In my biased opinion as a cartoonist, there’s not much better than a good graphic novel. Well, unless I’m hungry (then I’m thinking pizza).
Since we’re talking comics here, I’ll elaborate…
Graphic novels have grown on me in recent years and I’ve been working on several new ones.
It’s my goal to have one published soon. I’ve had a couple of ideas that I’ve worked (and am still working) with my agent on. One of them was submitted already and the other one is going to be ready for submission in several more weeks.
That being said, I’d like to show you how I go about creating a graphic novel; from conception to drawing a page.
There’s a lot to them. 200-plus pages of illustrations are not easy. Plus, it all needs to be written.
If you’re doing it yourself, get ready to hunker down and spend months or years developing one.
So, what is it? What’s the process of creating a graphic novel?
That’s a broad question. Every cartoonist, illustrator, and graphic novel creator has their own way of going about it. I’ll explain my process.
The write idea
To start off with, you need an idea, right?
Of course, that sounds obvious, but really — this is the toughest part. What’s a great idea for a graphic novel?
That’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself.
The best way to get to that answer though and give you perspective is to read a bunch of graphic novels. I’ll go to the library and pick up dozens, read them, and return them as quickly as possible (so I can check out more).
Even graphic novels that you have ZERO interest in are worth reading. Why? You might find one idea, or one visual, that sticks out. I’ve had that happen in many, many books that originally I look at and think is going to be something I won’t enjoy and has no value to what I want to do.
Read young adult, DC, Marvel, biographical, fantasy…
I’ve discovered plot twists that work well with what I’m developing. Or maybe it’ll be something as simple as how a panel is designed. Or a new word (I once found the appealing word ‘sploooork‘ referring to someone eating spaghetti).
You get the point. Absorb graphic novels. Devour them. Your brain will start to tell you, “Okay, I see what you’re doing here. You want your own graphic novel. Got it.” And it will help.
Once you get a “great” idea, you’ll have to decide if it’s worth pursuing.
Personally, I’ve had dozens of thoughts for a good premise run through my head. I’ve only reached out and grabbed a few of those and started development.
The ones I picked were ideas that had some potential for an audience. Sure, there are some personal graphic novels that just I’d be into (e.g. how I learned to walk — which would bore any audience). But really, if you want to get something published, you do need to be aware of what might bring in a specific audience.
I personally enjoy real-life stories and young adult. So, I went with both. They’re totally on opposite ends of the spectrum, but I’m a sucker for variety.
So great. I’ve landed on an idea. Perfect.
What I do next is write out a synopsis.
It doesn’t have to be perfect by any means. Mine are all over the place. In fact, I get annoyed by the way I create them due to their sporadic nature.
I go in and revise it over and over. And then, when I think it’s perfect, I’ll revise it again.
Once you have a good synopsis figured out (that still won’t be perfect), I start to write the script.
I write graphic novels as if I’m writing a movie. I’ll add a page number, panel number, describe the scene, and include the actual dialogue.
I also bold the panel and character text. (e.g. Panel 20) and put in uppercase text the panels, scene description, and character name.
Revisions can be a headache if you have all of the page numbers.
Think about it — if you have to include some additional script, or take away some, that can mess up all the pages by having a snowball effect.
That being said, I try to include the page numbers last.
Writing is the most important — and difficult — part. Without good writing, typically, there won’t be a good graphic novel. An exception to the rule is if it’s a totally visual graphic novel, but even then, you need to “write” with your visuals, so keep that in mind.
A good writing routine is the best way to get better. I write daily and don’t take my foot off the gas. You can find more about my writing routine here.
Study graphic novels. Sketch out some thoughts. Write it down. And just start.
block it to me
I start with the foundation of actually creating the graphic novel now. Luckily, no cement is involved. However, there are a lot of blocks (aka – panels).
I have always been a big proponent of Procreate ever since I started using it.
What the heck is that? Well…
Procreate is an award-winning creative application that you can use on an iPad Pro with an Apple pencil.
