The secrets to comic book creation are at your fingertips! This comprehensive guide details the steps to becoming a hit comic book maker—from creating compelling characters and illustrations to getting published and marketing a finished product—and is full of insights from world-famous artists from such companies as DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse. In addition to highlighting tips from seasoned pros, inspiring success stories from young artists are sprinkled throughout along with a resource list of potential publishers to help you hit the ground running.
So, You Want to Be a Comic Book Artist? also features in-depth chapters on adapting a storyline for video games and movies, using social media to promote a finished product, and self-publishing your own comic. Whether you’re just starting out or have been drawing comics for years, this book will get you where you want to go.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
So, You Want to Be a Comic Book Artist?
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A COMIC BOOK ARTIST?
You are sitting at your very own table at a comics convention. Behind you is a huge sign with your name written across it. Everything is quiet and seems to be moving in slo-mo. Suddenly—CRACK!—the doors at the end of the hall burst open, and a huge crowd of people rushes in, straight toward you. They all want you to sign the latest copy of your comic book creation. Some of them are even dressed up as your characters!
“Wow,” you think as you whip out your pen and begin signing, “This is unreal, dude.”
Have you ever imagined creating your own comic? With just a few tools and materials, a little guidance, some effort, and a whole bunch of imagination, you can!
I attend comic book conventions whenever I can. Artist friends send me samples of their work for feedback. As a young artist who’s just starting out in comics, you’ll want to have someone look at your work. It might be a brother or sister, a friend, or a teacher. Eventually, you’ll have the chance to show your work to comics professionals, and they’ll want to see that your love of comics shines on the page.
COMICS: A WORK OF ART?
Your parents may threaten to throw your comics in the trash, but you guard them with your life and make your friends swear to keep them in mint condition whenever they borrow them. Sound familiar? Even in the days of downloads and apps, comics fans still like to buy, read, and collect the genuine article right from our local comics shops. As with all forms of art, comics are looked at in different ways by different kinds of people. Some people (not me or you!) consider comics to be a low form of art. Others pay lots of money to collect rare issues of popular comics. It all depends on how you look at it.
Art historians often classify comics as pop art (short for popular art). Pop art is found everywhere in modern culture and mass media: in computer-rendered art for video games, cartoons, Japanese animated movies (anime), magazine illustrations, comic strips, and advertisements.
Did you ever think that you could change the world with a comic book? Just because comics are considered pop art doesn’t mean that you can’t make a serious statement with them. Some comics are so good that you could claim them as fine art or literature. Countless comic book artists have been recognized and awarded for groundbreaking achievements. Comics have their own language, just like music and film, for conveying emotion, theme, style, and story. They can persuade, entertain, and inform. And just like music and film, comics have the ability to transform the way people think.
If you’re going to be a comic book artist, it’s important to know that comic books are a form of sequential art. This definition includes graphic novels, manga (Japanese comic books), and comic strips. In this book, I’ll often refer to all these forms of sequential art as comics, but it’s helpful to understand some differences between them.
Comic books: You know what they are when you see them—Superman, Thor, Bakuman, and the list goes on. But, if you want to get technical, comic books come in every style and format you can imagine. Traditional comic books are usually twenty-two to thirty-two pages long and about 61/2 inches wide by 101/2 inches high, but this can vary a little . . . or a lot. Some comic books are oversize magazines that stretch tall, while others are tiny and more horizontal. Some take years to complete, and some are done in twenty-four hours.
Comic strips: Though we get our news by computer more and more each day, you should still know what a comic strip is. They’re usually just a few panels long, in a horizontal format, and tell a quick story or joke. Some famous comic strips are Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts. Years ago, comic strips like Little Nemo in Slumberland, Prince Valiant, and Tarzan took up a whole page in the newspaper. Nowadays, we’d probably call those web comics or eComics, and they might never be published on paper. If you go to a comics publisher’s website, you can usually find plenty of eComics in lots of different genres and art styles. It’s great inspiration.
