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...
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...
THE COST OF CREATING COMICS
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.
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.
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.
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.digitalwebbing.com) and Deviant Art (www.deviantart.com), 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…
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.
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.