Happy New Year! As an indie creator who is interested in publishing a graphic novel, I’ve been investigating what it takes to break into that space. Turns out it takes a lot! For my latest roundtable, I asked six creators who started off in the indie space and have published original graphic novels or are about to publish one. These creators run the gamut from a new creator who just broke in to veterans with multiple books under their belts and even a long time editor with Boom! Studios. There is a ton of gold in these responses and I hope you’ll enjoy and get the same insight I did. Something I learned right off the bat…there are many different ways to break in and just because you’ve gotten one work (or two or three) published, doesn’t mean that you’ve made it.
Read on to find out more.
One note, I received such good responses, I’m breaking the article into two parts.
Without further ado, here are the roundtable participants:
Savanna Ganucheau – Started off in self publishing, Savanna illustrated the graphic novels Bloom (First Second) and Turtle in Paradise (Random House Graphic). Bloom Part II is scheduled for release this Fall. @Srganuch
How did you break in and get your work published? Was there a critical turning point or connection that got the deal done?
Debbie Fong: For my first graphic novel pitch, my agent advised me to provide a full script for Next Stop, my 250-page comic, instead of only an outline and synopsis. While this was more work upfront, I think it was a huge help in getting the attention of editors who were able to read a draft of the whole book in text form, and I heard from multiple editors who had a real emotional reaction to the most heart-wrenching scenes. We ended up getting good offers from two of these editors!
Savanna Ganucheau: For me, I had been doing small jobs in the industry for a little while, coloring and drawing one pagers for compilations. My friend Kevin Panetta, who was already publishing larger works, wanted to do a collaboration. We were able to make a pitch and send it via his agent (later my agent). I think because I had been regularly making comics, self published or otherwise, that people were able to trust that I could do a good job on an OGN. We were lucky and Bloom got snatched up on our first shop around.
Juni Ba: I made and posted finished comics on the internet for about a year. After about two years of trying to publish Djeliya in France, and failing, I reached out to TKO, who said they had seen my work on the web and thus would break their “no submissions” rule because they were curious to see what I’d offer. And they liked it!
I sent a pitch file of the story and a bunch of character designs. The whole thing ended up in the hands of Sebastian Girner, the Editor-in-Chief, who told me he was willing to take a look, and he showed it to the publisher, Tze Chun. I think the book was half written at that point and just needed a hand guiding it to the finish line.
Andi Watson: My first actual graphic novel, one that was published in its complete form was Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula for First Second in 2015.
Before that I had been making graphic novels in serialised form for many years. I made my first comic, Samurai Jam, at art school before I graduated in the early 1990s. From there I got the bug (it’s a virulent strain) that led me to making mini comics and eventually into the world of indie comics with SLG and then Oni Press.
The critical turning point for me was the change in direct market conditions. My stories weren’t particularly well suited to being serialised and changes at my publisher at the time meant I would have to find a different approach. I worked in a sort of hybrid format of 60-ish page volumes for a series called Glister and then made Gum Girl with a traditional children’s publisher in the UK called Walker Books. By then the market for graphic novels and distribution into bookstores was developed enough that I could find a home for my work.
Jesse Lonergan: My first “traditionally” published book was Flower and Fade in 2007 with NBM. I signed the contract for it in 2003, and I really hadn’t self-published anything at that point. I sent photocopies of my comics to every publisher I could find. I only got rejections, including from NBM, but they thought my stuff had potential, and asked if I had anything more. I made up something really quick, said it would be 200 pages and be done in a year, and they sent me a contract for it.
I feel this question sort of assumes that getting published traditionally means you’ve made it, but my first book came out and went largely unnoticed, so did my next book, and the next, and it wasn’t really until Hedra came out from Image in 2020, that a larger number of people started paying attention to my work. In that time I self-published a lot of comics, contributed to and edited multiple anthologies, gone to a ton of conventions, worked to build my social media presence, and most importantly refined my craft.
I think some people can have their first book published and it becomes a success and they are off and running, but for me that wasn’t the case. Very little came of the first three books I published. They weren’t particularly good for me financially. I still had to have a day job and the books being published didn’t lead to my being offered other work.
Ultimately, more came from me self-publishing and being present on social media.
Shannon Watters: I broke into comics as a copy editor at a manga company in 2008, which led to an assistant editor position in 2010, which was the door that kicked off my career. I was lucky…one of my bosses as a copy editor remembered me in his new role, and recommended me for the assistant editor position approximately a year after we worked together, which is an excellent example of how the comics community is a community…you often care for each other and recommend each other for work.
