So you want to create a comic book?
By Steve Benton

I initially went to the Savannah College of Art & Design to become a sequential illustrator in 1994. By 1996 I had changed my major to Computer Graphics (Animation). I’m glad I did. I mention this only to let you know that I had dreams of becoming a comics professional, long ago. Then I forged out on a different career path, but eventually found myself wanting to make comics again. My book is called American Bison. It’s currently published by Insane Comics if you’re interested in reading/seeing it you can buy it here at Insane Comics.
In 2009, a childhood buddy, reminded me about my long lost love of comic books. The bright colors and amazing stories coupled with courageous heroes and frightening villains. I’d had a family by this time, and was scraping by doing production work in Las Vegas for a start-up slot machine company but it made me wonder. How hard would it be to make my own comic? Here’s my experience.
My buddy Thomas Lynch, who is a very avid read of Science Fiction, reminded me about a character I used to draw in High School named Anarchy Sam. He mentioned how in the current political atmosphere, he’d be able to quickly write a story that’d echo the current political turmoil we’d been experiencing.

My first big mistake.

I worked in a vacuum in my day job (still do). I’m told what to do, and how to do it. There’s not a lot of creativity involved, nor a whole lot of art direction given, but whenever I created something from nothing somehow it’s always dismantled, and I have to do it again. This seeped into my dealing with my buddy Tom (the writer) and I look back at it with embarrassment now. I’d NEVER done a comic book up to this point and he’d NEVER written a comic book script. It’s easy to IMAGINE ideas, but it’s much harder to put them down on paper, in a logical and interesting order. Tom and I were amateurs. I should have treated his work with kid gloves. I didn’t.

You are NOT a Pro, until you are.

The first thing I set out to do was to tell him everything I DIDN’T like about it; everything that should be changed. Not a good idea. As a professional artist, the first thing that will always send shivers down my spine is when someone comes along who isn’t my boss and gives me their OPINION. Don’t give your opinion to creative people unless you are asked. Art is subjective. Sort of like fruit. Imagine your friend has grown a new fruit. It’s a biological marvel. He hands it to you for a taste test. “UGH. This tastes like crap”, you say. Why? It’s somewhat banana-flavored, and you don’t like bananas. But your friend does, so he made it reminiscent of bananas. Now he’s insulted, and the flavor hasn’t changed, but every time he tastes it he’s reminded of your negative reaction. Now he hates it too. I did this to Tom for every script page he’d email me. He was tentative. He was slowly poking his head out of the protective shell of being a ‘fledgling writer’ and the rejection he might face, and here I was continuously bopping him on the snout whenever he emerged, REJECTING him. “NO, change this! I don’t like this! Fix this”! I did this because I had a different vision for how my character’s story should be told. Sorry, Tom. I didn’t realize I was being such a bully, or a ‘boss’.

We should have come up with the plot together, before he wrote a draft.

The second point of this story is to mention the fact that Tom really should have written the entire story first. We should have had a clear vision of our project from the beginning. Is this going to be an 8 page short-story, are we going for a full 22 or 24 page issue, or are we going to tell it in an epic 120 page graphic novel?

Know what your goal is FIRST!

Eventually Tom delivered 4 pages of dialogue. Eventually I drew 4 pages of panels. Eventually we stopped working together on it.
I say this , because just as Tom was trying to gain his footing with me constantly trying to knock him over (thankfully he’s still a great friend of mine), I was trying to find my own drawing style and firm footing as a comic book artist. Tom was very forgiving and never shot back when the artwork slowly started to arrive. He just accepted it, as is. (Thanks for that Tom!). You can see our completed work here at AnarchySam. After completing this project and realizing it took us about a year to create 4 pages, Tom went back to reading Science Fiction.
I think working with me played a huge role in that. I however, wasn’t satisfied with my results. This reminds me now, that my foray back into comics actually started in 2007, but still involves, Tom. I had found an old Armor comic at an antiques store in Boulder City. I mentioned it to him, and he brought up Anarchy Sam. I’d also attended the inaugural Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival in 2007 where I’d had a few pages reviewed by Deryl Skelton. My drawings were 4 pages to the intro for Queensryche’s, Operation:Mindcrime, “ I remember now…”. Anyway, after Anarchy Sam I still wasn’t satisfied so I looked on Craigslist for someone wanting to publish a completed story. Alexander Howard-Fuller answered that call.
Alex (who became a Facebook friend) had written a verbose script about a character he called Komodo. Learning from my experience with Tom Lynch, I didn’t argue or try to control anything this time. I did what was asked of me and treated it as a job. I left dialogue intact, and used Alex’s direction to plot out my panels.
This was good and bad. It was good because it forced me to work as part of a team. ‘Comics’ is very similar I imagine to putting a band together. Everyone wants to be the boss, and call the shots, and choose the artistic direction. Now I know why band’s break up because of artistic differences. When the respect is there like Ronnie James Dio had when he formed his namesake band, everything works well. When people know their roles, they perform to the best of their abilities it seems. It becomes a problem when everyone feels they’re the reason for the success. Or that they’re the boss! So again :

