Take These 8 Steps to Make Your First Web Comic
You’ve had the idea drumming through your head for weeks, maybe even months. There’s a story you need to tell, and the best outlet is in comic form. But you’ve never written a comic, you probably don’t draw, and you’ve never published anything online.
In short, you’re stuck. How on earth are you going to start this off? In fact, how are you going to finish it?
Creating a web comic is not easy. But once you’ve done it, you’ll feel immense pride in the finished product. And it will push you into trying again and again. Your efforts might even attract attention from comic industry professionals.
In 2010, I wrote and published a three-part web comic, a project that required massive online collaboration. We’re going to take a look at the entire process of publishing a web comic, from concept through to publishing, using modern tools and publishing options.
1. Why Are You Doing This?
Comic book writers make big bucks, right? Well, a few do. Those working for DC and Marvel, mainly. Perhaps Titan and IDW. The rest… not so much.
If you’re planning a web comic project to make money, you’re in the wrong game. But there is something that can help if you’re trying to make it as a comic book writer, artist, or both. Rather than producing a full-length one-shot (a single issue with a full story) or a full series of comic strips, focus instead on something shorter.
For instance, rather than a five-page comic, produce five one-page stories.
When it comes to speaking to editors and showing off your portfolio, what impresses is finished work. Not unfinished work, or work you haven’t done yet. A quintet of single page tales will show that you can start and finish a piece of work. That’s an important quality in any comic book creative.
Can It Make Money?
Finally, you may want to consider revenue. Can this web comic make money? In the case of an app, it might be paid, or you may add some ads. For a website-based comic, advertising is again a good option, as is using a voluntary payment system (such as Patreon) to generate income. The best option is to find the solution that works for you and your readers.
Expecting to make money from a project like this is not the way to get started. Income should be a reward, and may not even cover the web hosting costs .
While it’s possible that some profit can be made from associated merchandise, this can be expensive to produce and sell. Without a large enough audience, this could be more trouble than it’s worth.
2. Understand What You Need for a Web Comic
Before you start, have an endgame in mind. Know the story you’re going to tell, but also have an idea of how you’re going to publish it. You’ll also need to give thoughts to the other elements of creating and publishing a web comic:
- Outline — Have an idea of the storyline. You’ve probably got a few strong visuals that you want to include. An outline can help these hang together, and will prove useful in finding an artist if you don’t have the ability.
- Storyboard — Also known as “thumbnailing,” this is a visual outline often created by the writer to help focus the script.
- Script — It’s important to approach comic book scripting in the right way, adhering to the industry standards. And if you can’t write, you’ll need to find a writer!
- Artist — Without artistic ability of your own, you’ll need an artist with knowledge of sequential art. But where will you find one? How much do you need to pay them?
- Typesetter/Letterer — This is almost always overlooked by first time independent online comic projects (guilty as charged). Can the artist handle this? If not, it may be something you’ll need to learn.
- Publishing — Simple PDF? Comic-focused WordPress plugin on your blog? Perhaps it will be released as a smartphone app? It’s a good idea to do some initial research into this before you start writing.
Once you’ve got a handle on what is required, it’s time to start work. Use the following to help you focus on your web comic project, find collaborators, and complete your project.
3. Writing Your Comic: Listen to Advice
Whether you’re working with an artist from the beginning or you’re striking out totally alone, you’ll need to be able to produce a professional script. This means taking on board some well-known standards for comic scripts.
But first, create an outline.
Create an Outline
You need an artist, and you need to focus your script. Create an outline for both of these purposes. It shouldn’t be too long; no more than a single page. Do this with your favorite word processor (or note-taking app). Make sure you know how the comic starts, and how it ends, and demonstrate the progression from A to B in the outline.
Know what your story is about. Then think about it. What’s the core message? What’s it really about? Once you know this, you can start thinking about your characters in more depth.
The outline should summarize the story. Make sure you have one, as it is a very good way to get an artist interested.
