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Lessons in Indie Comics Part 8: Printing

The first thing you need to figure out when it comes to printing them is the number of copies you'll need.

Thanks to print-on-demand services, this is now a much easier decision.  My recommendation is to print as few as possible.  Minimum print runs were often in the thousands when I first started making my own comics back in the early 2000's.  I still have copies of some comics I printed back then because I had to get a minimum of 2000 copies printed to make the print job affordable.  It's ridiculous to do that nowadays.  There are plenty of companies who will print a couple hundred or fewer.  Print enough to cover any you've promised to your art team and then a box or two to sell at shows.  You can always get more printed if you sell out, and that's better than having boxes of unsold books taking up space in your house.

When it comes to saving money on printing, consider the following:

1. Does it need to be in color?  DC Comics did pretty well with Batman Black and White, so don't think your book always needs to be in color.  Yes, some books beg for color because of their dynamic nature, but most can be black and white (and some look better in black and white, anyway).  Opting for no color (apart from your covers) saves cash.

2. Should you sell ads?  First, you have to make sure anyone will want to buy ad space in your book.  Second, are the ads going to break up the flow of your pages or distract the readers?  I love Bronze Age comics, but I'm always annoyed when I'm reading one and come to three straight pages of ads in the middle of the story.

The only ads I put in my books are ones for the models with whom I work and ones for the printing company.  Many printing companies offer discounts on print jobs if you put in a full page ad for their service.  The back or an inside cover is a great place to do it.

3. Will your local print company save you money?  Using a local company can save you shipping costs on your books, but be sure the price of the print job isn't too high.  One local company I used in the past did great work, but their print rates skyrocketed and it was cheaper for me to use a company in Michigan and pay the shipping than it was for me to use the company a 40-minute drive from my house.

4. Can you crowdfund your book?  It's a great option if you're good at it and have the time to constantly market your fundraising campaign.  Keep your goal realistic and have a back-up plan if the campaign fails (as most of them do).

Up next, odd questions you'll hear once your put your book out there.

Keep it indie.
There are some little tips that don't necessarily fit into one category I always give out when people ask me how to write comics.  You could call them miscellaneous tips or my "Felix the Cat bag" of tricks, I suppose.

One is establishing shots of your location.  It's good to let your readers know as soon as possible where your story is taking place.  People writing Superman comics have it easy because they can just ask for an establishing shot of the Metropolis skyline.

You need to have some sense of place, and that includes backgrounds in the panels.  A bunch of blank backgrounds might be okay for a story that takes place in one room or if a page is mostly "talking heads," but backgrounds always help remind the reader where the action is happening.

These establishing shots can, and should, be used in panels to set up moments in the story later (or even on the same page).  The example I always use is this: Put a phone in panel 1 if panel 1 is an establishing shot of your character's home or office and your character is going to be answering a phone in panel 5.  Someone will call you out on the continuity if there's no phone in panel 1 and one magically appears in panel 5.  A telephone isn't the best example thanks to the proliferation of cell phones, but you get the idea.

It gets back to "Chekov's gun."  That refers to Anton Chekov's tip on cutting out unnecessary dialogue in a play, but it holds true for stuff in your comic.  He said, "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following act it should be fired.  Otherwise don't put it there."

Trim the unnecessary dialogue and stuff from your story, but also be sure that your artist doesn't put anything weird in your panels that readers will expect to come up later.  For example, let's say you're writing a Punisher comic and you have a scene with Frank Castle putting on a bunch of gear in preparation for an attack on a crime lord's house.  You get the art back from your artist and see that he's given Frank a machine gun, two pistols, four grenades, and a combat tomahawk...but you didn't ask for the combat tomahawk.  It looks cool, but you didn't write any scene with Frank taking out a mobster with a tomahawk. Readers will expect that tomahawk to come into play.  You have two choices: Either have the artist redraw the scene without the tomahawk, or write a scene / panel in which he uses it.

The above picture from season one of The Flash illustrates this well.  Barry and his crew discover the Gideon super-computer in STAR Labs and then never use it in season 2 to help them learn how to defeat Zoom.  It's Chekov's gun, but in a secret room instead of hanging on a wall.

Wiliam Goldman, the great screenwriter, said "You always attack a movie scene as late as you possibly can.  You always come into the scene at the last possible moment."  Kurt Vonnegut put it as, "Start as close to the end as possible."  Elmore Leonard said, "Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip."  Drop your readers into the middle of the action and let them catch up to the story.

When plotting out your pages, it's best to end your odd-numbered pages on cliffhangers so readers will be enticed to turn the page.  They don't have to be literal cliffhangers or anything drastic.  They can be as simple as one character seeing something off-panel and asking, "What's that?" or one character asking another a question - the answer to which is on the next page.

