Five Big Lessons In Creating Graphic Works

Five things I wish someone told me before I started cartooning.

Sixteen years ago, I ordered a Calvin & Hobbes collection book from the book order form in my third grade class. From the moment it arrived at my desk two weeks later, I was hooked on the cartoon medium. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I would write a strip for the daily paper just like Bill Watterson.

I soon stumbled upon one setback; I knew nothing about creating graphic art. It was the mid-90s, so few people had Internet, and I lived in a town with limited library resources. From the beginning, I knew I’d have to teach myself this business of cartooning, gleaning what information I could from scarce interviews of graphic artists in newspapers and books.

I managed well enough, and sixteen years later I’m still working in this art form (and having a blast!). But looking back, I see five big lessons I wish someone had taught me when I first started. I hope they help you if you’re just beginning to create graphic works—or even if you’ve been at it awhile.

1. The writing must be as good as the artwork.

Show me a popular work of graphic art—be it Manga, cartoon strip or graphic novel—and I’ll show you good writing and characterization. Think about it. Would MAUS have had such success without the relentlessly gripping nature of the storyline? Would Kare Kano be as hilarious or heartwarming without the deep development of Yukino’s bloodthirsty/girl-next-door nature? And don’t get me started on comic book sagas. I have friends who consider the name Norman Osborn anathema because of his recent shenanigans in the Marvel Universe.

Be prepared to fall desperately and irrevocably in love with your characters. Work hard to hone every part of the work—story arc, dialogue, pacing. And yes, difficult as it is, cut out what doesn’t work. Bill Watterson used to tear up weeks-worth of finished material if he felt the writing wasn’t up to par, and I make him my example when writing my graphic novel script.

2. Use tools you’re comfortable with.

Many cartoonists work with expensive brushes and inks, and drawing tables the size of small elephants. Don’t be intimidated by your lack of “professional” gear. I get awesome results using artist pens and drawing on a desktop drawing stand at my old computer table. As long as you use sturdy paper and ink that won’t fade, you’re good to go.

That being said, be ready to invest money in the tools you decide to use. Pens run out of ink fast. Brushes get stiff and old. If the old computer desk just isn’t working for you, consider a comfy table. (And, if planning to submit your work to a publisher, do consider that some publishers want your artwork on a certain type and size of paper.)

3. Practice, practice, practice the artwork.

Practice drawing the characters—even if you’re just in the writing stage of your graphic novel or strip. Artistic style becomes confident over time, and you want to be ready to go when it’s time to start drawing the actual pages.

Most days, I set aside an hour or so to make sketches of my characters. It’s a fun thing to do while watching television.

4. Find someone who believes in your project and enjoys your style.

A support system is essential when working on a creative piece. Artists tend to suffer from self-doubt and frustration. You will need encouragement sometimes, and it needs to come from someone who gets your sense of humor, likes your artistic style, understands the characters, and agrees with the sort of things you write. Try a spouse, close friend, another artist you know, even a former art teacher.

5. Enjoy what you do!

Perhaps the most relevant bit of advice to any creator. If you’re going to spend hours of your life on this project, make sure it’s something you will both enjoy and be proud of—whether it sees publication or not.

Happy writing and good luck.

Rachel Heston Davis

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