Category Archives: Tutorial

Don’t Fight the Format

I’ve recently read some comics that are clearly influenced by manga and webtoon, which is not a bad thing at all, but when coupled with their format, release schedule, and price point it makes things more difficult.

Manga or webtoons with a more rapid release schedule can lavish page-panel count on small moments or more drawn out plot movement per chapter because of their frequency. The readership gets a steady flow of material to keep them on board and invested.

In addition, the price point on manga or webtoon per chapter is either incredibly low or free. Even if a reader occasionally feels like things are moving sluggishly, the overall frequency and value is more than worth it.

If your comic intended for North American comic shops has 20 pages of sloo~oow burn introduction for $3, $4 or more, it’s a much harder ask for that audience/that frequency/that price point.

Many manga settle into a drawn out storytelling style/pacing after they introduce a killer hook at the start:
• An incredibly charismatic main character.
• An unusual premise.
• A wild genre twist.
• A deeply compelling mystery.
• A bombastic art style.

Some of these awkwardly paced comics I’ve recently read come off the starting blocks decompressed out the wazoo but haven’t established enough engagement to earn my interest, loyalty, or money.

You’re giving me the storytelling equivalent of the dramatic slow burn first 10 minutes of a movie, charging me $4 and telling me I’ll get 15-20 minutes more…in a month.

If you have a self-contained graphic novel with 140+ pages you can absolutely use 10+ pages to slowly ease us into a sense of place or set up the mundane before something engaging happens. I have the whole story, I’m in for the whole ride. If that same concept makes up half of an opening issue and that’s all I get for my cover price this month, you’ve probably lost me.

First impressions are everything and format-pacing is a huge part of that impression.

You may have an epic long term story in mind, but you’ll never get to it if the value vs entertainment doesn’t work.

If you want that slow burn, maybe you need a ‘stinger’ style opening instead. Every story is different, but it’s something to consider. Think James Bond or Raiders of the Lost Ark – give us a bombastic opening before you settle in for the simmer.

When I pace out a 20-24 page issue, I write a numbered list so I can easily see how much space each part takes up and account for each page, page turn, and scene. Every damn page has to justify its existence – what happens, what do we learn, what gets revealed? On a single issue, I’ve got those 20 pages to earn the reader’s trust and cover price.

If I write a longer graphic novel, I can slow that down and pace information/mood/reveals over larger blocks of pages and scenes. If it’s a short story, I have to double or triple stack info/reveals far more, stripping away all extraneous stuff to focus the value-per-page.

Format determines pacing.

Don’t forget that genre and intent matters too!

If you’re writing a horror story, how many pages deliver dread, mystery, violence, shock?

The same goes for a romance, action-adventure, fantasy, or any other genre.
Are you dedicating enough of your page count to the core experience your readership expects?

Some of these poorly paced comics I’m reading feel like they’re actively fighting against their format, their genre, or their audience.

Surprising a reader with more than they expect is good. Actively giving them none of the promise of the premise is deeply unsatisfying, especially if this is the first issue!

I get it, the more well worn the genre and tropes are, the harder it can be to escape those confines.

How do you give people what they want and surprise them?
How do you deliver something familiar and new?

That’s the struggle.

No, not “struggle” – Challenge.
It’s a challenge you work to overcome.

Your try to please yourself and deliver the goods in a way that works with the story, genre, format, schedule, price point, budget, and audience.

And, if it’s a monthly comic series or weekly manga – you have to do it on 4-5 issues/chapters simultaneously in different stages of the production pipeline. As one goes out, another one enters.

That’s the job.
Get to work.

If you found this post helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share the post with your friends and consider buying some of my comics or donating to my Patreon to show your support for me writing this tutorial post instead of doing paying work. 😛

No Experience?

I received a comment here on my site that covers a common question I and many other writers get, one I want to answer and expand upon so I can point people toward it here in the future-

Hey Jim,

When one pitches a comic to a company (like UDON, IDW, Image, or something like that) is a four issue mini-series (like your Ibuki/Cammy comics) a fine request for someone with no experience?

Or would asking for something like a one-shot/issue comic be a lot more likely to be accepted?

Right from the start, you have the wrong idea about how this works-

A publisher will not look at any unsolicited pitch, one-shot or otherwise, for an established property and won’t ask you to submit one until you have creative work they can check out.

The key here is when you said you have “no experience”.

You need to gain experience by making your own comics (or at least other writing).

