Things I’ve learned so far… Part 3
Matt Badham, comic book journalist and writer, read some of my blogs a few months ago and we got chatting about the work I’ve done so far. I sent him some comics to read along with apologies like “I know they’re not perfect!” and he suggested I write a blog outlining the things I’ve learned from making two independent superhero miniseries. This is that blog. Or, at least, the third instalment of that series. See, I wrote approximately 10,000 words on the subject.
What follows are the conclusions I’ve reached or lessons I’ve learned from the last few years of making and selling Sugar Glider and Halcyon & Tenderfoot, and the few other comics I’ve been involved with. I might be wrong about these things, but they are my feelings, on collaboration, based on those experiences.
The first and second parts of the blog was a huge success - thank you to everyone who read it, shared it and gave me feedback. This one is a months later, mind. Sorry about that. I was writing comics.
Most writers either don’t want to or can’t write and draw their comics, but I find that most artists would love to both. This makes it difficult for writers to find an artist to collaborate with.
I struggled to find a collaborator when I was getting started. Most artists I approached were interested in deviating from their own work and the interested ones were put off by the scale of the projects I was suggesting. I decided to change tact. Instead of approaching artists with my ideas, I approached Gary Bainbridge with an idea for the superhero character he had drawn at a comic makers meeting. Getting an artist excited about a project they’re already invested in is a far better approach. We entered into a very equal collaboration that resulted in around 200 pages of Sugar Glider comics.
It’s a lot easier to find collaborators once you’ve made a comic that is seen as being successful.
I don’t see how offering potential collaborators a share of the profits from a project being very appealing - because you probably won’t make a profit. Going into a project as a genuine partnership with both parties investing their time, money and enthusiasm is the best way. But this is only likely to work with a collaborator at the same stage in their career as you and with the same level of enthusiasm for the project.
Your preferred collaborator will work on the project with you if they really want to. They will invest their time, money and enthusiasm if they’re excited by the project. I don’t think that paying a potential collaborator from your small amount of savings will make them more excited about the project. From my experience contracting artists for difficult projects, they’ll probably just see it as badly paid, uninspiring work.
Make sure when checking through thumbnails/artwork that you’re not just checking to see if you like the artwork. If you’ve written vague panel descriptions and only check the artwork to see if it’s nice, you might miss something important. There’s a panel in Sugar Glider issue 1 where I wrote, “Susie looks around” as the panel description and missed out ‘for clues’. When I checked the artwork, I really liked the panel Gary had drawn of Susie looking around at the reader over her shoulder. But for some reason the page didn’t flow the way it was meant to. I shrugged it off. It took me months to work out what had gone wrong.
There are some comic book pages that take a lot of revisions before the artists arrived at something that really worked. Asking for revisions isn’t something to feel bad about if the page doesn’t communicate the story to the reader. I revise the story, outline, scene breakdown and script based on feedback from the artist. If you’re going to have input into your collaborator’s work, you must welcome that input into your own work too.
When I started writing comics I tended to ask for revisions just so the artwork would match what I had imagined while writing the script. This is wrong. Decisions should be based on what’s best for the story and the reader, rather than ego and ‘how I want it to be’.
Don’t assume, like I did, that a collaborator who has never really read superhero comics will understand the atmosphere and style you’re going for when you say words like Bronze Age and Silver Age. It took a long time to nail the designs in Halcyon & Tenderfoot because I wasn’t speaking the same language as Lee Robinson. With other projects, this wouldn’t be as problematic but with something where the fee, idea and theme was very specific, it really would’ve helped to create a Pinterest board of images that evoked the spirit I was looking for. I’ve done this for a project I’m working on at the moment, and it’s also a great tool to reminding me what I’m going for and for inspiring story ideas.
If like me, you care about representation and what you’re saying with your work, having no female creators working on a female-led comic anthology will make you feel uneasy.
Handing over my characters and loose storylines for other creators to work with on Sugar Glider Stories made them feel more real to me than the other issues. Probably because all the comics I read as a child were Lee/Kirby/Ditko characters interpreted by anyone but Lee/Kirby/Ditko.
Having other writers interpret my stories and fill in the gaps between stories I’d written was incredibly rewarding - they added things I never would have thought of.
I won’t be staying awake through the night ‘in solidarity’ with artist I’m working with again. It’s a nice gesture, but I go from tired to exhausted very easily due to anxiety issues, which results in shakes, sweats, panic attacks and an upset stomach. I don’t think comics are important enough to lose sleep over. But they are important enough to schedule time for.
Lee draws comedy very well, so I tried to write some funny stuff for him to draw. Probably not as much funny stuff as he’d have liked, mind.
If you find the right colourist, they’ll make great artwork look even better.
We came up with a great system for doing Halcyon & Tenderfoot. Lee would thumbnail the issue, we’d talk about it, he’d draw roughs straight into Photoshop, I’d letter the roughs and stick panel borders on and then he’d do the final art. This meant that there was enough room for the balloons in every panel and it also meant that if Lee did work throughout the night at the end of the deadline, I wouldn’t have to rush the lettering in the morning and/or stay awake all night to letter as pages were finished.
The only change I’d make to that plan is for lettering placement to be incorporated into the thumbnails. We’re doing that a little now, but it still needs developing slightly. Lee is also developing the process to the point where his thumbnails are also his roughs.
It was really fun to draw two pages of Sugar Glider Stories written by Gary. Switching the creator roles gave us both an understanding of what each other had to do to make a good comic. I really enjoyed drawing those two pages, but it took me two weekends and I wouldn’t draw a comic again.
Working Marvel-method for a silent comic strip can work wonders, and it lets the artist really enjoy themselves.
Collaborators who don’t return emails and who make decisions about the work without any conversation are the ones you know not to work with again.
It’s important to write for the artist you’re working with. I learned this while making Sugar Glider Stories issue 1. One strip was written for a novice artist but then a veteran ended up drawing it, the script was far too long and cluttered for the veteran artist and ended up making them miserable.
