Don’t Get Lost Making A Graphic Novel

A re-blog from the archives of my regular column for Alltern8; Comicking.

I’ve been making comics since childhood, since 1997, for other people to see. I practiced as a scriptwriter, drawing my own comics out of necessity. I’ve made around forty, and last year I made my first attempt at a graphic novel.

No one can tell you, as fact, what the right way to make a comic is. You do not have to purchase Bristol boards, you are not obligated to work with brush, or colour. (Heck, you can use a sandwich bag) You don’t have to pay printers a grand. As a comic strip artist, instructions per conformity like anatomy reference books are a choice. Successful use does not necessarily demonstrate a link in narrative content with the medical discoveries of Vesalius or DaVinci. Comprehende?



“Just do it”

I chose to work without script or thumb-nails and used an A8 (shirt pocket) note-pad with (light) 60gsm paper. A4’s wide open space is agony to me and the comfortable intimate pocket-book suited my wish to develop a sporadic style. “Don’t Get Lost” was based largely on personal experience rather than research and so I could dive straight to work at any point in my day. Many professional comics artists draw page designs on A5 (half a sheet of paper, the standard for many small pressers) and photocopying them by twice the size to A3 (121%) for use with a light-box. This is then pencilled to the page to form layout structure. I’ve even heard a tale of one professional who takes directly his A5 thumbnail to finished computer art. With this, the energy and spectacle of flow is retained and a good reader can notice and feel the difference.

My pencil work developed quickly to look confident. In one 24 hour session I unconsciously worked up thirty good pages in twenty-four hours. This didn’t happen creationist style, I’ve about twenty pages of shoddy, stumbling early work to prove it.

It’s worth mentioning my prior intentional experience with the 24 hour comic challenge is one that I will be repeating, and would recommend to any artist embracing a challenge. If you’ve not seen my 2007 comic ‘Gran’, I suggest book-marking this download page for an idea of a great 24 hour comic.

The accompanying video filmed in August 2008 is a bit waffly but gives an interesting insight into the strip’s content and that notable notebook.

My early experiences with using a gel pen at bus stops on Don’t Get Lost….that sentence finishes itself. I have little understanding of inking practice outside tracing, it’s clearly much more. Spending time on reference guides would have been a useful discipline to cultivate. That said, I did manage to put my corner-shop biro to some use. I’m becoming aware of how many great artists use the humble, unassuming biro. Paddy Brown works consistently in red biro, and the results blow the lay-man’s socks off.
Graphic Novel Coming

I didn’t set out to create a graphic novel of 300 pages – it just happened that way. First, it was 40, then 150 and so on. Eighty pages in, the notebook went missing for a day I mentally screamed and wept and my insides nearly bled. Then it turned up, and I do believe I kissed the book repeatedly, pocket fluff and all. Then copied it, anally.

Sally-Anne Hickman’s diary comics inspired: looking drawn fast, relaying honesty, immediacy and reality. Her choice of start and cut-off points and the length of sixty pages, longer than most mini-comics at sixty pages made them feel like novels. I strove to replicate this, breaking my work into chapters, the first a 144 page pocket comic-book.

First 80 pages

Fridge Comics

The Other 120 pages

I was working part-time at a stationers and spent my staff discount on two magnetic white-boards and a batch of cheap magnets. A sob of regret dismembering the notebook. The pages were numbered along each row. Staple-bound comic books work in supplements of fours and for a 144 page book I had to work things out in advance.

Once I’d done this, I took 36 A4 sheets, folded them and lightly numbered the pages in pencil. The pages were removed from the boards and lightly white tacked until I ran out began stripping posters from my walls.

Graphic Novel Fail

A big problem with this method of assembly could be in production: carting precarious stickys to a copy shop results in confusion with much slimmer volumes. Many copy-shops will specifically ask for .jpegs or .pdfs but I was lucky to have access to the use of the university photocopy room off-semester, when students were busy studying their parent’s satellite wide-screens. Three copies were made at this point: one each for the critical faculties of John (Robbins) and the conscientious Matt (Badham) I bound the comics using a single elastic band, a method Sally uses for her sixty pagers that is surprisingly great. I re-read the completed work, noting changes and sent these out in the packages.

Reviewing comics is a lovely job, one I’ve found gets progressively harder the more I do it. In this case, it was an opportunity for my editors to alter the narrative. Concerns were expressed. John and Matthew were made aware my narrative was a damn disturbing one. There are places in the narrative were characters are plunged into shock and despair, sickening states. While DLG is light and enjoyable in many places, at core a survival narrative, these moments don’t have the immediacy of drama as device that the latter do. This was compounded by other subject matter: media social panics and ambiguities in regional translation. Telling narratives of other people led Matt to raise concerns that, without their consent, I could be overstepping ethical codes. I’d changed names and altered appearances, but the occasional photo-realistic style didn’t help. I certainly didn’t want it to look as if those portrayed could be identified even though I was almost sure they could not. It’s just a mini-comic based in a small town that no one from there is going to read, right? Almost wasn’t good enough, and I pondered making changes for quite a while.

By this time I had moved back to Northern Ireland. Unlike mainland UK, Canada and the States, we don’t have Kinkos, Staples or photo-copiers in corner-shops as common place. Copying seems pricier. I graduated straight onto the unemployment line and a friend’s sofa, the book sat on the shelf. I took my single copy on the road to the 2D Festival were I showed it off to a few, including an attendee who advanced me £4 for a copy before I lost his contact details. I also made mini-comic previews of selected scenes in the book.

The accompanying video from June 2009 shows how I set about making this 16 page mini from one A4 sheet preceded by the formative stages of another. It also shows a copy of the preview I sent Matt and John. Warning: Contains disturbed complexion and over-dramatic pauses related to an all-night stint before deadline.

Webcomic On

Having produced those many pages made for good therapy and a sense of accomplishment. My stubborn nature and need to set a discourse off persevered. A friend I’d showed it to loaned me his scanner. I knew enough to host the images on my livejournal account, which has enough permanent storage space to hold them and to set up a free blogspot which was more accessible and would allow me to post in advance should I need to take a day off.

Some pages were muddied with dirt, wear or pencil smudges that deleting had to be applied to selected areas. I chose not to get bogged down, not wipe energy or construction in this. Ralph Kidson remarked that the pencils in my work may be a form of colouring, which I think is quite a good way of looking at it.

dont get lost

Don't get lost totems

The new year was coming in and it seemed as good a time as any to launch the webcomic. However, other factors got in the way and I was too busy to promote it properly. I sent Matt and John courtesy emails, and quicker than imagined, word spread with links on Forbidden Planet, and the blogs of Richard Cowdry and Paddy Brown welcoming me to the world of webcomics. I doubt this would have been possible without these connections made over time.

I’d had some success posting preview pages on Twitpic over the summer. Pete Ashton has an interesting piece here on Neill Cameron’s venture doing something similar. This did more good than posting in communities were I’m less an active part, such as Digg and Delicious.

Were I to fill every comic forum with links, I would not obtain my objective. The narrative has many strong themes: sexual abuse through rape and it’s effect on secondary survivors, paedophilia and the media panic surrounding it. Blogging without links was once considered bad practice. I intend to build this over time, as the narrative unfolds. Linking to communities who deal with those issues and their resources I’ve found useful, outside of my pithy scribbles. If the strip is commented on too, all the better for making another community.

With 300 pages scanned in and another 50 to do, I have a comic out that doesn’t look as polished as other web-comics but is a damned formidable read. Don’t Get Lost is updated on Thursdays and I hope you’ll find something there to suit you. As all things, in time.

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