Converting a Webcomic into a Graphic Novel Pitch

Converting a Webcomic into a Graphic Novel Pitch

Digital artwork of seven gangly goblins.

Retrofitting Dinosaurs for the Future of Humankind
RAWR! Dinosaur Friends started out as a webcomic concept, one that I wasn’t initially intending to pitch as a proper graphic novel. The first iteration was a slapdash, punk homage to the natural history museums I loved to visit as a child. The humor was derived from a style of internet humor called (sorry for the swear word on a middle-grade publishing blog) ‘shitposting’. I thought the combination of dry scientific concepts and casual style of writing would spark interest. The computer used grayscale tones so that it would be cheap to print. My computer was not able to handle brush strokes in Photoshop so I built it with vector shapes in Adobe Illustrator.

These comics were drawn with bezier curves and agony.

The first few comics were quite rough but I managed my expectations. If no one read it, that was fine. I could continue making it for my own enjoyment and that was enough. Making these comics made me feel like a small, safe child in a natural history museum. I posted it to a few comics and dinosaur forums and to my surprise, readers came out of the woodworks. I think I hit about ten notes and felt very happy.

One of the best responses to my comic was a polite inquiry about which dinosaur would be the most impressive to ride in a parade for a queen, and T. rex was a little too cliché. My response was to go for a gorgonopsid or a quezalcoatlus. Which resulted in…this.

And yes, I’m still friends with Andy Purviance, to this day. Who wouldn’t be?

A Taste of Attention, and Then: The End

This is the first comic I made that reached a larger audience than normal, to the tune of about two-thousand notes on Tumblr. I hesitate to call this ‘viral’ in an age where actual virality can rack up hundreds of thousands of interactions, but it was still an affirmation that hey, maybe something about what I was making was there, resonating with more people than I could ever know in my lifetime.

I brought my comic to an end in 2016. One factor was that I was an armchair paleontology fan and the space was increasingly hostile towards those who weren’t updated on the latest in paleontological finds, especially with anatomy. Another factor was that my comics, like much of social media that purports to be educational or historical, were being used as sources…and they most definitely were not researched enough to be considered educational. The final factor was, I felt like I was not challenging myself with the artwork or writing. The types of jokes fell into a few broad categories (Animal comparisons, simple stories that span millions of years and thus have unearned gravitas, mockery of pop cultural ideas about dinosaurs, gentle corrections of dinosaur facts, etc.). I also had better equipment than I did in my little un-air-conditioned 1-bedroom in Berkeley. I wanted to really draw some stuff and not be restricted by, well, restrictions that I had set up for myself to accommodate my unusual prior situation. I worked on a longform comic project called Warlock’d for a bit. Making a complete longform project is a lot different from rattling off one-shots every week. When I shopped Warlock’d around local publishing groups, I started to realize exactly how heavy and complex it was.

I wanted to, again, chase that high of rattling something silly off and getting a big, broad response. I was also getting more involved with my local comics and writing communities, and was being encouraged to create pitches to sell to publishers. RAWR! Dinosaur friends returned to my mind.

This was easily the most popular thing I had ever created. I understand that internet metrics are worthless, but 4000 notes must mean something, even if it’s just Tumblr.

I poked my little dinosaur comics blog with an updated, colorful version of ‘that horseshoe crab comic’, just to see what happened.

It exploded. The full-color version sits at around 14000 notes, currently. That je ne sais quoi  from six years ago must still be there. Then I checked my purchase history of when I formed a zine out of my dinosaur comics. Apparently I had sold about 500 copies of these zines. I wasn’t sure how impressive this was until I told other writers. They assured me that 500 copies is not a large number per se, until a person factors in the lack of wider distribution. Then, 500 copies is mildly impressive.

Cover of RAWR! Dinosaur Friends pitch. It displays several prehistoric creatures on a black background with a self portrait of the artist in the middle.My first attempt at rebranding, trying to keep a reference to my grayscale zine roots.

I shuffled RAWR! Dinosaur Friends, as a full-color iteration of the same anthology-type format, around to a couple of portfolio reviews. The response was that the middle-grade market currently only wants longform stories. Short stories and anthologies don’t do well. I restructured it as a large ‘story’ composed of hundreds of characters across all 15 geological eras, but still no dice. A graphic novel needs a story. It needs a main character, preferably one that 7-10 year olds can relate to. It needs a plot arc. It needs character development. It can’t be a friendlier version of a textbook for kids. Other than that, though, dinosaurs are a good, sellable topic for publishers to pick up, especially in the middle grade graphic novel space. So, what I was looking at was, small things that worked, a broad topic that worked, but an overall structure that did not work. Oh, and one small detail…

I also received firm pushback on the style of how dinosaurs speak. The compromise is to style the dinosaur speech bubbles to seem ‘screechier’ than the textbook writing. I’m not happy about this but I will do it so that parents and teachers don’t, in turn, screech at me for exposing their children to bad grammar.

