Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Working With An Artist

I started my writing career in 5th grade. We were given a weekend writing assignment to write a one page story, and I came back to class with a short, 35 page novella, complete with characters, an introduction, and plot. I credit my teacher, Ms. Elliot, for developing my passion for writing. After the initial shock of having a 5th grader hand her a stack of papers, she set me aside and had me do writing exercises and read books on style, character, voice, and outlining. Writing became my world and English class was always my favorite subject, even in college.

On the other hand, I have no artistic ability. My greatest visual creation was a stack of post-it notes with two stick figures fighting each other if you happen to flip the pages rapidly enough. I tried making my own comic book as a kid and it didn't look very good. So when I set out to produce JMK, I knew I had to find an artist. But who should I pick? Today, I'm going to talk about my experiences working with artists, and the kinds of things you should be aware of if you're producing your own comic book.

Do you and your artist interpret your characters the same way?

I talked to many artists before deciding on one to work with me on Journey to the Middle Kingdom. In the initial stages of the project, I quickly found out that there are huge differences between artists that I never appreciated. I'm not just talking about skill level. Each artist has their own style, that I knew, but I also didn't realize how much of an effect that would have on interpretation of scenes and characters. 

When I was trying out artists for JMK, I gave them the first page of my script, and a character description of Jason, the main character of JMK. I thought "I've given them a physical description of the character, as well as the background, so the result between artists should be similar." Nothing could have been further from the truth.

 This is the first page of JMK Issue #1 "Legend of the White Snake Maiden," drawn by Dimas Yuli. I don't like playing coy with the reader, so I made sure the reader is introduced to the phoenix early. I wanted the magical world to encroach upon the real world as soon as possible. Dimas does a good job with facial expressions. His interpretation of Jason is more subdued. Jason comes off as focused and hard working in the opening scene.

Compare Dimas' Jason to this Jason. In this opening scene, Jason is wild and unrestrained. He has a more vibrant, confident energy surrounding him. He looks like he'd be fun to be around. He looks like he lives his life according to what his heart wants. Same scene, but wildly different interpretation of the same character!


The many faces of Jason Xia!

I chose Dimas because his vision of Jason, Sabrina, and Michelle were mostly in line with my interpretation of the characters. Was it 100%? No, but Dimas' style and my writing have fused together to make organic characters with personality that flies off the page. My writing has even shifted somewhat because now I have firm visions of the main characters, and the way they behave is now based off of that.

My advice is to do a similar test with an artist you might plan on working with, to see if you really are on the same wavelength. Take your time. If the artist can make you say "Wow, that's the character, right there!" Then you know you've found your person.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Lessons from my first Comic Expo!

Well, maybe not my absolute first. I just released Journey to the Middle Kingdom this year, and recently had my second successful Kickstarter. I decided it was time to hit the comic book show circuit and start selling issues. I've been to comics expos as a buyer, but never as a seller. I recently became a vendor at the Great Lakes Comic Expo which was held on Dec. 11th in Clinton Township, MI. Here are the 5 tips to selling  your comic at a show.

#1 Have a Professional Display

My first display looked utterly unprofessional. It had a number of things that made it so people knew I was an independent creator right off the bat:

The show didn't provide any tablecloth, just a run of the mill brown card table. 

All my items were laid flat. That meant the person had to lean over to see what my comic was about.

There were no eye catching displays, nothing to say "Hey, stop what you're doing and come see me!"

Luckily, I met a fellow creator at the expo by the name of Tom Savage, and his display made it look like he had an actual publisher. He had beautiful tablecloth, forward facing displays with art printed on foam board, and even a video trailer for the board game he was selling! I took notes.

 I bought a custom tablecloth, ordered some acrylic book stands, and printed out signage on a foam board and used Velcro to stick it to the back of the book stand. I even got a pop-up display, and made sure to wear a T-shirt using the same artwork. 

As you can see, my display was a LOT better. I still need to make improvements, but I got a much better reception from folks.



