7 tips for making good Pulp! comics

August 1, 2012 in Tutorial

Issue 3’s cycle is coming to a close, and in a couple of weeks its release shall be upon us. Already, contributors are thinking about what they’ll be doing for issue 4. Pretty soon we’ll have eager new faces showing up with fresh ideas, and old hands turning to new projects.
We’ll also have the same common trip-ups from old and new alike when it comes to working in the quite specific medium that is a short, anthologised digital comic. That’s right, folks, it’s time for another vaguely patronising tip list! Last time we looked at some specifics about the process of writing, this time around we’ll go through some more general things you want to keep in mind whether you’re a writer, artist or both. These are the things we look at when assessing how effective a finished comics is; if you achieve all of the below with your final submission you’ll likely be well ahead of the curve and guaranteed a slot.

1. Pack a punch. Every story should have a quirk, a twist, a joke, a message, an idea at its core. This is what separates an effective work of fiction from a running commentary on a child playing with action figures. Don’t just walk us through a set of events – we have no interest in fictional history or anecdotes. You’re only writing a short story, so you’ve little time to develop too much: find one real, solid hook and build short story around it. This is much, much more important than the setting or characters or whatever else too many amateur writers spend too much time worrying about. This is not a novel. Nobody cares about your characters. If you aren’t packing a punch, add one; if you can’t, toss the premise and start anew.
Oh, and if you’re attempting an ongoing series you’ll have to pull this off every single episode. You can’t stretch one good idea across multiple stories; the format demands satisfaction with each entry. If you’ve decided to try for a series because hey, this idea is so good it could service 50 stories instead of one, then no. Stop. Write us a cool one shot about it and then go make a webcomic.

2. Make it readable. This applies to absolutely every part of the process: writing, pencils, colouring, lettering. Readability is always your number one priority. Plots should be understandable, events should be clearly depicted. The actions taking place in a panel should not have to be guessed at. The most important thing in a panel should be the most obvious thing in a panel. Lettering should be large, clear and have plenty of space to occupy. Your first question when writing a sequence or drawing a page isn’t is this cool or dramatic or funny, it’s how readable is this? Anything else gets built on top of that.

3. Be original. Things we haven’t seen before are more appealing than things we have. If you’re drawing a suit of armour, try looking around for some reference material that isn’t from the same culture and time period that’s been so heavily mined already. If you’re writing about a muddy medieval town, or doing a space story that could be set in the Star Trek universe, ask yourself if you can place it somewhere more invigorating. There’s an almost ridiculous wealth of information and imagery on the internet on absolutely anything; you have plenty to be inspired by. In addition to setting or visual design, apply the same train of thought to your plot or characters: it’s impossible to be absolutely original, but take every opportunity to spice it up.
There happen to be a certain themes and ideas that are even more common in Premier Pulp! circles – whether they’ve appeared in the final magazine, or have featured in submissions or pitches – than they are in general. Including these isn’t a death sentence. Making them your sole focus or appeal probably is. You should probably try and avoid the following:

  • Superheroes. Rest assured that every single person who makes comics (and plenty besides) has their own idea for a superhero story. There are many, many of these already floating around in various levels of production in the Pulposphere. We’re not anti-superhero, but keep in mind you’re wading into heavily populated territory.
    • Pro-tip: If your character is a spunky, geeky teenage girl – and there’s a decent chance that they are – then you’re competing with Lovely Ladybug, and we fucking love Lovely Ladybug. Heads up.
  • Rain-slick, cigarette-lit detectives with hats and coats. You know, like the ones from those magazines – the term escapes me. I’m not sure why we get so many of these. See superheroes above as far as these not being discouraged so much as ultra-competitive goes.
    • Pro-tip: If your detective is an orange, it’s okay. We fucking love oranges that are also detectives.
  • Serial killers. Serial killers with gimmicks. Serial killers who are actually people you wouldn’t expect to be serial killers. This is a sub-genre of the “there’s this evil person, and we watch them do some evil stuff for a while and then it ends” genre, alongside the also popular “a child is totally evil, you guys” show-and-tell sequence. This probably isn’t as interesting as you think it is. By which I mean, if you think this is interesting, you are wrong.
  • Bounty hunters. Bounty hunters in space. There’s nothing technically wrong with them, but there’s probably another lone wolf, frontier occupation you think of. Additionally, “this one guy has a bounty on another guy” is the most tired premise ever to try and squeeze a drop of conflict out of.

