Beginners Guide to Making Comics
By Joe Catapano
Table of Contents
If you are reading this guide it’s probably because you like reading comics. I would even make a bet that you are one of the few who actually loves to read comics and that you've been inspired enough to start the journey of becoming a comic creator in some capacity.
Either you've picked up a pencil to write down ideas that have spawned from years of reading or started to draw characters from some of your favorite books; in some form or fashion you've taken the figurative and creative leap of faith. Or even still, you may be like me and are several years deep into learning the comic craft, but still many years away from actually mastering its principles.
No matter from which perspective you are reading this guide, my goal remains the same. I want to make the idea of starting your own comic a less daunting one. In fact, this guide will streamline the process and become somewhat of a reference bible for not only how to make comics but how to believe in yourself and your ideas. So let's begin, shall we?
A Disclaimer About Disclaimers
This section is not too important in regards to the main content but it's more to rebut some of the disclaimers that I see brought up in just about every discussion or lecture about how to draw comics and how to break into the industry. “They” say something to the tune of: Don’t expect to make a living off of making comics.
While this warning, that I see many professionals make, is true, I believe there is an adverse detriment in making this disclaimer so bold and in-your-face to beginning creators. It's a disclaimer that applies to everything creative not just comics. It's not even that I believe it shouldn't be said, just that it shouldn't be accented as much as it is.
The warning is justified because, for some reason in the comic book industry, there are an exorbitant amount of amateur creators. And there are many of these creators that have gotten burned by lack of sales or lists of rejections. The competition is tough in the comic industry and that has created what many would call a famine mentality among start-up artists and writers. When I say famine mentality, I mean it's the belief that for someone to succeed another has to fail.
But just like the human ego, this famine mentality is an illusion. With the reach that the internet has given us, every worthy creator has a strong chance against even the most mainstream comic publishers. And for this reason, the emphasis on the many potential hardships ahead of young creators is not as helpful as one might think. I believe they cause fearful mental roadblocks and as Brian Johnson says, “Assumption Stacks” about the industry.
So let's not assume that every comic creator has a road of troubles and depression ahead of them because if they are true to themselves and delve deep in the craft with reckless abandon there is really nothing that can stop them. Rather let's all agree that creating comics (if that is what you love) is amazing and only with the addition of more creators out there will the industry grow to proportions we all hope for.
Why Draw Comics?
This is the foundation of everything! Without the ”Why” to any behavior, the behavior becomes meaningless.
So before you draw comics or even consider pursuing the endeavor you must find your own ”Why” and never forget it. Why do you want to create comics? Since I can't find that answer for you, all I can do is present the reasons why you should draw comics if you are on the fence. First, a short description about the basics of how a comic is made.
Comics are usually a collaborative medium. Generally a book is created with the creativity of several people. Someone writes it, someone else draws it, someone else colors it and so on. Since these roles are historically split up, it is advised by many to get proficient at one of these areas and use your portfolio of samples to get work with a currently published book. That process is a tried and true way to break into comics but I would also add a piece of advise that was passed on to me. This advise will lead to a plethora of reasons for the ”why” question. The advice is:
Create your own comic instead of just drawing samples of already famous intellectual properties.
So again, why draw your own comic book?
If you are drawing your own comic book it usually means that you are also writing it as well. And sometimes, like in my case, I've decided to have total control and be the sole creator of the book. This is what I would call a ”comic generalist” attitude. It is the essence of creating comics.
Most creatives would agree that one of the main reasons to get into comics in the first place is to have more creative control of the projects that you are apart of. Even if you are a part of a team, that team is relatively small compared to other types of collaborations. So to be the only creator allows for maximum creative flexibility.
This ”generalist” attitude really means that you are trying to understand the process from conception to completion. And so, by gaining an understanding for all of the steps in making a comic, you, in turn, understand how to do each part with a better idea of how each step directly influences the other steps. You now will have more confidence that your decisions in each step are the right ones.
Another big reason to start your own book relates to one of these steps specifically: Writing. This is the other side of the creative coin when it comes to drawing comics. I mean, how do you expect to draw a story without a story itself?
You must first conceptualize, breakdown ideas, outline, and even write a full script before starting to draw. The art of writing an engaging story is arguably harder than drawing one and so the sooner you start to unravel the random ideas in your head and turn them into something coherent the better.
Finally, what I think is the most important reason to create your own comic: Getting invested in your art. Now, I know that when you draw something well, regardless of if it's another person’s concept or not, you gain a strong sense of pride and accomplishment.
But if you take months to plan and write and flesh out a story that you actually like, I guarantee that you will be exponentially more invested in the final look of your artwork. You will have a better eye for design and consistency because you'll naturally want your characters and environments to appear as perfect as they appear in your mind. They, of course, won't end up perfect but they will be yours, story and all.
So let's just say I've convinced you with my fancy words...
Where do you begin?
I've inferred to it before but trying to draw a comic story without at least a clear outline to where the plot is going is a fool’s errand. And so, your first step should be...
To write a story, you must first be inspired to write a story. Because if the goal is to make a comic and one that you'd actually want to read, then the entirety of what you create needs to be from a place that you feel rooted in. It's the only way you will continue to care about making the comic especially when the going gets tough and you are running low on motivation. Just follow along with these exercises and I'm sure that you will find a resonance in some of the ideas that are uncovered from within.
Let's begin with your heroes and heroines. No, I don't mean the ones in tights and armor. The one's that are behind the veil are the people you need to pay attention to. The writers and artists who have created your favorite characters are the true superheroes as far as we are concerned.
Dive deep into your comic book collection. Find the books that really stirred something inside you; the ones that made you the most excited; the stories that gripped you in a way that even movies haven't done. Speaking of cinema, it's not a bad idea to also find classic movies that are among your personal favorites.
Start to build a list of inspirational stories and people to investigate. Once you have several entries start to list what drew you to these creations or artisans. Be as specific as possible.
