Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters III

Content notes: gore, body horror, blood

I am very sorry for the sudden hiatus taken on this series without prior warning. Thank you for your patience and understanding. So, without taking much of your precious time, let’s talk about some horror comics. 

(Red Room by Ed Piskor)

In previous episodes, we discussed some of the types of characters we love to root for – characters capable of instantly stealing our hearts (not so they can sacrifice them to an old serpent god but to keep us glued to the page). Or as it’s popularly put in the TV industry – “characters we want to be or want to be around”. In this episode, we’ll be discussing that little “oomph” we can give our characters to make them more compelling no matter their character type. These are the traits that keep us coming back week-after-week (as in most webcomics) or month-after-month (as in most comic books), besides the gripping plot of course. 

(Two Moons by John Arcudi and Valerio Giangiordano)

Primal Motivation

(Ultramega by James Harren)

Primal goals are goals we would still be capable of having even if we were stripped of our modern comforts. But giving your protagonist a goal that’s so modern like wanting to gain one million followers on Instagram isn’t bad at all, but the motivation behind such goals should be primal.  I’m sure you’ve seen how far animals travel to find a mate – sometimes farther than they are willing to travel to find a “proper” meal. So, wanting to get laid can be a very good motivation for a teenage boy to journey into the haunted woods (if his crush booty-called him to meet her in a cabin in said haunted woods).  Protecting one’s life and/or one’s family is also a very primal motivation. Parental and social validation is another. 

(The Nice House on the Lake by James Tynion IV and Álvaro Martínez Bueno)

These motivations are very relatable because they tend to cut through cultural and background barriers as we can all relate to them at a primal level. 

In It (the movie), we can relate to the kids’ motivations. From trying to impress the girl amongst them, to trying to find a brother, and to trying to survive a kid-eating clown-faced monster (cause kids can’t just pack their stuff and move to another town). We totally get it. In the sequel, however, we see adults try to fulfil a promise they made as kids they have hazy memories of making. I doubt I have the time or the energy to finally go back to my high school to tell my math teacher that he sucks. As gratifying as that may be, I am too lazy to do it. Go back to face a child-killing monster? No, thank you. 

Redeeming Qualities

(Nocterra by Scott Snyder and Tony S. Daniel)

I think most creators have got this down, so I won’t dwell too long on it. Basically, no matter how flawed you make your characters, give them a core emotion-evoking strength. And no matter how perfect you make your characters, give them a core emotion-evoking weakness. Now, let’s talk about the thing horror creators don’t usually nail.

Good People Die Too

(We Only Find Them When They’re Dead by Al Ewing and Simone Di Meo)

One of the reasons deaths in Game of Thrones and Attack of Titan elicit a more emotional response than in a lot of horror fiction is because a lot of horror fiction may be willing to show boobs and guts, but they are not willing to break our hearts. The “popular” girl dies because F that B-word. The passionate couple dies because that’s what they get for being happy. The bully that always seems to like the old brewski dies because monsters love the taste of insecurity. Somehow, at the end of it all, the well-behaved well-adjusted character survives at the end. Yup. No one saw that coming (*rolls eyes). I understand creators don’t want to seem unnecessarily cruel. But what I’m saying is, let’s try to mix it up and remember that both good and bad people die in real life, so why not in our fiction. In short, write in redeeming qualities for the victims in your story too. That way, we respond emotionally and not just physically to deaths and the threat of death. 

Stakes (Not for Killing Vampires)

(Stillwater by Chip Zdarsky and Ramón K Perez)

This has to do more with the plot, so we’ll probably discuss it in detail in subsequent episodes of this series. But in summary, your protagonist must stand to lose something. There must be something at stake. In a lot of horror fiction, it’s simply the protagonist’s life that’s at stake and honestly, there is nothing wrong with that. However, in Get Out, it’s the protagonist’s body. In The Shining, it’s the protagonist’s sanity. In The Quiet Place, it’s the family. It doesn’t always have to be life and death. Sometimes, it’s just extreme physical pain. 

But the reason why we are discussing stakes in this section is that we need to create our protagonists in a way that the stakes matter to them. If Lee Abbott wasn’t a caring father who values his family’s safety, the entire plot for The Quiet Place falls apart pretty quickly. 

Character Design

(The One You Feed by Donny Cates and Dylan Burnett)

I’m not much of an artist, so I can’t say much here. But simply creating a generic-looking character and tossing them a t-shirt and a pair of jeans is not usually the best move in soliciting interest in your characters. Let your unique setting and character personalities ooze from how your characters dress, act, and look. Besides that it keeps things interesting, we don’t want Henry meeting his demise and we continue to wonder for pages and pages if that was Henry, Samuel, Greg, or Jessica. 

Conclusion

(Bog Bodies by Declan Shalvey and Gavin Fullerton)

In conclusion, characters can be well received even more than the creators intended as is the case of Rorschach by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Though sometimes unintended, a lot of care does go into making a character memorable and one we want to come back to again and again. But hey… do you think that comic series you already started doesn’t have strong enough characters? You don’t have to cancel your beautiful baby and rip its files off the internet like a cold unforgiving monster. That’s the fun thing about periodicals like comics, you can improve things mid-story in organic ways. No rule says your character must be awesome right from Act 1. We might start getting to dig your character in Act 2 or even in the closing Act. 