Sequential art, a.k.a. comics, is a series of repetitious drawings of characters that are used to tell a story. There’s a passage of time, and a beginning, middle, and end. Will Eisner uses the phrase in his book Comics and Sequential Art (W. W. Norton, 2008).
Graphic novels: Typically, squarebound comics close to or over one hundred pages are called graphic novels (or trade paperbacks). They focus on one story or main character. Sometimes this is a collection of a bunch of comics in one book, and sometimes it’s an original book all by itself. Koge-Donbo’s Kamichama Karin ran in a magazine called Nakayoshi before it was made into collections. Craig Thompson’s 672-page Habibi was originally published all at once in book form. Don’t drop that one on your foot!
Zines: Zines are inexpensively produced, self-published publications. The best part about zines is that they can cover just about anything—your zine can include everything from comics, articles, and reviews to poetry and photos. Because zines are so cheap to make, they are a great way to showcase your talents, get feedback on your work from friends, and experiment with new ideas.
Manga: Manga means “comic” in Japanese. Manga characters can be magical creatures, pets, sports teams, or ordinary kids off on an extraordinary adventure. Sometimes manga are split into shonen (for boys) and shojo (for girls) in a Japanese comic shop, but you can read what you like, of course. Some of the most popular manga, like Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist, One Piece, and Case Closed starring Detective Conan, have become animated series in Japan and around the world.
BRYAN LEE O’MALLEY
From: London, Ontario, Canada
Job: Full-time cartoonist
His Comic: Scott Pilgrim
What was your first or favorite comic when you were younger?
My favorite comic was X-Men! I started reading it in grade five and would read it on and off through high school. It had a lot of imagination and the most compelling characters. It felt like it took place in a real, vibrant, exciting world.
Scott Pilgrim © Bryan Lee O’Malley
Kim Pine © Bryan Lee O’Malley
When did you know you wanted to make comics?
I always made comics. I still have comics from when I was three years old (my mom saved them). I really never considered doing anything else, except a brief period when I wanted to be a “real writer” when I was about seventeen to eighteen. I even used to make comics for school assignments whenever my teachers would allow it.
What kinds of things inspire your comic book creations?
Everything! Books (fiction and nonfiction), comics (especially old, weird Japanese ones), movies, music, video games, friends, family, life, walking down the street.
What tools do you use to create your comics?
I use a mix of computer stuff and old-school stuff. Lately I do my sketching on the computer, then print it out and finish it up using a very old-school technique: dipping a brush in ink. It seems like something from long ago, and it took me a long time to learn, but I really like how it looks.
What are great ways for kids to create comics right now?
The great thing about comics is that you can use any tool that happens to be lying around. When I was a kid, I used markers, pencil crayons, ballpoint pens, lined paper, the margins of my school notes, whatever was around. The great thing about being a kid is you have plenty of time to draw during class! Don’t tell anyone I told you that.
How do you use technology to create comics?
Like I said, I’ve been sketching on the computer lately. I have a tablet pen. It makes sketching easy, because you can correct mistakes in a snap. It seems to free my mind from worry.
Why is telling a story with comics important to you?
I think comics are the best! They’re cheap and quick to produce, and it’s a great way to get ideas directly out of your head and into the world. You can tell any kind of story you want, and your characters can be anything. There are no limits except your imagination. When I was a kid, my friends and I would make comics just to make each other laugh. Now I try to make lots of people laugh.
