Over the last year and a half, my main side project has been a comic book/graphic novel about my dad, the last remaining Eel Catcher in the Fens of East Anglia in England. I didn’t set out to make a proper book, but as time progressed it became more and more of a real thing until I ended up self-publishing and releasing a graphic novel which has sold well and has had lovely feedback. I learnt a lot through this process and thought my journey would be worth sharing to perhaps give you some ideas and belief in your own projects, after all, if I can do this, so can you!
I’ll break this post down into several sections to walk through how/why I did things.
- Why I wrote it, where I got the inspiration, and what the stories actually are about.
- Why I chose comics as a medium
- My Process
- The importance of getting in front of people to review.
- How/why I went about self publishing and launching it.
- Why I think it’s resonated with people and got good reviews etc.
Why I wrote it.
Dad is an Eel Catcher, that’s a pretty strange job, he catches eels, which are pretty strange creatures, we grew up in the Fens, with is a VERY strange place, and we grew up really poor… This meant there’s quite a bunch of absurd tales from my childhood and the way my family had to deal with life, struggling to make ends meet at the whims of nature. Some days we had no money, other days we had NO money. This forces you to see the funny side of life, because you have no choice to and to find humour and positives in sometimes really hard times.
There’s too much to write here, but this sense of the absurd is all the inspiration I needed, I’ve been telling the stories about my dad’s life and adventures down the pub to my friends for years, and whilst I’d never tried to write a comic before my sketchnoting had given me confidence enough in my (realtively limited) drawing ability to have a go.
You can find inspiration EVERYWHERE, from small interactions with strangers, from looking out your window, from people watching (I recently sat opposite a strange guy on the train and came up with a whole backstory to him and his life). Don’t be afraid to find inspiration from personal stories or things that you might want to shy away from, or think you need a complete world mapped out, you just need a tiny spark of an idea, and to put pen to paper and start.
Why choose comics?
Comics are all about shiny spandex clad superheroes battling galactic threats and saving the world from certain doom right? Well yeah, that’s the common perception… but they’re SO much more than that, they’re also about personal stories, offbeat lo-fi humour, weirdness, love, life, laughter, hard issues. There’s literally no rules or limits to what goes into a comic, and some of the most powerful stories ever such as Maus, Persepolis, Joe Stacco’s diaries from Palentstine and countless others have been captured and documented in comics.
To me they’re the perfect medium, you need no special equipment other than a pen and a paper, and as I mention above there’s no rules, you can do things with comics that you can’t with any other medium and they’re truly accessible to all to create. All you need to become a comic book creator is to create a comic and call yourself one, so that’s what I did!
As mentioned above, I never really set out to make a completed book, initially my idea was to create a few funny pages to give friends and family a bit of a giggle. So my process was fairly rough and ready, I literally just sketched out some rough thumbnails to get the general idea of the structure of the story, then put pencil to paper to draft out each panel before inking overand adding narrative.
After a while I managed to get an iPad Pro, and using the Procreate app traced over my original fineliner pages, this was a time consuming but actually very important step, in allowed me to create cleaner lines, more solid blacks and add a extra layer of depth using shading etc. These all meant that the final product printed better and at a higher quality as a result.
My stories are supposed to be funny, but they’re also true, and truth sometimes contains things that made be hard to deal with. For instance, my dad played a small part in the case of Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who shot two burglars resulting in one of their (Fred Barras who was only 16) deaths. I wanted to be respectful of that kind of thing, whilst my dad’s part in the saga is humorous, someone did actually die.
To that end I made sure I researched correctly from newspaper articles etc to ensure I wasn’t being too frivilous when dealing with the darker details.
As for the rest of the stories, most of them are about my family, and whilst my mother wasn’t so keen on some details being shared, I felt we have nothing to hide or be ashamed of so I have the freedom to share and laugh at ourselves with impunity.
In the end I ended up with 5 main stories and some smaller one pagers to flesh out more of dad’s life and occupation.
I’ve also always been a big fan of underground art, rock poster art and zine culture, so I wanted to fill things out and break things up with art pages, activities and photos. Not only could I tell extra stories, give extra insights and increase the mythology of the trials and tribulations of Spalt the Eelman, I could be playful with pop culture, and my other interests such as music, it was also an opportunity to make my little niece think I’m the coolest uncle ever by including her in a book! This wouldn’t work if I’d set out to write a set of short stories, but choosing a comic as my medium enabled me to be a lot more playful and varied.
Putting things out there
Friends and family will always be nice about your projects (and that’s super important!), but with any creative endeavour you need to put it in front of people who don’t know you, your stories or your plans. Only people who have no initial frame of reference can give you honest feedback and help you jusge if what you have is good or not.
Share snippets, work in progress videos, gifs, process shots, all the behind the scenes stuff, it all helps build the connections and generate interest.
