How do you make comics?
Short answer: “I don’t know.”
The way I think it’s supposed to be done is to start with a storyboard, just like you were in charge of making the next big blockbuster movie. Wait. I guess you have to have a script first, right? OK, so you write out a “screenplay” that works as a story and then break it down into visuals.
At this point you don’t want to get too fussy, just do “thumbnail” sketches with stick figures. That’s the way Harvey Pekar, of the celebrated “American Splendor” comics plotted his. Then he’d coax an artist into rendering it so it was visually appealing and complimentary to his story.
But if you’re in charge of the whole enchilada and can’t hand it off, what next? You simply “develop” the thumbnails into finished comic work. Just like a film, you might have to do some editing. Cut some panels out, put new ones in, adjust the “screenplay” accordingly. Sounds pretty straightforward.
You want to be sure to design each page so that the page as a whole works as a graphic design. The action should be smooth and the bottom of each page will have a rhythm that engages the reader and compels them to turn the page.
There are some great books out there on making comics. Scott McCloud has done a series of books that dig into comic media, including Making Comics. Matt Madden and Jessica Able have co-written/illustrated two comprehensive textbooks on the subject, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures and the sequel, Mastering Comics. If you are interested, check out their website for a closer look and note all the resources they’ve provided for would-be comic creators. Both Jessica and Matt are skilled comic-creating veterans and teach local classes and workshops.
These manuals are loaded with valuable tips and guidelines and don’t try to stifle individual initiative -quite the contrary.
But I’ve always had trouble following an instruction manual no matter how well they are written.
There have been a few things that spontaneously tumbled out of me, pictures, dialog, page and overall design just seemed to flow out of the pen without any impediment. But for me this has been an extremely rare experience. Certainly this process is nothing you can count on.
For me the whole process is usually much messier, full of false starts and crumpled sheets of paper flying into the wastebasket. A lot of it is thinking, going over and over it, trying to visualize it. Doodling. Stopping. Waiting while the subconscious mind chews it up and meanwhile time passes. A bit pops out that seems to work at first, then doesn’t. Two o’ clock a.m. sound asleep and then you suddenly aren’t and your brain seizes on the whole thing again and won’t let go. Maybe what I need is a manual on my brain instead of one on making comics!
Another night and another early morning episode occurs. This time there’s an idea that arises that is intriguing, but also means that everything that you’ve done so far has to be adjusted or even obliterated to accomodate the new idea. You might have to decide if the new idea is worth all the effort. You might have to try it or how will you know? You might have to end up tossing out that new idea, as seductive as it was, because it just doesn’t work. Or the whole comic may morph in ways you never, ever expected.
And then another night or while you are supposed to be meditating, another shiny idea arises. Repeat the whole process…until something clicks. Or doesn’t.
Lynda Barry, is a wonderful cartoonist who understands how inner expectations can tie you up into knots. At one point in her career she realized that she had turned her livelihood into a gut-wrenching burden. She came to see how important playing and fun were to the whole process and ended up teaching a creativity course called “The Unthinkable Mind” at the University of Wisconsin. Her wonderful book, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, was one result.
Meanwhile, I’m still floundering around in sea of confusion and delight, trying to make comics, realizing that however I do make comics, it’s a give-and-take, sometimes chaotic business. Although I’m not really in control, I can embrace the joys and struggles involved. And I hope I can keep learning!
Next time (maybe): “Flat Cat Comics.”