Breaking In as a Graphic Novelist – Part 2
Welcome to Part 2 of the Breaking In as a Graphic Novelist roundtable. You can find Part 1 right here. This roundtable features a diverse range of creators, from a new voice making the leap with her first OGN, to several creators with a couple of published books to their credit, to a couple of industry veterans. Two takeaways I got from Part 1: There is no one right path to getting a graphic novel published and the pitfalls can be many (and so are the rewards). Read on for more insight and to see what success looks like for these creators.
Has anything surprised you about the comics or graphic novel industry? Anything unexpected you wouldn’t have guessed?
Debbie Fong: Coming from a background of self-publishing mini-comics, it’s been hard to adjust to the slow pace of the traditional book publishing industry. The biggest surprise is just how much time goes by between turning in your final pages and the book actually being published!
Savanna Ganucheau: It takes a long time! In all the steps. I was so used to comics moving very fast, but that is not the case with graphic novels. Prepare to wait for contracts, wait for edits, wait for final prints.
Jesse Lonergan: When working with a writer, editor, letterer, and colorist, I didn’t realize how much back and forth there was. Figuring out how to communicate things in a way that can be understood and getting on the same wavelength creatively just takes time.
Savanna: Seeing the completed work come together in the end, it’s all worth it, and I really appreciate the care and dedication that the editors and designers put into their job. It’s a cool process.
Juni Ba: Oddly enough, it’s pretty much what I envisioned and the best part is the friends I’ve made and how much they add to my life!
Shannon Watters: Comics has an incredibly long road still to walk as an industry, but the strength of the mainstream graphic novel market for kids and young adults has been such a pleasure to see come to fruition during my time in the business.
Andi Watson: One really good thing is that publishers have realised that kids love comics and adults love comics and women love comics. There’s a greater variety of comics than ever as far as the English language goes.
Shannon: More creators than ever have representation and access to resources that allow them to advocate for themselves in professional negotiations. Relative to 10-15 years ago, there are more marginalized folks than ever are in acquisition-centric positions at publishers. There are more folks of all stripes interested in making comics than ever. All of that makes me hopeful in the face of all of the cynical surprises that comics has bestowed upon me over the last 15 years that this long road can be walked, and a better industry is on the other side.
Andi: More needs to be done, but hey, people love the medium, which is wonderful. More comics for everyone!
What’s your advice for indie creators looking to get published?
Shannon: Make things that make you smile, that delight you, then throw them online, or print them up as mini-comics to give away. Finish small pieces. Join comics groups at your local library. Take a class at your local renegade print shop or community college. Go to your local small press comics show and talk to folks.
Debbie: Signing with an agent is incredibly helpful if you’re looking to submit your book to larger publishers. Also, exhibiting at indie comics festivals (there are so many great ones!) can be a very rewarding way to make helpful connections and meet friends in the world of indie comics!
Savanna: Keep making comics and genuine connections!
Andi: I understand the desire to be published. It feels like a stamp of approval from the wider world. It feels like you are accepted into the world of books. That you are legit. There’s no doubt at all that it feels good to see your book on the shelves in the store alongside authors you admire.
But…it’s not the only way. You can self publish or go via the web or make zines for fun if that is what suits you best. I work for book publishers, comic publishers, I have a Patreon where I post my comics online, I have my backlist as PDFs at Gumroad and I self-publish mini comics and books of my own. There are upsides and downsides to all those approaches.
Juni: Make and finish things, show them, repeat. And reach out to those you want to work with because you never know.
Jesse: I think there is a tendency for people to be precious about their work, which is sometimes detrimental. Share your work, show it to as many people as possible, make your work easy to find, listen to criticism and take it to heart if it’s relevant, ignore it if it isn’t. Maybe this comic isn’t the thing you wanted it to be, but finish it, get it done, make it available, and move on to the next one.
Andi: The truth is that lots of bad books get published every year. And lots of good ones don’t find a home. That’s the business of comics which is separate to the medium of comics.
Shannon: Focus on building your community and figuring out what about your work you love.
Andi: Don’t let gatekeepers stop you from doing what you want to do. If you enjoy making things, make them. Don’t wait for permission.
What does success look like to you as a creator?
Savanna: That’s a good question! Sometimes it can be difficult to acknowledge the ways that I would like to improve or grow as an artist, while also appreciating my accomplishments. I think with each new project I find things to be proud of myself for: Bloom’s backgrounds, the research that went into Turtle in Paradise, and my current project which is a departure in genre for me. All those little things make me feel successful as a creator, but feeling successful as a whole is something I struggle with, and I often wonder if it’s something I’ll ever feel.
Jesse: How a person measures success varies, and for me, it’s more about how I feel in making a project and whether the ideas in my head are being put down intelligibly on paper than whether it gets published or not.
Shannon: As I’ve gotten older inside of this industry, I think success for me looks more like balance. I love the medium of comics, the art of comics, the nitty gritty of the making of comics, like nothing else…but the business of comics has long had me baring my teeth and turning icy at its long-recognized faults.
Andi: Success for me is telling my own stories, owning my own work, a greater degree of autonomy, being part of a more equitable, more ethical, less exploitative industry. As far as creators rights go, the English-language industry has taken steps backwards. I want to see more focus on the people who make the work, less on brands and licences. Comics is a wonderful medium, not just another revenue stream for existing brands.
Oh, and I’d like to be happy and keep the lights on. The two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but too often they are.
Juni: I think a big lesson of 2022 is that life should be simple. In many ways it is and we complicate it ourselves. So for the future, I think success is doing what I enjoy doing, and not spending time or energy on things and people that don’t bring me fulfillment and joy.
Debbie: My long term goal is simply to continue telling stories in this medium of comics which I love so much. I hope my stories will feel fresh, and that readers will feel an emotional connection to my characters.
Savanna: I think at some point I’ll find a story that I want to tell on my own, and I’m sure that will feel very different. Overall, that feels like the next step for me.
Debbie: In a practical sense, success for me would be to have multiple books published and selling well enough that the royalties become a small but stable part of a (very unstable) freelance income. In a creative sense, I think simply having my first book published and out in the world will be a great personal success.
Jesse: I think it all comes back to the creative process. I successfully put what was in my head on paper and was able to present a unique vision of comics, and people responded to it and saw that I could bring things to a project that maybe other people couldn’t.
Shannon: I have a lot of hope for my next steps, but my days of go go go ambition are long past. Instead, my goals as a creator are more centered around being an active part of my creative community, teaching young people the art and the craft plus how to advocate for themselves, and finding ways to do the work I’m passionate about doing. There’s a lot of peace there, I think.
Andi: Long term I want to continue to make works that are meaningful to me, not directed by the demands of the market. More books for adults. More odd work. More personal work. I have a sister book to The Book Tour written and thumbnailed that I want to draw. I have an outline for another graphic novel waiting in a drawer. I want to work in colour. I want to crowdfund and self publish. I want more autonomy over my work. I want to see a project through from idea to print. I want to write and collaborate with artists. I want to work with Simon Gane again.
I want a time machine so I can do all the things.
Juni: Who knows what the future holds, but as long as I’m aiming for things that make my life simple and enjoyable, I don’t think I can fail! And that applies to both life and work.
This is part two of the Graphic Novelist roundtable. See Part 1 here!
The interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Featured artwork from Next Stop by Debbie Fong, coming 2024 from Random House Graphic.