Superman #41, my debut issue, comes out Wednesday, June 24!
I’m only handling the script. This art team they’ve got me working with? Dude.
Let me show you our process. It’ll give me an excuse to tell you about the artist behind each phase.
1. SCRIPT. This is me. For my first script, I followed the Dark Horse Script Format Guideline, a habit I developed writing Avatar: The Last Airbender comics for the last few years. The formats of my Superman scripts have been evolving ever since.
2. PENCILS. These are done by the legendary John Romita Jr. He doesn’t like it when I use the word “legendary,” but that’s what you get for producing consistently amazing work for over two decades.
John spent most of his career at Marvel. You know that Daredevil show on Netflix everyone’s freaking out over (including me)? Chunks of it are lifted straight out of Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, a classic miniseries by John and writer Frank Miller. That awesome black costume he wears for most of Season 1? That’s John.
When I was a college kid, my favorite of John’s works was a graphic novella called Hearts of Darkness, starring the most nineties superteam ever assembled: Ghost Rider, Wolverine, and the Punisher.
3. INKS. We’ve got Klaus Janson on inks. Klaus is most well-known as a co-conspirator on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the Frank Miller graphic novel that changed the face of superhero comics forever. But Klaus has done many, many comics besides that. Klaus’s stuff is just a joy to look at: clean and strong and true.
He does a lot of inking — A LOT — but he’s also handled pencils and inks. He and John have worked together for a while now. Hearts of Darkness, that nineties fever dream I mentioned earlier, was his.
4. COLORS. Dean White is doing the colors. I first encountered Dean’s work in Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s Kick Ass, a graphic novel my prudish self found uncomfortable and compelling all at once. Appropriate, too, because Dean kicks ass. He truly does. He can wring things out of color — emotion, action, danger — that you didn’t know were there.
Let me tell you, I am astounded by the finished product. I’m proud of my story, don’t get me wrong, but THAT ART! You need to get Superman #41 just to see three masters of comics do their thing. Your jaw will drop, guaranteed.
Superman #41, available at comics shops everywhere on Wednesday, June 24, 2015!
There’s a reason why folks call Superman the Man of Tomorrow.
When he was created in the late 1930′s, he really did embody that era’s ideas about the future. Back then, progress was seen in largely physical terms: our technology would make us stronger, faster, more invulnerable. And that’s what Superman was: the world’s strongest, fastest, most invulnerable person.
But in the decades since, our imagined future has changed. Nowadays, when we think of tomorrow’s technology, we don’t necessary think about physical power — we think about information. We think about knowledge. Our dreams of the future are as much about bits as they are about atoms. Maybe more.
So how does Superman, a character whose “tomorrow-ness” dates back to the 1930′s, deal with the “tomorrow-ness” of today?
That’s a major thread in “Before Truth,” the first Superman story arc I’m doing with the inimitable John Romita Jr. The Man of Tomorrow goes up against an enemy who wields information like a weapon, who’s as comfortable in bits as he is in atoms.
Superman’s secret identity has always been a cornerstone of who he is. But the very notion of a hidden second life represents information that’s been contained, that’s under control. In the era of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks and doxxing, is a secret identity even viable any more?
And more importantly, will Superman’s most timeless character traits — his selflessness, his grit, his compassion for the underdog — survive such a drastic change to his status quo?
For a superhero geek like me, writing the world’s first superhero has been the thrill of a lifetime. Being part of a team that includes John and inker Klaus Janson and colorist Dean White is icing on the cake. If you had told fourteen-year-old me that this project would be in my tomorrow, I’m pretty sure I would’ve leaped a tall building in a single bound.
It all goes down in Superman #41, available Wednesday June 24, 2015!
Hope you’ll join us! And if you want to know what life is like for Superman after “Before Truth,” check out Action Comics #41, Batman/Superman #21, and Superman/Wonder Woman #18!