4. Avoid cliché. In the same spirit as above, watch the blocks you use to build your narrative with. Make sure your resolutions or plot points won’t elicit a groan from our readers – keep in mind we’re an obscure online comics anthology magazine and that anybody reading it is probably pretty savvy to this sort of thing. They’ve read and watched as much as you have, and you won’t get away with offering them something they’ve already chugged down too many times. “But wait!” I resentfully imagine you saying. “I know I’m using a cliché, so that makes it clever!” No. Bad. You are a bad person. Knowing that you’re fucking something up does not make it any better, it makes it even worse. Likewise, the obvious subversions of any given cliché are all themselves cliché at this point, often even more than the original. You are too late for that. We have had a whole generation of cartoons and films based on meta-humour.

5. Don’t ignore your dialogue. Dialogue regularly gets the short end of the stick when it comes to amateur comics – it’s just there to fill in the bubbles and move the plot along. Often it reads as if it may well have been the same place-holder line since the very first draft; or perhaps even worse, as if it could have been copied and pasted from an internet post (to reiterate a point I made last time, you probably need 10% as much swearing as you have, or none). But your dialogue should be a feature unto itself and each sentence deserves your full attention. It should be characterful, witty, interesting, beautiful, funny. It should make your characters sound like people, not like sad homunculi constructed for the sake of plot progression. It should sound spoken, not written – not to absurd lengths, you don’t need characters constantly misspeaking or discourse markers sprinkled through every sentence for the sake of realism. But if you can’t imagine a character in a movie speaking each line of your dialogue, it may well be insufficiently speech-like.

6. Write a script. Particularly if you think you don’t have to, lone creators. It is impossible to be a solo artist – if you’re making a comic all by yourself, you’re simply taking on the role of writer and artist. You’re going to have to be great at both. Writing out a full script, regardless of how well you think you know what you want to draw is good for two reasons. Firstly, it lets us know what you’re doing and allows for edits and feedback to an extent that is difficult when the first we see of a project is the drawn page, or a rough paragraph-long outline. Secondly, figuring out a direction for a comic, devising how you’re going to draw it, constructing the specifics of the plot, and working out every action and line of dialogue panel-by-panel are all very different processes and the chances you are some kind of superhuman who can do them all at once are zero. Even when you’re writing and drawing your own comic, you’ll do both of those things better if you tackle them – to an extent – one at a time. Write out a full script before you start drawing pages. If you don’t believe me, listen to Joe Kubert talk about writing and drawing a comic. Are you going to argue with Joe Kubert?

7. Make something new. So you’ve heard about Premier Pulp!, it seems like a pretty swell gig and hey, you’ve got this story you wrote for your creative writing class, or those notes for that graphic novel you’re totally going to write some day. Why, that’s perfect material for reworking into a Pulp! comic! I mean, now that you’ve read all the way through this article, you see that it doesn’t quite fit all of the recommendations above but, hey, it’s probably fine, right?
I’ve been leading up to the obvious rhetorical ‘no’ for a while here so yeah, no. It’s sad, but nope. You probably can’t shoe-horn your epic fantasy saga into a successful single story that you and us will be happy with. You probably can’t turn something that was intended to be long into something that’s effectively short. You probably can’t turn something written for another medium into an ideal comic. Forget recycling; work on something new. There are often seeds you can reuse in work long after they germinate – a neat piece of technology, a compelling character archetype – but whenever you’re forcing whole plots or bucket-loads of lore in, you’re almost always worse off.
In the most extreme cases, it’s always obvious to us when a creator has worked on their setting or story bit by bit for years, slowly weighing it down with more and more rigid detail, before deciding to bend it into something for the Pulp! format (or not, even). Shed your old ideas and build something new and fresh with the tips listed here in mind.