What is the point of doing all this?

Alex had a script. I created the art. Looking back, Alex knows he should have edited the dialogue more, and I know I should have added more drawing details. One day I’ll go back and re-color the pages as well because I used an airbrush style. I need to be clear with this now.

Nothing says amateur more than using an AIRBRUSH STYLE in your colors.

When I say AIRBRUSH style I mean gradients. But not gradients like colorists from marvel and DC use them in a controlled environment; locked into a nice clean shape. I mean the overspray style of airbrush.

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Don't do this. Do get better line quality, and don't use photos and drawings combined! (Another article)

Don’t do this. It’s sloppy and cheap looking. Objects should have at least 3 distinct areas of color most times. Take a red apple. It should have its LOCAL color, RED . And then it should have a HIGHLIGHT color. Possibly, white or yellow or blue if the light nearby is a blue light. And a SHADOW, which if you know color theory you can make a purple, a darker red, black , dark blue, or in whatever style you prefer. Point is. An apple should not just have a red to pink gradient filling the apple shape (unless that’s your style). I'll take all this up in another article as well. Along with RGB vs. CMYK and screen vs. print image resolutions.

Lack of coherent or consistent style also screams out, AMATEUR!!!

I had this problem (and still have this problem). Know what style you want to work in for your book. If it’s SCI-FI choose a hard line rigid style perhaps. If it’s a book for kids, choose a soft inviting rounded style. If your using photo reference, make sure you are bringing something more to the photos than just tracing them outright because unless you take your own photos of all your living subjects, everyone will look different; and because it’s traced it will be jarring and unsettling to the reader to see Kid Salamander sometimes look like an endomorph on one page and an ectomorph on another. And for the love of Pete…Don’t use rendered 3D figures. If you do that, why not just make an animated show or at least an animatic!?
However, I’m getting into personal taste areas here. No matter what though…

Do what YOU want!

New styles are developed through trial and error, and comic books are created by just that: CREATING… so no matter what you do, just create something! There’s nothing worse (in my opinion) than people who can talk a good game, but can’t show examples of what they’ve ever done (or attempted to do). Again; it’s easy to criticize, much harder to create. Get to creating because the sooner you start the sooner you’ll find what works for you.
So I set out to do this and to do what I wanted. I knew I could DRAW an entire 24 page script with Komodo, but could I WRITE a coherent story worthy enough to be drawn?
Better yet, have about 4 issues of your comic already completed. At least in a digital format, because if it’s good enough you can submit it to or immediately release it as a compiled book known as a TPB (Trade Paper Back). Also remember that comixology’s process is slow and sometimes painful. They’ll make you change artwork resolutions, and add ‘to be continues’ if it’s needed. Dealing with them can takes months before your issues are available and ready for sale up on their site.
I’m still extremely proud that my issue was able to go up on on my first try. If I could do it…

You can do it too!

I am certainly not a professional writer as seen by this article. I don’t know anything about proper formatting, or how to not have a sentence be a ‘run-on’. It’s always plagued me. I think I was sick the week they taught kids about proper grammar. It didn’t stop me from writing my own comic with American Bison..

The initial collector’s issue is CRAZY because it probably has 20 words in it. As the sole creator doing the pencils, inks, colors and writing, I must have read it 10,000 times while working on it. So I would edit, and edit, and edit until there was almost nothing left. It’s pretty flavorless. Plus I had just come off Komodo which was super heavy in dialogue, but that didn’t stop me from submitting American Bison to Insane Comics to see if they’d publish it. I was curious to how it stacked up to other peoples’ eyes. James Munch decided he would. I was elated. I had gone from 4 pages with Anarchy Sam to a full issue written and drawn by me with American Bison. Later I decided to team up with another newcomer known now as Lou Frontier. That’s not his real name, and initially he had some nomenclature which was sci-fi funny. I had one as well, as I wasn’t the least bit confident in my work yet. I figured I could hide behind my fake name of “Sam Bison” until I truly got my bearings. I started to regret this, and Lou’s involvement when suddenly everyone was praising his latest creation, but nobody knew who the heck I was. A fake name is NOT a good idea, nor is being an introvert really. Because…

Your name is your brand!