Folks are sometimes surprised when I tell them that I’m both a cartoonist and a high school computer science teacher, and I think it’s because our society puts up a wall between activities it deems “left brain” and those it deems “right brain.” Math and science inhabit one world, art and story (and comics) another.
But this division is artificial. Take a look at Leonardo Da Vinci, M.C. Escher, Scott McCloud. We have an entire genre — Science Fiction — that blends science with story.
For me, making comics and computer coding are intimately linked. Both disciplines require you to break large ideas into small, discrete pieces. You have to take relatively simple elements and arrange them in a way that achieves complex results. And in both, the possibilities are infinite.
These days, there’s a lot of talk about S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Teachers and parents worry that American students are falling behind in these areas. I haven’t looked at the data myself, so I’m not entirely sure that’s true.
But if it is, let me tell you: Comics can help.
Here’s a list of great S.T.E.M. comics, broken up by topic:
by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks
Ever wonder why Jane Goodall is such a big deal? Read this book. It’s highly accessible and Maris Wicks’ illustrations are just beautiful. Also, if you’re looking for a big list of science comics, just Google Jim Ottaviani. That’s his thing. And honestly, he’s really good at his thing.
by Jay Hosler
Jay is both a Biology Professor at Juniata College and an incredibly talented cartoonist. Clan Apis follows the adventures of a bee named Nyuki. Readers will be completely charmed by Nyuki while learning about her life cycle and natural environment.
Super Scratch Programming Adventure
by Mitch Resnick and the Lead Project
Mitch Resnick is a Computer Science professor at MIT. This book isn’t just a graphic novel, it’s also an instruction manual on Scratch, a beginner’s programming language. Lots of fun projects here, plus a cute cartoon cat!
by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes
(I’m about to self-promote. Consider yourself warned.) Cartoonist Mike Holmes and I are doing a middle grade graphic novel series all about the magic of coding. Here’s how we’re pitching it: Secret Coders is kind of like Harry Potter. A bunch of tweens find a secret school. However, instead of teaching magic, the secret school teaches coding. We’re hoping that as our protagonists become coders, our readers will too. First volume will be available September 2015!
by Saul Griffith and Nick Dragotta
Wanna be impressed? Go read Saul Griffith’s Wikipedia page. The dude is seriously smart. Illustrator Nick Dragotta isn’t to shabby, either. He’s probably best known for his work on East of West with Jonathan Hickman. Their book Howtoons is probably my 11-year-old’s current favorite book. This book will teach you how to build marshmallow guns, plastic finger extensions, and toy submarines out of common household items. Become a mini-MacGyver.
This isn’t a book, so don’t go looking for it at your local bookstore. Instead, find a Lego set and take a look at the instructions. Juxtaposed images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information. That’s right! Lego’s one of the world’s most prolific publishers of comics, and it probably doesn’t even know it.
by Jason Shiga
Jason Shiga is a math genius. If a comic book and a maze were to have a baby, the baby would look like Meanwhile. This is a choose-your-own adventure graphic novel with 3856 story possibilities! Only one happy(ish) ending, though. Along the way, the reader learns all about statistics and probability.
by Jason Shiga
Jimmy gets stuck in a phone booth buried beneath several tons of concrete! Armed with nothing but his wits and a knack for math, he must find a way out! This is arguably the best phone booth story ever told, way better than that Colin Farrell movie, but it’s definitely for older kids.
I had a couple extra copies of this year’s Avatar: The Last Airbender Free Comic Book Day comic, so I ran a giveaway for folks on my email list!
Congratulations to Alex K. of San Diego, CA and Mari Ann G. of El Paso, TX!
I’m planning to do giveaways about once a month. I have some original art to give away for December. If you’re interested in entering, sign up for my email list below!
Not only will it give you the opportunity to win giveaways, but you’ll also get updates on my books, events, and other projects. You’ll also get a free digital comic about how I got my start in comics!