On the same point, writing for Gary meant I could include lots of real life locations, knowing that he could pull off an expert likeness because architecture is his speciality. Lee’s artwork conveys a lot of emotion so you’ll notice that I write a lot of sad characters and events in comics we work on - because it really hits home with the reader. Writing for Martin Eden meant I was free to come up with a really zany story and I knew it would be believable on the page.
Having a scientist friend really helps when coming up with the conclusion of a story that hangs on a character being very intelligent.
Writing the strip for Martin Eden really changed the way I thought about writing comics - they have to be fun. That doesn’t mean they have to be silly or funny, they can still be sad and serious and deal with real world events, but they should be fun to write and fun for your artist to draw. Use comics as cleverly as you can by writing things that couldn’t be achieved as well in other mediums (you could do this by including a diamond prison or by changing the way you play with the passage of time or storytelling methods).
Google maps and the massive amount of photo material that can be found online means that an artist from another country can accurately represent areas of Newcastle they’ve never been to.
Sometimes you’ll search for reference material to give an artist and they won’t use it. You’ll just have to accept that that time was wasted and move on.
No matter how many times you say not to, some creators will always draw their female characters with large breasts.
I don’t think that two people can successfully edit one book like me and Gary did on Sugar Glider Stories issue 1 unless you have a plan on how that is going to work beforehand (splitting stories up between the two of you?). Otherwise, you’ll both end up giving different feedback on the same things. That isn’t helpful for other collaborators.
If you have people working on an anthology for you and they aren’t being paid, they should be getting something from it. At least one copy of the comic and some kind of offer on any more copies of the comic they want to buy. And you should go out of your way to really push their work to your friends and contacts.
I’ve written a lot of scenes that call for crowds. This always winds artists up. But when a comic is about the public opinion of superheroes, etc, you will need to see the public. I’m not going to write comics about this kind of thing as much in the future.
Artists don’t seem to like drawing cars or bikes. But some artists will grow to love drawing those things. However, it isn’t really the writer’s job to force them to learn to love drawing something they hate.
I never thought Gary would go for the idea I had for the Don Quixote character in Sugar Glider issue 2. Gary was often concerned with making the comic believable and I wanted to take his old swordsman character and make him a delusional librarian who shouts ‘DEMON!’ at everyone. But the idea was a fun idea with lots of story potential so he went for it. I took the risk of it being shot-down and it paid off.
Not having an editor means some less important details can be lost or forgotten about. In Halcyon & Tenderfoot, The Glory Guild HQ would have benefitted from being filled with trophies from their battles - this would have communicated the group’s history and their ruthlessness to the readers, but I completely forgot to mention this to Lee in the rush to get this issue out. We do have an amazing version of this page in the pitch for a Halcyon & Tenderfoot collection.
There are quite a few things in Halcyon & Tenderfoot issue 3 that we needed to fix when we went through and made the collection pitch. We did the whole comic in just under a month with no editor so there were a good few things we missed. However, I think sometimes you just have to do the best job you can in the time you have. It’s never going to be perfect. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to make it as good as possible, but I think there’s something to be said for accepting your work based on your ability and the timeframe available to get the work done.
There’s a page in Halcyon & Tenderfoot issue 2 that Lee thought I would hate. He threw out the idea of the grid and created something closer to a collage. But the page is still completely readable/understandable and communicates the ideas and feelings I had written. He took the risk and it paid off.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but Lee loves gross-out humour. I bet he loved drawing those smelly feet and that out-of-date milk carton at the end of issue 2.
Lee draws very good sad moments and perfectly translates what I write when it comes scenes that are meant to be touching. But I think he does get sick of drawing tears.
If you need to say something difficult to an artist, it helps to ask another artist about the best way to approach the situation. One of the strips submitted to Sugar Glider Stories really wasn’t up to scratch and I didn’t know what to say. But a short conversation with another artist really helped to solve the problem as best as we could.
Every collaborative partnership will be different. You have to do the groundwork to get it to be as good as it can be, and then accept it for what it is. I’ve spent a lot of time wishing collaborators approached things the same way that I do but that’s just wasted energy. The reason you collaborate is to bring different elements to a project. You have to accept the other commitments and responsibilities your collaborators have and the time and skills they bring to your project. I have to accept the people my collaborators are, and they have to accept who I am - a worrier, a planner, very honest. If you can’t accept the personality and working methods of your collaborator, you shouldn’t be working with them.
Collaborative relationships should be an equal partnership. I’ve often been afraid that a collaborator would bail on the relationship before the project is complete. But I think this has a lot to do with a lack of confidence in what I was bringing to the table, and putting too much stock into comic book projects. Now that I have more in my life than comics (a house with my girlfriend and a challenging day job) I’m not putting more importance on my comic book projects than my collaborators are. And I’m more confident in my abilities to the point that I know I’m contributing something worthwhile. If the partnership isn’t equal, it isn’t a partnership at all and it will cause you head, and heart, ache.
Establishing shots are very important. But not all establishing shots have to be exteriors.
I decided establishing shots were important when writing issue 3 of Halcyon & Tenderfoot. Before that, I’d had too many characters and too much story to bother with anything like setting the scene for readers.
If you create a really cool character design like Gary did with Sugar Glider, you won’t need to solicit for the reader’s drawings - people will just draw the character because they think it will be enjoyable. We got loads of fan art.
I never thought I’d write a scene including a giant robot and I bet Gary never thought he’d draw one. But I’m very glad that we did.
I must have known the story of Don Quixote deep down, because the back-story I had for our Don Quixote character had so many parallels to the book it was unbelievable to me. Originally, I just thought the name seemed like a good fit for the character designs Gary had shown me.
Halcyon & Tenderfoot issue 4 took absolutely ages to get finished (about 6 months) but it was worth it because the comic looks great. Sometimes you just have to accept how long things take - especially when you have lots of paid work going on at the same time.