Converting Short Stories into a Long Story
The other thing I set out to do was create some sort of main character for readers to follow through billions of years. I know that in most natural history textbooks, I was wont to skip to the dinosaurs. For my natural history book, I never wanted readers to feel like they needed to go find ‘the good stuff’. The whole book should be good. I talked to a comic artist and came across the concept of the ‘super-companion’, or character who experiences stuff in scicomm stories and can explain concepts to the audience. I’m not entirely sold on having a character who breaks the fourth wall to lecture the audience about themselves, but the concept as a general thing seemed do-able.

My first main character was actually the moon! I loved this concept of the moon looking down on the Earth and narrating what it saw. However, the moon’s not really a character, undergoing challenges and changing. If anything, the moon is fairly un-changing. 

I developed a new outline based on geological periods and threaded small adventures into an overarching story about hunting for T. rex through billions of years. This second character concept, Risa the Chrononaut, is meant to be an ‘audience step-in’ type of super-companion. She doesn’t turn to the audience and lecture them on anything, but she experiences situations a person could never experience in real life, such as tracking dinosaurs in the wild. She’s cloaked in a helmet so that the reader can imagine themselves more easily as her. She knows some things about natural history, but not everything. Risa does research on-the-fly with a magic glove that contains tools real scientists use in the field. She has her assumptions challenged as she progresses through a story about traveling through time and helping animals. Most of the assumptions I gave to her are ones I imagine some readers might have, such as mistaking ichthyosaurus and pterosaurs for dinosaurs (they aren’t!). She also learns that T. rex is a very late dinosaur which didn’t necessarily interact with a lot of the more well-known dinosaurs!

My non-storytelling goal was to make a book that causes kids to read through, and care about, natural history outside of just the millions of years that contained dinosaurs. My first outline focused on promising a T. rex in hopes that kids would understand the early geological periods were stepping stones towards the T. rex. When bounced off a trusted friend, this strategy resulted in the sensation of ‘suffering through’ the early periods to get to the dinosaurs. After the point of the story where Risa finds the T. rex, the rest of her story also suffers this way, reading like an extra-long epilogue as the age of apes peters out and what’s left over is humanity. That’s not fair to amazing time periods like the Cambrian, the Carboniferous, and the Paleogene. There are so many cool creatures to spot and takeaways that are applicable to modern human life. It would also negate all the science fiction worldbuilding work I was doing to make it so that kid’s didn’t skip to the dinosaurs!

This told me a few things. One, a T. rex is a compelling goal for my character. However, I don’t have to oversell a T. rex, since it’s naturally intriguing. My solution for draft 2 of my outline was to give Risa a greater variety of goals related to specific time periods. When I think about nature I think about survival stories. Each time period should challenge Risa to survive. I shared my revised outline with my former reader and she felt like there were improvements to the overall flow.

I passed the outline off to a different trusted reader for a fresh take, and the notes on reader interest were quite different. Instead of big lulls in the story where there were no dinosaurs, instead there were little spikes and falls of interest. This is probably a better way to tell a story, to have ebbs and flows of tension.

What next?
I’m going to write a rough draft based on this second outline, but I’m still going to seek out readers of my target audience age to see what sorts of things they like to see in stories about time travel and dinosaurs. If readers have an expectation from natural history, I want to fulfill that expectation. My plan is to have a full manuscript, twenty sample pages, and character sketches ready for a pitch. I’d love to find a publisher who is hunting for their ‘Dinosaur Book’.

 

Comics Tip

Soliciting Effective Critique with an Outline
I’ve been in a few critique groups and portfolio reviews, and one thing I’ve noticed is that outlines give me more useful one-off critique than full chapters or writing samples. Imagine: Everyone in publishing is very busy, whether it’s reading, writing, editing, or drawing. Would you have the patience to browse full stories from someone who might not be very good at writing yet? Let’s try thinking about the person on the other end of this for a second.

Critique groups are often unpaid. This means it’s a bit rude to resolutely shuffle a chapter per week to a random group of strangers. If you’re doing that, you’re better off hiring an editor. However, some groups may allow this. I avoid groups where this is the norm because it means, for every meeting, I’m reading 4-5 random chapters from ongoing stories where I might not get full context and will feel quite useless giving feedback. There are also times when someone’s long story is somehow unpleasant for me to read so that can be tricky to navigate. As a result I’m quite paranoid about making sure I value my reader’s time.

Enter the outline! A full story that requires no further context, stuffed into a bite-sized document. Now I can get feedback on important concepts such as character development, plot arcs, and settings. Nailing these upfront makes writing them out easier. I can also chunk the outline into parts to keep the workload interesting.

A good outline:
1. Immediately portrays the story’s concept.
2. Shows the main character and the arc and transformation that they go through.
3. Describes just enough of the setting to support the main character’s arc.

There are some writers who prefer to write without outlines, but they are generally already confident about their writing. I think outlines are the ideal way to share stories early, although they might not be part of everyone’s process. I get so much more out of reactions to an outline than I ever did to individual writing samples and chapters.

 

 

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock'd, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of...

Afterlife

Afterlife

The Composition that Social Media Made This piece didn't start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them...

Want to chat about this?

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Digital artwork of a proposed graphic novel cover. It's blinding magenta with glitched-out blue, green, and orange striping. Glitchy letters spell out 'TERMINAL' on top. A white marble sphinx perches on a glitchy altar. A green pixel star bears 'H. McGill' in courier new.

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!
After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock’d, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of going over budget. However, I still want to participate in the publishing community and practice pitching. I wished to design a graphic novel concept that had a target audience clearly in mind before I began production on it. Warlock’d has already been through quite a few revisions and its story structure is settled, at least for me. I also have no idea who would want to read Warlock’d besides me. I hunted for a more flexible idea, one that an editor, art director, and publisher could alter to suit a target audience.

To be honest, I’m not sure what this Venn diagram really means. It’s a visual of what my brain looked like while I was thinking.

I started with a single concept:

 

A haunted pink computer teaches a girl to let go of her childhood possessions.

 

The earliest iteration of the idea centered on a girl who had amassed a hoard of stuff: Toys she never played with anymore, old art projects, embarrassing obsessions with cartoon characters, etc.  She was distancing herself from her friends out of embarrassment that she still loved all those old, childish things. Somehow, there would be a computer that would do ghostly stuff. Perhaps it was able to move items around?

Perhaps not. The fantastical aspects of my idea felt exhausting. Whatever had possessed me to fill Warlock’d with mystical structures was plum tuckered out. I could not deal with inventing and keeping track another imaginary system for how ghosts would work. I still love the idea of ghosts and hauntings mixed in with technology, but maybe the spirit parts are less literal. Death as a metaphor for new beginnings and all that.

Another early problem was that even someone as gently enthusiastic as Marie Kondo can seriously ramp up the anxiety of a person who collects items to comfort themselves. I’m not a fan of moral judgment in stories. It’s none of my business to tell people what things they should have in their homes to bring them happiness. I still wanted the aspect of ‘letting go’ so my new concept became more broad:

 

A haunted pink computer teaches a girl to let go.

 

This broader aspect gave me more wiggle room to construct the story. There was the question of who was haunting the pink computer. Without a literal ‘ghost’, what might there be? Old files from its previous owner? That seemed fun and interesting to me. The files needed something to tie them to the main character.

What if they were her mom’s files?

Do we need yet another children’s book character with a dead mom? Not really. Death! A metaphor for new beginnings, not actual death! Since my target audience is ‘moms who will buy the book to give to their kids, particularly daughters/nonbinaries’, it seems prudent to have a mom character alive and present. Possibly even…a cool mom. I doodled a mom and her daughter. I’m going research-lite on this one so they both look kind of like me.

I was also thinking about the kids that Sylvia might encounter. I named one ‘Evie’ and the other ‘Lark’. The idea was that Sylvia would be experiencing a change or unexpected distance with her friend Evie, which would lead Sylvia to seek out friendship with a ‘scary’ kid. Evie’s transformation from friend to enemy would have been marked by her wardrobe change. I’m still into this idea, although Evie is currently less ‘evil’ and more ‘developing social skills she does not yet have’.

My first draft of an outline was something like, Sylvia gets rejected from Evie’s friend group, so she starts to get to know Lark instead, and they make a video game, and there’s some interpersonal drama, but it gets solved with boundaries. It was really complex, though. I didn’t have much room for the mom or the haunted computer. The resolution was also quite mean, with Sylvia no longer working on the game’s art assets so that Lark wasn’t feeling so bogged down by her lack of skill.

Lark got dumped into a file called ‘Sequel Fodder’. Maybe worth exploring later, but not right now. I just want a simple book that is under 200 pages. Lark alone could add about a hundred pages of subplot.

My second draft of an outline included a horrible middle school computer science teacher. ‘Sequel fodder’ was too good for him. He was immediately gone after one readthrough. That left me a cast of about five characters: Sylvia, Evie, Sylvia’s mom, Evie’s mom, and two of Evie’s new friends to represent Evie’s exploration into social spheres, away from Sylvia. Lark is on the ‘optional’ end of the cast right now and I’ll see where he fits in after I finish draft 1.

The outline, when read aloud, became confusing, because ‘Evie’ sounds a lot like ‘Sylvia’. I experimented with different character names and settled on ‘Meadow’ instead of Evie.

I also tentatively designed the pink computer. I think early 2000s computers still look futuristic today, in a fun way. We don’t get the cool candy colors anymore and I think that’s a shame.

I tried a cover mockup of the computer but it looked too much like an ‘iMac G3 user guide’. I also didn’t want to run into licensing issues, particularly with the wallpaper background or with the icon face. This ‘character’ will also undergo a few more design revisions as a result. For now it looks the way I want it to look.

I messed with the graphics and came up with some pixel art I think a 12 year old girl in 2001 would make so that the UI and display were more bespoke and less corporate.

Once I had some characters to mess around with, it was time to generate sample pages and see how they all worked together. I made a quick script as an opening chapter and laid out the following eight pages:

 

As you can see, I added Brooke and Leah, who represent Meadow’s new friend group. There is not yet much thought to either of these characters, but I imagine Leah as a socially-savvy, protective friend, whereas Brooke is a sweetheart who enables others to have fun. To Sylvia both girls will initially read as antagonistic but she will eventually realize they are legitimately cool girls. This will occur to Sylvia even if they aren’t exactly friends by the end of the story.

Some small changes according to feedback included giving Leah a hair cap and making the pillows look less like rocks. In general I’m interested in completely redrawing these pages so that the characters look like they have more structure. I also waffle between simplifying or making characters more complex-looking. Looking back at my initial sketches I think it’s probably a better idea to lean into gestural poses and simplified eyes. I like my character sketches a lot more than I liked my completed pages.

I also made a ‘wow’ spread to represent an exciting moment that happens later in the graphic novel. This one, I’m fond of, especially the technical details and the bubble letters. If you spot the Evangelion reference congratulations! You’re a nerd!!

The finished product I have in mind is something that has relatable interpersonal drama, with cinematic segments to keep things fresh. This book should be a safe space to indulge in the pleasure of gossip without hurting anyone in real life. I think it would also be neat to have some logic puzzles and real computer science thrown in. However, that requires a bit more research than what I have now. I will be querying my partner, who is a software engineer, for specifics.

What’s Next?
I’ve revised the outline and it feels solid enough to chunk into scenes. I’m writing those into a first draft of the script. I’ll reread the script with notes to let it influence how I reorganize my outline. Already I’m thinking about putting Lark back in…but I digress. I will submit the pitch packet to agents as long as I have a first draft and the test pages all done. Scary, but hopefully I learn something about it as a result!

Comics Tip

How to Make Pitch Packets
 First of all, there isn’t a universal format for pitch packets. Graphic novels have always been an odd market. I’ve seen very extravagant packets as well as very small simple ones. It depends on the editor, publisher, or agent as to what they individually want to see, but it can be hard to get that information. I think a good strategy is to check agent, editor, and publisher homepages for what formats they like. They want materials they can easily show and talk about at a meeting with interested parties.

Here is the subtle thing that I don’t think most people realize.

Forming a pitch is about quickly getting to know a project…for the creator. I don’t think pitches are for publishing entities alone. Graphic novels take years to produce and I think the pitch is the ideal way to gauge whether a project is worth investing that amount of time into. The two-sentence elevator pitch, the outline, the rough draft, the character sketches, the sample pages…that’s also for the creator to test things out and see what they like creating. I also personally feel like an organized pitch is the mark of a professional. I know that art can be legitimate and completed even when it’s messy, but when it comes to the publishing system and making sure the whole team involved can get a book at the end to sell, and then feed their families…Yeah. Being professional isn’t necessarily the fun part. Being able to follow through comes from structure and discipline. It’s about selling the idea, and then it’s about reliably following through on that idea. It’s about showing others how you will work with them, whether that’s about story structure, scripting style, drawing style, etc.

For these reasons, I think good materials to have for general external pitching include:

  1. Two-sentence summary.
  2. Five-sentence summary.
  3. One-page outline.
  4. Full outline.
  5. Sample pages (check editor/publisher/agent for which pages they want to see)
  6. Written character studies and their purpose in the story.
  7. Drawn character studies and size/silhouette comparisons.
  8. A setting study or two.
  9. A complete rough draft of the script.
  10. 50 polished pages of the script.

Nice-to-haves might include:

  1. Polished character portraits.
  2. Character lineup.
  3. Concept art of the story’s defining moments.
  4. A complete, revised 2nd or 3rd draft of the script, although be aware that editing and changes may still happen to the story!

This is all I know so far, but I hope it offers some ideas of where to get started when it comes to forming a new graphic novel.

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock'd, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of...

Afterlife

Afterlife

The Composition that Social Media Made This piece didn't start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them...

Want to chat about this?

Our Little Editors: A Paw-fully Good Zine About Pets

Our Little Editors: A Paw-fully Good Zine About Pets

Digital artwork done in the style of a 14th century illuminated manuscript piece. A small calico cat is angrily plinking away at keys on a pipe organ, while passive-aggressive flowers curl and twist up to the cat's thoughts: "Mother!!!" the cat thinks, "Leave me alone. I am composing!!". The 'M' in 'mother' is lovingly painted and guilded like a medieval capital.

