Comic Insights Part 7: Self-Publishing

Self-publishing is only recently becoming a legitimate option for ordinary writers to share their works. There are many pros and cons of using a self-publishing service. Though the author gets to have more control over the entire process, this means that there are no professional agents, editors, and designers helping the book develop. It also sacrifices professional advertising and large reach to personal advertising and quick delivery. Many writers choose self-publishing because they get to publish their story quickly and exactly the way they wrote it.

At the start of my project, I considered both self-publishing and traditional publishing options. I initially decided on self-publishing because I wanted control over the whole process and to receive a physical book in time for my presentation December 2020. When the pandemic messed up my schedule and I realized I would not finish the book in 2020, I decided self-publishing would be the way to go because as an ambitious first publishing endeavor, I still wanted full control over my book and my audience. Even if this meant I won’t reach as many readers as a large publisher potentially could, my book will still be “real” and available for anyone to read.

I considered three different self-publishing platforms for this project. One was Kindle Direct Publishing from Amazon.

Though I had never self-published through Amazon, my friend C.T. Henderson had, and the children’s book I collaborated on with him is available through their service. Based on this book, I knew that their products were of a good quality, and for a cheaper price than the other self-publishing services I knew. However, Amazon had a more confusing policy on author royalties, and authors also did not make as high of a percentage on sales as competitor Lulu, so that was the service I preferred.

Previously, I published a book through Lulu, but have since taken it down because I decided it was not ready for readers when I put it up. I found it an easy service to use, and appreciated its straightforward explanation of royalties, tax, formatting, etc. From experience, though, I knew Lulu paperback covers were not too sturdy after much wear. Another issue was that selling books on Lulu (like any self-publisher) became expensive for the buyer. Lulu gives the option of putting a book on sale, but while that would make the price reasonable for buyers, I would only make pocket change off each copy sold. I ordered a copy of my draft from Lulu to see how it would turn out.

The final service I looked at was Blurb, which I used to make my graphic design portfolio.

Blurb is handy for trained designers because it has an Indesign plugin and many options for different materials and costs. I ordered both an “economy color” copy and a “standard color” copy of my book from Blurb to compare the quality. The Economy book was much cheaper than the Lulu book, but it was not recommended for graphic novels. The Standard book was recommended for graphic novels, but was the most expensive option of any of the services.

I was so excited when my three rough draft copies arrived, because even if they were full of unfinished art, they looked like real books! The first to arrive was the Blurb Economy book, which I didn’t even realize, because the quality was much higher than I ever anticipated. Even though the material was not recommended for graphic novels, every page was legible, and though the colors were muted and the pages thin, I saw no bleed-through or smudging. I ordered extra copies of this version because they were cheap and I could lend them out, write notes in them, and pretend I had a library. The Standard copy was even nicer, with bold, rich colors and thick matte pages. The Lulu book, unlike the Blurb books, came with glossy pages, which I appreciated.

Though the Blurb Standard book was the nicest bound of them all, I believed the quality of the Lulu one was more worthwhile for its lower price. As of now, I have decided to split my orders between the Blurb Economy book and the Lulu book so that readers can choose a more cost-effective option if necessary. I can’t wait to finish the next draft so I can send it out to print and examine how the final artwork looks with the two options. But in the meantime, I have my lovely rough drafts to keep me company.

Comic Insights Part 6: Cover Design

Designing book covers is a fun exercise for a graphic designer when it’s for old, well-known classics, but when it’s your own book, the process suddenly becomes intimidating. Because a writer knows their book too well, it can be a challenge deciding the best way to design the cover. A book cover needs to hook the reader, but also match the content of the book itself.

One of my personal pet peeves is badly photoshopped romance and thriller paperback covers. Granted, these are inexpensive mass-produced novels, so they wouldn’t warrant the most prestigious designs. But still. A boring shirtless white guy poorly cropped and inserted on a sunny boardwalk in the snow does not make me want to pick up the book. Likewise, there are few letdowns as personal as picking a book for its cool cover and finding out it’s totally nothing like what’s on the front.

In my case, designing a cover for my anthology was challenging because each comic was drawn in an entirely different style. How could I create a uniting image that gave the viewer an accurate glimpse at the book?

