What I Learned About Comics in 2017

A year ago, my experience with comics extended as far as an incredibly basic script based on a poem, for Tomte: The Warrior Elf with Buttonpress Publications. It was fun and exciting to see something I’d written being turned into something, but it wasn’t going to lead anywhere. (I was so naive a year ago.)

Tales You Think You Know, with stories by Tracy Sayers and myself, and art by Venus de Vilo, lettered by yours truly

Roll on January. A good friend of mine, Tracy Sayers, had lost the artist for her comic Freya. So, a bunch of us got together to help Tracy make her debut. Venus de Vilo signed on as an artist for two eight page comics, one written by me, and one written by Tracy. We published these in Tales You Think You Know under the brand of Banter Books. Gareth Luby ended up with just one comic out of the two that were planned for release, because life got in the way something fierce. (If I felt at liberty to discuss Gareth’s personal life here, you might begin to believe that life is stranger than fiction, with everything that happened between February and April.)

From February, I started a six-week course with Declan Shalvey, which helped me finish the work on Tales You Think You Know, and taught me a lot about how to write stories. The briefest advice:

  • Lettering is as important to a comic as the art and the script; it shouldn’t cover the most important parts of the art, and it should be consistent across the page in font size and in the size of tails.
  • When reading a page, a reader should be drawn from the top-left corner to the bottom-right corner. (Unless you’re publishing to an Asian market. Then flip it.) Everything from the artwork to the lettering plays into this to guide a reader’s eye.
  • Every page should have a moment, a key moment that makes the page worth reading (and worth keeping).
  • Every artist will interpret a script differently. Some artists like detailed scripts. Some like minimal scripts. Some like scripts done the “Marvel way”, text about the page, but nothing to say how many panels there are.

April saw the release of my first comic. I’d written The Untold Story of Little Bo Peep. There was just one problem: for me, it didn’t feel like a comic. It was a poem, again. On the back of it, though, Tracy was able to find an artist for Freya. Trisha O’Reilly joined the team at K-Con.

Wren issue 13, written by myself and Jason Browne, art by Jason Browne, lettering by Phil Roe

Jason Browne came to the rescue. His comic, The Wren, was beginning it’s second season with issue 13. He had most of a script, but wanted me to take over from the ending, and to edit it. He was going to devote all of his time to the art on the four comics Buttonpress Publications were producing. Taking over a book like The Wren was a terrifying and exciting prospect. We met up a few times to discuss the future of the series, who was who and who’d fight who, and whether I was allowed to introduce any villains if I happened to have ideas. (And boy do I have ideas.)

The book was due for release in August, but I needed to get my part done earlier for Jason to finish the art, and for Phil Roe to letter the book. It was announced one day while I was at the Geek Mart that I’d be picking up the writing of the book.

By then, Small Press Day began to show its head. This put the Banter Books group under pressure to have something ready. By June, Gareth still didn’t have anything to do with comics at the event, which would take place in July. We spoke about zines, about the indie market, about art books, and settled on two things. One, Gareth would put together an art book of work from the previous year. His selling point, for anyone who asked, was some work he’d done with Marvel on sketch cards.

Gareth was happy to get his first art book

I won’t put any great claim on the amount I helped him, except that I kept up the support for him when he was trying to put the book together, and, with Tracy’s vigilant eye, helped him choose which art to keep and which to remove from his first version of the book. I also kept an eye on his page counts and the production side of things for him, just so he knew he wouldn’t miss the deadline or have the file rejected because of an odd number of pages. Basic stuff, but it can cause a headache if not paid attention to.

He finished the book, and had it just in time for Small Press Day in July.

But that wasn’t all.

On the same day myself and Gareth were talking comics and small press and zines, he pitched an idea to me. Frankie versus Thanos. Great idea, except for the big C word. Copyright. He couldn’t do it. (And even if he wanted to – he had another script from me since January to work on instead if he wanted to get a comic out.)

How to Live With Your Cat, a comic with a ridiculous title, written and lettered by me and drawn by Gareth Luby; apparently it’s an accurate depiction of what it’s like to own a cat.