My editorial work, especially in the development arm of that job, is what both allowed my independent writing work to get “good enough” to be considered for publication (thinking about story for 10 hours a day will do that) and also gave me the connections to allow it to get in front of the folks necessary for publication. It’s a different world in comics and graphic novels these days, so your mileage may vary!
Pick any one of your published works. What’s its origin story?
Ganucheau: Kevin Panetta and I wanted to do a romance comic together and he was very into baking at the time. I drew some character sketches which later became the main characters Ari and Hector in Bloom. It all came together very organically. A very painless process to be honest!
Fong: My graphic novel is about a 12-year-old girl who finds herself on a sight-seeing bus tour through the desert, while secretly dealing with the loss of her younger brother. While the characters and their emotional storylines are fiction, the road trip story is inspired by a bus tour I went on when I was 8 years old, with my mother, brother, and family friend. I think that experience may have inspired my love of road trips and road trip stories!
Ba: I’m gonna pick the TMNT Annual. Originally, it was a story focused on Leo alone, going back home to give a last goodbye to his dead dad. It was inspired by a recent family loss. I was thinking about what that must be like to go home and see their room empty of their presence. Then I added more ideas pulled from realizing how adulthood makes groups of friends pull apart. And the final result is pretty much exactly what I wanted to do. Some Jackie Chan influences in the fight sequences and a new medieval inspired villain. I think the only note I received was that I couldn’t use a certain character.
Watters: My latest graphic novel, HOLLOW, takes place in the town of Sleepy Hollow, NY, and was inspired by an actual visit there! HOLLOW was an example of the core ideas behind the graphic novel staying consistent from the original brainstorm with my co-writer, while virtually everything else was able to grow and change based on the input of the entire team (artist, colorists, letterer, readers, editors, etc.!). A strong thesis is important, but my favorite part of writing comics is the collaboration. Many things can and should change from start to finish, but it helps to have a strong spine of an idea or message to support them.
Watson: My first graphic novel, in that it was an idea for a single book with a beginning, middle and end, was probably Breakfast After Noon, which was first serialised by Oni Press back around 2000. I had been doing genre stories for a few years and was chomping at the bit to tackle something that was contemporary, but also a reflection of life in England. I was seeing a lot of stories on the local news about the decline of manufacturing in the English Midlands and the resulting unemployment in the once thriving ceramics industry. So I wanted to tell a story of the effects of unemployment on a young couple who were about to get married, and how contrast in their responses touch on some of the unexpected consequences of globablisation.
It’s a couple of decades old, but I think it was prescient in recognising the seeds of what would lead to Brexit in the UK and the rise of populist leaders like Trump in the rust belt in the US.
Lonergan: When my third book came out with NBM and it got almost no attention, I really had a big think about what I was doing in comics and what I wanted to be doing. I’d worked so hard and to get little recognition or acknowledgement was very frustrating. At the same time, I also realized my creative process was quite contorted. It was like I had all these imaginary editors in my head telling me how a comic should be. This is what a story is. This is how you organize a page. These are the rules. All these inhibitions. It just didn’t make sense anymore.
I started doing things the way I wanted and that’s where Hedra came from. I just sat down and drew a page and then drew another page and another, and let ideas coalesce and take shape. I went back and added pages to the beginning. Reordered things, rearranged things. Drew pages multiple times to get them right. And that’s kind of become my process. I don’t hold too tightly to any ideas of what a comic I’m working on will or should be and try to just let the comic form itself.
What do you think are the most important ingredients when creating a graphic novel?
Lonergan: Speaking very pragmatically, sitting down and doing it. I think there are all sorts of things that people talk about with story, themes, panel-to-panel transitions or whatever, but unless you can produce a finished work, all that’s irrelevant. It’s figuring out the method by which you get work done that matters most.
Watson: Primarily, it has to be a story I really want to tell because it’s a laborious process. I liken authoring a graphic novel to putting on a really heavy backpack and not being able to take it off for a year. At dinner, on holiday, awake in the middle of the night, grocery shopping, it will occupy my thoughts and nag at my attention for however long it takes to finish.