I spent some time on social networks searching for comic review sites and bloggers and sending them copies of my work right from the start, in some cases I only sent them rough scanned in copies of the stories as I was making them, I didn’t wait until I had the final product, I shared and asked for feedback continually throughout.
Luckily something clicked with the reviewers and a wealth of positive reviews came back, this gave me confidence to continue, and it was at this point I decided I could/should actually turn it into a full ‘proper’ book.
Another knock on effect from this was creating merchandise around it, I’ve always liked stickers, badges, posters etc so now I had the Eelman ‘brand’ I have an umbrella I can hang these things under. It also give you more content to share and artifacts to create. Most importantly of all, it’s fun! There’s now stickers of my dad’s face in remote Mexican marketplaces, on top of Germany’s highest mountain, and in Brooklyn, they’re all over the place! It all makes it seem part of a bigger movement, and I always enjoy coming up with new designs for these kind of things.
Why I chose to self publish.
There’s thousands of articles out there on the pro’s and cons of self publishing, but for me, once I’d made the decision to turn this project into something ‘real’ I wanted to see it through to the end myself.
I was lucky enough to have enough savings to print a couple of hundred copies so that’s the option I went for, I mapped it all out, worked out where to insert the art/pages and smaller elements to both break up the beats of the stories whilst contributing to the overall narrative in the right way and starting laying it out.
For a while I considered using Kickstarter to crowdfund the printing, but having helped a friend with a kickstarter project I felt that would add an extra layer of admin and promo of top of what I was already doing, I didn’t want this to feel like ‘work’ and therefore minimising my responsiblities to others was a key part of that.
In the end I learned that providing you have a couple of hundred quid, self publishing basically boils down to a having a tolerance of lots of poorly designed forms and a bit of email organisation.
I have to say though, that when those boxes arrived, printed and put together by the immpeccable Comic Printing UK. (seriously, go there for your small press needs, Rich is a great guy, with great service, great value and most importantly a great product) I felt really proud that I’m managed to create a DIY project, without skimping on quality.
You do need to put in some work with the promo however as there’s no-one there to help you. I packed backpacks full of Eelman books and walked around shops knocking door to door to see if people would take them, and hoped that anyone who bought it liked it enough to tell their friends. Luckily they did, and I sold out of that first batch of 200 in just 7 weeks 🙂
I think an essential part of a creative process is to approach the world with an open mind. Expect nothing, but appreciate everything, don’t set out to conquer the world,you’ll only be disappointed, but take things step by step by step, and with every positive bit of feedback, or step forward, REALLY appreciate that, turn it back into your work and use it as a springboard for the next small step onwards.
No one is responsible for the success of your work other than you, so don’t ever blame people if they say ‘no’, or don’t like your work, it’s just not their bag, that’s totally fine. Approach things with an open mind, from a place of thanks and appreciation and gradually, piece by piece, provided you’re open to it, you’ll be able to construct the right jigsaw puzzle for you, your work, and your audience.
Why has it resonated?
It’s almost impossible as the person who wrote it to know why people like it, but I’ve been blown away by the response I’ve had to my silly stories. Something in there resonates with people.
I’m not sure whether it’s the humour, the honesty, the glimpse into the strange world of the Eelman or a combination of all three, people seem to really connect with it and that’s so amazing.
I think it might be that the way my dad has approached life, or the bother he’s caused my mother over the years perhaps connects with people on an everyday level, maybe there’s a bit of Eelman in us all, and my book has held up a mirror to that.
Now it’s out, people like it and it’s sold a healthy amount of copies I think I can consider The Eelman Chronicles a success on the terms I wanted to achieve for it, but I don’t want to stop here. I’ve started on Volume 2 and alongside that will now work towards getting it picked up by a publisher as I’m fairly confident that once people read it, they’ll like and perhaps there’ s a wider audience out there.
I’m also pretty proud that I worked this out step by step, started and finished a cool project, and most importantly made my niece and nephew think I’m super cool 🙂
If you’ve read this far, I hope there may be something in it to make you think “I could have a go at that” if so, PLEASE DO. The world needs more of your stories out in it, and comics are such a fun and accessible way to start, like I said right at the start if I can do this, then so can you and I really hope you try. Please share your works in progress with me as you go, I’d love to see them.
The hardest part is starting, but once you do, creativity and confidence grows and grows, so pull out that pad, grab and pen and start drawing!
Thanks so much to everyone who has supported and encouraged me this project, I appreciate it more than you can know.
If you’ve made it the bottom, and haven’t checked the book out yet, here’s a link to a free download of the first story included in the book so you can get a taster, grab it here.
You can find me on twitter at https://twitter.com/ChrisSpalton come say hi!
Till then… TIGHT LINES.
How I approached self publishing my graphic novel side project: The Eelman Chronicles was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.