But I had a script in my bag, one that I’d put together that morning. It was basic, but (I think) funny. How to Live With Your Cat (When Your Cat is an Internationally Renowned Assassin) came out on Small Press Day this year, the first time Frankie went to print, simple enough for Gareth to have done in a couple of days.

And here’s the big thing I learned for artists when it comes to comics: a full-time job makes working on comics difficult. Gareth’s available time amounted to a few hours a week when he was at his busiest in work, which doesn’t give a huge amount of time to get anything done.

While Gareth was working on the Frankie book for Small Press Day, Tracy worked on the first additional stories for Freya, ahead of the comic’s release in August, while I worked with my brother Conor on a comic he’d been wanting to get done for a long time: Chuck.

Chuck issue 1, written and lettered by me, art by Conor Carroll (my body double/that guy I am/my twin)

We published the first short comic of Chuck on Small Press Day under Banter Books. It’s a bit kooky, but it’s the start of a longer journey with the character. Next year will see the second issue, and a zine.

Both of my Small Press Day releases were my first steps into producing comics of my own, lettering the books as professionally as I could. Out of work and strapped for cash, I couldn’t pay someone to do it. Triona Farrell, at least a year before all of this happened, told me that a writer should always know how to letter when producing indie comics. Even if a letterer gets hired for a book, it’s good to know someone can do the necessary job to a basic standard just in case.

When the big day in January rolled around, the Banter Books table had two comics, one zine, one art book, and a lot of stories and prints. And three happy heads.

L-R: Gareth Luby, Paul Carroll (me!) and Tracy Sayers, at Small Press Day 2017

It wasn’t out first event together, but it was the closest the three of us got to working together. We were a branded group, for the first time. Need another comic tip: working with your friends is the best way to get into comics, so long as all the conversations about money happen before anything gets printed. (I’ve heard stories about people who knew people who were friends with my friends…)

The Geek Mart at Filmbase in July 2017; L-R Gareth Luby, Niall Fox, Paul Carroll (me)

A week or two before Small Press Day, the Geek Mart had its first major crisis. We’d separated with one of our organisers, and lost our venue. I didn’t dare let Gareth stress too much about it – only as much as was necessary for us to actually get a venue. A week after Small Press Day, we set up in Filmbase. Another piece of advice for those looking to enter comics: there’s a lot of drama in the community. It’s stressful, painful, and it doesn’t benefit anyone. It can happen because personalities don’t clash, or over money, or over someone doing better than someone else. People can be petty. None of this is directly related to the Geek Mart situation, but we found ourselves facing the problem that we knew existed in the community. Look after yourself, and avoid the drama.

Meouch issue…? The story is called Operation Bad Dog. We can probably call this issue 0. Art by Gareth Luby, written and lettered by Paul Carroll (er, me.)

When that event was out of the way, and the panic subsided, we had to take on another challenge as creators: Dublin Comic Con. Gareth had enough time, just about to finish Meouch: Operation Bad Dog before Dublin Comic Con, meaning the first comic script I’d written – that I felt was actually a comic – was out in the world. Along with The WrenTales You Think You KnowChuck, and How to Live With Your Cat, I had a wide range of comics on my table at Dublin Comic Con. And a lot of other stories and prints. It was exciting and terrifying for a lot of reasons, but having the new comic really helped. We’d spoken about the comic quite a bit, and until July, it didn’t feel like Frankie was really a thing. (Aside from being an actual cat.)

Official Dublin Comic Con photo. Can you see the terror in my eyes?

This was the biggest event I’d been to behind a table. I didn’t sleep properly beforehand. I freaked out quite a bit. I was separate from all my friends. I did my best, which is all I could muster. Will Sliney laughed (in a friendly way) at my nerves – and yes, obvious name drop is obvious. I was fortunate to have had practice pitching my books from the Geek Mart and a number of small conventions and events.

