Graphic novellas are somewhat of a lost art in 2021. That’s a shame, because there are plenty of stories that would be better served at the 40-80 page range. Graphic novellas have more room to breathe than a comic book and more succinct than standard-length graphic novels.
Luckily for anyone who misses graphic novellas, Ryan K. Lindsay has recently embraced the format, writing Eternal for Black Mask Studios and the SHE for Comix Tribe. I was thankful for the opportunity to interview Lindsay about his work on the books, the craft that goes into writing graphic novellas, and why we don’t see more of them.
You explain in the afterword that Eternal became a graphic novella almost by accident, since the original script was only 24 pages and grew longer by Eric’s suggestion. Did that flip a switch in you and encourage you to develop more graphic novellas?
It did, but only once we saw print. Before that, I was writing one-shots at single-issue length based on the economy. It was a project I could manage on my own, it was a length an artist could commit to, and it was something we could affordably print and send into the world. I’d written a few before Eternal – Fatherhood with Daniel Schneider was my first ever comic, and the first issue of Deer Editor with Sami Kivela was designed as a one-shot single issue. I then ran Kickstarters for Ink Island with Craig Bruyn, Eir with Alfie Gallagher, and Stain the Seas Scarlet with Alex Cormack to produce single-issue stories that could stand on their own and it was amazing to see each project come to life in that format.
Eric was down to make Eternal as a single-issue thing, and we’d do a Kickstarter for it – and once we knew we had that control over everything, Eric decided we should use that chance, we should go big. So he scaled his pages out to European size, rather than US standard size, and he thought we could make something a little more square-bound, so he began tinkering with his layouts to push the story a little further. While we were doing that – and this process took a long time, from inception, scripting, initial art, then Eric getting The Dregs picked up at Black Mask with Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson, and then we dove back into it – I had published Beautiful Canvas with Sami Kivela at Black Mask and I was asked if I had anything further to pitch, so Eternal was something I passed onto Matt Pizzolo there and he loved it, fully embraced what we were doing, and from that moment, once we hit the shelves, with our big pages, our spine, our beautiful smelling paper, I was all in.
I’ve continued to pitch minis to publishers, as is the kind of thing someone does at my station in my writing career, but I’ve balanced that against a healthy chunk of OGN material, and it’s really the thing I want to make more and more of right now.
You explain in the afterward that Eternal clocks in at 42 pages rather than 24 because Eric wanted more space to explore the themes visually. Were the additional pages scripted or did they come entirely from Eric?
I love working with Eric because he and I click in a way that’s part work, part collaboration, and part friendship. When he sent back the new round of thumbnails and he’d blown the script up into nearly double the length, I was so happy and impressed. He took some scenes and stretched them into extra pages, 1 page becoming 3, that sort of thing. He took some moments and added more, and brought his own ideas, and I’d then retroactively fit them into the script. Sometimes I’d script over his art, just riffing on it, and sometimes because he’s the letterer, Eric would just change up other pages that were drawn exactly from the script but would benefit from dropping a caption.
I remember asking Eric once, did he miss some captions from the script, and he said, twinkle in his eye, that he saw them in the script, yes, he knew they were there, but he didn’t exactly “miss them” when he left them off the final lettering pass. He just didn’t think the page needed them. So I sat there, reading his email, reading his lettered page, reading my scripted page, and looping through those for about ten minutes, and then realising he was completely correct and so I thanked him for his work making it all a better end product.
Despite the extended page count, Eternal never feels padded because every page, every panel contributes to the emotional core of the story. What can a writer do to make an artist feel comfortable offering suggestions that improve or expand on what’s in the script?
I think just setting up that balance from the very start. Talk about wanting their input on the story, their notes and thoughts on the script, and that the script is a foundation, not a blueprint. If they want to structure a page differently, do it. If they want to add/reduce panels, do it. The artist is the visually trained professional, I just make the words, so I let them know that upfront, and remind them of it sometimes.
I always try to trust my collaborators and run behind their blocking, and I try to never be precious about what I’ve written And that doesn’t mean I’ll take every single note, but I think that by taking a lot of their notes on board [about quality of story, or the type of thing they want to draw, or the cadence of a line] then that also adds weight to the times where you do disagree because it’s not like you’re always combative, so you must have a reason. Just being honest about the relationship and about the story makes all the difference, I believe.
With such limited real estate, virtually every page of a graphic novella needs to contribute to the core plot and themes. Did that feel like a constraint writing SHE or did it help focus your attention squarely on SHE’s narrative and emotional arc?
I find I write stories like a kid hunting for cutlery in the bottom of the washing up water in the sink. I fill the sink with boiling water, I add the soap and everything I need, and then I grab a long drinking glass, insert it into the water, and I look through it to cut through the suds to find the one utensil I’m going to shoot in and grab before I get burnt. [Wait, does anyone else do that?]