For example, say you picked Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. You may list things like David’s simplicity and yet volumetric figures or Frank’s gritty tone throughout the story. This list is what I call the Legends of Comic Storytelling. Make sure you are not picking these things based on the industry's consensus but rather because of actual connections from your experiences and taste to the subjects. If you love a particular indie comic that no one cares about and most people are not even aware of, don't waver. You are resonating with it for a reason.
Someone once said, ”Art is something that teaches you something about yourself that you didn't know before.” The subjects and artists that you love are a part of you; you just have to discover why.
So with this authentic list of inspirations, you essentially have the secrets to your next story. You just need to put some of the pieces together. The easiest way to find a theme and a basis for your plot is to prioritize the list you just made. Begin by marking the most important inspirations.
Next, think of things that you'd want to tell someone about your life and start a second list full of these memories.
Say for example, you were in a bad car accident and you recovered from your injuries through some heavy physical therapy. You could take a message from that experience, like say, ”Everything heals in time” and tie that message to a concept from your list. In this example lets just say you also love the conspiratorial and secretive nature of V for Vendatta. Combining that inspiration to your personal experience could produce several story ideas. In this case, the new idea could be something about keeping secrets causing harm but also healing over time. I know that is very vague but it's a just q basic example of how to start.
So from your past experiences and your most influential inspirations, you start to find small nuggets of a greater story. You will know when you found something good because you will feel a spark light inside you to write more on this idea.
From this point on, I will start pairing my guidance with an actual example from my personal life. I am currently in the process of making a comic book to be first released on the web and then if all goes well, be printed. The book is called Star Circuit. As I give instruction on how to go about making your own comic, I will reference the process of the creation of Star Circuit (SC) to further guide you.
Here are the basic lists that inspired the story for Star Circuit.
From these lists, I naturally started to be pulled to certain ideas and inspirations more than others. From there, I brainstormed my prioritized concepts and started to combine ideas.
For example, here are the few concepts and experiences that I used to start from:
I kept coming back to ideas of replicants and A.I. from the likes of Bladerunner and mixed them with futuristic motorcycles and space from the likes of Akira and Green Lantern.
I realized I had a lot of family-related internal conflicts and even some external rivalries with my brother that I could draw from.
My artistic journey through my twenties was a roller coaster full of let downs and sacrifices but also was infused with moments of true bliss.
Then, I wrote out ideas in several brainstorms and eventually I ended up with something that vaguely resembled a cyberpunk story centered around racing.
To help you along, read these books, forums and blogs about creative writing. Use these resources as I have and begin to develop ideas in a notebook. Eventually you will start to see your own connections. Here are several that I found to be extremely helpful:
Working within a Theme
After you see the connections take shape and they begin to sprout potential characters with different motives, start to read in between the lines and see the underlying theme. Star Circuit was actually written several times over, and each time it focused on a different theme. The theme was finally chosen because I felt I truly wanted its message to be spread. And that's how you should choose a theme as well; by wanting to teach others about its value.
For Star Circuit I chose ”Only through struggle can one find what's truly important” as my theme. Forming a plot based around that theme can be a struggle but in theory it’s a very straight forward process. Refer to Brian McDonald's book, Invisible Ink to really understand this concept of working from a theme.
Next, is creating a logline from your theme and brainstormed ideas. A logline is a story described in as few words as possible. They are usually one or two sentences with an ironic emphasis based on the great change that needs to take place within the story.
For example, Star Circuit’s logline is ”A complacent street racer, still scarred from family tragedy, unlocks the secrets of a long-dead racing hero and gets set on a path to not only win in an unparalleled racing league but also find a way to save what’s left of his disjointed family.”
As instructed in Save The Cat, you should write a few different versions of these loglines and share them with people you don't know too well. This will give you an honest read on how well the logline works since they won't care about hurting your feelings. After a while of sharing, pick one that works for you and that others are intrigued about, as well.
Now that you have a logline, you can start the process of branching out and forming a plot based on it. This is a good time to follow the advice of seasoned professionals. Refer to the books and resources previously listed and begin to work on the scenes you can most easily visualize. These scenes will be pillars in which you fill out the rest of the story.
Write these scenes on index cards or use programs like Scrivener to organize these ideas. The idea here is to write the scenes in a way where you can move them around in different orders and then be able to visually see the plot being formed.
This is about the right time for me to bring up a huge part of writing anything. Research. Remember when I had you write a clear list of inspirations and personal experiences. Well those notions are your bread and butter; the strongest parts of your story. But what happens when you have to write about things you don't have such a personal tie to? The answer is research.
In order for anyone to write about things that they don't understand, they have to first research it. For example, I am writing a story that is broadly based around motorcycle racing. I have barely ridden a motorcycle and don't plan on taking the risks of driving one right now. But what I figured I can do is get into the mechanics of how a motorcycle is designed and how real Moto GP races are operated.
I bought models, read articles, taken a large number of photos, watched a season of Moto racing, drew many motorcycles, broke down the design of tires and analyzed what about motorcycle racing was most appealing. Combine that practical research with creative research like analysis of movies like Akira and you get a clearer picture of what the story needs to deal with in order to have the realism that will give your story believability.
Now, I am not going to breakdown everything that goes into writing a plot worth reading but I will touch on the key parts of writing one.
Start With the Bookends
What I mean here by bookends is the beginning and end of your story. In truth, the beginning and ending should resemble each other, just like bookends. The only difference between the two should be the change that happens to the main character. What is the character left with after the main conflict is over? What has changed within the character to justify the story in the first place? Those are the things to figure out to make the plot worthwhile.
The Great Ocean
What stands in between the character and her goals is ”the great ocean”. The character’s story is, mostly in part, getting past this ocean. Your job is to make this obstacle mean something that is directly symbolic of the theme and also, the most daunting task to overcome.
Here, I advise you to use irony and logic to find your character’s ocean. If your character is a rich man that doesn't respect people, like in my story, force him to lose his fortune and deal with the people he so easily overlooked before.
