It Takes Two: Collaboration Within Indie Comics

26 Aug
By Darryl Ayo

Why don’t indie comic cartoonists collaborate more often? A large part of it is obvious when you look at the name “INDIE” cartoonists. Independent of all interference. That’s cool, I can respect that. Indie comic dudes (and ladydudes) just want to do their own thing and pursue their own vision. But on the other hand, not all of these solo cartoonists have the full range of skillsets to truly go it alone.

I’ve been talking to people about this weird duality: on one hand, the indie comic scene is full of people doing their best at working on their own stuff as best they can–for better or worse. On the other hand, there’s a whole lot of friend-based groups, cliques, geographic alliances and both formal and informal partnerships in the indie comics scene.

Part of it is simply that friends or no, indie cartoonists want to remain fully autonomous. Again, that’s cool, but I wonder how much of that is cultural. Since the default and assumed position in indie comics is that each cartoonists is doing all tasks, maybe it never fully occurs to some people as a legitimate option.

I think that the idea of the “auteur theory”– that comics are at their best when they come from a single mind–is perhaps not a sound theory, but rather a cultural reaction against mass-produced and micro-delegated corporate comics. I don’t see why the “auteur theory” should suffer if the authorship of a work is split between a writer and and artist rather than one person who does both.

This concerns me because it seems like potentially good comics are not being born because many people who *might* be able to enhance one another’s work may never even consider working together. For example, when cartoonists get together, lots of times, we’ll come up with some silly joke that could make for a fantastic strip or comic book, but will never be pursued because the people who came up with the joke decide to leave it on the table.

Which brings me to:

Last year at the Small Press Expo, I was impressed by the work of Maris Wicks who had not one but TWO wonderful minicomic collaborations. The first was a picturebook/minicomic called Yes, Let’s. This gorgeous storybook was written by Galen Longstreth and featured full color illustrations by Wicks.

I later ran into Wicks who tipped me off that she had another collaboration, this time with Liz Prince, both of whom would write and draw the minicomic Duddits.



Other forms:

One thing that I find pretty interesting is the webcomics tradition of “guest comics.” I don’t see too many of these anymore, at least among the webcomics that I personally follow, but it’s worth mentioning. Guest strips are not true collaborations, but they relate to my earlier point about what can happen when cartoonists get together and start sharing ideas, jokes and so on.

Collaboration 2: The Marvel Method.

There’s more than one way to make a comic. Continuing with my exploration of the idea of creative teams in independent comics, I want to raise the notion of the old-school “Marvel Method” of comics creation. Most comics that are made by more than one person are created in a way that you’d expect: one person writes a whole story and another person draws it. And sometimes the drawing is broken into components such as “pencilling,” “inking,” “coloring,” and what-have-you. For a long time, this completely sensible system was the norm. Of course there was some variety.

DC Comics were known for their “full script” method in which a writer writes a complete story, dialog and everything which is sent off to the artist to render and bring to life. Cool.

EC Comics (see also: Kurtzman) were sometimes known to have scripts that included (or perhaps consisted of?) thumbnails. A comic made of comics, as I often think of it! [note: I’m going to just make stuff up for this paragraph] I personally work this way. I write down little notes for myself, but generally I do little thumbnails of my comic pages to work out my scenes in my notebook. Having a sense of the shape of a comic before going forward with drawing the final pages helps tremendously. I don’t give myself a script though, I basically make stuff up on the final page. That differs greatly from what I tend to think of as the EC method, but leads us directly into the madness of…


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The Marvel Method of making comics is totally crazy. Two guys (usually named Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) will sit around and talk about comic ideas. They’ll basically shoot the breeze like buddies and the resultant effort would be approximately (more or less) a single typed-page of story. A general plot outline for the issue of the comic. Then the artist (Kirby) will lock himself away and draw the whole thing up however he sees fit. He may have to include pertinent notes for the next stage. But the artist here is a full controller of the situation. He may not have written the plot or he may have assisted in that stage. But whatever the case is, he completely directs and controls how that loose plot plays out for 20-plus pages. When the artist turns in his pages, the writer looks at this glorious mess and has to make sense of it. This is where it gets hilarious. Now the writer (or primary writer, since the artist is essentially a co-plotter) will go and write the entire script from dialog to captions to thought balloons after the major storytelling decisions have been made by the artist.
The results of this method are similar to how I like to think of jazz music. You have the vision of not one master performer, but rather multiple intelligent forces driving the project simultaneously. At their best, these collaborators will know when to take charge and when to fall back and allow room for their respective partner to take the lead. Part of it is intuition, part of it is communication, a BIG part of it is mastery of craft on the part of both contributors.