A few weeks ago, my oldest daughter (a second grader) bought Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters from her school’s book fair. She instantly became a Raina devotee. I’d already read Smile with her, but something about Sisters flipped a switch – maybe because my daughter has to deal with sibling drama of her own at home.
Raina’s a friend of mine. I knew from Facebook that she was doing a signing near us, so I told my daughter we’d go see her. On the morning of the signing, my daughter woke up chanting Raina’s name.
The signing was freaking amazing. I’ve never been to a comics signing like it, not even with the Image Comics founders when they were at the height of their fame in the 90’s. Raina did a joint event with the inimitable Kazu Kibuishi, and the entire store was packed with parents and kids holding stacks of Smile and Drama and Sisters and Amulet.
The crowd was so big that the store had to give out little tickets to tell you what signing group you were in. Group #1 got to see Raina and Kazu first, then Group #2, and so on. We were Group #7. Twenty minutes in, I said to my daughter, “I know Raina and her husband Dave. We see each other at least a couple times a year at different book events. We can get her to sign it later, at Comic-Con or something.”
My daughter looked me straight in the eye and pointed to her ragged copy of Sisters. “Daddy, we came to get this book signed.”
So we waited over an hour, almost two. Raina and Kazu were (of course) lovely, and my daughter went home with a signed book and a happy heart.
And that’s why articles like the one Janelle Asselin wrote for Comics Alliance don’t particularly worry me:
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great article and I totally agree with her. But even if superhero publishers are failing kids, comics as a medium is not. Kids are reading lots and lots and lots of comics these days. They’re just not reading the same kinds of comics that their nerd parents did. Raina’s books, Kazu’s books, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile, the Ninjago graphic novels, Paul Pope’s Battling Boy, the Holm siblings’ BabyMouse, Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl – they’ve all made appearances on the New York Times Bestsellers List. Try finding a copy of any one of those at your local library. Mostly likely you can’t because it’s checked out. If you do, it will look like it’s been through a washing machine because so many kids have read it.
My daughter’s been a Wonder Woman devotee for much longer than she’s been a Raina Telgemeier devotee. She’s loved Wonder Woman for years, since before she could properly pronounce “Wonder Woman.” My daughter watches the Wonder Woman-centric episodes of the Justice League cartoon over and over. She dressed up as Wonder Woman for Halloween last year. She built a little Wonder Woman figure out of a paper cup and googly eyes.
I have to tell you – as Asselin details in her article – it is hard to find age-appropriate Wonder Woman comics for a second grader. There’s the Justice League Adventures series from a few years back, and those reprints of the Super Friends comic from the late 70’s and early 80’s. There are also books that are “comics-ish”: Ralph Cosentino’s gorgeous picture book and the Capstone early readers. But that’s about it. Not a lot, and most of it is old, made before my daughter was born.
There’s nothing for the future, no Wonder Woman kids’ comic for my daughter to look forward to. But that’s fine, because I know for a fact that Raina’s working on her next book.
Wonder Woman may not be there for my daughter, but Raina Telgemeier certainly will.
My friend and brother-in-law Luke is making his first comic! He asked me to help him along the process, and we’ve decided to post our interactions here.
In case you missed it, here are the previous posts in this series:
Luke recently sent me the plot summary of his first four chapters. He built it using the Post-It method I described in episode one. Here’s what he came up with, followed by my notes:
by Luke Chaya
Set in alternate universe of humans/humanoid/monsters
A city at the base of a mountain, not particularly modern but overtly crowded with housing apartments atop each other like building blocks. While overlooking a great expanse leading to the ocean, there remains many a dark alley and hidden spaces amidst the city. From one of these dark corners our character is moaning in pain but from what it is not clear. As the eyes adjust to the darkened room, we come to realize our character is in a small back room of a popular ‘opium’ den.
A young lady comes in to tend to our character from time to time but activity outside the room continues to grow as there is screaming and shouting coming from the streets. The city is being set afire by an army. The young lady is unable to lift our character to safety and he is unable to even pick himself up. It is here we see a large bandage covering his forehead and other areas of his body, injuries sustained from an attack.