Also be sure to leave your artist room to work.  Not everyone can draw like George Perez and put thirteen panels in a page.  I try not to go over five panels per page (a tip I heard from Mark Waid at a convention).  I also give my artists the freedom to draw more or fewer panels as long as it doesn't change the flow of the story.  

Don't make your artist do this unless he or she has the willingness, time, and talent to do it...and unless you can pay for talent that high.

I'll end with what I call "10% jokes."  Sometimes I like to put in jokes or pop culture references in my comics that will be understood by 10% or fewer of my readers.  I call them "10% jokes."  I don't remember where I first heard the term, but the practice will earn you devoted readers.  When you put in a "10% joke," the people who get it will love that you put it in there, and your book will become even better for them because they will feel you specifically put in that joke for them.  People will come to you at shows and ask about it or tell you how much they loved the joke or reference.  It's a lot of fun.

Up next, getting your book printed.

Keep it indie.


New "Salem, AZ" #2 colored artwork!

Here's the colored version of page three from the long-awaited Salem, AZ #2.  It's drawn by Paul Schultz, inked by Craig DeBoard, and colored by Jose Fuentes.

What's going on here?  Well, you'll have to buy issue 2 next year to find out.

Speaking of 2017, I've booked a second show for the year - Days of the Dead Atlanta on the first weekend in February.  I'll be joined by Jose Fuentes, Samantha Strong, and April Hunter.  It's sure to be a crazy show, so don't miss it.

Don't miss Vette City Con either in January, which will be my first show of 2017.

Keep it indie.
Kurt Vonnegut (to whom, along with Elmore Leonard, I'll refer many times) once said to be a sadist to your characters so the reader can see what the characters are made of, but don't overdo it.  The reader will get sick of it if you put your main characters through the wringer for too long.  Think of everything Peter Parker's been through in the course of his life.  Why he hasn't gone mad or blown his brains out shows his inner strength, of course, but it gets old after a while.  You can't have an engaging story without conflict, so give your characters a good dose of it.

You also need to examine if a character really needs to be in your story.  A good time to do this is when reviewing your first draft.  Do you have a character whose actions / story could (and possibly should) be done by someone else?  In other words, will the story suffer if you removed the character from it?  If not, get rid of the character.  They're just a distraction if they stay in the story.  Using an example from film, the character of Batgirl in the wonderfully atrocious Batman and Robin serves no purpose other than to look good in a tight suit with kevlar nipples.

Getting back to Vonnegut, one of my favorite writing tips from him is "Every character should want something, even if it's only a glass of water."  Motivation is key to your characters. What do they want?  Why can't they have it?  How will they overcome the obstacles that prevent them from having it (or will they overcome them at all?)?

After you figure out what the character wants, you need to figure out what they really want.  Cinderella wants to go to the ball, but what she really wants is to be loved.  Iron Man wants to run a successful company and help save the world from danger, but what he really wants is to be absolved of his past sins.  You don't need such deep motivation for every story, especially if you're just writing a short one.  I once wrote an unpublished Wolverine story submission to Marvel Comics that involved Wolverine's quest to obtain a rare box of cigars at a charity auction.  The plot for my comic Jasmine started with me asking, "What would a cat demi-goddess want?"  The first answer to come to mind was "A milkshake."  That's where I stared writing the story - with Jasmine trying to get a milkshake but an evil cult's plan interrupts everything.

If you don't know where to start, figure out what your characters want and go from there.

Keep it indie.


You can have a great idea for a character, but the character is hollow without a backstory.  A backstory is your character's history up to the point of their introduction in your story.  You need to create one for at least your hero and your villain.  You don't need to do this for a short story, but it's good to do this for any novel and you definitely need to create them if you're writing a series of novels, comics, or stories.  Creating a backstory will provide you with ideas for future stories.  It needs to include everything from their date and place of birth to their favorite food.

Here's a dossier / backstory I wrote up for a character named Osiris Williamson.  He's from a story I have on a far back burner.  I don't know if he'll ever see the light of day, but this will give you a good idea of what you need for your main characters.