Making a good comic is like making a delicious pizza: There are a few essential ingredients, and each one has a specific role. A pizza is a pizza because it has a crust, sauce, and cheese, and comics have certain ingredients that make them comics: panels, balloons, and captions, to name a few. If you mix these ingredients together in the right balance, you’ll end up with an intriguing comic. If you leave out one or two of the major ingredients, it will show in the final product. The basic ingredients for a cool comic go a little something like this:
Panels: Panels are the squares or rectangles of art in a comic that give your story structure. Each panel shows some kind of progression in your story, and that’s what makes a comic sequential. Panels can be of any size or shape as long as the art fits inside. Often, there are about six panels per page. Though you don’t have to use panels to tell a comics story, most comic book illustrators use them to distinguish one scene from the next. Andi Watson’s comic Glister sometimes uses characters, like a snake, to frame the panel. A cool trick, and it gives the story another layer, too.
Gutters: The gutters are the white margins around a page’s edge and the white spaces between the panels. Usually panels don’t butt up against each other or go right to the edge of the page. When they do go to the edge of a page, it’s called a bleed.
Balloons: Not hot-air balloons. Not birthday balloons. Word balloons illustrate characters’ conversations, loud noises, and thoughts. Comics artists usually keep the number of words per balloon small—twenty-five to forty. New artists sometimes fill their panels with so much art, there’s no room for balloons, so remember to leave a little space. Think of a panel like your room at home. You have space for your extravagant solar-powered jetpack and your rocket-fueled surfboard . . . but is there also room for essentials like a school backpack, winter clothes, a desk, and a bed?
Captions: Captions are like balloons. They help tell the story, but they usually do not show you the conversation between characters. They are rectangular or square in shape and typically hold a narrator’s words, describe a scene, or establish a time period in the comic. They’re the spaces the comics writer uses to add info to the story instead of Batman or Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Greg Heffley talking. Sometimes captions are used for a flashback, when one of the characters is remembering events that happened already.
A comics character’s first appearance isn’t always in his own book. Superman debuted in Action Comics #1, and Batman in Detective Comics #27. Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15, and Iron Man in Tales of Suspense #39.
Title: The title is what you’re going to call your comic. Try to pick a title that gives the reader a hint about the comic, but leaves them wanting more as well. If you name your comic Summer Camp Superheroes, you want a fan to be asking, “What’s a Summer Camp Superhero?” Then, you want that person to flip through your comic and join your characters on their adventures. Some people title their comics after their main character, like Superman. Marvel Comics likes to add an adjective, like The Mighty Thor, The Uncanny X-Men, and The Invincible Iron Man. Your comic book title can appear anywhere on the cover, but it’s usually in the top-third portion, or tier, of the page.
The X factor: There’s one more ingredient you’ll need to create an extraordinary comic: imagination. It’s the X factor—the magic you and you alone bring to a story—that’s going to make it memorable. What makes the Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Star Wars films and books so amazing? It’s not just the special effects or the actors, but the auteur behind it—the person with a deliberate, creative vision. Just like J. K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, and George Lucas, you’re going to be the auteur behind your comic. How you execute your story and work with the comic book ingredients is what’s going to set your masterpiece apart.
THE WORLD OF COMICS AWAITS YOU
Okay, you’ve decided that you enjoy reading comics so much that you want to create some of your own. You have dozens of ideas for characters and stories bursting like popcorn in your head. You’ve started to doodle or sketch some of these characters on scraps of paper. This is just the beginning! You’re about to start your own studio, learn about the tools of the trade, and get some important hints for creating your stories. You’re entering the exciting world of comics, and there’s no turning back!
Education: Undergraduate student at The Center for Cartoon
Her Comic: untitled
What are your favorite comic books?
Three books that I would suggest to anyone, anytime—justification being “you have to read this it’s SO GOOD”—are Serenity Rose, Muhyo and Roji’s Bureau of Supernatural Investigations, and Bone. I like to read long stories that focus on the characters, especially if they’re set in a cool, well-built world.
Why do you like creating comics?
I love to write stories, and I love to draw. Put those together, and you get comics! I think you get the closest to the creator’s vision of their world and characters through comics, which is really cool.
Where do you get the inspiration for your creations?