The flames have now reached the small room and the young lady is unable to stay without injury as embers begin to singe her clothes. She reluctantly leaves, tears down her face, to safety. The entire city is aflame with many citizens trapped inside and all who’ve survived without homes.
The arm remains at the base of the city, overlooking what’s left of the city. Panning over the faces of the soldiers we see not all are human but a mix of humanoids and monsters. Two sentinels return from the interior of the city to the army’s leader. Heads bowed down, both sentinels shake their head negatively but as to what we’re not clear of yet. The army’s leader then turns away and the soldiers follow.
Returning to the small room, we see mostly burnt and collapsed beams but a small sign that our character has survived the fire without harm. The young lady now has returned but with an elder gentleman with blackened hands and cloaked face. Together they pull the young man from the rubble, still unable to stand but alive, taking him away from the city.
The young man’s previous injuries are being tended to and the bandage covering his forehead is taken off to be cleaned, revealing a large scar at the center of his brow. The elder is surprised by this and places his hand over it. His blackened hands begin to change in hue as patterns emerge from the dark and change shape, receding to expose a pattern of an eye in the palm of the elder’s hand. The elder then pulls back the cloak to reveal his face, a third eye in same space where the young man’s scar exists.
A ship in open sea.
The army’s leader meditating in his private room, awakens with the realization the young man is still alive . Soldiers are instructing to return to the burnt city to finish the job.
The young man begins to regain consciousness but only to the intense pain as the opium is no longer in his system. His memory fragmented we see just little glimpses of what lead to his attack and injury. The pain so immense from the injuries and withdrawal the young man is unable to speak. The young lady reaches for the drug/pipe to aid his pain but the elder gently motions for her to let him be. They both quietly sit there as the young man writhes in agony.
We see many days pass from the vantage point of outside this modest wooden home along the walls of a secluded valley. The only activity is daily chores handled by the young lady and elder.
The young man is now able to stand on his own, ventures out from the home for the first time to see daylight. That evening there is a modest dinner with the three eating in silence.
At night, the elder sits outside the house as the youths are asleep inside. The soldiers from the ship have tracked the young man to this house and confront the elder. The elder stands, not allowing the soldiers to enter and search the house. A fight ensues with the elder’s third eye now open and the color from his blackened hands now covering his entire being. The young man and lady exit the house to see the elder has killed the three soldiers but not before seeing his altered state. We see the elder shift back to this normal self but the third eye remains. The young man collapses in shock.
Inside the house we see a series of esoteric tools and talismans. The elder is now seen huddled over a black-stone pouring water, making ink. The elder is shirtless, and we can see far more markings than previously seen, moving and changing shape atop his skin. Once finished, the elder then turns around, picking up one of the tools and begins tattooing the young man’s chest. (the style in tattooing I’m referencing here is traditional Japanse, tebori). Close up of the young man’s face, we see resolution and calm.
The ceremony is complete and the young man is meditating alone inside the house. We pan in to the see the details of the tattoo but what we notice is the pigment is now fading and is being absorbed by the body to where no mark can be seen.
The following morning the young man is given provisions and is sent off, leaving the young lady and elder.
Congratulations on starting your comic! You should feel good about the time and effort you’ve put in so far. Many, many people dream of making a comic book. Few ever actually put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
What you’ve sent me is essentially the first act of your story. You introduce us to the world and the main characters. Through the elder, you give a preview of what the future may hold for your protagonist. You’ve also set up the central conflict between your protagonist and the army.
It’s very clear that you’re a visual person. Even with these short paragraphs, I can clearly see how you want this story to look. Not every story is meant to be a graphic novel, but yours certainly is.
You asked if you’re on the right track. Overall, you are. You might be giving a little too much detail for a plot summary, but that’s not one of the main issues I want you to focus on.
