Columns > Published on August 14th, 2012

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!

About the author

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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