Our Little Editors Zine: Out Now!
My contribution to this pet zine is based off, of course, a medieval illumination. I swapped in my own cat for the striped white creature in the original, and expanded the floral treatment into some typography hanging overhead. Originally I did this as a one-off illustration for my own amusement, but then I heard about a small zine project and knew it could live there. I expanded the design and added more flowers and typography above the organ-playing cat.

Scan of a medieval illumination featuring a white cat angrily playing a little medieval pipe organ. Intense floral designs surround the cat.Hook of hours, France 15th century.
Bodleian, MS. Douce 80, fol. 106v

This zine is full of one-page observations about our pets. It spawned from a casual Friday Zoom hangout hosted by the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW). This zine was curated by Adrean Clark and Annie Mok. 32 artists banded together to make this zine. My work is featured on page 20.

As for the title, well…That was my suggestion! Like any good hands-on editor, my cats are destructive in the kindest of ways. This zine is freely available as a pdf file.

 

Click here to download
the FREE Zine!

Comics Tip

Digital self portrait of Adrean Clark, drawn by her. It's a simple but elegant sketch of herself with thick blue lines, holding her chin with one hand and going 'HMM!'Guest Tip by:
Adrean Clark

How to Organize a Zine
As I have no experience organizing zines, I decided to ask Adrean Clark about her experience compiling pieces and organizing them into a coherent collective whole. Here is what she has to say:

“Zines are meant to be a playground for ideas. They are different from books in that they allow you to experiment at a smaller scale with a broader range of finish (from scribbles to polished art).

If you’re making the contents of your own zine, then it’s a personal relationship between you and your reader. Your focus is on communicating with your audience. Anthology zines add extra layers to this relationship. You’ll be thinking about communicating within your own work, managing the contributors, and connecting with the audience.

A good anthology zine revolves around a clear concept. It has to be something that sparks interest for potential contributors – an idea that is easily explained in one or two sentences. What makes you excited to participate in a social project? What are some common ideas that could appeal to a broad range of artists? What would be interesting for people to read?

After the concept, decide on the format. Your contributors need to know what size, dpi, and medium to work in. Be detailed as to the deadline, where to submit the finished files, etc. If there is money involved, such as printing books, sales, etc. – it is extremely important to keep that information transparent with your contributors. Pay people on time.

I strongly suggest a signed agreement between you and the contributors, so that everyone is on the same page with expectations. You will spend a lot of time outside of your own contribution in communicating with people, so think carefully about how much time you want to commit to the project. It’s better to start with smaller collections and build up your skills from there than to try and swing for the fences with a huge Kickstarter-type project.

Personally, I enjoy doing anthologies because they’re a fun way to push my own work and socialize with other artists. It’s neat to see how people interpret ideas in their own ways. At the same time one has to be attentive to the dynamics of the project. It’s ok to scale things back or change gears if something isn’t working. Chalk it up to experience, and keep making art. :)”

Adrean Clark, ASL Deaf Author, Artist, and Advocate

So there you have it! To make a zine, make the zine. And remember to communicate with everyone who pitches in.

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock'd, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of...

Afterlife

Afterlife

The Composition that Social Media Made This piece didn't start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them...

Want to chat about this?

Biscuit Mountain

Biscuit Mountain

Digital comic depicting a bicycle outing by H. and their spouse, Devin. The top graphic is an embellished ‘Biscuit Mountain’ in an arc over a man climbing a mountain of American (not British) biscuits. Panel 1 depicts H. and Devin riding their bikes under an overpass on a road lush with trees and roadside buildings. Devin: I’m not going to get the Biscuit Mountain again. Panel 2 depicts H. and Devin taking off their helmets. Devin: It is an unreasonable amount of biscuits. Panel three has H. and Devin in a restaurant. H.: What’ll you get instead? Devin: Eh… Panel 4 shows the menu. The first entry is one biscuit on a plate, labeled ‘A reasonable amount of biscuits.’ The second entry is a pile of biscuits. It’s labeled ‘Biscuit mountain.’ Panel 5 has the waiter attempting to take Devin’s order. Waiter: Hi! Can I take your ord— Devin (interrupting): Biscuit Mountain!

This is a personal diary comic about one of many bike rides to this awesome breakfast place. Every time we go to this restaurant, my partner Devin claims he will not order the Biscuit Mountain. Every time we go, Devin orders the Biscuit Mountain. The denial is part of the ritual at this point.

Most diary comics are a lot simpler than this, and possibly funnier. I wanted the reader to feel like they were on a crisp spring bike ride under an overpass with me. So, I went for that feeling. This took a lot longer than drawing talking heads but I enjoyed the environmental practice and composition challenges of rendering people inside of a restaurant.

