by Emily Pohl-Weary
Everyone has a graphic novel inside them. A picture paints a thousand words, right? It’s easy to be seduced by the old truism. But it’s not as easy to produce a 24-page comic, especially not if you’re the kind of person who wants your work to actually look good.
I publish Kiss Machine magazine, so I thought it would be simple to turn my hand to publishing my indie comic, Violet Miranda: Girl Pirate, with illustrator Willow Dawson. I didn’t realize how steep the learning curve would be.
There’s very little helpful information on the Internet, even less than for publishing your own books. Desktop publishing and illustration programs’ help functions don’t explain how to make thought balloons, that you scan drawings in monotone black, not greyscale, and that the resolution must be 600 dpi or higher.
Below, I’ve listed a few of the important things I discovered by asking friends whose comics I admire, such as M@B, and trawling the deepest recesses of the net. These have more to do with the mechanics of publishing than the creative process–that part’s up to you!
1. Pick a Partner
If you’re not a fabulously talented person who can both draw and write, I can’t stress how important it is to pick a partner in crime who has similar expectations. Things that can become sticking points include expectations (is the other person expecting to make a million bucks?), ability to self-motivate (no one’s going to be breathing down your back to get you to finish inking page 21), and other time commitments (both people need to be aware about how long this is going to take).
2. Strategize Before Beginning
Sit down over a cup of coffee and break down the tasks involved. Be realistic. Things like scanning the art, page layout, cover design, printer research and negotiations, fundraising, promotions, launch party organizing, and mailings can add up to be as time consuming as the creation of the actual inked pages. Keep this in mind and make sure no one feels like they’re getting stuck with an unfair amount of work, before you invest a lot of time into the project.
3. Agree on a Timeline
It’s good to do this at the beginning. It’s all right to renegotiate part way through if something comes up, but you have to have some kind of framework for reaching goals or else one person will inevitably want things to happen faster than the other person. Our milestones have included:
•writing and proofreading the script,
•producing rough sketches,
•drawing pencils (detailed proofs) of the pages,
•inking the final pages,
•scanning and “touching up” the electronic image files,
•laying out the pages (this includes adding on word balloons if this is being done on the computer),
•coming up with a few samples of potential cover art,
•painting the final cover art,
•soliciting and gathering advertisements (if you’re including them),
•applying for grants to fund the project,
•packaging and shipping to the printer,
•examining the printer’s proofs,
•receiving the published comic,
•mailing copies to people who’ve preordered, media and distributors.
•organizing the launch party.
4. Research Printers
The best printer is one that combines low cost with good communication skills. We printed the first issue of Violet Miranda with a publisher who was dirt cheap, but ended up giving us a badly trimmed proof and took a total of 10 weeks to finish the job. Plus, they gave what I refer to as a “ball park estimate,” and wouldn’t break down each of the individual costs. It can be intimidating to ask questions of printers–who, in my experience are usually either aggressive salesmen or tunnel-visioned techies.
Our second issue was printed at Point One, and they cost a few hundred bucks more, but reliably turn around lovely, sharply printed comics in two weeks. They also let you create your own quote online, using an automated system, so you can see exactly how much it costs to use a certain type of paper, add colour to inside pages, or any other “extra” you might be dreaming about.
5. Scan the Art
If the illustrator half of your comic partnership likes to work on paper, not directly on the computer, you’re going to have to face scanning the art at some point. Better to get it right the first time, because it’s a boring, time-consuming process. And, if you scan it wrong, your comic’s going to look terrible. Because Willow was working on Violet Miranda in ink (which creates solid black lines instead of variants of grey) we had to scan her work using the duotone setting, which is sometimes called “line art” or “text.” Essentially, this means the scanner only processes two colours–black or white (ink or paper)–and gives nice, crisp lines. We also set the scanner to 600 DPI or higher, because any lower and the images turn out really pixilated on high-resolution printers.
6. Manipulate or Touch Up the Art
I want to stress how important it is that you remain aware of everything you do to the electronic files. The less you play with them and convert them from one format to another, the better. When you change formats, you’re essentially changing the way the file is processed by your computer, so they can get fuzzy. You also risk changing them to greyscale or even colour by accident. But everyone needs to make little corrections at this stage, so don’t be afraid to do so. Willow and I scanned the inked pages as duotone, bitmap .tifs, made corrections in solid black, and imported them into the desktop publishing program that way. They still look beautiful. Oh, I should mention we had issues rotating our bitmaps in Photoshop when we were doing it on a Mac (they became corrupt), but not on a PC. I gather this is a common problem and you’re definitely going to need to rotate at least a few of the pages, because no one ever manages to scan them all perfectly straight.
6. Create Word Balloons
This is the trickiest part of the process, and I was stuck with learning how to make them. I basically followed the instructions on the very helpful Balloon Tales website. One thing I found helpful was to place the artwork in the background and then locking that layer, so that I wasn’t moving it by accident. I then created a second layer for the balloons and a third for the text. This way you can work with each item independently.
7. Examine the Printer Proofs Carefully
A crucial part of the process is poring over the printer proofs. On the black pages, particularly note top and side margins, and any black or white specks that weren’t in the electronic files. If you’re working in colour, check the outputted pages against the originals to see how much the colours have shifted–sometimes they become too red or green. Remember this is your last opportunity to ask your printer about any anomalies, because once it’s printed, it’s too late. So don’t be shy!
Award-winning author and girl pirate Emily Pohl-Weary‘s books include Iron-on Constellations, A Girl Like Sugar, and Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril (with Merril). She’s also the editor of Kiss Machine magazine and the anthology Girls Who Bite Back.