Cre­at­ing In­de­pen­dent Comics

Want to cre­ate your own comics? In the first part of a new se­ries, writer Mike Gar­ley ex­plains all you need to know to get started...

Comic Heroes - - Contents - @mikegar­ley

In the first of a new se­ries, Mike Gar­ley tells you how to get started in the in­die scene.

There has never been a bet­ter time for cre­ator-owned/ in­die comics (or just “comics” as I like

to call them). The pop­u­lar­ity of the Marvel and DC Comics films has brought about a resur­gence in the medium, and thanks to an abun­dance of new and es­tab­lished Cons, as well as the mul­ti­ple op­tions for on­line dis­tri­bu­tion, it’s eas­ier than ever to cre­ate a comic that can ac­tu­ally find an au­di­ence.

This fea­ture is go­ing to serve as a prac­ti­cal guide full of help­ful tips to bring your comic to life, as well as de­tail­ing some of the (many) pit­falls you can avoid. How­ever, it should not be con­sid­ered an all-en­com­pass­ing man­ual – you’ll need to make your own route, and cir­cum­vent the prob­lems you think will stop you from cre­at­ing the type of story you want to tell.


I al­ways give peo­ple the same ad­vice when­ever they ask me the best way to start in comics: an­tholo­gies. An­tholo­gies give you a great place to hone your skills as a sto­ry­teller, as well as giv­ing you some much-needed ex­pe­ri­ence.

You’ll also get the op­por­tu­nity to go through the process with a skilled edi­tor, who will be able to give you hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence in cre­at­ing comics. Ed­i­tors can be ex­pen­sive, so get­ting to work with one for free is an in­valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence for any fledg­ling cre­ator.

If that isn’t in­cen­tive enough, work­ing on an an­thol­ogy should help you to get your work into print (with­out the usual fi­nan­cial risks of cre­at­ing your own comics), as well as re­ceiv­ing a cre­ator credit and get­ting your name known. There’s lit­tle bet­ter than a foot in the door!

You can find an­tholo­gies that are look­ing for col­lab­o­ra­tors by ei­ther search­ing on­line or go­ing to your near­est Comic Con. Nine­ty­nine per­cent of the peo­ple you find be­hind ta­bles are lovely and will be happy to point you in the right di­rec­tion. We don’t like to talk about the other one per­cent...


If you’re set on cre­at­ing your own comics (which you should be be­cause it’s awe­some) then you’ll need to un­der­stand this in­con­ve­nient truth: comics are hard (re­ally hard), ex­pen­sive to cre­ate, and ex­tremely time-con­sum­ing.

For the ma­jor­ity of creators their work is a labour of love, and while it is pos­si­ble to make a liv­ing out of comics, if you go into it ex­pect­ing to make a for­tune then you’ll be se­ri­ously dis­ap­pointed.

Pro­fes­sional creators will charge from £25 to £200 (some­times more) to pro­duce one comic page, which means that for a 20-page comic you’re pay­ing be­tween £500 and £4,000. And that’s be­fore tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion fac­tors like print­ing and sell­ing costs.

“We try to give a full, con­struc­tive re­view to ev­ery cre­ator we get – it’s time‑con­sum­ing but if it means giv­ing a first-time cre­ator vi­tal ad­vice

it’s en­tirely worth it.” – Owen Watts (Co-edi­tor

The Psy­che­delic Jour­nal Of Time Travel)

It’s pos­si­ble to make sav­ings here and there, but more of­ten than not these cost-sav­ing short­cuts will be there for all to see on the page, which could dis­cour­age peo­ple from tak­ing the risk on your comic.

The other fac­tor that peo­ple greatly un­der­es­ti­mate is the amount of time comics take to cre­ate. As a rough es­ti­mate you can ex­pect a page of comic art to take be­tween two to seven days, and this slid­ing scale is nor­mally par­al­lel to the £25 to £200 per page men­tioned above. And then there’s still no guar­an­tee that you’ll be able to stick to your sched­ule with pesky things like work and life get­ting in the way, not to men­tion that some pages just take longer to crack.

With both of these is­sues, many prob­lems can be avoided if you fac­tor in po­ten­tial set­backs. Most im­por­tantly, make sure you es­tab­lish an hon­est and open work­ing re­la­tion­ship with your cre­ative team from the be­gin­ning.

