One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is how does one transition a concept into a completed work of art? How do fragments of ideas swirling around in one’s head manifest into a polished whole, one that can then be shared with the world? This question typically comes from frustrated artists: aspiring illustrators who want to know how to turn a couple of cool character concepts into a comic book series, or fledgling writers desiring to morph a handful of raw themes into a staged rock opera. Basically, they want to know how I do it, hoping that I possess a “magic key” that once shared will unlock the mysteries of creation, demolish writer’s block, and pave the way for a smooth, unencumbered path to prolific artistic profundity.
Firstly: there are no magic keys, dry land IS a myth, and that fellow with the wizard hat and beard is merely the neighborhood pedophile. That said, there is a deliberate method to my madness: thousands of bite-sized steps that when chewed thoroughly lead to an arty finish line.
This blog post will be the first in a series where I will give you a window into this process. Since I am currently working on a graphic novel entitled The Molting, I will use this project as the example of how my process works. Even if you aren’t looking to write or illustrate comics, I suspect you will find my approach on The Molting—breaking a large project down into digestible portions—applicable for other artistic endeavors as well. Regardless, I hope that you will find the journey entertaining.
If you enjoy the content, I hope that you will also support my indie efforts and purchase a copy of The Molting series. The project will not survive without your patronage, so thank you in advance for your support!
Okay, let’s get on with the show:
Step I: Script:
Everything begins with a story and in a comic book, the script is the blueprint for all that follows. This is why writers of comic books are traditionally credited first. I will not focus on the particulars of writing a comic book script here, but know that this phase has its own nexus of checklists that lead towards completion.
The Molting script was written in its entirety months before I began a single drawing. I will caution that proceeding with the drawing phase of a comic book without a completed story in mind is a recipe for disaster. It will probably result in a project that never gets finished, which will result in an email to me in the form of a question like the one kicking off this blog post. In other words: a script is important because it not only provides a blueprint of what to draw, but an end zone to work towards.
If you are not a writer, I recommend teaming up with one and make sure that you reeeally like the script before committing. Whether the story is a 13-page single issue or a 500+ page graphic novel like The Molting, you have a lot of work ahead of you. If you’re not passionate about the material, it will be difficult to navigate the project to completion, especially when the workload becomes intense… which it will!
Note: having a completed script does not mean that story modifications cannot be made along the way, but having a solid roadmap is always the best way to plot a course towards any destination. In our case, that destination is a completed comic book.
Once you have a script, you will need to break the story down into what will become pages of a comic book. The Molting is 12-chapters long so I dissect and draw the script a chapter at a time. I also break each chapter into 3 acts. These acts are not labeled in the printed issues, so the viewer may not be aware of their existence, but I use these internal dramatic beats as a way of organizing what will become my comic book page-count.
When writing The Molting, I took care to make each chapter the same number of script pages (roughly 9), but have found that the number of drawn pages this translates into varies wildly: chapter 1 was 36-pages; the last issue, chapter 4, was 48-pages; the upcoming chapter 5, “Mother’s Day”, will be 56-pages (I will provide sneak peak imagery from chapter 5 as this blog series continues!).
When deciphering the script-to-comic-book-page-arithmetic, one first must consider that comics are printed in 4-page intervals (imagine a piece of paper folded in half… each half is a page, which, when printed double-sided, becomes 4 pages). For example, a 41-page book cannot exist because it is not divisible by 4; you will either need to subtract a page to make the book an even 40-pages, or add 3 pages to make it 44. The front and back covers are part of this page-count. Poor planning on my part led to unnecessary stress with the printing of The Molting issue #1, “Guilty Susie” when I realized I miscounted and had to eliminate 2 finished pages. I’ve since learned my lesson.
Aside from this practical limitation, when I breakdown a script into comic book pages, I consider everything as 2-page spreads. Unless it’s a book with centerfold-like foldouts, the comic book form requires the reader to physically turn a page following every 2-page spread. This action—flipping a page to have new visual information revealed—has a built in sense of drama, which needs to be considered when planning page layouts. Decisions of what to include on each page should support these readymade theatrics.
Scene changes, like jumping from one location to a new one, are natural places for a page turn, because turning a page acts as a nice transition into a new illustrated setting. Notice how in “Ootheca” (chapter 3 of The Molting) I force the viewer to turn the page to journey from the Pryzkind household where the character of Trevor says, “We’re hungry”, to Nate’s Diner where he and his crew are now eating.
Dramatic moments of action are also great places to organize page-turns. Consider the suspense created in a horror movie when a character slowly approaches a closet door inside a house believed to be haunted. We, the audience, know that there’s a monster waiting to jump out from behind the door, but relish in the slow, squirming anticipation of WHEN???
Similarly, in a comic book, you want to toy with the reader’s emotions with the use of page-breaks; force them to have to turn a page to be shown the springing monster, almost as if they themselves were opening the closet door.
I also use the aforementioned acts as places to orchestrate page-turns. A new act should feel like a new phase of the story, and as such should be indicated by a page-turn. I consider all of this when I go through the script and mark all of the appropriate places for page-turns, making sure that by time I get to the end, I am on par with a total page-count that is divisible by 4. If not, I need to figure a way to add or subtract pages.
So, there ya have it: step 1 of my process creating The Molting. I know that this is not the most exciting of steps, but it is a crucial and often time-consuming part of the process towards creating a completed work. It’s arguably the most important step as well.
To continue on to part II of the process, click here.