Outline the Beats
A big utility for story building is breaking down your plot into 3 acts and then even further into story beats. The Three Act structure is a widely accepted setup for any story that's made to enthrall humans. In other words it is the Before, the During and the After that is based on the theme. This is all dramatized by the main character’s change that takes place in these three acts. And like I said this can be also broken down into story beats or scenes.
The story beats are best summarized by Blake Snyder in Save the Cat. Blake gives a definitive 15 places the story needs to go for it to really be entertaining. They include easy to remember titles like ”the setup”, the ”fun and games”, and the ”all is lost” storybeats. If you put together these beats in an integrated way and also have them be directed from the theme, your story should have focus and be entertaining.
Plot It Out
Another cool way to organize and outline your story is by using a diagram timeline. Since I don't want to spoil what happens in Star Circuit, here is an example that I did of the movie Gattaca.
As you can see there are beginnings and endings for every major aspect in the story. These include the main plot, the character, the sub-plots and theme.
World Building the Right Way
As Alan Moore describes in his book Writing for Comics, the process of describing your world in your comic needs to be an intuitive and a subtle one. If you start forcefully injecting extra details about the world inside of average dialogue it will soon take over the plot and the audience will be so distracted from the unnatural verbiage that they will never become attached to the characters.
But if you subtly cue your audience to the setting by adding slight bits of detail in the background art and molding the behaviors of supporting characters, you will start to fool the reader into believing the setting is an actual place and time. The best way to go about this is to get to know the setting by slowly inventing it and becoming familiar with the most intricate details. By elaborating on the world in your mind and not on paper you allow the details to intuitively show themselves.
I found that a great way to get involved in your story’s setting is to pretend that you are the setting’s tourist adviser and you are in a question and answer type forum. Imagine all the questions people would have about this place and then write to yourself the accurate answers. Get as deep as possible.
For example, ask yourself, what do people do for work around here? Because the area is full of such and such occupation what does that do to the recreational activities? What type of art is made because of the abundance of those jobs? Why did that job become so popular in the first place? And so on... This process will eventually lead you to know every minute detail of your setting.
Grounding Characters in the Universal
A great way to create dynamic relationships between characters is to form them from Jungian archetypes. Carl Jung was a Swiss psychoanalyst who through his study and psychiatrist practice discovered that people could be divided up into universal sets of behavior.
My suggestion is to allow your characters to be partially based on an archetype. Books like A Writer’s Guide to Characterization by Victoria Lynn Schmidt is a great resource to get familiar with the different archetypes and to also figure out what universal traits you can give your characters to really make them believable.
If you are unfamiliar with a mood board, it is just a bunch of pictures that are collected and placed on a board. The key is to get the right pictures. When it comes to mood, you will be ignoring the actual content and subjects of the pictures and instead focus on the feelings and emotions triggered when viewing them.
For example, if you want to make a mood board for a scene where your character is on the run you will want to find pictures that evoke anxiety, adrenaline, fear, physicality and danger. These could include a picture of a lit fireplace because even though the content is comforting, the colors and motion lines from the fire will match the emotions present in your scene.
Here is a part of my mood boards from making Star Circuit.
Script vs No Script
So you’ve outlined, mapped out, and world built until no end. It is time to write an actual script... Or not. You see there are two different camps when it comes to this subject. Some think that having a script will bring about a more focused and up front a clearer vision for the artist to elaborate on.
This script would include how many panels were assigned to each page, what's exactly happening in the panels and all of the small details to include. You can bet that it will be very specific. While the other camp thinks that using a more intuitive method of letting the artist decide the panels and how to draw them produces better results.
I think a happy medium is what's best. There is no need to have such a rigid script that the artist can't judge the details or to have an outline of the story so flexible that the artist loses focus of the global storytelling.
Obviously, there are artists and writers who are biased because of years of experience with either method. Neither are wrong. But what you need to do as a solo creator, is to figure out what works best for your mind. Don't think about it, just go with the flow and if you end up writing everything down you'll know which direction you lean.
In my case for Star Circuit, I wrote a pretty detailed script but at the same time I've not set it in stone. In my mind, anything can be altered to fit the art and the words, in turn, can be changed as well.
With the writing out of the way, we are free to move on to...
What most people don't realize when reading a comic is all of the preparation work that goes into figuring out the look and feel of the art even before the pages are drawn. Before even the first page is laid out, the artist will have to do a series of preliminary sketches and designs.
Designing the world and characters comes from the writing and the theme. Everything should point back to the focus of your story which is the theme. And this leads me to explain Design Anchors.
Design Anchors are like reference points in which you will tie everything in the story to. You can do this setup just like you would do any reference or mood board. In this case though, the pictures on the board will be focusing on the actual subjects in the images.
Here are the Anchors for Star Circuit.
As you can see, there are several here because I've put everything for the first chapter into one sheet. Like I said, you need to look deep into the theme of your story and find a way to represent it visually. The actual interpretation is subjective but that’s all the fun. From these anchor points you will design everything else.
The basics to designing something is all about using the Anchors, your archetypes (for characters) and the needs of the story to dictate art direction. This subject is hugely complex and so I won't get very deep but I will give you a list of things to draw in order to fully realize your designs. I will also give examples for each category pulled from Star Circuit.
-Full body Sketch
Top down, three quarter view sketch
- Corresponding mood board
-Side view sketch
- Three quarter view sketch
With the outline/script and the design work all figured out, you can get down to really creating this thing. But wait, what supplies do you need to even pull this off. Don't fret, I am going to explain all that you will need to create comics.
So your tools used to draw comics is directly related to your chosen workflow. While many professionals are creating comics digitally, there are still many who prefer the old ways of traditional mediums. Here I will show you what you will need to draw comics with either workflow. If you are interested in using what I use for making comics you can head to blog and use the links the “My Tools” section.