And be re­al­is­tic in your am­bi­tions. As Ned Hart­ley (writer of How to

be a Su­per­hero, Ghost Club and Punch­face!!!) cau­tions: “You’re not go­ing to get rich and you’ll just end up with a house full of boxes of un­sold comics. And no house be­cause you had to sell that to make the comics.”


Crowd-fund­ing plat­forms like Kick­starter and Indiegogo may seem ap­peal­ing but un­less you’ve al­ready got an es­tab­lished fan­base or your project is fin­ished (or you have a sub­stan­tial amount of work com­pleted), the amount of money you can ac­tu­ally make will be ex­tremely lim­ited. And with the size of the in­dus­try (it’s proper small – but in a good way) you could se­ri­ously dam­age your rep­u­ta­tion by run­ning a cam­paign that ei­ther mis­leads back­ers or takes an in­or­di­nate amount of time to de­liver. I’ll go into more de­tails about crowd­fund­ing in a later is­sue.

Telling your story

With those harsh re­al­i­ties about cre­at­ing comics out of the way, we can now start to fo­cus on the fun stuff: the story.

The most im­por­tant – yet of­ten hur­ried – step to mak­ing comics is en­sur­ing you’ve got a strong enough story to tell, and a strong enough way in which to tell it. The suc­cess or fail­ure of your comic is dic­tated by the strength of your story and how you and your cre­ative team can bring it to life.

Me and Josh Sher­well (the artist and co-cre­ator of The Kill Screen) cre­ated a two-page story to test the vi­su­al­ity of our story. We found this re­ally helped us to de­velop our idea, as well as giv­ing us the op­por­tu­nity to test our work­ing re­la­tion­ship – this was our first project to­gether.

One of the eas­i­est mis­takes you can make is not tak­ing the time to de­velop what makes your story unique, and how you can con­vey that to some­one with­out them read­ing it first! Be­fore peo­ple will in­vest their time or money in your comic, your story needs to grab their at­ten­tion. This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant if you’re work­ing in a pop­u­lar genre like su­per­heroes or zom­bies, where you’ll be com­pet­ing with thou­sands of other sim­i­lar ti­tles. You not only need to have a story that is dif­fer­ent from those, but you must also be able to eas­ily con­vey to the reader what makes your story dif­fer­ent. And that’s a hell of a lot harder than it seems.

The im­por­tance of be­ing able to com­mu­ni­cate your idea suc­cinctly will be ev­i­dent when you pitch it to po­ten­tial pub­lish­ers or col­lab­o­ra­tors, and of course when you at­tempt to sell it to the pub­lic. It makes sense to work on defin­ing your con­cept long be­fore you get to that point, be­cause by then there’s a strong chance that you will have al­ready in­vested a lot of time and money into your comic.

If you’re sell­ing your comic in per­son (at a Con, for ex­am­ple) then you could have as lit­tle as 30 sec­onds be­fore the per­son you’re talk­ing to re­mem­bers that they’ve got no money, they’ve lost their friend/part­ner/child and need to find them im­me­di­ately, or that they’re just on their first pass of the Con and will be back later.

Your job is to make sure you can cover ev­ery­thing that you think makes your story great within that time, and in a way that ex­cites and en­gages them – and then if they don’t like it, you can cry your­self to sleep know­ing that they at least made an in­formed de­ci­sion.

But if it isn’t tricky enough think­ing about how you’ll

What would hap­pen if com­puter er­rors in­fected mankind? This im­age works in uni­son with the ba­sic premise of The

Kill Screen to help con­vey the con­cept of the comic to po­ten­tial buy­ers. It’s ex­tremely early on in the comic, which re­ally helps when peo­ple read the open­ing, and the size (dou­ble-page splash) means that peo­ple see it even

when they’re only flick­ing through the is­sue.

de­scribe your story with you there to sell it, there’s more: your story must be un­der­stood and de­scribed suc­cinctly in re­views and pre­views, as well as by peo­ple who’ve bought your comic and en­joyed it so much that they want to tell their friends about it. Pos­si­bly over Jäger­bombs.

