Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

Digital artwork of a cow mascot over a colored-in balloon letter word of 'SAWGUST'

I Completed a Monthly Challenge!
For the month of August, I pledged to ‘rough’ 48 pages. Roughing a comic means to start drawing in the figures and backgrounds of each panel. Roughs are typically more polished than thumbnails, but they aren’t necessarily polished. As I went, I colored in typography supplied by Sally Charette, one block for each day I completed. The cow mascot, SAWgustus, was created and drawn by Adrean Clark. I even won an ‘Auggie’ – a casual award for participating.

How Many Comic Roughs Can I Get Done in a Month?
As it turns out, 48 individual roughed pages in 24 spreads is a reasonable first benchmark for me. These aren’t ready to ship at all, by any means, but I have a solid start to a zine I might be able to sell at Geek Girl Con coming up in November. Probably not full-color or fully complete, but it’s exciting to think about having a short story available when normally all I sell are one-off illustrations and charms and things like that. Check out my progress below.

Digital artwork of a sketch of Lyrat, a bandit who wears a beanie and a jumpsuit.

I did some explorations of character designs as I went, but they needed adjustment within the story, so I’m glad I didn’t get too polished too quickly. I think I’ll leave my other character designs like this in the future. A little amorphous until they need to be solidified.

Digital artwork of various cover ideas, including some typographical explorations, some character art, the Amphiox monster, eggs, and random junk in the ocean.

I even had some time to experiment with cover designs.

Now what I’m sitting on is a base for the rest of the comic. I don’t think I can get a full-color comic inked and printed by November, but a black and white one would be possible. I definitely want to take an appropriate amount of time with inking so that I don’t have to re-do that. I also don’t want to commit to color too early and use a color-key to help me make good decisions as I polish off the rest of this comic before the year ends.

Many thanks to the SAW community for the great space to post rough progress and catalogue my thoughts as I was creating this!

What’s Next?
I have the following steps to get through as I continue honing this project and turning it into a little comic for my portfolio.

  1. Test Reading: Two readers have tested my comic and written a short story summarizing what they think the story is about. I’ll be reviewing their thoughts and incorporating changes to the story and characters based on what they thought. Some of the comic is still too ambiguous at this stage.
  2. Rough Revisions: I’ve shuffled the spreads into an order from least-favorite spread to most-favorite spread. I’ll be revising them with fresh rough artwork
  3. Value Studies R2: Roughs are a great spot to pause and see if my values have changed from my initial studies. They also inform whether my compositions are still working or not.
  4. Color Studies: Roughs are also a great spot to try out color schemes and see what will fit for the entire story, or if I need to adjust particular compositions.
  5. Inking: This will likely happen in a few steps but I haven’t thought through them fully enough to deliberate what those steps are.
  6. Coloring: This, too, will have its own series of steps in a process. Probably something similar to how I color smaller artwork.

Care to read more?

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

I Completed a Monthly Challenge!For the month of August, I pledged to 'rough' 48 pages. Roughing a comic means to start drawing in the figures and backgrounds of each panel. Roughs are typically more polished than thumbnails, but they aren't necessarily polished. As I...

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

How to Draw a Whole New WorldOn August 15th, I was halfway through a self-appointed monthly comics challenge to create rough art for a 48-page short fantasy story. I'd been lenient with my goals, imagining that most of my time would be spent designing the environment...

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

A Break from the Webcomic DoldrumsI’ve been working hard on Warlock’d, but not in any capacity ready for public release. There is a lot of editing to be done on it (and has been done on it) and it gets overwhelming on a day-to-day basis. One issue has been that I’m...

Want to chat about this?

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Digital sketch of a comic page containing the image of a dilapidated seaside shack, as well as panels depicting a roughly-drawn character suiting up for some sort of task.

How to Draw a Whole New World
On August 15th, I was halfway through a self-appointed monthly comics challenge to create rough art for a 48-page short fantasy story. I’d been lenient with my goals, imagining that most of my time would be spent designing the environment of the story. The sorts of things I set out to draw (airships, motorcycles, tanks, other vehicles and things like houses, mechanical garbage, and other waste) seemed very difficult because I had never rendered anything like them before.

I’m pleased to say, I underestimated myself. I now have a rough setting for this short, silly action story.

Digital sketch of an airship village filled with various vehicles and junk. The humans are not yet drawn in, but there will be a lot of them and they'll make it look even messier.

In addition to the house above, I also have a mobile village of airships. They set down roots where they can, but the condition of the world itself causes these people to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Little roving villages like this are excellent at scavenging. They’ve taken all the refuse left over from a world-engulfing war and turned it into housing, transportation, farming, and more. While I can’t imagine it’s pleasant to have everything torn away by natural disasters, these are people who will come back and re-scavenge what they can, but also find new useful things dredged up from the ocean depths.