The Traditional Art Workflow
If you are unfamiliar with this term, ”traditional”, it means drawing with physical mediums; you know, pen and paper. So let's begin:
Pencils and Lead Holders
To create great art, you must be able to draw and erase to allow for multiple passes at the same subject. Pencils and lead come in a variety of hardnesses. The hardness or softness of the lead translate to how dark the lead appears on the page. Here's a guide to help you find a starting place when buying pencils and lead.
Your Options: Wood Pencils, lead holders, mechanical pencils
The Standard: 2mm lead holder.
My Choice: I use a combination as most pencilers do. I use a 4h or 5h wood pencil for my underdrawings and a combo of a 2mm 2h lead holder with a .4 or .5 HB mechanical pencil for finishes.
To make a pencil really useful you will need to buy a couple different types of erasers. Each eraser has a different purpose but you may be able to get by with just one, if you are careful.
Your Options: Stick erasers (for details), block plastic erasers (for the bulk), electric erasers, kneaded erasers
The Standard: Block Plastic Erasers
My Choice: Just like with pencils, I use a combination of erasers. I use a Tuff Stuff Eraser for my fine details and I use a Steadtler plastic eraser for the bulk of the work. I also like using what's called a Dry Cleaning Pad, which acts as a light eraser and is used to transition from the underdrawing to the finishes.
This section is actually one of the biggest factors in the outcome of your art. The paper will determine the finished look of the art because of the inherent properties of the art board. Some are rough, some are smooth, some take ink well, and with some kinds the ink bleeds. Through trial and error, you will find what paper works best for you and most likely your team.
Your Options: 11” x 17” Strathmore 200, 300, 400, or 500 series (the differences being how thick the board is; generally thicker is better), Canson Comic Book Art Board, proprietary art boards.
The Standard: Technically there is no standard, only what you are willing to pay for the best results possible. Use trial and error for finding the best paper for you.
My Choice: I've jumped between different boards before and really just used what's on sale. However, I still really do like what I started on: Canson Comic Book Art Board. It's found everywhere, and I like the feel of it better than the base Strathmore paper.
I generally don't ink my own work and with Star Circuit, I am not inking at all and just using software to darken my pencil work. However, this is the information I hear about inking in the industry.
Your Options: Brush, Technical Pens, Quill nibs
The Standard: When it comes to inking, it's well known that different tools produce different lines. The standard then would have to include one of each type of tool.
My Choice: I personally love the feel of quill type nibs. Using nibs and brush with an ink well can be way more difficult to master than pens but the results I think speak for themselves. Take time to learn the techniques with different inking tools.
A light box is really just a pane of glass with a light behind it. It is used to transfer an early drawing to a fresh sheet of paper. It's a great way to keep your final art board as clean as possible.
Your Options: DIY project ( build one yourself), a light pad, a window.
The Standard: I’d say most professionals with a traditional lightbox workflow have actually spent the few hundred dollars and bought a thin, light pad.
My Choice: If you are not working for the big 4 publishers or if you don't have the money (like me), I suggest you just use a window of your house. Midday there is usually plenty of light to transform your window into a lightbox. It really works well for us poor folk.
Scanner / Printer
This piece of technology is used quite often when utilizing this traditional workflow. Since the standard comic book format is 11” x 17” it is considered wide format and the printer / scanner has to be able to accommodate that size.
The Options: Separate Flatbed Scanner, separate wide format printer, wide format printer/scanner combination.
The Standard: The best sale. I don't think there is a standard here but what is useful to know is that technology comes and goes. Be on the look out for sales on well reviewed printers and scanners to find your best option.
My Choice: I am currently using the Epson WF-7710. It has a good quality, wireless capabilities, and a nice touch screen.
That covers just about everything in the artist’s traditional workflow. While I am on the subject of pencils and paper let me discuss some of the supplies that you can use for the writing process.
Great for writing large sections of ideas. I use a different notebook for each area of writing. For instance, I have one notebook just for world building, one just for each plot and theme, and one for character and environmental descriptions.
Pens, Highlighters, Index cards, and a Cork board
For writing quick ideas for story beats and scenes I suggest to use index cards. Color code your cards to what characters are involved in each scene. With this method, you can easily see the global space in which a character takes up in a story when plotted across a timeline. This is where your cork board comes in. Pin your cards up in the order that best fits and when you need to rearrange or rewrite, it'll be a very simple process.
With all that said lets move on...
The Digital Workflow
This process involves using tablets, computers and software instead of traditional means. Let's start with the hardware.
This is the most important part of your setup. You will need to spend a decent sum of money and get a computer with enough memory and storage space to make the process of digitally creating a seamless one.
My Choice: I enjoy the seamless nature, superior quality and resilience of Apple products. I am not an Apple fanboy but just an artist that likes beautiful designs. I am currently using a 27” all-in-one iMac from 2012. While the screen is not the cutting edge, the machine works well for my needs. I have upgraded the RAM and added an external hard drive but for the most part it is an out of the factory machine.
For comics, I do recommend something with a good amount of RAM and most importantly a good size screen. Buy extra monitors if need be to increase the real estate of your digital workspace.
This is the other half of the artist’s main setup. A drawing tablet is essential to being able to draw digitally. And in the last few years the options have become numerous.
I'll talk about the few options I've had contact with and end with my favorite to date.
Wacom Intuos: This is a well-made tablet but is also limited because of its lack of a monitor. This means you must draw on the tablet while looking at another monitor. This workflow works but I would say it's clunky at best. While you can get used to this type of coordination over time, I would argue that it will never feel natural; at least it never did for me.
Yiynova MVP 19”: This one is a tablet monitor, meaning that it's a screen that you can draw on. Because of it being a slightly off brand monitor, the price is incredibly cheap for its size. The quality of the monitor is slightly worse than that of the industry standard for that size but it is still a fantastic option for an artist with a budget.