For your next revision, concentrate on these two things:
First, make your protagonist active. When I finished reading Chapter 1, I wasn’t sure if the young woman was supposed to be the main character or the injured young man. Protagonists must be active. Your protagonist is not.
For most of the piece, he’s injured and almost inanimate. The young lady, the elder, and the antagonist are all much, much more active than the protagonist. This can’t be.
By the end of the first act, we need a clear sense of the protagonist’s deepest desire. We need to have seen a call to action, what folks refer to as a spark or an inciting incident. This is an event that turns the protagonist’s world upside down. This is Bruce Wayne’s parents getting killed, Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive spider, Buzz Lightyear landing on Andy’s bed.
We also need to see the protagonist’s response to that call to action. That’s what sets the second act in motion. All of this requires an active protagonist.
I’m not entirely sure what your call to action is. It could be the fight that caused the protagonist’s injury, the one that happened before the story begins. Or it could be the introduction of the elder. If it’s the first, it needs to be included in the story. If it’s the second, we need to see the protagonist’s response to the elder. Almost always, the protagonist resists the call to action by ignoring it, or running away from it, or compromising with it. That’s what we do in real life, right? Nobody wants to leave their comfort zone.
Bruce Wayne compromises by trying to fight crime without dressing up like a bat. Woody ignores by pretending everything’s going to stay the same after Buzz’s arrival. Peter Parker runs away by becoming a performer who only cares about money, the exact opposite of a superhero. You have to show us your protagonist’s struggle with his call to action.
Now, the protagonist’s activity doesn’t have to be entirely physical. It can be in his thoughts, in his words, in small and subtle actions. Other characters can be more physically active, but the greatest emotional movement must belong to the protagonist. He must experience the strongest emotions throughout the first act. That’s how we know he’s the protagonist. That’s how we know where to put our hearts.
Second, give more information. When it comes to withholding information, you have to walk this fine line. You must intrigue without confusing.
You want to raise questions in the minds of your readers because that’s what keeps us reading. In Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy, a whole host of questions compels us to the last page. Will Wolf get his comeuppance? What’s wrong with the children of the Shining People? What *really* happened to all the magic in the world? And most importantly, will Oscar ever rise above other people’s low expectations of him?
You want to hide, but you don’t want to hide so much that your readers question what questions they’re supposed to ask.
I can tell you have good instincts in this department. However, in the intrigue/confusion balance, you’re erring on the side of confusion. Not by much, mind you, but we do need a little more.
Think hard about what more information you should reveal. This may or may not help: Think of your protagonist as a new friend. What basic information would you need to feel attached to him, to feel like inviting him out for coffee to learn more? Give that information in the first act, but nothing more.
That’s it. Next time you send this along, please give me a revised first act and a first draft of the second act. As always, let me know if you have any questions!
This past Tuesday, I got tweets and texts from folks saying that I was on Jeopardy. Clearly they were mistaken– I am completely unqualified to be on Jeopardy unless they limited it to comics- and 80′s-cartoon-related categories. (And even then, Jesse Hamm and Jerzy Drozd would wipe the floor with me.)
Then a friend sent me a screenshot:
That’s just NUTS.
This past July, First Second Books released The Shadow Hero, a graphic novel written by me and drawn by the amazing Sonny Liew. Together, we tell the story of the (arguably) first Asian American superhero.
Lots has happened since then. The Shadow Hero stayed on the New York Times bestsellers list for a whole month! The Green Turtle, our main character, even got his own action figure from Fresh Monkey Fiction!
During the six months prior to The Shadow Hero’s debut, I wrote seven essays for Tor.com. In case you missed it, here they are:
My friend and brother-in-law Luke is making his first comic! He asked me to help him along the process, and we’ve decided to post our interactions here.
In case you missed it, here’s how we got started:
Luke’s been at it for about a week now. Here’s our latest exchange.
Well, the outline isn’t quite finished yet but I’ve amassed a sizable collection of post-it notes with different ideas or plot-points on them. Obviously there are more ideas than can fit, I think, into the outline but will keep at it and hopefully have a first draft for you soon. A few questions came up during this process that I’d like to ask now.