I think too many first issues are just teasers for the series. First issues need to be packed with story to give the reader a chance to understand your central idea and character - but also so you give them something exciting to get them to come back.
But with the issues in the middle of your story, you have some space to show some smaller moments and give more of a glimpse into your character’s lives.
I always loved that thing about 90s Vertigo books from people like Grant Morrison where you’d get a story that seemed completely separate from the main issue as an introduction. I’d love to do something like that at some point.
I have no idea how Lee reached the decision to reverse the colours in a panel of Halcyon & Tenderfoot issue 2 (black is white and white is black) but it really worked to make this moment of the story seem like a hammer dropping to the floor.
Sometimes the easiest things are the best things. They’re instinctive and full of energy. But sometimes the hardest things are pretty brilliant too. The cathedral full-page panel in Halcyon & Tenderfoot issue 2 took ages to get right and it’s bloody great. So there’s no fixed rule on things that are hard being better/worse.
If your character designs aren’t 100% working, I wouldn’t be too worried about tweaking them between issues. We did it on Halcyon & Tenderfoot and no one noticed. At least, no one mentioned it.
I saw a tweet a few weeks ago that asked about the amount of time artists spend making art compared to the amount of time they spend consuming art.
Last year was probably my least productive. I found it hard to juggle writing and making comics with facilitating workshops and working at an arts organisation. Most of the work I ‘completed’ was for pitches. Most of which were unsuccessful and, therefore, will never be completed.
So, yes, I spent a lot of time doing other work and getting pitches in. But I think an important factor in my lack of output was the lack of input. I simply didn’t read enough or see enough theatre or watch enough films.
I’ve been quite productive this year, though. While also fitting in time to read a lot of great comics. And I’m sure that reading these great comics has inspired me to sit down and write more and get things done.
So here’s what I’ve read and loved:
Scroll through the pictures above to see our lead characters, Bianca and Freddy, in various stages of development and some practice sketches. Because creating comic book characters does take some time and hard work - they don’t just spring onto the page fully formed!
Tracks, a four-page biker story, will feature in The Phoenix issue 112. On sale Friday 21st February at all good comic and book shops. You can subscribe to The Phoenix through their awesome website.
I’ve self-published a good few comics and had some short strips in anthologies but, next week, my first professionally published work will appear in The Phoenix!
I’m really excited about this because The Phoenix is doing all of the things I’ve been talking about for the last few years, putting out great comics for young people and doing that important outreach work and promotion to get comics into young people’s hands. Me and the comic strip’s artist Lee “Long Hours” Robinson love The Phoenix and are big fans of the amazing creators that work on the comic each week.
You’ll be able to pick up The Phoenix issue 112 featuring TRACKS from great comic shops, and some branches of Waterstones and Waitrose from Thursday/Friday next week.
If you’re based in the same area as me, you’ll be able to pick up a copy from Travelling Man and Waitrose in Newcastle. And you can pick up copies of The Phoenix from their awesome website!
Things I’ve learned so far… Part 2
Matt Badham, comic book journalist and writer, read some of my blogs a few months ago and we got chatting about the work I’ve done so far. I sent him some comics to read along with apologies like “I know they’re not perfect!” and he suggested I write a blog outlining the things I’ve learned from making two independent superhero miniseries. This is that blog. Or, at least, the second instalment of that series. See, I wrote approximately 10,000 words on the subject.
What follows are the conclusions I’ve reached or lessons I’ve learned from the last few years of making and selling Sugar Glider and Halcyon & Tenderfoot, and the few other comics I’ve been involved with. I might be wrong about these things, but they are my feelings, on writing, ideas and feedback, based on those experiences.
The first part of the blog was a huge success - thank you to everyone who read it, shared it and gave me feedback. This one is a slightly different beast, though.
Writing, ideas and feedback
Sugar Glider and Halcyon & Tenderfoot are essentially the same story. Kid wants to be a hero, gives it a try and it goes wrong. The kid quits but they’re forced into temporarily putting the costume back on to deal with a problem. They beat the problem and realise that they are meant to be a hero. Both are tempted to, or accidentally, do something villainous. If I ever get to do a superhero comic again, I’ll try not to tell that same story.
Although the stories of Sugar Glider and Halcyon & Tenderfoot are the same, the comics are not. Having set Sugar Glider in real-life Newcastle, I felt like I was tied to some version of reality and couldn’t stem too far from what was explainable by our science fiction. With Halcyon & Tenderfoot, I wanted to do something that didn’t have to be explained. We made the decision to set this comic in a fictional city and to leave a lot unexplained. I have no idea how our heroes have powers and I don’t want to know. It isn’t important. Setting something in a fictional world is a lot more fun, in some ways. Future projects that are set in the real world will have vague settings and timeframes (“Mid-twentieth century Europe”). Because I hate being tied-down by the truth when all I want to do is tell a good story.
I think that some of the best ideas are the silly ones. The ones that make you laugh and smile and think, “I could never get away with that!” The trick is working out how you could get away with it. If it’s that fun an idea, it will probably be interesting to your readers and, hopefully, they’ll give you the leeway you need. I love Prince and David Bowie. I love it when David Bowie wails on Wild is the Wind and when Prince screams on The Beautiful Ones. These are totally over-the-top moments that make me laugh and smile and get me excited about listening again and again. To be clear, I’m not laughing at these amazing artists, I’m laughing in response to the original and out-of-the-ordinary place they go with their ideas. That’s what I’m striving for now with my comics.
If you spend 9 months writing character biographies and creating the world your character lives in, chances are the world will seem real and the characters will be believable. But you’ll probably get caught up in these extra ideas and crowbar them into your stories. A few readers will find this helps them feel more immersed in the story/world… but most will be frustrating that you kept ignoring the main character and plot.
With Sugar Glider I did this by including the Vigilance super-team subplot (I hoped to spin them off into their own comic). And with Halcyon & Tenderfoot I did the same by including Halcyon’s old team and his current enemies, The Glory Guild. The Glory Guild would be a big part of issue 5 or a second volume if we ever get to make them. My plan going forward is to concentrate on telling the story I’m meant to be telling and limit any hints at the future to just hints.