For me, it has to have a story that will interest me, not just for the next week, but for months and months down the line. It also has to have a visual element that I will enjoy drawing, or at least know that it is vital to telling the story. Those two elements need to spark and create that alchemical third element that is comics. The point where the two interact to create the magic.
Ganucheau: I think, just as much as storytelling, technical skills are important. When we finally got the go-ahead for Bloom, I spent a couple weeks learning how to do perspective on my own. I know there are tools that can help you, but the foundation just from those couple weeks of studying still helps me today. I’m able to get work done much faster than I used to, which helps with the longer format. Not to mention the importance of world building.
Ba: I would say keeping in mind what the point of it and the throughline are. I tend to come up with too much stuff and I lose sight of what my main focus should be.
Watters: Love of the material, and delight in your voice. You’re going to be spending an enormous amount of time with it, and you’ll be exhausted by the sight of it sometimes. If you don’t find the joy and exhilaration in what you’re attempting to do. you’ll burn out on it. If you’re just starting out in comics, it’s why I often recommend doing some shorts or strips or mini-comics that tickle you. It feels really great to finish something and experiment with what captivates you (or makes you laugh).
Fong: Personally, I think that getting the story right is the most important part! While a great story can make up for less-great artwork, the reverse isn’t true. And as a creator, when you’re going to spend one to two years drawing a book, you want to feel as confident as possible when you start the process that the story is as good as it can be.
What are the pitfalls of creating a graphic novel other creators should be aware of?
Lonergan: I think biting off more than you can chew is probably the most common one. This can manifest itself in a lot of ways. I think in terms of actual production, choosing something you can finish is important. If someone’s never done a comic before and they decide their first one will be 500 pages, I think that’s similar to a person who’s never jogged before deciding they’re going to run a marathon in the morning. It’s better to start small and build up. Twenty pages is good with a beginning, middle, and end.
The same is true with self-publishing. If you’ve never done any printing, marketing or distribution, start off with a small print run, don’t jump into the deep end.
Watters: The pitfalls of creating a graphic novel are, I think, the pitfalls of any longform, labor-intensive creative work. You’re spending years deep and that can lead to exhaustion and getting lost in the weeds. Couple that with frustration at being unable to execute a vision, or the learning curve of completing a long, many-tendriled story while your interests and style are ever-evolving…it’s always going to be difficult! But keeping in mind the strong spine, and the things that you love about your work, are what are going to get you through it.
Fong: Trying to estimate how much time you need to complete a graphic novel can be extremely daunting! Be realistic when you calculate how much time it’ll take you to finish each stage of the process, and ask for all of the time you need (and then some, to be safe).
Watson: The obvious one is that it’s a lot of work. Even when you know it’s a lot of work it is still a surprise how long it takes. I’ve made over twenty books and well over two thousand pages of comics and it’s still a surprise. A lot of the work isn’t visible, the different drafts of scripts, the thumbnails, the pencils, inks and colours, the mistakes and edits and corrections. If you’ve done a good job no one notices the mistakes.
This is important when considering it as a career. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Avoiding burn out, taking care of yourself health-wise, maintaining a good work/life balance. All things to keep in mind if you want to do this not just next year but in five-ten years time.
The business of comics, the industry, is pretty toxic for creators. It has a long track record of ripping off and exploiting people. Try and get someone with publishing experience to read your contracts.
It’s a great medium, but the industry has earned its poor reputation for having dumpster fire level standards and ethics.
Ideally, have an agent or a lawyer who’s familiar with publishing to read any contract. Easier said than done, I know.
Ganucheau: It takes way longer than you’d ever think, and honestly I found my body giving out way before I experienced mental burnout. I’m currently working on what will be my third book, and that’s true more than ever.
With my first book, I didn’t appreciate the consistent way I sat at my desk. My back gave out easily from poor ergonomic practices. Then, with my current book. I’ve been having hand and wrist trouble. Something I have struggled with temporarily in the past, but never paid much attention to because it would always go away. It seems now, with persistent strain, I am not able to bounce back as easily. Just be mindful of your ergonomics, because long form comics can really take a toll, and it can become very frustrating.
Ba: Wanting it to be perfect or the best thing ever. The best way to get it done right I think is to make what you enjoy and not worry about it being your magnum opus.
That’s part one of the Graphic Novelist roundtable. Check back next week where we talk best advice for getting published and what success looks like.
The interview responses have been edited for clarity.
Featured artwork from Sunburn by Andi Watson and Simon Gane from Image Comics.