Comics Advice

A friend asked for comics-making advice on Twitter. I had some. Oh, did I have some. Maybe some other people following me would like advice on making comics from me, so I’ll cut and paste them into a blog post (and expand on them a little)…


Don’t. They’re a ton of work and a major pain in the ass and there’s a zillion other people making comics and getting people to look at anything longer than ten panels these days is an uphill battle.

But if you must…

Find your own level of reuse. Backgrounds. Character elements. How much are you comfortable with? You probably don’t want to assemble 90% of your panels out of art you drew once and copy/paste forever, but you also probably don’t want to draw every tiny screw on your main character’s prosthetic arm every damn time. Consider how you can limit how complex you can get on a page – are you allowed gradients/hatching/etc? Are you going to limit your palette? (I like doing that a lot.)

If you’re full color, how can you make this fast and easy to repeat? Can you make brushes for complex parts of character? For instance if a character has a tattoo or a complex logo: make a brush, deposit tons of detail with one quick stroke. Pull out the brush specifically marked as being for character X’s hair. Maybe end up with close/mid/long shot versions of these things, because you need less detail for longer shots, your choice.

Some of the styles I’m accumulating for Parallax stuff.

(Organizing brushes/color palettes/graphic styles/etc by character can be super helpful. The more you can pack into one click, the better; lately I’ve been starting to make lists of Graphic Styles in Illustrator, labeled with something like “Olivia prosthetic arm”, “Union logo”, or “Lexy hair cu”; these might just be a simple flat fill, or they might be a complex assemblage of settings and brushes. It’s a lot faster to go from a rough to a finished drawing this way than it is to manually pick a color and a brush and go at it. I dunno if other art programs can do this but it’s super useful if you’re an Illustrator person like me.)

Decide how many pages/week you want and how much time you wanna spend, enforce this rigorously (until you don’t). I mean I went from two pages a week on Rita to a climax that took six months to draw and it was… pretty hard. Worth it but hard. I’d usually spend 2-4 hours drawing Rita on most weekdays because I am a big slacker compared to most comics people. Or most comics people are workaholics and I am not; decide what fits into your life and your finances.

And: abandon “perfect” for “good enough”. If you still think it needs to be better when you put together the collection, then you can spend a little time fixing it. You’ve aimed yourself at a schedule of X pages every Y days, with Z hours available to work on it; you can’t lavish three days on finessing every panel.

(Personally the schedule that works best for me is “aim for two pages a week, don’t sweat it if life gets in the way”. That way I never feel the temptation to waste time drawing a “SORRY NO PAGE TODAY” image. If all you have to work on the comic this week is two hours, you’re a ton better off putting those two hours into working on the next page, or that crazy scene-setting spread coming up in ten pages, or plotting, or anything. Yes, I know a lot of the webcomics pioneers will tell you you need new content on a constant, never-broken schedule. This was true back in the days before Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook or a zillion other ways for someone to subscribe to your regular feed of updates; now I think it’s not so crucial. You still wanna aim for regular updates, because that will keep you constantly working on the comic. But use your limited drawing time wisely.)

If you can’t write worth a damn then you need to find someone to work with who can. Ideally come up with something together that you both love playing with. And: Make sure your main character is FUN TO DRAW as you will be drawing them a LOT. What that means, exactly, is up to you. You know what you love to draw. You know what you can just about draw with your eyes closed. Use this knowledge.

(Writing is its whole other domain. There is a ton of writing advice out there. Here’s some of mine.)

Don’t make all your characters just like you. Flip a coin for every character’s gender, unless there is a compelling reason for them to have a particular one. Or roll a die if you want to include genderqueer/enby/etc types. Same for skin tone and whatnot. And consider cultural/racial associations even if you’re drawing cartoon animals! It’s really really easy to default to making every single character a straight white dude, because we have so much history in the US of comics being by and for straight white dudes.

Put your first draft dialogue in the page, if you’re working digitally then keep refining it as you work on the art. Always make sure there is room for the balloons, and that the reading order flows from one to the next, before you invest a ton of love into some background detail that ends up being the only place to cram a word balloon. For more on this, go check out this essay by Eddie Campbell; I do not claim his guidelines are the One And Only Way, but my stuff got a lot more readable once I started thinking about the word balloon placement this way.

Don’t get lost in studies and pre-planning. It’s easy to do this. Very easy. Ultimately what matters is “did you get the next page done?”. That said, usually if I find myself blocked on a page it’s because it’s time to sit down and nail down the plot of the next few pages, maybe do some super-rough layouts. (I don’t write a formal script in advance, just an outline.)

Make page templates. Use them. Traditional? Draw your margins on a piece of paper, add in markings for common page divisions, put that on the lightbox and put a blank page on top of it and rule out the panel borders you figured out in your thumbnails. Digital? New page from template, oh look now I have a file for this page already set up with the standard palettes/brushes/styles, several layers of grids I can turn on and off (maybe to use straight, maybe to just use as a skeleton to build something crazy and fluid off of), the beginnings of my standard layer setup, some word balloons to copy-drag, and everything else I need to just dump my notes in and start drawing.

Using references is not cheating; never underestimate the power of a reference selfie for that hard pose. Or a reference photo of a family member, lover, or studio-mate. Or something from a Google Images search. Or a maquette. Use it long enough to get what you need out of it, then put it away and do the rest of the drawing yourself. But speed up those hard poses.

Anyway. “Don’t draw comics, kid, they’ll break your heart,” as Jack Kirby once said. It’s a lot of effort for a tiny, tiny chance at enough people reading it to support you in the time they take, never mind the dreams of it turning into a transmedia franchise that makes you and a lot of other people a lot of money.

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