If you have a character that runs at super-speed or a character that can glide through the air, you really need to write some scenes where these characters use their special abilities in interesting ways. The reader is coming to your comic to see something interesting - whatever is interesting about your character should be there on the page. I don’t think I thought of that often enough when writing Sugar Glider and Halcyon & Tenderfoot.
There’s a lot in the pitch for Sugar Glider that was there in the pitch for Kick Ass. But it’s a totally different series. There’s no point in worrying about your ideas being similar to other people’s - just make your comic and invest a lot of yourself into it, that will make it original and interesting enough for readers to enjoy on its own merits.
I’ve written two superhero press conferences scene already and I’ve only written two superhero comic series. That’s probably enough for a lifetime, never mind two series.
People communicate by Twitter, Facebook, email and text in real life. But it’s difficult to represent this very successfully in comics. Panels focussed on screens aren’t usually interesting.
I really enjoy seeing the same event played out from lots of different perspectives and drawn by different artists. It’s fun to write and interesting to see these different interpretations, but I’m not sure that interest translates to the reader.
Basing your villains’ plot on a fairly obscure European film about anti-capitalists might not be the easiest thing to pull off. We nicked the concept of The Edukators for the story of the villains that appear in Sugar Glider 1 (and then reappear in various stories). I’m not sure this was as ingenious a decision as we thought it to be at the time.
SPOILERS: Introducing robot versions of some minor characters near the end of Halcyon & Tenderfoot was probably a bit confusing. I recently pitched a strip to a publisher where the first page saw a bully winning a race before revealing that he never really started the race, so it was all just a scam and he didn’t win. I think a lot of new writers needlessly complicate stories - perhaps as a result of hearing act two described as ‘increased complications’.
We couldn’t fit the almost-romantic sub-plot of Sugar Glider into issue 2, so we did a mini-comic focussing on that story. I love that little comic and it led on to so much (Art Heroes and Halcyon & Tenderfoot were a result of this collaboration) - but if the subplot doesn’t fit in one of the 3 issues in your series, it probably shouldn’t be in any of them.
I kept putting “Where did Susie get her suit from?” in promotional material for the Sugar Glider comics in an attempt to make one of the minor story elements that bit more exciting to readers. The result was the readerships’ high expectations for what was set to be a very low-key reveal. I could have decided to change my plans and come up with a better place for Susie to have found her costume, but I decided to stick to the original plans and risk disappointing some readers rather than change plans and risk making a complete mess. However, I did decide to make the original owner of the costume a bigger part of the story than originally intended. Hopefully that balanced things out. But, really, the lesson is to not blow things out of proportion in your ‘Next issue…’ teasers or in press releases.
You have to make a decision about whether you want to achieve your own aims with a story or if you want to satisfy the reader’s expectations. Some readers probably didn’t expect, or want, Sugar Glider issue 2 to have a subplot about superheroes fighting a big robot… but that’s what we wanted to do and we needed that to set-up issue 3. However, I do think readers should be able to look back at the beginning of your story and see that you set-up the huge robot and superheroes. If you didn’t, their gripes might be justified.
I found writing issue 3 of Sugar Glider very daunting. We had received a lot of praise for the previous issues, after all. And I had written all 4 issues of Halcyon & Tenderfoot between Sugar Glider Stories 2 and Sugar Glider 3, which made me feel like I wouldn’t be able to write in the correct style or in the voices of the characters anymore. Writing those 4 Halcyon & Tenderfoot comics in a row was a much better idea.
There was a lot I felt I had to make pay-off when writing issue 3 of Sugar Glider. We’d introduced so many characters and subplots that would never get their own comics (as I had originally intended) so I felt I had a responsibility to the readers to make them pay-off in some way. This also made the script very daunting to write. And the comic ended up 38 pages long.
I want to suggest that the world of my stories existed before the first issue began and will continue to exist after the last issue ends. I’ve attempted this by setting up new conflicts in the final pages or by leaving some minor subplots unresolved. I realise that this might lead to confusion or disappointment in the reader, but my intention is to get them to continue the stories in their head.
There are lots of little Easter Eggs in my comics that, hopefully, don’t detract from the story. For instance, Jackdaw attacks an arsonist called Denton Burn in issue 3 of Sugar Glider. The arsonist is trying to burn down The Mitre building. The Mitre was the set of the BBC’s Geordie teen-drama Byker Grove. In the series, the kids who attended Byker Grove hated the kids who attended another youth project called Denton Burn. Graham and Maxine Pearce suggested the Denton Burn character). In Halcyon & Tenderfoot, the character Jenny Wren is intended to be an alternative reality version of Sugar Glider (if you read closely you can spot the similarities and differences between the realities). Two characters with cameos in Halcyon & Tenderfoot are comic book super versions of two comic creators we know. I do this sort of thing a lot, but it’s just a little joke for me. I don’t even know if anyone has ever noticed.
I decided a while ago to stop trying to spell out exactly what I wanted to see on the page in my scripts. Since cutting down panel descriptions to as brief as I can manage, I’ve found collaborators far more likely to deliver what was in my head to begin with - or something much better! Choosing the right few words can be the difference between getting the sort of comic you would want and really confusing/annoying the artist.
You’ve got to make sure your panel descriptions aren’t too concise that they’re too open to interpretation, though. There’s a panel description for Sugar Glider issue 1 that reads, “Susie looks around.” when I meant, “Susie looks around for clues.” Those are just different sentences and we’ll come back to this in a later blog.
In my imagination there are a lot more completely silent pages in comics than there really are. There are quite a few silent pages in my comics. In part, this is to balance out the dialogue-heavy pages and to force you into reading the image instead. But I also couldn’t work out why you would have dialogue or captions on a page that features just one character in action.
I’ve realised now that captions can be a really good way to help the reader understand what’s happening or what the character’s motivation is when your page features just one character in action.