For reference, I ducked into Google Maps and took a screenshot of the street we bike up. For privacy purposes I will not be sharing the actual screenshot. I also did not trace it or use a ‘correct’ perspective grid. This was eyeballed for my own practice.

Comics Tip

Quick and Easy Perspective Grids in Photoshop
I didn’t use ‘true’ perspective grids in this comic, but here’s how to make them quickly in Photoshop if you’re doing environment studies.

 

First, establish a horizon line in your drawing.

Next, go to the ‘Shape’ tool and pick ‘Polygon Tool’ from the options.

Set up your polygon to have these values.

When you create your polygon with the Polygon Tool, it’s going to look like a big hairy star. I’m deliberately choosing not to acknowledge any double entendre, here.

Put the polygon’s center on the horizon line and make it bigger. Instant 1-pt perspective!


For a 2-pt perspective grid, try sliding the first star off the canvas. Add a second star off the other side of the canvas, also on the same horizon line. We keep the vanishing points off to the sides of the composition to avoid a ‘warped’ look to the resulting composition.


To convert your 2-pt perspective into 3-pt perspective, add a third star and drag it off the top or bottom of your canvas.

Have fun drawing goofy buildings!

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock'd, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of...

Afterlife

Afterlife

The Composition that Social Media Made This piece didn't start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them...

Want to chat about this?

UX Testing on Comics with a Target Audience

UX Testing on Comics with a Target Audience

My goal with RAWR! Dinosaur Friends is to create informational fiction that doesn’t feel like a lecture. I want my readers to feel curious about the world. Not only that, I want them to feel equipped to explore that curiosity. In generally I’d really love to make science feel less…enthroned(?) As a static collection of facts. I also find the usual hodgepodge of ‘safe’ dinosaur facts pretty dull. Most conclusive, immutable facts we have about dinosaurs are dates and locations where their remains were found because we can never go back in time to see a living dinosaur. While I understand that a book having dated or disproven evidence is problematic, I have to ask…Where is the wonder? Where is the exploration? Science isn’t lists. Science isn’t facts. Science is an active, interactive pursuit.

When I first created RAWR! Dinosaur Friends as an armchair natural history blog, this spread on convergent evolution became quite popular. It resonated with over 2000 people. Maybe I could update the art and expand it with some sort of interactive exploration activity? Something with open-ended questions, so kids feel like they’re being engaged in a conversation, and invited to come to their own conclusions?

I updated my blog post as a full-color history concept with jokes, followed by a page of diagrams. The readers aren’t expected to form a specific answer by looking at these diagrams. The diagrams are there for comparison and maybe a little drawing practice. If someone from my target audience decided to give that a try, I would consider it a success.

I then showed these pages to my amazing writing group, the Night Writers, and esteemed scicomm author/illustrator Ellie Peterson stepped up to help! Her class of middle-schoolers was more than eager to help by looking at these spreads and writing their (hilariously candid) thoughts all over them. Thank you so much, Ellie! While Ellie’s students weren’t required to draw anything, she did ask them whether they would draw a diagram or not. Many of the responses were really cool. These kids are perceptive!


This was a really exciting and validating response! That’s all I really want readers to do, is to compare images for themselves, because scientists deal with exploring observations all the time.

No UX test (or comics creation process) is complete without at least one existential crisis. Maybe this kid was having a bad day…But, they had great notes on the other page’s bone diagrams so at least they were interested in the subject matter. Either way, it’s best for me to stay humble.

Statistics
Comments on the ‘fuzz’ joke in the opening spread:
“funny” [sic]
“Lol. :)” [sic]
“I dont know what the point of this is” [sic]

Total of 6th graders who indicated they would draw the skeletons: 3
Total of 6th graders who indicated they would not draw the skeletons: 2
Maybes on drawing the skeletons: 2
No answer on whether they would draw a skeleton or not: 5
Conclusion: When guided to these pages in an educational environment and given two options, 6th graders sometimes consider drawing dinosaur bones. Even when the 6th grader in question decided they wouldn’t draw the bones, they still wrote their observations of the bones on the page. That means readers are observing the differences in bones, which is the big thing I want readers to do with this book concept. The drawing suggestion is an extra activity for kids who really like comparing pterosaur wings to bird wings.

Grammatical corrections to dino chatspeak by 6th graders: 5
Conclusion: Pterosaurs and birds might brush up on their grammar!

What changes would I make in response to this data?
At the moment, I don’t know how I would edit my comic, because a lot of the ‘confusing layout’ notes would be solved with book binding firmly separating the pages. The speech bubbles on page two in the first spread are under review as something I should edit. The data pool was small and the comic is only a four-page sample, so I’ll try not to overcorrect. I am also going to have to revamp my original idea of making all the organisms talk in chatspeak, per a meeting with an editor who indicated I may have to rethink it and instead give them a silly typeface.

