Don't Write Comics: How To Write Comics Part 3

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.

So, you've made it this far. Good for you! Or something!

Now comes the hard part. Because now you have to find someone way more talented than yourself to invest emotionally, mentally, and physically in your project.

And if you want the really good art, you're probably going to have to pay for it. I know, I know, you've spent years drilling the "money only flows TO the author, not FROM the author" thing into your head. Well, this ain't prose. This is comics. And your story has literally nowhere to go without art. So you can hang on to your precious money and let your project sit in a drawer, or you can decide that getting a professional looking pitch together is worth skipping some lunches out, extra lattes, and those sweet new shoes you want in order to pull together the scratch to get a great artist. 

Paying Is Key

Now I can hear you wondering why you should pay an artist to do your project when nobody is paying you yet.  Here's why: you're asking them to work on YOUR project.  Nobody pays them to work on their own projects, they do it for free the same way you do. But if they're going to drop their own projects (which most of them have) to work on yours, then they generally have to be compensated. No matter how fussy a writer you are and how many drafts you do and how much research you put in, illustration just takes far more time than writing does - especially if your artist is doing everything (as Meredith is for Heart In A Box - pencils, inks, full colors, and word balloons/lettering). You cannot expect them to invest massive amounts of time that they could spend doing paid work or their own passion projects simply because they like your story. You need to pay them.

Are there ways to not pay them?  Yes, but you're taking a huge gamble. In my experience, the only people that don't insist on being paid are people who are not at a professional enough level for what you need.  Are there exceptions? Sure. People win the lottery too, good luck!  As a reviewer for one of the biggest comics websites out there (CBR) I get sent a lot of indie stuff (mostly pdf's these days) and I look at all of it. How much and how long I look at it usually depends on how professional the art is. Nine times out of ten, even if the story and writing are good, the art is amateur and inconsistent.  It takes a long time to become a good enough artist to deliver a full comic book (let alone a series) in a professional way. And unless you want your work to look like amateur work, you can't hire an amateur to draw it.

I know, I know, you're saying that your story is SO GOOD THAT THE ART WON'T MATTER.  That is great news.  Write it as prose.  Seriously.  If the art doesn't matter, if your story doesn't HAVE to be a comic book, then simply don't do it.  It's only worth all of this if you know that comics is the right medium for your story. And if comics is the right medium for your story then the art very much matters.

So, write your story, and while you do- editing it, perfecting it, and making it 100 kinds of awesome- research artists on the side and save your pennies. This way, when your story is ready you can pay for the work you need to have done to complete a professional pitch, rather than grabbing the first guy that agrees to do it for free.  It's not a slight on artists that are still working their way up. It's the same way you might feel if you crack open some writing from ten years ago. Are you glad that crap didn't get published? Sure you are. These artists aren't ready yet. Some will be eventually, some never will be. But you have to know the difference. And for that I refer you to "Part 1" and doing your research.  Go ahead, I'll wait.

Back? Okay, so in "Part 2" we talked about what you need for your pitch. I covered the basics of #'s 1 - 5, but that leaves us with #'s 6, 7, and 8.

#6. A MINIMUM of 3 sequential art pages
#7. A cover (optional, but great to have)
#8. Character designs (optional but great to have)

Sequential Pages Are King

The most important thing here are the pages. I put a minimum of three pages and I really do mean minimum. I would not actually recommend anything less than four pages, and I feel like five or six is much better. It's worth taking into account your specific story as well. Will five pages put you on the edge of a cliffhanger that you know editors will feel compelled to find out the resolution to?  Or will five pages leave the whole hook absent from your pitch. With Heart In A Box, Meredith and I had a good ending action scene at the bottom of our fourth page, but it was important to me that we show the other side of the book as well. So we did six pages, so we could include two pages that highlighted the softer, more emotional side of the book to contrast with the four pages of violence.  You have to salt to taste here.  That said, you're better off in most cases with more sequential pages, and if that means skipping out on a cover, then make the sacrifice. A cover is great, but a lot of times interior artists don't even end up doing the covers to their comics, so your money is better spent on creating the best possible sequential pages to highlight the strengths of your story. Similarly, simple character designs for your main character(s) are helpful, but less necessary than great sequential pages. Also, you may be able to get your artist to throw some in for a discount, as they'll have to do some of their own character design in order to do the sample pages anyway. Talk it out. Every artist is different. This is a partnership and the best thing for both of you is to be as upfront, honest, and collaborative from go. 

