross Campbell's picture
Ross Campbell June 13, 2012 - 6:49pm

great post, Kelly!! i like how you're tackling this stuff.

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 June 26, 2012 - 12:52pm

@Ross: Thanks Ross. You know, you and Nick really influenced the way I approached this series - so credit is largely due to you - I'm glad you're enjoying it.

Alex Hollins's picture
Alex Hollins December 17, 2012 - 12:58pm

Totally forgot about this column!  Off to read the rest of it!

Mohammed Kotwal's picture
Mohammed Kotwal March 23, 2013 - 2:11pm

i dnt now how to rite a comic

 

Mohammed Kotwal's picture
Mohammed Kotwal March 23, 2013 - 2:11pm

i dnt now how to rite a comic

 

Murasaki_Ducky's picture
Murasaki_Ducky from Texas is reading The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan August 1, 2013 - 1:44pm

Read this series a few weeks ago and I must say, it was a very useful read. I've been plugging away on a sci-fi comic book for a while now. It's still in it's infancy but I'm determined to see it through.

It's really cool to hear about other women creating comic book stories. Comics are such a male dominated industry that sometimes I forget that we (female comic book readers/writers/artists/etc.) ARE out there. We have our own distinct voices and stories to tell and it is inspiring to know that other women love this medium and have a desire to work in this industry as much as I do.

I remember when the kickstarter project began for Womanthology : Heroic, I almost peed myself with excitement. (Okay, not literally.) To see and read about the numerous women involved in this anthology was astounding. I hope your series, and others like it, will motivate and direct both men AND women with a passion for comics to heed their calling.

ddamaged's picture
ddamaged October 28, 2014 - 6:12pm

I've encounter a situation where a publisher requests that I send in an Inquiry Letter detailing my experience and why I wish to write.  Well, I do not have writing experience as they would account for it. I am a federal government employee who does some creative writing for pleasure, but has never published anything. I've written factsheets, newsletter articles, and memos for dissemination to federal, state, and local level government offices, nothing of a creative nature. So, what do recommend in situation such as this? 

In addition, is ageism a problem for comic book writers? I'm over 40.

 

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 November 7, 2014 - 4:13am

@ddamaged:

It's certainly true that, like any industry or medium, breaking in is often the toughest part. Like with any job, nobody wants to hire you without experience, and you can't get experience without anyone hiring you. So you just have to have great ideas, write great scripts, find great artists, possibly invest some money so that you can produce impressive wok for those publishers to read, and keep trying. Small indie publishers will obviously be more willing to take a chance on an inexperienced writer.

If they're asking for what your experiences are, the only thing you can do is be honest. Detail (in brief) your extensive technical experience, and say that you're trying to switch gears and do not yet have any creative/fiction credits.

I haven't encountered any issues with ageism in comics...I am under 40, but I'm no spring chicken. Though it might be hard for you to start up a "second career" (it's hard no matter what the field) to be honest, comics are predominantly written by older white males...so as long as your work is good, I can't imagine they're going to care.