Matt Phelan on Creating Graphic Novels

May 11, 2017 | Illustration

Matt PhelanAn author has many options for telling a story. She could choose prose. She could choose verse. She could choose to write her story as a graphic novel.

A graphic novel is a combination of words, images, and panels all working together to tell a story, create a mood, and give the reader a unique experience. It is not a genre. It is a medium, a way of telling a story.

A writer of graphic novels does not need to know how to draw. She simply needs to know how to write in pictures.

There are many ways to create comics and no one way is better than the other. My particular method involves writing my story panel by panel before I draw a single thing. The writing stage for me is quite separate and challenging on its own. Writing for comics is all about precision and economy. It is about writing in images. In the final version, the words will be transformed into drawings, but the writing is there first.

Snow White by Matt PhelanHere is how I wrote the butcher shop scene for Snow White:

A shop door is unlocked.

One light flickers on.

A white counter.

A knife.

The butcher looks up.

Hunt meets his eyes without a word.

A heart in brown paper is shoved across the counter.

BUTCHER: Somehow I think it might be better if I don’t ask.

Hunt takes the heart.

And opens the door.

MR. HUNT: I’m hopin’ no one asks…

Simple images and spare dialogue. Any illustrator could take that scene and draw it. The scene is a description of images that will become panels, but it also conveys a mood. It gives the illustrator (me, in this case) not only the WHAT to draw, but the HOW. It provides the musical key of the scene.

The separation of writer and artist has a long history in superhero comics, but it is becoming more common in graphic novels written for a young audience, too. Jim Ottaviani, Colleen AF Venable, and Cecil Castellucci have been writing comics for years. Jane Yolen (not surprisingly) has written graphic novels. Most recently, Donna Jo Napoli and M.T. Anderson have chosen to write stories as comics. I’m hoping more great writers make that choice in the coming years. It can only enrich the field.

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