How do the pros #MakeComics? We’re here to tell you.
Comicosity is picking the brains of a pro who is killing it in the comics industry, and for this round I was lucky enough to talk to Niki Smith! Niki is the writer and artist of the recently released The Deep & Dark Blue, as well as Crossplay and more! Dive into Niki’s creative process below!
What does a typical day in the life of Niki Smith look like?
There’s no sleeping in for me; my wife gets up for work around 6, and I’m up with her. I’m usually at my desk and working by 9am. My typical work flow really depends on what stage of a graphic novel I’m at– right now I’m inking my next book, and I generally try to ink 3-4 pages a day. I finish work for the day when my wife gets home. I’ve worked evenings and weekends on books in the past (and I’m sure there will be situations where I’ll have to do it again), but I try to keep to normal work hours as much as possible. I love making comics, but I don’t want them to make me miserable.
What time of day do you do your best work?
After lunch, for sure. I lose a lot of the morning to answering emails and typical internet nonsense.
Comics is a collaborative medium. How do you work with your teammates (and/or editors if more applicable) on your projects?
Every book is different, really. I’ve done books where I’m only doing an isolated part of it– flatting colors, or spot tones, or inks. I’ve done books where I work with a writer but handle all the art, and I’ve done books where I do every step myself, just working with an editor. The most important thing is communication, really. Email, shared spreadsheets, synced Dropbox accounts, whatever the project needs. My favorite books to work on are my own, like The Deep & Dark Blue. I generally email my editor at every step of the process–outline, script, rough pencils, inks, colors– and get their feedback and usually do a round or two of revisions, tightening up the story or adding dialogue and extra pages where they’re needed.
How do you manage your to-do list?
I love a good spreadsheet. Comic artist Carey Pietsch shared hers a few years ago and I’ve used my own tweaked version of it ever since. I plug in the numbers– how many pages the book is, when the due date is, my average daily output, how many days of vacation I need to plan around, buffer for edits and revisions, etc– and it gives me a schedule. When you’re spending a year working on a 250-page book, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds and feel like you’re making absolutely no headway. It keeps me on track, and it gives me a quota I to aim for every day– if I’m only inking 2 pages a day when my spreadsheet says I should be hitting 3-4, I’m going to need to start putting in some extra hours or I’ll be paying for it later.
What is your workspace like?
Just an old desk in the extra room in our apartment. When it’s not a miserable winter day, I can see the Alps out the window– living in Germany has its benefits. One wall is lined with bookshelves and the other has a shelf to display my collection of minicomics. I’ve gotten a bit better at keeping plants alive, but it’s a losing battle against the cat who loves to devour them.
What tools are essential to your creative process?
I work entirely digitally; the most essential tools are my computer and Cintiq. I finally upgraded to a desktop after nearly a decade of the same old laptop with a busted fan; computer upgrades are always a risky endeavor when you work digitally. I had to go through five different adapters before I found one my Cintiq recognized. Those were a stressful few weeks! I also have an iPad Pro so I can work on the go, but I much prefer the larger Cintiq (and so does my back). Software-wise, I use Clip Studio Paint whenever possible. It’s designed for drawing comics and has made so many tiny annoying steps a breeze.
What do you love most about creating comics?
I love body language and acting, and how drastically a scene can change depending on how the panels are arranged on the page. You can give a dozen artists the same script to work from and everyone is going to convey something different to the reader.
What is your favorite phase of a project?
That’s tough to say. I love aspects about them all. The excitement of feeling a new script come together is wonderful, but I also love putting the finishing touches on a colored page.
What do you listen to or watch while you work?
If I’m in the writing or rough pencils stage I’ll listen to music in the background, but once I hit inks and colors I’ve always got an audiobook or podcast on in the background. They really add up; Goodreads tells me I got through 150 books last year! Most of those audiobooks are young adult or SF/fantasy novels. I absolutely can’t watch anything while I work; visuals are way too distracting, no matter how dumb the content may be.
When you aren’t creating comics, how do you like to spend your time?
I try to squeeze a German class into my schedule whenever my work load permits it; we moved to Munich a few years ago and I still have a long, long way to go before I’m as fluent as I’d like to be! My evenings are usually board games with friends or video games with my wife.
Networking and meeting other creators is an important part of the business. What is your preferred way to network?
Working from home can be pretty isolating, so I try to work outside the house at least once a week. I go to a writing group to hang out with other creative folks in the city. Online, I’m pretty partial to Twitter and the friends in the comics community I’ve met that way, especially since I don’t get to do many US conventions any more. Moving to Europe gave me the chance to get to know the German comics community; we have a Bavarian artists group that meets up a few times a year and runs an annual comics retreat in the Alps. I penciled part of my new book there and it was the most idyllic experience you can imagine.
What comics are you reading right now?
I don’t keep up with any floppy comics right now, and moving over here means I’m more limited in what I can find in bookstores. My current graphic novels are all middle grade (for 9-12 year olds) and I love to read what else is out there, but they’re rarely licensed for release over here and I have to make do with ebooks. Graphic novels are one of my favorite ways to practice my German, though. Right now I’m in the middle of Tillie Walden’s newest book and I pick up new volumes of Witch Hat Atelier, Our Dreams at Dusk and Haikyu as they come out.
What do you hope to see in the industry in the future?
Comics are going incredible places right now, especially in the middle grade and young adult markets. I’ve never seen so many wonderfully queer comics coming out at once and I’m excited to see what the generation of kids reading them grow up to make themselves. But the industry still has a long way to go in so many ways. Both comics and book publishing as a whole need to do so much better at supporting diverse voices and creators of color, and I hope to see more concrete changes in the future. Offering living wages is a huge part of that.