Indie comics.

So I got to thinking: man, it would be off the chain insane if indie comics people let their guards down and started to work this way. I know that I’d love to try it out. I’ve heard it said that indie comics have gotten a bit stagnant. I think that it would certainly liven up the game to have some smart, but sort of bored cartoonists bounce ideas off of each other and give each other’s batteries a charge (sounds romantic), even if only for a side-project. Sometimes two heads is better than one, and sometimes, you just need somebody to shake up your comfortable processes.

Let’s go.

Images (c) DC Comics, (c) Marvel Entertainment, (c) Galen Goodwin Longstreth + Maris Wicks, (c) Maris Wicks + Liz Prince, (c) Darryl Ayo Brathwaite

13 Responses to “It Takes Two: Collaboration Within Indie Comics”

  1. madinkbeard August 26, 2011 at 8:49 am #

    I think most indie comics artists take on the model of the novelist or the fine artists, both of which traditional work alone. You dont see a lot of collaboration on novels or paintings either.

    • darrylayo August 28, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

      Well, painting has a long history of collaborative work, usually in the form of a master and his apprentices. I don’t mean that in any way to refute your point, but just to open up that there are even more possible collaborations than those that I’ve listed above.

  2. Jessi August 26, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

    This is something I’m pretty interested in! I think it’d be difficult, for sure, to get around the solo mindset, but it’s definitely something I think would be interesting and worthwhile to at least try.

    • darrylayo August 28, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

      The easiest way, I think is to open up a new project with your new partners, rather than hiring people on top contribute to your previously-established idea.

      On the other hand, Hellboy/B.P.R.D. have done wonderfully as Mignola brought collaborators in. With his case, it comes down to all parties knowing what their role is. It’s never an equal partnership with Mignola because he is the creator and captain of his works. The idea, I think, works when his collaborators know upfront that they are hired to do a job, carry out an order, and that they don’t in fact own Hellboy.

      It can work just fine, really. But again, my instinct tells me that the easiest way to get two or more cartoonists to work on a project is to build that project from the ground on up with that team. To have it be a shared experience from the beginning.

  3. Nick Marino August 29, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    The majority of my indie comics are collaborations and this is a topic I discuss all the time, partly because I think there should be more collaborations and partly because (for a long time) I didn’t understand why there weren’t more.

    After holding guest weeks on my daily webcomic, editing a weekly webcomic with five different artists (including me), and working on numerous other collabos, I’ve come to a conclusion why indie collaboration isn’t that common: IT’S A PAIN IN THE ASS!!!

    Personally, I think it’s easy to look at the relatively smooth mainstream mechanism and wonder why that hasn’t been implemented and innovated by indie creators. But the thing is, there’s a chain of command in mainstream comics that just doesn’t exist in indie comics.

    In indie stuff, you gotta set your own deadlines, create your own goals, and promote your own work. Plus, if you’re self-publishing, that also means you have to finance your own printing and sell/distribute your comics. Collaboration is complex and it’s just one more step in that already massive process.

    Which wouldn’t necessarily be a big problem if not for the fact that collaboration is also painfully unreliable when there’s little to no money involved. People drop deadlines or treat them with little care, they get discouraged and drop projects, they write or draw part of the comic without realizing what they’re doing contradicts what came before or after in the story. etc.

    Most of that stuff happens in mainstream work too, but they have large creative networks and contingency plans. When you’re an indie creator and your penciler stops giving you art halfway through, you don’t have too many options.

    Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with you — collaboration is awesome and auteur theory is overrated, IMO. But collaboration tends to mean more work and more possibilities for things to fall off the rails, and I think that makes it really difficult on an indie level.

