Nailing Page One
Written by: Michael Lent
The con panel I was on had just wrapped. During the event, we answered several process questions which can be complex and boring for some fans who don’t care to hear how the sausage gets made. So it was a good sign that a sizable portion of the audience hung around for my panel mates and me to sign our respective books. A few fellow creators also wanted to discuss struggles they were having with their own work – finding publishers, how writers could find artists, artists looking for suitable material — that kind of thing. On the panel, we had tried to give practical, take-this-and-use-it-right-now information that empowered people to take the next step in telling their own stories, but it seemed like each answer sprouted two more questions.
The last guy waiting for me opened a binder containing sample pages of what he hoped would be his first published book. The cover was interesting but once inside, it was hard to get a bead on the story, at least from a cursory pass through. So I went back to the first page, realizing that it failed to establish both the narrative and the author/artist’s voice. Without truly planting his flag, the pages meandered both in story and tone. It was kind of there but blurry.
Not wanting to offend anyone, I handed the binder back to its creator and wished him luck.
“I just want to make a comic that doesn’t suck,” he said in a way that told me he had received a similar reaction from others.
Unfortunately, we were being kicked out of the conference room to make way for the next panel, so I recommended that he find a way to give his book both stronger visual and emotional impact, starting with the first page. Since this was a DIY effort, I also urged him to check out the books and community on ComixCentral. I’m a big fan of the site and of Leigh Jeffery and her team’s vision. For sure, it was barely half an answer but the best I could do with the time allotted.
Fellow creators might feel that it’s hardly fair to judge a book by just thumbing through the pages. I would agree except that that is exactly how most of us make our choice on what to read and what to buy. We all thin-slice our first impression starting with the cover. If that checks out and looks cool, most readers will turn to the first page. I live and work in Los Angeles where you can throw a rock in a coffee house and hit five writers. Especially here, people are always worrying about things like how to get an agent or how to land a gig with Marvel or one of the studios or production companies. To me, those things are fake priorities. Even if you land a good agent by blind luck, you won’t be able to keep them unless you know how to tell a story. That becomes apparent when you realize that potential readers are experts at deciding on whether something is worth checking out often based on the first page (not who is the agent or even the publisher). Even a top publisher can’t make a bad book sell.
When discussing the idea of first page impressions with ComixCentral editor Joey Sheehan, we decided it might be cool to bring together a creative team to discuss the challenges faced and respective goals for that all-important page one.
It just so happens that we’re finishing page #1 of a new indie series called THE LYNX. It’s so fresh that we haven’t locked a publisher, yet.
Joey, the team and I agreed to share the script page, low-res roughs, as well as discuss goals and methodologies for setting tone and hooking the reader, etc. The culmination would be the first pass at a completed first page of THE LYNX along with everything that went into creating it.
We all know how much work goes into a comic, even one that misses the mark, so this blog is an attempt to do a better job with my answer at the con. Hopefully, the creator who attended that panel followed my initial advice to check out ComixCentral and will find a better response here.
The following team members, me, Vittorio Garofoli, Carmelo Monaco and Marshall Dillon (two Americans of partial Scandinavian descent and two Italians), are presented in the order that they came into the process. Note that even if you are an indie one-man band doing everything yourself, you’re still consciously or unconsciously making choices and compromises for the sake of the other processes.
Designated Top Writer of 2018 on Quora.com with more than 1.2 million reads, Michael Lent’s transmedia writing and producing experience spans film, fiction and nonfiction books, biographies, graphic novels, animation, video games, and reality television.
Writer of more than fifteen graphic novels and comics including i, Holmes (currently in development as a television series by veteran producer David Rambo (Empire, Revolution, V, CSI), Prey (Marvel), Brimstone (Zenescope), graphic novel nonfiction bios for Orbit including Keith Richards, Stephen Hawking, Stephen King and JRR Tolkien. Lent has adapted both Stephen King and E.M. Forster.
Lent has written eight books including On Thin Ice, published by Disney/Hyperion, based on the top-rated reality television series Ice Road Truckers. Research for this project entailed one winter in the Arctic.
