LAD: Editing for Comics

Before we get in to it, LAD has gone live on Kickstarter! I’m going to talk a lot about editing in the context of this book, and it would be amazing if you could take a minute to check out the page, or maybe even pledge some of your hard earned cash so we can make it happen!

Here We Are in the Summer of 2019

In the summer of 2018 I sat down with a checklist of books I wanted to make, people I wanted to work with and shows I wanted to attend. It was a daunting list. The two books at the top of that list were with the same artist, and would undoubtedly be an incredibly draining process for both of us. Not the collaborating, the artist in question is an utter joy to work with (and we’ll get to that later), but the process of writing two vastly different mini-series, for demographics that couldn’t be further apart, each dealing with themes that were definitely going to be a gut-punch for me to revisit. I decided to take a year, neglect this website, take sporadic breaks from social media, cut down my convention list to “special exceptions” (shows like Small Press Day, ComicCity and Cork Comic Expo; the shows that I love because they’re a little different) and decided to clear the scripts for those two series and that would be it. If I made any other comics, or posted any other stories, it would be for the love of the medium, and it would be short.

Right at the bottom of this list, I’d scribbled in a little note for myself: “Umar?

For a couple of years now, I’ve been following Umar Ditta’s work. We became friends, I look over his early drafts sometimes and give little bits of feedback where I can, and he’s done the same for me. Comics are weird like that. I wanted to work with Umar. His capacity for coming up with energetic and weird ideas knows no bounds, and his dialogue can leave you with a tear in your eye, or have you cry laughing, so imagine my surprise when he sent me a very raw draft for what would become LAD: The Homecoming. Here was a story that was as brutal and visceral as the short stories I keep in a folder on my computer that nobody will ever see. It managed to balance cutting cynicism with sly wit in a way that was just crying out to be turned into a comic, now! This was a book that I wanted to read, but like I said it was raw. The draft I read was packed with caustic dialogue, mind-blurring imagery but moved like a freight train with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it series of scenes and character moments. Another set of eyes would only improve this narrative, right? Before I could even chance my arm, Umar offered me the editing gig. 

The Ground Floor

LAD has changed a lot from that raw draft. What was initially a jam-packed 24 page eruption of violence, intrigue and distressing surrealism became a 3 issues of careful character development, the implication of danger and some genuinely inspired visuals. So how did we get here?

When editing a Comic Book, it’s not uncommon to be in fairly regular contact with the team, and after sending Umar my initial notes on structure and pacing, we spoke a little bit about how he wanted to tell this story, and how he wanted to effect the reader. These conversations took place over email, messenger apps and eventually, an outline was put together, giving an elevator pitch, and a summary of each issue – as a quick aside, although these summaries did work as a valuable road map for the series, and have helped us to stick to a deadline and work towards the ending with every panel,  no battle survives first contact, and comics are rarely the exception. Once I had reviewed this document, I made notes, adding them to the footnotes section of the relevant page for easy reference, and wrote a few short paragraphs of feedback under each issue.

This can be a surprisingly fast process, and in the case of LAD, I was looking at the first working draft of Issue 1 in about a week. Once I have the script in front of me, I’m able to do the basics (like reading it, natch), checking the dialogue (making sure it all flows well and fits in each panel without overwhelming the page), panel counts (how many panels are on each page? Is there good variety?), action in each panel (making sure single characters aren’t performing multiple movements in a panel description is a must!), clarity for the artist and letterer, mapping out page turns, all that good stuff. 

The Script

LAD has undergone one main change from the initial draft to the working version we used to make the first issue of the comic. As I’ve mentioned before the raw draft of LAD had a lot going on – too much to really allow the characters to breathe. In order to combat this, a full story pitch was laid out, highlighting the necessary action in each issue. When we had this in front of us, Umar and I were able to discuss at length how to improve the pacing of the issues. The answer was fairly simple, open hot and spread the story beats over multiple issues. In addition to this, in facilitate running multiple narrative’s simultaneously, Umar added a “cold open” to the beginning of each issue, focusing on a character or action that will prove important to the plot later on. Below are the original and current drafts of LAD Issue 1. Although we managed to reuse most of the original opening scene as the titular Lad’s introduction later on in the book, it’s interesting to think that adding a full scene to the start of the issue actually managed to improve the pace of the story. 

After reading the script and making some notes for myself, I then make notes on each page for how the writer might change the panel descriptions and dialogue to give the artist a better idea of what they have in mind. Below is an example of what those notes looked like on an early draft of Page 1. LAD #1 PP01 Current With Notes

In my notes above, I suggest that the writer name THE SINGLE FIGURE immediately after introducing him in the script. It’s always best when working with a team to have as clear an outline of what’s happening in the script, even if that makes some of the panel descriptions run long. While it’s not likely to happen, the artist may end up redrawing an entire panel if they initially outline the wrong SINGLE FIGURE, or they may end up working from the wrong character design. What’s more likely to happen however, is the letterer (who is typically the last person in the chain when in comes to comic making), already pressed for time will have to double check they’re lettering the correct character. That’s not ideal if you’re under pressure to meet a deadline. 

On a project like LAD where the writer is also the publisher, most of my notes can be taken as suggestions. When working as a professional in the industry, the editor usually has final say on what stays in the script, but at the independent level there’s far more discussion and collaboration.  Fortunately Umar and I tend to get on the same page quite quickly, and for the most part I find when he chooses to go against my notes, it’s with good reason (and often to build to a killer line from my favourite character in this series, First Cousin). Sometimes a suggestion from an editor can lead to a much better choice from the writer, as seen in the dialogue change in Panel 5 of Page 1.

This process is repeated through multiple drafts, until both writer and artist are satisfied. It should be noted, if you’re working to a tight deadline, or on multiple projects, going through too many drafts can be strenuous for both writer and editor, and that’s why having a solid outline and issue breakdown is vital to ensuring you’re always working towards the same goals and the betterment of the book.

The Art

Comics are a visual medium, and with a book like LAD, that balances dark and moody shots with mind melting surrealism, you need to find an artist who can bring out the best in the script while adding their own unique voice to the narrative. Our search for the perfect artist was exhaustive. Umar put out a call for portfolios on social media, I scouted friends and past collaborators to see who would suit the book and how they would approach it. This was honestly the most difficult stage of creating LAD for me. When all was said and done we were down to two artists. One, an exciting, dynamic and smart cartoonist, with a style that can range from Saturday morning, to Adult Swim, and the other, a methodical and experienced comic book artist with a wide rage of styles, a focus on expressiveness and aggressive inks. I think narrowing it down aged me five years, but in the end we went with Carlos Pedro.

Carlos had just (and I mean earlier-that-week just) finished the inks on a book he and I had planned to pitch later this year when I mentioned that Umar had a great script that I was editing.  Carlos wanted in. He has been a supporter of Umar’s for a long time, and once he saw the script, he wanted to be the one to draw it. Before he touched his first layout, he treated us to his vision and concepts for the book.

And what he envisioned for the characters. 

The design work on the aesthetic for the book and the characters took Carlos about two weeks, while receiving feedback first from myself as an editor and after I approved of an image, it was sent on to Umar to give his final nod as the publisher. 

Editing for the artist works in a very similar way to how it does for the writer, with a few notable differences. The first, naturally, is that you’re dealing with images instead of words. While this might seem like a small enough thing when it comes to giving feedback, it is vital to ensure there are no mistakes in simple things like spacing in the panels and dialogue order (the first speaker is always on the left) in the layouts/thumbnails stage. One small miss here can literally make the letterer’s job impossible and cause massive last minute rewrites to a finalised script to avoid huge delays and a massive headache for the artist who could have to redraw and entire page. It’s not uncommon for my first reply to Carlos when he asks for feedback on a new layout to be “how’s the dialogue order?” or “have you accounted for dialogue?” I’m lucky that Carlos is a meticulous planner and can generally be relied on to answer “of course”. From there I check for aesthetics and storytelling. It’s important that the page structures aren’t too samey as you read a comic. Unless it’s done for a narrative purpose, it runs the risk of boring the reader. The same is true of “shot” choices. If every panel is a middle distance shot of a character doing something while talking, it can become a very tedious read, however good the writing or art may be. Below is a process from sketch to finished page that Carlos worked on with my feedback.

While it’s not typical in comics for an artist to send this many steps through to an editor, as Carlos and I have worked together for a few years at this point, we’ve worked out a method that works for us. Typically on the steps in between the blue line sketch and finished pencils, I would give general feedback on character placement, movement or expressions in one or two sentences. Beyond that my function is pretty much one of a cheerleader until we reach the final pencils. This is the last point for any effective editing to be done when working traditionally (paper, pencil and ink). Once the ink touches the pencils, that’s it, so if there is anything that really stands out as not working in the pencils, or that might not work when inked, I’ll bring it up here. Fortunately, Carlos works digitally. This means that changes can be made well in to the inking stage, and while this rarely happens (it’s good to get in to the habit of editing at the layout stage, and having a final proper look at the pencil stage), it is nice to have that breathing room.

There are very few occasions when I will push back against a page. Fewer still when it comes to a splash page, but when it came to the title page for LAD, Carlos and I struggled to click.

The first point of contention was whether or not it would be too on the nose to have Lad smoking, under a “No Smoking Sign”.

What about his body language? This is our first introduction to the title character, and we wanted to capture him perfectly. Should he stand with his hands in his pockets or lean against… that bloody fence (I was very against the fence).

Finally (and I mean finally, I think poor Carlos may have spent more than a day trying to get my idiot editor brain to understand that leaning was in fact the correct body language to capture Lad’s overall demeanour, while still introducing what is to be a pretty intense scene), we settled on cutting the “No Smoking Sign” (boo) and to show Lad leaning (yay) against a post while smoking.

(And yes, I know the “No Smoking Sign” would have been on the nose, but out first introduction to Odysseus in the Odyssey shows him weeping openly on a beach, devastated by the separation from his wife, brushing aside his own infidelity in that instant to allow the readers to feel an immediate sympathy for him, so yeah, it could have been fine, OK?)

Once we were agreed on what our title page should look like, Carlos set to work inking what I think my be my favourite expression of Lad’s in the entire comic.

While this process may seem like a long one, my role is generally to catch any glaring storytelling mistakes that the artist may miss while they’re in the zone and focused on making the best looking page they can. Arguments like the one highlighted above could only really happen when you work with someone as much as Carlos and I have, and are both fighting to make the best book possible.

The Letters

As I’ve mentioned before, the letterer is typically the last team member to get to work on a page, and they’re usually the one (Carlos not withstanding) an editor will have the most contact with, barring the writer in the early stages. When deadlines are approaching, you want to make sure everything is OK, and more importantly, you need to keep the line of communication open between you and the person whose work will be the first thing a reader sees when they open up the comic to any given page. 

I’m in the habit of keeping letterers in the loop from day one. I want them to have access to the final pencils and inks as soon as they’re approved. Even if they have to wait for colours to begin actually lettering the page, having the page laid out in front of them allows them to do any preliminary work they might have to do. This is doubly true for the letterer on LAD, Kerrie Smith – we share an office.

When starting a new book a letterer will first try to match a font and the weight of the word balloon to the art and inking style. They may also consider the type of story it is. For LAD, a happy-go-lucky, or overly rounded font wouldn’t fit the tone of the book, while the crooked font Kerrie went with here works a treat.

LAD Page 1 Panel 3 

When choosing the right font and balloon weight, the letterer may send a few samples to the editor, writer, artist or the team in general to feel out the room and narrow their final choice down. Once a font is selected, they will set to work on lettering the page, being sure to guide the reader’s eye from panel to panel, while trying not to obscure anything important in the art. This can be extremely challenging, and it’s not unusual for the editor, artist or writer to ask for fixes to be made before going to print. Unlike scripting and art, there are no “rough drafts” for lettering once the font and balloon styles have been selected, so it’s vital for the writer to be clear in the script with how they want a scene to read, and if there are any important objects in the panel that cannot be obscured. It’s unusual for letterers to be paid a second time for doing corrections that have been requested by another member of the team, so it’s important to remember that every time they have to rework a page, a panel, a scene, or in some cases a whole comic, they might just be working for free.

Fortunately this is rarely the case for me when I work with Kerrie. We do share an office after all, and it’s common practice for her to bring any concerns she has about the script or pages to my attention long before she starts work. This way we can determine what (if anything) has to change or be rewritten to make sure the pages will still look their absolute best once all of the writing is in place. When working on LAD, we did have one instance where a page had to be re-lettered before going to Kickstarter. After seeing all of the pages with all of the lettering in context, Umar realised that Carlos’ artwork for that page was dramatic enough to stand with minimal lettering. The original page featured a line of dialogue “Oh lord… <wheeze>…” followed by THE SINGLE FIGURE “gasping”, or “panting”, and a final exchange with THE SINGLE FIGURE shouting “Oh heaven’s above! Save us!” only to be answered by “Ya no getting away ya daft prick!”. After seeing all of this on the page, the writer felt (correctly) that the scene would flow better with less dialogue. Unfortunately, the original image that was featured on the LAD Kickstarter Page before being replaced has been lost. There was however still a discussion to be had about whether or not THE SINGLE FIGURE’s gasps and panting should be vocalised.

Ultimately, Kerrie felt that while dramatic, having THE SINGLE FIGURE vocalising so much would detract from the tension of the scene and suggested a solution that would become our final choice for Page 1, removing all but the pursuers aggressive proclamation of “there’s the fucking cunt”.LAD Page 01 Final

So What Does Editing For Comics Actually Mean Then?

Ultimately when editing for comics, your jobs is to facilitate the other creators and to foster an open line of communication between all parties. Yes, you proofread scripts, you check for the quality of storytelling and pacing on the page. Yes you have to make sure the artist leaves room for the letters, and that the script isn’t overburdened with dialogue that a letter will then have to cover the art with. If a comic calls for colour, you need to make sure the colours work thematically and that the script details the time of day (so very important). Yet with all that said, you still have to focus on deadlines, production and communication. If any of these break down, it’s not the fault of the team member who has fallen behind or failed to respond to an email, it’s on you to make sure if there are delays, and nobody down the chain can help catch it up, that the deadline is moved, that everyone feels like they have a voice and can voice their opinion and most importantly, it’s on you to make sure the final product that makes it to print is the best version of that story.

OK, Cool. So What is LAD?

Well, to find that out you should check out our Kickstarter Page!

But I guess I can give you a little taste here before you do:

Taking inspiration from neo-noir films and comics, Lad is set in a world that is similar to ours but yet feels hauntingly different.

The Family conduct their criminal activities from the Beacon Lodge. They have been for a while and everyone one knows that the town belongs to The Family. There is however one place where no Family Member would dare set foot: The Forest.

Engulfing most of the town’s perimeter, The Forest is home to a mysterious entity known only as The Hermit. For as long as Lad can remember there’s been one mantra in The Family: leave The Hermit alone and The Hermit leaves The Family alone. So why was Dad, the patriarchal leader of The Family found savagely beaten and barely clinging on to life just outside The Forest?

In The Family’s eyes this is an act of war. An act of war that sets in motion a series of events that will change everything for Lad, forever.

And did you know that some of your favourite comic creators love LAD?

“A bleak and bloody British revenge thriller in the proud tradition of ‘Get Carter’ and ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’. Unmissable.” Alex Paknadel – Friendo, Arcadia, Kino

“After ‘Untethered’, Umar Ditta goes from strength to strength with ‘Lad’, a level-up showing from everyone involved.” Fraser Campbell – The Edge Off, Alex Automatic

“I love all of these people, so for them all to get together and produce something less than incredible is inconceivable” PJ Holden – Judge Dredd, Terminator/Robocop: Kill Human

“Taking distinctly modern street violence and merging with old folkloric horror mode is just inspired, and it looks brutal in every way.” Kieron Gillen – The Wicked + The Divine, Die

“A dark, urban fantasy with a thick layer of grimy menace.” Dave Cook – Killtopia, Vessels

“Carlos Pedro is always an artist to watch, upping their game with each new project. Here he is, yet again, bringing something exciting and new, his noir lighting and textures a perfect compliment to Ditta’s narrative in Lad.” Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou – Panel x Panel, Strip Panel Naked, Killer Groove

“Everything I’ve seen of Lad is fascinating. So far it’s a strange, sideways item, all gorgeously creepy shadows and little moments of nasty, just beginning to fold together into something deep and disturbing. I want more – you should too.” Al Ewing – The Immortal Hulk, You Are Deadpool, Loki: Agent of Asgard

For a full 5 Page Preview of LAD head on over to the Kickstarter Page now and let me know what you think! 

Keep reading and writing… and drawing and lettering… and colouring and designing… and marketing and budgeting… look just keep up the good work everyone!


FREE COMIC: The Very Irish Talk Show (#Repealthe8th)

With the Referendum on the 8th Amendment to Irish Constitution looming on the horizon, I wanted to share some thoughts with you all.

Ireland’s constitution is a bit of a mess. In fact it has been for a long while. We don’t really use it as a broad guideline on our little island, but rather seek to change laws and habits by adding to and taking away from our constitution ad nauseam. The 8th Amendment should never have been a constitutional issue and it’s essential that it be removed in the upcoming referendum.