My point is, we can create new stories with the tools we’ve acquired, but we don’t have to give up on our current babies too. A lot of manga, comic book series and webcomics have moments where they suddenly “got good” and new readers start flooding in. So, keep creating new comics and keep building on the ones you’ve already created. 

See you soon. 

Comic Book Suggestion

Delusion by Hongjacga


Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters II

Content notes: blood

Hey, if this is your first time joining us, why not take a quick look at some of our previous episodes?

  1. Fear in Comics: An Introduction 
  2. Fear in Comics: Gaming the Format
  3. Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters I

That said, let’s get right to it.

The Seduction of the Badass

(NEW MEN by Murewa Ayodele and Dotun Akande)

 

I once heard a filmmaker say that your characters may be despicable monsters, but at least make them good at their jobs. And this is a trait I’ve noticed in lots of beloved characters ranging from Batman to Rick Sanchez. I’m not exactly sure why, but as humans, we enjoy competence. It’s extremely seductive. Even more so when the competent person reached this peak capacity by working harder than anyone else for it. Audience members want to be around them. Heck, audience members want to be them.

(Batman: Joker War by James Tynion IV and Jorge Jimenez)

 

Listed below are a few examples of badass characters. 

  • Wall-E from Wall-E
  • Batman from DC Comics
  • Saitama from One-Punch Man
  • Walter White from Breaking Bad
  • Raya from Raya and the Last Dragon
  • Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty 
  • Iron Man from Marvel Comics
  • Summerset from Se7en
  • Michael Sullivan from Road to Perdition

 

Notice extremely popular, competent, and capable characters like Superman and Captain Marvel aren’t on the list (although it is a pretty short list)? Well, it’s because they are false badasses. Badass characters (in the context of this write-up) usually have a huge flaw to them. No, I don’t mean kryptonite or she-loves-cats-too-much. The character flaw must be birthed from the fact that they are so good at their jobs. Summerset has solved too many grizzly crimes he has lost all optimism. Rick Sanchez is depressed and lonely – one of the reasons being he is an unmatched god. Iron Man and Batman are obsessive planners, so much so, it ruins their personal lives. In God Country, it’s a little more literal. Emmet becomes a badass when he holds the sword, Valofax. When he stops holding it, he immediately turns into an old man suffering from Alzheimer’s. And holding unto the sword keeps getting him in more and more trouble until it takes his life.

(Daredevil by Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto)

 

Once your badass’ primary flaw is birthed from their strengths as badasses, you have a strong foundation to build your beautiful character on. 

 

Please, don’t be intimidated by the examples I gave. Your badass characters can be as low-concept as prettiest-girl-in-the-grade or as high-concept as killer-of-gods.

 

The Hypnotic

(Negan Lives! by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard)

 

As creators, these characters can often be the most difficult to create. Their potency usually depends largely on what a group of people (the audience) finds mesmerizing at a particular point in time. They can often be mistaken for the badass characters, but their appeal isn’t necessarily based on their competence but on a quirk (or multiple quirks) they have that we can’t but enjoy watching them act on it. 

SpongeBob is so exceptionally naive we can’t but stare and wonder what goes on in his head. We love how Jules Winnfield talks and quotes the scriptures before he blasts some fool in Pulp Fiction. Wood Man from Hilda is just so… well, Wood Man. You love every scene he is in instantly. What about Rorschach? The costume, the mask, and the way he talks… you could listen to an hour podcast of him just going on and on about corruption and dirty politicians. Some more examples are…

    • Sheldon from Big Bang Theory
    • Barney from How I Met Your Mother
    • James Carter from Rush Hour
    • Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men
    • Beavis and Butt-Head from Beavis and Butt-Head
    • James Gordon from Harley Quinn (Animated Series)
    • Lobo from DC Comics
    • Michelangelo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    • Negan from The Walking Dead
    • Charmy from Black Clover

 

These characters usually need almost like an opposite character to bounce off of to work. We could read tons of comics with just Michelangelo and Raphael in a room together. SpongeBob and Squidward, James Carter and Inspector Lee, Wood Man and Hilda & Mom, etc. But this isn’t always necessary as some characters can be mesmerizing solo like Lou from Nightcrawler

 

Scream Bloody Vengeance

(Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest and Ian Bertram)

 

Making your character a kid who is constantly made fun of in school because of his weird haircut doesn’t mean we’ll care about that character. Comedy stories make us laugh by bringing constant misfortune on their characters, so why do you think by bringing misfortune on your characters we will take them any more seriously?

(Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin by Kevin Eastman, et al.)

 

Why then are characters like John Wick from John Wick, Hutch from Nobody, and Maximus from Gladiator so compelling? Well, it’s because their misfortune is born from their good doing. John Wick is punished for loving the dog his dead wife left him, Hutch is punished for trying to be a good old regular dad, and Maximus is punished for being loyal to Rome. Your character doesn’t have to be a badass soldier or something like that for it to work. In It, despite being sick, Billy makes a beautiful boat for his younger brother. What he gets as a reward is his younger brother getting eaten by a clown that lives in the sewers. In Get Out, Chris knows that no matter how weird things get his girlfriend has his back. He doesn’t assume that just because she is related or shares the same skin colour as some sketchy individuals, she is sketchy too. When he (and the audience) finds out his girlfriend is actually in cahoots with her body-snatching racist family, the audience gets probably the most intense emotional reaction in the entire movie.

