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Creating a Graphic Novel: Cheaper Than a Movie, Takes Just as Long

 

Cover detail from The Furnace by Prentis Rollins, courtesy of Macmillan

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.

Page 180 from the final script of The Furnace.

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.

My design sheet for one of the characters.

An early design sketch of two of the main characters.

A size comparison sheet of all the main characters. I referred to this often — it’s vital to keep the relative heights of the characters consistent.

Now we come to the actual pages. I’ll focus on page 180, which corresponds to the script image above.

My initial rough or thumbnail of page 180. This pencil drawing is three inches tall. At this stage it’s all about composing the page, arranging objects and text bubbles in a way that’s clear, easy to read, and aesthetically impactful. It’s also about calling on your visceral, filmic sense of composition and what kinds of camera angles work. In a way this is the most important and creatively taxing part of the whole process.

This page required research; luckily there are many photos of the Central Park Carousel online. This is one of the photos I used to match the carousel — I put a very high premium on authenticity.

My second rough of page 180. This is five inches high. A somewhat more worked-out version of the page, thinking now about textures, lighting, placement of trees.

The final pencils of page 180, based very closely on the second rough. This is 10 by 15 inches (standard size for comicbook original art), on heavy bristol board. I’ve done the text by hand, with a rapidograph technical pen.

After I’d inked all the pages, I made hi-res scans to add color. This was actually a late decision; The Furnace was originally meant to be just black and white. I used the art program Clip Studio to color it; here we see page 180 midway through the process.

And the final colored version of page 180.

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.

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