Graphic Novels: An Editor’s Experience Making “The Sons of Liberty”

Editor Nick Eliopulos, spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference about the process of making a Graphic Novel. A self-proclaimed comic-book geek, who was always waiting for Marvel to call, Eliopulos, found his true passion at Scholastic. And to his delight one of his first projects was creating the graphic novel series Sons of Liberty. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, the publishing industry still has a lot to learn when it comes to wham-pow’s and panels. The following is Eilopulos’ journey from pitch to publication.

Producing The Sons Of Liberty:

The Pitch:

  • Sons of Liberty came to Scholastic as a partial script. Included in the submission was the script, as well as some art sketches of characters and concepts.
  • The concept of the book is: Runaway slaves during the civil war get super powers.
  • Eliopulos’ boss loved the idea and dropped the project in Eliopulos’ lap, telling him to figure it out and make this project happen.

Running the Numbers:

  • The first thing Eliopulos did was run a PNL for the project (Profit and Loss). But this was the first challenge of the project. Without anything to compare it to there weren’t other numbers to draw from. Traditionally one pulls numbers from similar titles based on how they’ve performed.
  • New things to consider included heavier paper stalk, paying a colorist and an ink artist separately, etc.
  • There were also multiple markets to consider for sales. They didn’t want to market to the comic-book crowd exclusively. They also wanted to have readers for a normal historical fiction novel to be interested.
  • How the project will perform at a book fair is another consideration. Graphic novels really need the support of book fairs as it’s often tricky to know what shelf to place them on in Barnes and Noble.

Writing and Editing the Script:

  • Most often the manuscript of a graphic novel will look like a movie script. Feel free to use screenwriting software for your project.
  • Other than story notes, important things to pay attention to are actions that will take too long to illustrate. Something like “He blinks” will take at least three panels to make visual. Some things will need to be condensed.
  • There are many different styles to writing a graphic novel script. Some write panel by panel and want more control over the content, while others may mention the general imagery for the whole page. Often a writer and illustrator will work together, this way the script is a bit sparser because the two parties have already discussed the visual look of the work.
  • A good comparison of two different ways to write the same action would be: Version #1: “He hits the guy.” Version #2: “He uppercuts the man, teeth chatter and blood sprays against the wall.”

Thumbnail, Pencils, and Inks:

  • Initially, Eliopulos thought an assembly line model would work best for this project. But he quickly learned that wasn’t ideal.
  • Once the script is in place you move onto the thumbnail stage of the project. This is where the artist draws small quick sketches of the whole book. This is where you see the story come to live for the first time. At this stage you get to see the pacing of the book and overall flow.
  • Revisions on art begin with the thumbnail stage.
  • Once thumbnails are approved we move to the pencil sketches. Pencil sketches are often delivered digitally. Styles vary as some artists are very detailed and others are loose. The benefit of lots of detail, however, is that you can see if the characters have enough variety and emotion.
  • Issues of style can be very important and at the pencil stage is where you really get to see if the style is a match or not. These must all be approved before moving forward.
  • The Ink phase is next. At this point the imagery really starts to come to life, and you get a stronger sense of lighting through shading. It is very hard to edit things once they are inked. Yes, the artist can white out the work, or re-draw it and edit it in digitally. But revisions should try to happen in the pencil stage.

Scanning, Coloring, and Lettering:

  • Scanning the artwork was a new element that Eliopulos did not budget for. (We all learn!) As high resolution scans need to be made for each page of artwork.
  • The colorist comes on board once the work has been digitized and adds color in the computer. The colorist is really an artist in his/her own right. In fact, in some graphic novel reviews, the critics will mention the colorist by name. Color really adds the opportunity to give more depth to an image.
  • Skin tone was an important element of the colorist’s job. They wanted to be sure that both of the main characters had different skin tones that made them individuals.
  • Another example of the importance of color is when scholastic re-published Bone. Originally the work was in black and white, but the company colored the work for its re-launch so it would appeal more to children.
  • Once the artwork was finished one needs to letter the book. This is in fact far more complex than choosing a font and plopping it into the novel. Fonts are important! How will you communicate sound effects? Do you use uppercase or lower case? What about actions like Wham-Pow? Emphasis is also important. Using bold letters can stress certain words.  And will the text even fit in the space the artwork left for it? You can’t change the art at this point!
  • Lettering was another extra expense that wasn’t originally accounted for.

Sales and Marketing:

  • It was important to loop in the sales and marketing people as soon as possible so they could see the product.  They can’t just fall back on their standard bag of tricks for this project, it needed to reach multiple markets.
  • New things we had to learn included: Using a new distributor (Diamond, who distributes to all of the comic book shops), or how to use Comic-con to promote the book.
  • The exciting thing about promoting a Graphic Novel is there isn’t just a cover image to use to market (as you would use with a novel), now you have a whole book full of beautiful art you can use to market with.
  • There is lots of confusion about where the books will be shelved in the book store. Do they go in the graphic novel section? Often times this section is a complete mess. Some stores have juvenile graphic novel sections now, but one really has to gauge the age of the audience. There’s no clear answer.
  • Categories are really important to book stores so this is one of the major marketing challenges.

About Nick Eliopulos and What He’s Looking For in His Submission Box:

  • He used to be a reader for Marvel and read their slush submissions.
  • He’s looking for the same things in a graphic novel that you would look for in a regular novel.
  • He likes high concept books, as they are easier to sell.
  • Non-fiction is harder to sell, but he’s not against it.
  • A voice driven book is difficult, but if the voice is stellar then he would be interested in it.
  • He loves the graphic novel Ghost World personally, but that is probably not what he is looking for to publish.
  • Loves Scott Pilgrim and this would be more of what he is interested in.
  • He is interested in a novel to graphic novel mash up.
  • He likes to see series potential in a submission, but like submitting novels the first one should stand on its own.
  • He is not interested in publishing “floppy” comic books, only graphic novels.

Coming Soon! A second post from this session with Nick Eliopulos featuring questions from the audience and additional information on the graphic novel market!

Nick Eliopulos is an editor with Scholastic, following a 5-year stint with Random House Children’s Books. He has edited many middle-grade and young-adult titles, including the Tapestry series, The Pricker Boy, Unfamiliar Magic, and the forthcoming Sons of Liberty graphic novel. He has also worked on chapter books, cutting his teeth as an assistant on the Magic Tree House series.

5 thoughts on “Graphic Novels: An Editor’s Experience Making “The Sons of Liberty”

  1. Pingback: SCBWI LA 2010 – The Quick Take Away « Ingrid's Notes

  2. this is SUCH a mystery to artists! thanks for these thoughts and details!…. what is YOUR definition of “high concept” for graphic novels….always curious. 🙂 c

  3. Chris,

    My interpretation of “high concept” (for any property) is as follows:

    High concept is what your book is about in one line, but that one line alone is enough to make you want to read the book. Even if someone told you the book was bad, you might still pick it up because the concept still intrigues you.


    “Inexcusable” By Chris Lynch: The story of date rape from the point of view of the guy, who doesn’t realize he’s raped someone.

    “Jurassic Park” By Michael Crichton: A theme park of cloned dinosaurs goes awry when the dinosaurs get out of their cages.

  4. Pingback: Demistifying the Graphic Novel « Ingrid's Notes

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