I could go on and on about my love of this app, but I’ll stick to just a couple of essentials on why it’s my go-to drawing software.
It’s cheap, functions well, it’s easy to use, and can create amazing results. There. That’s it in a nutshell.
I mention Procreate because I’ll be using it in this article. I create all my panels, rough drafts, and final art in the app.
If you’re not using Procreate, it’s cool. You can still see how a graphic novel is developed. Just replicate the process on paper or your favorite digital illustration software.
So let’s begin!
First, you need to consider the BIG picture.
Is this graphic novel going to be printed? Or just digital?
I always assume my work is going to be more than an eBook, so I work in high resolution. In fact, I recommend you work in high resolution, too. You can lower image quality easily, but it’s not easy to raise low image quality to high.
Anything over 300 dpi is good for print. I like working at 600 dpi. I know…I know…Maybe it’s a bit much, but I like the quality better.
Another factor you need to consider is how big the page size is.
This varies. You’ll find graphic novels in all shapes and sizes. This is why (which we’ll get into later) you don’t need to submit a completed graphic novel to a publisher. It may be tweaked and the last thing you’ll want to do is re-do a completed work.
If you’re self-publishing, check out companies such as Lulu or Blurb. They’ll show you the different size options for printing. Pick what format is appealing to you, but also keep in mind what other graphic novels look like (which you should know because you’ve read a ton of them, right?).
I like to work on a page size that’s 6.25″ x 9.25″. With this, I have room for the bleed and it’s a comfortable working space for me.
The first step now is to create this size of the page.
In Procreate, you can create a custom page size by clicking the + sign and the New canvas icon.
From here you can customize the width, height, DPI, and choose the layers.
You can adjust other settings here, too, such as:
- Maximum Layers
- Color Profile
- Time-lapse settings
- Canvas Properties (e.g. background color)
However, I’m focused on size and DPI. The maximum layers are usually good for me at 21, so I’ll leave as is.
I would name this new canvas something that you’ll remember (because this will be saved and you’ll grab it for every page in your novel). You can do that by tapping on Untitled Canvas and then punch in a good name.
Once you have it named and adjusted how you want, hit Create.
Now we’re in business, right? Can we actually start building our graphic now?
Well, in my case, I still have some foundations that I prepare before creating.
Like drawing, this will vary for everyone. I like to handwrite my text, so I have to get prepped for that.
What I do is create lines to use. I space them out 1/4″ and leave a millimeter gap between them. I create this on a separate canvas, at 600 DPI, and save as a separate file.
This is my drawing guide. It ensures that the text is spaced well, lined-up perfectly, and isn’t sloppy (because my penmanship is otherwise).
I’ll be showing you how to incorporate these lines into your actual graphic novel page coming up. Again, this is prep work.
NOW are we are ready to start the actual graphic novel?
This is when I open up that page I created in Procreate. The first thing I’ll do is add the Drawing Guide in it.
The drawing guide consists of some faint, light blue lines that help determine where the panels will go. Essentially, it’s like a ruler to help you figure out spacing and such.
Just go to Actions (which looks like a wrench), Canvas, and then click on Drawing Guide.
And don’t worry — obviously these lines can disappear with the flick of the switch. It’s not going to stay on your graphic novel. Probably goes without saying, but if you’re like me, you can freak out if there are things on your drawing that shouldn’t be there, right?
From this point, I visually map out my page.
This is where I look at the text and decide:
- How many panels are there?
- How big are specific ones?
- How much dialogue is involved?
- What would make this visually look good?
This will be a matter of preference for you, but I like to add some “extras” to my panels. I’m not a fan of boring panels, so sometimes I’ll bold them, overlap areas, and have no panels in specific spots. Just mix it up.
I like to sketch it out first, so I’ll use the Sketching tool in the Brush Library. The Techincal Pencil is my favorite for this because it has such a natural pencil look to it (which I have been used to my whole life).
I’ll usually put the opacity at 55% and the brush size at 25%. All of this can be adjusted on the lefthand side of the screen very easily. You’ll get more than familiar with this part of Procreate if you use this software.
