A Practical Guide to Collaboration, Part One

One of the most liberating facets of online comics is that it has made it easier than ever for creators interested in working collaboratively to find each other. No longer must writers troll local comics shops and art schools in the hope of finding like-minded artists. Instead, they can go straight to a large community of comics creators, where geography is no barrier. They can get to know the people they hope to work with, and everyone can see samples of each others' work on their websites before committing to any sort of collaboration. All in all, the internet has allowed for more people to experience more productive and rewarding collaborative experiences.

Rewarding though collaboration can be, however, it does offer a number of obstacles and challenges that must be addressed if the overall experience is going to be a positive one. Fortunately, none of these challenges, from choosing a collaborator to calling it quits, is insurmountable, with a little forethought and some basic courtesy.


Choosing a Collaborative Partner

There's a theory in directing that the most important task a director performs is simply casting the actors. Choose the right people to work with, and they'll instinctively know what you need from them, and will quickly respond to changes in your direction. Choose the wrong people, and you'll waste hours of time trying to shape them into the people you should have cast in the first place or looking for ways to compensate for the things they just can't give you.

Choosing a collaborative partner for creating comics isn't much different. Choose the right partner, and collaboration can be a fun and rewarding experience that results in great comics. Choose poorly, and the results will be disappointing at best. Writers who choose the wrong artist will be constantly frustrated that the story they want to tell isn't coming through on the page. Artists who choose the wrong writer will face projects that simply don't hold their interest, or that they find too confusing or abstract to visualize.

That you should find a partner whose work you enjoy is obvious; it's important to remember, however, that just because someone is highly talented doesn't mean they're right for a particular project. Sometimes a mismatch is obvious—an artist whose preferred medium is black and white line art generally shouldn't be paired with a writer who wants to make vibrantly colored kids' comics. Other times, there are subtler issues; when illustrating a particularly somber piece of writing, for instance, there can be a fine line between melancholy and morbid. Two artists may have very similar styles, and yet one will be right for the project, while the other is entirely wrong. Either way, every project makes specific demands of its creators, some of which simply can't be worked around. If your partner can't meet those demands, no matter how good they are at everything else, the results simply won't be satisfying. It's essential that you lay out exactly what the deal-breakers are for your project before choosing your partner.

It may be something simple—John Troutman, for instance, has one very straightforward need: "I write comics about lovely young women, so it's pretty much a prereq that [potential artists] can draw attractive ladies." Meaghan Quinn fits the bill; after a year and a half of working together on their co-creation, Vigilante Ho!, Quinn has recently taken over art duties on Troutman's Felicity as well.

Other times, a project's demands can be a bit more ephemeral. Dale Beran looks for a quality of "hyper-rationality, or uninhibited irrationality that comes out in an emotionally fragile sort of way." Absurdly over-precise? Perhaps. And yet, one look at A Lesson is Learned but the Damage is Irreversible reveals that he found exactly what he was looking for in artist David Hellman. Beran knew what he needed and held out for it; the difference this made is plain to see in the work.

Of course, there's more to collaborative creativity than just technical skills. A collaborator is someone you're going to be in frequent, if not near constant, contact with. Unless you're just working on a short one-shot, this is someone you're going to be talking to for a long time to come. Finding a collaborative partner who is someone you can at least tolerate, if not outright like is at least as important as finding someone whose work you respect. Sometimes it's best to begin close to home: many successful collaborations grow out of existing friendships. Working with a friend can make the entire process more fun, since it becomes an opportunity to spend more time with a person you already enjoy being around. It can make the successes feel even more rewarding, and can even make it easier to be honest when the project hits rough spots. As John Troutman points out: "…it's a lot easier yell at your friends and prod them into working since they already kinda like you anyway. As opposed to a stranger, who might say 'Who does this jackass think he is, ordering me around? I QUIT!'"

What's more, collaborators who are friends first may find that they are already in synch creatively. For instance, Dale Beran and David Hellman were friends before they were collaborators, which goes a long way toward explaining how they're able to compliment each others' unique styles so well.