Here’s the briefest bit of advice I can give about events:

  • Know how to talk about your wares.
  • Smile and have conversations with people.
  • Drink plenty of water. And don’t forget to eat.
  • Sit down when you need to, stand when you have to.
  • Try to remember people’s faces, but don’t be afraid to admit that, with the convention and life and all the other thousands of people you see every day, you’ve forgotten someone’s name.
  • Don’t panic. (Unless you can’t help it. Then find someone who understands.)

I could honestly write a thousand words or more about working an event, but this is already getting lengthy. Not to worry, we’re almost there.

So, safe to say that I survived Dublin Comic Con. Leaving a convention, creators are faced with the weird mix of exhaustion and exhilaration and the desire to work on more books. In my case, I wrote a lot of scripts. In Gareth’s case, he took a break from everything. In Tracy’s case, at some point behind the scenes, she began to work more closely with the Celtic Knights books towards a new project.

Banter Books Best Friends, L-R Tracy Sayers, Paul Carroll, Gareth Luby

The Geek Mart faced a few more issues over the next few months, but we eventually had our Christmas market in Wynn’s Hotel. In the meantime, I’d been to Octocon, where I met a few cool creators, and Cosmic Rebels Con, where myself and the Banter Books crew reunited for another weekend. While the event had its problems – every first event does, and I had a candid conversation with Ed Doyle, the organiser, about how he can improve for next year’s event (in April), given the fact that the problems were all easy to fix, once someone’s aware of them.

Having started to work in an office at the end of August, I was faced with the chance of getting to enjoy events for their merits again, rather than feeling financially panicked over whether I did well at them. I got to enjoy Octocon and DECAF and Cosmic Rebels Con.

Frankie’s First Colouring and Activity Book for Grown Up Kids, an A4 monstrosity of cartoon violence and cat puns

The past week or so brought about more changes, of course. Comics are about change. Frankie, with two books already, released an activity book (myself and Gareth did the work for him, obviously) to go with a set of badges that I worked on from art that Gareth had done.

We’re still learning about comics. I read and review them as much as I can, which helps to figure out storytelling techniques. And we’re working on stories of different lengths, with some one-pagers occupying Gareth’s few spare moments until a second set of Marvel cards arrives – following a stressful Inktober and sketchbook release from him in November – and Tracy taking on Celtic Knights’ latest project: Girls Knight Out. I’ve been writing four-page scripts, some for Frankie, some for myself, and I’ve begun the long and difficult task of creating an extended universe for the Meouch comics that goes beyond Frankie on a mission, Frankie at home, and Frankie’s activity book.

A year in comics feels like an awfully long time when it’s recounted bit by bit, skimming over a few details at the same time.

Here I am at Octocon!

The best way to learn about all of this is to work on something. Draw, even if you can’t draw well. Write, even if you don’t have an artist to illustrate for you. Sell at events – help someone you know if you don’t have anything of your own. Read comics. Review them. Take notes. Look at the classics and figure out why they did so well. And be patient. My first year in comics, working entirely on small press work, looks busy, but it comes with some caveats:

  • Writers can, technically speaking, produce a script faster than it takes someone to illustrate it.
  • I worked with four artists on five books.
  • I’d been writing for half my life before I started in comics, so I already understood storytelling.
  • I’m not an expert.
  • In one of the most difficult years of my life, I was incredibly lucky to know the people that I know.

2017 has been a fun year for comics, and for writing generally. Experience and study and practice taught me a lot. Next year, I want to produce better stories. That’s my resolution. (I’m a firm believer in New Year’s Resolutions, sorry.)

2018 is also going to see me running writing workshops with my good friend Kat Dodd. We need to finalise dates with the people we’re working with, and then I can post all the details here (as well as on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.) The workshop is aimed at people who’ve always wanted to write a book, but didn’t. It’ll run throughout the year, with regular meetups for group write-ins, with the aim of producing something by the end of the year. With three stints of NaNoWriMo to get through next year, too, it’s going to be busy.

 

 

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About Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is a writer, born, raised and still living in Dublin. By day he's a student and bookseller, by night he writes fiction and uses social media.
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