My first introduction to the actual process behind writing Real Comics was an excerpt at the end of an issue of The Sandman, where Neil Gaiman talks a little bit about his writing process. I had always admired how the art style shifted so heavily with each volume as the artists changed. He described a process something along the lines of writing a loose script with dialogue but that also described what wanted each panel to look/feel like, and then passing it on to an artist who took some creative license from there. After the sketches were done came the inks, and then it was sent to a colorist and a letterer. I was fascinated with this process — I felt like if I followed the steps, I could create my own Real Comic!
But as I got older and started taking authorship more seriously, I realized that while the process was good for creations supported by big publishers like Marvel and DC (especially for one of the most acclaimed contemporary comic writers), many of my favourite cartoonists and creators were doing the writing, drawing, colouring, lettering, promotion, and sales all by themselves or with minimal support. And I also realized that I wouldn’t be able to make comics without being supported by a day job. Certainly I felt that creating zines and comics consistently was a labour of love, but I also felt that I was having trouble balancing everything. I’m still stunned at how folks manage to constantly put out new work while being able to pay rent, put food on the table, and even sometimes go to school.
Exhaustion really puts a damper on your ability to create freely as well. The truth is, I’ve always had a difficult time making comics with complete story arcs. I find the process deeply laborious and time-consuming, especially because it can feel suffocating being bound to a narrative that requires so many individual and varied drawings with their own specific design considerations. In a certain sense, my desire to tell a meaningful story is at odds with my desire to have a sustainable, easygoing relationship with artmaking. This is a problem that I think many people grapple with on a broader level, in regards to what they want to see and make and what they have the energy for.
These issues are things I think about a lot when considering the sustainability of my own process, and I thought I wouldn’t be the only one. I did some research into the processes of my favourite creators who aren’t creating under Big Comic Book Companies and the way they decide to approach their work in a way that is engaging and sustainable.
I remember reading about Michael Deforge’s comic process a while back, and he mentioned not adhering to a script too closely and just going for a page without a specific end result in mind. I find that this is a really helpful way for me to approach comics in a way that doesn’t make me lose interest. In this Paste Magazine interview, he talks about how much of his work is improvised save for a rough story arc and how that helps him maintain interest with something that has very tight deadlines (like a daily webcomic). It also helps for him to switch up styles (black and white vs colour, for example). I think this idea of not getting too comfortable or too rigid keeps my boredom at bay.
Speaking of webcomics, I was also interested in Meredith Gran’s process for Octopus Pie. The webcomic ran for a decade and the dedication she has shown to regular updates (with some support from readers) was really inspiring, especially when relying on other jobs for money. Gran has mentioned that they approached writing the comic very differently in the beginning and that changing the way characters interacted and grew was part of what kept the process so engaging. Keeping writing fluid and malleable within small stories that form a larger arc is a good way to make webcomics sustainable.
The Comics Journal also did a column on Twenty Questions With Cartoonists, where they interviewed many talented cartoonists including one of my favourite zine-makers, Margot Ferrick. Their process involves just starting to draw a few pages before anything like a plan seems to come to mind. It’s kind of comforting to see that many of these artists do suffer from burnout and self-doubt sometimes, and that comics sometimes feel like a fight, but they have different ways of working through these feelings, and different processes that make drawing and writing fun.
One thing that is discussed a lot among the artists interviewed in The Comics Journal is a feeling of community. It can feel really lonely to be working on something by yourself and easy to succumb to self-doubt. Luckily we have a wonderful community of indie publishers, zine makers and comic makers in Toronto and worldwide to turn to. The best thing I’ve done for my making process is finding time to poke out of my hiding hole and see what folks in my community have been working on. There are so many amazing workshops around Toronto, like Free After Three at the AGO, TCAF and other zine fair events, ZIPE and Paperhouse Studio, workshops in spaces like Xpace and CCOL (where I facilitated recently) where you can gain resources for your work and just make whatever comes to mind in a pressure-free environment.
A space like the Canada Comics Open Library is great because not only does it have an amazing collection of contemporary Canadian comics authors, but it also has zines to peruse and workshops to attend from the local community.
— Lina Wu