Either way, whether working with an old friend or a new acquaintance, it's often best to test the waters of a new partnership. As Gisèle Lagacé, who has collaborated with T Campbell on Cool Cat Studio and Penny and Aggie, advises: "If there's a fight along the way, well, that might put a halt to things. I guess all I could say is choose your collaborating partner wisely. Don't commit to a long story at first. Start small and see how it works."

Short one-shots are ideal venues for testing a new partnership. They let you try out the working relationship in a way that leaves an easy opportunity to bow out if it doesn't live up to expectations. And if a partnership isn't going to work at all, it's much better to find that out in the middle of a minor six page story, rather than partway through a massive multi-year epic.


Communication and Courtesy

Once you have found a partner and planned out a project, the key to keeping the partnership strong and productive is good communication. This begins with simply making sure both partners know what their responsibilities within the partnership will be; you don't want to find yourself in a situation where an important task doesn't get done simply because each person thought it was the other's responsibility. If there's any doubt—ask. Make every effort to clarify uncertainties before they become problems.

On a more day-to-day basis, there are two arenas of communication where partners need to develop positive habits: the administrative and the creative.

In the administrative arena, the goal is to keep your partner up to date on project status. Are you going to be late finishing the next script? Let your illustrator know. Those last few panels are taking longer to color than expected? Tell the writer to expect a delay. Whenever you finish a major task, let your partner know. Whenever you're going to be late, give ample warning. If it's at all possible, try to give your partner an accurate idea of when you'll be finishing up the next phase of your work. And whenever any established plans are forced to change, make sure everyone is aware of the changes.

This is all just simple courtesy. It's a safe bet that your partner will have more on his or her plate than just this one project—nobody is sitting around with nothing to do, ready to jump in whenever you're ready for them. Everyone has schedules to work around, and that means the more advance knowledge you have of when work will need to be done, the more efficiently you can plan for it. As Bob Stevenson (More Fun, with Shaenon Garrity) says, the best approach is to "treat it like business from the start. Don't miss deadlines and respond to each other quickly."

In the creative arena, good communication means establishing clear expectations and honest response to each others' work. This means that both partners need to have an ability to take as well as give criticism. If either side is afraid to speak their mind for fear of causing offense, the result will be a cold and uncomfortable partnership that never lives up to its full potential.

Does the script call for an unrealistic level of detail in a particular panel? Rather than just trying to muddle through, let the writer know that you can't do what the script is asking of you. Talk to the writer about the best solution. Perhaps less important details can be trimmed. Or perhaps the panel should be split into multiple panels. Similarly, the artist should be comfortable pointing out when bits of plot aren't clear, or characters are behaving inconsistently, or even if there's just a more interesting way to stage a particular event than how the script details it.

On the other side, the writer needs to be able to request changes from the artist when necessary. For example, if the action in a panel isn't clear, or when a panel is focusing on secondary details rather than the main idea, or if the tone just isn't right. However, it should be stressed that the best way to avoid the need for too many such revisions is for the writer to be clear about what they want in the first place.

Of course, in order for writers to communicate what the want, they must first know what they want. Don't tell your artist "do whatever you want here" unless you really mean it. Too often, "do whatever you want here" is writer code for "I don't actually know what I want here, so I'm going to make you do it over and over until you magically figure it out for me." This is a surefire method to aggravate even the most patient artist. When you find yourself stuck or unsure about a sequence, be honest with yourself and be honest with your artist. If you admit to the block, then you have an opportunity to work through the tough spot as a team. If you try to fake it with insincere offers of creative freedom, you'll just be wasting your partner's time.

A final point worth stressing is that for some people, ease of communication is a foremost factor in choosing a collaborative partner in the first place. As Dale Beran explains, "If what you're saying just doesn't compute (which happens to me often) then it's a wreck. It's sort of how I started playing guitar. A friend of mine wanted to teach me because he needed a guitar player for his band. Never mind I could barely play, and you couldn't spit without hitting a guitar player at college. But he just figured we shared a sensibility, so he thought it would be easier to teach me from scratch rather than finding some asshole who would do his own thing. The relationship really comes first, then the art and the skill and all that."


