One of the first things you need to do when setting out to create a comic is know exactly what format your comic is going to use. This includes everything from size, shape, whether it will be in color or black and white, even whether it will be printed or featured exclusively online– these choices all make substantial changes in how you’ll approach putting the comic together.
Plan how you want to release your comics in advance. Will there be print editions? Will you put out serialized single issues or just big graphic novels? What is your Internet strategy?
We recommend everyone, no matter their story or plans for printed editions, release comics digitally. Back in 2008 we launched The Uniques online as digital downloads. At the time a number of our professional colleagues didn’t see a future in digital comics. They scoffed at staring at computer screens to read comics, and espoused their love of old paper and how books smelled and felt in their hands. Within five years, though, every major publisher was releasing nearly their entire catalogs on various digital platforms, some titles even published as digital-first comics. At this point, you’d be crazy not to put your comics online. It’s cheap (free in many cases!) and easy, and provides the highest opportunity for reaching the widest number of readers.
But where do you go from there? Our advice for anyone self-publishing full comics or manga is to put out single issues as digital downloads, possibly using print-on-demand to have some copies of your individual issues you can bring with you to sell at conventions. Then when you have enough issues completed, collect them in physical trade paperbacks (TPBs) for sale at stores. Make your first issue free as a digital download if you can afford it. Our sales numbers took huge leaps when we started offering the first issues of The Uniques and Rainbow in the Dark for free online. When you have enough of a backlog, start releasing pages for free on your website, one or two a week, to draw in new readers and people who prefer webcomics. We talk more about all of this stuff in our how-to book, The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing Comics, but it’s good to have a strategy in mind right from the start, so you know how to structure your stories to fit your publishing model.
If you want to produce a webcomic, you need to decide how often you’ll release new installments and how big those installments will be. Your intended production pace will help determine how much content you can pack in each page or strip, and how far ahead you need to get before you start publishing to your website. The most important thing is that you update as frequently as you can manage, and that each update should feel substantial. Don’t bite off more than you can chew – if you can’t easily produce three pages every week, don’t make promises you can’t keep. And every page or strip should feel like a meaningful piece of story in some way. If too many installments feel like filler, or it takes too long for anything big to happen, people will stop checking back in for more and will forget you.
It might seem like minutia, but all these things are good to know, even when you’re first creating the concept for your comic. Oftentimes, how you intend to deliver your comic will shape the way you structure and create your story.
There are basic differences in typical formats for American comics and Japanese manga. Webcomics are a little different, in that they start their life as digital files and are only printed at a much later date. While print collections of webcomics vary in size, most often they fall into two categories: a widescreen collection of comic strip-style installments, or a graphic novel that’s sized like an American comic or manga digest. The widescreen collections are typically around 8.5″ square, but this can vary based on the layout and size of your strip. You’ll still want to keep in mind how you might want print collections of your webcomic to look before you get started on the series so you can design it for that end-product right from the beginning.
|Standard Size||6.625″ x 10.25″||5″ x 7.5″ or 5.83″ x 8.2″||Varies|
|Average Page Count||Single issues: 20-30 pages
Collected Editions include 3-12 issues
Graphic Novels: 75+ pages
|Single Chapters: 18-30 pages
Collected editions include 6-10 chapters
|Collected editions include 50+ pages|
|Color or Black & White?||Color||Black & White or Grayscale||Either. Both. Go nuts.|
There are other considerations as well, some you might not think need to be worked out up-front. For instance: how long will your book be? How many issues or volumes or chapters do you need to tell your story? These are important details to think about, because they can help you guide your plotting as you work out the story in more detail. Sit down, take a good long look at your idea, and ask yourself how much room you’ll need to tell it. Be honest about what your story needs to be well-told. Don’t fear a smaller story! Page length doesn’t determine quality and a tight, well-crafted six-issue miniseries collected in one nice trade paperback can have a much bigger impact than a bloated, overwrought 100-issue epic.
If you want to pitch your idea to a publisher, bear in mind that the American comic publishing industry currently prefers miniseries to ongoing series. The sweet-spot is four to six issues. You might do multiple story arcs delivered as a series of miniseries, such as Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s fantastic Umbrella Academy which consists of several story arcs, each released as its own short series.
If you’re working on an ongoing series, it’s wise to approach it as a series of miniseries regardless. You never know if the worst might happen and you find the series cancelled or that you can’t continue for some reason. Having “endings” every six to twelve issues is a good way to make sure the story feels satisfying, even if you don’t get to finish exactly as you wanted. Also, by using the arc structure and providing exciting starts for new arcs every so often, you keep the story fresh for longtime readers. It’s always good to have a twelfth issue that’s as fun and gripping to read as the first. If it helps, think of it like a TV series broken into seasons. You get a “season finale” every so often that wraps up the big story points while leaving some things open for the next “season” of the story.
Redefine Your Expectations
We’ve been talking about comic books in terms of American comics, Japanese manga, and webcomics, and many people think that there are lines of distinction that separate these formats from each other. We’ve all heard them, maybe even believed them: American comics are drawn in a more rendered, realistic style, manga in an animated style with big eyes and small mouths, and webcomics look like Sunday newspaper comics online. American comics are all superheroes and crime noir. Manga is just big robots, waify, beautiful boys, and miniskirts that won’t stay in place. Webcomics are the domain of completely random humor. American comics are always this, manga is always that, and webcomics are always this other thing.
But none of that is really true. Sure, some comics adhere to those preconceived notions – clichés become cliché for a reason, after all. However, in this day and age, more people are defying traditional definitions and expectations. Large numbers of American artists are heavily influenced by the manga style, resulting in art that ranges in appearance from being very Japanese to being a hybrid of animated realism. The opposite is also true, as there is more variety in the approaches and influences Japanese artists use in their manga all the time. And webcomics? They’re all over the place, from stick figures to fully-rendered digital paintings.
Cursed Pirate Girl by Jeremy Bastion uses pen and ink with hand lettering. Toilet Genie by Cari Corene uses mixed media and watercolor. Scott Sava’s The Dreamland Chronicles uses computer-generated 3D graphics. There are many ways to approach the visual style of your comic. Find what works best for you!
The most important and valuable thing you, as a creator, can do in this modern age of multicultural cross-pollination is absorb everything and see what works for you. We’ve been influenced by everything we’ve read, and the more broad our influences, the more interesting and unique our style becomes. More importantly, as time goes on, the line between formats blurs more and more.
Nothing shows this blending effect more than webcomics, which are like the Wild West of the comics world. Nowhere will you see more innovation in form, more questioning of what comics can be and do. As we’ve said, in a matter of years, everything is going to start as a webcomic, mark our words.
So, as you begin developing your story’s concept, be fearless! Go out and scour the world for all the comics you can find, ignoring nothing. You never know what book you always assumed you’d hate might turn out to be a new favorite. And even if what you find doesn’t change your mind, you might find one or two new tricks you can use. Anything that makes you a better creator, a broader thinker, a more open and intelligent human being, is a good thing.