Producing credits on seven films including the upcoming animated horror movie MALEVOLENT starring William Shatner, Ray Wise and Morena Baccarin, and IF YOU’RE SERIOUS, shot in Fenghuang, China and nominated by the Academy of Sound Editors for the Verna Fields Golden Reel Award for Sound Design in 2014.
THE LYNX is an homage to Lent’s Scandinavian roots.
Most of the background for writing THE LYNX are in the script section that I have included with Blog #2 (didn’t want to slow the flow). My experience has been that it helps to give editors and artists as much background as you can so that they can make an informed decision regarding whether they want to be involved. Basically, I always wondered about pre-marauding, pre-Christian Norse life, so, for more than a year, I read translations of Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda by the great Snorri Sturluson, and Codex Regius (“The Royal Book”), as well as researched the pre-10th century time period. I watched Youtube lectures in the field by the esteemed American scholar Dr. Jackson Crawford. I even started learning Swedish which came in handy at IKEA.
By no means an expert, I came away intrigued by the idea of a time even before the House of Aesir (Odinn/Thor/Loki/Valhalla) was solidified in Norse consciousness. The sixth century was that period when TWO sects of Norse paganism vied for adherents. On one side, was the Aesir with Odinn and his posse of warrior Gods On the other side, the Vanir with Frey and Freya, practitioners of shamanism, sorcery, prophecy, and some very gnarly sex rites.
In the close confines of relatively resource-starved Scandinavia (a major reason for the Viking raids that were soon to follow), it was inevitable that the Gods from both houses would fight an epic war. It was the sword vs. the wand. Often you would have a clan of people who worshipped the Aesir living alongside a clan of Vanir mystics. When one clan raided another, they took slaves who were assimilated into the rival clan. Imagine a young mystic woman forced to become the wife of an Aesir-worshipping chieftain.
To me, those are the seeds of a good story. For a series to attract readers and go the distance, it has to have deep roots and be about something.
So your first priority as a creator is to make sure you have an idea that can carry a multi-issue story arc. The formula is PGA+:
+Why do we care?
There should be a juxtaposition or conflict between images and what we’re reading. The result creates a dynamic tension that will engage readers in an active way (versus clichés that invite only passive interest).
Conflict is a steel cage death match between ideas where only one can prevail. For example, say your underlying theme is that our inner-humanity is the only thing that can ultimately save us as a species. But then you create a main character who is basically good; however, because of bitter life experience, he or she believes in the inherent dog-eat-dog savagery of our universe. Well, we are headed for a throw down between you the author, the character you created (who thinks you are full of crap), and your reader who is participating in the spectacle.
Page #1 is your chance to introduce this conflict between theme and main character, plus grab the reader with interesting visuals and not let go.
P.1 questions you should ask yourself are:
What is the setting and scope?
What is the situation?
Is there a sense of whose story this will be?
Here’s an example of a great first page script:
1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
Book of Genesis: Chapter 1/King James Version
Some creators and readers will argue that it is the first THREE pages that make the book. Page one creates the dynamic tension for the smash, a splash page that crushes it. That’s fine because essentially this formula is a continuation and payoff of the Page 1 setup.
Check out Batman #655 by legends Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert.
As I said in the intro, the first page of a new series represents an opportunity to slam your flag into the lunar surface and claim a reader’s attention. For that you’ll want a hook, namely something that is provocative that they may not have seen or heard before. All too often we writers and artists squander our chance to do that. On a side note, as a writer, I’ve learned to refrain from overusing splash pages because they can become a crutch (much like flashbacks or voice overs in movies) and many readers have become desensitized to them and see them as filler. Above Morrison and Kubert should their appropriate use for maximum impact.
Of course, none of the above sees the light of day unless you can clearly convey your ideas to the artist(s), colorist and letterer.
THE LYNX is a fantasy story; however, when discussing the narrative with artist Vittorio Garofoli, we agreed that his realistic style was crucial because to the people in this story, our fantasy was their reality. Mysticism was all around from birth to death and was an ordinary law of the universe in the same way that we treat gravity. What you will see in Vittorio’s art progressing from extreme roughs to the finished ink is an understanding of the story and control of the images to create a unique universe.
