Let There Be Ink: A Fantasy Webcomicking God-play Primer by Catherine Harrell

The creator of a fantasy webcomic has a surprising amount of power. Without the standard limitations of a real world setting, a story can take off in any direction. The creator sets the course, makes the rules, and somehow brings about the end result. Such creative freedom provides incredible opportunities for the ambitious storyteller.

A fantasy webcartoonist can literally build a universe from scratch, with innovative characters, concepts, situations and worlds.

Then again, the responsibility of writing a compelling story in such an open setting can be daunting. The prospect of making a completely new story does not appeal to everyone, and many cartoonists take a different approach: they choose a story that has already been done and add their own special twist. So which is better? Should a fantasy webcomic create a brand new myth or legend from scratch, or is it best to pay tribute to stories of the past?

Ye Olde Carte Blanche
First, let’s look at what is involved in making a new story: you have a completely blank sheet – essentially, you are in charge of everything, from forming the plot and characters to designing the plants in the background.

A totally original story requires a great deal of concentrated creativity and spontaneous invention. And with all this freedom comes a big responsibility: the comic has simply got to be worth the trouble. Why spin a whimsical tale and have it take place in a boring, everyday world? Similarly, why design an elaborate fantasy setting if the story itself is average and dull? In order for a fantasy comic to reach its full potential, everything has to be working together.

Take the popular fantasy comic 9th Elsewhere, which includes not only an original story about a girl and her muse, but also vivid portrayals of the mysterious and ever-changing dream world. The reader’s first view of the dreamscape is a mountain range, a grove of trees…and an enormous water slide complete with inner tubes for the journey down the river. The story continues with images like an elusive winged box, a school of giant guppies, and a sarcastic “cat-lion-deer-thing.” Like the story’s protagonist, the reader watches the world unfold and wonders what will appear next. The girl finds herself in a slew of magical situations as the story advances, from crossing a tightrope across the Ocean of Doom to drinking tea in the sky, and all of these adventures are enhanced by the fantasy setting. This kind of balance is important for a dynamic and interesting strip. It requires a great deal of effort on the part of the creator, but the finished product can be truly incredible, a classic fantasy tale that readers will care about and enjoy.

Speaking of readers, your story has got to make sense to them in order to be appealing fantasy. Readers have to be able to relate to the material, even if the comic takes place in a completely different world with completely bizarre characters. In fact, the reader must not only understand the premise, but he or she must accept and adore it for a fantasy myth to really take hold. That’s a tricky situation. Original ideas can be tough to get across properly, and sometimes it’s best to work with an editor or talk to others when writing a particularly innovative piece. Simply put, you must be able to explain your ideas concretely to the audience in a way that they will understand and accept, or your story will suffer.

Amy Kim Ganter’s Reman Mythology uses a reference page to keep her readers up to speed, providing background stories, character descriptions, and even a detailed map to explain the context more fully. The dedicated reader would enjoy looking through drawings and explanations of the various costumes used in the story, or reading about the cultural significance of flying. R. S. Veverka’s fantasy story, Grand Blue Door, is another example: the cast page supplies extra information for the curious visitor, with each character sketch including a personality description, a memorable quote, and a few notes about how the character evolved in the mind of the artist. The reader is reminded that “Fiona has just traveled from the orphanage she usually stays at in the summer to stay with her Second-Cousin-Edgar,” a quick summary to get things started. These types of pages are good references, and can help keep the story organized and clear.

Whether or not a character page is appropriate for a particular comic is up to the artist, but as a general rule of thumb, the story should be enhanced by the extra materials, not depend on them. Sometimes it is best to let the story speak for itself, and sometimes character descriptions can give away important details that the reader would have discovered later on. It is often said that reference must supplement the story, not the other way around. If you read through Grand Blue Door for instance, you will likely find that you can understand the plot just fine without reading the descriptions, but that the additional information is a nice bonus.

Creating Originality with Pre-Made Building Blocks
The ideal fantasy comic is interesting, clear, and imaginative, and it takes full advantage of the opportunities available. If you can do all that…go for it. Create a brand new story that nobody else could tell, a powerful legend that shows off the best of your cartooning abilities.

Then again, sometimes you can’t do that. Or sometimes it’s best not to. For instance, if you’re most interested in exploring the relationship between two characters from a well-known fantasy tale, you don’t have to come up with a whole new plot and story. While the “Carte Blanche” technique works best for cartoonists that want to go all out with the setting, plot, and characters, those who are most passionate about specific aspects might consider a different approach: the use of existing myths and legends as templates on which to build a comic. Take a familiar myth that interests you, and work within those limits. Expand them as you choose. Most importantly, add your own flair and let your mind wander.