There are those who would have you believe that with the repeal of the 8th, Ireland will cease growing. There is a narrative out there claiming that “1 in 4” Irish women will, when given access to safe abortions, terminate every pregnancy. I shouldn’t need to tell you how false this is, but I will. An estimated 163,000 women and girls have left Ireland to have them between 1980 and 2014. One hundred and sixty three thousand. In 2014 over 1,000 “abortion pills” were seized by Irish Customs. It’s clear that any woman who needs an abortion is willing to circumvent the system, and while those numbers are staggering, it’s far less than “1 in 4”. Still Irish women are putting their health on the line to travel and seek out a service that must be made available at home, and so long as the 8th remains, we are complicit in that.

This is not simply a political issue. This isn’t a line in the sand to be drawn between “traditional” and “liberal” values. This is about the human rights and the dignity of Irish women. It is disgraceful that for years Irish women have been driven out of this country in search of basic medical treatment. It is shameful how we as a nation have tried to hide and forget about them. Now is the time we can stand together and make a real change and make Ireland a kinder place for women going forward.

On a final note, the disinformation being spread anti-choice side, by the goons in the Iona Institute and their ilk, is nothing new. In 2016 Tree Farrell and I put together a short comic for the MINE Anthology both to support the Repeal movement and to lampoon the tactics of misinformation and exaggeration being employed by so many on the anti-choice side. I would of course encourage you to to read the comic and vote for repeal, but please do that the time to read around this issue come to your own conclusions. I only ask that you stay wary of misinformation and bad faith campaigners.

If you want more information on the referendum or the 8th Amendment, I would recommend checking out both the Coalition to Repeal and Amnesty International





Success in Failure: Managing Expectations and Ambition

Comic projects can fall apart at any stage and for any reason, but it’s so important that you embrace these failures and learn from them.

Making your own comics is rewarding work. There is a unique freedom to try new things, to experiment with the form, to look at strange and uncommon themes and settings. You can tell stories for yourself, for your friends, you can make a statement or you can examine the human condition. You can just do you. That feeling you get when you see your script brought to life by an artist is one that can only be described in superlatives. I’ve made friends for life through my collaborations, I’ve seen these friends go on to succeed in the industry in ways that fill me with an irresistible mixture of pride and jealousy. The knowledge that we all started out writing, drawing, colouring and lettering our own work, that we all grew from that same garden is at the same time comforting and bizarre. For all of this though, there are so many pitfalls, delays and disappointments that we as creators need to deal with on an alarmingly regular basis. Oftentimes when you come up with that one great concept, the one that, to you, is going to make all the difference, you believe in it so fully that the idea that anything will go wrong is completely alien to you. You can invest time and money, heart and soul into that comic. You can do everything right, but it can still fall apart.

Codename America 2
Codename: America, Warehouse Scene – John Quigley

For all the individual work we do and for all those hours we put in, as a writer comics will always be a collaborative effort. For all that we create, and no matter how hard we try, comic creators are still human. Our collaborators are still human. Life can get in the way. I’ve written dozens of scripts that may never see the light of day. I’ve worked on so many projects that have seen the opening pages drawn and even coloured before something comes up – a collaborator is going through a rough patch and needs to take some time off, maybe they land their dream job drawing a comic they love or maybe it’s something as simple as time running out. It can be disheartening and it can set you back, but it happens. The important thing to remember is that, even though the setback can hit hard, we don’t have to get knocked down. We can keep our feet, grit our teeth and look to the next project.

Codename America
Codename: America, Rooftop Sniper – John Quigley

The Vaulting Ambition of Bountech

Idiots in Space! Sounds like fun, right? Back in 2013 I really wanted to turn my hand to sci-fi. I had an idea for a crew of bobble-headed dopes, blundering through space and not really achieving anything. I wanted to satire the Five Man Band trope and write some ridiculous adventures. Turns out I was wrong.

Before scripting began, the idea was wriggling around in my hands and morphing right before my eyes. I hooked up with a friend and fellow writer Dermot McDermott and  my long-time colleague from the Superhero Help Desk webcomic Kerrie Smith, to bounce ideas off of and within an hour of our first burger-and-banter, The Good Ship Mary Sue and her crew of hapless buffoons had been replaced with a deep-dive in to philosophical cyberpunk, frontier sci-fi and a healthy dose of political metaphor.

Bright Eyes `1
Bright Eyes, Sketch – Matt Shiell

Even now thinking back on those early meetings reminds me why I love the collaborative process. The exchange of ideas was electric, suddenly we weren’t just going to do the Five Man Band, we were going to subvert it. We weren’t just going to do another frontier sci-fi, we were going to draw from Irish history and politics to create a lived in and deeply antagonising universe for our characters to inhabit. We didn’t want to settle for cyberpunk, we wanted to create an elusive, transhumanist pseudo-religion. I think you can tell this was an ambitious behemoth for any book, let alone a first graphic novel from three non-artists. Still we persevered, drafted a timeline of key events, and wrote extensive backstories for the political factions, key figures and of course our band of not-quite-heroes.

Slate, Handsome, Cortex
Slate, Handsome & Cortex, Rough Sketch – Matt Shiell

It was with these ideas still raw that we happened across artist Matt Shiell. Still in college, but looking to break out of fine art and in to comics, Matt approached the opportunity to work on this nebulous book with an attitude and enthusiasm that matched our own over-confidence in what we could do. Favouring a darker, inky style and relishing in the use of negative space, Matt was going to bring a brooding melancholic atmosphere to the artwork in a way that would play up to the darker elements of our narrative. We were on a roll, and yet with all of this in place, we couldn’t stop. We kept pitching ideas. With the four of us now fully ensconced in the universe we just couldn’t help ourselves. We wanted frantic action and head-turning mecha designs. We needed to add more to our bounty-hunting quintet! More cybernetic augmentations! More political allegiances! More drama and more tragedy! Where once the political backdrop would have played out in the periphery, now it was taking centre stage. We needed another scene to show why the No-Mod terrorist group X-Machina might actually be justified in their actions, but then we’d have to balance that out with a few scenes juxtaposing the utopian cyberpunk cities with the dusty and brutal frontier. Twenty four pages wasn’t going to cut it anymore, we needed to do a double sized first issue! No, never mind, we’d just ditch issues altogether and shoot right for the OGN! What could go wrong?

Kali Mech Sketches - Matt Sheill
Kali Mech Sketches – Matt Shiell

Ultimately, time ran out. We’d set ourselves a strict deadline. We had to finish the first act, if not at least an ashcan by DICE that year. Working within that limited window seemed like the only way to get our work on track and still allow the various teammates to continue on with college, day jobs and other projects. With that deadline looming ever closer, it became apparent that we’d never have time to get the book done. Tensions were running high within the team – we didn’t give Matt enough time to finish his concepts and the artwork, Dermo had to get back to the law library and finish his essays for the semester, Kerrie was working forty hour weeks and managing a webcomic, and I had started work on an all-ages fantasy series that needed my attention if I was going to get the first issue written in time for it to see print for that same convention. Our last meeting didn’t go well. It was clear we didn’t have it – couldn’t do it. We couldn’t get this book finished and all of those hours were going to be wasted. None of us reacted particularly well. What’s the matter? Hadn’t I done my work on time? The script was finished after all; it’s the art that was late. Of course it wasn’t as simple as all of that. Yes, the art was late, but this was Matt’s first comic and he, correctly, had wanted to ensure his designs were finished before barrelling in to the sequential work. But why didn’t he tell us earlier? Well that’s probably on me. I’d taken on a de facto leadership role in spite of my best efforts, and hadn’t pushed for better communication. Speaking to Matt recently, he pointed out that he’d felt ashamed of not being able to finish the work on time and didn’t want to let the side down. He’d felt that admitting he needed more time might have made the team see him as disorganised and unable to deal with deadlines. That pressure might have caused him to buckle, but better communications all over could have mitigated his worry.

Abandonded Factory Sketch - Sheill
Abandoned Factory Sketch – Matt Shiell

So it was with frustration that we all agreed to part ways, foisted by an overly-ambitious project and deadline, with nothing to show for it but a good first draft of the first page of what could have been a great first OGN.

Bountech PP01 - Sheill
“Bountech”, Page 1 – Matt Shiell

When I find myself thinking back on what we lost, both in the Space-Buffoonery of the Good Ship Mary Sue, with her giant cook and his giant couscous and the heady misanthropic world of Bountech/SOBEK/whatever-our-final-title-might-have-been, I feel an uncomfortable rush of mixed emotions. I loved those stories, both of them and I don’t think I’ll ever truly be rid of the latter, but I learned so much. I took from that project skills that would follow me in to future collaborations and help me improve as a writer and as a collaborator. I set my sights on more manageable projects. A six-page sci-fi/horror here, a twenty-odd-page noir fairy tale there… and I never let communication on a live project suffer like that again.