The unfairly treated protagonist gets us riled up screaming bloody vengeance and demanding swift justice on their behalf. They are one of the most, if not the most, effective at eliciting empathy from the audience. So, in your stories, don’t just punish your characters needlessly. Rather, punish them for doing good, and you’ll see your audience get riled up on their behalf.

 

Conclusion

These aren’t all the possible types of characters we love rooting for, but these are a good jumping-off point. As you research and consume more stories, you’ll discover more character types. I’m sure you’ll notice very quickly that some creators even combine different character types into one character or make their character change character type mid-story. 

Bakugo from My Hero Academia started as a badass antagonist. He became an underdog protagonist of a subplot the first time he saw Todoroki use his powers, and as at the writing of this article, is a badass ally to the protagonist. Hutch from Nobody, Walter White from Breaking Bad, and Uhtred from The Last Kingdom are badasses and unfairly treated – Uhtred being the most intense of the combination. So, feel free to experiment with character types to figure out what would be best for your story and what would engage your audience best.

(Plunge by Joe Hill and Stuart Immonen)

 

When you finally have your characters, you’ll want to give them goals we can be invested in, redeeming qualities, and prices to pay along the way. We’ll discuss more on those next week before we move on to our next topic, Fear in Comics: Strength in Subtlety

 

Comic Suggestion

This week’s reading suggestion is Infidel by Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell.


Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters

Content warning: blood, violence, graphic imagery such as gore and body horror

Well, I’m sure you well know that characters aren’t limited to comic books and neither are they unique to the horror genre. Empathetic characters help all kinds of stories become more gripping, so why am I emphasizing them for horror comics (and necessary to elicit fear in your stories)? You see, for romance stories, you might have heard a couple of people say something like “one of the main characters better be hotter than my ex”. For crime stories, you might have heard something similar to “the detective better be a chain-smoker with the longest trench coat in all of cinema”. For superhero stories, maybe you’ve heard a fan craving for more morally ambiguous crimefighters like Deadpool. For a lot of genres, it’s easy to realize both the audience and the creators have character expectations, hence everyone takes the idea of characters seriously. 

(Ice Cream Man by W. Maxwell Prince and Martín Morazzo)

In horror stories, however, fans describe their preferences in terms of their love for a good Kaiju story (a subgenre of monster stories), slasher story, mad scientist story, psychological horror story, etc. As you may have noticed, the focus seems to be more on the threat rather than the protagonist (or victim). I doubt anyone ever says, “if a white female pharmacist isn’t screaming for her life in a horror story, colour me uninterested”. What creators don’t realize is that it’s not that horror fans don’t care about having good protagonists, it’s that they are more open-minded to the types of protagonists featured in their favourite genre than the average fiction consumer. 

(Proctor Valley Road by Grant Morrison, Alex Child, and Naomi Franquiz)

The vast possibilities of protagonists in the horror genre and the tendency for a horror creator not to focus on the protagonist are why I would like to welcome you to Fear in Comics Part 3: Make Us Care About Your Characters

(Spoiler Alert for a bunch of comics and movies. Gore Alert. The comic samples used in this article are for academic purposes only. The author isn’t glorifying the acts carried out in the stories.)

Contrary to Public Opinion, We Don’t Like Underdogs

The top actors get the biggest gigs, the top directors get the biggest box-office numbers, the prettiest people have the fullest inboxes, the top football clubs have the largest fanbases. In our day-to-day lives, we gravitate towards the strong and the powerful, so why on earth would we go the opposite direction in our taste in fiction? The answer is we don’t. Weakness has never been an admirable quality. No one tunes in to watch the telly with excitement wondering who would beat up their favourite MMA fighter next. So, why then do we love Asta from Black Clover, Deku from My Hero Academia, Atom from Real Steel – obvious underdogs?

(Boku no Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi)

Imagine this. There is a bank robbery. Superman flies in to stop it. He finds the perp on the run. He flies after the perp. The perp yells out the money is for his family. Superman says we’ve all got a family to feed and it’s no excuse to steal. The perp gives up. He throws the perp in jail 60s cartoon style. Superman is our hero.

(Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru)

Let’s make few adjustments to that story. This time, the perp doesn’t give up. He tries to flee but Superman gets a good hit in. The perp coughs up bloody teeth, yet he raises his fists against Superman. Superman pummels him, but he doesn’t give up. The perp, with broken ribs, eyes swollen shut, and a bloody mug insists he won’t let go of the money. He says he has a family to feed, and he’ll die before he lets go of the money. Every of Superman’s punch that sinks into this perp is followed by the perp getting back to his feet to say he’ll keep fighting till he gets the money to his family. This will become uncomfortable for us to watch very fast because, at this point, we just want this dude to get the money to his family. We are rooting for him even though he is a criminal.

(Invincible by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker)

What’s the difference? In both examples, the perp is the underdog and has a family to feed. I think the latter is more compelling because the underdog fights back. The underdog, with his actions, says, “I don’t care who you are, I’ll keep fighting”. So, I think what we really love is a fighting underdog. We love it when the team at the bottom of the log plays with determination to beat the team at the top of the table. It doesn’t matter if they win or not. What matters is that they stood and fought. 