Digital sketch of an airship being open for boarding and then rising up into the air with other aircraft.

Designing this large airship presented two challenges: How do I make a big central vehicle believable, but also function in the layout in a way that makes sense? How do I convey that this was once an industrial and military vehicle retrofitted to become mobile housing? I looked up futuristic concepts of airships as well as the aircraft used to cart other aircraft around.

Since characters are leaving the scene, I wanted them to run from left to right, up the airship ramp. Otherwise they’ll look like they’re arriving into the airship. The motion of left-to-right feels more like exiting. Which meant, in previous scenes, the airship needs to face our left.

In a situation with more resources or higher stakes, I could have explored other methods of quickly boarding a mass of people onto an airship. This would have required redrawing scenes I’d already roughed in. For the sake of keeping a personal learning project going, I limited exploration of this airship design and proceeded to other parts of the setting. I’m hoping that by adding people in the next round of drawing, I can really convey the scale of this thing.

Digital sketch of an underground basement, filled with trash. There's a rough stocky character featured in it.

This basement was a fun exercise in pointing the viewer’s eyes to specific spots, where I will later add more characters. Also love the idea of putting so much random, odd details in that the reader might pause and look at this image more carefully, instead of glossing over it like readers normally do in comics.

Digital artwork of a beach strewn with junk, while some sort of cryptid-like snake monster swims off in the background.

This is going to be the final page and interior liner of the short story. Drawing junk feels so intimidating until I actually start looking up photographic reference and typing prompts into an AI image generator. Then it becomes oddly soothing, almost addictive. Can’t stop drawing junk!!

Comics Tip

Staging Tactics
The direction from which characters enter and exit panels can add or detract storytelling value to each panel. The ways characters are situated near each other can simultaneously add depth to their story relationship as well as allow the audience to keep track of their relationship to each other in a scene. A lot of how readers perceive comics depends on the language they are reading and which direction the words flow in an order that makes sense. This was something I was thinking about as I focused on my environment design for this short comic.

The English language reads left to right. English readers are going to perceive the writing and the artwork based on how it’s laid out. Elements on the left side of a panel are going to be perceived first, followed by elements on the right side of the panel.

Digital sketch of a man entering from the left on a comic panel.

Directionally, elements traveling from left to right may feel faster to the English reader, more fresh and new. When a character walks in from the left side of a panel it feels more like they are there for the first time.

Digital sketch of a man entering from the right on a comic panel.

A character walking in from the right side of a panel feels like they’re returning to the scene from elsewhere because they are walking against the direction of reading English words.

Digital sketch of two men entering a comic panel at the same time, each from a different direction.

When two characters approach each other in the scene, the reader may experience a slight bias towards the one on the left because that is the first character they perceive. The character approaching from the right is going against the flow of reading, which gives the character a feeling of blocking, antagonism. When elements are introduced in a scene, we tend to prioritize the first element we see, often preferring it to additional elements.

DIgital sketch of two people sitting and having a conversation. In the second panel there is a dramatic closeup.

Additionally, comics readers do not fully perceive images as they read. They read the text, and then they observe the image peripherally. If two characters are sitting side by side, then the characters need to maintain that same relationship throughout the scene, even if they get up and walk around.

Digital sketch of two people sitting and chatting. In the second panel, it's hard to tell who's speaking because the character positions have been flipped.

Otherwise, the reader may append the wrong speech bubble to the wrong character and become confused, snapping out of the story. This applies to stage left and stage right concepts rather than literal positioning of the characters in the scene, and why the 180 rule is a good thing to keep in mind. Avoid flipping the positions of characters arbitrarily, unless there is a clear transition between them that shows where they’re moving in relation to each other, or where the camera is moving.

Check out comics from other languages to see how their layouts differ. Japanese comics, reading right-to-left, use different conventions from English comics for how they introduce characters and settings. Sometimes comics in any language use strong visual elements to help the reader find their way through more unconventional layouts, too.

 

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Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

I Completed a Monthly Challenge!For the month of August, I pledged to 'rough' 48 pages. Roughing a comic means to start drawing in the figures and backgrounds of each panel. Roughs are typically more polished than thumbnails, but they aren't necessarily polished. As I...

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

How to Draw a Whole New WorldOn August 15th, I was halfway through a self-appointed monthly comics challenge to create rough art for a 48-page short fantasy story. I'd been lenient with my goals, imagining that most of my time would be spent designing the environment...

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

A Break from the Webcomic DoldrumsI’ve been working hard on Warlock’d, but not in any capacity ready for public release. There is a lot of editing to be done on it (and has been done on it) and it gets overwhelming on a day-to-day basis. One issue has been that I’m...

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Writing is Like…

Writing is Like…

Digital Comic about how weird writing is. Transcript is in blog post.

