You probably need to have your head examined.
That’s what I want to say when some bushy-tailed young artist tells me they want to make a graphic novel. What I actually do is shine them on with, “Hey, great, hope it works out for you!” If they keep asking questions, and it becomes clear that they actually mean it, I’ll start sharing with them some of the thoughts I’ll share with anyone interested enough to keep on reading this.
It’s a daunting process, involving massive amounts of time and plans within plans. I’ve never made a movie, but I can only imagine it’s akin to writing, casting, designing, producing, directing, and being the only actor in your own movie. I spent five years (off and on) working on my sci-fi graphic novel The Furnace (out from Tor Books in July 2018). Had I been working on it full time, it probably would have been half that time. Depending on the size of your project, your work speed and the detail of your artwork, you can count on investing a comparable amount of time.
You’ve got to get used to thinking in terms of years.
With that in mind, you have to have a good story. There are two great dangers you’re facing: the first is sinking nine months (or whatever) into the work and then losing interest. You have to be on fire to tell that story. What kept me going on The Furnace (without any kind of publishing deal for those aforementioned five years) was the last scene — God, how I wanted to draw that last scene. Alas, in order to do that, I had to draw the 180 pages that led up to it.
The second danger is realizing nine months in that your story doesn’t make sense. You have to make sure that the thing is coherent at the bargain basement level of logical storytelling (this is where it helps to have readers critique your script). Once you start drawing, the fat, as they say, is in the fire.
The Furnace started out as a short prose story written in 1998 — fully ten years passed before I decided to give it a graphic novel treatment. The first step was to translate the short story into a graphic novel script (a process complicated by the fact that I had no surviving copies of the story and had to reconstruct it from memory). This took only a couple of weeks. Over the next couple of months there followed a second, third, and final fourth draft of the script — changes were made in the light of criticisms from the small number of trusted people I asked to read it. I continued to add and delete dialogue and whole scenes during the entire process of drawing it — making a graphic novel is very much a give-and-take process between artwork and text; each affects the other equally as the work unfolds.
With script in hand, here’s what I did.
First, what you might call pre-production. This was mostly a matter of designing the characters — the settings and props I made up (or researched) on the spot as I came upon them. But the characters had to be nailed at the beginning — it’s crucial that your characters be recognizably the same from beginning to end. The Furnace was complicated by the fact that we see the main character at several points in his life. I wanted him to look drastically different (mainly due to weight gain), but also fundamentally the same. To this end I did something like what animators call “turn-arounds” of all the characters — single sheets with canonical drawings of the characters from front and side — to keep in front of me the entire time I was drawing.
Now we come to the actual pages. I’ll focus on page 180, which corresponds to the script image above.
And there you have it. The amount of time sunk into any given page varies for me, but it generally gravitates around 30 hours (that’s roughs, pencils, text, inking, scanning, coloring).
Again, creating a graphic novel is a daunting prospect and a protracted, lonely process, calling on a whole battery of skills. But there’s never been anything I’d rather be doing (at age 11 I was already holed up in my room drawing comics, most of the time). The best reason of all for doing it, as for doing anything else that you’ll ever find important, is: because you just don’t have a choice.