How I make a graphic novel

I mentioned I am working on a graphic novel for Chronicle Books called Earthling!. It’s been created as a kids graphic novel, but I hope adults will find it entertaining to read as well. It’s due out, well, soonish. As in the sooner I get it all done the sooner it will be out. I will post a bit about the graphic novel (GN) from time to time, and more often as we get near a release. I’ve been asked by quite a few people to talk about how I developed this and what my process is. And here it is.

BELOW – development art – Earthling!

Earthling! is a sci-fi story (surprise, surprise) and I don’t want to give too much of the story away – yet. It’s a long story. About 230 pages or so. It’s a big story and the epic nature means a lot of locations, characters and action.

It’s based on an idea I had for an animated short while I was in the UCLA graduate animation program. But my friend Tim Rummel, who also produced my first animated short called The Thing with No Head, felt it had the seeds of a much bigger story in it. He talked me into writing and rewriting it and developing it as a graphic novel. Tim and I work really well together and have similar takes on issues of story and character and he helped me keep it moving before an agent decided to pick it up and get behind it. Denis Kitchen and John Lind believed in it enough to get it in front of a wonderful editor who was interested in graphic novels. And she bought it, after a few discussions and a revision to the synopsis/outline.

My production process has five phases –

1. write the entire story in comic/screenplay format so it is easy to review and revise
2. revise manuscript with editor until it is considered in final form
3. draw page roughs (revise script to meet the needs of the final format if needed)
4. place roughs into Adobe Illustrator to place text (review by editor)
5. final line art and painting (Photoshop)

By writing the entire story out first in script format, we are able to make sure the story works. That the big issues resonate and the characters are as rich as possible. And it makes it easy for editors and others not accustomed to GN’s and comics to review it. But editors need to understand that the script MAY change when I start drawing. That the script has to be in service to the final illustrated format.

BELOW – page roughs

Now The Details –
Working with my editor at Chronicle Books, I wrote the entire story out in screenplay format. Well, a sort of comic-screenplay hi-brid format. The point being anyone could pick it up and read the STORY and PLOT and understand it. They didn’t need to know about comics, or graphic novels or panels on a page. They could read and comment on the STORY. That’s the important part isn’t it? No matter what format the material is in.

We edited the manuscript/script many, many times. And for those who dislike the editing process, Earthling! got better each time. Tim and I would talk through notes and he would give me feedback as well.

The structure simplified over time and with my editor’s help I concentrated on the elements that didn’t make sense or support the story. During this time I did some rough character designs, and did lots of sketches of location and elements in the story that are important.The editorial folks got to see these.

A bit of a side note here – I wouldn’t rccmnd this method to GN projects where the author and artist are different. Because I am both drawing and writing it, and I have some experience with panel style stories, I tried to write it to take advantage of ‘the page’ so to speak. And I know my limits as an artist, what I do well (character acting, funny characters) and what I don’t do well (serious looking sci-fi technology). So I can write the story while seeing it on the page and knowing (hopefully) how I would be drawing the action.

So after many months of editing and revisions we arrived at a final manuscript. At least a manuscript that the editor felt made sense from a story and character perspective. Or she was tired of seeing my revisions! ;)

At this point I started doing roughs. I draw roughs on 11 x 17 paper, with a full spread (two pages). The book is approx 6 x 8. So I can do these rough/thumbnails in the right dimension…or almost the right size.

I draw each page 2 or three times, usually. Sometimes I can nail a simple page in a single rough. But often I end up drawing several versions, redraw some panels, or change the composition of the page and redraw. Then in batches of 20 or 30 pages, I scan them in. Then I can pick and choose from the various roughs to create a ‘final’ rough page.

So any given page may be made up of roughs from three or four different pieces of paper. I get to pick what worked best and craft a page I like.

This ‘rough’ is now in high resolution and slightly larger than print size.