I had no idea, but my first draft needed a cover in order for the preview copy to be printed, so I decided to use the watercolor title page stand-in from “Little Fay.” This illustration was print-quality, unlike the rest of the sketches in the draft, and had a distinct fairy tale feel to it.

Notice the front cover is on the right side of this layout, the back cover is on the left, and the spine is in the middle. This is how all the cover designs will appear throughout this post.

Even though Little Fay made a pretty cover, I did not think it fit the often dark subject matter of the graphic novel. I did not want people to immediately assume this book was for children, since that would not be good. Also, it doesn’t inherently look like a collection of comics. Because of these reasons, I went looking for other directions.

The two examples above are brighter and more graphic, as fitting of a graphic novel. Neither one uses finished art, just sketches I thought would make appropriate stand-ins for whatever cover I would design later. The first was an example for an abstract design, while the second was an example for a large image (just happening to show Little Fay again, but the final image wouldn’t necessarily be her.) Thought they were more graphic than the initial painting, neither was what I was going for.

So, I inserted an unused cover idea I had for Seton Hill’s literary magazine, Eye Contact. I did not like the way I painted the weird blinking eyes in the corners of this piece. However, I did like how it resembled an old fantasy tome, with false gems and gold inlay.

I liked the dark greens of the original Little Fay painting, though. All my fairy tale treasuries at home are dark green or blue, so I just associate fairy tales with those colors. As a result, I recolored the false tome cover and digitally removed the eyes to see if I liked the effect. At this stage, I made two versions: one with a light center like the original, and one with a dark center for gold text. (I also experimented with different fonts.)

The consensus from my peer group was that the gold text on a dark background fit the book better, but the color scheme of the light-centered blue-green one was nicer looking. For the next experiment, I combined the two, and settled on the font I wanted.

This cover mockup looked nice, but without the eyes in those corners, they seemed empty. In my latest mockup, I’ve filled those spaces with little rondos of important bits from each story. I also removed the distracting dark spine in this version.

This may not be my final cover design, but it gives me a good plan when I make the final one. I believe it fits the dark yet fantastic nature of the anthology, with fun sneak peeks at the different art styles that lay inside. It says “fairy tale,” but not “children’s story” or “boring history lesson.” Most of all, it looks like a book cover that I would pick up. Hopefully, readers will think the same.

Comic Insights Part 5: Motivation Amid Crisis

As an insecure person, finding the confidence to undertake a large creative project with the intent to publish it is difficult. Imagine then the difficulty of doing so during a global pandemic, a rapid increase of social unrest, and a major depressive episode that began long before either of those issues surfaced.

Being introverted and comfortable with being alone for long periods of time, (and also not having to work in retail), I thought quarantine would not be so bad for me. Like many creatives, I thought it would provide me the much-needed extra time to focus on my work. However, being alone and being lonely are two completely different feelings, and loneliness was much more detrimental to my productivity than I could ever have imagined.

Maria Popova explains this issue further in her article, Virginia Woolf on the Relationship Between Loneliness and Creativity. Woolf more poetically describes this debilitating lonesome feeling, and how it can settle into a person even in a crowd of others. Even when a person acknowledges their blessings and privileges, this terrible feeling still pervades.

“How I suffer. And no one knows how I suffer, walking up this street, engaged with my anguish, as I was after Thoby [Woolf’s brother] died — alone; fighting something alone. But then I had the devil to fight, and now nothing. And when I come indoors it is all so silent — I am not carrying a great rush of wheels in my head — yet I am writing… And it is autumn; and the lights are going up… and this celebrity business is quite chronic — and I am richer than I have ever been — and bought a pair of earrings today — and for all this, there is vacancy and silence somewhere in the machine.”

Writing during a pandemic is nothing new. Neither is writing during a civil rights movement. And of course, the image of a depressed writer writing depressed writery things depressingly is pretty much a job description for anyone considering a degree in creative writing. Perhaps there is a reassurance there, that famous people from long ago felt the same way writers like me feel today. However, what I take away from Woolf’s words in my current state is that if I want to get my creativity out there, I need to learn to work through these dark periods of the mind.

Comic Insights Part 4: It’s a Learning Process

Because this is my first official attempt at writing a graphic novel, I am new to the process. Having a peer group where I can bounce ideas, ask for feedback, complain about setbacks, and receive moral support during the long and complicated writing journey. Here are just a few of the more…interesting times I reached out to my peer group:

1. That’s no moon

2. Cartooning terminology

3. Ask me about the first time

4. Drawing Princess Harmonica

5. Thanks for nothing, Mark

6. Poor Fox kept mutating

7. Don’t worry, I figured it out

Not all of the problems encountered while working on a book are entertaining, so at least some of them are. As cartoonist Stephan Pastis once described his own drawing process, “Ah, the dangers of never knowing what the hell you’re doing.”

Comic Insights Part 3: Five Helpful Research Links

If being a “gifted and talented” honors student for 16.5 years has taught me anything, it’s that I hate research projects with a burning passion. However, I have no trouble looking up topics of my interest, because then it seems like mere “fun” and not official “research.” The research required for my graphic novel was a strange mix of both. Here are five of the most helpful links I found while working on my seven comics.

1. “The Path of Needles and Pins”

In this critical article by Terry Windling, a seemingly nonsense line in the fairy tale “The Story of Grandmother” is analyzed more carefully. Because I kept this line but edited it slightly in my adaptation, I wanted to make sure my version did not change any important cultural meaning. The little girl in the story encounters a man/wolf, who asks her if she will take the path of needles or the path of pins. What I learned was that the “path of pins” symbolizes girlhood while the “path of needles” symbolizes womanhood. In my adaptation, the man asks Little Fay what path she’ll take home, to which she answers “the path of needles and pins.” My initial meaning was a slightly snide remark, since Little Fay was quite leisurely and not on “needles and pins” at all on her journey. After reading the article, I was happy with the double meaning of the line, because through the story Little Fay travels the path of pins (girlhood) but must leave it against her will, then sets off on the path of needles (womanhood) on her own.

Concept art for “Little Fay.”

2. Family Conflicts and Emancipation in Fairy Tales

In this scholarly article by Walter Scherf, the Grimm tale “The Almond Tree” (also called “The Juniper Tree”) is discussed, among other tales surrounding family quarrels and violence against children in fairy tales. (Though the full article was once available for free access, it does not seem to be that way for me anymore.) My adaptation, “Juniper’s Tree,” deals specifically with the child abuse aspect of the story, so I was able to learn about important historical details as well as significance to child agency in the story.

My woodblock print concept art for “Juniper’s Tree.”

3. Medieval European Peasant Clothing

This article on how medieval people dressed helped me figure out how to design the costumes in “Little Fay,” which I kept with the original medieval time period. Artwork of commoners earlier than the 1400s is difficult to find, and also to decipher since drawings back then were more iconographic than realistic. This article helped me sort through the visual search results to decide what was a believable medieval outfit and what was just a modern historically inaccurate costume. Clothing was especially important to this story, as there is a scene where Little Fay names each article of clothing she is wearing.

Another clothing article that helped a little for a different story was this article on Pre-hispanic Visayan noble costumes. In “Ibong Adarna,” I wanted the Engkangtada (fairy enchantress) to wear a traditional Filipino gown, so the attire shown here was a helpful bit of inspiration.

Costume study for “Little Fay”

4. 10 Hairstyles From the ’90s Every Black Man Rocked Back in the Day

This article on Black hairstyles in the 1990s was immensely helpful for figuring out what style to give my protagonist Fox in “The Snowgirl.” In a last minute change, I switched the setting of that story from modern day to the ’90s, which meant I had to redesign his hair to fit his social class and personal style. The article mentioned athlete Allen Iverson, whose cornrows were the main inspiration for Fox’s final design.

Sketches of Fox based on two different hairsyles of Allen Iverson.

5. How to Describe Color to the Blind

These sources were not for the graphic novel itself, but for the audiobook adaptations I started for a class project. Most of the top search results for “How to describe color to the blind” are clickbait type articles that all recycle the same couple of poetic descriptions made by one blind person about a few colors. These two articles were from sources actually intended for sighted people to understand blind experiences and learn about accessibility. Joyce Adams explains why she describes color in video descriptions, and Deborah Kent writes from her point of view as a blind person about why and how parents should explain colors to their blind children. Though neither article was specifically about adapting comics to audiobooks, the information about what in a visual was important to describe and how to describe it helped so much when making my audiobooks.

“Juniper’s Tree” is almost entirely told through pictures, so I had to figure out how to best describe those images so that people who can’t see could still imagine the story.

These are just some of the many resources I used when fact-checking, referencing, and finding inspiration for my seven fairy tale comics.

Comic Insights Part 2: Choosing Fonts

Many designers and non-designers alike describe “Comic Sans” as the bane of their existence, but this font still has many practical uses. However, in my opinion, comics is not one of them.

Comic Sans is considered an overused and juvenile font, but those aren’t the only reasons I decided against it. At the start of my graphic novel project, I examined how Comic Sans looked for an area of text. Using the somewhat standard all-caps text for cartoons, Comic Sans was too blocky, distractingly perfect-looking, and took up a lot of space for a small amount of text. Using this common font as a reference and starting point, I compared other typefaces accessed through Adobe Fonts to it.

Because my graphic novel was planned to contain seven stories in seven different styles, I needed at least seven different fonts to match each style, with some extra fonts such as lettering for sound effects. After collecting many comic book and handwriting-based fonts, I created sample panels with a paragraph of dialogue at consistent sizes. Then I posted this comparison on Facebook to see my social group’s opinions on what was most legible and what did not look good.

panels showing different fonts

Nine different font choices I considered for my graphic novel.

I set the fonts in this example all to size 10 to show how some fonts appear very large while some appear tiny at the same size. Some of these fonts contained both capital and lowercase letters, while others intended for comics only contained capitals. As you can see, some fonts also included bold or italic options, which I used for the name of the typeface in each sample panel whenever applicable.

As I had expected and somewhat hoped, my peers found the three fonts in the top row the most legible and the three fonts in the bottom row the least. I needed input on both types in order to decide what looked best for paragraphs of dialogue and what might work well for sound effects, varied speech, or other special instances.

In addition to the cartoony fonts for the comics themselves, I needed others to fill out the rest of the book, like something distinguished for the titles and something subtly formal for the body text in my foreword and elsewhere. To test fonts out for the titles, I created a document where I copied the titles as they appeared in my book but set them in different typefaces to compare them to each other. Here is an example of my top three favorite fantasy fonts considered for the titles.

My top three choices for title fonts, featuring each of the words that would be set in the title font.

I used Berry Rotunda for my first draft, and though I liked it, certain elements of the font troubled me. Soon after, I discovered that one of my favorite fonts, Primitive, was usable for commercial work, so I downloaded it and replaced Berry Rotunda. The letters are bolder and more legible while still having the fantasy blackletter charm I enjoyed. Much later, however, I discovered the font Saber, which was too cool not to consider. I placed these three fonts on the same page to compare not only their aesthetics, but also their problems.

Can you spot any strange problems in these fonts? Any letters that are hard to read? I will explain my problem points.

Berry Rotunda is for the most part an attractive, easy-to-read blackletter font, except for the letter “w,” which looks like a strange cross between an “n” and a “v.” My peer group also informed me that the capital “I” in “Ibong” made the Tagalog word very hard to decipher, as it was unfamiliar to them. These letters in Primitive did not have such troubles, but the capital “F” looked quite strange in “Foreword” and “Fay.” So did the capital “F” in Saber’s column, which somewhat resembles a “G.” Because of these issues, I created another sheet with manual edits to each of these problem letters:

The same title fonts as the previous image, but with corrections to problem letters.

Here, words that contained problem letters are shown in blue. For Berry Rotunda, I kerned two lowercase “v” letters together to look like a normal “w.” I also used a number “1” instead of a capital “I” for “Ibong.” These were easy fixes that I accomplished by choosing other readily available letters. For Primitive’s capital “F,” the process was more complicated. I converted a capital letter “P” (seen in the word “Prince”) to a vector to use its downstroke and top bar, then converted a capital “E” (not shown) to a vector to use its center bar, then combined them to look like an “F” and inserted that shape in a blank space left within the text. I used a similar but simpler method for Saber’s “F,” removing the curved swash that made it resemble a “G.”

In the end, I decided on Primitive for its mix of legibility, simple elegance, and somewhat rustic charm. Berry Rotunda was a bit too odd, and Saber was just too cool to the point of being distracting.

Choosing the right fonts to match the mood and subject of a book involves a lot of consideration, but going through the effort of comparing fonts and asking for feedback helps a designer figure out both what they like best, and what potential readers would like best.

Comic Insights Part 1: Creating a Graphic Novel

When I decided to create an anthology of fairy tale-inspired comics for my honors capstone project, I underestimated the amount of work it would take to pull it off. This was because I often adapted fairy tales to new stories as a hobby. However, when the intent of the project is to publish an anthology that brings light to modern social issues through well-known tales, the stories have to be much more thoroughly considered.

At the start, I wanted to have ten stories, as ten was a nice base number for a collection that would allow me to explore many different themes and styles. Each story was going to be 5-16 pages long. My plan was to illustrate each story in an art style that fit its subject matter. For example, I wanted to draw in a psychedelic style inspired by Peter Max’s posters or Joann Sfar’s graphic novel adaptation of The Little Prince for the story “The Daisy,” a tragic tale about talking flowers and birds.

Initial concept art for “The Daisy.”

But while some stories like “The Daisy” always had a clear style in mind, others I experimented with several styles, such as my horror story “Juniper’s Tree.” For this story, I considered everything from old Disney cartoons to modern Cartoon Network styles to German Expressionistic woodblock prints. I even carved my own woodblock print to better understand how the medium worked, even though my plan was to replicate the style digitally for the comic itself. Eventually, I settled on a dark indie comic-type of look after reading Daniel Clowe’s “Ghost World.” That way, I could retain the dark mood and harsh contrast of a woodblock print while achieving more delicate details when needed.

Two styles considered for “Juniper’s Tree.”

But choosing styles wasn’t the only problem. I also was not sure which ten stories I wanted to adapt. Some I knew I wanted to write were “The Pied Piper” and “Little Fay,” which featured regular characters of mine and I assumed would translate easily to comics. For others like “Juniper’s Tree” and “The Snowgirl,” I had good concepts I wanted to explore, but I had no idea how to end my versions of them. Then there were the ideas that I tossed around but could not decide on such as “Little Ida’s Flowers” (too boring), “Rumpelstiltskin” (too long in my retelling), or “The Selkie” (better suited to a medium other than comics).

In the end, after discovering a comic book my grandparents gifted me when I was two years old, I decided on the Philippine legend Ibong Adarna, or “The Adarna Bird.” As this version was already a comic, I new that the story worked well in that format. The story was also about a male protagonist, which would balance out my mostly female-lead stories. Finally, this was the only non-Western fairy tale of the collection, and I wanted to have that range.

Cover and sample page from the “Ibong Adarna” comic book by M. Franco and Dionisio J. Roque.

There was only one problem: the comic book, and all non-summary versions of Ibong Adarna I could find online, were entirely in Tagalog. So, using a combination of Google Translate, a Tagalog/English dictionary, English summaries found online, and my mom’s basic Tagalog knowledge, I translated the comic book into English. The comic book version, of course, was its own adaptation of a much longer epic, so my knowledge of the original legend mostly came from a detailed summary slideshow I found online. I decided to base my version on the shortened form used by the comic but make it a children’s story, the way Disney bases their fairy tale movies off sanitized and simplified versions of tales.

In the end, I narrowed down my plan from ten comics to seven. This was mostly due to time constraints, but also because I felt three of my decided stories weren’t as strong as the others. “The Pied Piper,” which I had been initially set on drawing, would have been too complicated for a 20 page comic, and tread lightly on problematic issues I did not feel I could currently address. “Fitcher’s Bird,” another story I thought for sure I would draw, was similar to “Juniper’s Tree” and “Little Fay” in terms of violence and implied danger of sexual assault, but it addressed these issues comedically, which I thought would undermine the more serious stories. And finally, “The Handless Maiden” was another quasi-comic story about sexual violence against women, and I just didn’t want that topic to dominate my anthology.

In the end, I kept my seven strongest ideas and developed them into a collection of comics with a wide range in style, tone, genre, and social issues. I believe this was the best course of action for this book, and I learned so much about fairy tales that I had known for years and also those that I had just discovered.