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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Your Book: The Best Christmas Gift

Yes it is. You've worked your sanity out getting your book together. You've poured your heart and soul into it, and invested precious hours into its completion. Your finished book contains a large part of you now, whether you like it or not. It is an extension of you.

Why shouldn't your book be a Christmas gift? Why not give your loved ones something that means a lot to you?

Maybe you're thinking that they won't appreciate what you have to offer. Maybe most of the people who matter to you don't read comics. Maybe you're thinking that you should give them something that they need, instead of forcing your book into their faces.

But that's not the point.

You're not giving them a book. You're giving them a part of you, even if your book is about decapitating undead.

Make a list of people whom you care about, and give them your book. Write a personal note on the fly leaf, the page under the front cover. Write a sentence or two filled with all the sincerity you've got, of how important they are to you. Even if it's as simple as, "I know this book is about decapitating undead, but making this book meant a lot to me, and that's why I'm sharing it with you. Merry Christmas." You don't have to ask them to read the book itself.

Don't limit this to your locality. If you have close friends or loved ones in other countries, try to send them copies, too, with the same heartfelt note as described.

And if your book is really good, who knows where it'll end up.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Reader Experience

I recently bought a compilation of Alan Moore's run on WildC.A.T.S. but I had to return it. Ignorant me, I didn't know that a whole bunch of artists contributed to Moore's stint. The back cover of the TPB only mentioned Travis Charest (whose Nowlan-ish art style I adore), and I didn't bother to ask the sales clerk for an open sample to check out the artwork. What did I say about a cover being a promise? *sigh*

Flipping through the pages of that trade made me think about how much art figured into the whole scheme of modern-day industry practices in popular comics storytelling. On one end you've got Charest's hard-edged linework, then on the other end you find Kevin Maguire's deliciously quirky renditions. Those two styles I admire, but in one book seems odd and schizophrenic.

It's like having Ang Lee directing the first half of The Incredible Hulk then passing the baton to Louis Leterrier for the second half--with two sets of actors to boot. Not a good idea.

Like movies and theater, comic books provide an experience which involves the interaction of text and image. And crucial to this experience is consistency. How often have we encountered a comic book series with art teams that change every so often, and end up frustrated? The frustration comes from the sudden shift in an experience we've gotten used to. A title with a set writer and art team provides a unique experience. Change the team, and you change the reader experience. The worst that could happen is a loss in readership.


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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Comics About Your Expertise

The Japanese have done it well with their manga, in that they have been able to tell all sorts of stories covering all sorts of topics--from personal finance to golf to cooking. Just this year, Daniel Pink and Rob Ten Pas created a career development 'manga' entitled The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need.

Now Daniel Pink isn't a comics writer. He's more of a business and technology scribe, but somehow he decided that creating a graphic novel about career development would be an interesting strategy for the young-uns who can't imagine themselves pouring through volumes of text.

Question is: is this something you can do?

Experts will always mention the power of leverage, that is, maximizing what you know and have to fuel your career growth. When you make the most of your resources, you potentially add more to your leverage, generating more growth for you. That's why you start at elementary school and work your way to college. That's why you start out as a temp before moving up toward managerial levels. Each benefit you gain from what you have now is supposed to prepare you for what you want to do next.

So if you're an expert in something, but want to do comics on the side, why not combine both to get the best of both worlds?

If you know a lot about, say, internet marketing and SEO, why not incorporate that strongly into a fictional comics story? Or why not make a how-to book about your expertise, with a nice underlying story for entertainment purposes?

Since there aren't a lot of books out there that combine knowledge and comics, you could be one of the pioneers. And, you get one foot in two doors--you're a comics creator, and you're an expert in your professional field. If you're not attending a comics convention to promote your comics work, you're doing the seminar route, teaching about your area of professional specialization.

This strategy is akin to a previous post about tying up with education, though it's more focused on your profession.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

A Few Roles of the Storyteller

Be a Seeder.

Crafting a story requires planting seeds of information, whether they involve a special prop, something someone says, a specific turn of events, etc. Eventually, these seeds of information will sprout and bloom--in true climate-controlled fashion--during specific points in your story. The challenge is to make your seed-planting inconspicuous--the reader realizes only later in the story that the information you've planted is important. This requires careful planning and graceful execution on your part. You don't want revelations to feel forced and contrived.

Be a Sadist.

Pummel your protagonist with everything you've got. Let your hero suffer. Let your reader believe that your hero has no way of surviving in one piece. Execute the ultimate tough love.

Be a Savior.

Your sadism, however, should be climate-controlled as well. Because, as the master of ceremonies, you must have the ability to lead your hero out of the ordeal. This isn't deus ex machina, or the cop out act-of-God way of neatly tying things up. You have to seed these as well during the course of the story. It's like Joaquin Pheonix swinging the bat in Signs, but not as cheesy.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

DC's MINX Imprint Cancelled

Now here's some sad news. Comic Book Resources reported that DC cancelled its Minx graphic novel line, the one aimed at tween and teenaged girls.

I saw the preview pages of some of the books through the Minx website and thought, "This doesn't look like something young girls would buy." The approach, to me, was too indie-flavored. When I think about tween and teen girls, I think Beverly Hills 90210, Hannah Montana, High School Musical, Camp Rock... even Charmed and Buffy. The samples shown on the Minx site didn't appear to evoke the aforementioned images.

Yes, those television shows seem shallow, but they mean a whole lot to the target market.

I was hoping I was wrong in my impression. But, despite the marketing efforts of DC, we haven't heard any staggering news of the line's success. So the hypothesis at this moment is that Minx either flopped, or it did at least fairly-slightly-somewhat okay, but not enough to merit the production of more books.

So, anyone want to try making a book for that market? If you're curious about what stories to tell, all you have to do is check out this, this, and this.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Question of Worth, Part 2

In the previous post, we began exploring the idea of worth when it comes to purchasing decisions. Worth is defined by 1) the promise of the product; and 2) the need of the market. Only when these two factors are in sync can a product increase its worth in the eyes of the market.

With that, here are a few tips and strategies that hopefully can help you put your graphic novel's worth under a more solid light. There are more, of course... Hmmm... maybe we should write a book.

1) Provoke and Justify. What gets you riled up? What moves you to tears? What sends you into deep thought? What sparks your laughter? What makes you painfully afraid? Anything that provokes you mentally or emotionally has a strong chance of finding a more permanent spot in your memory. And for good or ill, any memory that stays long enough has value.

In addition, the ability to make sense of that provocation adds even more value. Shock for shock's sake is empty, a gimmick. But having a convincing reason behind the shock, that you can justify your creative decisions, speaks a lot about your maturity as a storyteller.

Test your story, its scenes and theme, and see what buttons you're pushing. If there aren't any buttons, make a few, and push like crazy. But make sure that you have a good reason to do this beyond shock value. Your insight is valuable.

2) Take your reader for a ride. My theory is that most people see comics as simplistic, or incapable of telling rich, detailed stories, so do your best to break the impression. Like prose novels, graphic novels have the luxury of length. So take advantage of this by developing complex plots on both physical and emotional levels without sacrificing pacing. Dig deep even if your story is a slapstick comedy. Think big even if your story is a high school romance. Let your plot take unexpected turns, and make your characters do unexpected things.

3) Invest time in creating arresting and nuanced visuals. Worth is assumed when there is perceived effort to detailing. If you have a scene set in Paris, draw Paris, not a bunch of lines that looks like Paris. If you have a scene in Times Square, evoke the energy and life of Times Square. If you want to feature the grace and beauty of a ballet performance, have it in your art. Unlike prose novels where readers are able to imagine the setting through sensory description, graphic novels rely heavily on imagery and the occasional caption. It can be jarring to the reader to read, "The performance was the most beautiful thing I ever saw," but the panel shows a stick-figure ballet ensemble displaying the grace of a crane truck.

4) Attack a specific market. This can't be emphasized enough. If your story is for young boys, then give copies to young boys and find out what they think. If your story is about a rock band, give copies to people interested in rock--or, to members of a rock band. A story about zombies can be dangled in front of horror fans. When you've identified the group that appreciates your work, present yourself in places where they thrive.

Join an organic lifestyle bazaar if your story has strong references to gardening. Leave copies in Starbucks if your story is about the helter-skelter life of the office worker. Have a story about homeless kids? Then present yourself to the Invisible Youth Network. Don't limit yourself to the normal comics distribution channels. Start small, then work your way up.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

A Question of Worth, Part 1

Arguably, prose novels can be seen as having more worth in terms of physical content vs. price. You get 400 pages containing tens of thousands of words, all for the price of, say, $8.00 for a paperback. On the other hand, you have to shell out twice that amount to get a paperback black-and-white graphic novel with only 200+ pages. By this alone, graphic novels are destined to sell far less than their prose cousins, because "worth" is determined by how much you offer for a certain price.