#2 Have Samples

Another big change from my first show was this time I set aside two issues to serve as samples. I'm an unknown author with an unknown product, so it's important that people get to take a look at the comic. I marked two issues as samples and invited passerby's to read. It got me a few sales. It really didn't cost me anything to do this, and this one small gesture was actually pretty effective.

#3 Be available but not pushy

When I was a kid my mother owned a dollar store and sometimes I helped out. I learned that as the store keep, you want to be available, but you have to know when to step in, and when to let the customer have their space. People can feel like you're guilting them into buying something they don't actually want.

I stood for most of the comic expo while others sat down. This allowed me to strike up conversations with the people that wanted it. Some people were looking to network with me because of my comic, whereas others were genuinely curious as to what it was about (thank you forward facing displays!). Standing up and being present, letting them take the lead, was crucial.

#4 Practice that elevator pitch!

I'm not a natural salesman. I'm an introverted, reserved person, so selling my work is hard. It takes time for me to mentally get in the groove of launching into my elevator pitch in a calm, natural manner. I probably missed a sale or two by not giving my elevator pitch because it felt awkward. I had to force myself to give it, and I noticed that if done right, it can really lead to sales because no one knows my work. "3 teenagers are sent back in time with magical brushes, that when you write Chinese in the air, it becomes real." The general response was "Cool!" I spent the day crafting each word in the pitch so it was neither too long or too short, and had all the relevant information to tug at the prospective customer's heart strings.

#5 Your work isn't for everyone, don't take it personally

There were some people who excitedly heard my elevator pitch and forked over money for their issue. There were some people who looked at the sample, perused a few pages, and politely said they would be back around later. Fine. Journey to the Middle Kingdom is a young ages comic. It's for children. Parents loved buying it, but others showed no interest. It hurt at first, because getting the comic from concept to reality required a lot of blood sweat and tears. But if we're being honest with ourselves, an adult who doesn't really like anime style comics, and who is into more adult themes isn't going to be interested in JMK. And that's alright!

I hope this list helped! Check back to the blog later as I record more of my thoughts and my experiences with being an indie comic creator!

Thursday, October 21, 2021

What is the "Middle Kingdom" and why are we journeying to it?

The Journey to the Middle Kingdom series is about 3 American teenagers who travel to the past, to a world of Chinese myths and fairy tales. Their mission is to ensure the stories happen as they should, protecting history and the future. But why is the series called "Journey to the Middle Kingdom?" Where is the Middle Kingdom?

Put simply, the Middle Kingdom is China. Chinese people call their country "Zhong Guo" in Mandarin. We need two Chinese characters to write this out, and they look like this:

The character on the left means "middle" and it's easy to remember this because when you look at it, you see a line with a box in the middle of it. The second, more complicated character is the one for "kingdom" or "country." You might be wondering what Chinese people call America. Well here it is!


The character on the left means "beautiful" and the second one you already know. Chinese people call America "Mei Guo" and the characters have the meaning of "beautiful country." 


So is there any significance to the term "Middle Kingdom" other than the fact it means China? For most of the history of East Asia, China was always a big player. In terms of culture, economics, language, and military might, China was a huge influence on its neighbors and the center of attention. How has China influenced its neighbors you may ask? Here's a quick rundown:

  • Japanese uses Chinese characters in their writing system. 
  • Koreans and Vietnamese also did in the past, but have since dropped Chinese characters for their own writing system. 
  • Buddhism entered Japan by way of China.
  • Art styles for painting landscapes and religious icons are heavily influenced by China. 
  • City planning, astronomy, government...China, China, China.

So in a way, by using the characters for "Middle Kingdom" in a way we learn that China thought of itself as the center of the world in art, literature, language, and technology. And for most of the history of East Asia, it was. 