Blocking and Thumbnailing
To create a script, you’ll typically need to expand the outline. One way to do this is to do a page-by-page outline, blocking out what appears in each panel, and some key dialogue. A good tip I picked up is to use a grid, specifically a spreadsheet, such as Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel, to do this.
This way, you can easily specify the page, number of panels, and a brief description.
An alternative tactic — or one to use in conjunction — is thumbnailing. This is where you create a small storyboard to help you visualize the finished comic. Memorable images and splash pages you want to include can be scrawled here in rough pencil.
Writing the Script
When you’re ready to write the script, you should be clear on the outline and have a blocked-out version ready to use, perhaps thumbnails too. Everything you’ve done so far is leading to this moment: writing the script.
General scriptwriting tips are easy to find online. However, writing comics is a slightly different technique.
- Use no more than 35 words per panel.
- The character speaking first should be on the left (or their speech bubble should be, at least).
- Have no more than seven panels per page.
- Don’t start a new scene midway through a page — wait until the next page.
- Take advantage of the page turn to deliver surprises.
Although these tips are mainly for page-based comics, they can be adapted for strips. The words-per-panel is an important rule, but a strip will probably have a three-to-five panel limit. With strips, each panel can be a different frame, and the entire sequence can tell a full story. It depends on how you plan to present your story.
Any word processor can be used for creating a script, from Google Docs to Microsoft Word. But you might prefer a tool dedicated to scriptwriting, such as Final Draft or the free tool, Trelby .
4. Find an Artist
This is the really tricky part. If you don’t have the requisite artistic ability, you’ll need to find someone who does. Unless they’re very generous (preferably a good friend), then this will not come cheap.
Of course, you could teach yourself to draw, using YouTube channels , for instance. But this will take a while, and set your project back months.
I had an advantage here: I edited a popular website, and used my position to hold a competition for a comic book artist to collaborate with on the comic. The result was a number of excellent artists getting in touch with their samples. With the help of a prominent British comic book editor, an artist was selected to work on the strip, and as well as publishing on the website, the strip would feature in a fan-produced print publication.
However, this probably won’t work for you. You’ll need to find an artist of good ability who is prepared to work for a price that is affordable to you. Unless you’re hooking up with a collaborator at the start, this is the only option. Look at it this way: it takes about a day for a pro artist to draw a full page of your script.
Where Can You Find an Artist?
Obviously, if you don’t know an artist and can’t do the job yourself, you’ll have to find one online. Several options are available here. You might, for instance, advertise on a freelancing site like Fiverr or Upwork.
Alternatively, you could join a group and sound potential artists out. You’ll find groups for comic book creatives on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Reddit. Spend a bit of time interacting in these groups and building a presence. Get to know what the other members have worked on before you start looking for collaborators. If people feel they know you, they’ll be more likely to say yes.
Storyboarding, Layout, and Design
Once your artist is on board, they’ll need the finished script (or as close as possible) quickly in order to work on their own outline. This storyboarding approach will form the basis of the finished product. Your artist should be comfortable in producing a layout that matches the script.
Character design should be based on your notes. With original, non-derivative works, new characters will take some time to polish. That’s extra work for your artist. Be sure to provide as much information as possible in the outline and script to help them.
Also, spend some time at this stage collaborating on the cover. If you’re planning to publish as a PDF or via some digital distribution service , this will prove particularly useful. It might be a good idea as part of an app-based book, too.
Meanwhile, if you’re the artist, you’ve got a choice to make: digital art or pencils. Many people use both, drawing each panel in pencil, scanning, and then inking and coloring on their computer. This may or may not work for you. Whichever way you go, whatever tools you use, don’t be limited by the planned size of the panel. It can easily be resized when the frames are being compiled into a page.
Artists should be producing work that is suitable for printing. Whether you go down the graphic novel path or not (usually this happens when a web comic has finished its run), good quality, high-resolution artwork is needed for PDF production, one of the most common options for publishing a web comic.