I was glad that many kids trusted their teacher enough to admit that they wouldn’t draw the diagrams because that indicated an environment where they could be honest. In general I trusted the answers they wrote. I’d have loved to see at least one attempt at drawing the diagrams, but the pages didn’t have any room for that (It’s meant to be an activity that takes place on a reader’s own paper outside of the book, anyway). If I work with an educator again, I may ask for drawing paper to be provided to see if kids actually want to draw bones or not. Sometimes a kid says ‘sure, yeah let’s do this’ but when it comes down to actually drawing they might hesitate.

My big takeaway from the UX test was that kids would, at least, interact with science in a comic format when given the environment and the materials. I can use that knowledge to help sell the concept overall of ‘interactive science’.


Also, this was the best feedback.

Comics Tip

Understanding a comic’s target audience is key to pitching it to an agent or even a publisher. Maybe a comics creator has an idea of who their readers should be, but isn’t quite sure. It’s hard to say what middle schoolers think is cool without querying the source. All sorts of things could have changed between the time someone is twelve years old and creating publishable comics.

My career as a UX/UI professional was short and depressing, but here are some of the things I learned that are helpful for parsing critical feedback.

  1. Involve the target audience as soon as possible (if there is one).
  2. Even a poorly-designed experiment is better than no experiment, but adjusting interpretations and improving experiments is key.
  3. The best way to get the most honest feedback is to not be present, personally.
  4. ‘Like’ and ‘Dislike’ are often less important than what people are specifically reacting to in the work. However, an overwhelming amount of either should be regarded as significant and allowed to influence what the project becomes.
  5. Nothing survives the audience.
  6. Data may be mathematical and immutable, but my response and proposed solutions are human and therefore subjective.

Ellie was really helpful to me when she offered to bring my work to her class because she became a neutral presenter for my work. The kids didn’t have to worry about offending or impressing me when they interacted with the comics pages. I also imagine that as their cool biology teacher, the kids involved trusted her and that also allowed them to give lots of feedback freely. As a result I have some nice talking points for when I pitch RAWR! Dinosaur Friends as a middle-grade graphic novel for publishers to pick up. I wouldn’t have had this knowledge about my specific project without her help.

Digital artwork of a pterosaur, a bird, and a bat in front of a square. The lines are blank for coloring.

If you want to be part of my next UX study, print this out, color it, post it somewhere, and tag me to come look at it. It’s licensed under CC-BY-NC 3.0.

 

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock'd, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of...

Afterlife

Afterlife

The Composition that Social Media Made This piece didn't start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them...

Want to chat about this?

Purposeful Tangents with Derek Ballard

Purposeful Tangents with Derek Ballard

What is a Tangent?
In visual art terms, a tangent is any area in a drawing where elements of the composition are interacting in a confusing or illusion-destroying manner. Cartoonists who use linework are particularly suspect to tangents, although tangents plague everyone who creates visual art. Tangents, and the avoidance of tangents, are one of the most difficult concepts to learn as a visual artist…A person only knows them when they see them, and they’re specific to the piece at hand, so what a tangent really is depends on context. Clearing up tangents is one of the steps used to make a piece simple and clear, easy to comprehend. Here is one example of a tangent that has to do with clipping a character in a composition:

Typically, only certain parts of the body can be cropped without creating a confusing tangent. The example here shows how cropping just below the shoulders and in the middle of the arm retain the clarity of the pose. However, doing something like cropping the fingers causes ambiguity — Is the hand going into something offscreen? How is the character gesturing? I also like to portray the body-chopping aspect of tangents because this one is not only visual but also heavily context-driven!

As communicators, and providers of commercial art, visual artists are beholden to avoid tangents. Once eyes are trained to look for them, tangents are everywhere! Visual artists develop habits and styles to avoid them. For the most part, the reader benefits. Business as usual, eliminate tangents, increase legibility. Exercise control over the piece, the message.

But then I get something like this in my email about some upcoming short course through SAW…

And I start wondering, am I being too deliberate with my work? Is my style causing me exquisitely angsty artistical suffering, instead of allowing me to be productive? With a sigh, I sent Tom Hart more of my money, and signed up to meet Derek Ballard, who not only has a graphic novel called CHOREOGRAPH, but whose credits include storyboards/writing on Adventure Time, Midnight Gospel, and an upcoming animated series on Netflix.

Derek comes from a strong comics background that was the gateway to his career in animation. His work was spotted at a comics gallery which led to an art test with Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time team. For our first exercise as a small group, Derek gave us big chunky sound effects and speech bubbles on a grid of panels. We were tasked with inventing a story (characters, setting, dialogue) that incorporated the speech bubbles and sound effects in their original spaces.