With colorist Carmelo Monaco, it was important to build upon that reality, as well as convey things like the temperature dropping 20 degrees from one panel to the next. With both Vittorio and Carmelo as Europeans living in the seat of the Roman Empire, you feel their intrinsic understanding of lore, conquest and war in a way that many of us Americans and Canadians can’t. Sometimes Vittorio would send me pics of him literally hiking among ancient ruins. When it’s in your backyard, you get it.
Letterer/designer/editor Marshall Dillon seized all the elements like a pitbull with a pot roast.
Here’s the setup for the series and script for Page One (as I said, the setup and intro for the series is included in a bonus Blog #2:
Written by: Michael Lent
Art by: Vittorio Garofoli
Color by: Carmelo Monaco
Lettering, Graphic Design & Editorial contributions by: Marshall Dillon
Cover by: TBD
Two wagons in a procession of humanity seen in silhouette traveling from right to left across a pockmarked Nordic winter landscape. Some walk with horses, there’s a dog or two; however, the procession is somber and respectful. In fact, the whole village has turned out for this trek.
NARRATOR CAP: Mid 6th century in the Vendel Era, a.k.a. “The Prehistory.” Four hundred years before Christianity comes to the Norse lands. This is a savage, cold land of peril and mysticism. In short, a difficult time to be alive.
GAUPA NARRATION: Thorvald Hildibrandr our hǫfðingi*, our clan father is DEAD.
GAUPA NARRATION: He was my father…
Editorial Caption: * Hǫfðingi – Chieftain
Note: With his narrations Gaupa speaks directly to the reader.
The procession passes the mother of all trees where human and animal sacrifices hang. Again, show these in silhouette. Also, let’s limit the number we show here to maximize impact with the next panel.
GAUPA NARRATION: He lived life well, so it is a day of celebration.
Let’s fire both barrels by pulling back to discover that dozens of such sacrifices hang from the tree. In keeping with the narration, let’s show a bear and lamb hanging side-by-side.
GAUPA NARRATION: As a blood sacrifice, many of our slaves were given. With my bare hands I myself killed a lamb I raised from birth and put it in the tree with the others.
GAUPA NARRATION: My brother, Ulf, killed a bear in the same way.
The wagons approach a huge shale pile by a massive waterfall. We can see icicles where the falls are partially frozen in the intense cold. Snow along the parameter of the slag pile.
Norse men hack at a hole from the frozen, stoney ground. Behind them, we see the winter sun far away and low in the sky. Time’s a wastin’. The next page helps give a fuller sense of what we’re seeing.
Note: there are many fine Norse books that will show typical winter garb for this period. Let me know if you need specific photo reference.
Every man must perish,
Only reputation endures.
ML Again: So now we hand things over to artist Vittorio Garofoli to see what he can make of the above.
Garofoli has been a comic book artist for seven years, following three years of study at the School of Comics in Palermo, part of the prestigious Milan School of Comics. Faculty credits include credits on projects at Disney, Bonelli, Marvel, DC, Soleil and many other well-known entertainment companies.
Garofoli began his professional work at for Zenescope Entertaiment working on the long-running series Grimm Fairy Tales. He also worked on the well-regarded Dorian Gray series for TidalWave Productions. Garofoli has drawn for independent books and editors including CCTVYLLE, as well as various Kickstarter projects.
Interested in history, Garofoli loves the Viking Age and has studied it extensively, especially in preparation for this project. He is a devoted fan of the Vikings television series.
Currently, Garofoli is at work on the comic book miniseries CCTVYLLE by Italian writer Gianluca Bonomo who lives in London. CCTVYLLE is a despotic, sci-fi story. He drew the third issue last year and is now at work on the final two books.
Although I like drawing various kind of comic books, I usually draw in a realist art style for all genres whether they are superheroes, spy story, historical, sci-fi, or fantasy. My drawings are simple and classic. A realistic style dictates that I don’t have any particular signature elements or flourishes with my drawing. That said, I like to draw backgrounds with as many details as possible. I prefer to choose writers and subjects which are almost the same of my art style.
As an artist, the hardest challenge for me is to keep a faithful idea of the script according to the vision of the writer. Moreover, it’s very important to have constant feedback with the writer. This was especially crucial with THE LYNX because Michael Lent writes in American English and English is my second language. Also, the script calls for a lot of Old Norse words. When you’re trying to adapt yourself to the script and story, language barriers force you to go slow and carefully. So feedback is essential. If a writer isn’t clear about what they want, there can be misunderstandings.
Besides following the script, I did a lot of research which was fun because I love so the Viking period. In fact, I’m a great fan the of Vikings TV series. I watched various movies dealing with that period, as well, and I used the series and the films for reference. Additionally, I read Torghal, a fantasy/sci-fi French comic book that’s set in the Viking age. Online research included “Atlas Obscura,” which is called “an explorer’s guide to world’s hidden wonders.” On this site I discovered an authentic Viking village movie set in Iceland that I used as reference source for the village in THE LYNX story.
For Page #1, my first goal was to bring readers through the harsh way that Vikings lived and the difficulties of their environment. For this reason, I decided to show the procession of travelers across the panels. It’s winter. The way is slow and difficult. We move past a tree with animal and maybe human skins that is mysterious and shocking. A reader wants to know what is happening in this strange place.
I sent the rough to Michael and then waited for his reaction:
Michael liked that all the details from the script were covered so we were ready for the next step:
As you can see, things are coming together pretty good, so after another exchange of emails, we were ready to continue.
A page should stand on its own merits even before color. I think we succeeded.
I recommended Carmelo Monaco for the coloring because I liked his work and was confident he would understand this story.
Now we move on to color with Carmelo.
A triple threat, Carmelo Monaco is an Italian comic-book artist, illustrator and colorist. He lives and works in the city of his birth, Catania, Sicily. He studied at School of Comics in Palermo, where he got his degree in 2013, focusing on digital 2-D animation.
Previously, Monaco worked as a background artist for Grafimated Cartoon on the feature film ”I Vespri Sicliani’.” (The Sicilian Vespers). The story is adapted from Guiseppe Verdi’s classic grand opera of the same name.
Since 2013, Monaco has worked as both artist and colorist for many comics including the long-running French series Totally Spies! Publishing credits include Disney, IDW, Tunuè, and Mondadori.
Monaco has taught anatomy for comic books and visual storytelling in the School of Comics in his hometown of Catania since 2015.
Carmelo’s interest in the subject matter and desire to work with artist Vittorio Garofoli brought him to THE LYNX. Currently, he is at work on a couple of other projects that he’s not at liberty to discuss.
In my own experience, collaboration between colorist, writer and artist can be heaven or hell. It really depends on people’s character. Sometimes the writer or the artist (or even both) are so emotionally attached to their project, that they start questioning every single choice you make as color artist… or asking for so many corrections, which really are way unfair, especially when looking at the budget and time constraints. I want to make the best possible product, but I think people need a fair amount of space, objectivity, ”artistic freedom” and, yes, confidence to do the best job possible. With Vittorio and Michael, I had none of these issues. I would be very happy if I could work with them both all the time.
Well, when you color the first page of a new project, it’s all about fun and excitement. For THE LYNX there were a few firsts for me. Going in, I had no idea what would work because I never worked with Vittorio before — even though I had known him and his work for years. Certainly, I am familiar with his style, a realistic mainstream style, like Bryan Hitch and that kind of artist (which I enjoy).
Another first: writer Michael Lent and I had not worked together before but he had been working with Vittorio who recommended me for the project. So I read Michael’s script and found it very interesting. A good script inspires you visually and I could see that Vittorio had come up with a lot of special things visually.
I’ve never colored a Viking fantasy story, but I know what kind of color style usually combines with this art. I decided to let things just happen, like floating with the process, but keeping in mind an underlying structure for what to do. It’s like swimming where your feet touch the bottom when you need to; however, because no matter what you’re coloring, color theory always works the same way. And that’s a sort of parachute you as the colorist must have, especially in pages like this, which are more about ambience and atmosphere, than characters.
I also did research. I looked on internet for references, I collected a fair amount of images, from tv shows, from movies about Vikings, and really a lot about sunshine and snow, from reality, from animation and video-games art books and even watercolor paintings (I am a big fan of watercolor artists, I love the medium) and then I was ready and started coloring the page.
The first page must be intriguing and exciting for the reader, as much as the cover. It’s like a handshake — the way you present your product to a possible reader — so you don’t want to fail in that.
