How to Make a (Mediocre) Comic
Comics are beautifully complicated, delicate, and versatile creatures that deserve respect and love. They merge everything I love about visual art and writing into one glorious whole. They are worthy to be praised by artists of all species.
So here’s the disclaimer: Don’t bother reading this if you plan on making a gorgeous work of art that will be marveled at for centuries, because quite frankly I cannot help you. What will I help you with? A: Getting finished with a comic as quickly as possible. That’s right, I’m writing an article about the things you need to bastardize this miraculous art form. I’m going to be talking about the mediocre comic.
First, though, let me give you my credentials. Wouldn’t you hate to read this whole dirge and then find out at the end that I was actually a sea snail, not a comic artist, and really had no idea what I was talking about? That would suck. So hello! My name is Chloe Cunningham, you can call me Chloe (or y’know, whatever else you feel like calling me), and I am the writer, director, and producer of the painfully mediocre comic, Pirate Comic.
My comic (see above, on the left) is as expertly lackluster as any comic I have ever read. Mediocrity is a distinct part of its very nature. As such, I consider myself an expert in this subject. Also, because I like using other people’s art as illustration in order to make myself seem less self-absorbed, I’m also going to be showing you guys my very good friend Peter’s mediocre comic, Space Journey. (Shoutout to Pete for not getting mad at me when I call his comic mediocre. You’re great.)
So without further ado, let’s get to the point. What do you need in order to make a comic? You need to know what comics are like. There’s really only one way to go about this, and that’s to read comics. But you can’t just passively read comics, you have to pay attention while you’re reading them! There are a lot of important things, but here are the basics that I watch for:
• panel layout
• character design
All of these things can vary greatly from comic to comic. Compare Stand Still, Stay Silent to Sweet Talk or Jupiter or Wilde Life. Each one has their own very particular style, some very traditional, some very non-traditional.
Typography is one of those things that most authors don’t think about much. I can’t help you with it much, beyond just reminding you to pay attention to it! Especially think about where your speech bubbles will go before you plan your panels and sketch them out. Easily one of the easiest mistakes to make in mediocre comic making is forgetting you need to fit a speech bubble in somewhere and filling the whole page with other stuff. You end up having to block people’s heads out a lot.
Check out, for example, the horrible layout of this page. Besides just the fact that the time skip is a little unclear and the panel layout makes little sense, that one speech bubble just blocks out the redhead chick’s face! Shameful!
Panel Layout and Gutters are really fluid. You can do as much or as little with them as you want! Compare this page of SSSS with this page of Wilde Life. Both accomplish their goals and look fantastic, but the panel styles are totally different!
On the topic of gutters… just use your artsy, beautiful brain and you can work it out. (Gutters, by the way, are the empty spaces between the panel walls). Pete doesn’t use gutters at all in his comic. It worked for him with Space Journey, but not having gutters makes it way harder to avoid tangents and to separate scenes. I personally could never do it myself. The other thing to worry about is gutters that are too far spaced. I don’t have a specific example for this, but even my Pirate Comic has fairly large gutters. I wouldn’t recommend making them any larger: it eats up your panel space really quickly.
Pacing is probably the most divergent thing on this list. I’ve found that most superhero comic issues read like little mini soap-opera episodes. Graphic novels are specifically written to feel like novels, but they really have about the same amount of content as a short story (just because writing a story with pictures takes soooooo looooong). Tons of webcomics stretch out like epics, spanning for hundreds and hundreds of pages (SSSS applies here, too). And tons of them are more gag-a-day that form into several story arches, like Calvin and Hobbes or the webcomic Postcards in Braille.
My favorite example of pacing in a comic would have to be Jupiter. The author, Zimeta, manages to contrast quiet scenes with action scenes very well, but I think her main talent is keeping the readers invested. She brings up tons of tiny mini-mysteries in the comic, and resolves them a chapter or two later. For every answer she gives she also brings up two more mysteries, so the reader is constantly being rewarded for reading (by receiving emotional payoff by finding the answer to a question) and constantly asking new questions.
