As we’ve stood Vengeful Ghost up and run it pretty successfully for the last six months, certain resources have been invaluable: blogs from folks like Jim Zub, Chuck Wendig, and ComixTribe; newsletters like Milkfed Criminal Masterminds and Orbital Operations; talks with folks like Monica Gallagher, Kata Kane, and Rafer Roberts. Folks who have blazed the trails ahead of us, sharing what they know so we can stand on their shoulders.

I’m not an expert. I’m figuring things out like an old man in a dark room, with lots of stubbed toes, cursing, and forgetting what I was doing in the first place. My shins are all scraped up. There have been a couple falls to the floor. I figure if I talk aloud while I’m stumbling around, though, it’ll help me keep track of where I’ve been–and maybe someone else will get some value out of it, too.

I’ll start with an overview of our process here at the Ghost. If you like it, you can tell me what you want to hear more about.

We work in 6 phases:

  • Parker works accidentally
  • Parker works on purpose
  • Smart people work it over
  • Artists work their magic
  • ?
  • Profit

Parker works accidentally

This is probably the most important part of the process. I get ideas for projects from a lot of different places. Project Delhi came out of reviewing a piece of work for a friend. Lhotse came from playing a video game. Seoul came out of a GIF on Twitter, and Makalu came out of a random post someone left on my Facebook wall (which isn’t called a wall anymore, had you realized that?).

I watch TV. I read books. I write longhand almost every morning (thank you, Julia Cameron), sorting out detritus from the day prior and my dreams and whatever else I’ve got rattling around my brainpan. And eventually, at some point…

I’m talking with my wife. I’m writing in my book. I’m looking at someone else’s work, taking it apart, seeing how it ticks–and I think to myself: Oh. This is a piece. This is a story.

And I sum it up in a line in the back of my notebook and try to stop thinking about it. Seriously. I’ve got enough projects in the hopper that I don’t want to be distracted, but I also don’t want to forget, so I write a little note like “Listicle + Crime” or “”Hospice Bank Robbery” or “Hyperlocal Supers Aftermath”, something that sums it up enough to jog my memory later.

Parker works on purpose

When it’s time to take on a new project, I glance over this list and see what calls out to me, and I start working on purpose. My job is to build the skeleton of the story, and I work out-in. This generally takes 4 passes, in which I try to answer specific questions, which I’ve cobbled together with resources from Shawn Coyne, Cullen Bunn, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Steven Pressfield:

  1. What’s the beginning, middle, and end of this story?
  2. What scenes make up each of those pieces?
  3. How long do they need to be?
  4. What emotional switch gets thrown in each scene? How does each scene change the status quo?

Once that’s done, I’ve got a pretty good outline and it’s time to start writing. It’s interesting (and different from a lot of other creators I know or have listened to) that I don’t really know much about the characters at this point. I care about them a whole hell of a lot, but they’re kind of stick figures. I know what emotions I’m going to give them, I know how they’re going to start, continue, and finish–but I don’t know who they are.

That comes as I actually write the script, which comes next. I go page by page, generally from beginning to end but not always. I try to follow the outline and I try to get it done as quickly as possible, but inevitably little problems crop up that have to be corrected. Shawn Coyne is absolutely correct: TK TK is magic. An editor’s mark that means “to come”, it gives me permission to fix those problems after I’ve finished my first draft.

Then, I do another pass. I fill in all the TKs. I double-check each emotional switch: is there still one in every scene? Does it feel real, feel right? Did an extra, dead weight scene sneak in somehow? I do this by building a Story Grid (more on that later, if y’all want to read it!)

Around this time I start looking over my shoulder for menacing figures wielding red pens like fire axes–I start looking for editors.

Smart people work it over

Editors are awesome. I choose them carefully, and I pay them to be smarter than me. I hire them in packs–generally, two at a time.

I find them all kinds of places. Honestly, most of them so far have been friends that have schooled me on fiction and narrative at least once, or have a particular set of skills and experiences I want to make sure I represent authentically in the piece. This has, thus far, anyway, kept my feet free of self-inflicted bite marks and made each piece more satisfying thematically and narratively.