You can find a lot of advice on how many panels work on a comic book page, but I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule. 1-panel pages can work. 9-panel pages can work. 14-panel pages can work. It all depends on the action portrayed, the layout, the amount of dialogue, the reaction you hope to illicit, etc. Some pages in Sugar Glider issue 1 probably do have too many panels for what we’re trying to get across, but I still happy to write a page in issue 2 with 14 panels - because it worked best for that part of the story.
There are fewer panels per page in Sugar Glider issue 2 than issue 1, but at the same time, there’s a lot more story. My writing had improved between those two issues to the point that I could say more with a single panel. I think I may have lost that skills again - or perhaps I’m more interested in making sure that the story is understandable for the less comic-literate audience that Halcyon & Tenderfoot has.
Fight scenes should tell a story. And not just the story of one character overcoming the other. Something deeper and more interesting needs to be going on. Unfortunately, it’s a bit tricky to come up with that deeper story and I seem to have written the same fight scene in Sugar Glider 3 as I wrote into one of the later Halcyon & Tenderfoot issues.
The action scene at the climax of Sugar Glider issue 1 seemed to disappoint some readers, due to the lack of solid action and our skills at pulling off our very first fight scene. Our intention was to limit ourselves with this fight scene in the knowledge that Susie’s fighting skills and the threats she opposed would build up in issues 2 and 3. But I do think there’s something to be said for making sure what you’re building up from is an exciting enough place to start that journey.
One of the biggest names in comics is well known for writing brilliant dialogue, but is also criticised for writing characters without distinctive voices. Hoping not to make that mistake, I’ve tried to create distinctive speech patterns and lexicons for my supporting characters. However, some of these characters have prompted complaints of unrealistic dialogue from readers, reviewers and collaborators. My main feeling is that I haven’t mastered dialogue as much as some of my early reviews would have you believe. But I also feel that unless the dialogue is different in a very obvious way (something like the Hulk’s voice) you have to make sure the character is on the page long enough for the reader to adjust to this rhythm - because I really feel like one type of dialogue/voice is so ubiquitous in comics that readers see that as ‘naturalistic’ and ‘correct’ rather than just being one way for someone to speak.
I wouldn’t use something like “&£@&**@@” instead of swearing again. I think you have to commit to the swear word or leave it out. You’re having your cake and eating it here and it just comes across as really childish. You’ve suggested the word to your reader, anyway. I squirm whenever I see this used in comics that feature characters kids watch in cartoons and films.
Once you have a character name that works, you’re pretty much stuck with it. We wanted to change Halcyon’s name when I discovered a comic with that name. But nothing else worked. We had the perfect name for the character we created… even if it was a name difficult for kids to read/pronounce.
Some readers didn’t like the characterisation of the Halogen Man, the antagonist in Halcyon & Tenderfoot, due to him flip-flopping between arrogance and fear/desperation. But I think that’s a realistic representation of an egotistical chancer. In issue 1, he’s arrogant. In issue 2, he’s desperate. In issue 3 and 4 you see him flipping between the two, fulfilling what we’d set up in the previous issues. But I can see where the problem arises for some readers and I think it’s illustrated by something I read in Peter David’s Writing For Comics. He says it would be entirely realistic for a moral character like Mr Fantastic to accidentally knock someone over and then flee from the scene in fear and confusion, but that, in fiction, readers wouldn’t find it believable. Fictional characters can’t act impulsively ‘out of character’, even though people do that everyday in real life. Personally, I’m happy with the way we handled the Halogen Man character - he’s a weak villain with the same amount of arrogance and fear as (me) any egotist.
I feel a responsibility to the people I represent in my stories. Portraying characters who aren’t usually shown in comics (or any other medium) is very important, but I also think we have to be careful about those representations. Imagine seeing a character you identify with - the first character you really identify with - and then seeing them portrayed completely unrealistically or totally negatively. It would be disappointing and could be very hurtful. I’ve tried to make sure I have protagonists who aren’t all male and that all my female characters aren’t sex toys. I’ve also written two characters with physical impairments in Sugar Glider. In retrospect, I think the portrayals were too negative - with one character driven over-the-edge due to the treatment she received at the hands of her employs due to an injury, and with the other character shown as a hard taskmaster for his superhero students (although the genesis of this characteristic is shown as being his charges not responding well to a more carefree approach). I’m not saying that these less-represented characters can’t be as flawed as any other character, but putting two not-very-nice physically impaired characters in the same series was not the best plan.
Having a female character with some masochistic tendencies can be very problematic. Especially if you don’t have a lot of time to flesh-out the other facets of their personality.
Think about what your reviews and feedback are really telling you. We received lots of praise for Sugar Glider issue 1, but most singled out the characterisation and dialogue. I took this as a sign that the actual story wasn’t a strong enough element to be praised - and, let’s face it; the story is the most important thing. Another review said the soap opera elements were great but once the superhero story started the reviewer just wanted to be back in the soap opera. For me, this didn’t mean we had made the wrong decision in telling a superhero story, it meant that we hadn’t told a good enough superhero story and needed to improve that for next time.
Things I’ve learned so far… Part 1
Matt Badham, comic book journalist and writer, read some of my blogs a few months ago and we got chatting about the work I’ve done so far. I sent him some comics to read along with apologies like “I know they’re not perfect!” and he suggested I write a blog outlining the things I’ve learned from making two independent superhero miniseries. This is that blog. Or, at least, the first instalment of that series of blogs. See, I wrote approximately 10,000 words on the subject.
What follows are the conclusions I’ve reached or lessons I’ve learned from the last few years of making and selling Sugar Glider and Halcyon & Tenderfoot, and the few other comics I’ve been involved with. I might be wrong about these things, but they are my feelings on production, lettering, marketing and similar things based on those experiences.
Sales and promotion
A superhero comic with some of the sensibilities of small press/independent comics will not attract lots of superhero comic book readers AND lots of small press/independent comic book readers. Paul Grist said something like, “Instead, you’ll put off the superhero comic book readers and you’ll put off the independent comic book readers”, at our Bristol Comic Expo panel a few years ago. He was right.