Just What Am I Doing With All These Phonetic Marks, Anyway?
I’ve been deep in the documents lately (hence the break in blog update schedule two weeks ago). A few different projects are being juggled with not much, visually, to show for them. Each one feels endless and hopeless. So, I designed a short project — a one-page diary comic — to give me that dopamine burst of finishing something. I also wanted to try out a couple of new stylizations in my art and I think they are fine. This and the rest of my creative struggles are perfectly fine fodder for future blogs, but for now, I leave this one thought abstracting the whole process altogether. I know I need help, but it feels so egotistical to ask my loved ones to read my work.

 


 

Comic Transcript:
This is a one-page digital comic with three panels. The first panel is of the author/illustrator in a gray hoodie covered with silver stars. They hold a pencil aloft. It sparks with colorful little stars.

Narration: Writing is like…

Panel 2: “Hello!” bursts out in 3D yellow letters. “Let me put vivid hallucinations directly into your brain!” These words meander through a psychedelic landscape of pink, blue, green, and yellow chaos, featuring an old-timey Saturn drawing; stars; a half-seal, half-pelican creature named Norman wearing a dapper hat and cane; a peeled banana; cheese; and a bucket full of pink slime. The panel ends with a very, very sharp pencil poised to poke into someone’s ear.

Panel 3: The author, in real life, demands that their partner, Devin, “Experience an emotion!” while threatening their ear with the pencil. Devin cowers over the manuscript. “I feel it! I feel it. wagh,” he says.

Comics Tip

A Little Bit Every Day
Writing and drawing are habits. The act of writing and drawing is more important than the results of writing and drawing, what with revisions and edits. When I first started writing, I thought I had to write at the speed at which I would read a story, and in the order that the story happened as well. This would lead to getting down large blocks of writing in a single day. I had so many Chapter 1’s and Prologues on floppy disks.

These were immaculately edited, as well. What was happening was, I would write while an idea was fresh. Upon returning after a full day of school, I would read what I had written. As I read my own work, I would judge the word choice and cadence, tweaking and editing as I went. Before I knew it, my free time was used up, and I would blame my lack of personal time for lack of progress on the writing. Fast forward past school, and various graduations, and even a lucky life where I don’t have to log a big block of hours every day — Somehow, more available time, and a flexible schedule, wasn’t resulting in more writing being done.

Hmm!

Here’s what’s working for me: Even if all I write in one day is one sentence, that’s enough. If I’m in a bad mood before I start writing, or during writing, I must write until I feel good again. If this means skipping scenes or swapping projects, so be it. I write, I win. It took years of practice, but now, every day, I put at least one new sentence down. I use other techniques to keep projects fresh and on track, but this is the biggest tool in my arsenal so far.

So far this works for 90% of the project, and then the last 10% feels like another 90% on top of that. I suppose I fall in love with the project and want it to be ‘open’ because it feels good to work on. It has led me to investigate shorter finish lines when it comes to my aesthetics and what counts as ‘complete.’

For instance, I’m not sure how much ‘value’ shading is adding for the time I have to spend doing it. At least, not on every panel. Maybe for special panels. Flat, simple coloring and compositions reliant on that are what I’m going to experiment with.

It would be nice to find more simplifications like this for my writing. To do that, I must practice. To practice, I must return to writing every day…Even a little bit is better than nothing.

 

Care to read more?

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

I Completed a Monthly Challenge!For the month of August, I pledged to 'rough' 48 pages. Roughing a comic means to start drawing in the figures and backgrounds of each panel. Roughs are typically more polished than thumbnails, but they aren't necessarily polished. As I...

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

How to Draw a Whole New WorldOn August 15th, I was halfway through a self-appointed monthly comics challenge to create rough art for a 48-page short fantasy story. I'd been lenient with my goals, imagining that most of my time would be spent designing the environment...

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

A Break from the Webcomic DoldrumsI’ve been working hard on Warlock’d, but not in any capacity ready for public release. There is a lot of editing to be done on it (and has been done on it) and it gets overwhelming on a day-to-day basis. One issue has been that I’m...

Want to chat about this?

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?

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Complete, but Not Finished

I Completed a Monthly Challenge!For the month of August, I pledged to 'rough' 48 pages. Roughing a comic means to start drawing in the figures and backgrounds of each panel. Roughs are typically more polished than thumbnails, but they aren't necessarily polished. As I...

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

Amphiox Monthly Challenge: Setting the Stage

How to Draw a Whole New WorldOn August 15th, I was halfway through a self-appointed monthly comics challenge to create rough art for a 48-page short fantasy story. I'd been lenient with my goals, imagining that most of my time would be spent designing the environment...

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

Amphiox Comic – August Challenge Prep

A Break from the Webcomic DoldrumsI’ve been working hard on Warlock’d, but not in any capacity ready for public release. There is a lot of editing to be done on it (and has been done on it) and it gets overwhelming on a day-to-day basis. One issue has been that I’m...

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?

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