The best pacing (and plotting) advice I have is to keep your ideas organized and in a place where you can easily find them. Even if you do the minimum amount of brainstorming before beginning your comic (as I did with Pirate comic), it also helps to have a few ideas about the cast and premise before hand. I kept Pirate Comic notes on my iPod touch notes. I plot most of my stories on this great website called Hiveword. Peter has a memo notepad that he keeps notes in. Keep even the small stuff, because there will be days when you can’t remember if the “kuh” sound in “Panchenko” is a “c” or a “k”, and it will be helpful for you to have a note on that.
Character design is a big part of what you’ll be doing. Since I’m telling you how I write my mediocre comic, I’ll just go ahead and say that I don’t ever do concept art when I’m working on Pirate Comic. That’s why every time a new character is introduced they look awful for about three pages until I can get my act together and figure out what I want them to look like. This is a very bad idea. HORRIBLE, in fact. I would actually say I may deserve to be shot over this. It is never ok. Here are my tips for avoiding my sins.
1. Design characters you won’t mind drawing one thousand times. I’ve drawn Matt and Khan of Pirate Comic well over a hundred times each. If you change a character design to make it more culturally appealing or something, I think that’s fine… unless it makes them more difficult and unpleasant to draw, in which case I just want to point out that you will literally draw them hundreds!! of! times!!
2. Even if your comic is mediocre, do yourself a favor and make your characters look a little different. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just make sure they all have different haircuts and fashion senses. Vary their heights a little. Make some smile a lot and some not at all. It’ll help you out, I swear it on Ginger’s Daughter’s Mother’s Grave.
3. Please, just design characters you don’t hate. Make people you will like and get along with.
Dialogue is last but certainly not least. I wouldn’t want to decrease the value of the other points by saying dialogue is the most important part of making a comic, but it is. 99% of all people I’ve spoken to say they’ll read and love a comic with terrible art as long as the writing is good. Guess what? Most of the writing that goes into a comic is DIALOGUE! Fun, huh?
My biggest two dialogue tips: make every character have their own unique speech style, and show that style right up front. In Pirate Comic I tried really hard to make each character’s speech style different right up front.
The guy in page 10 is super excitable and kinda dramatic. The redhead in page 29 has some kind of horrible mauled accent and a cold shoulder. The dishwasher mechanic in page 48 is really polite. Are these great examples? Absolutely not! They’re mediocre (or worse)! But they’re still helpful, I hope.
The second tip is to read all your dialogue out loud before you set it in stone (or, y’know, in ink). Best rule of dialogue ever! Actually, regardless of what you’re writing, this should be a law. Not only is it super helpful (reading aloud helps you figure out what sounds natural or unnatural) it can be super hilarious. Especially if you get your friends to read it in funny voices.
(What’s more, if your friends are reading it aloud in funny voices, you all laugh a lot and to make the laughing continue you feel compelled to continue writing your comic. (Funny voice ideas: bad Russian/French/Japanese/Southern American accent, Elvis impersonation, falsetto)
A great side-effect of this dialogue thing is that the more mediocre your comic is, the more hilarious it is when you read it.)
There you go! That’s my advice! It’s all fairly straightforward… but the basics are important. I’ll end with the final (sobering?) reminder that you are not going to gain much from this comic. It won’t make you popular or rich, and the art and writing will probably not even be good enough to get published. You’re probably looking at years of work– real, honest to goodness hard work– of working on a comic. And you need to accept that the only thing you are going to get out of it is a comic that you, and maybe only you, will love.
Don’t worry, though. It’s so worth it. I love my comic more than anything else I have ever created. No piece of meticulously polished artwork, no glorious watercolor, not even that fantastic Minotaur poster I painted a few years back can be compared to my comic. Pirate Comic is ugly. It is unpolished and quite frankly it is rather terribly drawn. And I love it so, so much. I’m a little bit ashamed (but not too ashamed) to admit that I’ve read my comic cover-to-cover at least a dozen times. I’ve got most of the script memorized, and I quote it on what is probably a daily basis.
Nerdy. I know. And I don’t care. And you shouldn’t, either.
Okay! The end! You have the tools! Go out, friends, and make mediocre comics! And send them to me, so I can fangirl over them.
Chloe Cunningham should be writing a bio for herself to put in this space, but she isn’t. She’s too busy drawing. Oops. Oh well, she has a comic that you can read on Tapastic which is a rambling and episodic tale about a group of smugglers living along the post apocalyptic Florida coast. She can also be found @wishjacked on Twitter. She’s pretty ok, so like, be friends with her. Or something.