punycorn by andi watson, a funny middle grade fantasy graphic novel

The Steps to Creating a Graphic Novel: Andi Watson on PUNYCORN

punycorn by andi watson, a funny middle grade fantasy graphic novel

The day has come! PUNYCORN has arrived.

Who is PUNYCORN, you ask?

He's just the sweetest, bravest little can-do unicorn in the land of Carbuncle! Who takes on evil Sir Ogre with the help of Wheeze the allergic dragon! And P'oo the dung beetle with the strength of a thousand men! Not to mention the pacifist sword Bloodgutter!

PUNYCORN is, in other words, a very funny middle grade fantasy graphic novel by legendary indie comics creator Andi Watson.

I could go on and on about how much I love this book, but instead I'm going to share some creative process info from Andi below.

Andi is a true comics pro, having written or illustrated or written and illustrated more than fifty comics and graphic novels. (If you want to see the full list, check out the jaw-dropping bibiliography on his website.)

A few months ago, he wrote a detailed description of how he created PUNYCORN in his newsletter. He kindly gave me permission to share his words here.

Andi Watson on His PUNYCORN Graphic Novel Creative Process

ANDI: Starting from a detailed synopsis, a Word file of roughly 13,000 words, I needed to break the story down into thumbnails. That way I could work out what I could keep and what I could cut in order to fit within the maximum page count (224 pages). Depending on publisher, genre and various other factors, not least of which cost, a book has a page count range you are expected to fit within.

My normal thumbnails are extremely primitive, barely legible visual shorthand to get the rough idea of the rhythm and number of panels on a page. That is fine when I'm the only one who needs to read them. When I have to communicate directly with others, an editor in this case, they have to be at least legible.

I grabbed my scrap paper and pencils and got to work. I scanned the results, and because other humans have to be able to read them, added text via a font rather than my (awful) handwriting. After sketching out the first 50 pages I shared them with my editor. They looked like this:

graphic novel layout example: punycorn page sketches by andi watson (middle grade fantasy graphic novel)

The early feedback I got suggested that the editor and I had different ideas of what counts as "thumbnails." I felt like they were expecting something closer to what I would consider pencils. I would need to tweak my process again and present them in a more polished form.

However, I'd still draw thumbnails on paper to work out my thinking -- example below from the second book in the series:

graphic novel creator sketchbook: andi watson's thumbnails for graphic novel series PUNYCORN

I'd invested in an iPad and Procreate and discovered it was the quickest way to get the thumbnails/pencils done while integrating them with text. I re-drew many of my scratchy pencils on the iPad. It's a lot easier to manipulate images digitally and saves the chore of scanning artwork.

This is how they look after I'd changed up my methods:

procreate graphic novel pencils by andi watson for his middle grade funny fantasy graphic novel punycorn

After I'd had my notes from my editor I re-drew certain panels and changed pages to address them. I re-worked some scenes, cut others and added some new ones. That resulted in the pages falling differently in sequence, moving from the left hand to right hand of facing pages.

After the edits are approved I can move onto inking. With my previous book The Book Tour, I didn't pencil it all before I inked it. I did both together, page by page, using pencil and pen on paper.

For Punycorn, as I'd already pencilled the entire book and I was staring down an approaching deadline, I decided to ink Punycorn digitally. It would be quicker, skipping the boring process of scanning artwork, and would make it easier to edit. I simply inked over my existing thumbnails/pencils.

Inking requires less brain work. It is more about muscle memory and perseverance. After the initial rush of doing something new after months of thumbnails/pencils, it settles into the challenge of meeting the daily page count without my brain melting out of my ears.

The solution for me is to listen to podcasts and audio books while I put in the hours.

This is what the inked pages look like:

inked graphic novel page example by andi watson from his middle grade funny fantasy graphic novel series PUNYCORN

For The Book Tour, I lettered the pages by hand on the page. Because Punycorn had to pass through the hands of editorial, copyedits and proofreaders, the assistant editor/designer (everyone is overworked in publishing) created a font from my lettering specially for Punycorn to make it easier to edit.

After the notes are addressed and the inks are approved, I can start on colours. As the art is already digital I hop on over to Photoshop to colour the line work.

Colour requires much more decision-making than inking, but it still boils down to a lot of repetitive pointing and clicking, so I keep the podcasts coming:

sample final colored graphic novel spread without lettering, from PUNYCORN, a funny fantasy middle grade graphic novel by Andi Watson

The lettering is combined with the colours in the final part of the process.

After addressing notes for the colours, the book continues its journey through the publishing process. Roughly one year after I finished, it appeared on the shelves (hopefully) of your local book shop.

Learn more and order PUNYCORN here.

Watch the AWESOME (one minute!) book trailer here.

Find out more about Andi on his website. Connect with him via his newsletter here, and via Patreon here.


Interview with Andi Watson

Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you decide to become an artist?