Worth is a function of cost vs. benefit. Price vs. Promise.

But worth is also subjective, as much as commercial success depends on an ounce or two of luck. In my experience, worth can be influenced, and it all starts with what influences people to buy.

In the real world, we know that physical content is not the only factor that influences buying decisions. Otherwise, everyone would be buying cheap but reliable mobiles and not care what Apple's plans are for the next generation iPhone. Moreover, the subjectivity of worth is evident in the simple Christmas gift. Give your music-loving friend gift certificates for digital downloads and she'll love you forever. Give that same friend a subscription to Organic Lifestyle magazine, and she'll wonder what you've been smoking.

In short, worth is also a function of what your market wants.

In Seth Godin's The Dip, being "the best in the world" is dependent on two factors--what "the best" means and what "world" means. Michael Moore can be seen as the "best in-your-face director" in the world of "documentary filmmaking." Donald Trump can be seen as the "best businessman" in the world of "real estate." Anyone who has no interest in these worlds would not care, because these worlds don't matter to them.

How many times have we heard young creators talk about their wonderful concepts for a graphic novel? They don't have much writing or art experience and yet they harbor secret hopes that their concept is going to rake them some success.

And how many times have we seen new indie comics on the shelves, waiting for someone--anyone--to check them out, betting their shelf lives on the curiousity of the random comic buyer?

Being "the best" is about your promise. The "world" is the market of your choice. The worth of your graphic novel is measured by how much you give against what is expected of you. These two have to be in sync. If you fail to deliver what is expected, then your work has little worth. If you give your all for those who don't care, then your work has little worth as well.

In the next post, we'll try to zero in on more helpful tips in increasing the quality and worth of your work.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tips for Graphic Novel Greatness - Story

1. Start at the Core

The "core" is the thematic question that runs the entire length of your story. It may not be the concern of your character, but it has to be the concern of you, the author. That's why you're creating the story in the first place. You have an assumption that you want to challenge and eventually answer. After all, art is personal, so use the graphic novel to reveal the inquisitive side of you. This is what truly separates one graphic novel from another--the author's unique view of the world.

If you're doing, say, a high-adventure story involving a team, the core could be about group politics. A superhero tale could have a core involving psychological trauma in children. A romantic comedy could be really about insights on youth. Whatever the core of your story is, it should come from you and it should concern you. Because any great story tackles that human element that people can relate to.

2. Make every character a star.

Your main characters are the stars, yes, but it doesn't mean everyone else has to be cardboard. Giving your support, even peripheral, characters a nuanced presentation can enrich a reader's experience. It can be a speech pattern or a distinct look, just enough to give these characters a piece of the spotlight without necessarily hogging it away from your main characters.

Give them "business," a relatively insignificant activity that's good enough for one panel. For example, while your main characters are in their HQ talking about how to deal with a villain, show a janitor on the floor in the background working feverishly on a stain. He doesn't have to say anything, and he can only appear in one or two panels before walking away with a headache. But it's enough to show your reader that there's a "real world" that exists outside of your main characters.

3. Make your villain a mirror.

The best villains are those that totally go against what your protagonist stands for, so make sure that your villain hits a nerve. It is thesis and anti-thesis, with the hero trying to disprove the villain's convictions, and vice-versa, even if it's as fundamental as the right to live. Doing so increases the urgency for your protagonist and, in turn, increases the tension generated within the reader.

Villains need not be personified, by the way. Villains can exist in the mind of your protagonist as insecurities and past issues. Villains can be certain laws within a community. Villains can even be natural phenomena, or even a best buddy. It's not so much who or what the villain is, but the level of threat it presents to the life of your protagonist.

4. Entwine your A and B story.

The A story is your main plot. The B story is a subplot. More complex stories even have C stories. A typical action-adventure has the love angle. A typical romantic comedy segues into scenes with family and friends. A typical police thriller has a subplot about family.

Subplots are thrown in to 1) show the reader that a protagonist has other concerns outside of the main plot; 2) allow breathing space for the reader; 3) present how difficult the protagonist's situation really is by raising the stakes of the A story.

Taking off from the third item, B stories are stake-builders, and it is their most important role. It's not enough to show the reader the hero's other life, or to give the reader an occasional distraction. They would be deemed useless to the plot, and would be better off not being there in the first place. The events of the B story should eventually figure into the A story in an alarming way as you reach the climax, showing the reader that the protagonist's path to success is more complicated that originally thought.

5. Create the emotional plot.
A story plot is a series of physical events, and let's call this the physical plot. But there is another level of plot that adds greater depth to your story. The emotional plot is the journey your protagonist internally takes, which leads up to some kind of transformation at the end of your story. This is fundamentally "character development," wherein your hero begins with a specific state of mind and heart, goes through the twists and turns of your story, then ends up changed or at least, with greater insight and experience.

When you're planning the events or scenes of your characters' actions, plan as well the progression of your character's emotions. Tie that into your A and B story and you'll end up something potentially richer and more compelling.

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Monday, September 1, 2008

What Graphic Novelists Can Learn From Stephenie Meyer.

You would know the success story of Stephenie Meyer, who penned the insanely popular vampire novels Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn. Now I've never read her work, but what I do know is that, according to the fans of the book, Meyer isn't even the best writer in the world. And yet she, along with Nicholas Sparks, possess that distinct quality that separates her as a hitmaker in the fiction world, something that comics creators can pick up and attempt to apply to their own comics works.

The ability to move. The ability to provide a visceral experience. The ability to explore and unearth a world of emotion.

Stories are, by nature, emotional. That's why they're stories--they have the ability to hit chords within us and make us react on a gut level. While the high-concept stories are good for the brain, their residual value is worthless if the don't shake up the core of a reader.

Just by experience, you would know that the most affecting stories you've heard from friends are those that have made you laugh, made you sad or fuming mad. These stories resonate within you even after they've been told. Emotional memory sticks harder and faster than anything you try to remember in your brain.

When you remember something cerebrally, it's more for functional purposes, and eventually you'll forget that quadratic formula you learned from high school. But that first love, or that first bloody fist fight--those moments definitely last longer.

That was the magic, I've been told, that Meyer's stories had. While we can argue that Twilight et al. had the benefits of being published by a major company and packaged in a way that attracted attention, those benefits were only means to an end. Because if Meyer's story had been told differently, there might not have been debates over Team Edwards and Team Jacobs, or the thousands of rabid discussion threads about the series.

It's always great to have a high concept for your graphic novel. Unique concepts inspire curiousity and intrigue, which are very important in the whole marketing process. But, like book covers and great art, a story that has no emotional backbone, that doesn't push buttons, is like that gorgeous wallflower--all form, no depth.

Adding emotional depth to your graphic novel is a two-step:

1) The situations you present have to, first and foremost, affect you in a profound way. To get to the bottom of that emotional well, you have to first be at the bottom. (Unless you've had a wealth of experience to be able to execute your work based on technique alone.)

2) Once you've identified the intensity of the emotion, you must be able to translate it effectively through words and images, or even through images alone. Intensity can work both ways, from the outburst of a guy in rage, or the silent tension of a woman holding back her tears.

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Robert Kirkman's Call To Arms

Writer Robert Kirkman's video editorial on Comic Book Resources raised not a few eyebrows. Some call his statements messianic and arrogant, while other see the point of his concerns. There are also others who go down the middle.

When Kirkman encouraged creators to pursue creator-owned stuff, I believe he's more concerned about a creator's longevity alongside the work. People know Batman, people know DC, but hardly anyone knows who created the Dark Knight. Of course, one would get more mileage working for Marvel and DC, but my impression is that aspirants see the big companies not as means to a greater end, but as the end itself. And that way of thinking kills any career.

A good number of writers and artists have ceased to work for these companies, and the sad part is we hardly hear from these writers and artists. It's as if they've fallen of the edge of the world into the pages of a retrospective. These creators have been unable to maximize the leverage they earned during their stint in Marvel/DC to fuel their career development.

While one should be good (and sellable) enough to handle the more popular properties, creators should realize that the major companies are mere stepping stones, valuable additions to one's resumé. But one should have a plan for what happens after.

After all, the main purpose of any job is to help prepare you for the next one.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Why You Have To Think Far and Wide

The competition is fierce enough in other storytelling industries. Novelists, screenwriters, playwrights--all of them are aware of the cutthroat nature of their work.

But there's a big difference between their respective fields and the comics industry. For fiction, film and theater, their opportunities for breaking in are far greater than that of comics. We just need to count how many large and medium-sized comics publishers are currently operating to get a clear picture of how small the needle's eye is for comics creators.

To successfully break in, the comics creator should not limit his opportunities to comics publishers.