Here was what I filled in from the time I had to draw stuff during the zoom call:

The whole time, I was thinking about, not only the ideas of using limited repetitive graphical elements (such as daisies in a field) to imply setting beyond the panel without drawing every last detail, but also this piece of art again:

I couldn’t get over how carefree the rendering was, and how much space it implied beyond the panel as a result. So, this resulted in Pierre getting his heel messily chopped by the border of the panel. Comparing the tangent that this created to something that I’d normally consider more ‘professional’ and the difference is really interesting to me! I’ve also blocked in the white space that the field creates as a result of how I crop the character sitting there.

Would the post-Iliad adventures of Achilles gone differently if he’d simply had his weak spot cropped out of the panel? Guess I’ll write fanfiction.

The next thing we did was to generate contextless comic panels that still seemed like they were part of one story, as fast as possible, really loose and fun. I focused on making panels ‘weird’ with Canicula and doing more odd crops. Then we were instructed to draw a story that made sense with our random, contextless panels. Absolutely everyone who did this assignment had a different take on it. I’m going to assume the open-endedness was on purpose.

Here was my initial lineup of panels. The flat color backgrounds reassure me that I can totally be lazy about some panels if I need it!

After we made the panels, we were asked to shuffle panels around and see how they affected story beats, seen above.  Depending on where I put that one big dramatic ‘Ha’ coming from Canicula’s mouth, the joke landed differently. Really nice to have ‘revision’ crop up in a class. Revisions are a constant for any professional visual artist. Normally revisions are shunned by shorter, casual classes, or classes more focused on self expression and art therapy, but Derek is a pro and wanted to show us all some pro techniques for situations that pros regularly handle. I really appreciated that.

So, Should My Comics Look Scribblier?
To my ultimate discomfort, it was revealed that my comics are indeed enjoyable if I just scrawl them out and not worry about smooth lines and coloring. So I’m still sitting with that and fidgeting. I don’t want personal pride to keep me from making more comics, but…Should I toss some of my previous art standards to the wind before I commit too heavily to something that might be keeping me from completing my projects?

Quickly! I’m feeling uncomfortable! To the self-deprecation chamber! 

You may be wondering, what’s the ah, kicker in all this? Well, after the class when I set out to find the cool panel design that had inspired me to be messier again, I found out that my interpretation of this panel of Derek’s work was in total error. The full composition of that panel actually looks like this:

So yeah…The original panel art that caught my eye wasn’t cropped weirdly at all. I didn’t even perceive the original artwork correctly. I actually don’t know where my perception of this panel came from. Maybe the emailed newsletter cropped it. Maybe I looked at it on the Patreon banner. Who knows? Experimenting from a completely mis-intended crop but still coming to an interesting conclusion? You could say, I sure went on a tangent! (Tinned laugh track).

For more of Derek Ballard’s incredible comics work, check out his Patreon.

Comics Tip

When to Letter a Comic
Comics are a synthesis of words and pictures. While they can vary between the extremes of a picture book vs. a wordless ‘silent’ comic vs. a full prose book, in general: Lettering is a necessary step for making your comic legible. Knowing when and how to do it is key for a clean comics-reading experience. Working with Derek reminded me that the order a comic is composed makes a difference and depends on the limitations and circumstances involved.

As a professional letterer, I will frequently get blank pages that need the script broken up and laid out on top of the artwork. Depending on the artist and the type of job, this has varying degrees of difficulty. Some artists are better at estimating the space for letters than others. Some script edits are wordier than others. Most of the time, I can fit any text using clipping, squishing the typeface by 6%, tightening the leading, and masking shapes behind character artwork. The other times, I query the editor, who changes the text. In very rare circumstances, the edit goes back to the artist to make room for the text. It’s far easier to change the layout or the text itself first, though! My work on the Riverdale Diaries was like this.

When localizing an existing comic into another language, I won’t have as much control over the shapes of speech bubbles. It’s my job to figure out the optimal font size in lieu of hard information from the original comic letterer. Sometimes I have to edit the speech bubbles themselves, but I avoid it whenever I can. I usually do localization with an FPO (For Placement Only) 90% opacity white layer between my text and the original comic before turning off the original lettering. This way I can line up the text on top of the original letters and more closely mimic the original comic’s feel. My work on Dog Man (Hombre Perro) was like this, and so is my work on the Spanish editions of Cat Kid Comics Club.

When I letter on my own, I letter immediately after thumbnailing and creating starter panels in InDesign. I can then export the pages as templates for drawing roughs. I always know exactly how much room my letters take up and, as a bonus, I can edit them without bothering an editor. In general, text is less flexible than art to move around. By lettering first I don’t have to guess how much space the words take up — I know for sure what room I have to draw my characters and settings! My work on Warlock’d, RAWR! Dinosaur Friends, and an upcoming third pitch are all made this way. It’s easier for me since I’m the entire creative team.

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock'd, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of...

Afterlife

Afterlife

The Composition that Social Media Made This piece didn't start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them...

Want to chat about this?