(Image from Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: Civil War)

Steve Rogers, though a weakling (at the beginning at least), will never stand down in the face of a fight, bullies, or death. Deku, even though he has no superpowers, will rush in to save someone in danger even if the danger has more powerful heroes hesitant. Asta trains his physical body to physical perfection as if a strong body means anything in the world of magic. He goes as far as to declare he’ll become the Wizard King despite the fact that he has no magic whatsoever. These characters, though underdogs, carry their heads high and don’t know when to quit.

(Black Clover by Yūki Tabata)

Now, let’s consider examples from horror stories. The kids in Stranger Things (2016 – Present) and It (2017) are dorks – underdogs. They never pretend in the story to be otherwise. They are never apologetic about their nerdy loves or try to change how they dress to please a bully. These dudes (Stranger Things) even dress like Ghost Busters to school. In both stories, the characters decide the investigate and face dangers even teens and grown adults would run away scared from. Throughout the story, they are constantly presented with escape routes and chances to give up, but they never take it. They are the kind of underdogs we root for – the fighting ones.

Plug

There are more characters I’ll like to discuss ranging from the Unjustly Treated Protagonist to the Badass. Kindly join me next week as we discuss more character types and what makes them so compelling and empathetic. Now…

Comic Book Suggestion

Want to read a comic book that’s a masterclass on making you care about its characters?

Read Extremity by Daniel Warren Johnson and Mike Spicer

Thank you and keep having fun making comics. 


Fear in Comics: Gaming the Format

Content warnings: violence, blood, gore.

Fear in Comics: Gaming the Format

Ever searched for a recipe online only to be led to a website where the author goes on and on about their family, job, and dog? Like… your girlfriend is an hour away and you just want to know the ingredients to get at the store – not the cut of meat Bingo (I know right. Lazy dog name) prefers when he is sad. So, trying to avoid that pitfall, let’s get right to the gist of gaming the sequential art format to create tension and horror. Welcome to Fear in Comics Part 2: Gaming the Format

(Spoiler Alert for a bunch of comics and webtoons. Gore Alert. The comic samples used in this article are for academic purposes only. The author isn’t glorifying the acts carried out in the stories.)

Panel and Framing

The Super Long Panel/Margin

(Killing Stalking by Koogi)

Like we discussed in our previous article (Fear in Comics: An Introduction), when it comes to fear, our goal is to play with the audience’s expectations in horrific ways. We build them up, then we linger before we meet or subvert those very expectations we’ve worked so hard to create. It’s a pretty psychopathic process if you ask me, but it works. 

In the vertical scroll comic format, usually just called “webtoons” or “webcomics”, we’ve seen creators use extremely long panels to do just that – creating panels where each scroll gives us new information whilst creating new questions in our minds. As the audience, we dread the very journey to the end of the panel where we know some uncanny reveal awaits us. 

A simpler way of creating that feeling is to have your regular sized panels, but the margin between them becomes the tease (or torture). In Killing Stalking, our protagonist (if we can call him that) has just discovered his crush has a helpless girl gagged and tied up in his basement. Still in shock, we scroll through a very long black margin wondering what our protagonist would do, only for it to be revealed his psychotic crush was standing behind him with a baseball bat in hand. This gorgeous technique, though simple in the grand scheme of things, is very difficult (if possible) to pull off in prose, the classic comic book format, or in a movie. This was birthed by creators who have decided to game the sequential art format to create something truly gripping.

 

The Tight Panel

If you’ve watched the movie, Ex Machina (2014), you would notice how a simple narrative can become so thrilling when the storyteller has mastered the art of the control of information. Giving the audience just enough information to keep them wanting more or putting them in a state of unease can be a very powerful tool in creating tension. And in the visual department, the tight panels, are your best friends. 

(Silver Coin by Michael Walsh)

Usually, in comic books, to help your audience have a sense of space (and location) and so the art can shine in its storytelling, you give the art some room to breathe.

(Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples)

But when it’s time to scare your audience, you can take that privilege away from them. You can tighten the panels so, the audience loses the sense of space, direction, and location. They will also lose a sense of where other characters (or monsters) are or what they’re up to. Limit the amount of information they can get from a panel, and watch the unease and claustrophobia slip in. 

(Babyteeth by Donny Cates and Garry Brown)

Storytelling with Panel Layout

I love simple panel layouts. I find that following a story is usually easier with them, and arguably the most critically acclaimed comic book (Watchmen) has very simple panel layouts. 

(Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett)

But many find them boring and uninspired. They want stories with panels bleeding into each other without demarcations or creatively shaped and placed panels. Lately, I’ve discovered a lot of comic books do both – keeping simple layouts for mundane scenes and going crazy for the dramatic scenes. Why not play around with this expectation?

(Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett)

If you have established in your story that the panel layout stops being a grid every time the monster attacks, so why not retain a grid layout the next time your monster attacks so the audience doesn’t see it coming. You could also go the reverse route by using wild panel layouts to get the audience pumped full of adrenalin for an attack that’ll never happen… yet. 😊 

Don’t just think of panel layouts as tools to tell your story. They can be a part of your story.

The Page Turn

(Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez)

The First Left Panel 

In our previous article (Fear in Comics: An Introduction), we’ve discussed how it can be difficult to shock (or surprise) your audience in comic books because, at the turn of a page, two pages worth of panels are available to you at a mere glance – story spoilers begging you to stare at them. Well, except for the first panel of the left page. That panel is always new (at the turn of the page) - making them perfect for revealing new and shocking information to the audience.

The Last Right Panel

With that logic, you would think the last panel of the right page got the short end of the stick. By the time the reader gets to it, it probably has little to hide. Well, not really. It’s hiding the next set of panels, which is usually another two pages worth of panels. For this reason, creators usually make them cliffhangers. Consider the above image. Two armed men show up at the door. We see they’ve killed two people. We are left to wonder what will happen to the lady who has opened the door for these dangerous men – a cliffhanger. We are forced to turn the page.

In the above image, the last panel to our right also works as our “bomb under the table”. It’s a ghastly image that warns us of the future. The fact that our eyes keep going to that panel, gives a different context to everything we read in the panels that come before it. Tension is immediately created. This tension is only created because we can see both the present and future at a glance in comics. What many see as a flaw becomes a strength in the hands of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez.

Get Creative

(My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris)

In conclusion, stay curious and keep experimenting. My Favorite Thing is Monsters was illustrated with ballpoint pens in a notebook. Maybe your comic could be illustrated on those classic journalist jotters where you can only view a page at a time. You could go the digital route where whenever something scary is about to happen in your story, the computer takes control of the scroll feature. 

Just have fun. Make mistakes. Learn. The format isn’t a prison. It’s just a torture toolkit, and your audience is the willing victim. 

Comic Recommendation: 

The Magazine: http://skelehime.com/the-magazine.html

Next Episode: 

Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters 

 


Fear in Comics: An Introduction

Content warning: gore, blood, and body horror

 

I love comic books. I think it’s one of the most powerful storytelling mediums. Most of my favorite stories of all time (like Extremity, Watchmen, God Country, Secret Wars, Y the Last Man, etc.) were told in the pages of comic books, and some of my favorite authors/writers (Robert Kirkman, Brian K Vaughan, Joe Hill, Jonathan Hickman, etc.) are comic book writers. But I’ll have to admit it, compared to other storytelling mediums, getting a good scare is a rarity in comics. In comics, the consumption pace (speed at which you navigate through the story) is totally up to the reader, and there is no support for sound, so much so that pulling off jump-scares and a whole lot of techniques seen in horror movies are impossible.

(from Basketful of Heads by Joe Hill and Leomacs)

In prose – the other end of the spectrum, every page, every paragraph, every sentence, is a mystery until, well, you read it. But in a comic book page, panels are mere glances away from each other. There is hardly any mystery as to what will happen next. So, how do you then manage to shock and surprise your audience? How do you put eye-widening terror into them?

Either it’s for your next horror comic book project, or a comic book project in another genre that needs a couple of frightening scenes, you can try out some of these simple techniques to unleash fear.

(from New Men by Murewa Ayodele and Dotun Akande)

(Because we’ll be discussing how other creators pulled off fear in their comics, I suppose a SPOILER ALERT for a few comics is in order. Due to the subject matter, GORY IMAGERY ALERT too, I guess)

 

If You Can’t Shock Them, Put Pressure on Them

Without further inspection, we might think fear is only born from the unexpected and the uncertain. But that’s not necessarily true. There is a deeper type of terror that can only be achieved through unwavering certainty. Arguably the universal fear we all have to a degree is the fear of death. And what makes it so damn scary and lasting? Because we know for a concrete certainty that we will die. So, the fear is born from the how and the when of this certainty.

(from Haha #1 by W. Maxwell Prince and Venesa Del Rey)

In your comic project, why not tell us “how your story will end” right from the beginning and watch the pressure build as the audience can’t contain their expectation of that “ending”. And how soon can you give this “ending” away?

(from Something is Killing the Children by James Tynion IV and Werther Dell’Edera)

Yup. From the very title of the comic. 

When we choose our titles, we look for options that reflect the uniqueness of our plot, summarizes our theme, showcases our setting or character, etc. But we can get the audience working right from the title of our projects.

I am currently writing an episode for my action-adventure fantasy webtoons series, My Grandfather Was A God, titled Heroes Die Too. From the title reveal, I hope to put pressure on the audience as they wonder which of their beloved heroes will lose their lives. So, this technique is not only limited to horror comics or to opening sequences/scenes. You can mount pressure as early as from your cover page.

(Here is what the great Alfred Hitchcock has to say about the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPFsuc_M_3E)

Art & Book Design

A lot of the techniques we’ll be evaluating will require playing with the reader’s expectations. Your art and book design are powerful tools in your creative toolbox to this effect.

Let’s consider Jupiter’s Legacy. The art and book design for the comic book series is bright, colorful, and hopeful. So, when truly despicable acts by the characters start to unfold, they are very shocking, jarring, and most importantly, unexpected. 

(from Jupiter’s Legacy by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely)

Whereas in comics like Something is Killing the Children, the inks are scratchy, the colors are dull, black borders & margins are common, and there are a lot of blacks in general. From the very first panel, the reader understands this is not the book to read alone in the night.