Wacom Cintiq: This tablet is also a monitor, which gives you the ability to draw directly on the screen. Wacom has been the industry standard for a long time and it’s no surprise. This option is a more expensive one than that of the Yiynova but you end up with an overall better package and a higher resolution screen.
iPad Pro (2018): The iPad that I used was only 10 inches making it the smallest tablet I've used but surprisingly its also the best. Let me tell you why. First, the iPad has all of the capabilities of the other tablets with the added features of doing everything else that an iPad can do. And since it's an iPad it's also completely mobile; no more need to attach it to a computer. But the best reasons to get one is the mind-blowing resolution on the screen and the nearly seamless gap between the stylus and the screen. (Make note that if you buy any other tablet monitor there will be a considerable amount of distance between the pen and the monitor).
I think you can guess that my favorite drawing experience has been with the iPad Pro. If you can spare the money for such a small screen, you won't be disappointed.
Let's run through the most popular and useful software to create comics digitally.
Writing Software: You won't need to get fancy but if you want to write scripts, buying a good writing software can be very helpful. Microsoft Word is helpful but Scrivener is a cheaper option that also allows you to organize your writings in several different ways including a visual cork board. Here is the link for Scrivener: https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview
Adobe Photoshop: This is an obvious choice because of its wide range of tools and its constant updates and support. In this program you can draw, color, and letter your comic.
Adobe Illustrator: This choice is slightly odd in my opinion. AI uses vector graphics which give an always crisp feeling to the art. It feels sterile and while some people use it to great effect, most comic artists stay far away from this option.
Clip Studio: This is the Photoshop alternative. It is insanely cheaper and can do almost everything PS can do and more (in the realm of illustration, that is). If you are making comics and not much else, this I think is the clear winner over Photoshop. And to top it off you can use Clip Studio on iPad Pro.
Procreate: This is a great piece of software used on iPad. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles like Photoshop but it does illustration amazingly well.
With the tools having been explained, we can get to the training of the most effective tool: yourself. These are the art skills that you must develop in order to have a world class comic book.
This breaks down into several categories in which you should study diligently.
Form / Proportion: The basis of everything is form and proportion. If something is in two dimensions it has form in the way of shapes and if it is in 3D it has form by the way of volume. As an artist, it is your primary objective to get the correct form and then the correct proportions of forms. Without this skill you will end up with bad art. It's the biggest problem with amateur art and I believe the number one thing to work on when learning how to draw. I suggest you learn from one of the best: Peter Han. He has a book called Dynamic Bible that focuses on form and proportion when it comes to dynamic sketching. It is one of the biggest reasons that I have improved in this area of study.
Composition: This is essentially the process of arranging shapes, forms and values within a picture panel so to create the most visual interest. There are several ways to get good at composition but they all come with time. In his book Creative Illustration, Andrew Loomis explains how to use several tools and devices to create a science around using good compositions.
Mastered Tools: A lot of what makes an artist’s work so magical is the actual line work. In order to get pretty lines and strokes, you first must master the tools you are using. Whether it be a pencil, pen, nib or brush, having the muscle memory of years of experience is the only way to refine this. Mastery takes time; hours at the desk. So start to clock in with your job at tool mastery everyday.
Perspective: Perspective is seen by many to be one of the more boring parts of the artistic process. This is may be true but it shouldn't be because perspective is likely the most important part to understand if you'd like to create exciting art. To learn these concepts I can recommend Perspective! For Comic Book Artists by David Chelsea. You can also find perspective tutorials that I've written in the How to Draw Comics. Net Tutorials page.
Anatomy: This subject is maybe the most obvious just because it's said so much. Most of what we draw as comic book artists are people. We like reading stories about people so naturally they appear in comics a whole lot. Understanding the many complex systems and intertwining volumes is a must. Also, combining this understanding with the mastery of perspective will allow you to create dynamic figures that pop off the page.
Design Language: This language is not of words but of shapes and lines. Design language is the understanding of how different shapes and compositions evoke different emotions in the viewer. Even complex forms like human bodies have these basic shapes and so characters can be very useful when evoking different emotions. And lastly, the curve or lack of curves with in your line work will also be thrown into this category and evoke different emotions from the viewer. If you can make the reader feel something without them even knowing the plot, you've done your job well.
Consistency: Last but not least, you must value consistency. Many artists outside of comics don't have to worry about this subject as much but for us, this is almost paramount. If you draw something one way it better look the same in the next panel in the sequence. Even if you draw something inaccurately, as most of us do sometimes, as long as it has the same inaccuracies in the following panels, it will not break the flow of the story. That's not to say that you don't need to be accurate but it's to show the importance and relevance to the main task as storytellers. Consistency is needed as much as possible, so start to train yourself now to pay attention to even the smallest details.
This also breaks down into several smaller sub sets. For all of these subjects I recommend the book Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers
Staging: This skill is just the ability to arrange characters and objects in a shot. The way the characters are grouped and framed is very important. The reader not only needs to follow along but feel apart of the scene. Use elements in the foreground, mid-ground and background to make scenes more dynamic.
Film/Comics Language: This is a skill that takes into account two things: Techniques and Traditions. Over time audiences become accustomed to what's come before. The techniques in comics are sometimes similar to that of film but there are many others that are exclusive to comic storytelling. Techniques like using speed lines for fast motion, panel border integration on a single environment to show the movement within a still camera, and collages of interconnected imagery for montages are all examples of comic book language.
Screen Direction Continuity: This is also called the 180-degree rule. Here's an image to help explain it.
The actors 1 and 2 are plotted next to the imaginary 180 rule boundary. The storyteller needs to not cross over that line when moving the camera, so to keep the two different subjects from being flipped from the left to the right side of the screen. If you do move the camera over that line make sure there is another new element to ground them to a new line or use a neutral shot right beforehand to make the move not as jarring.
Shot Choice: This refers to the types and angles of camera shots. There are basically nine kinds with an infinite number of variations.
Here they are:
Close Up High Angle
Close Up Low Angle
Medium High Angle
Medium Low Angle
Wide High Angle
Wide Low Angle
Each conveys a different emotion and should be used to push the story point, so learn their uses and implement them correctly in your story.