Then I create a print resolution (300 dpi) Photoshop file, and import that into an Adobe Illustrator file that is set up for print (proper bleeds, ETC) and add the balloons and type. Sometimes I find a problem where the art didn’t leave enough room for the type and I have to draw a new rough, and scan in, or make some changes in Photoshop and reimport the revised rough drawing into Adobe Illustrator. When all the type is in, this Adobe Illustrator file can be exported as a PDF for the publisher to review. So they have rough art AND final copy to review.

BELOW – page roughs and panel breakdowns

And upon final sign off, I will import the type layer back into the high res Photoshop file with the ‘original’ high resolution rough drawing and will draw and paint the final art on a new layer.

It’s important to note that in the drawing phase, the script will change again. This is what makes a graphic novel unique compared to a prose book. The manuscript you write still has to work on a drawn page. It’s similar to a film in that the final product is not the final script. It’s the film that comes from it.

BELOW – early character design

During the art phase, I’ve rearranged character’s dialogue, I cut one character entirely, I have cut scenes and written new dialogue to end a chapter or compliment a drawing that pushed the story in a slightly different way. Sometimes my writing just came up short when paired with the art and some dramatic scenes ended up needing far less dialogue once the art was there to carry meaning.

The script ultimately has to mesh with the drawings, composition and visual pace set on the page. I feel it is a back-n-forth process, not a writer writing a final script that can never be altered. Much easier to do when the writer is also the artist and creator.

BELOW – early character designs

And that’s where this story ends. I am a little over halfway done with the roughs. The editor and I will be talking about a few notes in the next week or so. I’ve drawn ‘final art’ on a few pages, just to make sure it’s all working (file size, resolution and how it visually reads when printed out at 100% size).

Earthling! is moving along. Just a few more months of sleepless nights and it will be nearing a point when I can say it’s almost done!

About mfearing

This entry was posted in animated short, animation, animation art, character design, Chronicle Books, Earthling!, Photoshop Painting, Portland Oregon, The Thing with No Head, UCLA and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to How I make a graphic novel

  1. Bridget McBride says:

    I love that you posted this process. Thanks for sharing and good luck! Earthlings! looks awesome, can’t wait to see it.

    • mfearing says:

      Thanks. Glad it was useful and/or interesting. I’ll be doing plenty of announcing when this book is done. I hope to even have some giveaways of prints and a signed book or two on here.
      All the best.

  2. Régis says:

    Hey Mark,

    How’s it going! Great, great post! In fact, it was just what I needed as I’m thinking of publishing some a graphic novel work myself. You can check a few chapters on my new site as a preview, but I’m thinking that it would be a good idea to eventually publish it… So, yeah, I’d love to get back in touch and find out how to find a publisher for my work and get that ball rolling.

    I will definitely check out your book when it hits stores. Seriously, let me know! :)

    • mfearing says:

      Great to hear from you. Glad to hear you are developing an original project! Happy to help. Just drop me an email. It took a lot of twists and turns, and even me considering self publishing Earthling! before it sold.
      But finding an agent who likes your concept/work/project is very helpful.

  3. Rita says:

    Huzzah! This is illuminating, and I look forward to reading more about it–as well as seeing the final product! :D It’s particularly illuminating to hear how the back and forth works when one is both writer and artist.

    Thanks for sharing!!

  4. Robin says:

    Thanks, this is terrific to feel part of, er, without doing any of the work!

  5. Anthony McKnight says:

    Thanks mate, am just starting doodling with a graphic novel myself, this was a big help! Good luck with yours

  6. Colin Oliva says:

    Great post man, very helpful. I am thinking about writting a graphic novel myself, got an idea and a story line along with a handful of characters. I know its a grind and I just hope I can see it through to the end. Your posts are very helpful and I’ll look for Earthlings when it comes out man…Good luck!