Given that I’m far more a visual person than a literary one, I’m constantly imagining how these things will be drawn and what style of drawing will best serve the story. Throughout the years due to the different jobs I’ve taken on I’ve never fixed myself to a single style of drawing. And while my preference is for darker imagery, I am capable of drawing both pretty and cute things too. Perhaps this is too early in the process to be making any decisions but how much visualization do you do while writing the story? And how much of these early ‘visual ideas’ actually play out to the final outcome? I guess another question I have is more on the pragmatic side is whether I will be able to keep consistent the style of drawing throughout the process and do I pick a style that’s efficient to match the limited time I may have.
So I’ve attached a few examples of drawings that I’ve done recently for my kids as they are now getting into super-heroes. I do my part to share with them the characters that I grew up on both from the US and Japan. And given my time is limited with a fulltime job, wife, and a kids, I’ve started to go to bed much earlier so I can wake up at 4-5am to work on this with complete silence and focus. This gives me roughly an hour to 2-hours before the kids wake up. I’ve found that when I try to work at night I’ve got too much on my mind built up from the day and when I’m able to get up super early, it’s like I pushed the reset button on my brain and things move along much smoother.
Will be in touch soon but would love to know your thoughts on my questions as I progress on the writing portion.
Sounds like you’ve got your comics-making factory in gear! That’s awesome, but make sure the habit you’re establishing is sustainable in the long-term. Waking up at 4-5am every morning is pretty rough. Ask your wife to keep you accountable. Give yourself predetermined breaks during the week – don’t wake up that early every morning! You ever read this book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg? It’s all about making new habits for yourself. One of his suggestions is to attach a reward to your new habit. For instance, if you’re trying to get yourself to workout, give yourself a smoothie after each successful workout. Your brain will start associating pleasure with the habit, making it more likely for the habit to stick.
Whatever you choose, remember that art is a long haul. Have the support in place to get you to the end.
Also, I hear you about working at night. I’m not 22 years old any more.
Now for the other stuff you asked about:
Sketches during the outlining process. Doing sketches can definitely help in the outlining process, especially for visual people. Sketches, especially sketches of entire scenes rather than individual characters, can trigger plot ideas. However, building an outline is still a words-based process. If you’re sketching, give yourself a sketching time limit. Don’t spend too much time making a detailed sketch. The bulk of your time should be spent on the words of the outline.
Here’s my cockamamie theory about all this:
Unless you’re Jason Shiga, your stories are going to be sequential. First this happens, then this happens, then this happens. Words are sequential, pictures are not. With words, your brain has to process the first word before it moves onto the next. With pictures, your brain can do a random access. It can jump from one spot to another in whichever direction it chooses.
When we make comics, we’re getting something inherently random access – pictures – to act sequential access. That’s why Jessica Abel and Matt Madden refer to making comics as “writing pictures.”
By writing an outline, you’re forcing your visual brain to think sequentially. You aren’t just hammering out the plot of your story, you’re also prepping your brain to do the hard work of breaking your story into sequential panels.
Drawing style. Given your subject matter, I think a darker tone would be appropriate. Even beyond that, though, this is your first comic. Do it in a style that’s “native” to you so you can put your energy in other places, like story structure and character design and panel composition. Give yourself home court advantage for your first game. I know you, man, and “pretty and cute” is definitely not your home court.
Consistency. This is something that I struggle with. No matter how hard I try to prevent it, my characters always change as my stories progress. This one’s nose gets a little longer, that one’s head gets a little more square. It drives me crazy, and sometimes I end up redrawing early pages to get them to match the later ones.
There are a couple of things I do to mitigate this. First, I draw model sheets for all my major characters. This is something they do in the animation industry to get all the animators to draw the same.
A model sheet is a page that shows a full body front view of a character, a full body side view, and a few of his/her most common facial expressions. Here’s one I did for Prime Baby:
I keep these taped up by my desk as I draw.