Having a very specific location for your comic - like Newcastle in Sugar Glider - is a double-edged sword. The specific location means that people with a connection to Newcastle can feel a greater connection with the comic and have a good understanding of the locations used in each scene. But I feel like we also excluded people who know nothing about Newcastle. I think this is definitely the case in issue 1 where I wrote so many different locations for such a short amount of space that it would be pretty hard for readers to understand just where they were and why it mattered.
SPOILERS Halcyon & Tenderfoot issue one ends with SPOILERS Halcyon being shot and killed. That’s the central premise of the comic, the main pitch (What if Batman died instead of Robin?!) but because it’s the shocking twist of issue one, we could never use that as the pitch to attract buyers at conventions. That’s a major flaw in the plan. However, it was really important to have Halcyon in the comic for long enough for readers to care about him and the relationship he has with Tenderfoot. On the same point, I am always really aware that we say Halcyon & Tenderfoot is ‘all-ages’ when there is a murder in issue 1. This makes me queasy around parents. But most don’t care and still buy it for their kids.
Having a subscription package available for Halcyon & Tenderfoot was a really good idea, as it did secure us quite a lot of sales without losing any money. However, we didn’t necessary make any money from these subscribers, as we gave them all exclusive gifts and posted things to them for free.
I threw away a lot of the subscribers’ email addresses once I had created their receipts, which included a postal address. This was very silly.
The second issue of Sugar Glider was released at a launch party in Travelling Man, Newcastle. It was a good focal point for sales - we sold more in that one day than we did in the weeks that followed. We probably would’ve sold most of those comics eventually, but it was good to claw back some of the money we had spent making the comic.
Some creators can create a comic, put it online and send one press release out and they’ll generate sales. I’m not one of those creators and you’re probably not either. You need to develop relationships with reviewers and send them personal emails with links to digital versions of your comics in Dropbox. Always look out for new reviewers who might give you a chance and like your book. Make sure to post blogs about your comic in the run-up to its release and post even more once it’s available. If you don’t get potential readers excited about the project, they’ll always be potential readers and never be readers.
It’s better to send a link to Dropbox than it is to invite the reviewer to join a Dropbox folder. And it’s much better than sending the digital comic as an attachment.
Make sure the digital version of your comic is in RGB while the print version is in CMYK. Your digital version can also be between 100 and 200dpi, and the pages can be about 10cm - 14cm in dimension. Any bigger will mean the files are bulky and might cause problems for reviewers to download/read. And you don’t want to cause them any problems - you want them to read and like your book.
Make sure you write down what size you made your digital files so that all of your subsequent comics can be the same. All of my digital comics are different sizes.
I’ve never had a favourable review translate into a sale. And my comics have had some amazing reviews. I’m not sure why that is. However, getting your comic reviewed is still important. You need comic fans to know about you and your book before they walk past you at a convention - that slight memory of hearing your name can be the difference between a sale and a quick glance.
The third issue of Sugar Glider had no physical or virtual launch event and I never sent out a press release or any review copies. It, therefore, has sold terribly. The lesson is, don’t start something you won’t finish. And the promotion is part of finishing a project. Whenever I see a friend release an “issue 1 of 6” or whatever, I wonder if there’ll ever be an issue 4 never mind issue 6. I think Sugar Glider would have been a lot better and a lot more successful if we had’ve done some Sugar Glider Stories-esque strips as a team (me and Gary) and then embarked on a 60 page or so bumper issue that told the essential story with an exciting plot.
Kids are attracted to the darkest, saddest things you show them. Nine times out of ten, kids will reach for issue 2 of Halcyon & Tenderfoot over the others. This one shows loads of superheroes at a funeral. I don’t know why that surprises me every time, because I always loved superhero weddings, parties and funerals - lots of heroes in costume who are just talking rather than fighting.
The only problem with this cover is that there’s nowhere to sign on it. Not an issue for most comics, but when you’re selling them to kids, they generally want them signed.
Running a competition for kids to get their characters including in the comic was a good idea. But judging it was very difficult. We keep making the same mistake - running character competitions. But having their characters featured in the comic was a real point of excitement for the winners.
An all-ages superhero comic will not be as attractive as you’d hope to parents who buy comics for their kids. That type of parent is far more likely to buy something more highbrow than a superhero comic.
We’re more likely to sell a Halcyon & Tenderfoot comic to kids who we’ve spend a few hours with in a workshop or in competition setting. We tend to sell more comics at a local library than we do at a convention we’ve spent hundreds of pounds going to - so the conventions we choose have to be special.
The kids who have seen superhero films are far more likely to want a comic featuring those characters than they are to want new characters based on those same archetypes.
Although Lee's artwork is clearly inspired by his love of Dragonball Z and similar comics, that will never be enough to get Manga/Anime fans to read/respect Halcyon & Tenderfoot.
Your first issue will sell more than issue 2, which will sell more than issue 3. So why don’t you just do issue 1 and make it really big? (There are a ton of answers to that question, but I can’t imagine any that wouldn’t be combated with ‘serialise it for free online first, then’).
If you’re going to do a serialised story, I really think you need to stick the next comic’s cover, or a teaser for the next comic, in the back of each issue.
On a similar note, I really think it’s important to get the cover finished before the comic is started. This means you can have that valuable promo image and it also means you won’t be stuck in a position of rushing your cover at the last minute when you’re already past your deadline. A great looking cover is really important and a cover that people have seen online prior to a convention/event is incredibly helpful.
Comic creators could do with taking some inspiration from Martin Eden in terms of drawing loads of pictures of his characters. When we were promoting Sugar Glider and Halcyon & Tenderfoot, I had a real problem trying to get Gary and Lee to come up with additional images (they were drawing the comics, after all) to help promote the comics. Martin, on the other hand, seems to have drawn his characters over and over again and loves making posters for upcoming issues. Maybe he does this because he loves drawing his characters and maybe he does this because his job in magazines has taught him how important promotion is.