    • mfearing says:

      Thanks. I’m not really into step-by-step guides as I believe each person can bring a different approach that will work best for them .I’m just sharing how I do it and my reasons. I’m glad they are helpful and informative to you. Good luck on your project. Make it as good as you can at every stage. Story, writing, drawing and color and you’ll do great.

  7. Hey Mark! Very good, helpful post; thanks much for the info. It’s interesting to see that your story is still relatively malleable, even in latter stages. I’m not used to writing in script format; if I’m not roughing it out, I have no idea where the page breaks are, and I feel like I have to know where the page breaks are, so that one scene is completed at a page end, or a mood is maintained on a spread, or a visual surprise is on a page turn instead of in the bottom right hand corner, etc. Guess it just takes practice to visualize the frames and pages without drawing them, just like anything else… I googled something about “magic silver bullets for lazy clueless dawdlers trying to write a graphic novel,” and your post popped up first! Either your blog is hugely widely read, or Google knows I’m stalking you.

    • mfearing says:

      Well, I never said I do it the right way! As for page turn issues, yes, those can be tough. But I’d rather have a solid story and manipulate it slightly to keep that working, than build a story to fit page turns. Sort of the old – start with the best quality and than adjust. The story has to come first. Than as you break it down and draw it out you can edit what you need to in any direction.

  8. Yeah, that makes complete sense, thanks. Big-picture story first, storytelling later. I also found a helpful post on Tim Stout’s blog about script formatting, and a commenter mentions this fantastic FREE software called Celtx (sorry if I’m the only blog reader not already familiar with this) that does your formatting for you as you type. It also has pre-formatted character sheets for back stories, etc. It really simplifies things! The greatest invention I’ve found since the amazing inflatable-spare-tire-in-a-can, when I had a flat and no jack. Your advice might seem obvious, but it’s what I needed!

    • mfearing says:

      I think we always look for some tool, some methodology that will make the work easier. That’s human nature. And there are some tools and techniques that do make the process easier. But I think we find a system that works for ourselves and may not be terribly useful to others. And of course it all comes down to just doing it. Write the darn story. Make it work. Solve the problems. Gotta take the pain!

  9. Pingback: How I Made a Graphic Novel – Part 2? « Illustration

  10. rorua says:

    Hi Mark, you can’t believe how helpful your post has been / will be. I tried for years to write a graphic novel and finally had to accept that I can’t write…fiction. But it turns out that doesn’t mean I can’t tell a story – it just has to have actually happened for me to be able to write it. I have nearly finished the “screenplay” now. And both agents I sent a sample page to loved it.
    However, I had absolutely no idea how to approach the mechanics of the comic-strip format page as I’d never done it to a publishable standard and I knew I had a lot of trial and error ahead. I think you may have saved me about a year’s worth of messing around. I’m extremely grateful for that. By the way, how come you put roughs into the computer? Why is that better than putting a hand-drawn finished character / scene in? Surely nothing can beat the sensitivity of a pen in the hand? I think I’m missing something.
    Thanks again – Roisin

    • mfearing says:

      I’m glad you found it useful. I hesitate from doing How-To posts because I think everyone finds a ‘best’ way to work that fits their own habits. So I try and share the Big Idea part of how I work.
      As for your question about using pen and ink, I think a traditional materials ate a great way to go. I’ve been working digitally a long time now, and find that I enjoy it and like the results. I’ve created a custom ink pen in Photoshop that acts just how I like it. But doing the drawing with a dip pen and Higgins ink is a great way to go. Just personal preference.

  11. rorua says:

    Thanks Mark. Useful info: The pen I searched for for years and really is as exciting as I imagined is a waterproof fountain (cartridge) pen called a Carbon pen. It’s from Japan and is supplied by Cult Pens in the UK. It flows beautifully, gives a very sensitive line and is waterproof after about 2 seconds. The only drawback is that you have to use it every two or three days or it will clog. Hasn’t happened to me yet. Fantastic for on-site watercolour sketching. PS can’t wait to read your book.

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