How much will it cost? It really depends. I know you hate that answer, but it depends on so many factors that I can't possibly guess at what your pitch will cost to produce.  It could be more or less than mine, and more or less than the next guy. It depends on your artist's rates, speed, and availability. It depends on how complicated your pages are, and how many you both decide to do. It depends on if they're just penciled pages, or fully realized color pages. All you can do is reach out to an artist, pitch your project (and yourself), hope they love it as much as you do, and then ask them to give you an estimate.  In my experience, especially if they feel passionate about the project, they'll try their best to work with you. I'm sure there are some assholes out there, but every artist I have worked with has been not just a fantastic artist, but a fantastic person. One that wanted us both to be happy, and one that got that I was paying for things out of my own sad little pocket and tried to be respectful of that. And frankly, if they're not that kind of fantastic person from go? Then you should be looking for someone else. You're a team now, and you need to be on the same page, and excited about working together, or it's just never going to go well. Because things will only get more complicated from here, not less. 

And at this point I will add, for those of you that feel discouraged by how hard some of this sounds - collaborating with artists for work I've written is the single most rewarding creative experience I have ever had. FULL STOP.  I can draw (sorta), and when I was in art school I used to imagine writing and drawing my own comics.  I still think about that sometimes, and there are appealing things about it, but if I'd known how rewarding true collaboration with someone brilliant was, I'd have wasted far less time drawing and written more scripts.  Getting art in your in-box is like Christmas on crack. Seeing what a talented artist has done with something you've created - how they've shaped it into something new and better than you could have imagined, and something that now belongs to both of you is a phenomenal experience.  But you have to trust an artist in order to do that. You have to let go. And that means finding the right artist (and right person).  So how do you do that?  Well, here we go.

Where To Look

First and foremost, the more you’re involved with the comics community (in a way that isn’t just about you and your project) the better off you’re going to be in general. If you love comics and you talk about them with artists and writers and fans on a regular basis, be it on a blog or website or just on twitter, you'll be surprised how many connections you'll make to artists and writers, both established and up and coming. Comics continues to be a surprisingly small community and everyone really does know everyone else. So be polite and respectful (always) and get out there and make connections. The easiest and best way to find the best artists it to just be involved. 

But if you don't already have connections, or don't have the time to build them slowly, there are other options out there for finding artists. The most obvious (and effective) place in my opinion is Deviant Art (DA).  Here's what's great about DA - everyone is freaking on there. Seriously, pretty much EVERYONE is on there. From the the artists just barely starting out to the pros. They've all got accounts on DA. It's like a cornucopia of awesome. 

A good alternative to DA is posting forums where people are actually out there looking for work. Digital Webbing is probably the best, followed by places like Ronin Studio. PencilJack used to be a great site for this kind of stuff, but they seem to be a bit slow these days. The advantage these places have over DA is that a lot of artists on these boards are actively looking for work and available. They're open to working with writers and they're trying to break in. You will waste a lot less time here than you might if you spend days (weeks? months? years?) surfing DA. You can even use sites like LinkedIn and Craigslist, though I'd recommend Digital Webbing and specialized sites like it first.

When posting an ad, the best advice I can give is to be specific and careful when writing it, in the hopes of drawing more professional artists to consider submitting and to minimize how many unqualified/inappropriate submissions you get.  For any site where you place an ad (rather than picking an artist and soliciting them directly) be prepared to receive a deluge of submissions. Most of them will be no good for your project and there will be a lot of sifting through to get to the artists that might actually work for your project. But if you’re willing to do the work culling the submissions you can find really great people amongst the slush.

"The Right" Artist

So here are some things you should keep in mind when searching for “the right” artist:

1.  Do not be swayed by beautiful pin ups. Gorgeous pin ups and splash pages are indeed gorgeous, but you need someone that can tell a story.  You need to be looking almost universally at sequential pages. Rest assured, if you find a great storyteller who has beautiful sequential pages, they can also easily do a great pin up, but the reverse is not always true. So stay on path. You're here for pages, not single images.  You're here for storytelling. It doesn't matter if the artist can draw the most beautiful woman you've ever seen. If the artist can't draw her punching a bad guy, or eating dinner, or having actual expressions during a conversation then you're nowhere.

