How can I speed up comic-book creation?

December 12th, 2020 5 minute read

People often talk about comics as an industry, the comics industry, but that sounds wrong somehow. If it is an industry, then it is one unlike any other. First, the so-called information age changed the way we design books. The combined effects of image-making software and the internet made the entire production and distribution of a comic book accessible to a single person.

Outside of the studio method, making a comic book is still an artisanal craft. Designing comics alone is slow, despite new tools. Add perfectionism into the mix, and drawing comics will take ages. You can find several comics pages, attempts, and ideas in my drawers. Some have been there for years. Spending most of my time working for clients slows down my occasional progress even more. Then, interruptions and the absence of visible progress affect my motivation too. With a project like that, the line between making slow progress and postponing everything can get thin. On the positive side, I have many ideas for (long form) stories to illustrate. The problem is, there is not enough time to work on them. That should not become an excuse. For this project to bear fruits, the question then becomes: how can I speed up comic-book making?

Forsake perfectionism

The first step is to deal with perfectionism. If you think about it, being a perfectionist about comics-making is ridiculous. There are major crises in the world, pressing problems that require immediate attention. Thinking about comics is in itself a luxury. True. Then again, if you are going to do anything, you should do it to the best of your abilities. Otherwise, why bother? The problem with this thinking is that it leads to delay, and delay leads to creative paralysis. One should break this cycle.

One shouldn’t aim at perfection. Try to focus on an efficient drawing style instead.

Simplify. Then simplify even more, but beware of simplification itself. Any attempt to get perfection will lead to more perfectionism.

Draw in tiny frames

On top of sheer speed, the advantage of drawing small is accuracy. Tiny sketches are often powerful and more accurate than large drawings. You can draw smaller to create storyboards faster.

The point is being fast. You could draft your entire story in less than one month. Think about it. Use small drawings—by the thousands if need be. That way, you can explore a story from many angles and pick the one the fits a sequence best. It forces you to concentrate on the whole and not get lost in details. All this allows you to test different visions of the same scene and see which would work the best real quick. Small storyboards help you structure a strong composition. Thumbnails drawings are your secret weapon.

To gain something, you often have to sacrifice something else. When you draw at a small scale, your arm is not working as a whole, shoulder included. The drawing result can become intricate and messy. Too many details will not fit in a small drawing. Compensate this by concentrating on the accuracy of proportion, dynamism, and the general composition. In a second pass, you can trace over your enlarged initial sketch to add details. Scan and print out at a higher resolution if you are working with traditional drawings.

Sketches as final

Chiseled work tends to lack essence. That is a common concern for many illustrators: the draft is better than the finished piece!

To keep the energy of your initial sketches in the final piece, enlarge the drawings and redraw over them. You can also draw and discard roughs sketches fast, like notes, without worrying if the page looks unfinished. Many people love rough sketches precisely for their raw, unpolished quality. Keep in mind: a high level of polish hardly matter as much as your ability to tell a story. When you overdo a drawing, it tends to look stiff; I prefer lively sketches over polished pieces anytime. Real drawing skills beat tracing over photographs in my book. Complete the first draft to get your point across. You could even tell the whole story in that form.

This first version lets you judge what needs to change. What’s needed now? A few refinements or even a complete makeover?

Skip penciling

Ink everything directly on the page to work faster. I tend to work in passes, by drawing over and over until I am happy with an illustration. Tracing paper is my friend. Unfortunately, the beauty and life of the initial sketch usually get lost in the process. Keeping the primal energy of the first sketches is always a challenge. Redrawing in passes is time-consuming and hardly efficient. Inking directly on the page is an answer to that problem. If you still need a blueprint, ink, or paint right over the rough sketches.

Now you could also do without penciling and coloring: skip penciling or make penciling an integral part of the final art.

Skip colors

If you are drawing a comic book, chances are coloring is slowing you down. Being a good colorist is a skill worthy of a profession on its own. Now you could skip coloring artwork: black and white comics are great. However, removing the color stage means abandoning a powerful narrative device. You could also choose to work with a single color or a reduced palette.

In the end, it is all about choice.

Skip Lettering

Lettering is another time-consuming task. It may be worth spending time designing a custom hand-lettered font, an investment upfront that will save so much time later. Fortunately, it is only relevant to a story with dialogues. Their title aside, wordless comics have no use for much lettering.

Skip writing a script

Make the comic itself becomes the script. If you are in a hurry, you can make up the script as you go. Make it all up. Draw the comic as a rough storyboard. Still readable, it has aesthetic qualities in itself. It’s a visual script that contains the story. It might stand up as it is, not as a finished over-designed book, but as an original blueprint. You might decide you want to spend ages to turn it into a fine art book. But at least you’ll have both the comic and the story, not just a vision in your head.

Design stories as visual narratives

The above point is an excellent start to avoid perfectionism and get started fast, but replacing a written script with pictures or a storyboard is also a viable approach to storytelling. Miyazaki adopted this strategy to create the story of Ponyo. Instead of beginning with writing a screenplay, he started with mood boards. His visuals only began forming a cohesive story afterward. Other authors were successful with this strategy: Hergé worked like that for a while on serial strips published in newspapers, not knowing exactly where the story was going. Comics is a visual medium, and drawing is a legitimate way to tell a story. Avoid getting entangled in a script comes as a side benefit to this approach.

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