Writers and Artists: The Art of Collaboration in Comics

I am a writer. I write, amongst other things, comics. Once upon a time, I had aspirations of drawing comics as well as writing. But I got disabused of that notion when I realised that I could never draw well enough, or fast enough, to do justice to the stories I wanted to tell.

But Lyndon White can draw. Lyndon is an illustrator. He can draw well. Really well! And fast. I was fortunate enough that our paths crossed at a comic convention a year ago. And even more fortunate that that serendipitous encounter materialised into our collaboration on ‘Cosmic Fish’.

‘Cosmic Fish’ is the story of a tiny fish gasping for life in a puddle of water. When a little girl saves the fish and places it in a bowl, it starts to grow, and keeps on growing, and growing, and growing to cosmic, Earth shattering proportions. This became the project where we discovered our creative rhythm and crystallized our working relationship.

Cosmic Fish - poster6

Lyndon and I have worked on a number of projects now, with more planned for the future.   A question that we are often asked is how our collaboration works. Lyndon has his own thoughts on the matter, but here’s what I think.

I don’t feel like I ever write the comic. I would say that I transcribe the comic. I see the completed page in my mind’s eye – as if the comic already existed in some other cross-dimensional netherverse, and I was its first reader. My job is simply to find the right combination of words to describe what I see, with as much accuracy and clarity as possible. Committed to page, those words become the script and the words of the script in turn evoke visuals in Lyndon’s mind, which ultimately end up as images and panels on the page.

Page - Process - 02

Seems simple enough right? It can be … at times. But not always. When I get the first draft of a page (a lot sooner than I anticipate at times – Lyndon works mad fast), one of four things happen.

One, the image is exactly how I had seen it in my mind’s eye. Those times are the good times.

Other times, it turns out that Lyndon has gone in a somewhat different direction – whether inadvertently or not – from what I had intended. But if the panels on the page still work from a storytelling perspective, you put aside your personal preferences and allow the story to dictate the terms. In fact, often times this different direction opens up possibilities that I hadn’t originally envisaged. So we try to explore that direction further by asking ourselves how the narrative could be made clearer still and the emotional experience more potent for the reader.

The third thing that happens is that the panels are not at all like what I had expected. And they don’t work either! It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen occasionally. At those times, I climb atop my high horse and mumble to myself whilst convulsing violently: ‘If only Lyndon would draw the images exactly as I write them, it would be greatest comic ever made’.

And the final thing that happens is that Lyndon draws the panels exactly as I wrote them and they still don’t work. Those are the bad times. Those are the times when I start to question my self-worth as a writer – and as human being – and I cry myself to sleep hoping to never wake up.

Then at some point I wake up. I splash some cold water on my face and I try to formulate my thoughts on why the page doesn’t work.   I ask Lyndon for his thoughts, and together we try to work out why the words in the script worked but not the visuals on the page.

There was one page in particular in Cosmic Fish that posed such a challenge. Page 6. It was a bitch of a page. The first draft of the top row of this page was this:

If you’ve read Cosmic Fish, you’d know that this doesn’t work. It should have worked. It’s a beautiful image in of itself and what’s more, Lyndon drew it exactly as I had described it in the script. But it didn’t work.

After going through all the requisite stages of denial, isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, I mustered enough courage to give Lyndon my thoughts. My email began with:

I don’t think that these panels work the way I have written them (and consequently the way they have been drawn) …

I went on to give him my notes, and based on my notes Lyndon redrew the page.

It still didn’t work. Even less so this time. So, Lyndon and I talked some more. We discussed. We cerebrated. We theorised. Philosophised even. Several drafts later, we had this:

The son-of-a-bitch still didn’t work.

We had to start from scratch. We looked at all the different versions of this page that we had done so far and we thought: ‘What if we were to take elements that worked from each draft and combine them’. The result:

Woah! The experiment worked. We had gotten the framing and the perspective right from a storytelling point-of-view.

But we weren’t done yet. We still had to get the texture and colours right. Colours pose their own problems in a comic (or in life for that matter). Colours convey mood. They tell you what time of the day it is. What time of the year it is. What the weather is like.

So, we kept at it.

Fine-tuning.

Tweaking.

Optimising.

The draft count racked up. The covering email from Lyndon on one of the further drafts said this:

I think my body quivered when I saw the email subject title [Page 6]. I’ve made the changes. Have a look at it now at this stage and tell me what you think.

We were almost there. In fact, we could have stopped right here and it would have been good enough. But I think that one thing we both innately felt was that whilst we may be tired and wanna call it quits in this moment, we won’t remember being tired a year down the line. But the page, and consequently the story, will forever remain just ‘good enough’.

So we kept at it for several drafts more. We kept at it until we were both satisfied that the page was the best version of what it could be. And that final version … well that’s in the comic.

Lyndon had taken to calling this page the ‘the devil’s page’. I myself have described dealing with pages like this as ‘the bad times’.

But that’s not really true.

The truth is that those are the times that allow us to grow as storytellers. They force us to expand our understanding of what is possible in the comics medium and find new ways to tell a story. From a collaboration point-of-view, they become a shared experience where a writer and an illustrator, each with their different skill-set, have to pool together their resources and find a creative solution.

Pages and panels like this enabled Lyndon and I to discover the central principle of our partnership. It is true that we both have strong opinions about what we want to express with our art. But when it comes to working in a collaborative way, we put aside our individual preferences and we ask ourselves and each other this: ‘Does this better the clarity and precision with which the story is being told’. If not, then that is exactly what it is … an individual preference!

Illustrations by Lyndon White

Click here to buy a copy of Cosmic Fish (£2.50 including P&P)