It was a balmy day on the back blocks of Brooklyn. My homie Symmetry Thomas invited me out to a photo shoot he was doing in Tillary park near the Manhattan bridge. The venue Brooklyn Outdoors, a cacophony of modern sound from hot young talent, moving a sea of stylishly dressed people of color. Sym was shooting video for Da Boys From the Wood, being the hip-hop fan that I am, the landscape, bombastic drums, beautiful women and smooth ass bass lines were enough to remove me from my writing funk. Da Boy’s went on at 4 and from the few snatches of sonic symmetry I had heard, their set would be a promising one. The host tuned up the band who warmed up the crowd with some classic soul standards. The first acted offered up a neo-soul styling that reminded me of sleepless nights on the phone with a girl I’d never date. The act provided a fairly entertaining set of trap-music ballads complete with fake money throwing and complimentary stunting. The third act all but hopped into a time machine to provide the audience with a taste of rap circa 2001 before Brooklyn was gentrified and anything could happen. The lyrics and production transported me to a simpler time where visions of gun play and ski masks danced in the heads of timid city dwellers when ever the three syllable borough was mentioned. The four act was the complete and total opposite, a two person rock outfit akin to the White stripes, whose lead singer reminded me of Halley Williams from Paramore. When Da Boys got on the stage the crowd exploded, the kids from Queens attacked the stage with an energy and virtuosity that belied their borough of origin. From Shan to LL, NaS to Nore Queens was always home to lyrical heavyweights and from the looks of it these dudes were looking to pump some serious iron. It was getting late and so we decided to book it home, but I left festival with a reaffirmed faith in the new generation of hip-hop.
In 2008 I interned at Marvel comics in the X-men editorial office. Whilst there I learned how to edit, format and balloon. These were things that previously had no knowledge of and assumed happened through some magic of the company. Along the way I learned that a knowledge of photoshop wasn’t essential for making your own comic but it helped if you didn’t have a lot of money, and editing your own work is never a very good idea. After leaving Marvel, I decided to strike out on my own, I was a man of color on a mission to tell a story about self discovery, heartache and truth. I would soon find out that everyone, who’s ever written fiction, not just comics wanted to do this and I’d have to figure out how to set myself apart. And so this is my journey into creating a graphic novel from the ground up.
- Respect the Craft
When I was just starting out I took to writing interviews of comics, so that I could become more critical of my own work and try to understand what could and couldn’t work in comics. Disclaimer: Now understand this, there is no secret formula to a successful book. writers like Morrison and Miller have had hits as well as misses. However there are certain principles that are adherent to when creating for the graphic medium, the first principle is respecting the craft. As a comic book critic I came across a number of people who thought that because they had read a comic and had a somewhat decent idea that they “should” create one. The end result were books rife with cliches, inaccuracies and boat loads of exposition.
The first thing that every aspiring graphic novelist should do, is be aware that no matter what anyone says, the medium that they are working in is still a literary one and has very similar tenants to screenwriting. That means, plot and emotional arcs need to be covered, that means at the end of the story all characters from largest to smallest have earned their ending (progressed to the particular conclusion) and that they must overall be relatable. For me, I always try to analyze whether or not my story needs to be told, and whether or not I really want to tell it. This means finding the conviction necessary to give the character’s, world, and story life otherwise I’m just day dreaming.
Now during my time at Marvel I had met writer Karl Bollers, (Emma Frost, Watson & Holmes). He would become my friend, mentor and first person to give me a wake up call that my work wasn’t that special. This was a blow to my ego, but he explained to me the problem didn’t lay in my story idea, but my structure and execution of it. After reading a few books he and a others had recommended * I began to approach my writing differently. I realized that if I was going to tell these stories, I’d have to make sure that all of the bases (which I mentioned above) were covered and that I wasn’t rushing my product, because of my desire to say “Look at me, I wrote a comic.” Something I had done previously, and to this day it stands as a lesson for me. Though it was received well enough for a first outing, It still had glaring mistakes and oversights which could’ve been avoided had I been more focused on crafting a good story well told and not a story told so I can say I told a story.
- The Art of Visual Storytelling.
