Author Spotlight Series · graphic novel · middle grade novel

Graphic Novels Combine Words and Images to Create a Unique Art Form

Read this post, then leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of SUPER SIDEKICKS #3: TRIAL OF HEROES by Gavin Aung Than.

Graphic novels are not a genre. They are a unique art form capable of telling a story in any genre: superhero, romance, horror, sci-fi, memoir or anything else you can think of. My previous project, Zen Pencils, told all of these types of stories using comics. For my middle-grade graphic novel series, SUPER SIDEKICKS, I wanted to create a graphic novel my 10-year-old self would have loved to read. Superheroes? Check. Dinosaurs? Check. Lots of jokes and adventure? Check. Characters who cherish their friendship above everything else? Check. The third book in the series, TRIAL OF HEROES, sees the team take part in a deadly challenge in order to prove their superhero bona fides. In the scene below, the Super Sidekicks first enter the ancient temple where the ‘Trial of Heroes’ will take place and meet the mysterious Guardian of the Temple. Here’s my process:

Click on the image to enlarge.

I often get asked during my school visits whether I write the story first or draw the pictures? It’s understandable that some might think that since graphic novels are made up of text and images, that the two are separate and removed from each other. But the truth is that I am doing both at the same time. They are very much intertwined. During this layout stage (which is referred to ‘thumbnailing’) I am very roughly ‘writing’ the story with images. Similar to how a storyboard artist might layout a film. But, I am also writing the script at the same time. These layouts are extremely rough and sometimes I can’t even recognise what the heck I’ve drawn when I go back to look at them. Laying out a graphic novel is like solving one gigantic jigsaw puzzle: How many panels are on each page? What size panels? Which characters are standing where? What kind of shot or camera angle am I using? Where do the speech balloons go? How do I make the reader want to turn the page? I liken making a graphic novel to building a house, and this stage would be the architect drawing up the plans. My main goal is to convey CLEAR STORYTELLING. If the reader is ever confused about what is going on then I have failed!

Click on the image to enlarge.

Once the entire book has been thumbnailed and the script written, I move on to pencilling. I’m still old school and do this stage using traditional media: good ol’ pencil and paper. At this point, I’m not concerned about making mistakes or for the drawings to look perfect. What I’m aiming for is ENERGY – for the characters to be dynamic and engaging. This is the whole reason I fell in love with cartooning: drawing funny expressions, energetic movement and exciting action. I don’t want the characters to look boring, stiff or unbelievable. Once I have pencilled the entire book (this probably would have taken about 2 months) I scan all the pages and add the text in Adobe InDesign (my former career as a graphic designer comes in handy). The lettering part is probably my least favorite, but it is a nice feeling seeing the book come together. Continuing my house metaphor, this stage is like building the house frame and making sure the foundations are strong!

Click on the image to enlarge.

‘Inking’ is a classic comic book term for the process of going over the pencils with pen or ink in order to achieve that nice, clean, black line art that comics are known for. With the advent of digital coloring, some artists skip this part and directly color over the pencil work in order to save time. Like I said, I’m old school, and inking is my favourite part of the process. I still do it using traditional media. Many artists these days do both the pencils and inks on the computer, some do the whole thing on their iPad. I’ve tried to go digital in my process but always return to the traditional method. Nothing beats the feel of pen on paper. With all the hard writing and pencilling part done, inking can be a meditative and, dare I say it, joyful experience (if my deadline stress isn’t too intense!). It’s also the longest part of the process and can take many months to complete.

For the color, I was lucky to have the very talented Sarah Stern do the colors for Super Sidekicks. This was the first time I had my work colored by someone else and it was an absolute thrill to see Sarah’s finished pages being sent to me. As you can see, they totally make the characters and action leap off the page. The inks and color are like adding the paint and all the beautiful finishes to my graphic novel house!

Graphic novels are a unique blend of prose and art that is unlike any novel. I hope I’ve given you some insight into this art form which I love so dearly. Yes, it’s a mammoth undertaking, filled with moments of creativity and the joy of doing one’s craft well, but it can also be mundane, full of dread and hopelessness. I guess in that way, it’s JUST like writing a novel!

If you know children who love Dog Man, The Bad Guys, HiLo or the Investigators, they will love SUPER SIDEKICKS!

Gavin Aung Than

Gavin Aung Than is a New York Times bestselling cartoonist. After working in the corporate graphic design industry for eight years he quit his unfulfilling job and sold his house to follow his true passion: drawing comics. His current project Super Sidekicks is a fun-filled action adventure middle grade series that pays homage to the superhero comics Gavin loved as a kid. He lives in Perth, Western Australia with his wife and two daughters. You can find him on Twitter or Instagram @zenpencils.


  • This giveaway is for a copy of Super Sidekicks 3: Trial of Heroes by Gavin Aung Than. Many thanks to Penguin Random House for donating a copy of the book to one of our commenters.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Super Sidekicks 3: Trial of Heroes, please leave a comment about this post by Sunday, May 8th at 6:00 a.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Thursday, May 12th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
    • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
  • If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – ZENPENCILS. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Congratulations to Debbie Lynn whose commenter number was chosen to win this giveaway.

12 thoughts on “Graphic Novels Combine Words and Images to Create a Unique Art Form

  1. 1. THUMBNAILS, 2. PENCILS & TEXT INPUT, 3. INKS & COLOR, so clearly described the process to create a graphic novel. My 9 years old son who read “Dog man”, ” Captain Underpants”, and “Star Wars-Jedi Academy” in the past will surely enjoy your books. From a mom who is learning how to write in English alongside with her son thanks to all TWT posts.


  2. Oh boy! Looks like I have a new series to buy for my boys. I loved getting a glimpse into your process. Thank you!


  3. My granddaughter loves graphic novels and illustration. She is 11. I just shared this post with her. I am currently a literacy coach in Vermont.


  4. The very first time I saw a graphic novel in the hands of one of my students, I thought, “That’s not a real book!” But then I read one to ‘keep up with the students’ and really enjoyed it. And they get some ‘nonreaders’ engrossed in reading and that’s A-OK with me! I even had some students more willing to write if they could include small illustrations along the way. So now I’m a graphic novel fan! 🙂


  5. My class is currently authoring a graphic novel right now. I love that this article breaks it down by the author’s step-by-step process! Can’t wait to share it with my ELA classes! Also, pretty excited to share a great, new graphic novel with them. 🙂


  6. I can not wait to share this with my 4th graders who are obsessed with graphic novels and this series! We love hearing from out favorite authors! Thank you!


  7. I teach writing to 5th graders and can’t wait until our last unit – graphic novels! I’ll be using your article with them to help my classes learn about the process of creating a graphic novel.


  8. I love hearing about how you value the energy in the drawings, the funny expressions, the “camera angle,” and how you plan for the reader to want to turn the page. I enjoyed learning about your process and thanks for the correction- I am sure I have called graphic novels a genre!


  9. A firm believer of the power of graphic novels. I appreciate how you’ve laid out your process and acknowledged all of the hard work and love that goes into writing a GN. Can’t wait to read the new Super Sidekicks and add it to my classroom library!


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