Sean M Robinson
Making Non-Fiction Comics That Work
Updated: Mar 4, 2019
In the fall of 2017 I fielded a few phone calls from David White, the founder of Menlo Coaching, an organization that coaches prospective MBA students on getting into the school of their choice. The phone calls were fun. David's a great conversationalist, and, as you might expect from the foremost expert in the world on MBA admissions, he has a dizzying variety of interesting anecdotes and client stories about the MBA admissions process.
But the main thrust of the phone calls was this—how best to go about putting together a non-fiction comic that would serve as a supplementary training manual for his clients, a way for them to receive a large and complex load of information distilled into a fun and personable format.
This is something that comics do exceptionally well. The best non-fiction comics can give you the feeling of being in the presence of a fantastic conversationalist, who leads you from one topic to another with the expertise of an experienced dinner host or radio interviewer, covering a dizzying array of information, all made understandable through generous use of metaphor, anecdote, and other visual cues that can amplify or even create an ongoing narrative.
After a few more emails, we arrived at our plan for our book, which we estimated at 50 to 60 pages in length. We'd discuss our general approach to the script, I'd give feedback and assist in shaping the early stages, and we'd hopefully develop a finished script by February 2018, leaving me a few weeks for rough layouts of all the pages, more feedback from David, and two months to draw and paint the actual finished artwork for the book.
We were in agreement that a hand-painted approach, with engaging characters and individual anecdotes, would go far to distinguish the book from the masses of anonymous visual products out there, doing a complete 180-degree shift from the digital-color candy clip-art, talking-head approach of typical advertising art. In short, we would hopefully be creating a beautiful, unique object, that would, in a succinct and personable manner, convey a dense array of facts, serving as an orientation of sorts for their new and prospective clients. An orientation, and the beginning of a conversation, all under one cover.
Turning a loose list of goals into an enjoyable end product can be complicated. We were aided by David's confident ideas in regard to his goals for the book and his excellent writing, as well as the hard-earned sweat equity of the hundreds of comics pages I've drawn over the last decade. Here's a rough indication of how we proceeded:
1) Stating goals/objectives and gathering anecdotes + client stories that support those goals
2) Developing a narrator or central character (or both!) to carry the reader through the book
3) Writing a first, loose version of a script
4) Feedback from me on the script, including margin notes and doodles
5) Revising the script to make it tighter, funnier, and further developing the visual metaphors
6) Collecting reference materials related to characters or settings
7) Creating a rough layout of the entire book
8) Receiving notes on the rough layout
9) Incorporating those changes into the roughs, as well as adding any new sequences
10) Penciling the entire book and sending for feedback and/or final approval
11) Producing the finished artwork
12) Lettering the book digitally, into existing drawn balloons
13) Pre-press and working with the printer
Turning Goals and Objectives Into An Actual Story (or at least, something that SEEMS like a story!)
Because the project was focused on getting information across, rather than telling a particular narrative, we had some shaping to do at the start of the work. I encouraged David to start the script-generating process by making a list of all of his goals, coming up with some kind of organizational grouping if one occurred to him, and making a list of all of his many interesting client anecdotes that he's been saving over the years; and see if any of them happened to align with or even buttress the goals presented by the other categories.
After some back and forth, David shared a document with me that gathered together all of this information, along with the following brief summation:
I see four major parts to the story:
- The admissions office
- The application process as experienced by the applicant
- The experience of being enrolled in the MBA as a student. It's possible that we revisit this in a second book later, but we need to tell something about the MBA experience just to explain what the student should be doing in the application process. This is probably the shortest section.
- A section contrasting different programs with each other. This will not be exhaustive, but will show scenes from four or five programs to make the point that they are very different.
What you have here is really excellent. I'd consider it a detailed point-for-point outline for a script. That is, what beats do we have to hit, and what points are there to make, and what nuances need to be present while making those points?
The next steps [...]
1. make sure you've got everything you want to include
2. see if there are ways to shuffle it to make the storytelling more efficient or clear
3. and then put some "flesh on the bones" and generate an actual, honest-to-gosh script.