Create work, finish it, and then, if you feel it’s professional quality, send that work to publishers as a portfolio showing the quality you could bring to them.

A publisher is not going to approve a project proposal from someone with no credits to their name or portfolio to judge. Legally, they won’t even look at it, because if it’s similar to anything they’re developing it could open them up to legal hassles.

If you look at the long and rambling trail of my career, the vast majority of projects at the start were my own independent ones because no one would pay me for writing until I proved I could make writing worth paying for:

The shortest distance between the work you do and the work you want to do is key-

Create comics if you want to work in comics.
Create screenplays and make films if you want to work in film or TV.

Create work that exemplifies your best qualities so potential clients
will want to hire you to bring those qualities to their projects.

Quality work in another medium can bridge the gap if it’s a similar genre or has a similar mood.
Tom King wrote a superhero novel.
Brian K. Vaughan started with play and screenplay writing.

Most importantly, be honest with yourself-
If you were a comic editor and your job hung on hiring people who could hit the mark on a story and deadline, how much experience would you want to see to feel confident about giving them a job?

The smaller the publisher, the easier it will be to break in and gain more experience, but in most cases the pay from those smaller companies will also be low/non-existent. Expect that establishing yourself and your work will take time, effort, and there are no guarantees of success.

This is true for every creative career (and almost every non-creative one)-
The work almost always starts with independent creation – short film production, an indie band, indie game development, self publishing, local theater, you name it.

Finish stuff, release it, see if it gains traction, and then keep going.

If you found this post helpful, feel free to let me know here, share the post with your friends and consider buying some of my comics or donating to my Patreon to show your support for me writing this tutorial post instead of getting paying work done. 😛

Your Comic Script Critique

The always amazing Steve Lieber put together an extremely helpful list of 12 common comic art portfolio critiques and asked if a comic writer wanted to do the same kind of thing, so I picked up the baton and ran with it.

Read, learn, and if you like it, feel free to share far and wide.

Here’s Steve’s original art portfolio post, packed with great advice:

Predatory Publishing and You – A Tragedy in the Making

A brand new comic book publisher announces their arrival with a glitzy series of big projects and big promises. Within a few years, they implode and the rights to titles they published become hopelessly trapped in a legal labyrinth that may never get figured out.

Sound familiar?

If you’ve been in and around the North American comic industry, it should. That same excitement-to-apocalypse scenario has played out at least a dozen times over the past forty years. I’ve watched this cycle time and time again with independent comic publishers who try to build their foundation on ‘creator-owned’ titles that lock away rights in perpetuity and page rate promises that crumble when boisterous external funding runs out.

To help people avoid this awful ‘tradition’ of predatory publishing, here are 12 important warning signs to look out for:

• Publisher pops up out of nowhere with bold claims and unknown/vague sources of funding.

• Publisher tries to launch a ‘universe’ of titles (especially superheroes) all at once and you’ve never even heard of them before.

• Publisher claims to be ‘more than just comics’ and makes big media promises without a track record of work adapted into any other mediums at all.

• Publisher snaps up a bunch of existing independent books all at once to ‘strengthen their brand.’

• Publisher promises too-good-to-be-true page rates (because they don’t intend to actually follow through on paying them).

• Publisher says they will let creators keep ‘the copyright’ to their work, while they handle the trademark and media rights.

• Publisher’s marketing and promotion has almost nothing to do with creators or their work.

• Publisher’s social media presence is smaller than most indie creators.

• Publisher seems to appear out of nowhere at conventions with a large booth and is flush with branding/sponsorship-style marketing before they’ve put out a single book.

• Publisher uses movie/TV/other media personalities to front their titles without crediting or promoting the artists and writers making the actual comics.

• Publisher will not negotiate on any points in their contract. They claim every creator operates under the ‘same deal.’

• You never actually see any of a publisher’s books in a comic shop, bookstore or even at their convention booth but, according to their marketing, they have a bunch of titles ready to be turned into movie/TV properties.

Don’t get me wrong, there are predatory indie film, music, prose and game companies as well (and most of the same warning signs covered above also apply), but the lower start up costs and movie/TV pitch-friendly packaging of comics seems to lend itself to these kinds of companies launching with all kinds of fanfare and then flaming out.

Most of these predatory publishers seem to operate on a simple 3-step model:

1) Acquire or generate large amounts of intellectual property as quickly as possible.
2) Pray that they can make a media deal and/or be acquired by a bigger corporate fish.
3) The people in charge profit. Everyone else gets screwed over.

