Gertler and Lieber Show Us Idiots How To Create a Graphic Novel

In the eight years that CBR has existed the most frequently asked questions we get via e-mail have something to do with creating your own comic. Where do I find an artist? How do I get my work published? I want to self-publish, how do I do that? What printer should I use? The questions go on and on. And they're not easy questions to answer as the answer to one question generally spawns three or four new questions.

There are a number of books out there that cover certain aspects of creating comics. There are books that teach you the various ways of writing a comics script and art books that discuss comics layout and design. Books on self-publishing have been done, but there's always room for more instruction and this July will see the publication of a guide that will appeal to the idiot comics publisher inside all of us.

"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating A Graphic Novel" will see publication this July from Alpha, a division of Penguin Publishing. It's the latest in a long line of Idiot's Guides covering a wide range of subjects, but the first directly covering the comics industry. Written by Nat Gertler and Steve Lieber, with illustrations by Lieber, the book answers all those questions CBR News has received over the years and more. Gertler spoke with CBR News about the book.

"[The book] covers the entire process of creating a graphic novel -- and by that, we mean longer-form comics stories, whether serialized in a pamphlet or released directly in a single book -- and getting it to market," Gertler told CBR News. "So we cover coming up with a concept, fleshing out and designing your characters, finding collaborators, writing the script, penciling, inking, lettering by hand, lettering by computer, coloring, finding a publisher, publishing it yourself, getting distribution, and promoting the work."

Gertler is no stranger to the Idiot's Guides. He's done a number of them, including guides to PowerPoint, Paint Shop Pro and MP3s. He's even an uncredited contributor to "The Complete Idiot's Guide To Sex on the Net." "Mostly, I wrote fairly staid portions of it like how to get on Usenet newsgroups and things like that," admitted Gertler, "but I did get to do an online interview with a professionally Live Nude Lady.

"The odd thing is that it was actually comic books that led me to doing the Idiot's Guides in the first place," continued Gertler. "The same folks who were doing the computer Idiot's Guides at the time…were starting up a new line of visually-oriented computer books. They popped up on CompuServe's comics forum announcing that they were looking for comic book writers to write the series. They'd tried getting their normal computer book writers to write it, but that hadn't worked, and they figured it would be easier to teach a comics writer about computers than to teach a computer writer about writing for a visual medium. So when I popped up, with my years of work in the computer field as well as my comic book credentials, they were very happy. And while that line didn't last, they ended up liking my writing and had me write for a number of their series, including eventually the Idiot's Guide."

How does one convince a publisher to issue a guide to writing comics? Well, it really wasn't that hard as Gertler explained.

"It had been a few years since I'd written an Idiot's Guide -- I'd gone on to create my own book series at another publisher. And during my absence (and I'm not trying to suggest that it's because of my absence!) the computer-oriented line of Idiot's Guides book had shrunk and had gotten folded in with the main line of Idiot's Guides. So I get contacted by an editor I'd never dealt with before, because a new version of Paint Shop Pro is coming out and they're considering a new edition of the book. By this point, I'd walked away from the computer book field to focus on my publishing line About Comics, but a rewrite of a book takes about a quarter of the effort of writing a new book, and with royalties it ends up paying about the same, so I'm interested. They do their number-crunching or consult their Ouija board or whatever it is they do to predict sales figures, and decide not to go ahead with it... but in the meantime, this editor has read over some of my earlier Idiot's Guide work, and he likes how I capture the breezy, funny, easy-to-follow style that the Idiot's Guides aim for, so he wants to know what else I know about. Of course, comics and graphic novels comes up quickly, and with everything that's going in with graphic novels in bookstores, this gets him interested. So he asks me to do a formal pitch, and things move quickly forward from there."

Gertler then brought artist Steve Lieber on to the project.

"I've got a reasonable track record in most aspects of comics -- I've been a writer, an editor, a one-man publishing squad, and I've even worked retail, but I'm not exactly known for my art chops. I knew I'd have to hook up with someone to write the art-oriented portions. Steve was the first person to come to mind and the only person I contacted. I've known Steve for years and we've worked together on a couple projects. He's not only a very talented artist and comes from good formal training, he also thoughtful and more -verbally- so than most artists. He's articulate and he's witty, and I thought he could handle this well. And I was right; the material he turned out was even better-written than I expected.