(from Something is Killing the Children by James Tynion IV and Werther Dell’Edera)

There are lots of directions to take but the key is to be fully aware of the strengths your art choice brings to the story.

Make Us Care for Your Characters

Unlike motion pictures, the budget for a comic page is the same whether it’s just a couple of guys having a drink at the pub or Cthulhu going bunkers in a city made of glass. This creative freedom is one of the reasons comics are so powerful, but it’s also the reason comic book creators rush to deal great violence on their characters. I’m sorry but no matter how much of a character’s intestines you show us, if we don’t care about the character, we won’t care what happens to them.

The Boys is a series that’s often criticized for its excessive use of violence and gore, but the death of Robin, both in the comic series and the TV show, hits like a truck because in the little time we’ve spent with her, we had fallen head over heels for her.

(from The Boys by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson)

This may be true for all storytelling, but it is especially true in comics; making us care about the characters (and the stakes), in turn makes us scream when they enter the wrong room, cry when the door locks behind them, and remain completely motionless when a wide sinister grin shows up in the shadows. 

Game the Format

(from The Walking Dead Deluxe by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard)

For your floppy comic books and graphic novels, why not put the shocking imagery and/or big reveals on the left-side pages. This way, the reader can’t see them until the turn of the page – retaining your ability as the storyteller to create some mystery and surprise.

(from Unholy Blood by Lina Im and Jeonghyeon Kim)

You could also try telling your story as a vertical scroll webcomic. In this format, readers can be forced to view a single comic panel at a time – giving some control of information back to the creator.

So, research on print and digital formats that’s best for your story. The right story told well in the right format is sure to give readers the good kind of Stockholm’s syndrome 😊.

There is Strength is Subtlety

Let’s be honest. No number of unreadable words thrown across a comic panel could replace hearing the scream of a victim as a monster crunches down on their skull swelled by the incorporation of ominous music. Even the most talented of artists struggle to replicate simple cinematic experiences. Reading a comic book is not the same as a trip to the theatre, so why do comic creators try to replicate the same kind of horror? And when comic creators aren’t trying to replicate the same kind of horror as cinema, they try to overcompensate. Till today, I don’t understand why I was subjected to reading pages and pages of an old lady’s corpse being tossed in a washing machine from a horror anthology I read recently.

(from Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett)

And what are some of those subtle ways to instill fear?

Uncanny Valley

You can create unsettling imagery with your understanding of the uncanny valley.

(from Shingeki no Kyojin by Hajime Isayama)

Phobias

Experiment with real life phobias… bugs (although overused), mushrooms growing on people, darkness, drowning, etc. For example, I have the very real phobia of grouped holes called Trypophobia. If you create a monster that puts those weird patterns on people’s bodies, you’ll definitely scare and creep me out way more than intestines hanging over a flagpole. 

(from Basketful of Heads by Joe Hill and Leomacs)

Constant Feeling of Dread

Some critics say there is nothing scary about a slow-moving threat. They want the threat dangerous and fast, but I think there is more than one way to skin a man. In The Walking Dead, the zombies are slow but they are numerous and ever-present. If you’re in the toilet, they could be the ones knocking at the door and not Mr. Can’t-Hold-It-In-Anymore. You could jump into a pool and they could be the one’s that’ll catch you midair. Because of this, we the audience are never relaxed. We are always tensed because no place is safe. 

(from Gideon Falls by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino)

Your story doesn’t have to feature zombies, but why not create an inescapable threat that’s ever-present to get your audience tensed for many pages. Comics shine with stories like this.

In Conclusion

These aren’t all the tools available to you for introducing fear into your comic projects, rather, a scratch of the surface; one I hope can build up your confidence in your capacity to infuse different emotions into your comic projects – including FEAR.

Join me next time as we delve deeper into the intricacies of storytelling in horror comics. See you soon, but in the meantime… have fun making comics.

Enjoy horror comics? Why not try:

  1. Gideon Falls
  2. The Walking Dead
  3. Basketful of Heads
  4. Something is Killing the Children
  5. Hellstar Remina

Literary Agents for Illustrators

To seek rep, or not to seek rep? For illustrators, this is a daunting question. In publishing, we talk a lot about the benefits of agents for writers. Agents have helped writers build their careers throughout modern publishing history. Illustrators, meanwhile, have always connected directly with art directors and editors. As publishing markets grow, however, more artists are seeking out literary agents, and more agents are opening submissions to illustrators. Even if you don’t have an agent now, it’s possible that seeking representation might be the right move for your career.

What is an Art Agent?

In the abstract, art agents help artists sell their work. There are as many types of art agent as there are types of artists. Some agents, also called “art representatives,” connect illustrators with companies looking to buy original art. Potential buyers can range from greeting card companies, to magazines, to package designers. Fine art reps represent artists to galleries and private collectors.

This article will be focusing on literary agents. Literary agents mainly work in the publishing industry, connecting illustrators with publishers. They may help illustrators get work illustrating books (novel covers, children’s books, graphic novels), or they may help illustrators pitch their own book ideas to publishers.

What Are the Benefits of Having an Agent?

An agent should make your work as an illustrator easier. There are numerous benefits to having a literary agent, but I think the following points are key.