When you’re starting out, I know that any and all credits feel like the path to legitimacy and being considered a true ‘pro’, but please don’t rush into any publishing deal for your original creations without carefully checking the paperwork.

Get a lawyer to review the legal paperwork you’re about to sign. Whatever you pay for that service will be worth it because they can outline exactly what the legal ramifications are and how that paperwork might be wielded against you in a worst case scenario down the road.

Back in 2014 when I pitched Wayward, we got a lot of interest. In turn, I received potential contracts to review from many of the creator-owned publishers in business at that time. When my lawyer and I sat down and reviewed all the paperwork, many of them had deeply unfavorable terms or ‘snake trap’-style clauses built in – ways a publisher could hide profits in and around other expenses, give themselves a disproportionate amount of earnings from our work, negotiate and sign media contracts on our behalf without any communication or approval required, or seize creative control and ownership in perpetuity with very little recourse to fight it.

One of the contracts was so bad, so ridiculously bad, that my lawyer said something to me I’ll never forget-

“If you signed this terrible contract I would have to stop representing you on the spot, because clearly you have no respect for yourself or your hard work and everything I thought I knew about you would be in question.”

(There’s a reason why Wayward, Skullkickers, and Glitterbomb were published by Image Comics. No company is perfect, but the creator-owned contract at Image Central is one of the most creator-friendly anywhere with ownership rights retained and few other strings attached.)

If you do jump into a publishing deal with a new and possible fly-by-night publisher, make sure you do it with eyes open – take the paycheck, cash it quickly, and mentally file that project under “Work for hire with slim chance of benefits” because in many cases that is the truth of the contract you signed.

Even then, before you sign anything, I also recommend you reach out to other creators currently working with that same publisher, even if you don’t know them beforehand, and make sure they’re being treated well and getting paid on time. There’s no guarantee there won’t be future problems, but some due diligence is better than none.

I don’t know of a single creator who wouldn’t respond to a polite message asking about a company they work with:
If things are good – they’re happy to tell you.
If things are bad – they’re eager to warn other people away.

One final point-

Legitimacy comes from the quality of work you create, not a particular company’s logo on your project.

There are more ways to get your work out into the world and independently fund creative projects than ever before. I wish crowdfunding and Patreon had been around when I began my career in the late 90’s/early 00’s.

A bunch of us started right here on the web, creating original work and learning the craft of comics, bit by bit. It may have taken us longer to build up legitimacy that way, but we kept ownership of our creations and quite a few of us have been able to carve out a readership and long term success in a business not known for its stability.

If you found this post helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share the post with your friends and consider buying some of my comics or donating to my Patreon to show your support for me writing this tutorial post instead of doing paying work. 😛

The Writing Marathon – Ten Years Later

In late 2013 I put together a blogpost discussing productivity that included a dorky bar chart showcasing how many comic pages I wrote each year from 2009-2013. That period was explosive for me in terms of career growth and visibility. It was exciting to launch my new creator-owned series and slowly use the momentum that came with it to get work for hire projects at some of the largest comic publishers in North America.

It’s strange looking back on that chart and realizing that some of my highest profile projects, ones I’m now closely associated with, had not happened at all yet – In 2013 I hadn’t written anything for Marvel, Dungeons & Dragons, or Conan the Barbarian.

So, almost a decade later, what has changed?

As you can see, the year-over-year wild increase that happened between 2009-2013 leveled out and then decreased. I mentioned in that original post that juggling 1000 comic pages a year alongside a full-time teaching job played havoc with my personal life and that was certainly true. I look at the most productive years on this chart (2013, 2014, 2018, 2019) and remember the intense stress they brought to my personal relationships and physical health. I also remember the pressure I felt from 2015 to 2017 to ramp things back up and maintain a crazy output level, to make sure I wasn’t squandering the higher profile projects I was a part of.

I’m still extremely proud of the books I’ve written, but also know that by the time 2019 wrapped up I was on the cusp of burning out. That’s one of several reasons why I planned to take a teaching sabbatical in 2020 so I could focus more on writing and travel. After the pandemic flared up, those ambitious tour plans came to a grinding halt, but so did a bunch of the writing…

…And that was, surprisingly, a good thing.