Before we get there, though, I had a few ideas about narration. Since this [book is] primarily didactic/instructive, and there's a fair amount of sections that are compressed, it makes sense to me to have an explicit narrator, [who] leads us from scene to scene. Now, this could very well be a disembodied narrator, but making it a narrator who literally introduces him or herself allows us an additional layer of visual flexibility.
For instance, our narrator could be walking the grounds of one of the schools, the buildings towering above us. The narrator could literally (visually) introduce us to a new character who's about to tell us her personal story. Or other times the narrator could solely be a disembodied voice in a box. But we would carry with us the images of the narrator when reading that narration. You might consider the narrator to be you. It might LITERALLY be you. "Hi, I'm David White."
With the formatting of the script, I tried to be pragmatic.
Sean (via email): Use a name (or abbreviation) for a character name, followed by a colon, followed by what they say. New paragraph and italics for any description or direction to me that won't literally appear in the finished comic.
Shelby: It was intimidating. David was right. The buildings just... looming over me. But when it was time, I just picked up my bags and followed my feet.
We see Shelby walk down the hallway, and smile at the interviewer. The door closes behind them.
David: (lit like a horror movie) And Shelby was never seen again.
Our general approach agreed upon, we each began some further refinement of our respective areas. David and his colleague Alice developed a full script, and I began sketching the agreed-upon characters, based on David's detailed descriptions. Our narrators would be David and Alice themselves, and the book would follow two particular students—Chad and Diane— through the process of applying to schools and being accepted. We also discussed the relative cartooniness of the figures, the type of stylization and caricature to use, and the types to avoid.
Because the book was in color, I made my preliminary sketches in color as well, hoping that I could work out the details of the rendering techniques etc in the planning stage as well. Below is the first test sheet for both Chad and Diane. The Chads are all pretty rough and varied, with only one of them resembling the finished product, but the right-most Diane seemed spot-on (after removal of the scarf and further discussion of the sartorial choices of the typical harried MBA applicant, as per David's direction).
Simultaneously, the script itself went through a few distinct drafts, with the collaboration easy thanks to the online document-share format we worked with (Papyrs.com allows you to set up a team or company Intranet that functions very smoothly and has a lot of versatility in regards to content sharing. For other projects I've personally used Google Sheets or Google Docs for similar functions). So, with each contributor's notes or additions in a different color text, we were able to easily distinguish the different stages of revision, continuing to pick at the script until I actually started the layouts.
Layout and Notes
Once our script was mostly complete, it was time to actually see what we'd been making! I holed up in my studio with a lap board and a pair of headphones and proceeded to knock out rough layouts of the entire book, at half the size that the finished artwork would be. I worked on typing paper folded in half, to keep myself from getting too precious about the drawing, focusing solely on the mechanics of the storytelling. How many panels fit on this page, and what goes in them? What's the most efficient way to present this sequence? Does everything read in the correct order, and have the correct emphasis? What can be trimmed or pruned, and what should be expanded?
Additionally, there were several visual sequences or visual metaphors, and several transitions, that had been left to the layout stage, with only a bare indication in the script of what was to occupy the space. These parts were worked over more than the rest of the book. (Even if you're both the writer AND the cartoonist on a comic, I find that these types of things are virtually impossible to work out without some kind of drawing involved, unless you're making very bland comics. The mechanics of the page just have so much to say about the content that the meaning of a particular sequence isn't really ever clear until you actually SEE it on the page. See how the panels interact with each other, where the balloons lead the eye, see the expressions of the characters and how they color the dialogue.)
So why have a layout stage in the first place?
From the cartoonist's perspective, it's a matter of efficiency and degree of difficulty. Creating a layout that actually communicates the intended message in a streamlined way is a difficult and complex task. And having to accomplish all that, while simultaneously drawing completed, finished figures with any degree of accuracy of anatomy and expression is near-impossible excepting the most straightforward of layouts.
So you "cheat". Divide up the tasks. Put the actual drawing off for another time, and focus solely on the mechanics of the page, and the barest of facts about the figures and locations: where they are in relation to the viewer, at what size/vantage point, and the general expression and posture of their bodies.
Which is another advantage of working with roughs like this. You can focus your energy on the attitude and postures of the characters. Sometimes these roughs have drawings that work so well, they end up capturing something vital about the moment they depict, and that energy even gets communicated to the final stage of the artwork.
This is also the stage that, unfortunately, really just takes loads of actual experience in layout and making comics to gain any real competence. Although there are a few books on the topic that can be helpful to cartoonists looking to improve their storytelling skills. For instance, I'd recommend any cartoonists to read Scott McCloud's Making Comics, which has several chapters of interesting discussion of layout and storytelling. And although they won't tell you about page mechanics, reading film books or articles that go into depth about multi-camera sitcom setups can give you a ton of insight into visual transitions and how they relate to conversation and storytelling. Also of note, and the most helpful book I've ever read remotely related to cartooning—anthropologist Desmond Morris' book Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior, currently available used on Amazon for $3.00 or so. The following tier of artwork has quite a few Manwatching-inspired tidbits embedded in the attitudes of the figures.
From the client's perspective, there are additional advantages to an extended layout stage. By putting so much emphasis on the roughs and revising at that stage, you make the most difficult stage of the work also the most efficient, focusing all revision where it's least costly in terms of labor. Since a finished page might take ten or twelve hours to complete, revising finished color artwork involves a huge amount of effort. But revising a few scribbles on the back of some scrap paper is comparatively a piece of cake.
Gathering References, and Beginning Pencils
When most of the kinks had been worked out of the layouts, I started into the task of actually rendering the finished pages in pencil. I planned on painting the originals directly on the same paper that I was penciling and inking on, and so, given the demands of the script for several scenes with images with great detail, many figures etc, I needed to select my paper carefully.
Papers that are normally the most receptive to watercolor and other transparent media are usually too rough for lots of the typical ink implements like most nibs, which tend to catch and spray ink on rougher surfaces. Conversely, papers that are BEST with ink are usually fairly horrid with color. The less porous a surface is, the more the pigment in transparent media seems to just sit lifelessly on the surface, while the water/liquid carrier just buckles and distorts the paper. After some tests at a local art supply store I finally settled on 140 lb Arches hot press paper. The hot press finish provided a much smoother surface to work on but the weight and Arches sizing process meant there would be minimal buckling or color change upon drying.
Once I had the materials in hand I went to town.
At this stage I was aided by San Diego cartoonist and all-around swell guy Slade Kaufman, who ruled up all of the page layouts as I went, and erased pencil from stacks of inked paper. After that he went through and populated many of the images of crowds, as well as touching up some of the other pencil figures. He also was the primary person responsible for the most populated image in the book, 45 or so floating heads of various sizes, representing the social network of one of the characters. Had this been a longer book, with an even tighter timeline, it's possible I would have put together a larger team with additional responsibilities, but as it was, a page a day of full-color artwork was manageable for me with Slade's few hours of assistance a week.
As satisfying as it actually is to paint a finished image, it's often at the pencil stage that you get drawings with the most verve. Things are still open, possibilities not yet closed-off, with suggestions of the power of the finished image but lots of things still left to possibility. Sometimes, with really exciting drawings, it can even be a challenge to hang on to this excitement until the finish.
Approval, Color and Other "Details"
As you might expect from a book intended as an instructional and promotional item, there was still a certain amount of finessing to be done even at the pencil stages. Most of these points centered around the communication of certain critical story points, or the appearances of characters in certain panels. Some types of posture exaggeration that I sometimes default to — slouched shoulders or hung head for a disappointed or relaxing character — seemed too casual for the environments and situations the characters were in. And some pages needed some reworking and additional detail to ensure that some ideas came across even to someone only glancing at the art.
Once all of the pencils had been approved, I started in on the actual painting, which would be its own little article if I let it. I tried not to be dogmatic about the work, and I ended up using a wide variety of color processes, the only restriction I had was making sure I was using mostly-transparent processes to preserve the line drawing beneath. All told, I used Windsor + Newton transparent dyes, watercolors, watercolor pencils, colored pencils, black ink, colored tissue paper, sponges, razor blades, and on a few pages, some minimal digitally-applied texture overlays. I mainly painted with an oversized "round" watercolor brush, which retained a fine point for detail but which was capable of large slashing strokes and easy application of large washes, with its deep reservoir. The transparent dyes and watercolor made up the bulk of the work, but the other techniques and tools were especially useful to apply some quick texture where it was needed.
Meanwhile, there were still a few details to discuss, including the lettering.
