Columns / Business

Are Graphic Novels in Your Future?

Maria Piscopo

No question, graphic novels continue to gain currency in the publishing industry. More and more colleges are including cartooning in their curricula. Yet for many creative professionals, the process of creating a graphic novel is unclear. For some publishers, children’s books provide a benchmark for creating visual narratives but what more do you need to know to bring a graphic novel to a publisher? We asked a range of industry professionals—some in business for many years, some just starting out—and selected these talented artists to help answer these questions. Thank you to the artists who assisted with this column:

•    Kazu Kibuishi, full-time comic-book artist living in Los Angeles to pursue entertainment industry work.

•    Ross MacDonald, illustrator, comic-book artist, children’s book artist and contributing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

•    James Sturm, comic and graphic novel artist with work translated into several languages, including “Best Graphic Novel of 2001” by Time magazine. Sturm is the director at The Center for Cartoon Studies.

•    Marshall Vandruff, freelance illustrator since 1980 with clients including MAD magazine, Hanna-Barbera, Warner Brothers, Dark Horse Comics, and seminar instructor at Comic-Con, Blizzard Entertainment, Rockstar San Diego and Disneyland.

CA: If the sketchbooks of my students have a tale to tell, this is a timely topic. In your experience, what is the best and most successful approach to creating a graphic novel concept? 

Kazu Kibuishi: I can’t say there is a best approach to this, but what I do is keep a backlog of concepts that I think would be neat to see and then wait until I have a story that fits the concept. The idea behind Amulet, where two kids move into an old puzzle maker’s house and discover a giant underground labyrinth, is one I had for many years before I finally decided to produce it as a graphic novel. When I decided to tackle it, I had some context for a story; I used my experiences of helping my family out during a rocky financial period as the basis for what happens to the characters. The concept and the story came together right around the time that Scholastic Books was looking to publish something in this vein, and I realized it would be a good fit.

Ross MacDonald: I’m working on a graphic novel project now. I also have a regular gig with Virginia Quarterly Review doing a one-page comic, and I do comics here and there for other magazines and newspapers. They tend to be political humor and/or social commentary mostly. Creating a concept depends on what you are doing—single comics or novels.

I would sketch stuff like crazy all the time for concepts, if you just need to pull together loose bits of ideas. But be careful of falling in love with the drawing! It is a lot easier to cut text than drawings. If the project you are working on is story driven, then I would start with the words. I write everything out, specifically the description of the action in each panel. From there I can sketch some action drawings and then go back and fill in the text.

Since I have to come up with a regular comic for Virginia Quarterly Review, as the deadline approaches I start writing down lines. I then find the art after I have the story. If you can write out your concept, describing the action and then turn the words into pictures then you honor the story, which is what graphic novels are about, the emphasis being on novel.

James Sturm: The best approach in my opinion is one driven by a sense of urgency to first, have something to say, and second, the desire to express it in comics.

CA: Once an artist has a solid concept, how do you present graphic novels to potential publishers?

Marshall Vandruff: With a graphic novel, until an artist has the trust of a publisher, the best way is to simply produce the work as an “ashcan” or mini-comic, which is a self-published copy with no color. Essentially, it’s a portfolio piece that can be turned into a product and it doesn’t have to be finished. It simply has to be good enough to compel the publisher to pay attention to your talent and skill.

Sturm: The best step is to begin making the comic. Making a comic is not like trying to produce a movie—no need for producers or equipment. Just sit down with paper and pencil or pen and ink and get to work. It’s a labor-intensive process, and I do not place too much value on concepts. Concepts will morph through the process.

As a creator, I want to submit as much of my book as possible so the editor or publisher knows what they are buying. If I sell a “concept” and the concept changes while in-progress—the work does take on a life of its own—it could create trouble with the publisher.

Making mini-comics and attending conventions and expos like APE (Alternative Press Expo), MOCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art expo) and SPX (Small Press Expo) are a great way for young cartoonists to get their work out there and connect with the industry. Also, some publishers deal only with agents, others you can approach directly.

MacDonald: You don’t need to get too detailed. A children’s picture book is like a really simplified graphic novel. I know a lot of book editors, and they tell me nothing is worse than someone who brings in a finished book! You do not illustrate an entire book and then go sell it. An editor knows how to work with words—always start with the story. Write out as much as you can and then do some character sketches. The best presentation is the complete story outline, some character sketches, maybe a double-page spread and then take one part of the story and completely illustrate it-maybe something from the middle of the story where there is a very dramatic moment.

CA: What recommendations would you make to an artist looking to move into cartoons or graphic novels?

Kibuishi: Draw a lot. Find any excuse to do it. It can never be stated enough. Use every bit of spare time to draw cartoons and comics to develop a natural skill for the craft, and find any avenue for presenting it to an audience. A personal Web site is a great place to start. Eventually, if you're focused enough, it will turn into something.

Vandruff: I’d boil it down to three things: First, know what’s out there—look, read and pay attention to the market. The risk of that is that a constant diet of current and popular work can lead to rehashing clichés. The great old masters like Winsor McCay, George Herriman and Harvey Kurtzman offer treasure chests of great old stuff that can inspire great new stuff.

Second, master the craft. The writer’s craft of visual storytelling, narrative flow based on cause and effect, reversals, building tension to climaxes, the artist’s craft of inventing figures from imagination, and composing pictures to evoke emotion and mood. Those are classic disciplines that worthy teachers offer in abundance and that worthy graphic novelists master as the foundations of their careers.

Third, network at the conventions, especially the San Diego Comic-Con. It's more crowded than a Tokyo subway, but it's where everyone in the industry is—underneath one roof. Most of my students with careers in comics made their most important connections at Comic-Con. And along with the networking, it’s an incredible one-week city of resources for graphic novelists.

A career in comics can be difficult. The pay starts low, and the work is intense. Most graphic novelists pursue it because they love the medium, and they succeed because they have stories to tell that work best not as radio, novels, animations or films, but as panels on pages.

MacDonald: You need to understand the marriage of text and art, so go get a piece of text and illustrate it. Get a newspaper story or magazine story and do your own illustrations and give yourself real-life deadlines. Take the New York Times Op-Ed section. For some of these cartoon or comics projects, you would get the story in the morning with art due in the afternoon. Even monthly publications can only give you a week or so from idea to artwork. If you flake off on a deadline, you will never get work again from that client so practice meeting deadlines as well.

A good illustration makes me want to find out more—what is going on? What just happened? Where did this come from? There is a tremendously important connection between the text and the illustration. It is more than great style, great color. You need to be able to make a piece of text come to life. When you get that, you can get the work. ca

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