Character dossier
Full name and nickname: Osiris Williamson
Date and place of birth: January 31, 2013
Father’s name, age, and occupation: Russell Willamson, 60, former artist, deceased (car crash)
Mother’s name, age, and occupation: Pearl Williamson, 72, former chef, deceased (broken neck from fall)
Siblings’ names/birth dates: Isis Williamson – February 03, 2015
Famous or important relatives: None
Family pets: None
Father’s philosophy of life/work: “The mind is the most powerful part of the body.”
Mother’s philosophy of life/work: “There ain’t much a good meal can’t fix.”
Lessons learned from parents: Stop and think before acting.  Share good fortune with others.
Childhood friends and neighbors: Carlos Encarnacion – shortstop on Osiris’ high school baseball team.
Childhood escapades and hobbies: Spending the night in the local library after it closed so he could finish reading a book.
Grade school, location, years attended: Hyde-Addison Elementary School – 8 years
High school, location, years attended: Dunbar High School
           Type of classes: History
           Scholastic honors: None
           Sports and extracurricular activities: Baseball – 3rd base
College(s), location(s), years attended: None
           Degree, majors and minors:
           Vocational goals:
           Scholarships, grants:
           Sports and extracurricular activities:
           Part-time and/or summer jobs:
Military background: None
           Years of service/branch:
           Highest rank held:
           Medals, decorations, campaigns:
Family background: Single, never married
           Courtship, marriage:
           Children, home life:
Height and weight: 6’ 3” / 220 lbs.
Eyes and hair: Brown / black
General health: Excellent
           Allergies: None known
           Chronic problems: Color blind
Gestures, mannerisms: Points when angry.
Right or left handed: Right
Tone of voice: Fred Williamson
           Catchphrases: “That ain’t cool.”
Facial expressions: Smiles to intimidate people.
Manner of dress: Biker clothes with Egyptian décor – bracelets, necklace, ring.
Size and appearance: Large and easily intimidating
           Tattoos, scars, piercings: Ankh tattoo on left shoulder
Demeanor: A quiet calm, but he takes crap from no one.
Office surroundings: N/A
           Desktop photos:
           Wall hangings:
           Room décor:
Job title and responsibilities: Succubus hunter
           Favorite / least favorite parts of job: Getting laid / Losing friends in battle.
Outstanding achievements: Held home run record for his high school’s baseball team.
Pet peeves: Racism, wasted food.
Career turning points: The succubus / incubus invasion.
Daily routine: Search for food and shelter during daylight, hole up at night to avoid capture.  After learning of his immunity to infection, his routine changes to active hunting of succubi and incubi.
Hobbies and leisure activities: Cooking, reading, visiting art galleries and museums.
Collections: Books
           “Holy grail” item: A Cajun / Creole cookbook used by his mother during his childhood.
           Pride of collection: A wilderness survival manual.
Clubs, civic groups: None
Avocations: Ending the succubus plague.
Reading preferences: Historical non-fiction, philosophy.
           Favorite book: Voltaire’s Candide
Arts enjoyed: Paintings, literature
Future plans: Finding his sister, stopping the succubus plague
Philosophy of life/business: “When life knocks you down, you can lie down and die, or you can get up and hit back.”
World travels: Wandering the United States.
Religious beliefs: Raised Baptist, but not practicing.
Political leanings: Democratic.
Favorite food: Red beans and rice.
Favorite movie: Django Unchained
           Favorite actor / actress: Samuel L. Jackson / Meagan Fox
Favorite band: Public Enemy
Favorite holiday: Easter
Secret obsession: Finding his sister.
Best / worst memory: The last Easter with his mother / Finding his mother dead in a stairwell.
Wants to quit: Eating so much sugar.
Wouldn’t be caught dead: Eating at a KFC.
Just doesn’t understand: “Glamour rap”
Dark secret: Upon finding his sister, who has been infected with the succubus virus, he agonizes over having to killer or let her live (while she infects others) in hopes of finding a cure for her.
What do they want? To end the plague.
What do they really want? A family.
Why can’t they get it? The invasion, his moral conflict with having to kill his sister
How will they overcome that obstacle? Finding and killing the king and queen demons

As you can probably see, there are a lot of story ideas in there.  Some of this stuff might never come up in a story, but it's good to have it if you need it.  You also, like above, won't fill out everything for every character.  Some stuff will cancel each other out.  For example, Osiris doesn't have anything for "Office surroundings" because he doesn't have an office.  He wanders a futuristic wasteland.

I've heard that Ernest Hemingway would make up such a dossier for every character in every story he wrote - even minor characters who might only appear on one page.  I don't know if that's true, but I sure don't have the time for that.  Be my guest if you do, but at least create a backstory for your antagonist, protagonist, and any major secondary characters.

Keep it indie.
I've secured at a spot at my first convention of 2017.

My friends Jay Fife and April Hunter will also be there, and the show is run by my pal Dead Dick Hammer, so this is sure to be a crazy fun time.  It's even being held at a Corvette museum.  You can't miss, really.

