Friday, June 6, 2014

Start Small: The Importance of Short Story Comics

When I was in high school, I worked on a comic series of mine called “Zack the Pyromaniac,” a story about a 20-something-year-old who suffered from mental issues and was recently framed for the murder of his roommates by his former best friend. His journey takes him from the deserts of Arizona to the streets of New York, where he befriends a homeless ex-Senator and the rich daughter of a banker, in order to uncover government conspiracies. He also wielded two knives and had the power of pyrokinesis because… it was supposed to be edgy and cool.

The plan was to map out the first season of this series into a 50-issue megapalooza, ending it around 1,000 pages. Without any direction beyond that, I furiously began work on my first pages, determined to bring to life what I thought was the most amazing comic idea ever conceived. But in the end, I didn’t manage more than seven fully watercolored and lettered pages before I gave up, discouraged because they looked like utter crap.
Dat anatomy yo.
Just like the vast majority of young kids who wanted to translate their dream stories into illustrated epics, Zack the Pyromaniac never saw completion. Hell, it didn’t even see half an issue of finish. Where did I go wrong? How did my incredible adventure crash before it even took off the runway?

One simple theory I have on why it failed is that… I had never really produced a single comic before in my life. I didn’t have a solid grasp on the medium of comics, and that I assumed my enthusiasm for this story would trump my lack of experience in producing sequential art. So how do you gain experience telling stories through comics, if you’re not working on a larger book? 

You create short story comics, self-contained stories that communicate an idea quickly and efficiently. This allows you to experiment and learn sequential art correctly, so that you are able to challenge larger and more complex bodies of work at a later date. 

So what are the benefits of creating smaller comics before larger epics?

1. You learn to finish things.

This is where the vast majority of people that are interested in doing comics end up failing. Most comic artists who want to do this for a living (or even as a hobby) are never able to finish a single comic, no matter how much time they put in. And oftentimes, it’s not because they can’t draw well, it’s because they set unrealistic goals for stories that, at the time they are trying to produce them, are beyond their ability.

Sit down and learn how to tell a story from panel to panel, then panel to page, then page to chapter, and you’ll start to discover what is working and what isn’t as you go. There’s no easy way around it, you just need to produce comics to get better at comics, and you don’t learn by talking about what’s going to happen in a series five years from now that you haven’t even planned out yet.

Try setting a goal of writing and drawing a two-page comic and give yourself a realistic deadline to complete it, possibly a week. If you find that at the end of the deadline that you haven’t even started, consider not pursuing that longer story of yours, since you already confirmed that you can’t do it yet.

Create a project that is manageable and is something that you can complete. Learn to finish things.
      2. You learn not to redo.

Many beginning comic artists get caught up with trying to make their first story perfect, so they keep redoing it and never make it beyond the first five pages. It’s frustrating, sure, but you know what? Your first few pages are going to look like crap no matter what you do, and that’s perfectly fine. Most people have to burn through 100 pages to get some understanding of the medium their working in, and the best way to do so is by breaking it in manageable, smaller chunks.

If you completed the two-page comic that I suggested before, put it away and don’t touch it ever again. Whatever you do, don’t redo that comic, as you’re only going to be wasting your time. Instead, consider a slightly more ambitious comic, maybe four-pages this time, and complete that one. Revisions are extremely important, of course, but redoing a comic that has flawed storytelling from the beginning will not help the finished project, no matter how good your drawing skills may become.

Do the work, don’t redo it.

      3. You learn to develop a workflow.

Some artists’ thumbnail their whole series front to back before doing any finished work, while some put ink to paper and draw straight through. There are people that will work in four-person teams to get the comics done, while sometimes you have one-man armies that can complete entire books alone. What works best for you?

When you’re putting together a comic, there are certain specifics that you need to familiarize yourself with before pressing too far. Are you aware of page bleed, live area, and standard page size for your comic pages? Do you know how quickly on average you can produce pages consistently? Do you have any idea if you’re going to publish it, how you’ll do it, or with who? And please don’t say Image, because you need to learn these things before you even craft a proposal to a publisher.

Most likely during your first comic, you’re going to make mistakes on the technical aspects. That’s fine, because you’ll be learning from these mistakes to apply to comics in the future. You’ll tighten up the speed that you do things and you’ll start to notice that your work will be more consistent from it, and you won’t feel pressured to go back and redo them as you would with a longer piece.

A while back, I made a blog post about my work process, but keep in mind that what works well for me might end up horrible for others. Find what works for you, develop that workflow until it becomes a process.

      4. You learn to become very precise in your storytelling.

Can you sit down and establish a premise, rising action, climax, and close it out, within a single page? If you can’t, chances are you’re not able to do this within 1,000 pages.