Now, I’ll actually go in and create the panels by sketching them out.
To get the straight lines, if you draw a line with your Apple pencil, and then hold it still for a brief second, it will automatically create a straight line for you.
With the help of the drawing guide, I can determine where to put them so they are even.
Once I have my panels figured out, this is where I’ll add in the lines I’ll be using to space out my text.
I simply upload the file that I had saved for them and make it a separate layer. I’ll copy and paste accordingly into the areas where I feel like the dialogue will go.
And this is the perfect foundation for a graphic novel page. At least in my opinion…
get the picture
All artists and cartoonists have their own style, way of creating their work, and doing their thing.
I don’t teach much on actual drawing, because I like to leave that part up to YOU. Here again, study artists and styles that you like and try to replicate them. Eventually, your own style will emerge.
I do have some various resources on this though if you want more information on the drawing. After all, it is essential for graphic novels (unless you’re just the writer, of course) if you search the blog.
But, you guessed it, at this stage of the game I’ll start drawing. I’ll show you what I was able to come up with for this page.
Since the foundation is set, I’ll go in and use the Technical Pencil to sketch out the dialogue and characters.
Keep in mind to use a separate layer for each stage of the game. Pretty important, or else you’ll have you’ll pencil lines on the inked lines and…ugh. Yeah, just avoid this mistake. I’ve done it many times and it’s no fun.
My sketches are very loose, however, as long as I know where to ink and have a good idea of what it’ll look like, I’m happy.
What I’ll do now is lower the opacity on the sketches and dialogue so it’s not so dark.
You can do that by tapping Adjustments and Opacity. There’s a lever that lets you adjust accordingly. I’ll put it at about 40%.
Now I start inking.
Again, make SURE you’re on a new layer if you’re following along. You’ll get used to layers when you start using Procreate, but if you need more information on them, you can find out more here.
I like to ink (I call it ‘ink’, but it’s digital, so it’s kind of weird saying that) with the Technical Pen.
There are TONS of settings to this. I won’t go into exactly what I use for mine. This will be different for everyone, just like drawing styles. So, use whatever tool you feel comfortable working with for your own amazing graphic novel.
I’ll go over the captions, lines, and create the finished-looking line art. When finished, I’ll take off the Drawing Guidelines and also make the layer that contains my sketched version unviewable.
From here, I’ll put the line art as my TOP LAYER.
Everything below this now won’t be affected by any coloring, shading, etc.
Depending on how you’re creating your graphic novel, now you can color it in accordingly. This particular graphic novel is in black & white.
I use a washed look to it that I create with the Round Brush, which is found under Brush Library and under Painting.
I’ll fill in some black area, and also use the Water Brush for the sky (and a few other areas).
When it’s completed, it looks like this:
Visuals are going to look different for everyone, but I think you can see how it all came together.
At this point, I’ll save it to Dropbox as a PSD file.
Procreate saves all of your work, but it’s best to have it on a cloud server like Dropbox so all of your hard work doesn’t disappear. If you lost your iPad or something and didn’t have the files backed-up…ooomph! That wouldn’t be pleasant and you might run away screaming.
You can save the completed images as .jpgs or other file types, too.
Before submitting this to a publisher, you’ll probably have to format accordingly, so just keep that master file in a safe place and adjust as needed.
And that’s a graphic look at how I make a graphic novel! With a mix of reading, writing, and a dash of Procreate, you can see how it all comes together.
I hope you now have a good idea of the approach and how to go about it. Again, you don’t need to even use Procreate to use this process. Just whatever works best for you.
When you have a good 10-12 sample pages, heck, submit it out to a literary agent or publisher. Again, you don’t need to have it all completed before submitting it.
If you’re self-publishing, then create and finish accordingly.
I teach about submitting, marketing, publishing, and agents in my Cartooning Courses Pro course if you’d like to dive deeper into growing your work on a more professional level.
In the meantime, get that graphic novel going! (And if you’re still hungry, go eat pizza.)