by Lars Martinson
This is the first in a series of ten blog entries about my experiences self-publishing my first graphic novel, Tonoharu: Part One.
This account may be of interest to laypeople (maybe), but I’m writing it more as a sort of informal “how-to” guide for aspiring comic book self-publishers. When I was going through the self-publishing process I had a number of questions that I had a hard time finding answers to on the web, and I hope that this guide can help to fill that information gap in some small way.
This guide is offered with no guarantees. I’ve done my best to provide accurate information, but I assume no responsibility for any negative consequences that result from following my advice. For other important disclaimers, please read the rest of this entry. Links to other installments in the series can be found on the bottom of this entry.
I first became interested in comics in elementary school, and by the time I graduated from junior high I knew that comics were my calling. I have single-mindedly devoted myself to their creation ever since, in the hopes that I could eventually make a living as a cartoonist.
In 2003 I began work on a graphic novel entitled Tonoharu, a work of fiction based in large part on my experiences teaching in Japan on the JET Program. With Tonoharu I suspected I finally had something worthy of a serious publishing and distribution effort, so I started researching my options. I ultimately concluded that self-publishing was the best way to go. By shouldering the burden of the publisher myself, I could keep the publisher’s share of the profits, thereby improving my chances of eking out a living wage.
The verdict’s still out as to whether that will ever be a sustainable reality, but I’m off to a pretty good start. In late 2007 I was awarded a $10,000 comic book self-publishing grant from the Xeric Foundation. In April 2008, I published Tonoharu: Part One as a 128 page hardcover book in an edition of 2500 copies. I was able to secure national distribution through Top Shelf Productions, and my book has garnered coverage from a number of publications and websites, including the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, and Publishers Weekly (a fuller list of coverage can be found here). The first printing of Tonoharu: Part One recently sold out, with a second printing just hitting stores.
So apparently, I must have done something right. And maybe, just maybe, I might have something of value to impart to others thinking of going the same route. But I’d like readers to be aware that my knowledge about self-publishing is by no means comprehensive, which leads us to the disclaimers:
* I know in my foolish heart that cartooning is my calling, and I’m willing to make just about any sacrifice to the pursuit of making a living as a cartoonist. My advice will tend to be geared to those who are similarly single-minded/obsessed.
Part Two: Honing Your Craft / Creating Your Comic
Force yourself to work on the things you’re bad at. If perspective is your weak point, do a comic with a bunch of weird angles. If you’re bad at drawing bodies, draw a comic where you show the characters from head to toe in every panel. At the same time, keep experimenting and trying new styles/storytelling techniques/and printing methods.
After a couple-few years of that, maybe you’re ready to get a little more serious still. You might want to start researching publishing options, and learn more about book production and graphic design. If you’re really devoted (and/or rich), you might think about investing in a good computer/scanner, and suite of graphic design programs. (My specific recommendations for some good resources for research will be the subject of next weeks’ entry).
So how do you know you’re ready to take a stab at self-publishing a commercial book? If you’re like me, you’ll feel it in your guts. But then again, no one’s going to be more biased towards your comics than you yourself, so perhaps a better gauge of if you’re ready is if you’re able to secure a Xeric comic book self-publishing grant. I’ll write more about what that is in a couple weeks, but for now, I’ll just say I wouldn’t even think about self-publishing a comic book without one of these babies.
I’ve only given very general advice in this entry, because it would be presumptuous for me to predict how complete strangers might evolve as artists. What worked for me might not be right for you. (Though if anyone is interested in my specific approach to creating comics, I wrote an excruciating ten entry series about it, the first part of which can be found here.)
I will, however, offer one specific piece of advice, which you can take or leave depending on the sorts of comics you want to do. If you have an interest in inking your comics with a brush (and you should, because it’s awesome!), consider taking a class or getting a book on brush lettering. (The former option would be ideal, but if that’s not viable for you, here’s some books our friends at Amazon thinks you might be interested in):
I took a brush lettering class in college, and it was one of the most helpful things I ever did for my comics. In fact I had such a positive experience with it that I decided to continue studying brush calligraphy in Japan, which is what I’m doing now.
That’s about all I have to say about creating comics. The process of honing your craft really has no end point; after drawing comics for more than sixteen years, I feel like I’m just starting to get some idea of what I’m doing, and I can still see many, many areas for improvement.
But while you work on refining your craft from now and until eternity, you can simultaneously be working on other preparations on the road to self-publication.
Read the following blog entries on self-publishing for much more information on this topic: