1. Make the kind of comics you’d want to read. OK, if you’re trying to land a deal at First Second or Pantheon maybe this isn’t the best rule to follow, but that aside, you’ll be happiest--and make the best comics--if you’re making the kind of comics that you personally would want to read. If you’re thinking about target audience, demographics, etc. you’re not thinking about what’s truly important about comics-making. If Art Spiegelman were thinking about a “target demographic,” he’d have never made MAUS.
2) Read comics outside your genre. If the only comics you read are comics like the ones you make, you’re likely missing out on a world of comics skills and tricks that you could absorb and incorporate into your own work. I think it was cartoonist Frank Santoro who said you can learn more nuts and bolts comics storytelling reading an issue of Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith's Conan series from the '70s than from any lauded “indie” cartoonist. He’s right. The point isn’t that indie cartoonists aren’t good at storytelling; it’s that different genres employ different formal “toolkits” and you’re missing out on some of that if you restrict yourself to a particular comics niche.
3. Comics aren’t movies/panels aren’t “shots.” How you think and speak about comics affects how you make comics. If you’re thinking of and speaking about comics as if they were movies, you’re confining yourself to certain types of stories, drawings and formal devices.
What “shot” is this?
What “camera angle” is this?
4. Comics are drawings. We have cameras. We have CGI. If people want to look at realistic images, they can use those things to do it. The best comics are comics that embrace the “drawing-ness” of the art. Taking an inked contour drawing and throwing a lot of highly rendered color and effects on it is never going to yield satisfying results. There’s an inherent visual/aesthetic conflict between the two-dimensionality of inked comics artwork and three dimensional effects. Avoid this stuff.
5. Read things other than comics. Comics are a relatively recent art form. Prose fiction has been around a lot longer and has had a lot more time to develop a wide array of storytelling techniques. If you want to write Detective Comics, you need to understand how serialized storytelling works and how to keep the reader coming back for each chapter. So, go read some Charles Dickens. Want to learn how to do first person narration with a truly distinctive voice? Go read True Grit by Charles Portis. (And, for the record, I know that comics aren’t books either--but there doesn’t seem to be the kind of endemic conflation between the two that there is with film/TV and comics.)
6. Beware the internet. The internet is great. It’s never been easier to get your comic in front of more eyeballs with less fuss and expense than right now--all thanks to the internet. It’s great to “talk shop” with other comics folks on Twitter. On the other hand: (1) The internet bombards you with amazing art all day. There’s no surer way to get down on yourself than by constantly comparing yourself to others. (2) The internet is full of anonymous jerks. Never engage with--or even pay much attention to--anyone who refuses to use his/her real name. (3) The internet is a weird echo chamber that often vigorously lauds mediocrity and ignores quality. Don’t get caught up making Breaking Bad/Pokemon “mashups” because you think they’ll get reblogged on Tumblr.
7. Ideas are overrated. Remember when Harry Potter first got huge and everybody went around huffing and puffing about how “unoriginal” it was and listing all the other previous narratives that involved a school for wizards? You know why Harry Potter is an international phenomenon and those other things aren’t? A: because a good idea is nothing in and of itself. Success is in the execution. J. K. Rowling didn’t just have an idea; she executed that idea--she executed it in a way no one had done before, she executed better than anyone had done before, and she executed it in spite of being a single mother with very little free time. Got a great idea? Awesome! Now, actually do it!
8. Know the history of the art form. Comics didn’t begin with last year’s SPX “buzz book.” The art form hasn’t been around as long as some of its other narrative brethren, but it does have a rich past--some of which is still untapped, even in this golden age of reprinted material. Not only will comics of previous eras inform and inspire your own work, but I’ll bet the formal inventiveness of some of the earliest comics will really surprise you. Often an art form’s most interesting work gets done before the formal rules get set in place. In particular, seek out comics from the pre-WWII era.
9. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean what you think it means. Contrary to popular interpretation, I don’t take this advice from Mark Twain to mean that if what you mainly do is hang out with your art school buds drinking PBR and yakking about stuff, that your narratives should be about art school buds who hang out drinking PBR and yakking about stuff. It means that if you want to do a comic about the origins of the sport of curling in medieval Scotland, make sure you know what the heck you’re talking about before you dig in.
10. Don’t get hung up on materials and art supplies. We all have particular tools and supplies that we like--and we all wonder if there isn’t some new as yet untried nib (or whatever) out there that’s going to allow us to up our cartooning game just that last little bit… but there’s a point at which fixating on tools becomes an impediment to actually producing work. By all means, get the best supplies you can--but you can produce good comics with almost anything. Willie Nelson is one of North America’s greatest songwriters. This is his guitar. It has a hole worn in it:
You can view Ben Towle's work at: www.benzilla.com/