Moreover, the comics creator has to strive to be the best storyteller around. Not only that, but to attempt to be a good marketer.

Let's face it, comics publishers can only produce a finite number of titles. A finite number of titles can only accommodate a finite number of creators. There's no plausible reason for any creator to try to submit proposal after proposal in the hope that something bites. (Chris Claremont wrote the Uncanny X-Men for 20 years...that's 20 solid years spent by other people submitting X-Men stories, and failing.) One can try their darndest, of course, but imagine all that time wasted preparing and submitting proposals, when the creator can do his own work and get it published himself.

Since the opportunities for comics creators are small, these creators should aggressively begin carving their own paths. Why spend three, four, five years developing proposals when it would be wiser to spend those years being better writers and better artists? In this amount of time, an aspiring creator can move from neophyte to professional-level greatness without the help of a pat on the back from a big company.

This can only be done by studying, making short comics, studying further, making longer comics, and so on and so forth. To get to the big league, the aspirant has to subject himself to hard training in small deliberate steps, challenging himself every step of the way. He shouldn't do this to bag a gig in Marvel or DC, but to be a great comics creator, period.

So make your mark as a comics creator. Create rich, complex, entertaining, insightful and moving stories, using your own characters. Give them art that rivals, if not trumps, what you see on the shelves. Put together your book, with the best you've got, and seek out your own channel for publication.

If your work is really that good, you will find your audience, you will find your acclaim. And, who knows, maybe those big companies will eventually come knocking on your door.

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Maximizing Image

I read a graphic novel recently, Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine, and I was somehow disappointed that the expensive book only featured people talking. The story itself had enough emotional depth to qualify for an arc of character development, but the creator didn't play too much with the visual aspect. Two people talking in a restaurant. Two people talking in a bedroom. Two people walking down the street. People talking.

In short, the story, while readable, didn't quite suit the medium. It would have been more effective as a stage play for an intimate audience than a graphic novel. The images seemed to weigh less than the words--Tomine used a realistic style that, while pleasing to the eye, allowed no room for visual experimentation or styling.

Then, of course, the question: is visual experimentation required? The answer is no, especially if you're doing a story like Shortcomings. The issue is not the way a story is presented, but the medium used to present the story. The actual question should be: is your story the kind that maximizes the potential of the image-text interplay? Or, specifically, are you maximizing the image-text relationship in your work, despite the kind of story you choose to present?

One of the best examples I can cite that maximizes the possibilities of both words and pictures is Blankets. It is a beautiful book, with a visual style that reinforces--even intensifies--the gravity of the words. Despite the story being quiet and introspective, it was very moving. Conceivably, if Craig Thompson had used a more realistic style, the book would have lost a lot of its power.

Another example is Kick-Ass. John Romita Jr.'s rough kinetic, even cartoony, style offers the necessary edginess to Mark Millar's script, effectively taking the story beyond the confines of the violent superhero story into a visceral experience. If Jim Lee had drawn Kick-Ass, the effect would have been different, if not out of sync.

It's not enough that the graphic novelist master the fundamentals of anatomy, perspective and composition. The graphic novelist must have the ability to make the art side flex its own storytelling muscle, while matching the mood and atmosphere relayed by the text. Will a comics page still be interesting--keep a reader on his toes--if the words were taken out? That's the challenge.


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Friday, August 1, 2008

The Great Middle Ground

What can the graphic novelist do to increase the value of their stories, not just in the eyes of the comics reader, but also to the average civilian?

The general public has been weaned, even spoiled, by motion pictures. I use motion pictures here because comics have become film's strange bedfellow. And it appears that a number of creators have deemed it necessary to create comics that approximate film.

But comics can never be film. Comics do not have the benefit of physical motion. And the more that comics are attached to film, the lesser its value becomes.

So what can the graphic novelist do to place the medium in its rightful independent place as an incomparable artform, and yet not be too artsy that it alienates the common Joe?

The principle I've always held is this: "Give them what they want, then give them what you want." To be profitable, the graphic novel should think "profitability." Structure a story using the standard genre of film--romantic comedy, sci-fi thriller, buddy cop, etc.--to make the story familiar and seemingly comfortable to read, but offer the left field surprise.

1) While the graphic novel can be made to look like a film, it should have important elements (visual and verbal) that are difficult to translate to film. In effect, offering an audience the experience that only comics can provide.

2) While the graphic novel can have stories that can be imagined as a profitable film, it should have story elements that would make film producers think twice. In short, important story elements that can be depicted freely in an unregulated medium, but would be subject to extreme scrutiny by the film industry.

3) The success of a lot of films is hinged on celebrity--bankable actors with reliable performances--which the graphic novel does not have the benefit of. It is thus required of the graphic novelist to position him or herself as the celebrity, by producing compelling well-written and drawn stories. The graphic novelist has to think and work like a professional novelist, and not just "some person who makes comics."

4) One aspect of film that the graphic novel can freely exploit is the presentation of thought. It is almost impossible to present conscious thought in commercial film, but thought is a mainstay in the arsenal of comics creation. Also note that the presentation of thoughts is widely used in prose novels. The graphic novelist can use thought to enrich a narrative.

5) The graphic novelist should put equal weight the planning of words and pictures. It is not enough to have a great script. The graphic novelist would have to play the role of production designer--taking care to research for the depiction of locations, locales, costumes, props, etc. And this visual research ought to extend to the "performances" of the characters, with each character serving as an "actor." The graphic novelist should provide a wealth of visual and verbal nuance. Doing so would add significantly to the impression of worth in the eyes of the public.

At the end of the day, it's all about worth. If a graphic novel intends to sell, it's supposed to be seen a worthy by the people who flip through it in a bookstore.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Art Driven or Word Driven?

In some of the fora I've come across, a lot of aspiring comics creators seem to be more art-driven than word-driven. This is understandable, since comics by popular perception is a visual medium.

When I started out, however, I didn't place as much importance in art as I did story. Yes, I do believe that art can make or break a graphic novel, but I thought that if I devoted more energy to the art side and scrimped on the story side, what was my business making graphic novels in the first place? I didn't want to make book filled with just pretty pictures.

If there's one thing I envy about writers is the convenience they have. They can write anywhere! They can write a scene on a paper napkin while having a piñacolada in some South American beachfront. They can revise and finalize wherever an inspiration hits them, even while taking a dump. But the comics artist? No such luck. Unless you're the avant-garde graphic novelist who publishes everything on paper napkins.

My work right now, however, is more art-driven since that's how I really started out. Getting into the discipline of storycrafting is a current passion of mine. I mean, I've tasted some success with my previous work, but I was working mostly on instinct. Now, I'm actually studying storycrafting while continuously honing my art skills. It's a schizophrenic experience which I believe will rewarding in the end.

So to the graphic novelist who reads this--are you more art driven or word driven? Do you feel the need for balance--excellence in both fields?

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Friday, June 13, 2008

A Graphic Novel A Year

Who doesn't want to make a graphic novel a year? I certainly would want to. I've been reading Karen Weisner's First Draft in 30 Days, a book for novel writers, and I thought, "Why can't graphic novelists join the fun?" Weisner's book is about coming up with a draft, not a full novel. A draft is something that can conceivably be achieved in the span of a month, since the document is far from being styled, cleaned up, and polished.

In a previous post, I proposed a "program" for the graphic novelist, in which he'll spend a year developing material for the next four years. I wasn't sure if it was possible since I've been wrestling with my own project. But Weisner's book was good inspiration, so perhaps the "one graphic novel a year" idea may just work.

Another inspiration is Blake Snyder's Save the Cat: The Last Book On Screewriting You'll Ever Need. The book has drawn a lot of flak because it appears to promote the formulaic film. But Snyder follows the book up with a sequel Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter's Guide to Every Story Ever Told, wherein he proves that most successful movies, from Saw to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, have a formula. The formula is in the structure, summarized by Snyder in "15 beats," which is wholly unnoticed by moviegoers. What makes each film unique can be found in the style and execution.

Weisner's book is more challenging to follow, however, because her system is worksheet based. But I understand that she had to do this because she was working with the 30-day frame. Snyder's book is more an overview of story structure among other things. So having these two books (or other similar references) can help graphic novelists speed things up.

Like I've said before, there are huge differences between graphic novels, prose novels, and screenplays, but they all have one objective--to tell a compelling story. The execution may be different, but their bare bones have a lot in common.


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Friday, June 6, 2008

Art for the Commercial Graphic Novel

Last night, I was thinking in my usual over-analytical mode of the anti-social sort. I sat in the kitchen and thought out loud--a typical conversation with myself. And the topic at hand concerned art style.

What kind of art style would the commercial graphic novel have to help boost its chances of success? As I pondered on this question, the word+image concept popped into my mind.