"So he wrote about things like character design, penciling, inking, and hand lettering, and I wrote about writing and publishing and computer lettering. Between the two of us, about the only thing we don't have real experience in is coloring, so we hired Tom Luth to write that chapter.

"Steve and I also inserted sidebar comments into each other's chapters, so you can get an artist's view on what I'm telling writers to do or a writer's view on Steve's suggestions to artists.

"Steve also drew a lot of example material in the book. Now, the Idiot's Guides always have cartoon spot illustrations at the start of each chapter and the like. On all my previous books, Judd Winick had done those illos, but he's gotten out of that business. I think Chris Eliopoulos is doing most of them now, but I thought that since we were going to have Lieber illustrations in the body of the book, we might as well have him do those cartoons as well."


A guide to this book: what's where, and what means what.

Part 1: Planning Your Novel

1 The Novel World of Graphic Novels

What is a graphic novel? Where did it come from? Why? and Who? or is it Whom? Those questions are answered here.

2 What's Your Goal?

This chapter helps you figure out why you want to make a graphic novel, the first step toward getting it going.

3 Creating a Creative Team Creatively

If you don't want to be a one-man graphic novel, here's a guide to finding your graphic novel drummer or lead guitar.

4 What's It All About?

The theme of this chapter is picking your graphic novel's theme. This chapter's genre is "how to guide".

Part 2: The Writer's Art

5 Who, Why, and Hunh?: Interesting People and Events

Here's how to make fascinating people and events if you want an interesting graphic novel. Otherwise, skip it!

6 What, Where, When, and Watchamacallit?

Interesting people and events would seem odd in an empty void. Here's how to match them with interesting settings.

7 Planning the Panels

Now that you have your story concept, it's time to break it down into the many individual rectangles that make up a graphic novel.

8 Delicious Dialog

Here's some tips on putting words into people's mouths.

9 A Bit of The Big Con: Script

This chapter is an actual script for a full chapter of the graphic novel The Big Con. You can compare it to the drawn version of the story in chapters 17 and 20.

Part 3: Putting It in Pencil

10 Designing by Design

Most artists only draw each person once. The graphic novelist has to draw the same folks again and again. Here's how to design characters that can be drawn repeatedly and expressively.

11 Places, Things, and other Dead Nouns

Here are tips on designing everything but the kitchen sink. In fact, you can even use these tips to design a kitchen sink.

12 Decrypt the Script

The artist has to act as interpreter, turning a writer's script into a vision of images. This chapter covers turning a writer's direction into readable comics.

13 Lovely Layouts

A layout is a rough drawing of the graphic novel page. Read this to learn how to design pages that work.

14 Render for Real

Here are the tools and rules for drawing the page, putting it down on paper.

15 Drawing

Here's how to place characters, create perspective, and pull off all ther other tricks to make your artwork work.

16 Stylize Yourself

You can bring work to life by doing something beyond generic drawing. Here's how to find your style and build some flair.

17 A Bit of The Big Con: Pencils

This is the pencil-drawn version of the script in chapter 9, so you can see how one artist interpreted and rendered that script.

Part 4: Polishing the Pages

18 Old-fangled Letterin'

For those who prefer to add everything by hand, here's how to put the dialog, captions, and effective sound effects on your art.

19 Artful Embellishing

Pencil art is a thing of beauty. However, graphic novels are actually drawn with a printing press, and to prepare for that, you darken your drawings with ink, as seen here.

20 A Bit of The Big Con: Finished

In chapter 10 you saw the script, in chapter 10 you saw the pencil art. Now here is the chapter in its final form, completely lettered and inked.

21 New-fangled Letterin'

This chapter teaches you to use your computer to add dialog, captions, and sound effects quickly and correctly.

22 ColoringIf you want to publish a color graphic novel, here's how to treat your story as a coloring book and your computer as a great big box of crayons.

Part 5: Bring Out Your Book

23 Pretty Please Publish Me!

Finding a publisher willing to put out your graphic novel is often the hardest part. This chapter has tips to make it as easy as possible.

24 Releasing on the Cheap

If getting your graphic novel read is more important than making money off of it, here are a number of ways to put it out without losing much.