In modern times, the Chinese economy has grown so much, its world influence has increased, and we can expect that world events will hinge on what happens there. You need only look at the Evergrande crisis to see how the country has increased in influence. This is partly my goal with the Journey to the Middle Kingdom series, to help more Westerners develop an understanding of the culture.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

5 Kickstarter Tips For Would Be Comic Creators

Every day for me is a learning experience. I try to make sure that at the end of each day, I knew more than I did at the beginning. It helps not to rest on your own laurels. I recently did a successful Kickstarter campaign and let me tell you, I felt like a million bucks! But, even while I was fulfilling backer rewards, my mind was working on how I could improve for my next campaign, and what I could do to streamline the whole process. If you're considering doing your own Kickstarter for your comic or graphic novel, these tips will help!

#1 - Create a quality product 

I know, this tip seems obvious, but there's more to it than you may think. Today's entertainment market is so advanced, so flush with different products across different mediums, that all creators are competing with each other to fill the consumer's leisure time. After a long day at work or school, people can sit down and select from 100s of movies, televisions shows, and dramas, listen to bands across dozens of genres, or download and play video games to their console. 

The core of the craft is entertainment. We make comics to tackle with issues, to discuss themes and topics that are dear to us, but at the end of the day, it is entertainment. People will pick up issues of your comic ultimately to be entertained. If your comic isn't top notch, why should the consumer feel compelled to take their precious leisure time and spend it with you?

This might seem harsh, after all, creating a comic book is a lot of people's dream. My point is that we tend to see our own work in a positive light because we are so intimate with it. We WANT our readers to share in the joy of our work, but that mindset may blind us to our own failings. Is each page in your comic the best it can be? Are the color choices correct? Can you explain your themes, sub-themes, characterization, and overall message of your work? 

If you objectify your work you may find that your comic might not be good enough for prime time. Few things are right off the bat! Don't let this be a blow to your ego or cause frustration. Identify an area for improvement and hammer away. Personally, my writing always suffered from flat characters. People who've read my short stories tell me the concepts are great but the characters feel lifeless. I still struggle with that, but it's a weakness I know and can try to improve.

#2 - Your work isn't for everyone, stop pretending it is.

Your work is not for everyone. Everyone will not be interested in it, and that's okay. There are few products in the market today that every human being on the planet buys. Some people like horror, some people like Norwegian Death Metal, and there are even humans who don't enjoy bacon. Your comic is no exception.

This is hard because we like our comic so much we think it has universal appeal. We figure we're right up there with the greats such as Superman or Batman. But even the big name superhero comics are not beloved by literally everyone. 

Remember, comics are for entertainment. Let's take it to the next step. WHY does the reader find it entertaining? Are they imaginative and like to live in fantasy worlds? Are they comforted by the idea of good triumphing over evil? Do they enjoy explorations of human relationships? When you sit down to consume media, you do it to get something out of it emotionally or intellectually. For me, one of my favorite movies is Contact. What do I get out of watching it? I am absolutely fascinated by the concept that there are other sentient beings out there. I want to live in the future where we have amazing technology. Contact fulfills that need. I can't fulfill that need with, say, the Twilight series,which is why I've never seen it and have zero desire to. 

What need does your comic fulfill? That gives you clues as to who would read it. That tells you who would actually fork over hard earned cash.

#3 - You need people who will toot your horn for you.

I'm not a soccer fan. I do enjoy playing the sport but I don't know too much about professional teams. I do know Manchester United. Why do I know the name of this team? The fans. If you think about brand awareness, why you know the brands that you know, it's partially because of people you know who advocate for that brand. 

Humans are always going to take the word of someone they trust over someone they do not. Tell me something: are you more likely to sit down and watch a movie your friend recommended, or one that you just saw an advertisement for? 

Social media gives us unprecedented opportunity to directly interact with fans. You need to make real human connections with people who love your work, because they will be the ones to tell their friends and family. They will be the ones that will go out on a limb and connect you with new people.

#4 - You will spend more time planning your campaign than you will executing it.

This is counter intuitive for most. Fair. You spent your time creating eye catching artwork, constructed a good story, compelling characters, and have honed whatever artistic message you want to give to your audience. 

