Not too long ago I did a video detailing my comic-making process! I talk a bit about taking a comic script all the way from a sketch to a finished page.
If you’d like, there’s also a text version right here.
If you’d like, there’s also a text version right here.
Last time we talked a little about some tricks on generating ideas based on very simple statements and questions. While that exercise can come in handy in overcoming certain tough writing hurdles, it won’t solve every problem you might encounter. So let’s start from the top:
Where do ideas come from?
Well, the short, vaguely cryptic answer is that ideas come from life. Ideas come from one’s own personal experiences and observations of the world around them. People you meet, places you go, conversations you have, even other stories you read or movies you watch. Ideas are everywhere, your mind just needs practice on recognizing them. Anything and everything is potential fodder for the fires of your imagination!
Let’s use my webcomic of nine years, Massive Pwnage, as an example. Massive Pwnage was not narrative driven, it was structured more like a newspaper comic, with each strip being its own standalone thing. Because there was no ongoing story to continue, every strip started as basically a blank slate. I had a small cast of recurring characters, but beyond that, it was a very real struggle for me to continuously come up with new ideas two or three times a week. I’d ask myself the same series of questions over and over again: should we see what my characters are up to? Have I had any real-life events that will translate well into a three panel comic? Do I have anything to say or joke about on any of the video games I’m playing right now? What about TV shows or movies or anything else I’m interested in? It’s a strange problem to have, having a comic with no rules or limitations. Massive Pwnage could be anything I wanted it to be, which was incredibly freeing, but also incredibly stifling at the same time. If that makes any sense.
But let’s take a look at one specific comic that’s always stood out in my mind as a good example of how to formulate and execute an idea.
Here’s how it went down: I read an article about an upcoming game, I had almost these exact thoughts in response, I wrote them down as dialogue for my two main characters, and then I drew it. I wish they all came so easily!
Here’s one more example, again from Massive Pwnage.
This is an even older comic than the previous one. All the way back in 2009, on a night I remember all too well. I was having the greatest drought of ideas I’ve ever experienced. I was trying to write the comic for the next day and all I was able to do was waste several hours staring at my computer screen. It was still early in my career and I had no idea how to deal with this wall I had run up against. After discarding countless ideas as terrible, I began digging deeper and deeper into my characters, hoping that examining what few characteristics they had at that point would give me at least the faintest spark of an idea. Something, anything that I could draw and finally go to bed. My characters didn’t have a lot going for them at this time besides being the “grumpy one” and the “silly one” but they did have some basic likes and dislikes. And right from day one, my main character Ence hated fish. I asked myself “is there anything there I haven’t already done? Does he hate fish as food, or just in general? Has he ever had one as a pet? What if I made him do something completely out of character and buy a pet fish?”
The result was this comic, and while it’s nothing to write home about, it still felt really good to finally make it, even if took all night to do so. Also it set up a few fun comics that came after, which was pretty nice.
To recap: if you’re ever stuck for ideas, don’t be like me from 2009, staring blankly at his monitor for hours on end. Ask questions, write down even the worst ideas, always be on the lookout for inspiration from the world around you, and stay determined. Sometimes, writing a list of things that should absolutely not ever happen next in your story is a good brainstorming exercise. Other times, all you have to do is choose an idea that you’ve discarded for being terrible, and execute it to the best of your ability. Even if the end product isn’t the greatest, at least you made something, and making something that didn’t exist before is never a waste of time.
Know that you have the tools to overcome any lack of ideas. Confidence comes with experience, and experience comes with getting the bad ideas out of your system.
Stay determined my friends!
Every single story ever written can be summed up thusly: someone wanted something. Maybe that something was money, maybe it was power, fame, love, freedom, a sandwich, or just the most basic of all primal needs: to just plain not die today.
The want can be as simple or complex as needed, all it needs to do is motivate the main character or characters, push the story forward, and create conflict. What is stopping the protagonist from getting what they want? What obstacles do they encounter along the way? Why can’t they just make themselves a sandwich? Can’t they go to the store? Can they not afford a sandwich? Why not?
You could make the argument that this is what writing is. Asking questions and then answering them, simple as that. Let’s take our sandwich idea a bit further. Maybe our protagonist in this example can’t afford a sandwich because she’s homeless, or her wallet has been stolen. Okay, that’s a start, either one of those could be a decent premise for a short story or scene, but let’s push it even further. Let’s have fun with it. Maybe our protagonist can’t afford a sandwich because she’s stranded on an alien planet. She doesn’t know the language, she has no idea what is even used for currency, and, honestly, the types of sandwiches she’s seeing in these alien delis really don’t look very appetizing anyway.
This is what I do when I’m stuck for ideas. I start with a very basic want and I keep digging deeper and deeper until I find out everything about this character and why they want what they want. I wrote a short story set in the LOOK universe based entirely on the statement “I’m hungry.” I started with “I’m hungry,” the most interesting response I could think of was “that’s impossible, you’re a robot,” and before I knew it I had a six page comic. I didn’t even start out with the intention of writing a story about Artie and Owen, it just sort of organically worked itself out that way. That’s where my questions and answers took me.