The graphic novel in question should have art that would satisfy the taste of its intended audience, the same way that its story ought to be written.

Would Jim Lee's style give justice to a romantic comedy? Would James Kochalka's style work for a swords and sorcery epic? Arguably, they could. But the popular manga style apparently didn't work for Marvel comics, so there must be something about art style that should figure into the whole commercial graphic novel idea. (As a side note, I used to think that every Wonder Woman fan adored Adam Hughes' rendition of our dear superheroine, but I've read in a forum that there are a few who thought otherwise.)

This reminds me of a friend of mine who writes great dark fantasy stories. I told him that maybe he ought to try other kinds of stories--like stuff for kids. Surely a talented writer could easily write a short children's story. Well, he tried it, and it didn't work. The story he wrote had all the trappings of his dark fantasy style, albeit using less words in his sentences. It didn't occur to me then that writers had a default style, a methodology they're most comfortable with, a distinct way they interpreted their view of the world. The same way that Mariah Carey is best doing RnB, and Fall Out Boy doing rock.

So the commercial graphic novel should not only carry a commercially-viable story, but also commercially-appealing art, an art style that matches the mood and nuances of the story to be told. The Jim Lee style is perfect for superheroes, but I find it hard imagining its effectivity in a period British war story, at least in the eyes of the general public.

Who do I think would make great artists for the commercial graphic novel? Adam Hughes, Bryan Hitch, Brian Bolland, Paolo Serpieri, Jackson Guice, Greag Land, Alan Davis, Mark Schultz, George Perez, Phil Jimenez, and all artists whose styles tend towards the more realistic. They can make characters act and express emotions that resemble real life.

And when a story resembles real life, yet still hinges on the fantastic, it would have an easier time connecting to a large audience. It would be easier to sell.


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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Giving the Graphic Novel a Step Up

I would often wonder why the graphic novel hasn't really made any great strides of late. Sure, many say that the form has reached "legit art" status, but how does that translate to the real world? I'm still waiting for news on a graphic novel that has captured the fancy of a sizeable portion of the populace, not because the work is "important," but because it is vastly meaningful as well as entertaining. The kind of book that people can't help but talk about. The book that mysteriously goads people into telling their friends, "You have GOT to get this book!"

Now I've only read a few non-superhero graphic novels (Blankets, Stuck Rubber Baby, Maus, Midnight Nation), so my views may not hold a lot of water, but the one possibly irrefutable issue against the graphic novel is the price. Graphic novels are expensive! They're more expensive than a movie and a snack combined. A lot of them are more expensive than hardcover novels.

What exacerbates this issue is content, and I refer to the complexity of plot, richness of the writing, and the appeal of the art. I'm also referring to the re-read and pass-on value. In short, how many graphic novels out there are actually worth the price they ask for? Even if I were an enthusiast, I would be hard-pressed to shell out over $15 for a book I could potentially read and absorb in less than an hour. Though the financial aspects of producing a graphic novel would really jack up the retail price, I'd still like to get enough bang for my hard-earned buck.

The best comparison I can think of right now is the novel-turned-film. And we've heard countless times how movie adaptations can't hold a candle against the original material. Movies don't have the luxury of time to cram a 300-page novel into less than two hours of screentime. It is, however, easier to adapt a 100-page graphic novel. Worse, it's easier to add plot and character elements, even enrich the script, that can give the movie adaptation greater depth than the original 100-pager can hope to have.

The worst part would be when people say the movie is richer than the original book. And watching the resulting movie is even cheaper. Ouch.

So the graphic novelist has to work extra hard to deliver a story that won't just satisfy the artistic palate, especially if he intends to pursue this as a career. The product has to feel like a novel, story-wise. It has to have the ingredients, depth, scope, intricacy, and intensity of the common novel. The art and story have to be able to connect viscerally, as well as provide entertainment, to the average reader. It has to be able to stand on its own two--ummm--covers. It has to justify the price tag.

Now if there's a graphic novel out there that satisfies the above criteria, do tell me. I'd really would like to read it, sarcasm not intended.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Treating Your Comics Characters Like Actors

Creating characters is a fun exercise. Deciding on their physical attributes, costumes, personality traits and quirks, etc. always gets my head twirling. And thus far, the few comics characters I've created have resonated well with my audience. When I started making comics on my own, I thought that it would serve a story well if I treated my characters like actors, with me as director, and the graphic novel as a movie or a stage play.

In my casual dealings with actors, I hear them harp about the kinds of roles they get, the kinds of roles they end up with, and their dream roles. They judge the quality of a role by how it figures in the whole story, and how challenging it would be to get into a role's groove. "Role" in this case means "contribution." A role has to have enough significance in a story for it to be worth the while.

Actors look for the "character arc" in major roles, and "impact" in supporting roles. If a supposedly major role has no arc of transformation, or if a supporting role doesn't influence the progression of a story, then these roles don't hold a lot of water. Serious actors who get these parts are often in it for the paycheck.

So when you're developing your graphic novel characters, imagine whether or not your "actors" will love the parts you want them to play.

On the other end, there are roles that are simply fun to portray. Not necessarily sidekick or comedy relief roles, these characters have a unique charm about them--in their speech and manner--that actors can play and experiment with. Of course these characters should have some significance to the story, but their appeal rests in their personality.

But if there's one thing that can be gained by treating characters like actors is the idea of "truth." In acting, truth is one of the greatest virtues, and actors always strive to achieve truth when they portray a role.

For the purposes of making comics, there are two levels of truth. The first level is the story and the script. As a comics writer, your job is to imbue as much truth into your characters as possible to make them believable. Your dialogue has to be hinged on the reality of your chosen genre, whether it be Victorian England or the Bronx. If you don't read your script out loud, best that you make this attempt. You'll be able to identify the clunky and rough spots when you do so.

The second level of truth is the performance, via the comics page. Here, you will exercise and hone your ability in designing the character that fits the role, all the way down to how they hold a glass, how they smile, or how they react to different stimuli.

Exercise: Choose a scene from your story involving two people and work out a sample "performance." You set up the location and place your characters in their starting positions. As you progress through the panels, determine how you can bring out more of your character's personalities visually. Take as many panels as you like--don't limit yourself to a fixed number of pages.

As your characters "speak" their lines, what would they be doing? What would be the expressions on their faces? How would they use their hands? How would they move? Do you know enough about your characters to visually take them a step further? Can you take character "risks?" For instance, your actor might ask, "Is it alright if I go here and do this?"

"Oh, on this line in the script I feel like poking."

"Can I have a cat? I think my deviousness will come out more when I'm stroking a cat."

"I think this line is unecessary. Can I just make a long pause?"

"You designed me with long fingernails. I'd like to tap them on something."

And you, the director, can try those suggestions and see whether they work or not. During rehearsals, actors would try different approaches, so allow your characters that luxury. Play out the suggestions in very rough drafts and make a judgment call. Contenting yourself with a "safe" execution deprives you of the richness of nuance inherent in your story.

Then, when you more or less have an idea of how the final scene will play out, make another revision/edit based on the number of pages meant for the scene. You might find yourself chopping out some of the new ideas because you don't have enough screen time, and that's okay. Usually, you'll still end up with a scene that's far richer than how you started out.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Half-Baked Comics Instruction?

When I look through references that claim to give advice on "how to make comics," I don't find anything substantial that covers plot formulation, story structure, character profiling and growth, dialogue, scene planning, etc. These references focus almost exclusively on art.

Art is only half the battle when creating a good and effective comics story. Comics is about image married with text, each element complementing, strengthening and reinforcing the other.

So why does writing seem to take a backseat when it comes to comics instruction?

(Some may argue that one can make comics without words. That's true. But given the state of the industry now, in whatever country or culture, comics without words is more the exception than the rule.)

P.S. Yes, I said in my last post that I wouldn't continue this blog. But I just had to post this question. It's been bugging me.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Well, what do you know...

Unfortunately, I won't be able to continue this blog due to personal reasons, but I'm really thankful to you all for spending a share of your internet time reading through my crazy ideas. If some of my posts seemed ludicrous, then I credit that to an overactive imagination.

Again, what I've written may or not ring plausible to many who have experienced creating graphic novels, but then at this point there are really no set rules. There are many ways to sell, and many would have different takes on what would be "sellable." But the main thesis of this blog is that to be able to sell, you need to touch, enthrall, inspire, even tickle. You can showcase your artistic side, but you need to be understood and appreciated as well.

ICv2 reported that over 3,000 graphic novels were released in 2007. Question is, how many of them have made a significant impact in the name of the medium? How many of them have gone far and wide, passed through many hands, and been talked about? How many of them have made the bestsellers' list, and how many of their authors have been given recognition beyond the comics culturati?