The Clockmaker’s Granddaughter Expected Too Much

CMGD Cover
The Clockmaker’s Granddaughter, Cover –Iuli Niculescu

Following the story of Reegan the narrative of The Clockmaker’s Granddaughter would have been split in to two sections. First focusing on Reegan’s adventure after she was transported to a lush agrarian fantasy world at odds with the encroaching techo-magical cities who threatened to destroy it’s natural beauty and balance. Secondly it would recount the story of her Grandfather, the Clockmaker. The Clockmaker’s section would have been told in flashbacks by the characters Reegan met on her journey and would tell of how his grasp of clockwork mechanics had allowed him to bring a refined control to the techo-magic in a great war that had upended the old ruling class and established a new Oligarchy of the People. As the story unfolded however, we would learn that Reegan’s Grandfather had unwittingly installed a tyrannical maniac on the throne. Creating a religion based on techno-magic and obsessed with the return of his old friend from Reegan’s mundane world, the king would stop at nothing to attain more and more powerful and refined devices powered by clockwork-magic.

CMGD For As Long As I Can Remember
CMGD, “For as long as I can remember…” – Iuli Niculescu (Art), Kerrie Smith (Letters)

CMGD And His Stories
CMGD, “And his stories…” – Iuli Niculescu (Art), Kerrie Smith (Letters)

Teaming up with Iuli Niculescu on this project was going to present an interesting challenge. As the story was equal parts her ideas and mine, we decided that the best way to handle the script was with a highly collaborative approach. Rather than full scripting, I would break the story in to scenes. We would then discuss the layout and suggest page count for each. Following this I would begin writing a very loose script, focusing on dialogue and a brief description of the action we should see on each page. Iuli would then take an almost editorial role, dissecting the scenes as they came in, suggesting changes and sending them back to me. This worked well initially and I believe that for the first twenty pages of scripting, the collaboration was a success and we set a good pace for the story. Iuli chose an expressive style, reminiscent of children’s illustration treated with an ink wash to add depth and mood to each page.

CMGD The Clockmaker's End
CMGD, The Clockmaker’s End – Iuli Niculescu

CMGD was doomed to fail. Not through any fault of the narrative or the art, but the collaborative style. Working in this way was too alien to me at the time. Iuli favours art-first storytelling and is at her best when crafting the movement on a page. In essence, my job became less about writing a comic, and more about pacing the scene changes, pitching visual elements and guiding the narrative. While it was initially exciting to place myself so far outside of my comfort zone, writing the script in a quasi-“Marvel Method” caused my focus to slip. It didn’t take long to see that without scrapping already finished art and undergoing full script rewrites, we were going to go well over our page count and far beyond our deadline.

CMGD Reegan and the Letter
CMGD, Reegan and the Letter – Iuli Niculescu

Working this way for the very first time on a long form OGN was a slow poison. It was nearly impossible for me to tell the story we wanted to tell. I felt I had to double and triple check every single page- every narrative element as I wrote them. I would stop myself from writing ahead, until I received feedback from Iuli. This led to a breakdown in both our deadline and the narrative pacing of CMGD. Elements were added to enrich the setting, but essential character moments were glossed over to fit the page count we had allowed ourselves. In the end, when the final draft of the script was put together we both knew it wasn’t good enough. We’d lost our focus on Reegan’s personality and had instead presented her as a flat character, swept up in a strange and magical world. Our villains had gone from complex and terrifying to outlandish and at points cartoonish. Even our “epic flight” was wasted, rushed through in half the space we’d initially envisioned.

We had overreached. We had expected too much of ourselves. Iuli for her part had other, more manageable projects on the horizon and the CMGD was no longer representative of the art style she was pursuing. I was just burned out on the narrative. I couldn’t make it fit and I knew it was unfair to ask Iuli to scrap her work and let me start the script over. In the end we could only shrug and say “maybe next time.”

CMGD Like So Much Broken Glass
CMGD, Broken Glass – Iuli Niculescu

Although CMGD may have fallen away like so much broken glass, I took a lot away from the experience. Time management and confidence in scene building are crucial when collaborating in any form. Better still, I actually write in that pseudo-“Marvel Method”, describing a scene loosely with a suggested panel count and dialogue beats, as opposed to full scripting, going panel for panel and marking out the movements of the page precisely, when working with Carlos Pedro. I can honestly say, without this learning experience, I’m not sure I would have been able to find right balance.

The Curious Case of Eunan Marlow

We all have that one idea. The story we can’t shake. The one that we still think has legs. You know, the one that we might actually get back to… someday.

For me that story is Mr. Marlow.

Tríona Tree Farrell had just finished up her season on the SHHD and she wasn’t yet sure if she wanted to keep working sequentially or if she was going to take all of her incredible talent for colouring and turn that in to a career. As we know now she chose the latter, and that was undoubtedly a great decision. Still at the start of 2014 and for the rest of that year, Tree was working solidly on sequential work, balancing the hours spent at her desk between drawing her own webcomic, taking on one or two indie books and colouring for hire. I was lucky enough to show her a pitch at just the right time.

Marlow - Shady Dealings
Mr. Marlow, Shady Dealings – Tríona Tree Farrell

“He’s a mage hunter, he kills mages for money.” When writing Mr. Marlow I created a fictional history of magic. I wanted to create a deep mythology explaining why certain people could use magic and what different kinds of magic there was in this world. I wanted to explore a world whose scales were constantly tipped in the favour of those who could manipulate it with innate and unfair powers, and I wanted there to be consequences for those manipulations. Enter Eunan Marlow, mage hunter. If you think your best life is beyond your reach, because your co-worker is a mage who messes with chance, or you’re so burnt by jealousy over a business partner who can summon spirits to do his paperwork that you just can’t think straight, Marlow can set it right, for a price.

Marlow - Marlow in the Cafe
Mr. Marlow, At a Café – Tríona Tree Farrell

Marlow - CM Transformation
Mr. Marlow, Crimson Magus Transfomation – Tríona Tree Farrell

Tree’s contribution was immediate. Upon hearing my ideas to categorise magic by type she suggested we colour code it. Blue – Marlow’s colour – would represent illusion magic. Red would represent destructive magic. Orange was for summoning; purple for prophecy. It didn’t take long to decide on a washed-out feel for the comic, all grey and dull, with sudden vibrant bursts of colour as magic, or powerful mages entered the scene. She also recommended we set the book in Europe, specifically in Paris so we could exploit the beautiful French language, draw on its fantastic architecture and, of course, build to a showdown in the catacombs. I took these suggestions to heart and began reworking the script to suit the new flavour. Suddenly the murderous Magus was the Crimson Magus, a being so overcome with his god-like powers he could never control. Ruined by self-hate his appearance was manipulated by the turbulent red energy and would shift from that of a man to that of a red-faced demon. Marlow’s tie would have a subtle blue glow to reflect his own minimalist use of magic. I pulled out my old English-to-French dictionary and thought back on the last time I tried to have some friendly banter with a Parisian waiter (it didn’t go well).

Marlow - CM Spellcasting
Mr. Marlow – Crimson Magus Casting – Tríona Tree Farrell (Art), Kerrie Smith (Letters)

I fired ahead with the scripts, setting a pretty good pace and reducing the initial six-issue pitch to four. While Tree set about the art, Kerrie Smith offered to come on board as a letterer. I wanted to do something with the language of magic and Kerrie, as it happened, wanted to try her hand at designing a new font. We spoke at length about the best way to do it, finally deciding that doing something like the Al Bhed language in Final Fantasy X would be ideal. By creating a new alphabet, Kerrie could push her design skills and we would be able to put in a cool cipher into the book for our readers to use or ignore as they saw fit. Either way we were going to have a lot of fun coming up with stupid things mages might say while casting spells. We were firing on all cylinders and were, if you can believe it, within our deadline we had the first issue finished, coloured and ready for Kerrie’s brand new fonts!

Marlow - CM and the Chapel
Mr. Marlow, Crimson Magus at the Chapel – Tríona Tree Farrell

By now you know it was all about to fall apart. As the lettering was coming in Tree mentioned that she had taken on more colouring work and would be scaling back on her sequential work. We’d need to move the deadline for the next issue. This was fine. We could work with this and even pull together a solid backlog or maybe even start pitching. I’d like to think by this point I wasn’t terrible at rolling with the punches. The more we moved back the deadlines though, the more colouring work Tree got. We could all see it happening now. Tree was going to explode into professional comics as one of the brightest up-and-coming colourists, and unfortunately that meant she just wasn’t going to have time to finish Marlow. The best part of working with Tree (that is if you ignore her incredible work ethic and unstoppable talent) has always been her honesty. If there’s an issue, you’ll know about it before it becomes a problem, and time had become that issue. Marlow had been cooking for too long and our team had to move on to other work. When Tree told me that she just couldn’t take on another issue right now, I understood. It was frustrating, but it was for the best. She laid it all out frankly, she felt that her sequential were OK, but colours were her future. She didn’t want to keep me on the hook for a project when she knew she may never have the time it required of her. Being a true class-act she immediately offered to colour the book should I choose to get another artist and I was enthusiastic in telling her that, if that ever happened there would be nobody else I’d rather work with.