My main strategy for the page was to show different day lights through the panes to give a sense of time passing. I think about colors in comics as I think about a movie soundtrack. It’s good so long as it doesn’t overpower the images and the interpretations. I never bought a comic book because of the colors, because in the end, if the color is ”too much,” you can’t really read the story. And comics are all about telling a story, not watching beautiful images. That’s why I use textures and different brushes with different textures on, but I don’t want the results to be extreme.
The most challenging element regarding Page 1 was the wooden boat on the final panel. I tried different colors with the goal to separate and make it pop (’cause it’s on the first plane) in contrast to the rest of the last panel.
When I was fairly satisfied, I sent it off hoping Vittorio and Michael would like it.
Color is such an emotional thing — I never quite know if my choice will work for the writer and the artist. But I always try to give a credible deepness, as happens in the real world. Since, this was the first page of the book I felt I had to nail it before we could go further with Marshall Dillon and lettering.
Lettering, Graphic Design and Editorial Contributions
A comic book industry veteran, Dillon got his start in 1994 during the middle of the indie boom.
Over the years, he’s been everything from an independent self-published writer to an associate publisher working on properties like GI Joe, Voltron, and Street Fighter. Dillon has done just about everything except draw a comic book and has worked for just about every publisher except the “Big Two.”
Primarily a father and letterer these days, he also dabbles in old-school paper & dice RPG game design.
Like Michael Lent, Dillon also has Scandinavian roots and has studied the history, customs, mythology and language through the on-line lectures of American scholar and poet Dr. Jackson Crawford of the University of Colorado, an expert on Old Norse. A particular thrill was a recent trip to Iceland with Dillon’s family.
Previously, Dillon and Lent collaborated on i, HOLMES (Alterna) and worked at the Colorado-based game company Slime Sandwich. Currently, Dillon is at working on the long-running Wayward series that will end with Issue 30. For more on his upcoming projects see Blog #2.
What drew me to this project? Vikings. What? You want more? I’m more or less 1/4 Swedish, 1/4 Irish, and half various other northern European ethnicities… so that means I’m more or less a bastard son of the Viking process. I like that I know of the culture. I like the good movies and TV shows I’ve seen. I like the mystery surrounding what little we know of the Vikings. There’s very little written by them, and most of that comes from later centuries when they’d settled down so the tales were already anachronistic by the time they set them down on paper.
As far as the choices and challenges I had in lettering Page 1 of THE LYNX, we’ll hopefully be having a video to go along with this at some point soon, but for now, I’ll try to summarize. When lettering you make choices about balloon style, caption style, and font style, as well as how you want to convey emotion. Is simply bolding a word enough or do you need to make it larger? How do you want to handle shouting, how do you want to handle the subtitles of speech, the pauses, the UMs, the AHs, and the emphasis implied by the speaker. All of these things happen for me when I start a new project. Often it takes the whole first issue to work out the basics.
My priorities are STORY. Always. We all serve the story. How to make the lettering mesh with the art and convey the intent of the writer and the artist — that’s the primary goal. To this end, Mike and I have talked at length about this project. I did a deep dive on the script and came back with notes. Lots of notes. And some questions. That’s my editorial side kickin’ in. Plus, Mike and I have worked together before. We both know the drill.
I haven’t really discussed anything with Vittorio or Carmelo yet, but we’re pretty early in the process. Right now, there isn’t anything specific to point out except that so far it seems that the landscape is a character and my choices will honor the landscape as much as possible. I’ll be staying out of the way as much as possible but leading the eye as needed. It’s a dance.
The main lettering font is one of my own design. It has most international characters, so the Old Norse language should work pretty well. I also have a rough runic version of the same font so we can drop in runes as needed. The font itself was designed to be pretty straight forward and thin — similar to the way most stone cut alphabets are so, again, I think it fits in stylistically and story-wise.
This is the first pass through on the very first page. I will continue to look at the page to make everything is balanced. Once we have a logo worked out I can make adjustments to the top part of Page #1 (or we can omit it entirely).
Check back next week for Part two of this special guest blog series where we learn more about this creative team and what other projects they are working on.
Follow: Michael Lent
Follow: Marshall Dillon
Follow: Vittorio Garofoli
Follow: Carmelo Monaco