Some say that the graphic novel is the "literary" version of comics, and I beg to disagree. Anything can be explored in a graphic novel, and can be as literary or as K-Mart as can be imagined and rendered. The task of the graphic novelist is to broaden the field, to capture the fancies of the general public, with stories that can be enjoyed as much as those we see on the silver screen, the boob tube, or the theater stage.

There is nothing wrong with comics commercialism, as long as the creator remains true to his artistic vision--by giving an audience what it wants but, at the same time, doing so in an ingenious, insightful, memorable, and heartfelt manner. By introducing and reinforcing the kind of magic that only comics can weave, the general public can begin to tune itself to comics' unique sensibilities. When this is successfully done, the industry can grow further and farther. Comics will no longer be seen as fodder for Hollywood, but a creature strong enough to stand on its own two feet.

Can a graphic novel reach number one on the bestsellers' lists? Can a non-manga graphic novel sell over a gazillion copies? There's no reason why it shouldn't. The money can be good, yes, but think about it. The more that graphic novels repeatedly make fiction headlines, the more buzz it creates for the medium. The more buzz, the more curiosity generated. Everyone benefits.

So fire up your word processors and open up those sketchbooks. Take a long, hard look at how great stories are really made. Strengthen your writing. Fine tune your art. Build your style. Find your niche. Get in touch with your intended audience and find out what they want to read, and dish out a tale that fits--that is, with your true creative voice written all over it.

Most of all, have fun with it. It's going to be a helluva ride.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tracking the Physical and the Non-Physical

There are authors who say that there's no such thing as a plot driven story, since at the heart of every story is a character through whom we witness the story unfold. So, effectively, all stories are character driven at varying degrees.

In my book, a plot-driven story is one where there is an obvious focus on physical events. While there may be character development, the resolution of the story is greatly dependent on completion of physical tasks. A character-driven story, on the other hand, has stronger focus on what's going on in the characters' minds. There are physical aspects involved, yes, but the course of the story is dependent on the characters' personality and the emotional risks they take.

Let's look at the diagram below:

In my previous post, I mentioned that every story can be broken down into a series of events connected by a pivot, with each event seeking to "raise the stakes." If it were a diagram, it would look like that shown in Figure A. (click to enlarge)

In Figure A, a story Event has to result in a change of circumstance, whether physical, non-physical or both. In effect, the Event that follows begins with a new set of givens, as depicted in Figure B. This Event-Picot chain continues throughout the story, reinforcing or altering circumstances, building upon one another.

Now Events don't change everything. They either change the environment (what's happening around a character), the character's physical circumstances (e.g. injury, loss of money, gaining of property, relocation, etc.), or non-physical circumstances (relfection, sadness, anger, insanity, loneliness, exuberation, positive outlook, etc.). This is shown in Figure C.

Given this set-up, a plot-driven story is one where the Pivots more often directly affect the environment and the character's physical circumstances. In a character-driven story, the Pivots take more potshots at the non-physical circumstances.

Now, here's the punchline. The Event-Pivot setup in Figure A can be seen as two panels of a comics story. In fact, you can conceivably do a very rough draft of your plot by drawing and writing each event in two panels--the first being the Event itself and the next being the result of that Event as the Pivot. When you do this, it's possible for you to track the physical and non-physical journey of the story, and ensure that each journey reaches a sensible and satisfying ending.

What's important to note is that an Event can be great or small. Even as small as waking up late in the morning. What makes an Event worth stressing is not its scale, but its impact.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

"Series of Un/Fortunate Events"

In the previous post, I wrote out a basic outline which can be matched with many traditionally structured dramatic stories. In this outline, I included what I call "Major Pivots" or "Major Twists," though I'm partial to calling them the former, only because other books call it differently.

A Major Pivot is a radical shift in a story's narrative that strongly influences how the next scenes will play out. It's like saying, "Whoa, now THIS changes everything."

We realize that all stories are just a series of events, but what makes an event more compelling is when it institutes a change, great or small, in the physical and/or emotional circumstances of the lead character. If an event does not contribute anything to the whole story, the event is useless and thus unnecessary. As Sandra Scofield says in The Scene Book, every scene has to have a function.

So, effectively, every event or scene you have in your story should end with a pivot, a change.

Event ---> Pivot ---> Event ---> Pivot ...

For a simple example, Joe wakes up late in the morning (event). He starts off his day frustrated (pivot). The roads are clogged with traffic (event), leading to greater frustration (pivot). His girlfriend calls him up on his mobile and berates him for failing to remember her birthday (event), convincing Joe that the day isn't going to be a breeze (pivot). And so forth and so on.

Notice that every event contributes to a change in Joe's mental/emotional state. They all add up, fueling Joe's negativity, and orient the readers into the development of Joe's state of mind.

Now all these are just little itty-bitty pivots. Individually they're not much, but provide indisputable impact on Joe's growing ire. But somewhere along the line, according to your grand story plan, you will introduce a Major Pivot, after an event that will bring about a whammy of an impact. Every pivot before it was the fuel, and then you light the match.

The Major Pivot comes into the story first with the Inciting Incident, or that one event that will provoke your major character into doing something, the action core of your plot. At this point, your character thinks, "It's going to take a lot of work, but I have to do this!" This tells the reader that, "Okay, this is the reason you're reading this story." Will your main character succeed or not?

The next few events and pivots involve your main character in the process of trying to achieve his goal. There will be Complications that will test your character's patience. The second Major Pivot happens after you throw in your first mother monkey wrench. This is the point wherein you character says, "This isn't as easy as I thought." Doubt begins to set in.

After that, your character continues to pursue his goal but with a little more caution. You introduce a series of more events, each one changing the character's assessment of the situation. He begins to think that's he's got it all figured out. Then, boom! You throw in your next monkey wrench, but this time from left field. Your main character goes for a tailspin. The Major Pivot happens--your main character is left with very little, if not a single, option. In other stories, the main character throws in the towel.

The third act comes in, and the next series of events is meant to put your main character back in the situation in time for the home stretch. The "final battle" happens--will the story's Conclusion place your character as a success or a failure? That's your choice. The Denouement caps your story as a postscript, essentially allowing your character to assess what has happened, if he survives.

Again, the above is a very simple approach. It can actually become more comprehensive than that. And an event does not have to be physical. It can be emotional, mental, even spiritual. What is important is that each event contributes to the escalation of your story's urgency, repeatedly challenging your character's intent of pursuing the goal.

Now we go to your chosen plot. What is your inciting event? What are your monkey wrenches? Indicate them with conviction--encircle them or highlight them with a marker. If you're not convinced that these events are strongly significant, then you may have to rework the events a bit by giving them more punch. Traditionally there can only be one inciting event and a couple of monkey wrenches. Having three is still okay if you have a particularly long story; more than three can tire your reader into thinking, "When is this ever going to end?" And you wouldn't want that.

In my next post, I'll talk about "plot-driven" and "character-driven" stories, and how you can figure character action and emotion into your story using the Event/Pivot scheme. It's very simple, at least theoretically.


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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Plot Basics

Books on fiction writing define Plot differently, but the essence is the same--a Main Character wants to achieve An Objective despite An Opposition. And I'd like to think that each of your four plots would have these three elements in place.

The next step is breaking down your Plot into sections that will cover the traditional Three Act Structure or Beginning, Middle and End. While there are arguably other ways to structure a story, the three act is the most accessible. It has worked since the day people have had stories to tell, and the rhythm of the "Three-Acter" is more readily digestible. (Very much like appetizer, main course, and dessert; breakfast, lunch, and dinner... you get the drift.)

At this point you either have your plot in outline form or in prose form. Either will do. All that's needed now is for you to divide that whole plot into three sections. But where exactly do you place the dividing lines? Where does Act One end and Act Two begin?

For the purposes of this entry, I will divide a whole story as follows:

ACT ONE - The Setup
Inciting Incident
1st Major Pivot/Twist

ACT TWO - The Journey
2nd Major Pivot/Twist
Unexpected Turn
3rd Major Pivot/Twist

ACT THREE - The Wrap
Final Battle

The above is pretty much self-explanatory. The First Act contains everything your audience would need to know to get them into the story. It ends with the Main Character realizing that he or she must reach a certain goal, or attain a specific objective.

The Second Act details how the Main Character goes about reaching that goal. There will be Complications and Unexpected Turns, and the act usually ends with the Main Character getting involved in a major crisis, or having to make a make-or-break decision.

The Third Act wraps everything up. Conflict ends, for better or worse.

(You can imagine the ends of the First and Second Acts as the sudden burst of an orchestra playing ominous, foreboding music, just before end credits.)

The "Major Pivot/Twist" will need a more lengthy explanation. That comes next.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

What's Wrong With A Commercial Graphic Novel?