Rights, Contracts, and Division of Labor

In the informal world of webcomics, contracts between collaborative partners are still relatively rare. Of the eight people surveyed for this article, only John Waltrip (Rip & Teri, with T Campbell), has a contract with his partner. Especially since so many partnerships are formed out of existing friendships, asking for a contract can seem superfluous or even impolite. Still, where matters of money are concerned, a formal contract is never really a bad idea. However, whether signing a contract or not, the details of ownership and division of earnings should always be agreed upon before any work begins.

The most common financial arrangement is a 50/50 split, but there are certainly no rules on the matter. Work-for-hire arrangements do exist on the web, as well as a number of other very individualized agreements. For instance, since John Troutman and Meaghan Quinn collaborate on two comics, rather than splitting the income from each comic in half, they each keep all the income from one comic—unless one or the other should take off in a big way, in which case they plan to renegotiate. As Troutman points out, "as long as details like this are to the satisfaction of both people, it doesn't really matter how ludicrous those details are."

More complicated than the money issue is the ownership issue. So long as the collaboration is ongoing, an assumed 50/50 share seems logical. But if the partnership is dissolved, several important questions arise: Which partner has the right to continue the work? Is the continuing partner obligated to consult the departed partner on business decisions pertaining to the portion of the work he or she contributed to? Does the departed partner own a share of new material derived from creations he or she contributed to? These are complicated questions that are best answered long before such difficulties actually arise.

The third major detail that's commonly arranged by contract or in pre-collaboration discussion is the division of labor. Fortunately, this tends to be a much easier matter. The major determining factors in assigning a particular task to one partner or the other are: A: Who's better at it? and B: Who has the time to do it? When the answers to both questions match, then it's a no-brainer. When they differ, then it usually comes down to how immediately pressing the task is.

The most obvious division is: The writer writes, while the artist illustrates. Coloring and lettering usually fall to the artist, though there are exceptions. Plotting may be done by the writer alone or as a joint effort—there's no rule here, just the question of what works best for your particular partnership. Administrative tasks, such as maintaining the web site and publicizing the comic often fall to the writer, on the grounds that the writing tends to be less time-consuming than the artwork. (Though it should be stressed that "less time-consuming" implies neither "less important" nor "less difficult.") But here again, "often" should not be taken for "always;" division of labor ought to be handled in the most practical manner, while making sure that neither partner is left with an unfair share of the work.


Crisis and Calamity

A student director who was recently working on a production of David Auburn's play, Proof, at Emerson College ran into problems when she was trying to set up the first rehearsal. Despite several phone calls and e-mails, she was unable to get a hold of the actor who had agreed to play Hal. After a week, she finally managed to reach him, at which point he confessed that he really couldn't do the play, but hadn't called her back because he didn't know how to tell her. So she cast a new actor, only to suffer a repeat of the previous situation: another week of no communication followed by an "I don't have time, but didn't know how to tell you" phone conversation. So she was two weeks into what should have been her rehearsal period (and she only had two months to start with), still with no Hal. She could have lost only two days instead of two weeks, if only the actors had simply told her as soon as they knew that they couldn't do the part.

Nearly every writer surveyed (and even one of the artists) had the same primary concern about entering collaborations—that the artist will bail on the project. This is no idle fear; few writers have avoided the experience of investing themselves in a project only to have the artist drop out at the last minute—or worse, after the project is already several pages underway. And it's not at all uncommon for artists to simply disappear without a word, instead of saying outright that they can't do the project.

This is not to say that artists are immune from the problem of writers dropping out. It does happen. But it's far less common, due to the longstanding perception that writers need artists, but artists don't need writers. When artists over commit themselves, they'll usually favor their solo work over collaborations. Writers don't usually have that option, since all their work is collaborative.

