Building a comic, panel by panel

I always like behind-the-scenes documentaries, so with the permission of artist Niki Smith, my collaborator on In Maps & Legends, I’m going to do a short how-to of the creation of the first four panels of our online comic.

Frankly, I’m amazed at how fast and how efficiently the comic came together. And the art is simply awesome. I take no credit — I just put down the words and some ideas for the pages. Starting with…

Step 1: The Script

I’ve never written a comic script before, so the format was pretty loose and non-standard. I’d had the idea for the comic for a while, and it actually started life as a novel that I’d never finished. So I did some tweaking, studied some comics scripts (thank you, Neil Gaiman, for Sandman!), and used an alternate version of my novel’s opening.

Here’s what I sent to Niki:

Panel 1: Close-up of X-Acto knife pointed at wall (can’t see details of wall yet, just vague smudges), light glinting off tip, though the room is full of shadows from the little lamp on the floor next to Kait. Show Kait’s dust-coated hand holding the knife, with a cool ring on one finger?


Panel 2: Pull back more to show Kait’s finger delicately brushing away dust from the two-foot-long gouge she’s just cut into the wall, giving more hints of the rocks embedded into the wall around it, so it’s clear this isn’t the first time she’s hacked stuff into the wall of her spare room.

Sound Effect: BOM-BIDDY-BOOM. [Add sound effect for the cutting sound, too?]

Panel 3: Zoom out a bit from the first panel (or maybe vice versa?) as the knife cuts a long gouge into the off-gray sheetrock of her wall, with the cut section dangling in mid-air like the skin of a snake off the end of Kait’s knife. The gouge is a valley surrounded by what appear to be rocks representing mountains


Panel 4: Kait’s face and the knife in front of her, her face full of shadows from the lone lamp sitting on the bare floor next to her (no overhead light in this room, or the light’s switched off). She’s totally into the flow of her work, concentrating. Show a hint of her breath steaming out in the cold room?  She’s wearing a sweatshirt and fingerless gloves, flannel pajama pants, thick socks.

Caption/special effect: BOM-BIDDY-BOOM, BOOM BOOM

I had a lot of suggestions and questions, and also sent her some photos of the setting. I didn’t want to insult her by over-explaining. I think we hit a good balance.

I emailed that off to Niki (we’ve never actually met in person — we actually got in touch via Twitter!), and she took the script and ran with it, starting with…

Step 2: The Thumbnails

As soon as I saw these, I knew I was in good hands… I tried doing some thumbnails myself, but gave up after panel two.

Thumbnails for IN MAPS & LEGENDS(Click any of the images to view a larger version)

Niki did thumbnails for all eight pages in a day or two, and emailed ’em back to me. I was blown away. She nailed it. But that did nothing to prepare me for…

Step 3: The Pencils

Pencils for IN MAPS & LEGENDS

Now it was getting fun. Niki’s art matched my imagined characters and settings, and then some. Let’s let Niki take over from here…

Niki: “I put together the panel layouts for all the screens in Photoshop first, with word balloons and caption boxes already dropped in, so I’d have an idea of how much space I had to work with. They were printed out in really light blue, and I did the sketch with a non-photo blue pencil.”

Step 4: The Inks


The inks. Holy cow. The inks…!

Niki: “The sketches were inked, and scanned back in. I drop out the blue channel in Photoshop to get rid of the sketch without having to erase. The panel borders were done digitally, along with the word balloons. At this point, we re-thought where our title should go, and ended up dropping out some inner monologue as a result.”

Step 5: The Colors (and the finished product!)

Final, colored version of IN MAPS & LEGENDS!

All I can say is this: the comic leaps off the screen now with color. How’d she do it?

Niki: “Colors and text! Everything is done in Photoshop from here on in. I layered photo textures and flats to get the look I wanted. The first page of a project is always a matter of experimentation for me, as I figure out what works best. The map layers were the last step of the process, so I could make sure that it was all coherent together.”

And that’s the process, in a nutshell. All told, I think it took us maybe five weeks this past summer to get the comic in shape, from script to finished version. We submitted it for the competition on August 25th, and got the news that we’d made it into the competition on October 26th.

We really hope to continue the story, soon (so don’t forget to read, vote, favorite, etc.). Can’t wait to show you what’s through that door on page 8…


8 thoughts on “Building a comic, panel by panel

    1. Thanks, Martin! Writing comics has been a blast so far — different from writing novels and stories, and even better in some ways, especially getting to see the finished product so soon.

      Thanks again for dropping by!


  1. Thanks, Martin! Writing comics has been a blast so far — different from writing novels and stories, and even better in some ways, especially getting to see the finished product so soon.

    Thanks again for dropping by!


  2. Fascinating account; your descriptions, as always, totally vivid. Really liked the way the comic turned out, start to finish.


    1. Thanks, Sarah! I’m glad you liked it — I know you have high standards. Whew.

      Hope you went through the trouble of voting — the ol’ race is tightening up! Tell your friends, far and wide, etc. 🙂


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