Starting Off Right: How To Troubleshoot Common Issues

You have an idea. You’ve sketched out the main characters of your story and you’re chomping at the bit to begin your comic. Fantastic!

Let’s slow down for just a second.

The most important thing, as we’ve covered in other articles, is just to start. Beyond that I want to give you some preventative medicine. If you’re new to this (and let’s be honest, we all are at some point) there are a few hidden landmines you might not have considered that could tank your comic.


From Spidey Super Stories Issue 35 (1978)

A DISCLAIMER: not every attempt at a comic needs this kind of consideration. Making comics is a juggling act with a lot of moving parts to nail down. If the comic you’re creating is for practice, feel free to absorb as much of this article as you want and focus on whatever you want to focus on.

Lack Of Planning

It may surprise you to know that a lot of these issues have less to do with the mechanics of your comic and more to do with your thinking process. Case in point: planning. If the idea you have is underdeveloped you will almost immediately encounter story problems. Even worse, your story could be boring! Some things to consider:

  • What is the point of your story? What is it about?

  • Is your main character well-defined? What does he/she want? Strengths/weaknesses?

  • What is the source of conflict?

  • If your story has a main antagonist, what do they want? Strengths/weaknesses?

That’s just a baseline. Every major character and supporting character should have a unique voice (not just how they talk but desires/fears/biases). You will also want to create an outline and plot out the arc of your story. There are various templates to follow but a good one is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. In it, Campbell examines the three-part structure of traditional storytelling and the standard way in which the protagonist of a story develops as a character.

Aside from story considerations, did you design the look of all your characters? Typically, proper character design can take multiple revisions. You’ll want to sketch out several options and objectively evaluate them for how well they reinforce the traits of your characters (getting fresh eyes from friends is helpful here).

What about the setting for your story? You’ll need to collect reference material for the background environment and do some design sketches to lock in the look of the world your story takes place in. Pay special attention to architectural details of building/prop construction to make sure the environment appears believably grounded.


Perhaps your project suffers from the opposite problem. It’s possible to plan too much and never let your comic get off the ground.

These “failure to launch” problems are almost never about the comic itself. Oftentimes without even realizing it people will let the planning stage spin out of control because they are afraid to commit. Actually commencing work on your comic means accepting the possibility that you might fail.

It’s for this reason I tend to caution people against “passion projects” when they’re just starting out. If you have an idea you’ve been daydreaming about for years but have yet to do any work, I recommend just shelving that idea for a while and doing something fresh.

You have to be willing to let yourself make mistakes and be flexible. Having a solid plan in mind for your story is a different thing altogether from rigidly obsessing over details that may change down the line. Just start!

Misplaced Focus

Are you spending the majority of your time planning for the publicity and fame your comic will bring? You’ve misplaced your focus.

I know a person (name withheld) who exhibited both of the previous issues: he under-planned important story and art considerations while he procrastinated under the guise of over-planning irrelevant details. The main problem, however, was he spent all his time trying to figure out the best way to promote his comic… a comic which technically didn’t exist.

Don’t let yourself get caught up with nonsense like that. It’s premature in the extreme; just focus on making the best comic you can. You have to have a product before you can consider marketing it to an audience. And planning for fame? Why waste your time with something that might not happen?

Bad Storytelling Practices

There are certain methods of storytelling in comics that you should avoid, mostly due to ineffectiveness. If you include too many you risk distracting the reader or pulling them out of the story entirely.

This is a partial list of pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Too much exposition: verbal exposition derails storytelling. Instead of talking about what happened, show what happens directly.

  2. Too wordy: tell your story through visuals when possible and limit story communicated through dialog.

  3. Lack of dynamism: keep your composition interesting, even during dialogue scenes.

  4. Inconsistent pacing: make sure all plot developments have room to breathe. Vary the intensity of storytelling so you have a spread of action “peaks” and slowed-down “valleys.” Begin your comic in a way that excites and entices the reader to continue.

  5. Weak or non-existent character motivations: even if you don’t agree with their thinking you should be able to understand why a character does what they do. This goes for every character, not just your protagonist.

Unrealistic Expectations

You may find yourself in a situation where, after beginning work on your comic, you feel discouraged and want to stop. Maybe you can’t draw the kind of scenes you had envisioned in your head. Maybe the dialog sounds false. Whatever the reason, it’s important to take a step back and consider if your concerns are realistic.

As elaborated on in Mark’s article about Taste vs. Ability, it’s a fact of creative life that you will be able to see and appreciate the quality of things with a level of sophistication that exceeds your ability to produce quality work. Or in other words, you will be able to tell that your work is flawed. The key to not letting moments of realization like this stop you is to accept them.

You will make mistakes. Your stuff is going to suck. And that’s ok! The process is what’s important and you have to allow yourself to go through it. If you hit a roadblock, either fix the problem or move past it. Don’t get caught up in dwelling on what you did wrong because it’s already in the past. You will do better next time.

That’s Everything!

Now that I’ve said my piece, hopefully you feel better equipped to navigate the start of your project. If you have anything to add, comment below!


6 Responses to “Starting Off Right: How To Troubleshoot Common Issues”

  1. Adam

    I really like this article. I think it applies to all experience levels, especially when you hit a wall and aren’t sure where to go. For me personally, I have a couple ideas in mind, one major one and one I just want to have fun with. I’ve wanted to tackle the major one for a while but just didn’t feel prepared; I’m quite new to this. The section about over-planning helped me decide to work on the smaller one for now, then come back to the larger one when I have more experience and momentum.

    Good, good stuff. Thanks, Devin.

  2. Empyrisan

    Couldn’t be any more right about “passion projects” and putting them off until you have some experience with making comics! I’m considering on doing that with a big project I launched prematurely. While I do think I have enough artistic skills to draw the story, the writing isn’t nearly as good as I want it to be. And I do want it to be a very enjoyable story!

    I’m planning on making a new, shorter story, something easier to practice and make mistakes with before tackling something bigger.

    Good article!

  3. Nadia

    Thank you, I love all the tips you all have to offer, I’m learning so much and I’m super excited for that! You and PaperWings Pod cast have seriously enlightenment me in the unknown of webcomics! I think I suffer from the over-planning / taking on big projects. I realize I need to do teh best I can with the abilities I have now. I know I’ll fail but that’s the learning process! I’ve considered starting a smaller more simplified comic just to really understand how it all works and give myself a chance to fail. My drawing isn’t very good now, but having an experiemntal comic may just be what I need 🙂

    • Patrick

      My friend and I came up with a term for this called “failure years”. The idea is that, to become an adult, you have to at some point enter your failure years, which basically is an acceptance of total and utter failure but in productive way. Aim for your goal 100%, accept the 20% you actually accomplish – build from there. Fail upwards.

    • Patrick

      It is totally a great thing to learn to fail upwards in the most efficient of manners. Don’t listen to the voice tell you to give up, just the one that is trying to tell you what you are doing wrong so that you can get better. Best of luck Nadia!


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