  4. Caanan August 30, 2011 at 8:20 am #

    I think most Indie stuff is the result of a burning desire to get these stories out of our heads. We have things to say, and want to say it with comics! So, if you’re working with another creator – they’re writing, you’re drawing, say – when it comes to working on a project where zero money is involved, mine will always come first because it’s personal. It’s what I really want to say. A collaboration may be fun, but I’d be nowhere as invested in it as my own stories.

    And this just comes down to finding the right person. With SO many different personality types out there, getting two together that have all the right ideals, and are wanting to say the same thing is hard. I get contacted occasionally to work with other writers and I have to sometimes wonder if they’ve even read my own comic, as it’s never suited to my style at all! I say no straight away. I don’t have time to entertain doing things that are WAY out of my range, but I feel a lot of other artists may be a little too polite? Maybe they say yes, not wanting to offend the collaborator, but deep down don’t believe in the project, and therefore will never make it a priority.

    If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, it’s hard to be motivated to do it. We’re all well capable of believing in ourselves, but it takes time to believe in others.

  5. Costa August 30, 2011 at 11:43 pm #

    I like collaboration. I only started drawing my own stuff at first out of the necessity of not being able to get an artist to draw what I wrote (and I TOTALLY write in “DC Style” with dialogue and panel breaks per page).

    • staplegenius August 31, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

      I, oddly enough, will be leading a talk on COLLABORATION (with the focus being collaborating on indie comic) tomorrow–Sept 1st–as a part of the to-be-on-the-internet-one-day-when-Kevin-Cannon-turns-all-those-hours-of-footage-into-youtube-videos NORDEAST COMICS SUMMIT.

      I’ve been collaborating with other cartoonists since I was a teen (20 years ago..yikes!) and have grown into an indie cartoonists who is a part of the large indie cartooning scene in Minneapolis. Maybe its because we do monthly jam comics and yearly projects, but there is a LOT of collaboration here. AND ITS GREAT! Working with your cartooning friends is the best. Sharing ideas, bringing others ideas to life, etc is the much needed shot in the arm the lonely pursuit of cartooning needs. Try it, you’ll probably like it!

  6. Colin Tedford September 1, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    I’m pretty stuck in the solo mindset myself, because of the added complexity of collaboration & because I enjoy all the parts of comics-making, but I think one of the major benefits to collaboration is exploration; two people working together will come up with things that neither would alone.

    I should try the Marvel method at least once, just because it seems so absurd in some ways.

    (Also, did you post this essay somewhere before?)

  7. Duy September 1, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

    About a year ago, I saw a breakdown of costs as it relates to comics creation and collaboration. For indie comics, a lot of the time, a collaboration isn’t worth it monetarily. Working on your own is already no guarantee of breaking even (as much as we all love comics for the art, I think we can all agree that the artist should at least break even, no?), and splitting the work (and revenue) up would really make it so unprofitable to the point of perhaps being deemed not worth doing.

    I also think the auteur theory is sound – not so much that it comes FROM a single mind, but that the end product should be seamless so that there is one unified vision — it SEEMS to come from a single mind.

  8. Richard John Marcej September 13, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    My two cents,

    For the most part, when we say mainstream what we really mean is Marvel & DC (and maybe Image & Dark Horse). While those publishers do produce “some” variety of totals, the majority of their output are super hero books.

    Super hero books, especially from those publishers, have a house “look” so artists know what style will work for those scripts. Also, their super hero stories all have a similar blueprint. You can get away with two (or more) people working on these stories because (for want of a better description here) you don’t have to think much while working on those books.

    But Indie titles. True Indie titles can run the gamut. It’s stories can really cover anything. From autobiographical, to horror to romance to humor to even super hero. And many Indie titles (much more so than mainstream) have such personal attachments that it would be difficult, I believe, for a collaborator to get across what the author wishes to say.

    I’m not saying these “team-ups” between Indie creative types can’t be done, I just see a better reason why they don’t.

    And from a personal angle, I’ve been a member of cartoonist and artists groups during my life, but have never collaborated with another. I just find it easier (and more fulfilling) to do all the work on my own.


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