5. You’ll Need Typesetting or Lettering Skills
So many people forget about this. The only way anyone is going to be able to read your comic is with clear lettering. While you might consider doing this the old-fashioned way, the quicker option is to employ comic-style lettering in an app capable of producing captions, onomatopoeic sound effects (“BLAM!” for instance), speech bubbles, and thought bubbles, like Comic Life.
It might be that your artist is capable of doing this. Or, if you’re the artist, your writer might be capable. Perhaps you know someone… either way, it is important to establish at the beginning of the project who will be doing the lettering.
Just as the writer’s and artist’s roles are clearly defined, so too should that of the typesetter.
6. Patience and Planning
Whether you somehow managed to form a collaborative team for free (with some mutual benefits for all) or you’re paying up front, once you send the script over, you’ll need to be patient.
While it is acceptable for all parties to agree to clearly defined milestones in the project, it’s also vital to be aware of your team members and their circumstances. In short, you need to be patient, and trust the collaborators to uphold their end of the project, even if it takes a bit longer than intended.
Now, it might be that they go off radar for several weeks, in which case you can be pretty certain they’ve decided to jump ship. But remember that your colleagues might be working at this project in evenings and weekends, juggling it with other, more time-sensitive projects .
For ongoing projects, it might be wise to use the talents of multiple artists with a similar style. This way you can publish comics from one artist while the second is working on the next part. Regular updates are important, and your best bet for gaining traction, building an audience, and perhaps making money.
Another option for the time management of your web comic is the reuse of character illustrations from earlier installments. Image editors make this trivial, and it can unburden you of any long-term relationships with artists and illustrators whose talents might be required elsewhere.
Just make sure you gain their permission before reusing any work.
7. All Done? Time to Publish!
Eventually, you’ll have everything back. A web comic, perhaps with a cover, fully lettered, and presented with stunning artwork.
This is when the real work begins.
While you should have an idea at the beginning how you’ll publish, this might have changed. You might have decided than an app is a step too far, or run into problems with your chosen WordPress plugin. Fortunately, there are plenty of options for publishing a web comic.
The simplest is to create a PDF. This can be done using a professional art package or by uploading the individual pages (typically BMP, PNG, or JPG format) to an online PDF converter. Some of these will even convert HTML to PDF (useful if you previously published something as a webpage but now want it as its own file).
An alternative is to use a blog. If you don’t have one already, you can easily set up a blog on WordPress.com or install your own blog software with WordPress . Some other content management systems may also be useful.
Once you’ve done this, it should be simple to upload each panel of the story as images and include them in individual blog posts. Or you might upload a page at a time. Some plugins are available for WordPress that can enhance the presentation of your web comic and aid in navigation. The best method depends on whether your web comic is a three-panel strip or a full-page experience.
Dedicated online hosting for web comics is also available.
As with anything, if you don’t have knowledge of creating an app, this will be a difficult option. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t bring an experienced comic book app developer into your collaboration. Again, check an online freelance marketplace or appropriate social network for specialists in this area.
8. Get Some Publicity and Spread the Word!
With your web comic published, you’ll need to generate publicity. This can be just as time-intensive as writing and producing the project. Use social networks to get a foothold. Set up a dedicated page on Facebook, for example. And chat with potential fans on Twitter.
You could create a web comic trailer video for YouTube to quickly showcase the work. And don’t overlook podcasts, which can be a great way to get your publicity done. Simply research relevant comic book-focused podcasts (start at the Comics Podcasts Network), email or tweet them to break the ice, and try to arrange an appearance on their show.
Instagram is another great outlet for your web comic. Simply upload a few images from it as a teaser, hashtag the necessary topics (including #webcomics) and interact with any comments.
A Single Idea…
A great work can spring from a single idea. You might have started off with a few jotted notes, and ended up publishing online in a mobile comic app — quite a journey!
As far as software goes, I’ve tried to point you in the right direction throughout. However, our guide to making web comics for free features a great selection of software suggestions that you should try.
Have you created a web comic? Perhaps you have some tips and tricks to share? Tell us all about it in the comments — let’s use this space to help up and coming comic writers get their work online!
Image Credits: Chaiwuth Wichitdho/Shutterstock