A tribute to an existing story doesn’t have to be insipid or unoriginal. On the contrary, a really good spin on an old concept can take a lot of creativity, and there are lots of options. Some cartoonists use the existing concept as a jumping-off point for their own wild plots. Rich Burlew’s popular humor strip The Order of the Stick, for example, is based on fantasy role-playing games but spins crazy adventures that take the idea a step further. The group encounters a prophesying ghost, a made-up deity called Banjo the Clown, and a whole assortment of unique monsters and spells. The characters’ interactions with one another are filled with sarcasm and wit, and they are constantly blundering into trouble and blaming someone else. Burlew takes the simple role-playing scenario of a group of adventurers in a dungeon and adds entertainment, humor, and his own quirky ideas.

Other cartoonists retell the story very closely, but make it their own with the artwork, timing, or quirky dialogue. Some even incorporate multiple tales, like Andrea Peterson’s intriguing comic No Rest for the Wicked, inspired by classic stories “The Princess on the Pea” and “Puss in Boots”, as well as lesser known legends like the English fairy tale “The Buried Moon” by Charles de Lint.

In many cases, working with an existing tale can add extra punch to your ideas. Peterson’s story slips in brief references throughout the chapters while still maintaining a constant storyline. For example, her character Princess November finds herself tossing and turning on a huge stack of mattresses, is unable to fall asleep, and wanders downstairs. This sly allusion to “The Princess on the Pea” leads to an important conversation and helps advance the story. With a few existing ideas already in place, you don’t have to agonize over the best way to put together the plot. The essentials are already there. This allows you to focus more on your ideas, and integrate them effectively into the comic’s basic framework.

In addition, the contrast between the accepted version of older stories and the version you create can add more emphasis to your creativity. Visually or plot-wise, if the readers come across something they don’t expect, they’re going to pay attention. For example, the edgy fantasy strip Spells and Whistles takes the traditional idea of a fairy and replaces it with a chubby, smelly little man with a New Yorker accent. Tauhid Bondia adds an ironic twist to an existing concept, making the character stand out. Another instance is Rremley the dragon in J.B.’s popular humor strip Catharsis. Rremley is just the opposite of the accepted dragon image; rather than being a ferocious fire-breathing monster, he is more like a loveable dog, and he only causes burning and destruction because he gets a little confused sometimes. This contrast makes the character more lovable, and it emphasizes the author’s unique intentions and designs.

Relish vs. Rehash
If you find an audience that already enjoys the existing tale, your search for acceptance may not be as difficult as those who start from scratch with a whole new story. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that paying tribute is the easy way out. On the contrary, you have to work to make your version compelling. Your characters have to be well developed, whether you are striving to be consistent with the existing characters or working on a clever twist. Furthermore, readers may get bored if your work is simply a rehash of what has already been done. This means that you still have to put some thought into it, and make certain that there is something fresh and new in your work – otherwise, why should a reader bother with a carbon copy of an existing tale? While the basic premise of Jamie Robertson’s Clan of the Cats was inspired by the movie Cat People, for example, the comic quickly became an extensive story with distinctive characters and art. Working with inspiration while using an existing story as a starting set of building blocks can give you the boost you need to develop an original voice, and allow your personal style to shine through.

Many fantasy cartoonists got into this genre because they enjoy the freedom. They love being able to design strange new creatures, invent ancient cultures and traditions, and play with magic. The world as we know it is not enough…fantasy cartoonists create brand new ones. Chuck Rowles even created an entire new set of gods for his own creation, The Gods of Arr-Kelaan. In a fantasy webcomic, anything can happen. Laws of physics can change completely. Bizarre species of animals roam the woods. Everyone speaks in an intricate language and sings original songs. And, perhaps most importantly, the plot is gripping and unusual. The story takes advantage of all the options in this fantasy setting.

So, is it better to make something from the ground up or work with what’s already there? The best option will inevitably be the one that best accommodates your vision. If you have a brilliant idea for a new story, then throw yourself into it and go all out with the setting, characters, and plot. Then again, if you would rather portray the adventures of Rapunzel’s quirky hairdresser, don’t try to hide Rapunzel from the story. Create a great new version by taking the familiar tale and making it your own. Whichever approach you choose, you are fully in charge.

You are the creator, with the power to build vast universes, mold elaborate characters, and invent complex situations. From the swirling abyss comes an original, intriguing comic. So let there be ink, and let the fantasy cartooning begin.

Catherine Harrell is a guest contributor for the Comixpedia. Her own work can be found here.


  1. “and should you want to complicate things much further, grant one of your characters creative power in your universe like in Road Waffles. but don’t tell him he’s in a comic, no.. throw in another character who knows she’s in a comic but won’t tell him either.”

    much like what happens in “Sophie’s World.” The characters don’t have any creative powers though. They are just that, “characters in someone else’s book” and at least one of them is aware of them being powerless againts the writer. Anyway it was a great novel.

    Oh, and the article has a lot of great insights. Kudos.

  2. and should you want to complicate things much further, grant one of your characters creative power in your universe like in Road Waffles. but don’t tell him he’s in a comic, no.. throw in another character who knows she’s in a comic but won’t tell him either.

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