Producing a webcomic: the sustainable way

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Lys asking Kay to zipline off the Golden Gate Bridge. Producing a webcomic is quite similar.

There’s a certain amount of hubris involved in being a creator at all, an inherent assumption that what you’re creating is worth the effort and worth an audience’s time. There’s even more hubris in putting out an essay like this one, demystifying “success” while still an amateur. Still, there are so many barriers in front of artists and creators today that hopefully this series helps with tearing down a few.

Learning the economics of art: Writing when every word costs you $$$

When I first asked Airene to be my artist-partner in producing The Night Wolves, she refused. She asked me to read Bakuman, a manga about creating manga produced by the same team that did Death Note. I did, and then proceeded to educate myself about the long hours, low pay and lack of food and sleep that characterizes the life of a mangaka, and makes tech startup-culture look like a vacation by comparison. Kaori Shoji calls it voluntary enslavement against overwhelming odds of failing. No wonder Airene, who is an expert on burnout, didn’t want to be my artist.

There was too much work for one person. We needed to hire a team.

Did we think The Night Wolves was going to be an immediate success? Absolutely not. But our goal was not to build something perfect. It was to build a team that could produce something solid and learn from the experience. It left us with only one question: could we do this sustainably, but still maintain high quality and speed?

As a writer, I’m prolific. I can whip out 20K words in a weekend. I’ve written entire novels in a month. I’m currently working on two different writing projects in addition to The Night Wolves and the word-count limits for genres are the most discipline that has been imposed on me as a writer of prose.

But with visual storytelling, every word costs money. Every mistake costs time and money. And while writers get to edit their books (for years) before publishing to prevent errors and typos, when publishing serially, shipping has to beat perfection, every time.

Airene has worked as an animation producer before, so I learned a lot from her about how much things cost, and which things are expensive and unnecessary. There’s also a fair amount that can be researched online, e.g. the average pay-scale for a featured Webtoon author (starting at about $2K /month), the cost of 2D-animating a single 20-minute episode (about $100K), and the incredible variance in the pay-scale of artists.

When the costs started to feel overwhelming I got in touch with a friend, the founder of a tech startup, and asked him how he thought about the early days, before his company took off. How much was he willing to invest? When would he have pulled back if the project wasn’t successful? The answer was surprising… and extremely sensible.

Basically, once I had set aside enough to pay my bills and put food on the table, why wouldn’t I give everything else I had over to my idea if I really believed in it? Why would I stand on the edge of the water with one foot in?

I started to think through how much I valued my writing, and made a decision. I don’t have an MFA, but I would put aside however much I would have spent on an MFA to The Night Wolves, and use it as an opportunity to really hone my craft and learn. As a creator, bringing an idea into the world can be its own motivation, and a crucial one.

Hiring artists: scaling quality, extending trust

We decided to hire a team, knowing that we were trading off some consistency in style for the long-term sustainability of the project. But as an introvert, the idea of even talking to strangers is enough to make my heart-rate rise, never mind the idea of trusting them with something as meaningful to me as storytelling. At first, I wasn’t keen on the idea of hiring people I didn’t know. How, after all, would we be able to communicate the nuances of the characters? How would we build a trusting relationship where feedback was given and received?

Airene did most of the initial outreach, putting out feelers on Instagram, contacting artists whose work she liked. As an artist herself, she had a much keener eye for an artist’s skill and capability. I confess that at first, being new to the genre, a lot of the things I liked were flair rather than substance. I could get easily fooled by photorealism and color into liking an artist’s work, while she would be more painstaking about consistency of characters’ faces, attention to detail and quality of the line art brush stroke. I also had no idea what was easy and what was hard, so when asked I gave entirely useless opinions about how much I liked some beautiful detail work in a character’s hair, only to be told that that was a downloadable brush.