After I’ve figured out what kind of story I want to tell, what the world looks like and who the people who live in it are, I figure out how these things should appear to the reader. I’ll either, illustrate it (Albeit poorly) on my own or find an artist. The way I determine this is usually based on the tone of the work, if it’s going to be wry and anecdotal in the vein of a newspaper strip or web comic, I’ll illustrate it myself. However if I’m looking to present a high-tech sci-fi world or a Tolkinen like fantasy world I’d get someone else to bring my idea to life. There are a number of sites, which can give you access to a number of artists, but keep in there are some things to watch out for. On my first comic (The Hierophants.) I was introduced to an artist by a mutual friend. Said artist had an interesting style especially when colored, however at the time I didn’t have the money to pay for full color so I opted for black and white, which was cheaper at first. The first pages came out great but as time went on the quality of the work wasn’t to my liking and while the project was finished the main critique of the books readership was the art. That experience taught me to be more critical of the specific art style I wanted for certain projects. There are certain artists I love but if they can’t tell the story I’m writing the way I envision it then it does neither of us any good.
An example of this is a friend of mine whom I have known since High School, I’ve always enjoyed his art style and relished the idea of him bringing my characters to life. But as time went on and his interests steered him outside of the graphic medium I begin to notice things in the work of full time artists that weren’t in his. The attention paid to certain angles or how they allowed the story to progress visually as well as his coloring process, which used less detailed methods than the ones I’d later see. That all being said, it behoves you to be discerning with whom you choose to tell your story. (Some great places to hunt for artists are digitalwebbing.com, Penciljack.com, or Deviantart.com)
III. Not Just Pictures, but Words Too.
One thing that I thought I had easily at hand when producing my first comic was the lettering. I thought I can just find some free font program and boom, word balloons a plenty . So after fiddling with said fonts I posted a sample page for many of my peers to see, and you know what? I was wrong. We often overlook how much letters like Nate Peikos or the legendary Richard Starkings help stories flow smoothly without letters running into each other or making abrupt breaks in sentence structure. To quote a friend “You don’t know when a story is lettered well, but you surely know when one is lettered poorly.” While lettering is one of the last things to be done in the comic book production process, it is no less important than the art, as it is part and parcel of making your story coherent, clear and of course relatable to the reader. So after my not too rude awakening, I contacted my mentor and some other vets about seeking a professional letterer for the task at hand. The great thing about the letterers I have found is that they are relatively inexpensive but do great work and take pride in their skills. (These skilled crafts people can also be found on digitalwebbing.com or Penciljack.com)
- Printing, (Self)Publishing ,and Putting it out there.
One thing that creatives are never taught about, is publishing. Most people assume that unless you are signed with a major publishing label (Marvel, DC, Image ect.) your graphic aspirations will just be another pipe dream, you think about to while away the hours at school or work. Some years ago that would have been true, however we live in the future, which just so happens to be the present. One great thing about the present is the ability to easily copyright and trademark your work. Of course there are cost attached to doing this but it’s something you can do alone nowadays. I myself created an imprint, simply by creating a logo and registering my work at the copyright office and in truth (though it’s not always advised) Once your piece is published under your name, you own it. Fair warning though, If you haven’t registered or trademarked your properties/brand; you cannot stop someone from copying your work.
There are a number of printing options which will allow you to get physical copies on a budget and may even allow you digital sales. Ka-blam is one such option through their connection to online retailer indie-planet they allow you to not only print your work but sell it. I myself use them and they’re a great help, however a number of indie creators work through indie-planet so you will have to stand out in the sea of self published comics. Physical copies though at times expensive are typically more rewarding than that of digital or print on demand comics. Putting your book in a store almost ensures that people can get your product and utilizing social media can ensure that you build even a small fan base. Frequently your LCS (Local comic shop) will help in your journey, as sales rep’s whom you become friendly with will be more likely to push your work. (Tip: Pushing your work isn’t a bad idea either if you’re a regular and make small talk with enough people, they may be inclined to check you out if they’re looking for something new to read.)
- Final Page, Last Panel:
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my experience in the comics industry it’s that everyone’s story has a place. With larger companies now focusing on movie and t.v., we live in the best time to tell stories, which they neglect to tell, that leads to diversity and more voices being heard. This being said make sure that when you put pen to paper or ink to board you are making sure that you’re about to unleash the world you want to see on the page. Do it justice and you will see the rewards paid back to you ten fold.