Marlow - CM and the Friar
Mr. Marlow, Crimson Magus and the Friar – Tríona Tree Farrell

Marlow - CM Burning
Mr. Marlow, Burning Magus – Tríona Tree Farrell

Marlow was my last swing at a series for a pretty long time. I needed to refocus. There’s an old truism in comics: Start with four pages. Then do another four. And another. Most people who make comics will tell you to focus on small, easily managed projects when you’re starting out. Do short comics, but make them great. Build a portfolio. Make friends. Go to conventions. When you’re ready to do your OGN or series, you’ll have laid the ground work. It took me a while and a few abject failures to get the memo, but I got there in the end.

So Whatever Happened to the Black Neptune?

BN PP01 - Always Watching
Black Neptune, Always Watching – Rapha Lobosco

BN PP01 - Prisoner
Black Neptune, The Prisoner – Rapha Lobosco

Out of all the books that I’ve had to walk away from, Black Neptune was the hardest. In 2016, Rapha Lobosco and I had been teaming up for a while. We’d put together a few short comics and had notions about maybe slapping them together in a black and white collection. We were doing pretty well out of it too; people seemed to enjoy our collaborations. Still we were both looking for a book that could elevate us a little further in to the industry. Black Neptune might have been that book. It started over beers, as these things often do. I had this idea for a time-bending military-industrial horror that would take place on an oil tanker. It would borrow elements from both the pulp and sci-fi genres and build to a grim nihilistic statement on greed, consumption and the human condition. Sounds cheery right?

BN PP03 - The Team
Black Neptune, Team Shot – Rapha Lobosco

We had it all planned out. The narrative was to play out in medias res, using a series of interviews as a framing device for the main action. Through the use of rotating unreliable narrators, the reader would be left unsure as to which of our characters could be trusted. Each of them would have ample opportunity and motive to act in bad faith and betray the mission to their own ends. As we delved deeper in to these interviews more of the corrupt behind-the-scenes influences would be revealed to the reader. The events on board the titular Black Neptune would slip from a claustrophobic, slow-building thriller to a bizarre and gruesome cosmic horror and back again. Reality itself would seem to melt away as the team drew closer to The Mineral. What we really wanted to do was draw the reader into the mental decline of our interviewees. Their versions of events would be challenged, their recollections scrutinised and their perception of reality would be thrown in to doubt as contradictions, lies and the inescapable consequences of greed, corruption and violence were brought to bear mercilessly before them.

BN PP05 - Listen Fucko
Black Neptune, Listen! – Rapha Lobosco

Visually I think we were on to a winner. We had to balance the cold and clinical interview scenes with collegial and warm “squaddie banter” during the flashback sequences. To accomplish this we needed striking character designs and to comfortably swing from moody and alienating, to relaxed and professional body language. Rapha’s choice to use heavy shadowing to build the tension, juxtaposed to his crisp line work and sparse backgrounds would allow the reader to focus on the characters and to pick out any break in their artifice. Their attitudes and how they changed when pressured would be vital to the storytelling, more so than the dialogue. Once Rapha started drafting the pages, we knew we were in good shape. The art was dark and moody. The lettering was going to be crisp and clear. The colours were going to shift from a muted noir-influence to a vibrant assault on the senses. We had it all planned out.

BN PP06 - Got a Light
Black Neptune, Got a Light? – Rapha Lobosco

Black Neptune, Cover – Rapha Lobosco

You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t reveal too much of the plot. If there’s one book on this list that I truly think I might take another run at it’s this one. To this day I still look back on the script and my notes on key events and bite my lip in frustration. There really was something there with Black Neptune. I can still hear the character’s voices. I can see key scenes playing out in my mind’s eye. It’s been said that if you want to succeed in comics you need to be willing to kill your babies (no, not actual babies, you monsters), but for me; Catherine, de Souza, Chiaves, Don and Tom are still very much alive. This is however a great example of how a book that seems to have everything going for it can fall apart. We had a great cover. We had finished eight pages and were searching for a colourist. We were even talking about pitching or Kickstarting the book. So what went wrong?

BN PP08 - Leaving
Black Neptune, Take a Shower! – Rapha Lobosco

I guess you could say everything kind of went right. While working on the pitch Rapha got some amazing news. He was going to be working on Dynamite’s next James Bond series, Black Box! Sure this would leave Black Neptune out in the cold, but this was what we had been waiting for; the book that would finally bring his incredible art to a wider audience. If anything was going to bring Black Neptune to a screeching halt, I’m glad it was this. We tried initially to work out a way to keep up the progress on Black Neptune while balancing it with the deadlines he’d have to contend with on Bond. Unfortunately this wasn’t tenable in the long run. We both knew this was Rapha’s shot and he had to put everything he had in to it. It was with a cheery resignation over beers, as these things often are, that Rapha told me he’d have to shelve the project, at least until he had finished with Bond. We enthused about getting back to it in six months or so when he’d have the time, but I think we both knew once his art was out there for all to see he’d have no shortage of work.

It was over a coffee, as these things rarely are, those six months on that Rapha told me he’d been hired to draw a Vampirella and Hack/Slash crossover. I knew it was finished then, and I kind of wish we had gone for a beer. But really I couldn’t be happier for my friend.

Black Neptune Page 4 – Rapha Lobosco

And in the End?

So here we are at the end of it all, having looked back at four of my biggest failures in comics (so far!). Each of them had potential. Each of them could have made for a good, engaging story. Each of them failed in their own way and for their own reasons. You might wonder why I wanted to share these failures with you or what they have to teach you, and you’re absolutely right to wonder. Not everyone will be foolish enough to try for a labyrinthine OGN right out of the gates. Not everyone will let deadlines and creative frustration be the downfall of a project. And not everyone will have the genuine pleasure of watching their friends and collaborators leave their project for ongoing professional work… but it can happen. Comic projects can fall apart at any stage and for any reason, but it’s so important that you embrace these failures and learn from them. At no stage should you take it personally. At no stage should you let your head go down and your shoulders slump. These things happen. Life happens. You still have your mind and your ideas. There is nothing stopping you from taking up your pen and moving on to the next project.

Though next time you might try for a short, sharp four pages. Maybe.

Keep reading and writing,


I want to thank Rapha Lobosco, Tríona Tree Farrell, Iuli Niculescu, Matt Shiell and John Quigley for allowing me to use samples of these cancelled projects for this blog. You should check out their work.

Hi There!

After a few disastrous years using, neglecting and forgetting about Tumblr, I’ve decided to put together a website to share my work, news and some sample scripts with all of you.
I’m Hugo and I make comics.

Rather than doing a typical “intro post” which I’m truly terrible at I’m going to cannibalise one of my old Tumblr posts where I spoke about small press comics in Ireland. I figure, hey why not start off on the right foot?

The following was originally written and posted after DICE 2014, and while a lot of the analysis and advice stands up, some of the information has changed. “Collateral” as a company no longer exists, Tree Farrell has moved on from Superhero Help Desk and is now colouring comics professionally (go Tree!), I’ve since written more books, learned more about the industry and have a lot more to say, but this is a pretty good starting point.


Originally Published September 30, 2014 — Yikes this is old. I’m going to need to do a new one soon! 

A War on the Ground: Taking my First Steps in Self-Publishing and the Lessons I’ve Learned (so far)

I’m going to endeavour to keep this as light and un-academic as possible, but due to the nature of the material I’m going to deal with this will get heavy, it should get intense and it’s going to be long if I start rambling, I apologise in advance.

For the “TLDR” crowd:

  • Self-publishing is hard, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do and I hate it.
  •  … but I kind of love it.
  •  Comics are an amazing medium and you need to study them to get anywhere.
  • The industry professionals are generous, kind and pretty wonderful all around.
  • Hard work does not equal success, but it helps.
  • Conventions are your best friend, even if they nearly kill you.
  • Sell your book. Really sell it. Never just sit idly by and wait for customers to come to you.
  • Work harder and aim higher.
  • Don’t be a dick.
  • More; but you need to read the rest to pick it all up.