Graphic novelist Andi WatsonI’m from Kippax, a small town near Leeds in the north of England. I grew up close to streams and a wood and split my time between being active and ‘laking out’ (playing with friends) and staying indoors drawing. I enjoyed the company of my friends but also loved being engrossed in my own private world of drawing TIE fighters and other imaginative stuff. I would go through periods of being a ‘hermit’ and wanting to be left alone to draw and eventually that side of me won out.

Perhaps I answered the call of the Dark Side, to overextend this metaphor, but I find I work best when left to my own devices.

I became an artist because I enjoy writing, drawing and making stuff up. I still get a kick out of a good drawing or gesture, a line of dialogue or plot progression. There’s a lot of talk about the dopamine hit of social media, that little bit of pleasure from positive or reinforcing feedback. I think my brain is wired, or has been trained through obsessive practice, to get a little dopamine hit, or equivalent, from creating. Also, drawing and reading was all I really was interested in or any good at.

Kerry and the Knight of the Forest character trading card from back matter, written and illustrated by UK indie comics artist Andi Watson

How do you start your day?

Make breakfast in bed for my wife. She works a 9-5, although it’s rarely that short a day. So I make breakfast and would normally have made a packed lunch for my daughter during school term. She’s just graduated school so I won’t have that as a pillar of my routine anymore. In fact my life will be quite different when she goes to college. I’ve been a stay-at-home-dad throughout so it’s going to be weird.

Interior page from literary adult graphic novel The Book Tour by Andi WatsonWhat does your workspace/studio look like? What aspects of it are most important to you?

It’s the front room of our Edwardian terrace house. It has a handsome period fireplace. I have a writing desk as well as a standing desk I cobbled together from an Ikea bookcase. I have an uncomfortable wooden chair for when I’m drawing and a comfortable chair for when I’m writing. I try and keep the clutter under control but as it’s a workspace, I accept it’s not going to feature in a photoshoot in Elle Decor. I’m surrounded by books which makes me happy.

I have tried working away from home in the past but I find it more convenient to have everything close by. Like a couple of footsteps close by. I have often wrestled with separating work and home life but eventually accepted defeat. To some extent I’m always at work. My brain is whirring away in the background on whatever problem that day’s work has presented, regardless of whether I’m at home or in a studio. I am better at letting it go and taking the evening off now, though.

I like that I can shut the door. I’ve worked in a variety of spaces over the years, kitchen tables, a cupboard, I even had my own building for a while. It wasn’t part of our country estate but a small attached laundry room that was just big enough for me and a drawing board once we’d taken the washing machine out. It’s always nice to be able to close the door and not be interrupted, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. Especially if you have small children.

Indie comics creator Andi Watson's home office in Worcester, UK

What’s your favorite medium, and why do you love it?

I guess my first love will always be prose. That’s where I first fell in love with stories. I admire writers and their mastery of language. I have always found writing difficult so am in awe of anyone who can work the magic with words that really talented writers do.

As far as my own favourite medium to work in, obviously it’s comics. The alchemy of words and pictures. It has its own magic in combining the two. I have hopefully created something greater than the words and images separately. It is also really really hard to master. If it was easy I would have gotten bored and done something else years ago.

Kerry and the Knight of the Forest interior page image, written and illustrated by Andi Watson: a middle grade fantasy graphic novel

What tool has improved your workflow or creative process recently?

For my most recent book, Kerry and the Knight of the Forest (out now from all good bookshops), I added the use of a chinagraph pencil to my familiar pens in order to develop more texture to the art.

As I’m struggling with writing a new graphic novel for grown ups right now, I’m not using anything more complex than a pencil and scrap paper. I’m wrestling with plot and character rather than mastering a new tool.

As far as software goes, Janna has introduced me to the full range of teleconferencing software out there to conduct meetings. Before that I’d avoided Skype and the like. I sometimes even manage to appear on screen at the right time.

Black and white page from Kerry and the Knight Forest, middle grade fantasy graphic novel by Andi WatsonWhen you’re feeling “artist’s block,” what do you do to get “unblocked”?

Usually blame myself for being talentless and assume no one else goes through this. Truly talented people have no shortage of ideas, right?

Of course not. Being blocked can mean all kinds of things, from struggling with a story (me right now) to feeling some effects of burnout.

I think the important thing to remember is that you are a human and not a comic-making machine. I know that’s difficult to keep in mind when it’s your job — you’re freelance and you need to make rent. But no one is 100% creative every hour of the day. Do this long enough and you will realize there are ebbs and flows. Sometimes you are peaking, everything has come together and you are doing your best work and it feels effortless. Others you’ve hit a trough, you feel like you are struggling to do the very basics adequately despite working harder than ever. That is totally normal. Do not beat yourself up.

It’s nice, if I can, to do some personal stuff unrelated to what the market wants. A mini comic, or something on the web, a poster or just give myself time to doodle in a sketchbook. Take time to remind yourself art is fun and pleasurable, not just another grinding march towards a deadline or a way to make money.