Based on the conversations I've had with aspiring comics creators, there's the common underlying fear when it comes to creative control. They say that they're not sure that a publishing company will honor their creative integrity, and suggest that "a publisher just wants to make money" as something inherently evil. This is the reason why they choose to produce their books independently, using their own money, with a small print run and limited distribution. To them, it's okay that they don't sell a lot, as long as they get their work out.

My question, then, is: why spend all that time and money to get a book out in the first place if you're okay with mediocre sales?

Independent comics creators should worry about the bottom line as much as publishers do. Why? Because a good bottom line ensures the creator of a future in the field. If my graphic novel sold well, I would make enough to produce another book, and another. If I made a graphic novel and it hardly made a sales dent, then what's going to stop me from shifting gears towards another career altogether? What's going to stop me from throwing in the towel?

That's why publishers want to make sure a book sells. They want to keep at the business over the long run. As much as they would want to honor your creative integrity, they also wish that you'd honor their desire to make a decent buck.

This brings up the issue of the "commercial" work, which many seem to translate as "dumb." As we've seen in other media, this isn't entirely the case. In the fiction world, there are literary gems (like those of Murakami and Garcia Marquez) and throwaway fare (fill-in-the-blanks romance novellas), but there are also the commercial and readable works (by Sparks, Patterson, Grisham, etc.) . Same goes for film and television. Each medium has a spectrum that covers general demographic and psychographic preferences.

Question is: can the same be said for comics and graphic novels? Think about it. On one end, you have the highly specialized superhero niche, dominated by Marvel and DC. Note that superhero comics isn't commercial mainstream, because while it caters to a certain age group, it focuses specifically on those who like superheroes.

On the other end, you have the comics-as-literature types like Maus, Persepolis, Ghost World, American Splendor, and others. These are the "art house" denizens of the comics world.

So where are the "middle ground" comics? Where are the comics equivalent of CSI, West Wing, Devil Wears Prada, Desperate Housewives, The Bourne Identity, Meet The Fockers, The Sixth Sense, A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Twilight Saga, Gossip Girl, etc.? The kind of comics that have a strong commercial potential (read: are meant to sell) and yet doesn't insult the intelligence of an audience? If there are such comics, why aren't there a lot of them?

As an exercise, think about those commercial movies, novels, and television shows that you love. Now isolate those based mostly on the story--tough, but it can be done. Then ask yourself, are there any comics out there that have similar stories? If there aren't, it might be a good idea to develop one, with the bonus of your adding your unique spin to it. The key here is to develop story ideas that can cater to a commercial audience, but at the same time, allow you to practice your creative integrity.

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Your Graphic Novel Career

Here's the deal. Below is a a simple project schedule that can help you put together one graphic novel every year for the next four years. This assumes that you do both writing and art chores, and the finished graphic novel will be in black and white, with at least 100 pages. (Though to me, a graphic novel should be at least 120 pages, but that's my personal preference.) This schedule can be followed during your off hours, especially if you have a day job.

Some of the items outlined are self-explanatory, but I will go through each item over the next blog entries.



March to May (Three months) - Reorienting Yourself With the Craft and Technicals
June to July (Two months) - Keeping In Touch with the Marketplace


August (One month) - Developing Your Plot and Theme List; Self-Discovery
September (One month) - Premeditating Your Body of Work
October to November (Two months) - Churning Out Plot Summaries; Reflecting On Your Brand
December - Take a Break! Your deserve it!



January to February (Two months) - Plot Cleaning and Story Development
March to May (Three months) - Script Development and Editing


June (One month) - Production Design
July to November (Five months) - Artwork and Lettering. (For a 100-page graphic novel, five months allows you one and a half days to do one page. That shouldn't be so hard.)

STAGE 3: PRE-PRODUCTION (Congratulations! Your first graphic novel is done.)

December (One month) - Art Scanning and Cleaning; Book Design and Pre-Production

That's it. After four years, you would have four short graphic novels to boast about. If you feel time isn't on your side, you can go for three graphic novels in four years. On the fifth year, take a break while at the same time, plan for your releases for the next four years.

You might be wondering why a lot of time is focused on story development and writing. In my opinion, even though comics is a visual medium, no amount of art can elevate a so-so story to the heights of greatness. The idea is that the reader has to see your effort from both story and art vantage points. To the non-comics reader, art may just be a secondary consideration. To me, it's those two areas where a graphic novelist ought to excel.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cover Matters 2

Graphic Novel Covers

If you want to earn the favor of someone, you have to speak their language. You have to present to them what they expect of you, whether they be your parents, your friends, a lover, or an employer. This is a crucial part of the marketing mix. To be able to connect to what your audience is looking for is a foot in the door towards making a sale.

So far, in the comics industry, you know a comic book when you see one. The covers are pretty standard, pretty traditional in execution. There's a whole culture surrounding it. Despite the innovations we've seen over the past decade, the overall sensibility remains the same. And this sensibility has been successful in drawing the comic book crowd in.

However, it's possible that these covers reinforce the stigma surrounding the medium. If we're looking to attract a non-comics reading crowd to our work, we need to speak their language. Our closest point of reference is the bookstore.

With that, the graphic novel covers shown above aren't real. I cooked them up as an experiment. (Trademarks belonging to Marvel.)

If, the moment you first laid eyes on these make-believe covers, you've been hit by at least squint-level curiosity, then what does this say about the power of a cover to get the attention of a passerby?

Granted, the Scarlet Witch and the X-Men are somehow familiar to comics fans, but what these covers seek to do is to rip these characters out of context and present them in a different light--one that doesn't scream superhero. To the comics person, these covers may seem baffling. There's no image of any character on the covers. There's no dynamic pose, no speed lines, nothing to suggest a superhero story.

But I'll go back to what I said in the first installment of Cover Matters. The cover is a promise, and the promise can be as fundamental as red shoes. To some of you, the Scarlet Witch cover can be mistaken for a piece of "chick lit." Think "Devil Wears Prada" or "Shopaholic," in a genre that I'd suppose could inspire an interesting superhero-drama story involving Wanda Maximoff.

Wanda: "You don't understand how I feel! You're incapable of feeling anything!"
Vision: [attempting to compute]

The X-Men cover moves the mutant superhero story well into the sci-fi realm. This cover can may as well fit in the science fiction section of a bookstore. The story can contain the usual flashiness of an X-Men tale, but the cover envelops the story in a non-superhero context. For these two covers, the only thing that gives them away is the tag "A Graphic Novel." There's no deception involved.

So will these covers really attract a non-comics reading audience? I honestly don't know. But what I do know is that if you want your graphic novel to reach a new audience, you need to think out of the box. And a good place to start is finding out what your target audience is looking for in a book cover.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Making Your Story Stick 2

No, my projects aren't done yet, but I feel the need to continue blogging here, even if only on a sporadic basis. There may have been a few who have repeatedly visited despite my previous post, and I can only express my sincerest gratitude for your patience.

With that said, on we go...

- - - - - - - - - - -

In the first installment of "Making Your Story Stick," I outlined three of the six factors comics creators can use in developing their stories. These six factors are based on Chip and Dan Heath's book, "Made To Stick." The first three factors are simplicity, unexpectedness and concreteness. Let's move forward to the latter three.

1) Credibility. By far one of the more difficult to achieve, credibility is one of the more crucial. In a crowded industry where many comics creators hope to find their place in the sun, levels of credibility set them apart. Do you know how to piece together a compelling plot? Can you write memorable dialogue? Is your research extensive? If you're a writer/artist, are your skills balanced? Can you maximize the unique qualities of the medium?

Applying Credibility: To be able to enhance your credibility, you only need to do one thing: Hone Your Skills. If you feel you need a workshop, invest in joining one. If you can find a mentor, do so. If you can post samples on your personal website or blog, present your best work and take criticism objectively. If you get encouraging feedback, don't rest on your laurels. Push yourself to do better.

The strange thing about credibility is that you can create the illusion of credibility through deep insight. You don't have to have years of concrete artistic experience to be credible, but a unique viewpoint, and a novel manner of delivering that viewpoint. The best example I can think of right now is Diablo Cody, the lauded screenwriter of the equally lauded film Juno. Not a seasoned writer by any means, Cody put herself in an enviable position with an Academy Award nomination--and she's just in her mid-twenties. Her weapon? Honesty.

2) Emotional. Over the course of this blog, you've read about creating a central character that should speak to the reader. The emotional factor is that part of your story that effectively places the reader in the shoes of the central character. You may have heard of comic book plots that harp on concept and action, rarely touching on the protagonist's emotional base. While concept-driven stories can be cool, these stories can only sustain themselves for so long. What's cool today may not be cool tomorrow.

That's why the emotional base is important. Emotional struggles are timeless.