This year at DICE I was involved in exhibiting five products over two tables. The five different products each required a different kind of customer interaction and were each received in vastly different ways. I learned a lot about my market this weekend and what follows will be a close examination of working at your first conventions, making a small press comic book, marketing a small press comic book and team-building.

Getting Started

The very first lesson I want to share with you is this: know your limits. It’s incredibly easy to forget that we all have our limits; it’s far too easy to take on a vast amount of work when you’re feeling fresh and full of energy only to be crushed under the weight of deadlines and promoting your own material. For me pushing out three comic books, a webcomic and trying to promote a new distribution service over the course of one weekend was that limit. Once I hit that limit I was completely spent. I had pushed myself as hard as I could and then I burned out. As a direct result of not knowing my own limits I missed a very important tech. convention on Monday where I was supposed to promote that digital distribution service again. Though my team would never say it to me and though I know they’re more than capable of pulling off an amazing event without me, I feel like I let them down and that’s a terrible feeling.

Conversely you must push yourself if you want to improve. It is too often at these conventions that I see the same books repeating themselves and hoping for new sales. In many instances, even if a creator has brought out a new book or issue in the same series, it suffers from many, if not all of of the same problems as their predecessors. Others have spoken on the need for the Irish small press and indy scene to improve and grow, so I won’t dwell on that point, but what I will tell you is this: hard work is its own reward. As long as you (not me or anyone else, just you) can look at your product and know, unequivocally that you have worked as hard as you can and that you’ve made all of the improvements possible between the last product you put out there and this one; between the last con you exhibited at and this one, then you’re walking on the right road.

“So how do I improve my comics?” Great question, I genuinely love everything about this question, I ask it every day of myself, and I know a few of my small press colleagues do the same. There’s no one single answer, but a great place to start is with your local critics. There are plenty of reviewers and critics in Ireland. For my money Leeann Hamilton of The Cool Bean is a critic that every Irish small press creator should get to know. Here’s why: she’s smart, she’s honest and she’s brutal. One of the best ways to improve is to have someone give your book a proper critical reading. That just happens to be something Leeann excels at. You might not like what you hear back, but always remember these two things (1) that review will be representative of a percentage of your market and (2) you lose nothing by hearing harsh criticism.

You’re not limited to critics either. Plenty of the people that you meet at conventions and expos, the people who bought your book, will have a lot of feedback. It never hurts to reach out and ask their opinions. Even the industry pros are able to help you. If you approach a professional at a con and ask for their help, nine times out of ten they’d love to do it. Making comics is a community, and the pros want to pay it forward. Even if they can’t or won’t help you on the day, they’re still rooting for you. Honestly, they want you to improve; they need the next generation of creators to be as good as they are. If we stagnate, we die, that’s just pop culture.

In my case, I pushed out High Fantasy #1 out at Dublin Comic Con last month. We all worked hard on that book. The style was cool, the letters were good the story… well I enjoyed it. The very first thing I did with High Fantasy when I took a break from selling was drop a copy over to PJ Holden and Darrin O’Toole. These are two guys I really respect. I want to be as good as they are. Darrin is brilliant at structuring a story and keeping his readers turning the page he studies it regularly; pacing is a weakness of mine, so it’s a no brainier. PJ is, in my humble opinion, one of the finest storytellers in comics. Numbercruncher is a clinic in drawing the reader’s eye and eliciting great reactions. Darrin was busy on the day and asked that I drop a copy out to him another time. No worries there, I delivered it to him within the week and oh boy did I get some feedback! PJ was another story. His eyes lit up when I handed him the comic as he produced a black Sharpie and he asked if he could mark the pages. What followed was a lesson in page layouts, covers and lettering. Kerrie and I still keep our ‘PJ Copy’ on our work desk. I then asked PJ if I could send Amanda over to him for some advice on the art. PJ broke down the art style and in essence gave Amanda the tools she needed to improve; namely her very own ‘PJ Copy’.

When we showed PJ the new edition of High Fantasy #1 and High Fantasy #2 he was delighted that we had taken his advice to heart, and he paid us the amazing compliment of telling us that it was not only better, but almost to a professional standard. The art was better, the perspective had been fixed the kerning issues in the lettering had been dealt with and the storytelling was all a little sharper. Even the cover “pops of the page now”. As difficult as it is to hear that your work isn’t perfect, if I hadn’t have approached PJ, and Darrin with my cap in hand asking them to take a doctor’s scalpel to my work the book would never have improved. If I had put my back up and got defensive when they pointed out all of our (and there were, are and will forever be many) flaws my pacing would still be a big issue for me (I’ve been told it’s a little better now), and the art wouldn’t have jumped from ‘decent amateur’ to ‘almost professional’. I guess what I’m saying here is (and I’m going to quote Swimming with Sharks): “shut up, listen, learn”. Everyone is here to help, even if they don’t say as much.

Getting Down to Business

Comics are an art form. Creating them is an exercise in teamwork, patience and self-editing. Producing them is a business. Stop for a second and think about that. While I fully agree with the idea of art for art’s sake, once you reach the production stage of making comics it must be treated as a business. The world of comics is insanely competitive; there are thousands of people as good as, if not better than you vying for dozens of ‘dream job’ positions. I for one want Si Spurrier’s Marvel gig, but that’s not likely to happen any time soon (… damn Spurrier with his “quality work” and “good attitude”). When I set out to make a comic, I don’t just sit down a blitz a script, and redraft it… over and over again. The first thing I do is I work out my budget for the project. What can I afford to spend on this book? How much can I pay the artist? If they want to take more, can I afford to pay them a sales percentage in addition to money up front? Can I afford to make this book right now? How many extra shifts at work do I have to take? Do I have to take on some freelance work? Do I have to go back and work security for a few weeks to make up the difference (this is when I hit desperation mode)? Once I work out where I can get the money to pay for the project I have to ask a really disheartening question: is this project worth that much time? That time isn’t the time that I will have to spend writing the comic, or promoting it; rather it’s the time spent doing everything that isn’t making comics, so I can afford to make comics. How head-wrecking is that?

Comics are expensive to make. The artists that I work with offer me an excellent page rate, far less than they could get elsewhere. In exchange for this I have to take on a mountain of work in terms of marketing the comic, paying for printing, offering support and guidance (while I’m not a pro yet, it always helps to be on hand for your artists if they’re going through a rough patch) and just being on hand for creative and strategic meetings. This means that, regardless of how many ideas I have, or scripts I write, or even artists who I’d give my right arm to work with and who would be willing to work with me, I have to be very discerning about what projects I take up. If I can’t commit to doing all of the legwork and marketing that I can for a project, then there’s no point in my hiring an artist for it. It’s wasting my time, and their time and it is wasting money. Time and money are two hugely important resources to you if you’re working in the small press world. You have none of either and that’s not going to change because of the books that you’re putting out. It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or an artist; you’re probably going to go broke for a few years trying your hand at small press.

OK this part is going to get kind of disheartening and a little technical, so you can skip on if you like, or stay for some theory work.

In my mind, ‘Time’ and ‘Money’ are the two key resources in small press comics (ok, let me stop there for a second. “Small Press” and “indy” are just two terms to describe what is functionally the same thing, don’t ask me to differentiate them right now).

Time is what you need to make a comic. Time is also what you need to earn Money.

Money is what you need to produce a comic. Money is also what you need to earn to live.

As a writer of comics I have substantially more Time than I have Money.

This is because of two main factors:

(1)  Most of my Money is funnelled in to paying artists and to paying for print runs… and promoting projects.

(2)  While it might take me five days to write (edit, rewrite, reedit… cry into my Captain America T-Shirt, edit again) a twenty page script, it will take an artist at least twenty days to turn that script into a twenty page comic. That’s assuming that artist doesn’t have anything to do besides draw your comic (by the way, they ALWAYS have something to do besides draw your comic, and you damn well know it).

The artists I work with have substantially more Money than they have Time.

This is because of two main factors:

(1)  Most of their Time is dominated by the practice of drawing comics.

(2)  I pay them my Money to spend their Time drawing a script of mine.

I feel it’s important we take a break here so I can explain something: in this instance “substantially more” Time or Money, is still comparable to “sweet fuck all” Time or Money. We’re all broke and none of us have time. “Welcome to comics” (Jeanine Schaefer, #DICE14 in response to my telling her I had no money and hadn’t slept in weeks).

Now that we understand the Time/Money dichotomy we’re going to talk quickly about ‘intrinsic worth’, versus ‘actual worth’ and then I promise we’ll get back to something slightly less boring.

So we’ve looked at what resources we spend to produce a comic right? Time and Money, both precious, both spent on this book. It’s fucking awesome. It’s the best book. It’s your book. It’s something that you’ve poured your heart and soul; your Time and Money; your… your everything in to. It’s worth the world… to you. To me? It’s worth about a buck fiddy. Oh you want more? Well why don’t I just buy some Image titles and an Exclusive Print instead?