Being forced to slow down, write less, and not travel finally showed me a better work-life balance, one where I could still be creative, but also enjoy more personal time. I went for long walks with my wife, exploring our neighborhood in Toronto with the same sense of relaxed curiosity we previously only reserved for trips abroad. I learned how to cook dozens of new dishes, unlocking a satisfying hobby I never would have imagined for myself when I first moved away from home and could barely operate a stove. I jumped into tabletop RPGs on Zoom and, once in-person activities resumed, board game nights at home, strengthening social bonds with industry peers and other friends. I signed on with a company to handle convention appearances so Stacy and I didn’t have to spend crazy amounts of time and effort figuring out the logistics behind each trip.

I also took on writing projects outside of comics – consulting work, a bit of prose, scripting for an unreleased video game, and continuing the D&D Young Adventurer’s series. It was a period of trying different things and realizing that the skills I’d been honing in the comic industry could be leveraged in other places.

Bringing things back to productivity, what have I learned so far?

I don’t think quantity is the only measuring stick when it comes to writing, art, or any other creative pursuit, but it’s still a valid metric. How much you create does not equate to its quality, but there is natural skill growth that comes from regularly finishing projects and releasing them out into the world. I am a much better writer now than I was ten years ago, and a large part of that came from the volume and variety of projects I worked on.

Having a schedule you stick to or a deadline imposed by a client can help push past the natural creative resistance we all feel, the “imposter syndrome” that halts us in our tracks or other self doubts that keep us from achieving our goals. The early years of ramped up productivity helped train me to get into “writing mode” more easily.

And yet, productivity can also overwhelm a lot of other things and blind us in terms of how we value our time and why we create in the first place. I’m trying to be more vigilant about my time and where I put it, while also planning for a future creative semi-retirement down the road where I get to create stuff I’m passionate about on a more relaxed schedule.

The page count represents a concrete measurement of work completed, but those numbers also have meaning to me as an ebb and flow of my career. High output years are not necessarily ‘good’ and lower output years are not necessarily ‘bad’, they’re all part of the journey I’m on. The most important thing is that I still have a ton of passion for telling stories and, if I’m careful and cognizant, that gets to continue long into the future with many more bar charts to come. 🙂

If you found the above thoughts helpful on your own creative journey, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share the post with others, and consider buying some of my comics to show your support.

Sass and Sincerity

I find this problem in comics quite a bit as well, especially modern superhero stories.

If the characters aren’t invested in this story/conflict, then it’s much harder for the audience to be as well.

I’ve written sarcastic characters and characters who know the tropes they’re in the midst of. Doing that without losing the audience is tougher than you might think. The stakes must be clear, despite their quips or desire to be above the fray.

Emotional investment and sincerity is impressively resilient to changing trends in entertainment.

Don’t act like you’re too good for the genre you’re working in.
Don’t treat the past like your doormat.

You can be irreverent.
You can be sarcastic.
You can be critical.

But, beneath all that sass, there has to be knowledge and appreciation for the strengths and entertainment of the genre you’re riffing on or else it will feel hollow.

Your best friend gets to give you shit because, deep down, they also care and want the best for you.
Treat genre deconstruction the same way. Give ’em hell and make it hurt because you know which buttons to push that matter, not because you think you’re too cool for all of it.

Fantasy and magic are especially susceptible to this kind of abuse.

“It’s fantasy, so just make up a bunch of Chosen One/Destiny shit.”
“It’s magic, so nothing matters!”


You don’t understand the genre or why it has worldwide appeal.

Making Comics – Old Pitches Never Die

In this new video I explain why I never talk about stories I didn’t have a chance to complete or pitches that didn’t get approved, with a very special current project example pulled from a pitch that was old enough to vote!

Making Comics Interview – Writer Kieron Gillen

Kieron Gillen has written high profile work-for-hire comics including Thor, X-Men, Darth Vader, and the Eternals along with creator-owned hits like Phonogram, The Wicked and the Divine, and Die. We chat about inspiration, indie publishing, shared universes, and the joy of tabletop gaming.

Making Comics Interview – Artist Todd Nauck

Todd Nauck has been in the comic business for 27 years. He’s done a ton of work for DC and Marvel along with his own creator-owned comic series.

Lots of process work and inspiration here. Enjoy!

Making Comics Interview – Colorist Tamra Bonvillain

Tamra Bonvillain has been coloring comics professionally for almost 10 years. We cover her influences, career, and a bit of process.

Find Tamra online here: