My Guide for Writers Collaborating with Artists on Comics

My comics are 100% reliant on the incredible art of Erika Swanson (Shero and Vex) and Kate Rodriguez (Warshiner).  Lots of people who come up to me at conventions ask me “did you draw this?”  My immediate response is “no, I do the words, they do all the pretties,” and that is something I like to keep in the front of my mind when submitting scripts or storyboarding with the artists I work with.  I have no comics without them and luckily we have had a lot of fun working together.  I know when it comes to bigger publishers, there is often not a whole lot of interaction between writer and artist.  However among the smaller guys and self-publishers, there is a lot of interaction and you can definitely capitalize on that.  Not only do I love the artists I work with, I love the work we have put out and I feel that comes from working very successfully together.  It isn’t entirely smooth sailing, we will disagree, make mistakes and sometimes fall flat on our butts, but we have gotten back up stronger and wiser.  The following is my guide for writers working with artists based on my personal experiences

1. Pay

Unless free artwork is offered, which is rare (And by the way a magnanimous gesture that shouldn’t be wasted), assume that you will be paying for art.  Do not go on Deviantart and post about your writing project that offers no pay, but once it starts selling…no.  Art takes time and time equals money.  If you are a self-publishing comic book writer, you are the publisher and employer, you need to pay people.  Do your research on industry rates, understand how much work and time goes into the kind of work you want.  Be open and honest about what you are willing to pay and make sure that you CAN pay that amount within a reasonable amount of time.

On a side note, I like to offer rights to the work to help retain the artist on a project.  It’s a really cool feeling having the artist have a stake in sales because you become a team united to make the project a success.


2. Be On the Same Page

Before anyone starts doing anything, be very clear what you are expecting from one another.  Even better, make sure these expectations are recorded somewhere whether it’s email, audio, video, somewhere.  This is extremely important for deadlines and payment schedules.  Obviously something like a contract pretty much takes care of all of this and is signed and can be legally binding.  Nail down as many specifics as possible.  How long are you willing to wait for a response to an email before sending another one?  How soon does your artist want to be paid once the work is complete?  Is there a plan should the project go past the deadline?  What is the best means of communication should there be an emergency?  You want to answer as many of these questions as possible and write it all down for reference.  This will help eliminate questions and unwanted surprises.


3. Don’t Box Them In

When it comes to visual storytelling, the chances are extremely high that your artist knows more than you.  Let them do their job and sculpt the world you’re trying to build.  Some of the best parts of my comic work have come when my artists have taken liberties with script.  Artists are not mind readers and you may have something in your head, but you will never get a direct translation.  You want a direct translation?  Spend countless hours and years practicing to draw in the style you want and probably paying for and attending art school as well.  I see lots of writers putting meticulous details in their scripts in an attempt to get exactly what they picture in their head.  This kind of process slams the door on so many possibilities that you had not thought of.  Leave room in your script for your artist to interpret the story and you will probably be amazed at what the artist brings to the table that you didn’t even know was there.


4. Learn to Speak Art

Most artists spend their lives examining and studying art techniques in an academic fashion, with or without college.  While the name of some of your favorite comic book artists can be helpful to determine a style, your artist most likely does not have interest trying to emulate these artists too closely.  Why?  BECAUSE THEY ARE THEIR OWN PERSON!  It has been incredibly helpful to me to research art terms and techniques to convey to my artists.  This can help eliminate conversations like this:

Writer: I really want it to look like “Sin City”

Artist: Sooo black and white?

Writer: Well no, just the style.

Artist: So color, what kind of color?

Writer: Uhhh….All of them?

Artist: HALP!

The first key areas I made a point to study up on were color and line techniques.  Another handy thing that I learned via photography and cinematics classes was perspective.  I am currently now neck deep in comic panel techniques.  Basically becoming an art nerd despite having ZERO ability to draw has really streamlined my script and storyboarding process.


5. Edit With Care

A writer brain and an artist brain can operate in completely separate universes, and things can be interpreted very differently.  When you hit a bump where you don’t understand why an artist did something a certain way I recommend asking their motivation behind it before declaring it “wrong.”  Instead of saying, “this is just off” I would suggest a detailed conversation that can save time down the road.  For example:

Writer: Why did you make this panel so small?

Artist: You said you wanted it tight on the eyes.

Writer: Yeah, I just thought because I specified it be dramatically tight you would make it bigger.

Artist: Aha!  So “dramatically” means bigger and to focus the eye more on that panel.  Good to know!

There will be TONS of conversations like this, but it helps build a vocabulary between the two of you which is vital for you to work efficiently.  I also recommend giving yourself time to digest the work before deciding that it must be changed.  You might be surprised how often you’ll have a change of heart when you take the time to look at it from all angles.


6. Review Criticism TOGETHER

After all is said and done, you and the artist or artists you chose to work with have put a little comic baby into the world and that’s a great feeling.  However this will probably not be your last project so it is important to examine consumer response to what you’ve done.  When reviews come in I strongly encourage you share them with everyone who worked on the project and discuss it together.  This is a great way to determine what things everyone should be keeping an eye out for next time, especially if you plan to work together again.