As always, let me know of good shows in your area.  I need a lot of winners in 2017, so send me your suggestions on shows with good crowds (who like to buy indie comics) and good management.

Keep it indie.
One thing you need to consider when hiring an artist is what kind of script style they might prefer.  Some prefer full scripts with complete descriptions of everything and panel layouts.  Others prefer a more "bare bones" style that gives them the basics and lets them flesh it out from there.  I write the second style, as I feel the art will be better if the artist doesn't feel enslaved to the script and has to draw everything exactly as I described.  Writing is my strong suit.  Art is the artist's.  Why should I stifle their creativity?  I even let my artists increase or decrease the number of panels per page if they think it helps the visual flow of the story.  I tell them to keep the beats (timing), but that's about it.

Always double-check your script before sending it to make sure nothing is missing that affects the plot.  It's too late if you get a page back and a panel of crucial information is missing because you didn't write it.  Also be sure to learn your artist room to work.  I try not to go over five panels per page.  Not everyone can draw like George Perez.  Another important thing to do is to put the first person speaking in a panel on the left side of the panel.  It will save your letterer's sanity and it's the natural way we read in the West.

People often ask me where to find artists.  The three most obvious places are at comic book conventions (just walk through Artists' Alley and you'll find scores of them), comic book shops, and online (message boards, blogs, etc.).  One thing I encourage you to ask your artists is what they love and hate to draw.  If your artist loves drawing robots, don't give them a story full of talking fuzzy animals.  If your artist hates drawing cars, don't give them a story about a NASCAR driver.

Be aware of people's rates.  Always ask what they'll charge you and look at their samples in advance.  You'll find some people out there who are not worth their rates, and others who are a steal considering the level of their work.  Some are "one-stop shopping" artists who can and will draw, ink, letter, and color for you if you want, but be ready for the rates to be high (although I have worked with some artists who were a one-person art team and saved me a large amount of money by not having to hire multiple people).

If you're looking for an inker or colorist, first ask your artist if they want to do the work.  If not, ask who they recommend or prefer.  If they don't recommend anyone, look for people whose style compliments your artist's work and is the right tone for your story.  Don't hire a manga colorist for your noir detective story.  As for letterers, again ask your art team who they recommend or if they want to do it.  You can also teach yourself.  Digital lettering is easy once you get the hang of it, and it gives you more control over the dialogue in your story.

One last tip: Keep lines of communication open.  Few things in publishing are more frustrating than a lack of communication within the art team.  Ask for and then demand constant updates on progress.  Your book might not get done in time (or ever) if you don't.

Keep it indie.

For the record, I'm not angry with Marvel or DC Disney or Warner Brothers.  I stopped that a long while ago when I realized neither company was making the types of comics I wanted to read (for the most part) and that they had decided to focus most of their efforts on what was making the most money - their movie and TV properties.  Most comics from both companies nowadays are written in hopes of generating new movie franchises, to keep copyrights secured, or to sell in trade paperback form.  That's fine.  That's business.  Disney and Warner Brothers need to make money to appease their shareholders.

A lot of people are complaining about the comic industry, even as Warner Brothers tries a mea culpa with "DC Rebirth," in which Geoff Johns admits through his stories that DC Comics has become as dark and depressing as a Norwegian death metal album.
People are angry with Disney for making Steve Roger / Capt. America a HYDRA agent and not giving him a boyfriend.  People love the characters, but not the comics.  You only need to go to a comic book convention to see this.  The number of us going to them to buy comics dwindles each year.  The number going to buy comic related merchandise grows each year.

The way to get out of this rut is to make your own comics.  I make the types of comics I want to read because few others are making them.  DC isn't making comics about a dystopian future traffic controller pulled into an interdimensional war between a galactic tyrant and a pleasure planet.  Marvel isn't producing a comic about a witch in the wild west fighting mole people in a coal mine.  I am creating both of those things.  James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem once said that part of the reason he started his band was because no one was making the kind of music he liked.  I did the same with my stories.

My friend and fellow comic book author Russell Lissau once said, "There's never been a better time to make your own comics."  He's right.  The technology we have in this day and age makes creating your own comics a breeze.  He also said there's never been a worse time to try breaking into Marvel or DC.  He's also right about that.  The "Big Two" are insular companies, to say the least. 

He mentioned in a recent Facebook post that he'd heard from several fellow comic writers who were rejected for DC's writing talent workshop this year.  He urged them to stop complaining and make their own comics.  I was also rejected, but I viewed the rejection with a bit of relief.  Yes, it would've been a fun time, a nice addition to the resume, and a good learning experience, but I also have a film guide to disaster movies and about six comic book projects to finish.  I'm making my own comics.  I'm creating my own worlds.