Even if you’ve created a dozen books you’re still going to have to start again at the foot of the mountain and begin something new. The good and the bad news is it never gets easier. But anyone who wants an easy life would not choose comics.

Interior black and white fantasy comics page by indie comics creator Andi Watson

What’s particularly inspiring to you right now? Where do you go when you need a dose of creative inspiration?

I have a bunch of prose books on the shelf facing my table, so if I’m feeling a bit flat I’ll pick up a volume of Pinter or Beckett and read a few lines. Or Evelyn Waugh or Lydia Davis or whoever. They are distant enough from comics I don’t have to worry about being overly influenced.

 

What’s a favorite project that you’ve worked on so far in your career? What did you love about it?

Often the project before last is my favourite. On a most recent project the wounds are still fresh. I see the flaws and I’m sick of looking at it after working so intensely on it.

So my book before last was The Book Tour which came out in France in 2019. It’s coming out in English from Top Shelf in November and it’s the book I’m most proud of at the moment.

It’s a book I did without telling anyone about it. I just decided to go ahead and make this one and didn’t really worry about publishers and whatnot until it was done. It came together really well, the art and story are in perfect sync. It was one of those rare occasions where I knew I was working on something good while I was working on it. Usually there’s lots of self doubt and second guessing myself, but this one I was happy with throughout. I managed to balance the dark and light, drama and humour and dialogue and action.

French edition of The Book Tour by Andi Watson

What is your dream project in the future?

No one single project, I just hope I get the opportunity to make more books, tell more stories and get better at it along the way.

 

What advice do you wish you could give your younger self?

Probably what I periodically remind myself: remember that it’s supposed to be fun. There are any number of other ways to earn a living, or half a living, so if you are gonna choose this one, enjoy it.

Fantasy adventure graphic novel for kids Kerry and the Knight of the Forest by Andi Watson

How do you balance work and art with personal life?

See above. Sometimes I feel I’ve got it right and others I know I’m out of whack but perhaps the circumstances, a tough deadline for instance, means there’s not much I can do right at that moment. It’s a constant struggle. The pressure to produce can be intense, externally and internally. The worst thing I’ve done in the past is stress out at stressing out about work/life balance.

I wrote and drew a monthly book by myself for a year when my daughter was a toddler so I’m probably not the best person to ask. In retrospect that was super dumb. But it did teach me that I had to put family first. I’ve done a fairly good job since then. Not always perfect but I haven’t felt that same intense mixture of frustration and guilt I did then when I was working harder than ever and still failing on the important stuff.

I try to take evenings and weekends off.

I just recently discussed some thoughts on this subject in my newsletter here: https://andiwatson.substack.com/p/the-real-thing

Sketch page by indie comics artist Andi Watson

What’s an example of a past rejection or “failure” that ended up helping you? How did it help?

I’m not sure I subscribe to the idea that iron sharpens iron. I’ve never got a harsh crit or review and thought “I’ll show them”. My ego likes a good review as much as the next person and rejection still stings, but I’m not really the type who when they receive a critical kicking, shuts myself away, weeps tears of rage and produces my masterpiece. I just keep working away trying to get better.

To be honest, I have enough self-doubt of my own not to get overly concerned about external criticism. Of course, I’m also small enough of a person to wish painful gout on all my critics 🙂

The only thing I used to do in the days of rejection letters was keep them as scrap paper, flip them over and sketch or write new ideas on the back. That was my revenge, keep making new stuff.

 

How do you maintain your art career? Either in terms of marketing yourself, or developing multiple income streams?

I have maintained a, I hesitate to call it a “career” — a career assumes some sort of upward trajectory whereas mine resembles the flight path of a butterfly — through sheer stubbornness. Or lack of transferable life skills.

I have made it difficult for myself in switching genres, art styles and age groups. It might have been more sensible to find a niche and stick to it. Of course one person’s niche is another’s rut and I’m keen to avoid those.

I don’t have any specific practical advice, but broadly I would suggest the best way to maintain a career is to maintain enthusiasm. For some that might be drawing Batman everyday for the rest of their lives. For me I like to try new things.

Follow your passions, hunches and interests whenever possible. Returning to personal projects and putting aside commercial concerns can help refill my enthusiasm for the medium.

Graphic novels by Andi Watson, one of the best indie comics creators

What are you working on now?

Right this minute I’m working on this script for a graphic novel for grown ups. And I also have a pitch out with publishers for a new middle-grade book. Whatever happens, I’ll keep on making comics.

Punycorn by Andi Watson, a middle grade humor fantasy graphic novelConnect with Andi Watson:

andiwatson.info

Andi on Instagram

Andi on Twitter

Andi on Substack

Read Andi Watson:

Kerry and the Knight of the Forest

The Book Tour

Glister

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula

See more art by Andi Watson!

Contact Me About Andi