Second, when I design my characters, I think of them as the letters of an alphabet. You can tell that an A is an A and a B is a B because their designs are so distinct. You can write them kind of messy, you can write them in different fonts, and you’ll still be able to tell them apart.
I try to do the same thing with my comics’ characters. I give each a few distinguishing characteristics – a nose shape, a hairstyle, something – so that even if I’m having a bad drawing day the reader will still be able to tell my characters apart from one another.
This might be why superheroes work so well in comics. Pointy ears and a utility belt means Batman regardless of the artist’s style. Bulky and green means the Hulk. Tiara and lasso means Wonder Woman.
Osamu Tezuka is a master of this. Most of his stories are not about superheroes (as an aside, I consider the Mighty Atom a superhero) but he still applies this comic-characters-as-letters ethic to his designs. With all of his stories, you can tell who’s who even in silhouette.
All that said, consistency is still something I struggle with. With my first comic, my characters and style changed wildly from the first page to the last. I imagine the same will be true for you. This is okay, though. The primary point of this comic is your growth as a cartoonist.
Also, maybe consistency in comics is overrated. Comic books aren’t animation. Ever read The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar? That dude is proudly, purposefully inconsistent, but you never get lost. His comics are heartfelt and beautiful.
Finally, thanks for sending those drawings to liven up the posts. It’s been a while since we drew together– I’d forgotten what an amazing artist you are! Can’t wait to see your art in something sequential!
My friend Luke and I could not be more different. He’s got full sleeve tattoos. My arms are as unblemished as a newborn baby’s butt. He sports a stylish goatee. I can’t grow connectors (the hair that connects your mustache to your beard) to save my life. He’s really into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it shows in his build. I’m really into watching cartoons on Netflix, and it shows in my build.
But we do share three things in common:
- We married into the same gene pool. (Our wives are sisters.)
- We both love comic books.
- We both have Asian fathers who disapproved of our love of comic books.
Luke and I are children of the eighties. We grew up reading the same stories – Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Todd MacFarlane’s Spider-man. We discovered the wider, more diverse world of American independent comics at around the same age. But despite being a lifelong comics fan and a gifted artist, Luke hasn’t yet made a serious attempt at making a comic.
Luke’s always been a creative person. He currently runs his own line of men’s jewelry. But lately, his childhood love of comics has been calling. A story idea popped into his head and won’t leave him alone. He e-mailed me to ask what he should do next.
I love working with other comic book creators, in part because I learn so much in the process. That’s why I joined the faculty of Hamline University’s MFA Program.
Luke’s project sounded interesting. I asked him if he’d be willing to work with me in public, so other folks could see what the development of a comics creator looks like. I knew I was asking a lot. The creative process is so intensely personal. To expose it to strangers, especially when you’re just starting out, is more than intimidating.
But Luke agreed — he’s nothing if not brave. I guess all those tattoos aren’t for nothing.
So here’s how it’s going to work. Periodically, Luke is going to e-mail me his work-in-progress. I’m going to review it and give him notes, similar to what my editors do for me. I’ll also give him assignments, things that will help him get his comic done, or improve his work, or both.
Then I’ll publish our exchanges here, for you all to see. If you have anything to add, please chime in in the comments section below.
Now let’s get started! Without further ado, here’s Luke’s first e-mail to me:
I wanted to approach you about being a mentor to me in producing my own comic from the ground up. In my younger days I made many attempts to draw comics but without a developed storyline that resulted in mostly action sequences. Now that I’m older with wife and kids, I’d like to revisit this dream to produce something that reflects my experiences, interests and most importantly a final product that I can share with my family. I believe my drafting skills are adequate but most importantly I want to tell a good story and is why I’m approaching you about.