You have to spend X amount of hours just getting the word out. This means writing press releases, developing social media images, finding podcasters to interview with, reaching out to local comic book stores, getting your stories reviewed, keeping up your Twitter feed.

 There's so much to do that has nothing to do with the physical implementation of your comic book. In many ways, it's just the first step. Be sure to get into that mindset. I've found that "If you build it they will come" is not always the best mantra.

#5 Better Together

Once you are on the road to publish a comic or create a Kickstarter you've entered into a community of artists, writers, letterers, and all manner of people you hadn't thought of. No one is an island. I've learned this very acutely as I am the writer for Journey to the Middle Kingdom, and I very much depend on the talents of Dimas and Novella for the artwork and all the lettering. 

The comics community is highly welcoming and everyone wants to promote their stuff and are perfectly willing to promote your project as well. It's important to reach out, make friends, and don't be afraid to look for opportunities to work with other people. Think of it this way: if you are someone who has a website dedicated to comic news, you WANT to talk to new creators, artists, etc. You WANT to be on the cutting edge and talk about the next explosive comic that will get you hundreds of thousands of clicks.

It's a slog, but I view it like an adventure where I meet new party members week by week. I grow. I become more social. I realize that I have limitations and without other people I can't get to where I want to go.

I hope these 5 tips help you on your Kickstarter quest! Feel free to email me at jtmkcomic@gmail.com with any questions or comments!

Friday, August 20, 2021

JMK Issue #1: Legend of the White Snake Maiden Physical On Sale!

 Very excited to announce that physical copies of Issue #1 of Journey to the Middle Kingdom, entitled "Legend of the White Snake Maiden," is now on sale in our store for only $5! The electronic version has been out for awhile, but because of the successful Kickstarter I ran in July, I was able to do a print run and have plenty available for sale!

10 years ago I had the idea for Journey to the Middle Kingdom. I tried a Kickstarter to get it going, but it did not take off at the time. No surprise, since I was an unknown author with an idea that was pretty off the wall: 3 American teenagers armed with magic calligraphy brushes. I put the project down for awhile, but I got the gumption to start again. I won't live with regret.

I used to study Japanese and Chinese in university and I loved the way Chinese characters looked. It was such a unique writing system. I had a fun time learning to memorize the many characters, and as I learned more, I was able to read all these great stories and tales that I didn't even know existed. I eventually even traveled to China and lived there for a few years.

The beaches of Qingdao
 Journey to the Middle Kingdom marries my love of education, storytelling, and my over active imagination. It's a story about 3 teenagers coming of age. It's a story about two lovers torn apart by a rigid, unbending priest. It's a story about traveling to new lands and finding your place in them.It's a story about what friendship really means. 

The web comic will continue to be published every Wednesday and Friday with a new page. Currently, the web comic is on Issue #2 entitled "The Princess of Yelang Part 1." I wanted the team's first adventure to be a two-parter, so that there would be enough room to tell an epic story. 

Let me know what you think at jtmkcomic@gmail.com! Comments and feedback are always welcome!

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Writing Thoughts: Characterization

I try to become a better writer every day. I read Stephen King's "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" and have read numerous articles from famous writers trying to piece together how to improve. Writing is a hard domain to break into. There are literally thousands of writers of different genres and varying skill levels. Trying to make your work speak to a wide audience, to rise about the din is difficult and sometimes disheartening. I wanted to give some advice to any writers out there who are on the fence about writing their first comic, or novel, or advertising jingle, or what have you.

Today I wanted to share thoughts on characterization. To me pacing and characterization are what make or break a story. You can have a fantastic, creative idea but pacing dictates the emotional beats to your story. Characterization is the framework for the reader to become invested in your characters. If a reader doesn't care on some level about your characters then the emotional impact you expect from good writing just won't be there, and everything falls flat.


When I was a teenager I learned that to make multi-dimensional characters they had to have strengths and flaws. This would make characters come off as real, because in real life, people had strengths and flaws. It made the characters "relatable." This is not a bad idea, however, I think people's "strengths" and "flaws" shouldn't just be static traits, they should flow from the characters inner morality. Sure, your main character in your new detective novel has the benefit of being tough as nails, but is a heavy drinker and can't stay in a stable relationship. To me, that's just the start. I want to know how my character would react given a moral dilemma. 

