“Making Comics: My Graphic Novel Process,” a craft essay by Jess Smart Smiley

New Comic
My name is Jess Smart Smiley and I make comics. My newest project is a square, interactive comic called
Fantasy Quest, and it’s live on Kickstarter right now. (Oh, don’t worry—there are more plugs for Fantasy Quest to come—but let’s talk process first.)

Hamburger Style
The earliest comics I remember making were created by folding a blank sheet of 8.5 x 11” printing paper in half (“Hamburger Style”), and then adding words and drawings as I thought of them. (I’m sure there’s a stack of folded paper somewhere with half-finished “cover” drawings and blank interiors.)

Dad offered to make copies of some of my comics and drawings using a photocopier and my eyes were opened to the world of publishing.

Most of my early attempts at comics were lame parodies of the action comics I was reading at the time: X-Men became “X-Kids”, Batman became “Bratman”, and so on. I don’t think I really made a serious attempt at my own characters and ideas until Bone by Jeff Smith started coming out in 24-page black-and-white issues once every two months. Again, I have dad to thank for getting me the issues as they were released, and for setting up a hold for me at my local comics shop, Dragon’s Keep.

Brushing Up on Bone
Jeff Smith’s Bone was revelatory for me, in part because of the way the story was told with drawings—black-and-white drawings—the same black-and-white that my black pens created on white paper. There were no garish computer effects or ostentatious color palettes to distract from the drawings themselves, and it was in reading Bone that I saw the power a drawing could play in telling a story. It was also through reading Bone that I learned brushes could be part of a comic creator’s tool set.

It was around this time that I started using a sketchbook and my approach to drawing became simultaneously more serious and much goofier.

I studied Illustration at Utah Valley University and graduated with my BFA. While learning new drawing methods, techniques, and processes in class, I also read everything I could find online about creating and publishing comics. I found tremendously helpful resources in creators like
Doug TenNapel, Hope Larson, Ghostshrimp, Jason Shiga, Kazu Kibuishi, and Jesse Moynihan, and I’m grateful for the information they shared all those years ago on their blogs, websites, and via email. I learned how to scan and clean up my drawings—not from my college classes, but from Hope Larson’s and Jordan Crane’s websites, where they outlined scanner settings and what to do in Photoshop to get a clean image.

Making My First Graphic Novel
The first book I ever finished creating is an all-ages graphic novel, titled
Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, published by Top Shelf Productions.

Upside Down was born out of a funny little drawing of a vampire that I’d made in my sketchbook. I wanted to know more about this vampire, so I kept drawing and writing, and trying out different characters in my sketchbook. My sketchbooks had become a sort of laboratory for experimentation, where I could try out different brushes, inks, tools, and techniques. It became both a catalogue of ideas and a way of exploring those ideas. My sketchbooks had become the combination of my journals, notebooks, calendars, To-Do Lists, and notes to self.

Doug TenNapel had posted on his blog about his use of notecards, and I adopted his method of organizing plot points and arranging the structure of the story. I bought a cheap sketchbook and used it to create a rough draft of the entire book, from beginning to end, including each page and panel.

I should mention here that this book was, more than anything, an exercise in finishing. My one goal for the entire year was to start and complete a new graphic novel, because I had previously started and stopped ten separate graphic novels and had nothing to show for it. I had to prove to myself that I could actually create a graphic novel from start to finish. Upside Down: A Vampire Tale was my proof of concept, and it is now the first of over a dozen books I’ve created for young readers.

The final artwork for Upside Down: A Vampire Tale was created with an Akashiya Brush Pen on 11×14” Bristol Board, and color was added digitally using Photoshop on a clunky HP laptop.

While I haven’t replicated this exact process in my subsequent comics, all of my comics have come from drawings and writing made in my sketchbooks.

A Map in the Dirt
Where Upside Down had been a goofy, cartoon fairy tale of sorts, I felt a more intimate, more important story surfacing from within. It was a very different story from my cartoon book and I quickly learned that it would require a slightly different process in order to be told properly.

I tried some new things in making A Map in the Dirt.

  • I took photos as reference for people and animals in the comic.
  • I tried out a finer brush pen for a more intricate and delicate line.
  • I explored design in the way I used images and words in my panel and page compositions.

Spooky Sleepover
I had avoided collaborations in the past, but my new writer friend,
Dave Scheidt, was too hilarious and smart and talented to resist working with. He came up with some spooky-silly ideas for a collection of funny horror comics, and I started on the artwork, based on his scripts.

The nature of Spooky Sleepover was different from other comics I had made, and I stretched myself a little further, trying even more new things.

  • I completed all the line art on an iPad using ProCreate.
  • I worked with several colors and explored different textures and visual styles.
  • I communicated with Dave on every step of the process to make sure we were both happy with the artwork.

Fantasy Quest
See? I told you I would plug my new comic again!

Fantasy Quest is an interactive fantasy adventure comic, currently funding on Kickstarter. This book is something new and I’m beyond thrilled to get it into people’s hands. Fantasy Quest alternates comics pages with mazes that must be completed by the reader in order to continue the story. Each comic comes with 1 of 3 collectible enamel pins and an original drawing, and the whole project is a celebration of comics culture, mazes, and novelty.

  • Fantasy Quest is an improvised comic. Each page was made up, panel by panel, in my sketchbook, and then redrawn digitally, using MediBang Paint on my iPad Pro and with an Apple Pencil.
  • Fantasy Quest features mazes that contribute to the story, which turns the comic into a sort of game that the reader and I can “play” together.
  • Fantasy Quest is all about the total comic experience—which is why it comes with one of three collectible enamel pins and an original drawing.

Let’s Make Comics!
While most creators have many methods and processes in common, there also seem to be myriad idiosyncratic approaches and techniques that end up shaping the work itself and end up proving integral to the stories they tell.

I’ve spent the last few years teaching workshops on writing, drawing, and making comics, and have helped hundreds of children, teenagers, and adults create their first comics. I think it’s important to demystify these creative processes and to show professionals and amateurs alike the tools available to us in making comics. (Now might be a good time to mention my forthcoming book, which is all about exploring different comics-making processes. Let’s Make Comics! An Activity Book to Create, Write, and Draw Your Own Cartoons comes out June 5 from Watson-Guptill, and is available now for preorder via Amazon.)

Hopefully these glimpses into my own processes will be helpful to you in creating your own comics, books, and stories. I think it’s helpful—especially at first—to pick an approach and to stick with it throughout the life of an entire project. Pay attention to what works for you and what doesn’t, and find ways to share your experience with other creators in your life.

I believe we can all benefit by sharing our experiences in exploring process, and it’s my goal to help where I can.




Jess Smart Smiley is the creator of over a dozen books and comics for young readers. Jess offers free 20-minute Skype visits for schools, groups, and libraries, and can be found online at jess-smiley.com.

What’s HFR up to? Read our current issue, submit, or write for Heavy Feather.




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