2. Look for strengths and weaknesses. Look for specific things that artists might try to hide or gloss over - can they draw hands? Do they know how clothes fall on a body? Can they show more than one expression? Do they show backgrounds or avoid them? Do they also know how to ink and color, or just pencil? Do you see any of the pages lettered? Don't fool yourself, lettering is a delicate skill - both knowing where to place word balloons and making the right font choices for your story. All these things matter. 

3. Think about your story specifically. Finding an artist that is both good and seems to enjoy similar types of stories/themes/characters will go a long way toward making you both happy. If you're writing a period piece about fine ladies lunching on cucumber tea sandwiches (which, I gotta say, is gonna be a tough sell for comics!) and all the artist's pages are about epic space battles, you're probably not a good fit. 

4. Pick more than one artist that would be a good fit. If you're drawn to their work surely someone else is as well. They may not be available and you may not be able to wait. Or perhaps your ideal artist turns out to not be your ideal "person" - in other words you love their art but you don't have good communication when the two of you start corresponding.  You should have some other artists in your back pocket in case it doesn't work out for this particular pitch.

Following these simple guidelines should give you a head start in not only finding a great artist for your project, but one that is the right fit for your project (and for you).

I was originally planning to have this be the last installment for this series, but there are still contracts to talk about and a look at the back and forth process between you and your artist (with examples from Heart In A Box) which should all be fun…so come back next month for our final installment!

Kelly Thompson

Column by Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson is the author of two crowdfunded self-published novels. The Girl Who Would be King (2012), was funded at over $26,000, was an Amazon Best Seller, and has been optioned by fancy Hollywood types. Her second novel, Storykiller (2014), was funded at nearly $58,000 and remains in the Top 10 most funded Kickstarter novels of all time. She also wrote and co-created the graphic novel Heart In A Box (2015) for Dark Horse Comics.

Kelly lives in Portland Oregon and writes the comics A-Force, Hawkeye, Jem & The Holograms, Misfits, and Power Rangers: Pink. She's also the writer and co-creator of Mega Princess, a creator-owned middle grade comic book series. Prior to writing comics Kelly created the column She Has No Head! for Comics Should Be Good.

She's currently managed by Susan Solomon-Shapiro of Circle of Confusion.

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bcranco's picture
bcranco August 15, 2012 - 2:01pm

Kelly's giving me flashbacks to our first day in Mark's class...when he walks in on crutches and gives us the "failure" speech. We had our chance to turn back then and Kelly gives fair warning here. Actually, it's not much different from most endeavors.

Let me first say: KELLY KNOWS WHAT SHE SPEAKS OF. Even after investing the amount a doctor invests in their education, I still can trust in reading Kelly Thompson's thoughts and learning something new or a something I new, but spoken with words that make sense and I can use myself or use to guide students. This is so clear! HOW DO YOU DO THAT? Also, all those recommended making comics texts are brilliant must reads. But Kelly, really paid attention in class, so her advice is gold.

I don't know if you caught it the other day, Kelly, but I conjectured some estimated comics industry revenue numbers and came up with ridiculous (inaccurate) numbers that illustrated how dire things are (always have been) for making a "living" in comics. Basically, there is not enough money in the comic industry to support the creators, publishing, promotion, distribution and sales already in the for the 100's of new guys & gals on the block annually...failure should be an option. We are talking Hundreds of Millions of Dollars in American comics while Ten Billion or more available to each of comics rivals; Other Visual Arts, Film, Television, Electronic Games, Radio (freaken Radio!) more so then Other Lit, who may have over $20B. 

Keeping in mind the long tradition within comics of aping each others ideas, publishers screwing artist out of intellectual property, and Marvel having one bathroom available at lunch (so you choose between eating and relieving). Then you have all these other industries taking (paying for) intellectual property (or if part of Disney or Warner Brothers...just taking from the subsidiary) and investing properly in production, ADVERTISING, and distribution.

Well you REALLY need to be professional, friendly, talented, well connected, have a work ethic, lucky, have a brilliant idea and be a gluten for punishment to make nothing in funny books. 