Applying Emotions: When you're developing your story, you would most probably start with defining what your story is about in a sentence. It's the overall plot that states who wanting what against something--that's what's your story is about. But what is your story really about? Where is your lead character coming from? Why is he or she doing all this? As an exercise, take your lead character into a room and post the question, "Why?" If your character says, "Someone's gotta do it," or "Justice must be served," then give your character a good whacking on the head. As a creator, you made the character--you have every right to probe.

So while you're plotting out the way your story physically unfolds, do involve your character's emotional journey as well. The whole essence of the emotional factor is answering the reader's need: "What's In It For Me?" Use your story to tickle something within the reader--fear, anxiety, sorrow, enthusiasm, lust, longing, celebration, etc.--and offer a payoff your reader seeks. This trumps "cool" anytime.

3) Stories. Stories not only convey ideas. Stories reinforce ideas. In almost any social setting, we use stories to drive a point across, to strengthen or dispel notions, even to manipulate. In our daily lives, stories figure into how we view our circumstances as well as those of others--whether these stories come from the evening news, or through banter over a billiard game.

Have you ever been in on a fence wherein your thoughts are conflicted because of two or more opposing takes on a situation? Your girlfriend says one thing and you best bud says another? The conflict sucks you in, and you're caught in the struggle for not just the truth, but the absolute truth. The truth that you would eventually choose to believe in, and suffer for. (Political thrillers have a lot of these little stories, since most characters are allied with an ideology which they will defend, tooth and nail. These characters believe they're right--it's the writer who decides who will win.)

Applying Stories: When you develop your story, every character you have has a story to tell, and many of these stories-within-your-story are meant to place your lead character in that tight situation of determining what's right or wrong. Some stories will have more weight than others. Some stories will be irrelevant, but will add color to the overall narrative. The idea is to make your big story a living, breathing thing. A straight line, yes, but with many coils in between, tight knots your lead character has to unravel or leave alone.

Your comments, criticism, and insight will be most appreciated.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Been terribly busy, so I apologize for not posting over the past days. I don't think I can post anything new until the end of February (yes, it's that hectic and extended).

But I'd like to thank the few of you who visit this blog, just take a peek at some of my thoughts about marketing comics and graphic novels. If you've been able to pick up just one or two tips from here, it was all worth it.

If you have an experience to share, or a light bulb epiphany, do post through the comments link. I'm the kind of person who likes to listen. :-)

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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Making Your Story Stick

Every year, thousands of stories flood the marketplace, but only a few will stand out, only a few will be talked about, and only a few will be remembered down the line. Creating a story that's "made to stick" can help generate powerful word-of-mouth and leave a lasting impression, as well as translate to long-term sales.

But what is a story that's "made to stick?"

Chip and Dan Heath's amazing book, Made To Stick, defines six key qualities for an idea to successfully linger in the minds of people. Though the hardcover volume is a business book, the six key qualities can serve as a criteria set for comics creators in developing their stories.

Let's go through them one by one:

1) Simplicity. While circuitous plot lines, complex concepts, and in-depth research can add a lot of flavor, stripping your story to its core not only helps you keep your narrative in focus, it helps your readers focus as well, ensnaring their senses from the first page to the last. I remember that Sandra Bullock "psycho-thriller" flick Premonition, one that was highly engaging for the most part until the "duh" moment at the end. Not that I dislike religious-themed movies, but where's the consistency? I also heard that the ending of Steven Spielberg's A.I. was a let-down as well. The point is, if you promise your audience a roller coaster ride, give it to them lock, stock and barrel. Never let the roller coaster suddenly morph into a ferris wheel.

Applying simplicity: Describe your whole story in one to two sentences, the way screenwriters do their loglines. Then do a one-page plot summary, defining the main character, the overall conflict, and the denouement. This results of the exercise will help you define exactly what your story is about, as well as be your beacon when you are tempted midway to make a detour.

2) Unexpectedness. Everyone likes a story surprise. One that stops the heart for a few seconds, leaving you breathless for what's going to happen next. One moment that stuck to my mind was an X-Men issue, where Hank McCoy discovers the shattered body of Emma Frost. Another moment happened in a Civil War issue, where during the climactic battle Captain America suddenly realizes "We're no longer fighting for what we believe in. We're just fighting." Or something to that effect. In film, M. Night Shyamalan wielded that magic, though it didn't last very long. And how about that moment in Independence Day when aliens blew up the White House?

The key to capturing and holding an audience's attention is to subject them to ever increasing complexity. When you move from one scene to the next, one encounter to the next, you need to sprinkle in some intensity, a twist, a discovery, a revelation...anything that will prompt the audience to ask, "How is the lead character going to solve all this?" And the complications can run the gamut from physical to emotional to spiritual extremes, depending on the nature of your story. The great thing about being unexpected is that you're forced to flex more creative muscles, especially when you have to tie them all up neatly in the end.

Applying Unexpectedness: The surprises in a story usually happen at the end of the first act (when the main conflict is introduced), at key points of the second act (to escalate the intensity of the story), and the climax. They sometimes happen in the denouement as well. There are small surprises and big surprises, each to be revealed at major points in your story. The objective, again, is for your story to gain momentum until the climax. You would want to avoid clumping a lot of small surprises together--this can build impatience. Ditto for clumping big surprises together--you don't want to exhaust your audience.

3) Concreteness. This is similar to "simplicity," but focuses more on solidifying concepts and abstractions to aid audience comprehension. Chris Claremont did this in almost every issue of his X-Men run--defining what mutants are, who the X-Men are, what they're fighting for--wherever he got the chance. In superhero comics, heroes would more often explain what their powers can and can't do. This practice has been done excessively, but it helps people know and remember why certain things happen in a story.

Applying concreteness: While it's always good to "show, not tell" in comics, you may have to do some telling when the showing isn't enough, especially if you're introducing a high concept. When your story is set in an alien world with an alien culture, it's best to tell your audience what's going on instead of trying to coax them into figuring things out for themselves. Likewise for a new technology or philosophy. Because many people don't want to get too bogged down mentally when all they're looking for is entertainment. You'd want your reader to stick with your story, not your concept.

In my next post, I'll go through the last three qualities: credibility, emotional, and stories.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

To All Fledgling Comics Creators: How Strong is the Passion?

Many, if not most, comics professionals will tell you that making comics is a fool's pursuit. They don't make a lot of money, but they still churn out story after story, page after page, book after book. And they do so while they spend most of their waking hours in their day jobs. I've been employed full time for over 12 years, and have written or drawn comics on and off for the past 15.

But I still have my day job, and I'm still making comics.

Jennifer de Guzman paints a bleak picture for aspiring comics creators in her column over at the Slave Labor Graphics website. And I quote:

"The First Reality: You are not likely to get rich, or even make a decent living, by creating comics. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but you cannot start out thinking of yourself as an exception because, odds are, you are not."

And this is true. Given the current state of the industry where there are a few major players and truckloads of minor players, as well as the commercial limitations and cultural biases against the medium, only a select few will get that big break. And among the select few, even fewer will be able to make a decent living out of making comics.

In many a forum, newbies have posted the question, "How do I make comics?" And they usually air this question because they've got a cool story swimming in their heads and want the world to know about it. The usual reply would be, "Why do you want to make comics?" If it's about the money, as the replies would go, it's very a steep climb and money shouldn't be a prime motivator.

But then, in my opinion, money is the prime motivation and a valid one at that.

We all know that making comics is a challenging endeavor, and those who make them know that it will be an indelible part of their lives. Their passion for making comics sustains them, hell or high water, and the financial rewards are the bonus.

But this is different from the desire to devote a career to making comics. To be able to succeed at making comics as a career, the passion should be a given. No one can imaginably sustain a career in making comics if there was no passion behind it. That's why newbie job interviews for most fields involve the question, "Why are you interested in this job?" Employers want to know and test an applicant's passion for what the job entails before considering the applicant for the post. Passion is a key criteria for employers because they know it would be inconvenient for them in the long run if they realize that the applicant was there for the money alone.

If a person were in a stressful job (like making comics) purely for the money, he'd reach a point where he'd reevaluate his priorities. Passion would otherwise make him endure.

So I think it's a given that all aspiring comics creators and graphic novelists have passion for the craft. They seriously want to make comics no matter what. The real question, however, is how strong the passion is. How long it can last.

Passion can make a person do crazy, unconventional things, particularly when it involves a powerful interest from extreme sports to wild animal handling. But passion can also be a powerful drive to pursuing excellence. For one, passionate people don't find shortcuts; they want to know as much as they can every step of the way. They take the long route of discovery and application.

Passionate people also know that their greatest enemies are pride and self-preservation. Pride stunts their growth, gives them that "know it all, I'm better than him" attitude, and thus prevents them from opening up to learning opportunities. Self-preservation, on the other hand, inhibits them from taking risks. This is practiced by pro creators who sacrifice sleep and socializing in favor of the comics that craves to be made. How many times have we slept at near sunrise knowing that we have an important appointment at 9:00 in the morning?

