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6 Hard-Learned Lessons from an Aspiring Comic Artist

Oct 12 2016

by Ina Xi

“Sorry, but it’s simply not up to the publishable standard.”

The editor handed me back my work, which took hundreds of hours to create. There was a long pause.

“You should try more live sketching,” she said, lowering her voice to soften the blow. “Build a strong foundation before finding your personal style.”

That was 10 years ago. I was in high school in China, where a comic dork looked like this:

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That ego-crushing was followed by a lot of self-loathing and Cheetos. But over time, the taste of Cheetos grew flat, and my hands started itching to doodle in physics class again. I decided to follow the method the editor suggested:

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Before long, I was running my first monthly series in a halfway reputable magazine. That helped me edge up in the high school popularity rankings, and I got a few messages of encouragement from reader forums. Above all, though, the method helped me get into a state of comic flow; nothing else mattered when I was drawing. Even when I was failing in life and full of self-doubt, I could always fall back on my sketchbook.

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Which brings me to Lesson #1:

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But even when you’re following a proven method and trusting the process, there are a few dangers to watch out for when embarking on graphic novel projects. The Pain/Gain index, for example:

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If the difficulty index K is too high, terminate! There are four levels of challenge in a graphic novel project:

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Creating anything that requires more cognitive load than watching Game of Thrones after a full workday is challenging to begin with, which leads to Lesson #2:

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For me, it’s about rewarding myself with things I’m fond of drawing: intricate landscape, fashion, and action scenes. Since I suck at writing dialogue, I’ve kept it to a minimum, and substituted in symbols and visual cues.

Here are four other things I learned while making graphic novels, so you don’t have to go through the same pain:

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I’m at work on #6 at the moment, which is the most fun.

Coloring under progress

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It’s the last step in a graphic novel I’ve been working on about living in a dystopian San Francisco of the future, where the scarcity of organic food leads its residents to fight to the death at grocery stores. The story is a dramatized observation of the on-going identity battles most San Franciscans face today. It’s a place where one feels simultaneously insider and outsider. You can be both a picky eater and burrito consumer, the root cause and the victim of jacked-up rental prices, and equal parts poseur and satirist of hipsterdom.

“San Franciscocoa” depicts a mundane but impossible feat of grocery shopping—buying a bag of cocoa powder that’s going into extinction.

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  • Ina Xi

    Interaction Designer, IDEO San Francisco

    Ina is a visual storyteller who finds inspiration in technology and current events. She uses narrative to bring to life the worlds of the future, and the people within them. Her spirit animal is the Corgi.

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