They connect you with publishers
Many larger publishers are “closed to unsolicited submissions,” which means you cannot pitch a book to them unless you are invited or have a professional connection. Literary agents serve as that professional connection. They cultivate relationships with editors and can get your book proposal in front of a wider pool of acquiring editors than you could on your own.

They help you get the best deal for your work
Agents will help you sell your work competitively, so that you get the most money possible and also preserve your creative ownership of the work.

They help you negotiate contracts
Publishing contracts can be long and daunting, and are rarely written with the author’s best interests at heart. It’s not just money that a contract determines; when you sell work, you’re selling an entire package of usage rights to the publisher, telling them in what formats they can publish your work, in which countries and languages, and for how long. If the author is new to reading and negotiating contracts, it can be hard to know what you can and should ask for. A good agent knows the ins and outs of contract negotiation and will make sure that you’re happy with the terms.

They help you maintain a professional relationship with the client
When the client is being difficult, it can be hard to fight back and also keep a professional relationship. When communication breaks down, the agent steps in to run interference. They play the mama bear so you don’t have to.

They can offer guidance for the length of your career
Some agents will represent an author for the sale of only one project, but it’s much more common that agents sign authors with the intent of representing them for their entire careers. An agent will talk with you about your projects, connect you with editors who understand your vision, and help you cultivate a sustainable career.

Which Literary Agent is Right for Me?

There are hundreds of literary agents to choose from, and every illustrator should do thorough research when putting a submission list together. Here are two points to consider:

Look for an agent who represents the types of work you want to publish
Consider who the agent represents. One tactic is to research illustrators doing the work you want to do and see who represents them. Many illustrators include their representation on their websites.

Look for an agent with a solid sales track record
If you want to make graphic novels, look for agents who have sold graphic novels. Publishers Marketplace is a great, but pricey source for researching an agent’s sales record. You can also sometimes find this info through Publisher’s Weekly’s rights reports.

Other considerations are personal to the illustrator. You will need to think hard about what you want your relationship to be. You can also discuss these things when an agent offers representation. For now, researching agent listings and talking to other illustrators about their representation is a great first step.


Flights of Foundry, May 16-17, 2020

Flight of Foundry

Dream Foundry is thrilled to announce Flights of Foundry, a virtual convention for speculative creators and their fans. Registration is open and the convention will take place May 16-17. Our guests of honor are:

Comics: Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu
Editor: Liz Gorinsky
Fiction: Ken Liu
Games: Andrea Phillips
Illustration: Grace Fong
Translation: Alex Shvartsman and Rachel S. Cordasco

In addition to panels and information sessions, our programming will include workshops, a dealer's room, consuite (yes, a virtual consuite!), and more.

There is no cost to register, though donations to defray costs and support Dream Foundry's other programming are welcomed. Dream Foundry is a registered 501(c)3 dedicated to supporting creators working in the speculative arts as they begin their careers.

To register, go to: https://flights-of-foundry.org/registration/
For more information about the convention: https://flights-of-foundry.org/
You can learn more about Dream Foundry or check out our other programs by visiting our website: https://dreamfoundry.org/


Learning at Home

While we’re at home and practicing social distancing, many of us are looking to learn something new or hone our skills. There are a lot of classes being offered online right now. Here are a few that are both free and potentially of interest to those of us in the speculative arts.

Let’s start with the courses that happen at a specific time:

Next up are a slew of classes that you can check out anytime:

If you’re willing to sign up for skillshare.com, you can get two weeks for free. And if you do so, you might be interested in these course offerings:

Have you found a really neat class that you’d like to share with our readers? Or perhaps you’re teaching one? Be sure to tell us about it on our forums!


The Gatherer by Rachel Quinlan

Economics of Cons Roundtable

Dream Foundry Board President Jessica Eanes sat down over email with a panel of industry professionals recently to discuss cons and the details of how to make them work for you. You can find out more about each of our panelists in their author box at the bottom.

How do you know when you're far enough along in your career that it's worth it to go to cons?

Rachel Quinlan (artist): I'd say the basic requirements to start tabling at conventions is to have a small body of work and some money to invest in stock and a display. You can start at smaller local conventions to get your feet wet and slowly add new products and improve your convention set-up with each new event. And figure out some goals for the convention. I don't look at conventions as strictly sales events. It's also a way to network with other professionals in the industry, as well as being active in the community. I might have a convention where sales aren't great, but I get several original painting commissions later in the year, as a result of having tabled there.

Mike R. Underwood (author): For me, the first question when thinking about whether to attend a con is "what do I want to get out of the convention?" To me, that answer  is more telling than something dependent on your career stage. If you're not ready to submit fiction yet but you're writing and looking for more tools and perspectives on craft and business, cons might be worthwhile if you can find some that have good, informative programming. If you're submitting fiction and looking to connect with other writers at your career stage, attending a convention that has a workshopping element may be a good fit both for the specific feedback and for the chance to find critique partners for projects after the con.

Rachel: Mike makes a great point about the workshops. I go to a five-day convention in October that is specifically for illustrators (Illuxcon). In addition to having two nights where I table and meet collectors, I also get to take workshops run by some of the top illustrators in the field. It's an incredible experience.

