Illustrating a Graphic Essay & Artist / Writer Collaborations

I’ve recently completed the graphic essay ‘From Stigma Power to Black Power’ in collaboration with Sociology Professor Imogen Tyler, so I thought I’d make a note of the process for anyone else who’d like to give making a graphic essay a try.

Illustrating an essay is different from creating a comic from fiction, because it doesn’t always have characters or settings in the same way. There were chunks that didn’t lend itself as naturally to visual storytelling, so I had to be more abstract at times.

I can break down my interpretation method into 3 types: Quotations, Explanations & Story.

  • Quotations

When there was a quote from a source i’d illustrate the author of that quote.

I’d find a video clip of them speaking passionately on the topic and would pause on them mid-speech, so that I could capture the energy behind what they are trying to say.

I like to capture their unique facial expressions and hand movements in this way, because photos are usually taken with them smiling at the camera. Not as effective.

  • Explanations

I had to get a bit abstract to get some concepts across.

I’d note down all the associations I was getting from the explanation and would choose the clearest one to help communicate what was being said.

For the idea of ‘Stigma Optics’, for example, I took a pair of glasses as a symbol for a way of seeing that can be removed at will, and shaded in a racist interpretation of black people in the shape of Jim Crow to symbolise the relevant type of stigmatisation that the essay was focusing on.

  • Story

There were some narrative parts to the essay, so I basically applied the same process that storyboard artists go through when they take the script and visualise it for the screen, or in my case, the page.

For some parts I recalled scenes in films that were similar to what I was reading, found the clip on youtube & rewatched it, making thumbnail sketches of the way the scene played out.

When the Greensboro Four were doing the sit in at the lunch counter, I was lucky enough to have a direct reference to the lunch counter scene in the film The Butler.

stigma graphic essay work in progress2

My Process

I’ll number my process into steps, and will refer to Imogen as the writer so that you can use this as a template if you ever want to do this sort of work.

1) Visualising the Essay

First thing I did once I’d read the essay and had agreed to do the collaboration, was re-read the essay again.

I did this before asking the writer what she wanted to see, so that I could:

    • Generate ideas by establishing my own personal vision for the piece 
  • Ask better questions when we next spoke

I printed the essay with 2mm margins between the lines. This is so that I could highlight key scenes and annotate, sometimes with tiny little thumbnails, as I went along.

This took me about an hour, because all I was really doing was generating rough ideas of what I could do with it and how many pages it would be. I didn’t want to commit to anything before I’d had a chance to run it by the writer.

2) Creating a Mood Board

Once I had an idea of where I wanted to go with it, we met up over Skype to answer any questions we each had.

I clarified how much creative freedom I had with interpreting her essay, and asked her to send over all the reference photos & links to resources that I could use, to save me some time and guesswork, and also to get a feel for the era I would be putting to paper. A sort of mood board.

3) Illustrating

I started putting ink to paper. I prefer to just get the easiest stuff out the way first, before planning the layout, reasons being:

    • When I’m having fun I’m more likely to just get started on the project
    • I feel motivated by the amount of work I’ve already done to keep going
  • and it means I have foundations to build on

I started with illustrating portraits of the authors of the quotes. I like doing portraits best, so I started there.

Whenever there was a story-like narrative, I took the references the writer had sent me of used video clips and google images to get key scenes.

They were all over the sketch book, I didn’t worry about which ones I would use or in what order or where, I just got down a bunch of relevant imagery for the essay.

The last thing I illustrated were the abstract concepts – some of these illustrations didn’t come to be until the last minute.

While I was doing the inking part I put relevant documentaries on in the background. It educated, motivated and inspired me as I worked, so I highly recommend doing this when working on a graphic essay in particular, or for any creative project.

4) Layout

Now I had all these illustrations, I could start to arrange them on the page.

In my third reading of the essay I drafted a layout, and with the drawings I already had in mind I could place them alongside the segments of text in a way that fit.

This part meant a lot of editing: what parts of the script I’d keep, change or get rid of, getting rid of illustrations I liked but didn’t fit, making new illustrations…

The layout drafting part consisted of a pencil and a4 paper with 6 boxes representing the pages of the graphic essay. It would be the template for the final version of the graphic essay.

5) Final stage

I scanned everything into photoshop and set about cleaning, arranging and editing.

This took the longest time out of everything because I had to type out the script & make changes as I went. Even after I had ‘finished’, it was the start of many typo corrections between me and the writer, as I’m not the most detailed oriented person :’D but this turned out to be ideal though, as I was able to make small improvements over time.

And that was that, 44 pages of a graphic essay, complete!

All that was left to do was the front & back covers, the Intro, the Bio, and to turn it into a PDF for online viewing & print with Mixam.

stigma graphic essay work in progress

A Note on the Materials Used

The writer contacted me based on an ink drawing I did of James Baldwin, so I knew that my ink drawing was the style she wanted, and I agreed that it fit with the graphic essay really well. It was about a stigma based on skin colour, black & white, like ink on the page.

Things I’d Change

I couldn’t have asked for a better writer, nor a better project proposal to come through my email box earlier this year.

It’s been my first commission of this size, so if I were to do a project like this again, another graphic essay in collaboration with a writer, I would do a few things differently.

Starting with the script. The essay was a great one, but the academic language didn’t always lend itself to comic form easily, which meant a lot of reading, re-reading, highlighting, editing, typing and retyping, which lead to many typos. Next time round, and Imogen agrees, I’ll be leaving the script editing mostly to the writer, for me to copy and paste into the comic pages, saving me time.

I’d also like to meet up in person to do the edits – Skype was all well and good but we both would have had an easier time if she was sitting right next to me.

I’d also use better paper made for ink, instead of making do. In the end it just meant using more ink because the paper was too absorbent.

The Writer – Artist Collaboration

Academic essays can create barriers between the writer and their audience.

Could be the specialised language, the wordy format, the complex concepts…whatever it is, they’re not always easy to read,

Which is a shame, because essays are typically made up of the collective knowledge of passionate, intelligent people who have something important or at least worth saying on their chosen topic. Well worth the read.

Which is why I love graphic essays.

That is, the visualisation of those concepts into comic form.

In the one I did with Professor Imogen Tyler, the aim of the original article was, in her words, “to expose some of the limitations of the American sociologist Erving Goffman’s influential account of stigma (published in his book ‘Stigma’ in 1963).”

In graphic essay form, we hope that her research is more accessible by giving a face to the black and marginalised voices in the field of sociology. 

Hope that helps,

Buy this graphic essay here

if you have any questions, feel free to comment below.

More information on the choices I made surrounding the graphic essay ‘From Stigma Power to Black Power‘ click here.

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