There we have the intrinsic worth versus actual worth.

AAAAAND we’re back.

We creators can’t ever expect people to give two flying monkeys and a side of gingerbread about how much our book means to us, what it took out of us to make, how much we begged and pleaded our printer to “please man… please, just… just a little less? Just a couple of euro off… please? I… I just… mercy!”

Once we’ve started producing books, they’re no longer our baby. They’re our product. They are worth less than 4 euro a copy. Sorry. Unless you’re doing a full OGN, your comic book isn’t worth the Money that you think it is (less so if the Time you take to produce the next one is more than, oh… say five months?). This is when we as creators have to start understanding our small press market.

Do I have all the answers? Lord lizard almighty no. I don’t. I’m still learning. What I do know is this: never stop working, no matter how few sales you make on the first day. Your market wants to buy Saga and Batman and the Avengers before they come near you. If you have an amazing book, but take too long to produce a new issue, you run the risk of losing a massive chunk of your market. Look at Big Bastard. Just look. Beautiful isn’t it? I gave up on these guys after #1, because it took them almost a year to get #2 out. Then, out of nowhere, #3 hit the shelves in a couple of months, and I was playing a lot of catchup! All of a sudden, I gave a shit again!

As creators, we need to learn that our small press audience has the attention span of a chihuahua on crack. Get it done well, get it done fast or just… I dunno, try voodoo?

Direct Sales

Now it’s time to take a look at our market. The Irish market is tiny. It doesn’t even register as a real market. Seriously. How many collectors in Ireland shop exclusively for indy titles? How many really care? Those of you who exhibited at DICE; how many of you made your money back? How many turned a profit? How many saw repeat business? How many didn’t?

Ireland is fucking amazing. We have a super set of creative aspirants, we have a pretty high proportion of nerds per capita (#NerdLife) and the local pros pretty much bend over backwards to support us in our comic making, even if it’s really not their style. Hell, Dublin is a Diamond ‘Red Zone’ (I’ll leave the retailers to explain that one). All of these are amazing things, they fill me with warm bubbly feelings and they all count for exactly zero sales.This is where we get in to talking about what I call “the War on the Ground”.

Selling your small press book is a war. It is. You’ve bought space at a con because you think it’s awesome. You believe in your book. You think you might be one of the best books there. Guess what, so did I, so did everyone else in that small press section. Real talk? Those other exhibitors aren’t your enemies. You are. I was working for the majority of the Sunday at the High Fantasy table. To my right Triona ‘Tree’ Farrell was manning her half of the table and pushing the Superhero Help Desk. To my left Ciaran Lucas was exhibiting his new animation project-come-comic Rover. Are you kidding me with this? Ciaran is a fucking professional animator! His stuff is like… GAH! It’s so pretty I could chop off his head and attain his abilities Highlander style. Tree… well everyone who saw Tree’s Pokemon Propaganda Posters fell in love. Tree’s awesome. Oh, hang on, she’s promoting a new up and coming comic too? Oh shit, it’s that wonderful script she had me read? So how in the name of Arya Horseface am I going to sell my prints, comics and anything else? Surely these two amazing, smart, experienced con-going creators are going to just take all of that business? Right?

Well you’re half right.

This is where the direct sales game comes in to play. Now me? I’m a born salesman. I can say without ego that my school guidance councillor told me to go into selling used cars. I love selling things, I love building them up in a prospective customer’s mind, I just really enjoy that. Fast talking, superlatives, a cocky swagger? Yeah I use none of that. Doesn’t work and people know what you’re doing. How I make sales (and I sold really well at DICE, more on that later) is by engaging with prospective customers. “How’s it going?” is a great way to start. Talk to your customer. You’re not the superstar of the show, you’re not a hot-shot writer or artist, you’re a creator with a project; but the customer? Wow, they’re out loving the con, meeting creative people chatting about their day, the books they love, your book, why you thought wearing a green Joker T-Shirt with a grey suit was a good idea. Anything at all. They’re having a good time. Yes they are a walking wallet, but if you treat a wallet well, it’ll last you years. You need to find a headspace where you’re not just a walking talking billboard. You’re their buddy, that cool creator from that table over there who talked to me about Batman and the Demon and, I know right, the Demon needs more exposure! Make a friend, make a sale… just don’t be creepy about it.

Do’s and Don’ts

So let’s talk about how you can sell me your comic.

  1. Engage. Catch my eye. Never spend the entire con weekend looking at your phone, or shoes. If you’re an artist only sketch if you’re being paid to, or if you can sketch and chat, otherwise you’ve lost me.
  2. Find a way to own your headspace, get happy, get enthused, get engaged.
  3. Offer me your book, don’t wait for me to pick it up. “Hey there, want to check out a comic?” Or try “try it out, if you like it you can buy it, if not, hey, no hard feelings”. People like to know what they’re getting into.
  4. Free stuff. I want it. Don’t care what it is.
  5. Useful free stuff. I give away bookmarks. People keep them and later check out your website/book… whatever.
  6. Offer a good deal. I’m never paying 10 euro for a 10 page comic. Three 20 page comics for 10 euro? And my choice of free bookplate? Well now you’ve got me interested.

I could go in to more tips and some more details, but I’d like to quickly talk about what not to do.

  1. Unless you’re an artist and you’re sketching for cash (or are at near critical levels of burnout) NEVER. SIT. DOWN. Just don’t do it. When you sit down it gives the impression that you’re relaxed, maybe even bored. Standing shows that you’re energetic and willing to engage. Look at Anthea West as an example here. She stood, she stood, she conquered.
  2. Just… just don’t look disinterested or bored. You do that, then you’ve made your customer disinterested and bored. I don’t care if you’re exhausted. I don’t care if you’re in a bad mood. As a customer, you’ve made me just not care.
  3. Molcher’s Law: Don’t be a dick.
  4.  Don’t talk down to me.
  5. Don’t look away and scan for another sale if I don’t buy your book right away.
  6. Don’t make a sale and usher me on.

I could teach of class on this don’ts of direct sales, and if you’ve ever left a shop feeling like you’ve been mistreated, you probably could too. Treat your customer the same way you want to be treated. They’re the special one – you’re just an art-and-or-word-monkey

I Just Wanna ‘Break In’

What I hear a lot of is “sales just isn’t my thing” and “I’m only doing this until I ‘Break In’”. Here’s a scoop for you, if you’re trying to ‘Break In’, you should be making small press comics. Hell Breaking In is a series of small steps, and small press comics are often that first step. Here’s where it gets tricky, as soon as you make the decision to make comics… well then my friend sales just became your thing. I’m not going to dwell on this, but I’ll ask you to refer back to the Time/Money dichotomy. If you want to produce comics, you need Money. To get Money you need to work, spending your Time on something that isn’t comics to earn that Money. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could earn some Money back from the comics you produced?

It’s a no brainer folks. You’re in sales, you just don’t know it.

Teaming Up

So I’ve spoken a little bit about sales, promoting, attitude… I’m not going to touch quality in this post, but what I will talk about is teamwork. Teamwork is, for me, the absolute make-or-break of any comic book project. Know your team. Talk to your team. Trust in your team. Believe in your team. I’m not going to go into the Collateral Comics team on this one, because I want to focus more on the making comics aspect of… well comics, but teamwork is crucial to any project. It doesn’t matter if you’re the kind of person who does almost everything yourself, you still use a team. Be it a friend for emotional support, or just the printer you use, you’re all on team ‘My Awesome Comic, Fuck Yeah!”

Warning: Case Study Ahead. Skip if Easily Bored!

As a writer with the artistic ability of a spastic gnat I can’t function without a team around me. Currently, not including Collateral Comics, I’m working on… (oh this is where all of my money has gone) I’m working on more than five distinctive teams for five vastly different projects that demand my attention in so many different ways. Let me break this down, just for the sake of clarity, with a quick case study of the books I was pushing at DICE.

Superhero Help Desk:

Writer/Editor: Kerrie Smith

Writer/Editor: Hugo Boylan

Artist/Editor: Triona ‘Tree’ Farrell

Lettering: Kerrie Smith

Social Media/Project Manager: Hugo Boylan

This is a webcomic was set up just over a year ago with Kerrie Smith and Triona ‘Tree’ Farrell and I. We’ve had our rough times and we’ve come close to breaking up the project a few times. Now we kept at it, and we have what I think is a pretty darn good webcomic to show for it.
So how did we build the team? Well, it helps that Kerrie is my girlfriend, spiritual guide and all told one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known. As soon as she told me she wanted to make comics and she wanted me to work with her, I was on board. I knew Tree from university. I wanted to do a comic with Tree, even before I wanted to make comics my life. I love Tree’s style.