Comic Juxtaposition: This skill is a big one and my personal favorite. It is literally why I love comic storytelling above all others. While film has sound and motion and novels have a deep introspective experience, comics have juxtaposition. This is mostly juxtaposition of images but also can be of words in their graphic forms.
With image juxtaposition you can create totally different stories with the same images, depending on how they are ordered and arranged. For example, if you place a close up image of someone holding a weapon and the next image a picture of a grave, you automatically assume that person holding the weapon killed someone.
That's amazing to me that we can infer that much with a couple of images. Carl Potts explains this concept most brilliantly in the book DC Comics Guide to Creating Comics.
This part is all about the things you need to do that has no direct relation to actually drawing.
This is a huge one. A visual library is just a collection of mental images. Every time you see something in daily life your mind automatically remembers some details about that subject. This collection gets very big as you grow older and have more and more experiences. But not all memories have the same utility.
Everyone remembers things differently and we all will likely recall totally different aspects of the same objects. As an artist, you should actively force your mind to remember as much as you can about the world we live in. Just be curious about the world around you and your mind will take care of the rest. Having a large visual library will aid in all of your artistic endeavors.
Take Your Own Reference
Taking photographs whenever you have a chance is a great way to slowly build up a hard drive of your own reference material. Remember to only keep the best pictures. A great way to do that is to delete about 90% of each days photos. Then when you back them up on the computer, remember to organize them into broad categories so to make finding them again an easier task.
So you want to learn how to draw comics? The best way to understand the medium is to read constantly. Read your favorites, read the stuff you probably won't like but people have recommended, read the bad and the good, read as much as you can. Not only will this inspire you to elevate your work to the professional level but also remind you of how painful it is to read a clunky comic.
This is a subject that I won't break down too far but rather just give my suggestions to how and why you should be disciplined practitioners of the arts. As Jocko Willink so heavily emphasized "Discipline equals freedom". And I think the majority of that is mental freedom. For me, after you work hard, it allows your brain to play hard or relax hard, rather.
I think the best analogy of how we should work and practice as artists goes as follows: As an artist you are like a shopkeeper. Every day you open up shop at the same time and do the same work. Some days people come in the store by the masses and the day is incredibly productive, and some days the store is vacant and not much gets done but if you come to work consistently the store will be an overall success.
When you get down to work try to do it for the same time everyday, rain or shine; friends wanting to hang out or not. No matter what, your art time is sacred above all else. No one expects that it’s ok to steal people’s wealth of money but it somehow has become ok to steal their wealth of time. You decide what is important. If you continually make this time to create, the world of successful art making will come.
Here's a couple of suggestions of how to protect your art time. One is to set up a reward for doing the work. Whether it is giving yourself some time to play video games or eating your favorite dessert, find a way to build a positive feedback loop for putting in the work. I prefer just working for six days of the week pretty freaking hard and then having a whole day of guilt-free relaxation. My second suggestion is to set up a system of accountability.
It can be as simple as telling an art friend about your progress regularly or set up a public deadline that will be hard to move. I set up a live streaming time to do art a few days a week just so I am more motivated not to cancel and let down a viewer. By the way, I am streaming Tuesday's and Wednesdays at 8 pm EST at https://youtube.com/c/JoeCatapano. Let's keep each other accountable!
Okay! We are finally to the point of real production. Here's where I really show you how to make a comic book. I can’t show you in this article but at least, I'll break down the process and give examples from my book.
So, if the design work is done then you are in the clear to actually start….
Drawing a Comic Book Page
Make note that this is only my process and it can be added to and subtracted from to create a process that works for you. I am including the process for making page 1 of Star Circuit Ch.1 as an example.
Note: This is not Page 1, but this is the level of detail that I will tend to put into a thumbnail.
If all of the writing is done that means you will be able to take the words and start sketching ideas for shots and panel layouts.
Thumbnailing is just the process of drawing sketches of the pages in a very small form (it doesn't have to be as small as your thumb). This approach allows for a more global view of each page.
You see, there is a composition in everything. There’s one in each shot within the panels, there’s one that incorporates all the panels on the page, and there is even a global page order that can be considered a type of composition. In this part of comics, it is essential to focus on the story points, the page flow and making sure your figures read within the frames.
Here’s a video where I break down my thumbnailing process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6wyU5tNJC8)
Layouts are the part two to the thumbnail stage. To start this step, I make a rectangle on half of a sheet of paper. This rectangle should the same proportions as 11” x 17” but just scaled down. It one will be a good amount bigger than the thumbnail sketch which is usually only a few inches big.
This stage focuses on tightening up the main elements and starting to add a grounded perspective. By the end of this stage, the storytelling should already be clear. Someone who has just walked up to you randomly should be able to tell what is going on within the story visually.
This means that humans should look like humans, mailboxes should look like mailboxes and expressions should match the characters emotion. With this stage completed, it's time to scan in this half page and blow it up to the correct proportions of the comic art board. This is where having experience with drawing software comes into play.
In this same video I go into the layouts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6wyU5tNJC8
Layouts are will fit nicely on a 5.5” x 8.5” paper (half a sheet of letter size).
The penciling stage is, of course, the time to draw the final pencil work on the real artboard. I usually print out my layouts on an 11” x 17” sheet of paper and then use a lightbox or window to transfer the art to the artboard.
Now that the basic layouts are transferred to the board, I do a strong underdrawing with heavy use of reference. I reference anatomy, my mood boards, the previously made model sheets and designs of environments. At this time, I place the right perspective grid for each of the panels.
Once I have a good underdrawing done, it's time to erase away most of the work with the dry cleaning pad. It essentially doesn't erase all of the lines but leaves some of my previous underdrawing on the page to be used as a guide. Now, I use strong and confident lines to finish the page. I will shade in the dark black areas and used render lines and hash marks to give volume to objects in the scene. Lastly, I darken the panel borders to really clarify the lines.
Finished Pencils on 11” x 17” artboard.
This is the stage that I have the least experience in. I do not refer to myself as an inker and do not claim to have the best line work with a pen. That being said, I do understand the process. Many inkers will scan in the pencil work and then print out a separate artboard with blue line instead of gray.