I build worlds, and structures, and whole societies and organizations, but then I focus in on a main character and develop their character arc as best I can. In Negative Space with Owen Gieni, I created this whole corporation that mined human emotions, but that wasn’t the story, the story was Guy Harris wanting to kill himself and being held back by something. So in SHE, the narrative accouterments are the Turbine, and the different planets, and the black hole parties, and these creatures that harbour a huge secret – but the story is really just She trying to deal with a type of grief. I worry sometimes I hyperfocus on the core of the main character and leave too much other stuff on the table, but with a graphic novella, you have good reason to do this. I want this hardcover to deliver a gut-punch of a ride that starts you off with SHE in one place, takes you through some turns, and leaves you in another place completely.
SHE has a very small cast. Was that key to giving yourself enough breathing room for every character to get the attention they deserved?
Yes, definitely. You’re cutting it fine as it is, so instead of having a random character interact with the story for just 2 panels, you try to make it a call back to someone you’ve already seen so you can use as much of them and their story as you can in the space given. In fact, that’s been something I’ve learned, slowly, over time – instead of creating a new character, sometimes even a whole new race or location, to serve a plot point, I can try to see if a previous character works just as well for that moment/purpose and use them so things tie together a little more neatly.
How is writing a 60-page graphic novella distinct from developing three-issue miniseries, both in terms of pacing and marketing?
In terms of pacing, it means I don’t worry about slicing it all into even thirds – like I did previously with Chum, a 3-issue mini I did with Sami Kivela at ComixTribe. When you do a mini, each issue needs to feel like its own little 3-act structure beast, but with an OGN I can think of the whole story as one large 3-act, or 5-act, narrative brick. And as such, some acts can be shorter, some can tease out for world-building or character connection, and I don’t have to worry about dropping that final page lure every month. Doing the OGN lets me get a little more experimental with scene length, and whether to go linear or fractured for the flow of it all.
As for marketing, well, that’s a tricky one. With an OGN, you only have to get it in front of reader’s eyes once, but that also means you only get one chance to get it in front of reader’s eyes. Doing a miniseries means you get plenty of chances/excuses to hype your book, but by issue #3, it feels redundant because most people aren’t joining you with #3 out of 4 issues. So there’s an economy of effort at play, but that flips into an economy for the reader, because they have to trust you and buy the whole thing upfront, whereas trying a single issue is easy, it’s a disposable cost.
I do like that we can send reviewers and retailers the whole story in one PDF because it’s all done. That way they can judge with certainty whether they think we stuck the landing and if they should buy a whole bunch of the book for their reading market, which I hope they have with SHE.
Have you found some publishers more open to publishing graphic novellas than others?
Probably more than would have half a decade ago, but it’s still a hard push. I’ve been told that the single issues give you an excuse to talk about your book for months on end, and that becomes a good half a year trailer for the trade collection. Not to mention you’ve got reviews to show proof of quality once it comes time to try to sell the trade collection. Publishers like that model, they know how to use that model, it’s familiar, it mostly works, so they’d rather stick with it.
I hope more recent OGNs coming out slowly turns more publishers towards accepting more OGN, or graphic novellas.
Why do you think graphic novellas are significantly less common than 100+ page graphic novels and even comic book one-shots?
They’re a tricky sell to everyone along the path to getting a comic made. Does a publisher think it’s long enough to tell a meaty tale to entice readers? Do retailers think it’s worth whatever price you put on it that’s no doubt well more than a floppy single issue? Do readers think they’ll get a satisfying tale out of that length?
I think if you’re going for a bound collection, then the feeling is that readers want something thick for their money, so you might as well go for 100+ pages, easily. Anything less, if it reads too quickly, then people won’t want to pay more than they would for an oversized floppy at half the size. It’s all about perceived worth, and conceivable quality.
But I think taking into account the time of the artist to illustrate every page, and the truth that some stories need more/less room than others just by their very nature, is also something we should always consider. The story should dictate everything else, every time.
At this point, between Kickstarter projects and traditionally published works, you have an incredible amount of experience writing shorter-length comic stories. How will that experience aid you when you inevitably begin writing your first ongoing series?
I love the optimism of that word “inevitably,” and I can only hope it comes true as I’d love to write something more ongoing one day.
I think writing shorter stories will help me most when it comes to thinking about the structure and tone of every single issue within a larger run. An ongoing comic is one very large story, but like life, these stories are sometimes made up of powerful vignettes, and that ability to write something that stands alone, within the rest of the story, and hits an emotional home run is really important. I’ll always think of the single-issue stories Ed Brubaker would drop into his Daredevil run and how powerful and memorable they were.
Those are the sorts of things I’d love to tackle in a larger run, and hopefully writing stories like SHE continues to hone my skills for that inevitable moment.
Follow Ryan K. Lindsay on Twitter @ryanklindsay and be sure to check out his graphic novellas Eternal and SHE where fine books are sold.