I hire more than one because I figure the more eyes, the better. Up until now, the work has been almost entirely in my head. Now, there are three sets of eyes on it, and that gives me confidence that we’ve triangulated something decent. It helps me prepare it for the magic trick that makes “comics” comics.

Artists work their magic

I want to make something absolutely clear–this isn’t magic like boop, “Yer a wizard, ‘Arry!” This is magic like old-school Dungeons and Dragons, magic like Arthur C. Clarke, magic like alchemy that actually turns (pencil) lead into gold–magic the sorcerers have slaved over, honing their craft, chaining their demons, grinding away late at night when they probably should have been sleeping. This is the magic I fiddled with when I was in middle school and shied away from because it was too hard to do right.

This is Art.

I find artists in lots of places, enough that there’s probably a post in there if I ever figure out exactly the random chains of acquaintances and fleeting exposure that results in synapses firing. Twitter’s been great for that. Conventions have, too. Also, friends. I have a digital “notebook” where I collect folks’ web presence and a few copy-pasted samples of their work, and as I’m drafting my script I flip through it every once in a while and get all intimidated. I convince myself that my first choice, the person whose art screams out that they’re right for this project, is way too busy, way too expensive, way too…cool to ever want to work with me.

And then I email them and tell them there’s work and it’s paid and I’m not a total ignoramus and, more often than not, they say “sure, why not?” Even when one has said no, they’ve been gracious, and in some cases have pointed me toward a friend who might be interested in the work. I’ve been lucky. I hope it holds.

I send them the script, tell them to email me if they have any questions, and try to get out of their way. We generally have three check-ins: Rough layouts; “pencils” or loose lines; and “inks”, or tight lines, generally including letters. Somewhere between “pencils” and “inks”, I rework the original script, trimming superfluous dialog and trying to make a little more room for the art to breathe.




This isn’t just a South Park reference. This two phases are the hardest part of the process right now, where experimentation and failure are the name of the game. They’re where I’m the least sure of my plan, and where I’m always looking for new ideas and plans.

It might be worth looking at them in reverse: what is “Profit” for Vengeful Ghost? For me? Obviously, cash is nice. Getting Vengeful Ghost to self-sustainability would be fricking awesome. That’s not the only thing, though.

Vengeful Ghost looks like webcomics, but we’re following a different path than a lot of the most successful webcomics out there. We’re not building a giant, immersive story that you’re going to read and follow for years. You’re not watching a single cartoonist evolve over time. We don’t do a whole lot of introspective character building and even when we do, that character doesn’t stick around for more than a few months.

That’s because my eventual goal is to work in longer form, creator- and publisher-owned projects. I want to write superheroes for Marvel or DC or Valiant or whoever else will hire me. I want to take projects like Special Collections and President Alien to Black Mask or Boom or Image or Oni. I’m a direct market boy at heart, and that’s where I want to take my career.

So I don’t want to build a monolith here at Vengeful Ghost. As much as I love ridiculously long-running webcomics like Questionable Content and Sam and Fuzzy (and respect their success), I want to use my time with Vengeful Ghost to make contacts, learn business, and hone my writing chops in ways that prepare me to pitch, publish, and promote future projects. That’s part of what “Profit” means, too.

So far, so good. I’m writing good stories that I’m proud of. I’m working with a bunch of different artists, all incredible. I’m going to conventions and meeting other people working on professional-grade projects. I’m learning about layout and printing and how best to communicate with artists. I’m getting vital project management experience.

But that question mark still bugs me. You’ll probably see me writing a lot about it here in the future. How can I do these things better, or more? How can I put Vengeful Ghost stories in front of more eyes? How can I expand the lessons I learn from 12-page projects like The Coriolis Effect to 108-page projects like President Alien? I don’t know.

Not yet.

Do you have thoughts on what goes with that question mark? Throw ’em at us in the comments. Think a friend could benefit from this? Send them our way. And stay tuned, because throughout the month of November, we’re going to be trying something a little different…