Make your own books.  Stick with it long enough and people will want to read what you create.  Selling and distributing your books is another blog post for another time.  In some ways, making the books is the easiest part.  Getting noticed can take many years.  I've been doing this since 2004 and DC still doesn't want me.

That's okay, however.  Plenty of indie fans do.

Keep it indie.


You need to juggle multiple plots when writing a series of books. You'll have to deal with your hero and your villain, of course, but also with the secondary characters who have to deal with their own conflicts.  You also never know which secondary characters are going to be breakout stars, and readers will demand to know what's happening.  You also need to tease stories that will be the main plot of future issues.  You do all this through A-B-C plotting.

You'll have at least three plots happening at once in any good comic or book in a series.  The "A" plot is the main one and involves the main characters in your story.

A: Iron Man must stop the Mandarin from blowing up the United Nations building.

The "B" plot involves your main character or a secondary character.

B: Rhodey learns of an industrial spy in Stark Industries.

The "C" plot is a minor or teased story involving a secondary character.

C: Pepper finds an odd e-mail to Tony from Natasha Romanoff.

The B and C plots move up in importance once the A plot is resolved.  So, B becomes the new A, C becomes the new B, and a new C plot is created.  Using the above example, Tony succeeds in saving the UN building.  Then what?

A: Rhodey discovers the spy is from AIM and they've infiltrated Stark Industries from top to bottom.

B: Pepper finds more e-mails and suspects Tony and Natasha are having an affair.

C: Tony gets sued by the Chinese government due to their ambassador to the UN being killed in the battle with the Mandarin.

Moving and resolving these plots can take one issue or several.  The grander the story, the more subplots you'll have (D, E, F, G, etc.).  It's possible to resolve all the plots and link them together, but you'll be back to an A, B, and C once that's done anyway.  You have to keep the plots moving in order to keep the readers coming back for future installments of your story.

Keep it indie.


Every story, be it a comic, short story, screenplay, stage play, or novel, must have a beginning, middle, and end.  You don't have a complete story if one of these is missing.

This sums up three-act structure pretty well.

What makes three-act structure tricky in comics or any kind of serial fiction is that you must have three-act structure in each part of your story.  Three-act structure seems simple if you're writing a trilogy: The first book is the beginning, the second book is the middle, and the third book is the end.  However, each of those books has its own three-act structure.

Using the original Star Wars trilogy as an example, it goes something like this:

Act One - Episode 4 (A New Hope): First act - Leia sends droids to Tattooine with Death Star plans.  Second act - Luke meets droids, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, and Chewbacca and they rescue Leia.  Third act - The rebels attack the Death Star.

Act Two - Episode 5 (The Empire Strikes Back): First act - Attack on Hoth.  Second act - Luke goes to Dagobah, Han, Leia, and Chewie flee Empire and end up at Bespin.  Third act - Han captured, Luke loses his hand, the Rebel Alliance vows to keep fighting.

Act Three - Episode 6 (Return of the Jedi): First act - Han rescued.  Second act - Luke returns to Dagobah, Rebels meet Ewoks.  Third act - Luke redeems his father, Death Star II destroyed.

That's nine acts worth of material you're writing in just a trilogy.  Now imagine you've been hired to write a comic for the next three years.  Barring any annuals or special issues, you'll be writing 36 issues at minimum.  That's 108 acts you have to write.  It gets harder if your story arc is more than three issues.  Let's say it's five issues.  Do you make issue 1 the first act, or do you include part of it in issue 2?  Are issues 2 - 4 the second act?  If so, how do you keep it from becoming boring or padding it with filler?

I can't answer for you because it's your story.  I can tell you that writing three-act structure becomes natural once you've done it enough.  You'll also notice it, especially the lack of it, in other fiction and media.  I've read plenty of stories people have sent me for my opinion, and a lot of times my reply is "You only have two acts," or "You don't really have an ending."

An easy way to do it is to simply outline your three acts.  Feel free to keep the outline flexible, as you'll probably discover stuff that will be better in Act Two than Act One, for instance.  It could be as basic as this:

Act One: Batman learns about Riddler's escape from prison and a possible hostile takeover at Wayne-Tech Industries.

Act Two: Batman tracks Riddler while juggling duties at Wayne-Tech.

Act Three: Batman faces Riddler's death traps while Wayne-Tech board meeting goes on without him.

There are some authors who even break down each act into three parts, which I probably do subconsciously, but I'm not that detailed.  Do it if it helps you, however.  There is no one "right" way to write, but there are some rules the reader expects you to follow.

Keep it indie.


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