We decided early on that digital lettering, along with hand-drawn balloons, would be the way to go for this project, given the speed of the turn-around time. The hand-lettered balloons would keep the look hand-drawn, but we'd have the added flexibility of being able to revise the text to our heart's content until we'd actually delivered the book to the printer.
We had several Comicraft and Blambot fonts as contenders for the finished text, but were able to put the final decision off for quite a while, as I didn't actually letter the book until all of the pages were complete, flattened and adjusted, and loaded into Indesign. Traditional comic lettering employs all caps and use mixtures of italics and bold for emphasis, as that's extremely readable even at small sizes. But some clients are reluctant to go with this approach, and would prefer a mixture of caps and lower case letters, even at the expense of readability.
Besides readability and tone, there's the general consideration of selecting a font and style that doesn't dominate the line art. Personally, I think fonts at the median size should have about the same thickness as a medium-thickness contour line in the artwork. That is, a particularly thick line is thicker than the font, but the finer lines of the line drawing are finer.
In this case, as you can see from the samples of the finished artwork, David preferred the traditional comic look. It certainly didn't hurt that one of the non-fiction comics we had discussed together, Logicomix, uses mostly traditional comics lettering styles (along with some variation. See the narration below).
This is one of the areas where we actually had some substantial revisions post-lettering, as David pointed out that several of the signs/banners/other "in-story" elements that I had rendered with digital lettering actually looked substantially better with hand-lettering instead. So I went back through and adjusted these sections, re-lettering the signs on overlays that were digitally inserted into the artwork.
Put a Cover on It
As we were working with the printer to finalize the printing and delivery schedule, I started on the cover. In general, when looking for a cover image, I'm concerned with finding something that intrigues a potential reader, teases the content or the tone, is legible at several sizes/distances (especially important now that online sales make up such a large percentage of book purchases), and, importantly, compositionally supports the title.
The title of this particular book? Admitted: Diane and Chad's Excellent (MBA) Adventure! Once we had out striking title, it was a short path to the cover image.
A portion of our email exchange, which included the below rough.
Sean: I thought it would be a nice idea if [the cover image] isn't directly from the book, but suggests several images and ideas that are already there and goes with the title pretty well. [Does] this general idea work for you, or is it to Harvard-centric? Any other images from the book that you think would make a good covers?
David: For the front cover, I do like this one, since it's both MBA-related but a bit weird in a way that will provoke curiosity.
Sean: The advantage that the Eye of Sauron Baker Library has over all the others is, it'll be dramatic and readable at lots of different sizes. I could really dig in to the image in color--fog shrouding the landscape, burning sky, etc... having them in front of the map might seem like too tight an echo of an actual page of the book-- pg 3...
David: Good point that the image will be readable at a lot of sizes. Neither of the others has that advantage, and any of my other ideas would have included a bunch of people whose faces would not be legible in small size. (My other idea was to show the applicants doing tug of war against the Dean and the admissions officers.)
Sean: The tug-of-war idea is really good, but I think it suffers from the same problem as the other ones. Additionally, it would be more of a horizontally formatted image rather than the vertical format we need.
The subject and layout agreed-upon, I penciled the finished image rather quickly, on two separate pieces of art board, so I could easily manipulate the layers individually after they'd been painted.
After the pencils had been approved, I painted the image, in three layers this time, with the sky background on its own art board, and then followed that up with some cover layout in Indesign.
And it was a good thing I kept the painted layers separated! The sky seemed too ominous and foreboding for several of our early readers, so right before sending it off to the printer, I swapped it out for a less scary sky filled with fluffy white, optimistic clouds (that, you know, framed the Eye of Sauron in a lovely way).
Summation and Goodbye
Putting together a non-fiction comic from scratch can be a difficult or frustrating process, especially if the right pieces aren't in place to ensure a smoothly-divided workflow. And making a comic without that pre-planning and division of labor can be a bit like deciding you'd like to film a commercial by taking your iPhone to a local park on your lunch break. But a little knowledge can go a long way.
It's difficult, sure. It's time-consuming. It takes many many specialized skills, and lots of experience, but making a non-fiction comic that's both entertaining and educational is not only possible—it can be a lot of fun too.
And really, an informational product that's actually fun to produce? It's hard to beat that!