They will then use their favorite tools to make the pencil lines as crisp and pretty as possible. The best inkers will also notice mistakes the penciler has made and correct them. Afterward, the inker will scan in the page to be sent to color.
In the case of Star Circuit, I am skipping the inking stage and going straight to color. I will, however, darken the pencil lines digitally to mimic the inked values.
Make sure to keep the art at 300 dpi or higher when scanning.
The color phase is split up into a couple of different steps. In order for professional colorists to do their work quickly, they need an easy way to select the objects in the panels. In comes Flatters. Flatters are specific people who color the page for the sole purpose of creating selection masks. These masks make it easy for the colorist to quickly select objects and render them the right color. I personally am using Clip Studio Paint for all my comic work, including color.
In the case of Star Circuit, I am skipping the inking stage and going straight to color. I will, however, darken the pencil lines digitally to mimic the inked values.
Page 1 Finished Colors.
This is the stage where the letterer places in the word balloons and types all the verbiage. The person will also design the sound effects to help the action. In the old days, all the lettering would be done by hand, but today, to save time, software is used to place in the words.
Captions and SFX complete. Also, the art now cropped at the TRIM line on the artboard.
This stage is the most tedious and also the most important. The job of the editor is to make sure the book is being made to the right specifications and by the deadline. The editor is usually also an artist or writer that can critique the level of quality being produced.
In my case, I am double checking to see of all of the elements in the art are clear and not missing key pieces. I will also heavily proofread the words and find ways to make the story flow better. It's the editor's job to see the book as a whole and make sure it's a sellable product.
Marked Edits for Page 1.
Okay, let's say you just completed the interior pages of your book. An issue is usually 20 to 24 pages. On top of that, you finished a standout cover. Where do you go from here? How do you get people to read this gem of literature? No worries... lets walk through the ins and outs of....
Publishing is just a 10 dollar word for the act of releasing your book to the public. It's kind of a scary thing to do after putting months of hard work in, but fear not this process is a piece of cake when compared to actually making a best selling book.
Step one is getting as many people’s eyes on the book as possible. The easiest and least lucrative option here is the self, web publishing approach. Simply make a website or blog account and post your comic all at once or in episodic weekly releases. The equivalent method to this in the physical medium is to print your book with cheap materials and hand them out at conventions and at comic shops.
You will need to have a clear way for your new fans to follow your future art and possibly buy your work so you'll need to create accounts on a few social media sites like Instagram, Artstation, and Facebook. It's likely you already have an account at one or more of these sites but in the case of your book, you may want to create a new account especially for its release.
With your comic being viewed at least a bit on the web and possibly elsewhere, you are bound to gain some amount of fans. These first adopters of your book are the most important. I would even think of them as best friends, because talking to them regularly online and hearing their comments are just as important as they would be with your real friends. With your fanbase already developing, it is important to do a few things to assist. And the first is making a mailing list.
Having a mailing list is essential for your future success as a comic creator. As your fanbase increases, you will need a way to contact them all simultaneously and notify them about new work and updates on your art. While social media sites are a good way to build a fanbase they are not a great way to store their contacts.
If one or more of those social media sites shut down or decide to reformat their structure you want to make sure that your fanbase will not be lost. Having your fan’s emails is a much more secure way to hold on to their interest and business. I personally use an app called Mail Chimp to organize and send out mass emails to my fans. Using a similar app will be the best way to get your fanbase jumpstarted.
To continue to grow your fanbase you will need to be actively going to conventions and meeting people. I would suggest you start local and then branch out to other conventions where travel is required.
Another great way to grab people’s attention is to draw some fan art. Now, even I have some reservations about doing this type of art. But I think as long as you don't straight copy another artist’s version of a famous character then you can have a clear conscience as you have fun with this.
Simply draw your favorite characters from the work that inspires you and post it online. People will be drawn to because it will also have your unique style attached. And who knows maybe they will take a look at your other work and see the book you've just self-published.
Now, let's say you have a considerable number of people reading your new book on its blog website. You can look at the analytics of any website with a quick register with Google Analytics. Some website builders like Wix or Squarespace have these tools built right in. So let's say you are starting to see some minor traffic coming to the webcomic site. This is the time to start thinking about...
This is one of the best and worst aspects of commerce on the internet. The way crowd funding works is like this: A private internet company creates a website specifically for people to try to get other people to give them money for creating products. It's really simple and it actually works (sometimes). A couple of the biggest crowd funding resources are Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. With a quick search, you will immediately see the huge volume these kind of sites receive.
As a comic creator you may already know that Kickstarter has become a mainstay for getting indie comics off the ground. Some get funded but many still fail and I believe the difference between the two is having a foundational fanbase. Even having 20 people that sign up to give you funding is a nice start that can be built on to have a successful campaign. The more people that you can contact from your mailing list the better so timing when you launch a crowdfund is huge. Here's a few things to consider before you jump into this internet bazaar.
1. Start with a fanbase - I'm sure you are already sick of me saying this, but it is the #1 consideration for how well your campaign will go.
2. Have your book already made - This is something that will make your life very easy when the campaign builds steam. If you haven't released the book to the public you can still feel confident that the work is already done. You did finish the project already, so there is nothing to worry about. If you've already released your comic on the web then you are essentially just funding the physical print of the book and it will only be easier because you may already have fans of the book.
3. Backup Plan - Now this sentiment is a bit controversial but hear me out. I would advise to have a bit of money set aside to help fund the book yourself. Let's say all you need is 200 dollars to meet your funding goal with only a couple of days left. I am assuming in this scenario that you've already exhausted all of your favors from family, friends, and industry help. It is much better for your fanbase to see that you have a funded campaign, than them seeing the campaign has failed. Yes, you are slightly misleading people here but it's in a way that won't affect or hurt anyone. The momentum of getting your book out there to the fans will most certainly lead you to more success down the road.