A tried and tested way to cre­ate and pol­ish your idea is a sim­ple one: talk to peo­ple (friends/fam­ily/ pets/the post­man) and see what makes sense, what ex­cites them, what ques­tions they ask. The more feed­back you can get, the bet­ter.

Af­ter you’ve tied down what makes your story stand out, you can start to flesh it out. Do this by draft­ing a para­graph or two that goes into more plot de­tails than your ini­tial de­scrip­tion – but this too is some­thing that may be seen by read­ers, so avoid spoil­ers and be wary of hy­per­bole. En­sure you ex­plain how big/long it is and where and how it will be pub­lished. You don’t need to go into tiny de­tail but you want peo­ple to un­der­stand the tone of the story, which should give them an in­di­ca­tion of whether it’s some­thing they’d like.

Un­der­stand your co llab­o­ra­tors

If you’re con­sid­er­ing cre­at­ing your own comics, you prob­a­bly al­ready have a good idea of what ev­ery­one in­volved in comics does. But it’s still im­por­tant to ap­pre­ci­ate what they bring to a project – or even more vi­tally, how not hav­ing peo­ple with the rel­e­vant skills can dam­age your project.

The Writer

You can have a great story and an in­cred­i­ble cre­ative team, but if the writ­ing it­self isn’t solid then peo­ple will very quickly lose in­ter­est. You need an orig­i­nal and en­gag­ing script. Take your time and get as much feed­back as pos­si­ble, and not only from friends – you need crit­i­cal eyes on your work too. If you can af­ford an ex­pe­ri­enced edi­tor, or are lucky enough to be friends with one, then you’ll find their ex­per­tise in­valu­able. Good ed­i­tors make sto­ries even gooder

(Edi­tor’s note: gooder isn’t a word) and help to pro­tect you against any mis­takes that may – and of­ten will – sneak through.

The Pen­ciller/Line work

I al­ways say peo­ple will pick up a comic for the art­work and keep read­ing it for the story. The best artists are not just the ones who draw the pret­ti­est pic­tures. They’re the best sto­ry­tellers. The bet­ter the art­work, the more likely it be­comes that peo­ple will pick up your comic. With this in mind, be re­spect­ful of how long art­work can take and how much work goes into each page.

The Inker

Ink­ing evolved only be­cause the cheap print­ing pro­cesses used for early comics de­manded high­con­trast black-and-white art­work, and af­ter the time-con­sum­ing design, lay­out and pen­cilling stages

“It is use­ful to see some­body un­der­stands how to use the comics medium to tell a story, and the best way to demon­strate that is through a cre­ated piece of work.”

Steve Tan­ner (Edi­tor of Time Bomb Comics)

there of­ten wasn’t time for the same artist to go over ev­ery­thing in In­dia ink. Mod­ern tech­nolo­gies make it pos­si­ble to print from pen­cil art (or pretty much any­thing re­ally) but good inkers are far more than trac­ers and bring a vast range of skills to the ta­ble. That said, in­de­pen­dent creators just as of­ten pro­duce the fin­ished art (pen­cils and inks) them­selves.

Flat­ting and colour­ing

In the same way, although some artists will colour their own work, some will re­quire a colourist (if you’re us­ing colour at all). “Flat­ting” is just the term for lay­ing down ar­eas of flat colour, the usual ini­tial stage of colour­ing on com­puter. This is of­ten done by the colourist but some­times by a sep­a­rate spe­cial­ist. The mark of the best colourists is that rather than just colour­ing comics, they are ac­tu­ally us­ing colour to help tell the story. Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate how much dam­age a bad colourist can do, or how much a great colourist can add to a project.


Un­for­tu­nately not ev­ery­one will no­tice great let­ter­ing – its job is not just to be leg­i­ble but to seam­lessly lead the reader’s eye around the page. Let­ter­ing is one of those jobs that peo­ple think they can do them­selves, but ev­ery­one will no­tice bad let­ter­ing. It stands out. Bad let­ter­ing is the eas­i­est way to make your comic look cheap! There are some great comic let­ter­ing fonts for do­ing it on com­puter, but choose care­fully to match your style of art­work and avoid overused fonts (and never touch Comic Sans). Spell­ing mis­takes and ty­pos al­ways make work look am­a­teur­ish.