Sometimes it's unavoidable that you have to back out of a partnership; you've committed to too many things, you have a new day job, you've had an offer of paying work, you're having a baby—life gets in the way. Regardless, when this happens, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it backing out. Topping the list of "wrong ways" is simply going incommunicado. So long as your partners believes you're still working together, their hands are tied—they can't bring in a replacement until they're certain you aren't coming back, and until that happens, the project is dead in the water. Your partner needs to know when it's time to move on or they can't continue to work. So if you are leaving a partnership, always make sure to tell your partner; there's no more basic a courtesy than that. "I didn't know how to tell you" is never an excuse. Just be honest and direct. Your partner will be much happier for it.

Better yet, try to give your partner as much advance warning as possible. First of all, this will allow your partner to line up a replacement early, hopefully avoiding the need for a hiatus between artists (or writers, depending on the circumstance). And second, advance warning will let you and your partner plan a smooth and satisfying exit. This is especially important if your partner won't be continuing the project without you, raising the question of whether a major story will be left unfinished, such as when Gisèle Lagacé left Cool Cat Studio: "T had this nice story all written out for Cool Cat Studio and in the middle of it, I just pulled out. I feel terrible about it; for him and for my readers. But what's done is done. So, to anyone planning a collaboration effort, stick to it and even if things start to get rough, try to pull out gracefully and do a nice finish—you'll feel better in the long run."

Of course, this is largely assuming that the partnership is ending peaceably, due to lack of time or some similar issues. If the problem is a matter of personality clash or artistic differences, that can be more difficult. Even in less pleasant circumstances, though, it pays to keep your interactions as civil as possible. Avoid making decisions out of pettiness or spite, or you risk the whole disagreement escalating to a point where everyone ends up miserable. What's more, do your best to keep such disagreements private, especially if you hope to find new collaborators in the future. Nobody wants to work with someone who has a reputation for hotheadedness.

In addition to the question of how to break off an unhappy partnership, there's also the question of when to break it off. If the project is something of limited duration, it may be worthwhile to just do your best to compromise and get the project done; at least then you'll have some finished work to show for it. For a long or ongoing project, it's probably best to start planning your exit as soon as it becomes clear that your differences are irreconcilable; which is to say, before the situation devolves into one of unbridled hostility. This is especially true if you're working with a friend. Sometimes good friends just aren't suited to working together, and it just isn't worth sacrificing a good friendship to maintain a poor collaboration. Still, so long as the situation hasn't become unbearably dire, it's still best to give ample notice rather than quitting in a huff.

Finally, always keep in mind that every team works differently. What works well for you with one partner may not work at all with another. Staying flexible in your approach to working with new people is key. And not every partnership will work; that doesn't necessarily mean collaboration isn't for you—it may be that you're just working with the wrong person. Find the right person, though—someone who inspires you as much as you inspire them—and collaboration can be as fun as it is productive, leading you down artistic paths you might never have discovered on your own.


  1. On the matter of contracts — Greg and I have explicitly worked out what happens should we part ways (I get to keep writing Gossamer Commons and get to continue to use the art he’s already produce — he gets equal compensation on any use of that art throughout the rest of time, and retains all other rights to it). I laid this out when I was first looking for artists — I wanted to make sure everyone involved was protected, but also that I’d get to keep writing the story if Greg didn’t work out for some reason (or if he just couldn’t stand me, for that matter).

    As it works out, the partnership is going extremely well, so c’est bien.

  2. I remember when I collaborated with Al Schroeder for a 3-page short-comic guesting for Clan of The Cats. One of the reasons I did it was to test how well I could work with another person. As far as I’m concerned it was a rather successful partnership, and a very good way for prospective artist/writer combinations try themselves out.

    Speaking from the point of view of the artist in the project, the thing that made the collaboration so smooth was that Al happy to give me freedom over the changing and interpretation of his script, and on the other hand I was happy to have his input on the layout and composition of the art etc. It wasn’t a case of “You, script. Me, art!” We were both involved to some extent in the writing and art, and that really helped.

    Another collaboration I’m currently in (and very happy with) is Golden, which is a rather challenging to organise 7-creator comic jam. I think part of the reason why it works so well is because the leader (Colby) made it very clear in the beginning what was expected so there wasn’t too much pressure of the wrong kind. She also set a easy-to-understand update system and allowed creators their respective freedoms in their turns, and while it sounds like common sense, it helps a lot.

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