I have a basic idea of elements that I’d like to include but I’m not sure how to begin putting these parts together. I’d like to follow a similar story arc as Lone Wolf & Cub of revenge/redemption, but in a world of monsters/creatures. The main character is a martial arts student on the cusp of becoming a master, but is betrayed and framed for the downfall of his school. It’s on this journey for revenge that he evolves through each experience/challenge/battle that he faces.
The idea was sparked by a term coined in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community, “Creonte”. It’s a name that has been adopted to represent or mean ‘traitor’ in the worst way. What I find interesting about this label is that the circumstances are not always so clear or clean as to what constitutes a creonte. The character is named this but over the course of the story, we may relook at what aspects are true about this character and how it’s not entirely black and white.
I know this is not a small request but any help would mean a great deal to me. Thanks.
First, this is awesome! I’m so glad you’re taking the first step in making a comic book! “Creonte” sounds like an interesting concept with rich possibilities.
But first things first. Making a comic book is a difficult, time-consuming task. It’ll take a lot out of you. I sometimes tell people that if you want to make a comic, you have to give up all your TV and half your friends. You really have to be disciplined. You have to force yourself into certain habits, because halfway through a project you’re going to feel like quitting. We all do. Habits are automatic and will get your through these times.
When Toyota designs a new car, they don’t just design the car, they also design the factory that makes the car. You have to do the same thing. You’re not just making a comic, you’re making a way of life that supports making comics. Your life is the comics-making factory. You need to come up with a writing/drawing habit and stick to it. Set aside time on a weekly or even daily basis to work on your comic. Get your family, especially your wife, to buy into it and keep you accountable. This can be an hour every evening after your kids go to sleep, an hour every other morning before you go to work, three hours two times a week, whatever works for you. And for the first year at least, you have to be a zealot about this. Eventually, your habit will become a part of you. It’ll just be the shape of your life, and even when things disrupt it, your life will return to its comics-making shape when the disruption is over.
But in the beginning, be a zealot.
Next, you need to write a plot summary (or outline) of your story. This is a description of every major incident that happens in your story. You’re not worried about pretty language or dialog here. You just want to get your ideas down and organize them into a satisfying structure.
You’ll notice, if you’ve read American Born Chinese, that the final book differs significantly from the plot summary. The plot summary ultimately will guide, but not restrict, your writing. It’s like a road map, but you’re allowed to go off-road. We’ll talk more about how to write the actual story from the plot summary when the time comes.
It’s going to take several passes to get your plot summary right, so don’t worry if you feel like flushing your first draft down the toilet when you’re finished with it. There’s a reason people sometimes call the first draft the “vomit pass.”
There are lots of ways of writing a plot summary. For you, because you mentioned that you have a bunch of elements that you want to put together. I would suggest using the Post-It method. Here’s what you do:
- Write down your story beats on Post-It notes, one beat per Post-It. What’s a story beat? It’s just something that happens. It can be a verbal exchange between two characters, or a fight, or a kiss, or a discovery, or a revelation that a character has in the quiet of her head. One per Post-It. Your desk should be covered in Post-Its when you’re done. It’s okay to put every crazy thought that comes to your mind on a Post-It. Not all of them are going to make it into the plot summary.
- Arrange your story beats (i.e. Post-Its) into a three act structure. What’s a three act structure? I’m going to recommend a book that I kind of hate: Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need is about screenwriting, but many of his principles can translate to comics. I’m recommending it because he gives a concise, understandable explanation of three act structure. Snyder describes the structure beneath most stories we tell in the West, whether it’s through books or comics or film. I hate Save the Cat because it’s so formulaic, so paint-by-the-numbers. If you fully embrace everything Snyder says, your stories will end up stiff and predictable and lifeless. Save the Cat is a great place to begin a conversation about story structure, but it’s not a great place to end. It is definitely NOT the last book on any kind of writing you’ll ever need.
- Write a plot summary based on your Post-Its.
So that’s it for now: (1) Create a habit, (2) read Save the Cat, and (3) write a first draft of a plot summary. E-mail me when you’re done and we’ll go from there!
This is gonna be awesome!