Break a story down into its essentials. Get the point across. Close it out without needless filler.

One of the problems that the person who wants to do a 3,000- page epic doesn’t realize is, why would you possibly need 3,000 pages when you can do it in less? What could possibly warrant that much space? Some of the greatest graphic novels of our time were completed within 150-200 pages, with stories ranging continents and time periods, and I bet you the writers/artists of these works never felt too constrained by their target page count.

Most likely, you can trim a story, and most likely it’ll flow better once trimmed.

      5. You’re able to explore genres and worlds that you wouldn’t be able to if you committed yourself to such a long project.

Referring back to Zack the Pyromaniac, if I had somehow managed to continue with that story and complete it, I wouldn’t have been producing any of the non-fiction and comics journalism that I do now. And quite frankly, there are a million other artists that do urban fantasy better than I ever could, but the same is not true about the genre I work in now.

By doing shorter comics, I had the opportunity to explore the horror and slice-of-life genres in the earliest parts of my illustration career, and I’m a better storyteller because of it. And because I allowed my other passions in real-world social issues and politics to seep into my work, my voice in the comic medium has become that much more focused.

As you explore shorter comics, allow yourself to discover certain themes that you enjoy that you can incorporate in future work. The theme of mental illness from Zack the Pyromaniac found its way into my single issue comic The Intellectual Ramblings of Samuel Flower, while the love of everyday life from that story weaved itself into my earlier travel comics like Seven Hours to Kill.

Step out of your comfort zone. If you are confident in your storytelling abilities, you should be able to translate that into type of story that you want. And I promise you, in a longer piece of work, you will have to use a variety of storytelling devices to tell a full and complete story.

Allow your shorter comics to evolve naturally, so that you can discover your voice in the medium.

6. You can publish these and build valuable credentials for when you try to publish a longer comic in the future.

If you keep working on shorter comics, eventually you’re going to end up with several that look pretty sharp. What do you do with them? You publish them, of course!

This is one of the most underrated benefits in putting together short story comics. When you finally do get around to pitching your larger book to publish, you already have past credentials that you can attach to your proposal.

A simple Google search of Comic Anthology Submissions 2014 (change date to current year) brings up a multitude of anthologies and literary journals that accept short comics. All you have to do is apply. It’s also a good way to learn how to work with an editor and handle feedback and revisions. This experience will be invaluable to you in the future, as you’ll know how to respond to critiques and edits proficiently, and have the know-how to put together your future book.

Not to mention, doing short comics gives you something to put together for a portfolio, if you choose you want to pursue a work in the Marvel/DC route, as they typically hire artists per staff and not by assignment.
I hope that this information can help convince you, if you’re a comic artist, about the benefits of starting small so that you can learn the craft before you find yourself overwhelmed. Just as you don’t expect an architect to craft a castle as their first assignment, don’t wander into something that’s too challenging for you without properly preparing yourself. You’ll thank yourself when you have the tools you need to craft your larger stories in the future.

In closing, if you’ve never produced short comics before and you’re a comic artist (or even if you’re not an artist), tell me what type of short story comics you would like to produce? If you have done shorter standalone comics in the past, what were they? Is there anything that you’ve learned from these attempts? Feel free to leave your take on this subject, and if you have any relevant work you’d like to link, please do so in the comments section below.


  1. Great advice, Erik! I had similar reasons for starting out with writing only short stories, articles, and poetry and submitting those for publication. I only attempted writing a novel 7 years ago, after a decade plus of writing short pieces.

    I didn't really have a short story comic idea that I'd like to produce, but after reading this post, I think that I should try translating one of my sci-fi shorts into graphic novel form because most of them lend themselves well to it. :)

    1. I'm sure that decade you spent writing short pieces has paid off, since your recent work is amazing, Teresa! Any particular pieces of yours that you produced during that time that helped inspire later work?

      And honestly if think after reading some of your work, maybe give it a shot revising a smaller piece of your sci-fi and find an artist that would work well with your story :).

    2. I really mostly wrote poetry previously (because those sold best to children's magazines). The shorts that I wrote were mostly literary and some excellent, personal rejections from various places. One of the pieces that I got good feedback/rejections for I'm now editing and it'll appear in the "space travel" themed anthology that my group is putting out end of the year or early next. But I wouldn't say any of those stories inspired later work. :)

      Maybe when I find time, I'll look into the graphic novelization of some of my writing. Right now, it's all I can keep up with doing revisions on the stories Ella wants, plus the stories that the Minnows Literary Group (my sci-fi group) needs.

  2. Well, advice usually applied. for someone living drawing comics what others think it's more complicated. And it has nothing to do with knowing or not having a story.You have to invest time in the project itself and this for anyone who work for hire is truly hard. But not impossible, of course...

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