Last week my most recent nonfiction comic was published on the Nib (read Americans Are Drowning in Debt here if you haven’t gotten a chance yet). I thought I would write a little about my process making a non-fiction comics.
My friends and I are in a lot debt. I’m an X-er (and I’ve got the haircut to prove it), so most of our debt is not “good” debt like a mortgage. We joke about it sometimes, but honestly debt is a very shameful topic in the US so we mostly pretend our lives are really carefree and that we can afford to buy expensive green fruit that is often already rotten when you open it.
I was really interested in:
- learning more about debt in the United States and how we got here
- opening a public dialogue about debt so we can all feel a little less ashamed about it
I don’t actually write non-fiction, so all I really had were suspicions about American debt. Luckily I happen to know a writer* and activist who used to be a bankruptcy lawyer. I asked Kevin Moore if he’d be interested in doing a comic together about debt based on his “standard American Debt Rant” and he said yes.
This was Kevin’s first comic, so we worked together on an outline for a 30 panel comic, which translates to about 7-8 pages of material (and is a fairly standard size for feature-length comics journalism). We decided to cover US debt history, give an overview of the most common kinds of debt, and talk about little about debt futurism.
We pitched this story to my favorite comics outlet and they accepted it! Then I sat back while Kevin did the reporting. Although we had seen the effects of the debt industry first hand, the history was almost worse than I was expecting.
It was actually really hard to keep the script short and to the point because there have been so many specific injustices at play here for generations. We worked with seasoned comics journalism editor Andy Warner, and he and Kevin took the script through a few drafts. Once the script was finalized, it was turned over to me for drawing.
When I get a finalized script, whether I’ve worked on it at all or not, the first thing I do is sit down and try to find the over-arching visual narrative. I usually do this by doodling on a clean sketchbook page as I read the script over several times. When the page is full, I look for the common threads, and find the ideas that hit me hardest. In this case, what really struck me was how pervasive debt was, and how it sticks to people and things and stops them from moving forward. That’s how I came up with Debt Slime.
Then I go through and cut together a very, very loose version of the comic that shows the basic composition of the page and each panel. I submitted this to my editor, and he gave me some feedback and the go ahead to final art.
Then I drew for nine million years. After my concepts are approved, there are three basic stages:
Ultimately each panel takes about an hour, give or take. It’s really easy to get tunnel vision here, so I got feedback from Kevin and Andy after each stage. That feedback helps push me to my best compositions and visual metaphors. I especially struggled with the color palette on this one, but I’m really proud of how it came out!
Kevin and I got some green fruits to celebrate, and all over they were only about 30% rotten. I’m still in a lot of debt, but I do feel slightly less bad about it now.