Based on our classes and my exsposure afterwords, I have sensed that 80% of aspiring cartoonist (no mater their investment) will fail to meet most of their most basic initial comics aspirations. That said, making comics for this ESSENTIAL group is not something to give up. If they are able to self edit and clearly view their reality, no part of the comics community is more important. These are more then fans (WE ALL ARE FANS). These are the preservers of an American Art form. They keep our heritage alive, keep others making comics in buisness and are really the purist of cartoonists and fans. They love free of complications this medium we all love. They are our hart and soul. Out of this group can and does come great works, individual, unique...very them. I liken them to my favorite art students; the ones who say "I can't draw," and walk away with essential life skills (cognitive development problem solving, fluency in visual lexicon, socialization in a democracy, ect...). This is the type of work that expands the mediums potential audience and the mediums artistic boundaries. These cartoonist represent a more accurate cross-section of our audience. Also are a large part representing all fandom. All art needs it's audience...clearly no more so, than comics.

Then there is 19% of us (at least I think I am here) who have most of the the things you need to make one piece of great work in their lifetime. This is not making a living (don't quit your day job), however, you can creat something that will have a lasting impresion (at least on those who do make a living in comics). What do we get? Satisfaction in the quality of our work, enjoyment of process, a moments respect and perhaps become ledgend of influence on a future great. For most cartoonist who do professional work, but don't get professional pay, they can find a different process, one that also can expand and diversify the medium. But in doing so, don't expect to be perceived as any more or less a success then 99% who try and make comics. Certainly not more than the 1% who we revere and argue about as fans.

I will note for writers (not artist/writers or artist), Kelly's advice should not be varied much, due to personal process. You are threading a needle and it does not have much room for variation.

As to this 1% of the known names, getting paid to do comics (like in sports these are short carriers usually...most making just enough...ending up in dire circumstances after). Don't player hate (you can critique and debate), at the end of the day, they have worked tirelessly in most cases. They understood innately much of what Kelly is spelling out. They have extra luck, charisma maybe, but really, they didn't stand by and let their talent carry them. They worked hard, took risks and understood themselves and their market. I know of blatant exceptions, but we don't dwell on those. We celebrate great works and honor their creators. In turn, they may make a living off of our appreciation and their good work. So we can all be a community and enjoy comics. Not just wax nostalgic over what we have in plastic and boards.

I feel for writers. I just passed up a golden opportunity (one of many times I have not performed as the 1%). A writer had me working on a submission package and I kept drawing my own stuff, not his when I sat down. I felt I had to stay true to myself (plus, if the project got picked was I going to make deadlines?...they weren't going to play me as much as my day job...I have a kid and a mortgage). So I had to let the chance go, for my own process to great work. I may be wrong, but I feel good about it, when I look at my pages. A writer must be wary of the artist. You think you are fickle. We are an odd bunch. But Kelly is right. A good team, is the best experience you can have in comics. And you must have an honest relationship. Even if it means letting go of a descent thing.

Clearly, failure is common, but not required. I will say, I love making comics and always will. Kelly seems to always be this way. If you care for the form, function, community and history of comics DO IT. Make comics. Some will (we know them, they are good people) make it big time. But if you go in realizing, I might not and are ok with just keeping comics alive and in your life. Using it as a vehicle to communicate with others. Then you are participating with a successful plan in an honorable endeavor. Paid or unpaid. Known or unknown.

Alex Hollins's picture
Alex Hollins December 17, 2012 - 3:44pm

"  Getting art in your in-box is like Christmas on crack. Seeing what a talented artist has done with something you've created - how they've shaped it into something new and better than you could have imagined, and something that now belongs to both of you is a phenomenal experience.  "

Yes. I can't say that enough when I tell people what its been like so far. Seeing my own mental image, recreated on the page with more detail, with details I didn't imagine, but now that I see them, of COURSE that should be there....   Its better than Christmas, its like mental sex. (and now that I'm doing it with my own characters and story and not someone elses, phew, can't wait for that!)

Nanowolfe's picture
Nanowolfe June 13, 2014 - 3:08am

I found this three part article to be interesting. I fell under a spell once I started. I'm a fan of comics, I mean, I've read from DC Comics, to Marvel, I've read some Dark Horse Comics. I'm a little obsessive over comics and always looking for something to read. So googled guidelines on making a comic book and Google led me to this article and once I started I couldn't stop. I was compelled to the very end. I'm currently writing a comic script and before i even do anything I want to complete the series. It's a small series, I mean I was already set on it before I started reading this article, I know I need my foot in the door first before I start charging guns blazing. So I am writing a mini-series and I found myself compelled to my own starter. I'm seeking personal advice if you would email me Kelly Thompson,

I mean, I see you've been publshed and you're having your work sold on amazon so it would be great if i can consult you one-on-one.

lerynnewest103's picture
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thomasyi442's picture
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