Tips for aspiring comic book makers
The green turtle from The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang. Art by Sonny Liew.
I turned forty last year.
When I was a kid, forty years seemed like an eternity. I didn’t really think about forty, but when I thought about it, I imagined that I would have understood life. By the time I got this old, I would have cracked the code.
My fortieth year has been a mixture of ink, airplane travel, and diapers. Most days seem chaotic, but it’s a satisfying kind of chaos. And while I certainly didn’t crack the code, I did learn a few things along the way.
That’s why when I get advice from aspiring designers, I feel like I have something to offer. The following is for those of you who are considering a career in comics. I hope this will help you.
1. Decide what is most important to you: expressing yourself or making a living from art.
Money and self-expression are not mutually exclusive in the long run, but in the short run they usually are. Books are a difficult way to make money. Independent comics owned by creators? Almost impossible, especially when you are just starting out.
If your main goal is to make money from art, I suggest you move on to a related field: animation, graphics, web design. You will most likely use your talents to execute other people’s visions, but these types of jobs can still offer enough creative leeway to be satisfying.
Make no mistake, becoming a successful animator or graphic designer can be just as difficult as becoming a successful designer, but at least you’ll have the chance to work for a company that offers health insurance.
But if what you really want is to have a deeply personal take on your head and on paper, find a day job. Get a day job that you love, a job that gives you enough time and energy to work on your dream project at the same time. As I expressed in a previous article, I am a huge fan of day jobs. I have taught at the high school or college level throughout my career as a designer. My daily work is not only a source of income, it is also a source of inspiration for my books. Interacting with a variety of people on a daily basis naturally leads to stories.
2. Explore different ways of making comics.
When I first started drawing comics, I drew on card stock, using a brush and a bottle of ink. Why? Because that’s how Stan Lee and John Buscema told me to do it in their book How to draw comics the Marvel way. After meeting other cartoonists, I realized that The Marvel Way is not the alone manner. If you talk to ten draftsmen, you will probably find that they use ten different sets of tools. Damn, if you talk to a draftsman at ten different points in her career, you’ll probably find that she’s used ten different sets of tools. There is no one right way to make comics, and the art tools are personal. Experiment, read more books How to draw comics the Marvel way, get advice from friends. Especially the latter. Nothing educates you about cartooning like having cartoonist friends. Which brings me to my next point:
3. Find a community of like-minded people.
I was lucky enough to stumble upon a group of incredibly talented cartoonists when we were all in our twenties: Derek Kirk Kim, Lark Pien, Jason Shiga, Jesse Hamm, Thien Pham, Ben Catmull, Jason Thompson and many more. We used to go out once a week. We drew together, criticized each other’s handwriting, talked about the shop. I never went to art school so my friends were educated in comics. I learned to tell stories thanks to them. I have deposited with them at conventions. I even got publishing contracts thanks to them. Derek Kirk Kim introduced me to my current editor.
Making comics can be a lonely affair because you spend most of your days locked in your studio, alone at your drawing board. But the truth is, success often happens in the context of a community. You have to find this community, develop it and nurture it.
4. Go write. Go draw. Right now.
Do you have an innovative idea for a graphic novel? It’s great, but I have to be honest: ideas don’t cost a lot. Everyone has at least one revolutionary idea for a story. Most people have more than one.
But most people don’t have the determination to do something about it. If you sit down and write your story, if you draw it in panels, you are giving yourself several steps ahead. Set goals for yourself. Give yourself a few weeks or months to brainstorm an idea, sketch it in your sketchbook, tell friends about it. But after those weeks or months are over, you need to move on to writing and drawing, no matter how scared you are. You have to force yourself to do it.
A great idea that is still stuck in your head may seem big and important, but in reality it’s a small and weak thing. On the other hand, a great idea successfully executed? The one who made the trip from your head to something tangible? It’s powerful enough to change the world.
So go do it. Hit your apologies in the face.
Go write. Go draw. Right now.
Gene Luen Yangthe first book of First Second, Chinese born American, is now printed in more than ten languages and was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Printz Award. Other works by Yang include the popular comic book adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the New York Times best-selling graphic novel diptych Boxers & Saints. The shadow hero, the story of the first Asian-American superhero is his most recent graphic novel. It is published in six electronic issues, starting in February 2014; the sixth and final issue will be available on Tuesday July 15.