Ap­proach­ing col­labroa­tors

Now you’ve done all the ba­sic build­ing of the idea, you’re ready to ap­proach your col­lab­o­ra­tors. Un­less you’re tal­ented in all these fields then you’ll need to look to oth­ers to col­lab­o­rate with.

The most pop­u­lar ways to find col­lab­o­ra­tors are through mes­sage boards such as Dig­i­tal Web­bing (www.dig­i­tal­web­ and De­viant Art (­, to ap­proach peo­ple in per­son at Cons, or to scour so­cial me­dia (Twit­ter can be great for this). Look for ex­am­ples of past work – and if there isn’t enough or there isn’t some­thing in the style that you like then don’t be afraid to ask a po­ten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tor for sam­ples.

“I think trust is the most im­por­tant thing when work­ing in a cre­ative part­ner­ship. Whether it’s cre­ator-owned or work-for-hire, both writer and artist are sto­ry­tellers, and if there’s not that level of trust be­tween them in their abil­i­ties as sto­ry­tellers, it won’t work.” – Andy W Clift ( Ber­tie Bear, Samu­rai Slasher and Dead Roots)

When ap­proach­ing oth­ers, it’s im­por­tant to be hon­est and open. Let them know what your ex­pec­ta­tions are for the project, if and how much you can pay them, and what your dead­lines are – and most im­por­tantly be will­ing to com­pro­mise and adapt.

Don’t ex­pect peo­ple to work for free. Most creators will want to be ei­ther fi­nan­cially or cre­atively re­warded. If all you’re of­fer­ing is “ex­po­sure” then you’re go­ing to strug­gle to find a re­li­able/ ex­pe­ri­enced col­lab­o­ra­tor. You’ll find that the vast ma­jor­ity of creators will ac­tu­ally find this in­sult­ing and un­pro­fes­sional.

No mat­ter how great a cre­ator is, they might not be right for ev­ery project. Find out by talk­ing to them. En­cour­age ques­tions, and when you’re both happy cre­ate a con­tract/agree­ment.

I know a lot of peo­ple find this step dif­fi­cult but it’s im­por­tant and is there to pro­tect you, clar­ify ex­actly what is ex­pected of ev­ery­one in­volved, and con­firm the all-im­por­tant dead­lines.

The best projects are the ones where all the creators are on the same page (metaphor­i­cally). For this rea­son, I’d sug­gest work­ing to­gether on a shorter project first (such as a pre­lude or a short story) to test how well you all gel as a team.

Comics take time. Be pa­tient, and make sure you don’t let your en­thu­si­asm get the bet­ter of you.

I hope these first few steps help you not only so­lid­ify your story, but as­sem­ble a cre­ative team to work on it too! Next time I’ll cover the var­i­ous for­mats you can use for a comic, plus crowd­fund­ing. If you’ve got ques­tions or want to sug­gest a topic for me to cover then you can tweet me at…

Mike Gar­ley

is a writer of comics, games, screen­plays and other such

cool stuff. Mike wrote beAc­tive Me­dia’s Emmy

nom­i­nated comic se­ries Col­lider, as well Wallace

as Gromit, and Adventure Time, Epony­mous,

The Kill Screen and The Samu­rai Slasher.

Above: The Psy­che­delic Jour­nal Of Time Travel #5 cover by Kev Lev­ell. Each is­sue fea­tures sto­ries deal­ing in some way with time travel, ob­vi­ously.

Above: Ev­ery­thing you need to know about Ned Hart­ley’s

Punch­face!!! in a sin­gle panel.

Be­low: Cover art by Zak Sim­mons-Hurn.

Above: Pan­els

from The Kill

Screen writ­ten by Mike Gar­ley, art by Josh Sher­well, and let­ter­ing by Mike Stock. (Yes, Stock let­ter­ing!)

Right: A panel from Heart­less Comics’ Antigods, writ­ten by Ned Hart­ley and drawn by Seb An­to­niou.

Above left: Time Bomb Comics’

De­fi­ant - writ­ten by Andy Win­ter, art by Daniel Bell, and colours by Aljosa Tomic.

Left: The cover to Andy W Clift’s Ber­tie

Bear, the ten­der tale of a mon­ster slayer trapped in the body of a teddy bear.

Right: Right: How To Be A Su­per­hero. Art by Gavin Mitchell, words by Ned Hart­ley.

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