Having a load of great creators working on a comic anthology will not automatically mean increased sales. But it will make the book great and be really fun to work on.
Make a decision about what you want to get out of your project when you’re going in and work towards that. With Sugar Glider, I certainly wasn’t in it for the money, but when I started selling so many comics I thought that I must have been raking it in. Then I worked out just how much I was spending hundreds of pounds travelling to conventions all around the country to sell these comes, while also giving 50% of every sale to Gary. It was a disappointing realisation. But I wouldn’t have been disappointed if I had gone into it realistically. If I had said to myself, “I’ll go to all these conventions and make contacts and have a great time and Gary will make the little bit of money.” Eventually we made an agreement that sees whoever paid for the event stall getting 75% of the sales.
Decide how you want to interact with your readers. Sugar Glider was my attempt at being “very professional” so there are no editorials or letters or anything resembling human contact in those comics. Halcyon & Tenderfoot is the opposite - it has lots of informal address in the non-comic pages and I think that really helped us connect with the readers - most of whom were kids.
Some people don’t know that a sugar glider is an animal. Some sugar glider owners will follow you on Twitter and send you messages on Facebook if you write a comic with the same name. But they won’t buy the comic.
Gary’s hand-lettering and art is probably the only thing that gives Sugar Glider a personal touch. Without these, I don’t think we’d have had the same personal response from the people who really liked the comic.
As nice as hand-lettering is, I would use digital lettering almost every time going forward. Hand-lettering can take a very long time - especially if you want to redo or remove sections that don’t work now that the artwork has been created. Gary’s hand-lettering on Sugar Glider was quite big, which meant I had to be very sparse with my words, which is a good skill to have but some times you want to have a longer line of dialogue.
You can get some great free fonts from Blambot.com and some even better paid-for fonts. The paid-for fonts aren’t too expensive, either.
Blambot makes all of the fonts on his website. But the vast majority of generic free font websites can’t really be trusted. They’ll let you download fonts that they don’t own that you really should be paying for.
Most people seem sniffy about comics lettered in Photoshop. I have no idea why, but there must be a reason. Illustrator is too difficult for me to get my head around, though.
Parents and teachers have told us that if we want readers to use our comics to help them learn to read, we really need to use a lower and upper case font, rather than just uppercase. We’re going to do this from now on, but it really will change the way I letter, as I had been using small lowercase with bigger balloons to represent whispering and characters talking to themselves.
I don’t like making electronic-voice balloons, but I fill my scripts with robots and TVs and public address speakers.
When you’re lettering a comic, it really does pay to have a professionally-lettered comic open in front of you. If your lettering doesn’t end up looking anything like it, you’re probably not doing it right. Look at the shape of the balloons and the shape the words make inside of the balloon and pay close attention to your balloon tales too.
I think putting a nice big black outline on a speech bubble does the trick in conveying an intense delivery of the line.
I like my lettering a lot more when I’ve been doing a big chunk of it. But then I don’t do it for ages and I have to learn how to do it again. It’s something I’ve just had to accept on every project.
I hadn’t really decided how I was going to represent the voice Tenderfoot was hearing in his communicator when I was lettering issue 3, so I did it differently in issue 4. I had to accept that people might find the change confusing, but at least they wouldn’t find it as confusing as they would if I just kept going with issue 3’s technique.
Make sure to check through your comics for mistakes before you send them to print. It might be worth doing a pass to make sure all the balloon tails are pointing at the correct person.
Most new artists won’t leave any room for speech bubbles of captions in their art. Incorporating speech bubbles in the thumbnails really helps - the lettering should be treated as part of the art, not something that can be squeezed in at a later stage.
Art, production and additional pages
If you add greys to your original line-art, you won’t be able to mark the line-art as black as you might like it to be once you scan it in to Photoshop.
Some new artists won’t realise that they should be scanning their work in at 300dpi or more.
If you have 3 subsequent pages that all use 4 equal panels as part of a device to shows you’re representing a montage and then follow that up with the same layout on the next page that last page will look like it’s meant to be part of the montage too.
Using Vector Masks in Photoshop to create your panel borders and speech bubbles works a treat and makes things quite neat and professional. But make sure everyone in charge of the art understands what you’re doing with this or the results can be less-than-perfect.
Making your panel borders grey on some pages can help to create a brooding atmosphere for the reader.
I don’t think Lee likes the Halcyon & Tenderfoot issue 3 cover, but I think it’s great. Nice and simple with plenty of opportunities to sign and write personal messages to readers. However, I wouldn’t do a white cover again - issue 3 always gets a bit scuffed-up in transit whereas none of the others do.
Some comic readers really like comics that start on the cover. Like the Beano used to. I’ve done this twice with Lee so far, both times on mini-comics, and it’s something I would like to do again.
Make sure your printer can achieve a full-bleed job before deciding to do a wraparound cover. A wraparound cover with a big white line down the spine doesn’t really look very good.
If you’re going to spend a lot of time, effort and money making a comic, it deserves to be printed as well as you can achieve. Look for a printing company that can do what you want and that is easy to work with. I’ve found that CVN Print in South Shields is the best place to get my comics printed. They’ll have a good chat with me, get a job done in a very short amount of time and they’re the cheapest I could find. Excellent print job too.
It’s really important to have some time between finishing your comic and getting it printed so you can look through the issue and make sure there aren’t any silly mistakes - like a policeman with a see-through leg. There’s another reason not to run straight to the printer after finishing a comic. You might run in front of a bus like I did with either Halcyon & Tenderfoot issue 2 or 3.
Spend a bit of time designing the non-story pages of your comic; it really makes a difference to the overall product. I think some of these pages in my books look great and some just weren’t given the attention they deserved.
Make sure to update your back-up and credit pages when you reprint your comic. If you have other issues out by that time, you can stick an up-to-date advert in featuring the covers of those comics. And if you received good reviews, stick those on the cover. And remember to change the date on the credits page.