I work as a project manager on this webcomic. I make sure the meetings run on time. I make sure we have enough bookmarks to distribute to all of our prospective readers. I make sure Tree is paid on time and I resolve disputes. The one bump in the road we’ve had in terms of disputes nearly took this whole project down.

While I will not publicly post on the bad times, suffice it to say there were situations that I could have, and should have handled better. It almost ruined this project, a passion project of mine and Kerrie’s. A project that genuinely brings me joy nearly died and it was largely my fault. As soon as we came through that rough time, I made a commitment never to fuck up like that again. Ever.
From then on, communication was key. We have a very strong line of communication. Every week Tree sends Kerries the sketches. Kerrie tells her if she needs more room for lettering, Tree crafts the page, and if there’s too much to fit, Kerrie and I will sit down and edit the scripts until everything slots nicely into the strip.

It took us almost a year to figure out that conveyor system. To all webcomic teams, take heeds, this will make your life easier.

I will caution you now that every project has its fractious moments. Times when the last people you want to hear from are your teammates. Times when everyone you’re working with pisses you off. Once you come through that your team will be a solid one. Right now, there is nobody in the world I’d rather make comics with than Kerrie and Tree. I don’t care that webcomics make no money; I don’t care that I won’t see a return on my investments for this project, these two ARE the Superhero Help Desk, and I’m really lucky they let me come along for the ride. It took time, it took a lot of getting used to each other, it costs a few hundred a month to run, but it’s worth it to really gel with a team.

High Fantasy:

Writer: Hugo Boylan

Artist: Amanda Spitzner

Editor/Lettering: Kerrie Smith

Cartography/Flats/Design: Frank de Paula

Social Media: Amanda Spitzner

Social Media: Hugo Boylan

Where do we start with this team? High Fantasy is a really interesting mix. High Fantasy is the first book I ever tried to put to print. After a couple of years of studying the craft of comics, improving my script writing by using the Superhero Help Desk (SHHD) and looking around at different artists, I thought I’d approach Amanda Spitzner of Exploding Comics about doing a book. At that very same moment, so did Kerrie. We put together a pitch list (I still can’t believe Kerrie’s ‘Jenny Skids’ pitch wasn’t the one picked). Long story short, the High Fantasy pitch was the one that appealed most to Amanda and I pretty much begged Kerrie to edit and letter for it, because her work is great and only getting better.

Unlike the SHHD, High Fantasy requires a lot of specific communication; the conveyor system can’t work. Amanda’s not Irish, so there are occasions when the language I use in the script is too colloquial for her to decipher, and sometimes it’s so scrambled that even Frank can’t make sense of it. To keep these instances to a minimum we have regular meetings where we discuss the scripts, the characters and where we want to take the plot. This works, but only because we’re all willing to put in (ready to refer back to the Time/Money dichotomy?) a disproportionate amount of Time into this project for the relatively small short term returns it can yield. We all believe in this project so we work hard to make it happen.

This however can lead to fractious moments, like what we experienced this week at DICE. Our sale numbers on Saturday weren’t what they should be. For whatever reason that was, it left us all very stressed out and to make matters worse, Amanda wasn’t selling any of her sketches. Financial worries in a project like this are an absolute pain. They can ruin a show and put a lot of pressure on the financier, and just as much on an artist who collects half of her pay from the profits.

While our communication is usually great, this weekend we weren’t on top of it and as a result, Amanda and Frank had do the lion’s share of the work at the show. Usually Kerrie and I could compensate for this by being more active on the table, or elevating the spirits of our teammates, but with the amount of other work we had to do for other projects Amanda and Frank were left alone on the table.This risks fundamentally altering the nature of a relationship within a team. Understand this, when you make comics, you make friends. It’s like playing the most competitive sport ever. You laugh together; you cry together, you pick each other up when you’re down. You work hard and you kick ass. All as a team. Unfortunately when the team falters, we all falter, and stress runs rampant and emotionally razes the team (so I drank way too much at the DICE afters and Mike Norton kicked me right up the arse).

The good news is, with a strong team the rough times don’t last forever. A meeting, a heart-to-heart and a fresh focus on the project ahead can bounce you right back to where you want to be.

 (apologies for the real-talk)

The Servant:

Writer:  Hugo Boylan

Artist: Sarah Elliott

Editor/Lettering/Designer: Kerrie Smith

I love the Servant. I love it because it’s exactly what we all agreed it would be. I approached Sarah on the recommendation of a certain gentleman who shall remain Portuguese. We spoke a few times online and I outlined what I wanted the Servant to be. Sarah was very keen on the ideas behind the book and the characters being from diverse backgrounds. After a few meetings we settled on an art style that she was comfortable with and that was going to stand out as really unique and eye catching. Sarah brings a mix of traditional watercolours to the table with a very… I don’t like to say strange style, but it is at that. She brings a unique and strange style to the project that is reminiscent of her own Casket Case book.

Once again I turned to Kerrie, cap in hand (are you starting to see the one reason anything gets done?) and asked her to edit and letter the project and she agreed; telling me in no uncertain terms that I owed her big time when the editing of her own books came around. Kerrie picked a very cool new way of lettering (well new for her, she’s been studying the Todd Klein pretty hard, so who knows what she learned?) that looked like she hand drew the caption boxes… look, it’s pretty and I like it. This complimented the full colour book really well and landed itself to that unique aesthetic. Kerrie also got to try her hand at designing logos for the first time.
What makes this team really work is how much work we all realise is ahead of us. Sarah has just gone back to college, and she works fully traditionally so it’s going to be a slow turn around (flying right in the face of what I said earlier about needing a fast turnaround I know), but that will give me time to refine my storytelling in the script to fit the tone set by her art and colours. My great hope here is that we can get some good feedback and improve and grow as a team and produce a compelling and weird story. I think my colleagues would agree.

Case Study Over

In short, it’s vital to know your team. Your strengths, your weaknesses and the areas where you need to improve. As a coherent team you’re far more likely to push each other forward, meet deadlines and keep each other sane. Trust yourself, trust your teammates and always always always listen to your editor. There will always be rough moments, or times when you feel like you have to quit, but if everyone in your team is willing to work hard and push themselves to improve day in and day out, then you’re looking at a team worth holding on to.

Yeah Yeah, But I’m Just So Awesomely Good

Sweet, glad to hear it! Get out there and kick some ass in the comics game! Why did you even read this far?

Having the right attitude is a game changer. I’m known to my friends as a miserable, misanthropic asshole. I thrive in misery. I read crappy newspapers at work to chuckle at misery. When I’m not being me, I try to present myself as a hard working enthusiastic guy… because… well while misery and misanthropy (and assholery) are a part of me, I’m also hard working and enthusiastic. I try to highlight the positives and hide the negatives. In that way when I approach an industry pro for advice or to show them my books, I can always be sure to give off a good impression. This idea can be reinforced very easily by being respectful to everyone you meet. You should try it. When I look at good attitudes I look at Stephen Mooneyand Ruth Redmond for inspiration. Rarely have I spoken to either of them and left the conversation without a smile on my face.
So I guess what I’m saying here is; if you want to give a book to an editor to look at and maybe get a job if you’re lucky, strike up a dialogue first. Talk to them a little bit, maybe tell a joke? Maybe listen to their stories (they’re usually really awesome)? Do what you’re going to do, but always always be respectful, ask if they’re willing to take a look and smile, it comes across as less desperate. Here’s a handy trick, don’t just do that with editors who can give you jobs either, try it with everyone you meet at a con, pro, customer, exhibitor, just be nice. Be kind.

So To Conclude

DICE was an amazing convention, John, Bruno, JP and all the guys at Big Bang Comics did an incredible job and put on a… superlatives fail me. The show was peerless, and next year you should go and take everyone who loves comics with you.

I’ve learned a lot about small press comics in the last few months, and I could go on and on about it, pretty much forever, but I’m going to leave it there. I might post more of these, I might not. I might just see where the road ahead takes me. We’ll see. Whatever you do, do it well, work harder and reach higher than you are right now. Learn how to sell yourself and your books, learn your audience, ask for feedback and be open and receptive to criticism. Don’t be a dick! Keep working to improve and put out great books, sell them to me next time I see you at a con.

Sorry if I was rambling and I hope someone out there will find this helpful.

Yeah well what the fuck do you know?

Not everything, maybe not as much as you, but I do represent a proportion of your market, so maybe my opinion is worth something, maybe not. Who can say?
All I know is I’m going to go write a script and adapt a whole heap of musicals because that’s how I roll.

Keep reading and writing,