Here's how the system works: Imagine your character in a situation where they have to decide what to do in a moral situation. Here are some examples:

1. An old woman is being accosted by a robber who is trying to steal her purse. What does your character do?

2.  A friend is accused of a crime, and it's unclear whether they did it or not. He needs to evade the police, does your character help?

 3. A village is being attacked and one of the peasants is trying to save a religious relic from being stolen/destroyed. What do you do?

To me, this process creates richer characters and ones that act more natural. Our flaws and strengths, to me, flow from our inner sense of morality and ethics, or lack thereof. To know what our character would do when pressed helps us deliver smooth scenes where characters act naturally, and it also helps us with the pay-offs in character arcs because changes in characterization will not just come out of nowhere.

To take examples from modern fiction, in Star Wars: The Clone Wars Season 5, Ahsoka Tano is accused of a terrorist attack against the Jedi Temple. She is wrongfully convicted and must escape to prove her innocence. She befriends an old enemy, Ventress, and is hunted down by her master Anakin who is torn between loyalty to the Jedi Order and loyalty to his apprentice. Yes, it's a bit of a trope, there's a whole movie called the Fugitive that had the same premise. But it's a great moral quandary! 

"I'm innocent!" "I don't care!"

Anakin chooses to hold the Jedi Order above his Padawan. This tells us so much about Anakin's mental state and his wants and desires. We don't just say "He wants to be a Jedi" as one of his character traits, we DEMONSTRATE it to the audience by pushing him to literally hunt down his own Padawan because the Jedi Order decided they didn't want to be accused of favoritism. This also functions as one more nail in the coffin to Anakin staying on the Light Side of the Force, because the Jedi Order's actions leave such a bitter feeling inside because on some level Anakin felt he betrayed someone he actually had feeling for, rather than the Jedi Order which he believes he's only obligated to have feelings for. Deep stuff.

Hard to come back after this

In my opinion this is one of the most dramatic scenes and it's also part of the reason Ahsoka is such a fan favorite: we learn about her through her moral decisions in relationship to Anakin. It's why the emotional impact stuck where some other episodes of the Clone Wars may have fallen a bit more flat. Try to include this idea when building the characters for your comic and let me know how it goes!

Tuesday, July 27, 2021


 So in today's installment of Journey to the Middle Kingdom, our three heroes saved an old woman who had clearly been working pretty hard out in the fields. We know Michelle and Sabrina are going to have to rely on Jason to communicate with people in the world around them, but it looks like even Jason is having problems!


Jason lived in Qingdao, China until he was 8 years old, then moved to Oregon with his family. Qingdao is in the north, and Jason's parents and grandparents speak Mandarin Chinese to him at home. So what IS Mandarin Chinese, and why did Jason have a hard time figuring out what the old lady meant?

English has dialects. People who live in Great Britain speak English, people in Canada speak English, Australians, Americans, the list goes on and on. However, if you've seen British movies you'll know that even though it's the same language, there are some key differences. Sometimes these differences are small. I bet most Americans can watch the series "Sherlock" and have no problems understanding. Sometimes the differences make it difficult for one speaker to understand another. The movie "Chappie" takes place in South Africa, and the Afrikaans accented English is so difficult for an American audience they needed subtitles!

Amazon.com: Sherlock: Season 2: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman,  Rupert Graves: Movies & TV
Love the cute British accents

Just like the English language, the Chinese language has dialects. Some are close to each other and others are practically different languages. Mandarin Chinese is the standard dialect. If you turn on the TV and listen to the national news, you'll hear Mandarin. It's used in schools, official communication, television, etc. Most Chinese people speak Mandarin. It's their native language, or they learn it in school or by moving to an area where it's spoken widely. For many areas, though, people know the local dialect which is the language they speak with friends, family, and other locals.