You’ll need to keep editable files of anything you think you’ll need to change if you go back to print edit. I didn’t have everything I needed for Sugar Glider because Gary had created some of the original files so I had to make a new versions of the inside cover, etc, at the last minute a few times.
I wouldn’t put a “Special thanks” section in a comic again, unless it was a really big project and the people thanked had done something really special.
If you make a contents page, make sure you add page numbers to your comic. I still haven’t worked out a good way of adding page numbers.
Having an advert that looks a bit like a comic on the page after the last story page of your comic is probably just a little bit confusing.
I don’t like reading big text pieces in the comics I buy, so why did I write a newspaper piece to go in the back of Sugar Glider issue 1? I did it to build on the world and because I thought Gary would like it. But I do think there’s something to be said for asking, “Would I read this? Would I smile at this? Would I laugh at this? Would I tweet about this?”
The letter column in Halcyon & Tenderfoot taught me that I should not solicit for more letters until I’ve seen how much space the ones I already have take up. It also taught me that most people don’t understand when you say ‘dead means dead’. That’s something we should probably deal with as a culture. As Mick Jones sang, “Somebody got murdered. Somebody dead forever.” That’s the main message of Halcyon & Tenderfoot. If we ever do any more issues, we’ll be dealing with that a lot more.
The Halcyon & Tenderfoot fact-files were a nice idea but, in reality, they were a pain to do. I had to find an illustration to use with each of them (Lee was always busy drawing the comic so couldn’t do an extra piece) and it took me ages to write concise histories for characters I knew everything about.
Some additional thoughts
The original intention of Sugar Glider was to create 3 issues that could be read separately or together as a trilogy and you’d still enjoy it. That’s not to say that you’d ‘get’ everything if you just read one of the issues, but we’d have put enough character and action and everything else you’d want for it to be enjoyable enough. I’m not sure this worked, though, and decided to go the opposite way with Halcyon & Tenderfoot, making it four chapters of the one story.
I have no idea about the legalities of including Greggs, The Gate and other businesses in issues of Sugar Glider. I reasoned that nowhere near enough people would read the comic to warrant it being a problem. I was right… so far.
Having a comic book character aimed at children with a name that’s difficult to pronounce isn’t a very good idea.
I always aim to present a united front. When I was in a band, I made everyone contribute to a little zine to give away at gigs. If the other members didn’t submit their bits, I’d just fake them and still include their names. The editorials and letter column responses in Halcyon & Tenderfoot were written by me but, for some reason, I still felt like I should put Lee’s name on. I don’t know why I did that - he wouldn’t have minded if I just put my name on.
Wanting to prove that you can do something that other people say is very difficult isn’t a good reason to do anything. The Sugar Glider Stories issues (anthologies featuring lots of comic book artists and some writers) were big logistical problems to conquer, and I’m very pleased with the way they turned out, but I do think that - in retrospect - that time and energy might have been used better elsewhere.
If we didn’t make Sugar Glider or Halcyon & Tenderfoot the way we did, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now. Perhaps I’d be in a better position, but I do like the position I’m in now. So despite all the lessons I’ve learned from it and all the things that, theoretically, I would have changed - I’m proud of what we did and think that my writing and business skills improved massively by doing the two series the way we did it.
I’ll be at Thought Bubble, Leeds this weekend with my company Art Heroes.
You can find me in the Royal Armouries Hall at tables 48 and 49, represented on the map above by the Art Heroes superhero logo. I’ll be posting a few blogs this week on the Art Heroes website about what we’ll have on offer at the convention.
I just thought I’d post a little something here to let you know that I’ll have 10 copies of Sugar Glider issue 3 on sale too, priced £3.50. You’ll have to ask me for them, though, as we won’t have table space.
You’ll also find a picture of my face above. This is what it looks like at the minute. Wild copper hair and a wild red beard.
The first “proper” comic I released was Sugar Glider issue 1 in November 2011.
Without that comic I wouldn’t have done everything I have since then. The series is incredibly important to me - it’s helped me forge friendships and even a business. And now issue 3 (the final in the series) is due to be released.
(Once Sugar Glider 3 is released, I’m going to blog about having completed two small press comic book series)
To celebrate the release of Sugar Glider 3, we’re running a “Variant Cover” Competition. All you have to do is download the JPG or PSD files from Dropbox and then design a great cover and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. The winner will receive issue 3 and a load of other goodies.
You can read every Sugar Glider comic for free to research your cover: ONE, SGS 1, TWO, ANTHONY, SGS 2.
Here are some of the entries so far:
I Love The Toon by Jack Couvela
Gliding by George Beedham
Icon by Oscillating Brow
To Glide No More by Matthew Craig
New Year. Old Year.
January brings with it a glut of “here’s what I did last year” blogs and I’ve been responsible for some in the past. And here’s another. But a really quick one.
-Art Heroes started getting somewhere: we released 3 Halcyon & Tenderfoot comics to a great response and we started really gelling as a team. We also facilitated quite a few comic book workshops and definitely made a difference to some young people’s days/lives.
-No new Sugar Glider comics were published, but I wrote the final issue and Gary has drawn most of it. Plus, we started uploading all of the comics to the site when issue 1 sold out of its third printing.
-I moved in with Lily, her mother moved out, we took on all the financial implications of having a bank-owned property and I decided to grow up. I now work for a fantastic arts organisation and get to see human beings a few days a week. Lily works for a coffee shop, but hopes to be working in the arts after some volunteering and personal work.
-I spent a lot of time sanding floors and painting walls in the house, because it was in a really bad way. It still is, but we have two rooms to live in now.
-Thought Bubble was excellent. Just brilliant. I still haven’t judged the character competition, though. And sometimes that makes it hard to sleep at night.
-The main thing I learned last year was that worrying about thing (see above) and making plans and pushing yourself to achieve matters - but nowhere near as much as having fun and living matters. I started to achieve a much better balance.