Mark Stegbauer (comic artist): I don’t think there is a perfect time to start. You just go when you want to start. I started even before I had my first gig professionally. I went out to show my art and start establishing myself. I think it all depends on what you are offering. There is a market for pretty much anything out there. So if you feel like you’re ready and that it is worthwhile financially, then by all means go for it. I would recommend starting at a smaller local show. They are usually better for keeping finances down, and lots of the time if you tell them you are local to the show, they might give you a better rate for a table.

Rachel: I think it can also be worthwhile to attend some of the larger conventions before tabling, so you have a better idea of what everyone else is bringing in terms of stock and display.

Mike: If I'm selling at the con, I think about what I know about the con in terms of which sub-genres are likely to be popular, who the guests are, how big the con is, and how much of an insider SF/F prose space it is. Based on that, I adjust which books I'm bringing, how I'm preparing to pitch each book, and what my sales expectations are. I'm going to bring different books to a medium-size fan con like BaltiCon than I am to a big consumer show like Emerald City Comic Con.

The Wise One by Rachel Quinlan
The Wise One by Rachel Quinlan

What makes a con a good con for you?

Rachel: Nothing beats good organization, communication, and a short trip between the car and my artist table.

Mike: At this stage in my career, I attend some cons because of some combination of the following factors: 1) I want to keep up with friends in the industry, 2) I want to increase my visibility in the fan communities involved, 3) I want to sell books to this audience. I almost always want a con to fulfill two or more of these agendas to be worth my time and money. I revisit some conventions year after year (like ConFusion) because they're affordable, they let me maintain a presence in the Michigan fandom world (#2), and I get to see people I like (#1).

Mark: Any time I can make expenses back, it’s a good show. But also connecting with new fans, and meeting new fellow professionals makes a con a good one. It’s not always about coming out financially ahead.

Rachel: Mark and Mike are both right about making connections with fans and peers.  That’s the main reason I table at events.

What kind of preparation and planning do you do for cons?

Rachel: For me, it usually involves ordering prints of new paintings and taking an inventory of my current stock.

Mike: If I'm on programming, I make sure that I've done my research and/or preparation for the panels, especially if I'm moderating anything. Otherwise, I'll check to see who is attending in case there are people I want to schedule meetings/social time with and/or try to meet if I haven't done so yet. If the con is new to me, I do research on the types of programming it has, how affordable it is, and what the con's general vibe is—more professional, more fannish, small and intimate, large but still good for quality time, and so on.

Mark: I’ll usually look into what kind of show it is, if it’s more of a comic book show, or more of an anime show. If it’s something like a library show, I tend to bring more copies of my all-ages projects. I’ll also check inventory of my books and prints and see if I need to order more. I’ll also make sure my price list is accurate for what I’m selling.

Rachel: Mark's strategy of tailoring his stock for the type of event is super smart and I'll be thinking about that more for future events.

How do you evaluate whether a con was a success for you?

Rachel: Obviously, if sales are good, that's always a plus. If the community really seems interested and receives my art well, that gives me some validation that I don't receive otherwise. And it's great when I get to network with other creators. That can eventually lead to jobs and other interesting opportunities.

Mike: That depends on what I wanted from the con. Often a con can be a success just because I had a good time doing or trying to do what I wanted at the con—socializing, selling books, programming, etc.

Mark: Success is different for everyone. For some people it’s about doing better than their last show. For some it’s making more connections. For me, it’s about connecting with fans and making sure all my expenses are paid for.

The Gatherer by Rachel Quinlan
The Gatherer by Rachel Quinlan

What's the most important thing you've learned, or the best tip you have, for ensuring you have a successful con?

Rachel: Just being friendly and attentive goes a long way.

Mike: I've learned to not build up hyper-specific expectations about the precise things that I want to have happen at the con, especially if they're not under my control. It's good to go in with a sense of what you want from the experience but it's also good to be ready to take opportunities as they emerge and to find a way to flow with things when things go unexpectedly.

Mark: I would say don’t set your expectations so high that you are disappointed when you don’t meet them. Also remember to not take rejection of a sale personally. What you do won’t always appeal to everyone, so always keep that in mind.

Rachel: Managing expectations is great advice for a creative career in general.

What's the weirdest or most surprising thing you've had happen at a con?  

Rachel: I once had a con-goer explain to me how a particular artist hero of mine created all of his work in oils, when in reality, he was known for using inks and watercolors almost exclusively.

Mike: The weirdest thing is quite possibly singing the Angry Robot theme song to the assembled populace of the opening ceremonies at Norwescon in 2017 when Angry Robot was the Featured Publisher. I'd listened to the theme song (cowritten by John Anealio and Matt Forbeck) a zillion times while prepping for my in-person interview to get the job I would go on to do for AR for five-and-a-half years, and then it never came up in the intervening time until that opening ceremony discussion, where I surprised not only the audience but also Managing Director Marc Gascoigne (aka my boss at the time) by being able to recall and perform the chorus of the song on command.

Other weird and surprising memories are almost certainly drawn from the various conventions I attended while running a publisher booth for Angry Robot and managing an unruly squadron of authors while we were all punchy and exhausted on the Saturdays and Sundays at the end of any given convention weekend.

Mark: I think probably having Jack Kirby, the king of comics, sit down next to me at an after-con party and just start chatting with all of us at the table. Awesome experience.


What have your experiences been as an industry professional (or newbie) at cons? Do you have advice for other readers, or questions to ask? Let us know and talk with others on our forum!