Stick with your real name. If you’ve always gone by it and people know you by it, stick with it! Plus I work in a highly scrutinized industry which is federally regulated. If Sam Bison became an alias, I’d have to put it down on all my casino licensing forms. I didn’t want that stigma destroying my day job; which reminds me:

Do NOT quit your day job!

People will tell you this over and over, and others will argue for you to chase your dream. You can do both if you’re smart, and patient. Indie comics will NOT make you a ton of money initially (or ever). Now you might get a decent sized Kickstarter at some point but those guys have networked hard for at least 1 full year before even attempting it. I think any profit I’ve made creating my first 2 issues was lost when I hired a guy to write me a story for $75 (which was just refunded 5 minutes before posting this story) and another guy I gave $200 to for layouts which took a long time to arrive but are working out very well.

Know who you can trust!

This may be the saddest part of this whole story/article.
Here’s why you need to be able to trust your team:
When I hired the writer of a Harriet Tubman based story I was exploring it was done months before a Kickstarter popped up for a story based on Ms.Tubman slaying demons. That Kickstarter made more money than I’ll probably ever see in my career with comics. Because I’m certainly NOT leaving my day job, and I have limited time to pop out issues every month to make that sort of dough. Good for them!
Regardless, I always found it strange that the ‘would-be’ writer of my story was friends with the people t who’d created the Tubman project. I know coincidences occur and I believe in the ‘Collective Conscience so I do not blame anyone for anything. In fact, I was happy to see that it would have been a good idea to create a script around Tubman. I wasn’t going to make her a demon slayer or anything however. That was their invention.
The same can be said when another Kickstarter popped up about Goats going bad. Initially American Bison was going to be about just that; American Bison in the west fighting back. I changed it after the goat Kickstarter suddenly popped up. Again, they did nothing wrong, and I’m glad it went well for that team also.
Even my co-writer at the time started to have characters I was developing for my book suddenly start popping up in his own titles. This to me was the last straw and although I still wish him well, it was something I couldn’t forgive. He was supposed to be my friend. Hell, I’d even put his name on the cover of my first book, and this was my ‘thanks’?
The whole point of these insights is to let you know…

Your ideas WILL be taken!

What will happen is a bigger company with dedicated artists will take the BEST parts of your concept and make something entirely new out of them. Usually these are better, and created faster than you can release them. This is why I tell you to have 4 in the can, waiting to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. Things that will make you kick yourself for not having thought of doing it their way initially. But I have no ANIMOSITY towards any of these creators except the ones I felt I could trust.
Here’s why:
Imagine you’re a child, selling lemonade. You invite your pals, like Tom, over to help you hawk it. Tom says he has to go to the bathroom. He doesn’t come back because he’s suddenly set up a PINK lemonade stand up the street where he’s getting more traffic. Your traffic. People pass your stand now because they’ve been satisfied and spent their money up at Ol’ Pal Tom’s lemonade stand. It was your idea to even make lemonade on that sunny afternoon in the first place, but Tom took your idea, improved upon it, and established himself in a better location.

Can you really blame them?

Not when it comes to business, and lo and behold that’s exactly what comics are. Remember that a lot of comics, or any entertainment media for that matter, are about the advertising revenue. Do people even advertise in comics anymore? It’s certainly not the advertising medium it used to be during its height in the late 60s, 70s, and even the early 80s. Before Cable TV and Streaming, it was a known fact that TV shows were ‘given’ away to viewers, in order to maintain advertising revenue. The same can be said for comics, and not a lot of people are using it as such because of all the other options. Free mobile games, cable TV, immersive video games, VR…technology in general is taking the place of these beautiful little stories you’re trying to tell.
Which is why, at the end of the day, you need to:

Only do what matters to you!

Money might come. It most likely will not! But you’ll be one of the few people who can comment on another person’s attempt and when they ask, what makes you an expert on this you can tell them.

"I’m a creator!
Maybe you’ve heard of a little thing called:(...say your title)"

Go create.
-Steve Benton