Passionate people can't help themselves. They would ask, "Why the hell am I doing this?" but continue anyway. Reality is a deterrent they're able to cheat or circumvent, even deny, by hook or by crook.

So for the aspiring comics creator, I won't put you down when you say you're in it for the money, because I know that you won't last very long. Down the line, something's going to divert your interest or promise you a higher paycheck. If outside the comics field is where you're really meant to go, then best of luck to you.

But when you have enough passion, you'll pull out all the stops in finding out all you need to know:

1) You'll want to find out how to write a great story. Not a story that'll just satisfy your childhood dream, but a story that's logical and properly structured, laden with an interesting protagonist, colorful characters, and an overwhelming threat. You'll want to learn the nuances of dialog and enjoy real research. In your story, you'll want to explore the possibilities of your storyline and not limit yourself to conventions. You'll go to the library or the bookstore for writing books. You'll write and revise over and over.

2) You'll want to find out how to effectively visualize your story in comics form, and fine tune your illustration skills. You'll waste paper, spend hours in front of the computer, and invest in more drawing materials than the average Joe. You'll take the pros as inspiration, but take time to develop your own style. You'll learn perspective and anatomy from art books, not comic books.

3) You'll want to learn how to attract the interest of an audience. You'll read about the comics industry. You'll read about the book industry, and publishing in general. You'll try alternative means of producing, distributing and promoting your work. You won't limit yourself to an overcrowded specialized market, and determine what other people are looking for beyond spandex, in the genre of your choice. You'll research on how to write professional query letters and press releases. You'll want to learn how to directly contact people who can help you. You'll want to learn how to make more sales at the shortest time possible...without sounding desperate.

And finally...

4) You'll want to learn how you can effectively share what you've learned as an inspiration (or a kind warning) to others.

That's passion. It's a crazy little thing, but it can take you places. Crazy places and insightful situations. With the graphic novel still in its relative infancy, there's no way but up. Maybe not in cash, but definitely in tons of experience.


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Thursday, January 3, 2008

How To Get Shelf Space For Your Book

When I was a kid, I didn't really dream of becoming a graphic novelist. When I was in middle school, I sent fan art to Marvel, then strangely received a rejection letter in response. I was baffled--did they send rejection letters even to fans? Anyway, that was a long, long time ago during the era of rotary dial phones.

But now that my fate has taken an unexpected turn, I've devoted a good portion of my time to actually studying further how to create a story that's worth shelf space. In the past, I was working on simple instinct and logic, but the game has changed. I've invested in creative writing books from the bookstores and Amazon, and doing Web research just to crack the mystery open.

Why? Because for the medium to gain more ground, creators ought to do work a little harder to ensure that their works deserve the ground gained.

An interesting entry on Comics Worth Reading paints a picture that should serve as a wake-up call to a lot of independent creators. In the entry, Brian Hibbs of San Francisco shop Comix Experience defines one of two "dead weight" books, or those that waste precious shelf space.

"The first is independent books with no public awareness, no audience, no standout concept, no well-known creator. In short, books with no marketing and thus no sales, thrown out there on the “build it and they will come” theory."

There are comics shop owners who will, out of the goodness of their hearts, allow lesser known books on their shelves. But creators should realize that these owners are sacrificing a lot when they bring in an indie book. Shelf space is a retail establishment's source of income, and shops only have a limited amount of space. The prerogative of any shop owner is to move stock out of their shelves to earn money. The faster stocks move from the shelves to the hands of a customer, the more they earn.

So a creator should do their darndest to make sure their books fly. It's the most they can do to repay the graciousness of shop owners. (Come to think of it, comic shop owners should be more vigilant in screening indie books.)

What's the lesson here? When you have that big idea for your graphic novel, you should--MUST--think ahead about marketing. Writers send proposals to agents and publishing houses. Screenwriters send loglines and sequence treatments to producers. In these cases, writers and screenwriters would already know who the specific audience for their material would be, and how their stories would catch the audience's interest. They do this because they know there is only a limited number of books and films that can be produced within a calendar year, and competition is fierce.

As for comics and graphic novels, companies and creators are fighting over shelf space, and there's not a lot of that. Think about it, if you put together a solid program for marketing and present it to a comic shop owner, you'll have greater chances of earning the owner's favor. You may not sell a lot on the onset, but you're impressing upon a shop owner that you're looking after his welfare, too.

For more information about packaging your graphic novel for a specific market, you can look through my previous posts under product development.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Ka-Blam: Print On Demand

Do you have a completed graphic novel and want to see one printed copy, with covers and all?

Was just surfing and found Ka-Blam, a print-on-demand service specific to comics creators. Their size options cover standard and digest sized formats, AND they print in color. Their standard sized comics have a limit of 52 pages tops, but their digest size requires at least 64 interior pages.

What I like about the site is that you can ask for a quick price estimate by clicking on the Pricing/Ordering link on the top of the page. You can order as low as one copy, and you can lower your per unit cost if you permit them to include their ad. You get the biggest discount if you choose to have their ad on the back cover. (You'll have to pay an initial fee, however, apart from the shipping and handling charges, so the more copies you order, the better for you.)

I've tried to search for reviews about the Ka-Blam service but haven't found any, but the service is being run by digital comic book publisher 01comics, so it should be promising. They launched the service early last year.

Go check out Ka-Blam and see if they can be part of your arsenal.

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Create Your Own Niche

Happy New Year! I hope 2007 proved to be a good one for all of you, and I wish that everything will turn out really bright this 2008!

One of the things you can begin doing as you build yourself as a graphic novelist is to identify your niche. In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned how you can gain more mileage in promoting your book by zeroing in on a specific audience. When you create a romance graphic novel, you can direct your marketing efforts towards venues frequented by women. Same goes if your graphic novel is about a special interest, like gardening or the American Civil War.

As you go through your creative life, you'll notice that you focus on specific modes, aspects, hooks, styles, characters, or themes, and you'll discover the kinds of stories you're most comfortable creating. For instance, you might be the kind of creator who tends towards female leads who struggle against a patriarchal society. Or you feel more at home writing about teenage guys who deal with peer pressure and conformity. Or you often play with what-ifs involving "loss of innocence."

This doesn't mean that you aren't flexible. Your tendency towards certain characters or themes has largely to do with how much they have influenced your way of thinking and feeling, whether or not the experiences were your own. In my case, I find myself juggling thoughts on "relationships that could not be," and have noticed that my stories have plot elements that explore that idea. I can still be versatile with my stories despite this, since I can alter a lot of the other elements.

You can test this by looking through works of prose writers. The characters of Haruki Murakami have a similar vibe about them, mostly young sarariman trying to make sense of their mundane lives in bustling modern day Japan, with some weirdness or magical realism thrown in. Nicholas Sparks, on the other hand, seems to often explore the idea of love in absentia, the emptiness that it leaves, and the journey towards wholeness. Anne Rice has always been about eroticism, long before her vampire novels came out (let's not talk about her Jesus novel, though).

With movies directors, the same principle applies. You wouldn't tag Tim Burton with a dizzying CGI-laced action film any more that you'd tag Roland Emmerich with offbeat modernist fantasies.

And then there's you. What do you usually explore in your stories? What are the common elements? Specific personalities? Specific themes? A particular attack or style?

When you've isolated that, make it your "stamp." Let that help you grab your niche.

The advantage of having a niche market is that you become reliable to that market. When you hear the name Neil Gaiman, you know that "legal thriller" isn't the genre that comes to mind. If you're a fan of those stories, you'll most probably go to John Grisham's newest take on the subject. It's a marketing tool that helps solidify your position in the industry, for good or ill, and any new customers that fall under your niche will see you as the reliable source of material they're looking for. Granting, of course, that you've created and released enough material.

The disadvantage of a niche is that it seems very limiting. What if you want to try something else? Well, let's take a look again at John Grisham who, after a string of successful legal thrillers, took a risk with a baseball drama and even a Christmas comedy. The lesson here is: if you're good, you're good. You just need that niche as a stepping stone.

What you must consider, though, is that niches don't come in one size. Plus the fact that a very large niche will also have a lot of players competing for pieces of the pie. That's why it's recommended that when you discover your niche, do some research on works that may be similar to yours. Then determine where you're different, making sure that the difference is significant enough to be distinct.

For instance, the romance novel market is really huge. But there are authors who specialize in modern day cosmopolitan romances, gothic/horror romances, swords and sorcery romances, Civil War romances, and detective romances. This can get broken down further by age group--teenagers, young adult women, middle aged women, etc.

The bottom line is everyone has his or her place in the world. Focus on your place and be known for it, then see how far and wide you can go.

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