25 Put it out Yourself: Printing

If you want your graphic novel to be a real book and can't or don't want to find a publisher, here's how to find a printer and help them turn it into a pile of books[el]

26 Put it out Yourself: Distribution

[el]and here's how to get that book into the comics shops and bookstores.

27 Promoting and Publicizing

Getting your books into stores doesn't do much good if customers don't want them. You can spread the word and build demands with the tips in this chapter.

Appendix A

Graphic Novel Publishers

This list of the top graphic novel publishers should help you with your hunt to find someone to put out your work.

Appendix B


These comic book conventions can be great places to find collaborators and to promote and sell your work.

Appendix C

Other Resources on Making Comics

Continue your graphic novel education by reading the books and visiting the websites on this list.

With almost 350 pages of content in "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating A Graphic Novel" this gave Gertler and Lieber plenty of room to cover a wide variety of topics.

"It's broken down into 5 parts," said Gertler. "Part one, on the planning stages, starts with an introduction to graphic novels and gives a bit of history for context. Then it moves into figuring out what your real goal is, deciding whether you want to go it alone or work with collaborators, finding collaborators, and considering the theme and genre for your graphic novel.

"Part two is all on the writerly art -- coming up interesting characters, settings, and events, describing the panels, and writing the dialog and other text. We do show a couple script styles and talk a bit about others. Folks who have read Panel One and Panel Two, my compilations of scripts by various writers, should know that I don't believe there is one 'right' script style, but there are tips here on working out what's best for you and the project.

"Part three moves over to the penciler's realm: designing characters, sets, and objects; understanding the writer's script, laying out the page, rendering the figures, doing perspective, and using a number of techniques for making the page work visually. There's even a chapter on building your own style.

"Part four has everything that happens to the art after the pencils are done -- there are separate hand- and computer-lettering chapters, and ones on inking and coloring.

"Part five is about getting the graphic novel out to the readers. It includes finding a publisher, if you want to go that route. Most of the chapters are on publishing it yourself: there's one chapter on ways to release it cheaply if you're mainly seeking artistic fulfillment, but there's also chapters on getting the book commercially printed, on dealing with distributors and comic shops, and on promoting and publicizing your work.

"Steve and I use a lot of examples in the course of the work, and with one we take it all the way. We actually see the full development of one chapter of the upcoming graphic novel 'The Big Con' (which I'll be publishing through my About Comics line). This chapter is really a complete 8-page short story in its own right. The reader will see the concept being worked out and see how the plot of the story is built up. Then we have one full chapter that is just the script to this chapter. Then Steve explains how he worked on the character designs based on the script, and then there's a whole chapter that's just the pencils to the story. Then after talking about inking and such, you'll see the finished work, completely inked and lettered."

Gertler was kind enough to include the contents listing from the book, which we've included as a sidebar.

As we noted above, there have been a number of books published that cover certain aspects of the craft of creating comics, including the previously mentioned script books Gertler published through his own About Comics. On the other hand, Gertler hasn't seen any books out there that attempt to cover the complete process like this one, showing how everything ultimately comes together.

"I'm not saying that this is the only book one will ever want on creating comics. If you want to be a penciler, for example, a good 250 page book just on penciling will go into more detail on that particular topic than we could fit in here. But even if you just want to pencil, I think you'll also want this book because it gives you the road map of the whole process. The more you understand about what your collaborators have to deal with, the better you'll be able to work with them."

Any visit to a book or computer store and you'll see dozens of Idiot's Guides covering dozens of topics on bookshelves. Clearly the publisher is well distributed in the book market, but what about to comic retailers? How do they plan to get this book to the direct market, which is served primarily by Diamond Comics Distributors? This will be the first time the majority of comics retailers will want to carry an Idiot's Guide and making sure the book found it's way into comic shops was a priority for Gertler.

"Believe me, this was a concern for me. But Alpha is a division of Penguin, and Penguin has other lines that go through Diamond. So this book will indeed be offered through Diamond, although I'm not certain which month it will be solicited for. Alpha is in fact advertising this in the direct market -- they just bought the back cover ad on 'Wild About Comics,' the About Comics offering for Free Comic Book Day."

Look for "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating A Graphic Novel" in stores this July.

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