To really guide you on this crowdfunding journey, here is a great video on all the details done by the great comic creator Jason Brubaker: https://youtu.be/A3WF2naIrGQ
The last options you have for getting your comic into the consumers hands is with the help of Publishers and Grants. Let's start with grants.
A grant is just a sum of money awarded to you in which you don't have to pay back. All you have to do is find one and apply for it. For comic books, there honestly isn't many. And some that could be considered grants are more likely called contests or competitions. Either way, it's money that you get because you have persuaded someone that you deserve it. In order to persuade them, you will need a few things. Since you will likely need to do these same exact tasks when talking with comic publishers, I'm going to combine this information into one section called...
Pitching Your Book
To start, every panel of judges, no matter if they are with a publisher, a grant, or with an online format, will all be looking for just about the same things. These things should be presented cleanly and concisely. After all a pitch is really just you trying to sell some people your wares. So, the simpler the presentation the better.
Each company that you pitch to will have their own proprietary rules and requirements for submitting. Read those rules several times over and make sure you are doing everything according to their specifications. That being said, here is the general list if items to include in your pitch.
Bio: This is a few paragraph blurb that should include your background, work experience, previous credits in the industry, and your experience with comics so far. You can also include your current projects.
Proposal / Pitch: This is a large portion of what you will be presenting. A pitch will resemble something like the following:
Start with the title, tagline, and/or the high concept. The tagline is just a catchy phrase that will intrigue the reviewer to learn more. The high concept is really just a short sentence to show how approachable and sellable the story is.
Here is my version of these for Star Circuit:
A cyberpunk racing adventure with a strong family element.
”A Race Mankind Has Never Won”
Next, include the hook of the pitch. It can be short (like a logline) or long but make sure it hooks the reader to know more. Again, here is mine from SC:
A complacent street racer, still scarred from family tragedy, unlocks the secrets of a long-dead racing hero and gets set on a path to not only win in an unparalleled racing league but also find a way to save what’s left of his disjointed family.
In the future, people don’t need to work in order to survive. With huge advancements in science, absolutely everything in society has become automated. The implementation of various types of android workers has made human labor irrelevant for society to thrive. However, instead of using this freedom for the betterment, when left to their own devices, most people simply absorb the constant stream of entertainment directly into their skulls via a cerebral implant and live aimless, carefree lives.
And the protagonist is no different. He’s, in fact, worse.
He’s a lazy, wealthy, over-grown latchkey kid who poses as a slum dweller and secretly uses his over-powered tech to win street races, hook up with girls, and boost his ego. His once loving and wholesome family was torn apart by tragedy and he’s been skating by ever since.
Absolute freedom without guidance has left him truly lost. His dreams of becoming a racing legend with his family cheering him on are gone. But when he unlocks the secrets of a long-dead racing hero, he gets set on a path to not only win in an unparalleled racing league but also find a way to save what’s left of his disjointed family.
Next is the summary section. This section should describe what happens in the main plot. Don't include many of the small details just some of the big twists and turns that occur. Some companies will want to also hear the ending as well. Just be sure to include all that they request.
I am not going to give an example from my book here because of the obvious spoilers that would be present.
And lastly, the main piece should be about that theme we talked about in the writing section. The theme is the thing that is driving everything in the story and the reviewers want to make sure your work is grounded to something.
Here is the description of Star Circuit’s theme:
The plot focuses on the power of struggle and our ironic need for challenging situations even though no one likes going through them. Globally, the story is really about man’s struggle to stay relevant in the shadow of exponentially expanding technology and in the process proving the worth of the struggle itself. All the while highlighting the strength in man’s need for love and fellowship as the counter to pure objective based motives.
Samples from the Book-
Probably the most important piece of the presentation is the actual book. Some companies require a whole first issue to be presented while others only need to see a few pages accompanied with a complete outline of the story. Either way, this section is what will sway the majority of reviewers since it will take no amount of imagination to visualize the product further.
This is just the legal contract that keeps both parties safe from stolen intellectual property. Still very important.
The biggest challenges will happen early on for your comic career since you are building it from nothing. People need to slowly start to know you and your work before they trust you with their stories and companies.
The road to finding your place in the storytelling collective is a long one but it isn't a bad one. The road is what makes you an individual in this business. The important thing is to have fun while on the road. Sometimes, the road is uphill and sometimes it slopes down. Each section of the road comes with different challenges and rewards. Remember that everything passes in time. Your good days will pass just as fast as your bad ones.
With practice, determination, and a pleasant demeanor you will go far. I try to look at times of struggle and not being where you want to be, as very special times. Look at it as if you were watching your own movie. The most exciting parts are when the up-and-comer is improving fast and making great strides.
Without these moments of drama and suspense life would be dull. Imagine if you already knew that someday you would be a great storyteller with all the accolades and fame that come with it. That knowledge would take the life out of the experience. The good games are the ones where you can lose, and the best games are the ones that stack the odds against you. This life and journey of creating comics is just a really great game.
It's one that you can win if you learn, practice, and never quit. Just like when you invest in the stock market, if your stocks lose value for a while, it doesn't mean you've lost anything. You only lose when you quit. The moral of the story is never quit.
Thanks for reading this guide into creating and drawing comics.
I hope you learned that making is a comic very straight forward and if you love coming up with art and stories, this will be really fun. This guide was meant to be used as reference and not necessarily one that you read straight through in one sitting. When you feel lost or need guidance come back and read a section that you are currently dealing with.
Star Circuit is still in the making and currently it is being pitched to a couple outlets. And the fanbase is growing all the while. Please visit starcircuitcomic.com to see all the updates, art and extras. The comic will soon start releasing pages for free so please signup for email notifications about dates for that.
Feel free to contact me with any questions about this tutorial on my social media.
My Instagram and Twitter handle: @catapanoart
Sign Up Free and Get:
The Step-By-Step E-Book walking you through the making of "Cleineclypto"
Figure Drawing Foundations: Proportions Of The Heroic Figure E-Book
Access to subscriber exclusive special offers, promotions and giveaways