It's been a while since I've posted a bloated, self-important manifesto about process, so I thought I'd write one.
This one stems from recent conversations I've had with a group of medical students as well as another cartoonist that boiled down to (as most conversations with other cartoonists boil down to): "How do you do it?" In fact, I've done it different ways.
Mom's Cancer was done parallel with real time but several weeks behind. That is, I'd notice something that might be worth writing about, capture it in a note or sketch, then set it aside for a while to see if and how it fit into the rest of the story. I wanted Mom's Cancer to be more than a diary comic--I wanted it to have some real dramatic arcs and a beginning, middle and end, even if I didn't know at the time what the end was going to be. The result was a sort of guided spontaneity.
In contrast, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow was pretty solidly scripted from the start (although my initial proposal for WHTTWOT was very different--for example, there were no Pop and Buddy at all). Then I sat down and drew what I'd written. I still had a lot of freedom to revise as I worked, and Editor Charlie and I wrestled with the final chapter until quite late in the process. If there's a typical method of doing a graphic novel, I think that's close: script it then draw it.
My first aborted stab at Mystery Project X went the same way. I wrote the whole thing, thought I had it nailed down, then started drawing. In contrast to WHTTWOT, which I pencilled and inked in four- or five-page batches, I decided to pencil all of Mystery Project X first, then go back and ink it all. I was trying to avoid a couple of problems.
(Parenthetical explanation (which is why I put it in parentheses) of pencilling and inking: I'm a dinosaur cartoonist who still works in paper and ink. Traditionally, you sketch with pencil, then go back and draw over it in black ink. Some very confident cartoonists can work directly in ink without pencilling first. I'm not one of them. Many 21st Century cartoonists work entirely on the computer. I don't find that fun.)
First, character designs can evolve and wander off-model, so that the character you draw on Page 100 looks nothing like the same character you drew on Page 1. You see this in most comics strips that run for decades: Snoopy in 1955 looked different from Snoopy in 1995. I faced this issue on Mom's Cancer, especially in how I drew my Mom, such that when we did the print version I had to redraw her for about the first third of the story (as described in this old blog post). So my reasoning was: draw the whole story in pencil first and work out the kinks so that when I inked the characters they'd stay consistent throughout.
Second, I thought that pencilling the whole thing first might expose any weaknesses in my story or storytelling sooner rather than later. And I guess I kind of accomplished that, though not exactly as I'd intended, when I decided after 110 pages that I just wasn't liking either the process or the story and needed to start over.
Now that I've restarted Mystery Project X, I'm trying to combine two processes that worked for me before. I know the outline of the plot but haven't scripted the entire thing. I'm working in chunks a few pages at a time: scripting, thumbnailing (sketching), pencilling and inking as I go. So far I'm finding it much more satisfying than my first stab at scripting the whole thing, then penciling the whole thing, then inking the whole thing. I think I know why.
In my first go-round, I never had the satisfaction of getting something done. I pencilled 110 pages but they were only half done, and wouldn't be fully done until they got inked months later. Nothing was ever finished. My internal clock was out of synch. However, this time around I've gotten several pages pencilled and inked and done, and can tick them off my mental progress bar. Much more satisfying.
I'm also enjoying the diversity of problem-solving required. One moment it's a story puzzle, next a scripting puzzle, then a layout, pencilling or inking puzzle. I find this much more stimulating than solving all the story puzzles, then all the scripting puzzles, etc. Variety is good.
Finally, sort-of-making-it-up-as-I-go gives me some latitude to change the story as I create it. I have had the quintessential writer's experience of my characters deciding for themselves what they want to do despite my wishes, and enjoy leaving open the possibility it could happen again. Room to discover. In fact, I'm not really sure how the story is going to end. I know a couple different ways it could end, but I trust the characters will inform me how it must end by the time I get there. We'll see how it goes.
It's worth adding that my processes cover a narrow range of the processes available. I'd say I edge toward the "stodgy" end of the scale. Other cartoonists create with an instinct and spontaneity that astonishes me. They just start drawing and see what comes out. I don't know how they do it but the results can be terrific. I believe Carol Tyler, whom I adore, works like that. Phoebe Gloeckner told me a story about a publisher who offered her a book contract but wondered, not unreasonably, what the book might be about. Phoebe couldn't say; she wouldn't know until she finished. Offer withdrawn.
Finally, to learn way more than 99% of you would ever care to know about process, check out this post by cartoonist and comics instructor Jessica Abel, in which she describes a method of "visual scripting" she adapted from something Alison Bechdel does. I'm not sold on this but it's interesting. What I like about it is that it combines text and visuals, as opposed to methods that treat words and pictures as entirely separate entities. In the best comics, words and pictures need and support each other, and visual scripting encourages that. I'm less fond of the sittin'-at-the-computer-using-InDesign aspect, when it seems to me I achieve pretty much the same benefit doodling on a Post-It note. Still: worth a look.
Food for thought. My bottom line: If you want to make comics, make them however works for you. There's no right or wrong way (though there may be ways that make your comics easier or harder to publish, which might be worth knowing ahead of time). If you're frustrated or stuck, maybe it's not your story or talent that's the problem. Give your process a jiggle and see what shakes loose.