But while I know little about art, I do know how to hire great people. The things I look for in any candidate I’d hire, whether for a tech job or for a commission, are the same. I wrote about it briefly on Twitter, but ultimately we held fast to few things:

  • Prefer people who can scale the quality of their work. Our storyboard artist, Svetlana Kiseleva, is spectacular at this. She can do incredible detail and beautiful line-work, but when we’re trying to just figure out if the storyboard panels are right, we need quick drafts and rapid iteration, not perfection. In her first storyboards, we already saw clarity of perspective, good sense of body positioning, and excellent judgement about what to draw and where to economize, e.g. not drawing full people but rather the bald figures below, and showing only the information needed to further the story.
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  • Prefer people who are communicative and meet the promises they make. Since interviews are not really a thing when hiring artists, we set aside a budget to explore new artists, roughly $200 each. When trying to hire a character artist, I offered commissions on Twitter for people to do head-turns of our main characters. It was essentially an interview, one people would be paid to do. I offered to pay up front, accepting I might lose the money. Airene and I looked at people’s art and profile, and if we felt they were good, we offered them the commission and the money. We were flexible on timeline, but asked the artists to tell us when they’d get back with a draft for feedback. Our only expectation was that they would meet their own promises. Many did not (some have yet to show even a first draft). We knew it was likely. Life gets in the way, artists overbook themselves. But we wanted an artist who was mature enough to know their own capacity and plan and communicate their work accordingly. Below: Headshots of Nailah Okoye from character artist Cynthia Her.
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  • Prefer people who excel with feedback and critique. Artists must be ruthless with demands on their time, and I know there are plenty of people out there who want seven revisions of their commission and are still unhappy. So I totally understand why artists must set boundaries, like “max 2 revisions” on their commissions. The more important question to me is when feedback is given about an issue, is the issue resolved only in that one instance, or is that whole class of issue resolved? How consistently do they follow specifications? Some artists were sloppy about revisions. It was clear they were only doing them because they’d been asked, not because they understood the issue being pointed out. Others would correct the issue on one page but not generalize to the rest of the chapter. We commissioned small touch-up assignments to artists to see how this exercise would go. It’s how we found mae_ko3, an artist whose skill, versatility and speed you’ll see in some upcoming chapters of The Night Wolves.
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  • Hire people to do what they do well, and set them free. Good artists have usually spent a lot of time perfecting certain things. A kind of style or aesthetic, for instance. Or they may be excellent at illustrative art and you may think, “Well of course they’d be good at sequential art.” Or you may think an artist could do backgrounds even though their specialty is faces. The way manga and comics are usually done, backgrounds are a bit of an afterthought. Someone usually downloads a template of a school setting from Sketchup or edits a real photo and sets it as the backdrop. We were particular that we wanted a background artist who would shine in their own right, who could make the unique world of The Night Wolves come to life. When we saw the work of Mandy Mackenzie Ng, we were floored by her strong architecture-based sense of perspective combined with a unifying and subtle sense of color. We asked her to create concepts for Sequoia, giving her only a verbal description of the world. We didn’t want her to build our idea of the world, but rather to conceive it herself. We wanted Mandy to just be Mandy.
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To say that what Mandy does for The Night Wolves is background art and coloring is doing her a disservice. She designs the world, bringing the Bay Area to life, from its spectacular vistas to intimate tech parties.

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Overall, a single early decision Airene and I made early on was key to our success, a decision that is, incidentally, the absolute opposite of how any tech company does hiring.

We chose not to lose the people we wanted to hire, rather than hire to choose the best person for the job. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one. We’d both seen tech companies institute absurd hiring processes that would take weeks to go through, that might fall apart at any stage when either the company or the candidate chose to go another way. Companies do this because they don’t want to deal with firing people or laying them off. But they also miss out on great candidates because they don’t want to take a chance.

In January 2020 I got some great advice from the incredible Mikki Kendall. She basically told me that good artists were like animation studios, booked out 2 years in advance for anything long-term. That’s when we realized there was entirely too much work for any one artist anyway, never mind to be able to hope for continuity over several years. There was always going to be more than enough work for anyone who wanted it. We could always use another artist to do something, or to work on a future chapter. So when we started hiring, we never made it seem that there was only one role. We never made artists feel they were competing for a single spot. We’re still hiring.

Follow me on Twitter @anat_deracine to be updated on the next essay in this series and read The Night Wolves before Season 2 begins!

Author of "Driving by Starlight" https://goo.gl/N35aS1 and “The Night Wolves” http://bit.ly/TheNightWolves I'm on Twitter at @anat_deracine

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