Working With A Comics Illustrator Pt. 1

by Jimmy on June 5, 2018

Finding the Illustrator

After having no luck searching for and emailing illustrators to request their skills (and yes, I said I would pay), I decided to let the illustrators come to me to do my graphic novel, Los Poncheros.  I went on the contracting service Upwork and put up a detailed job posting for a graphic novels illustrator.  I received over 15 proposals within a week.  I was pleasantly surprised that the majority of them were quite skilled.  I got proposals from male and female illustrators in the U.S., France, Brazil, Vietnam, and Poland.  I shortlisted the candidates down to five and I asked them to do a free sample page from my script.  All of them agreed, but only four returned actual samples.  For a graphic novel, I think receiving samples from an illustrator is important because most can replicate many styles.  However, you just don’t know how that style will mesh with your writing style and the tone of your story until you see it.  After two weeks, I received all of the samples back and I settled on one illustrator.

*Note – My proposal ended up being for 20 illustrated and colored pages, so one sample page (penciled) was a relatively easy ask for the illustrators.  If you have a smaller project, you might have to pay for a sample, which could still be worth it to make sure you got the write person.

Working with the Illustrator

Working with an illustrator on Upwork is pretty convenient.  All of your messages, contracts, and attachments are stored on the website for eternity and can be searched by keyword.  Upwork acts as the impartial intermediary.  Still, the relationship between writer and illustrator is just as susceptible to miscommunication and arguments as if you were working with a good friend.  As the creator/writer, you are paying the illustrator and you are in charge of making sure the work is delivered the way you want it, but you should still treat the illustrator as your partner, if not equal.  When your graphic novel takes off and gets picked up by a publisher, you may need them on your team.  There should be some give and take to keep the relationship healthy.

The key is to have a very detailed comic script ready for the illustrator from the start.  I learned that pasting in actual images into the comic script to go along with my word descriptions was extremely helpful.  Early on, when I was receiving samples from illustrators, I found that their interpretations of my script could vary a lot.  For me, I already had a visual image in my head of what each scene should look like and to see it executed differently on the page was very jarring.  Most of the time, I didn’t like it.  Mere words were not enough.  So when using Dark Horse’s script format, I decided to embed images so the illustrator knew exactly what I wanted.

Los Ponc

As you can see from the embedded comic script, for one of my characters named Turbin Corbett, I wanted him to look like a red-haired John Brown.  Instead of only writing it down and forcing the illustrator to find an image of John Brown, which can be different depending on his age, I put in the exact image I wanted.  On page two, in earlier comic script versions, I didn’t specify what color the river should be even though I said it was somewhere in the “Upper Missouri.”  If you Google Image search Upper Missouri River, you will find images that have it containing blue, grey, brown, or even green water.  When the illustrator, operating off limited information, made it a green river, it looked like they were in the Amazon rainforest.  On the updated script, I specified the river should be “aqua blue” and I threw in an image for added measure.

For the Los Poncheros contract, the illustrator and I agreed to two milestones.  50% would be paid after the penciling and lettering was completed.  Then 50% for the inking and coloring.  The illustrator would send me two pages at a time to review when he finished them.  I would request or recommend changes.  Here is one for instance.  This is his first draft for page two with only penciling.

Los Poncheros graphic novel page 2 pencil

And this is the change request that I made: “Looking real good. Yeah, I think I put too much dialogue in there. Can we take out the “Nary would the day arrive” line? Also, can you have the Big Blackfoot Warrior higher up on that bank. Like he just appeared over the ledge. At the top, for more dramatic effect. Otherwise, looks great.”  I tried to be clear and encouraging. 

And this is how it turned out.Los Poncheros the rabbit hunt

Pretty dang good if you ask me.  Of course, you need an illustrator who knows comics and is able to think independently, allowing the illustrator to make changes to your script when necessary.  When first embarking on this project, I was relatively new to comics.  I hadn’t even read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud for goodness sake.  I knew I was a greenhorn and one of the first things I asked people in my proposal/request for bids was “What are some of your favorite graphic novels?”  This illustrator that I eventually chose mentioned, East of West and Southern Bastards.  Luckily, they had both of these titles at my local used book store and I bought them.  Although, not as well-written as one of the few graphic novels I’ve read, The Watchmen, East of West and Southern Bastards helped me understand the illustrator’s taste.  And that is important because you want the illustrator to work on a project that they would actually read themselves.  They will be much more joyful and invested if they are interested and it will show in the work.

Besides, you know, actually drawing everything, the illustrator was also invaluable when it came to the nuances of panel layout, dialogue placement, expressions, and character perspectives.  Here is an example.  Originally, I had laid out page four with six panels.  However, I told the illustrator from the beginning that he could change the layout anyways he wanted, deferring to his expertise and allowing him to interpret the script more.

Los Poncheros - Comic Script page 4

He ended up interpreting the page with ten panels.

Los Poncheros the rabbit hunt

I think the change is good.  It adds more tension and surprise to the page than I had originally written.  Another subtle change he made was switching the gutters from black to white.  I didn’t even realize how much this improved the page.  Stay tuned for part two of my blog posts on “Working with a Comics Illustrator.”  I’ll talk about subjects on which I had to go back and forth with the illustrator several times: daguerreotypes and Asian faces.

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