Mostly while listening to music or taking long walks outside, but inspiration is all over the place! Inspiration is a funny thing in that it can hit you anywhere, anytime, and it especially likes the shower when there’s no paper around.
What are your favorite tools to use when writing and drawing comics?
Piles of notebooks, mechanical pencils in .05 and .07 leads, and my favorite nibs. G-nibs, crow quills, and globe quills are my weapons of choice, but recently I’ve been working on getting better with a brush. For paper, I use smooth Bristol (preferably recycled). And tea! Lots of herbal teas. That’s totally a tool.
Does technology help you create?
I do as much as I can (which is most things) on paper, but sometimes there are effects you can only get with a computer, and if you mess up a panel so badly you can’t fix it on the original paper, you can redraw it on a separate piece, and just drop it in on the computer.
How do you think making comics could help you in other creative careers?
Comics are actually used in many different jobs. When you plot out a TV show or a movie, it’s done through thumbnails, just like in comics! Or if you’re a scrapbooker, making comics will teach you about page layouts and design, which both carry over into your scrapbook.
What are your plans for the future?
I’d like to get my stories out there and maybe even have people like them! Best case scenario (and the one I’m shooting for) is to be able to survive solely on my comics and draw them for the rest of my life. That’s a dream come true.
What’s the best advice you can give your peers?
Write EVERYTHING down, even the silly ideas you come up with at 3 AM. Keep a notebook by your bed. Don’t ever tell yourself, “Oh, I’m not good enough to do this story yet.” Just do it! And if you end up in a creative-mess-everything-I-do-is-terrible-art slump, plow your way through it! Tell yourself that you are awesome, and everything you do is awesome, and ride that wave of awesome right out of that art block.
What People are Saying About This
"Any young cartoonist dreaming of breaking into the field of comics and graphic novels must have this book! It's a treasure trove of useful information and solid cartooning principles and practices. Understanding and developing story ideas and plot, creating characters, laying out pages, self-publishing, understanding the comics publishing business, and interviews with novice and professional cartoonists—I wish I had this book when I was a kid! Parents will find this a valuable resource to promote their child's burgeoning interest in this exciting career. And teachers will find this an invaluable resource for their students' self-directed learning opportunities."
—Richard Jenkins, author of Comics In Your Curriculum
"I love the range of guidance given to kids but also the range of “real” artists who contribute to the book. Their varied styles and “degrees of sophistication” make room for all sorts of dreamers! It is a rich resource for aspiring comic artists!
—Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, author of The Differentiated Classroom
"So, You Want to Be a Comic-Book Artist? is a wonderful place to begin a journey into making comics! Phil takes his personal experience in the comics industry and combines it with his passion for teaching. This is a must read for anyone interested in not only creating, but also understanding sequential art."
—Keith Wood, art director, Oni Press
"This is the lively, engrossing guide that I wish I had when I was an isolated country boy writing and drawing my own comics. Now young creators can see that there are more opportunities and outlets than ever to tell and share their stories! Phil Amara has assembled an engaging book that shows kids that creating comics isn't necessarily easy as pie—but the form and the industry aren't nearly as impenetrable as some may think. Let creativity reign! This book is a great how-to primer on comics for kids—or an entry-level introduction to the form and the industry for anyone who wonders how comics are put together! Unleash your inner superhero!"
—Phil Simon, editor, Dark Horse Comics
"So You Want to Be a Comic Book Artist? is everything the ten-year-old me wanted! Perfect for daydreamers, four-color optimists, and doers of daring deeds, this book will give kids and kids-at-heart the tools to make their imaginations soar. Insightful and accessible, Amara has created more than just a how-to book, it’s a love letter to a truly American art form—comics!"
—Matthew Cody, author of Powerless
I find myself cheering this book at nearly every paragraph. The straightforward text and the structure of the presentation could make So, You Want to Be a Comic Book Artist? the standard text for teaching comics in school.
—Jon Bogdanove, comics artist, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Dark Horse Comics