So do all ideas come from these sorts of questions? Maybe not, they tend to work best for shorter stories, but it still helps to ask them. It might get you out of any writing ruts you might be in and help you start thinking in ways you might not normally think. Even if your short story, Lost in Space Without a Sandwich, never gets off the ground, it’s still good practice and might even give you an idea or two for your next story.
Have a good weekend and see you Monday for Ideas and Where to Find Them part 2!
In 2011 I drew a little robot in my sketchbook. There was no particular reason for it, I was just doodling and I felt like drawing a robot. I liked how it came out and decided to put a bit of a desert landscape behind it. I showed my wife this doodle of a sad robot wandering through the desert and made up a story for him on the spot. Something like “this is R-TY but he goes by Artie and the R stands for Recon because his only job is to recon this giant desert and he hangs out with a vulture because vultures live in deserts and yeah.”
It was silly, but I liked it, so I wrote it down. I wanted to learn more about Artie. How does he feel about this task he’s been assigned? Does he question it? What’s his friendship with this vulture like? What is the vulture’s name? What’s his deal? All of a sudden I had all of these questions and, just like Artie, I needed answers. I wrote all of these questions down and one by one I did my best to answer them. Pretty soon I had a plot outline for a full, long-form story. And it was pretty terrible! But I kept working on it. I kept writing and rewriting throughout the entire project, making drastic changes to the story as I was drawing it. Right up until I was drawing the last few pages, I was still tweaking the story. All in all, it took me roughly three years to write and draw the 136 pages of LOOK. Over that time I learned a lot about telling a story and I became a better cartoonist in the process. As my skills grew, so did the quality of the story I was telling. It ended up being a very real “learning on the job” scenario. Maybe that’s not for everyone, or for every project, but it’s what worked for me.
So, early on I had the premise and I had a basic outline of my story, but what was it really about? Sure, it’s about a little robot who’s unhappy with his current situation, but what else? What’s the point? Why am I telling this story? I was a bit stuck with what direction I wanted to take it. So I listened to that piece of advice given to any aspiring writer ever and I wrote what I knew. I drew from my own personal experiences and wrote about being in a midlife crisis. I wrote about coming to terms with the fact that maybe what you’re doing right now just isn’t working out. That maybe it’s just not what you’re good at. That maybe things need to change. I wrote about whether or not it’s even possible to find your passion, and if you’d recognize it if you did.
And I put it all into a story about a little robot and his vulture friend.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you again on Friday when we’ll be talking a bit more about where ideas come from.
Here’s a ton of the sketches and preliminary artwork I made throughout the process of creating LOOK. There’s a lot of stuff here, including the very first drawings of the principle characters and an excess of little robots that sadly never made an appearance in the story itself. Enjoy!
Have a good weekend and see you on Monday when we’ll be talking about webcomics!
I tend to write my stories in a way I’d describe as… let’s use the word “utilitarian.” Every page, every panel, every line of dialogue needs to push the story along. There’s no distractions, there’s no extra fluff, it’s clean and to the point.
As a result of this, while the story is concise and my message is clear, things might end up maybe going just a little too fast. If I’m not careful, the pacing tends to move a bit too quickly and can be almost exhausting to keep up with. To help with this, you need to take a break. Every good story has it’s ups and downs. High action scenes, bursting with conflict and the highest of stakes, are always punctuated by cool-down periods. Scenes where maybe we’re walking the plot forward, rather than full-out sprinting.
Here’s an example of one of the very, very few “filler” pages from LOOK.
I call it a filler page because it does little to nothing to actually advance the story. But if you notice where it’s placed in the narrative, you’ll see that it’s sandwiched by a tense escape scene on one side and the sudden resurfacing of the antagonist on the other. It’s a bit of light-hearted fun intended to give everyone — the readers and characters themselves — a bit of a breather. I also really like that we get to see a bit of back and forth between these two, a little glimpse into how their friendship works.
Moments like these, where the action and drama of the narrative ease back a bit are essential to the overall rhythm of any story. It’s like a roller coaster. You can’t have that dramatic fall without the slow climb, or a joke about a self-conscious vulture.
Even if you’re a robot.
Process. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could find some quick and easy explanation for how to do anything? Something as easy as ABC or 123 or do re mi. How do you make friends? Follow this easy process. How do you get someone who doesn’t even know you exist to be attracted to you? All the answers are here in this simple pamphlet. How does one face the prospect of death with dignity? Just follow these simple instructions.
I’ve never been much of one for instructions. And when it comes to my creative process, I have very little to say about it. I think the only thing that I can say that I truly believe in is that you have to sit down every day and do a little bit of work.
Everything else I prefer to remain a bit of mystery.
That being said. There were a few key stages in All Star, and I’ll show one sequence in each of these stages.
There is the idea phase, which with All Star began sometime around 2003 or 2004. That’s when I first had the idea for the book that would become All Star.
Then there was an outline, which was written sometime in 2010 (the part circled in red is our sequence).
After the outline, I drew a rough draft version of the book. This was probably the fastest part of All Star and was done mostly in 2011.
From sometime in late 2011 until late 2013 I was drawing the finished pages of All Star.
And then sometime last year.