By Travis Gibb
November 26, 2023
Metal Ninja Studios is dedicated to providing free, high quality education about the comic book creation process. Topics include writing, lettering, production, print prep, and more!
Many creators struggle with getting that first issue on paper with a proper page count. They have all these grand ideas about what they’re creating and many struggle writing that first issue in the normal industry standard! Some want to make an epic series that runs for 100 issues. Some want to write a short 5-issue mini-series. Others want to write a one-shot. Regardless of their goal, writing the first issue of a comic requires careful planning, creative collaboration, and attention to detail. It sets the stage for the entire series and plays a crucial role in capturing readers' interest and investment in the story. My goal here is to provide hints on how to hit those industry-standard numbers and also explain why they are so important.
The page counts for comics range between 20-24 pages. For many years, they had 22 pages with 10 pages of advertisements. Over the years, these numbers lessened. The standard for a modern comic tends to be around 20 pages while the indie page count tends to land in around 24.
That's a great question. Most of you reading this article are indie creators. There’s no need to limit yourself to a standard. You can make the issue as long or short as you want. There are no rules on Kickstarter, or from any indie publisher, demanding what length a book should be (beyond the standard page count). Why, then, should you bother with this rule? I’d be a hypocrite if I didn't tell you many of my first issues were over the 24 pages, but as I’ve grown as a creator, I learned why these page counts are so important. The main reason is cost. The first issue will be the most profitable issue of the series. Many people will buy a number 1 but won't come back for 2 or 3. They want to try the series, and everyone knows to start at the beginning. The likelihood of you selling out of that first issue is way higher than any other, and you want to plan ahead by ordering more and keeping the page count low so the reorder numbers aren't as expensive.
...but as I’ve grown as a creator, I learned why these page counts are so important. The main reason is cost.
Page count determines how much content you can include in a single issue. More pages allow for a more detailed and complex narrative. Fewer pages require a tighter, faster-paced story. Page count affects the flow of the story, the development of characters, plot, and reader engagement. Page count influences how long readers will spend with your comic. A longer page count can provide a more immersive experience. However, if the page count is too long, readers might feel overwhelmed or that the story drags. This is why the industry created things like page turns and cliffhanger endings to help break apart long-winded plots while encouraging sequential sales.
First, you have to break down what you’re making. Is it a maxi series, mini series, or one-shot? It is incredibly important for you to break this down before you get to script writing. Here is an example of how I broke down one of my series, Voodoo Nations:
- Issue 1: A pair of missionaries goes to Brazil after the 2019 Flood (look that up. It's wild). She and her husband start helping people and getting a good reputation building a small ministry hospital. Their only issue is a counter group headed by a Voodoo Priest that also promises healing and wealth. A local Brazilian, desperate for food, shoots up the hospital and kills the missionary’s husband. The mission can’t save him but the Voodoo Priest can. After she takes him there, the Priest resurrects him. Afterwards, they flee Brazil.
- Issue 2: Ever since the resurrection, the husband has not been able to go out into the light and only comes out at night. He starts to believe that he’s a vampire when he starts having cravings for meat at all times. He flies to New Orleans for help, and his wife follows. In New Orleans, the wife gets mixed up in the occult culture. She finally finds another voodoo priest that says her husband's body may be back, but his spirit is on the other side. The Voodoo Priest recommends flying to Mexico and finding her husband's soul in the Day of the Dead festival.
- Issue 3: The couple go to the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico and then travel to the land of the dead to find her husband’s spirit. They have to battle tons of spirits and learn a lot about the occult in Mexico. However, they can’t find his spirit. In the end, they find out that the original Voodoo Priest still has the husband’s soul.
- Issue 4: The couple returns to Brazil to confront the voodoo priest. This leads to a final fight for the husband’s soul. The wife then gains the power to speak the voice of god and fights Bishop Lucas.
That was the basic road map of where the series was going. As I wrote the series, I would often deviate from this road map. We are even adding a fifth issue to this series because I want to keep my page count to 24 instead of doing a larger final issue. This, in my opinion, is just as important as the standard page count for issue 1. When you get to a final issue (the lowest ordered book when it comes to a comic story), those extra pages could end up costing you money.
These breakdowns are also important for communicating with your artist, as well as yourself, in order to help explain where you are going and how you are going to get there. This should be done before you even write a single page of script. In breaking down the plot based on what I needed to happen in each issue, I am constantly trying to condense the story while focusing more on the action. That way there aren't 1000 word balloons, and my letter doesn’t hate me.
One of the many tools creators have is a beat sheet. This will show the major beats of a comic and help you format the issue to become the best it can be. Beat sheets take each page and break it down into a series of scenes and actions that will help move the characters along. It’s also really helpful in cutting out unnecessary pages.
Here is an example of one that I did for the first issue of Voodoo Nations:
- Pages 1 - 5: Establish the flood and RJ writing a letter telling RJ/Brent’s life prior to meeting Bishop Lucas and foreshadowing the end of the issue.
- Pages 6 - 7: A movie-style double-splash page for credits.
- Pages 8 - 12: Show the good RJ and Brent do for the community but foreshadow the evil lurking alongside their deeds.
- Pages 13 - 14: Introduce Bishop Lucas and showcase a ritual. Establish that he isn't happy with RJ and Brent on his turf.
- Pages 15 - 20: Explain to the audience what Ash Wednesday means. Show that Bishop Lucasd manipulates the crowd with doublespeak. Very cool scene with the cross being added to Bishop Lucas’ head.
- Pages 21 - 24: Flash Forward to fire burning down the church and the murdering of Brent.
- Pages 25 - 26: Go through Good Friday and Holy Saturday. RJ is grieving the loss of Brent.
- Pages 27 - 30: Resurrection Sunday. It was very important I showed this was all planned by Bishop Lucas. He resurrects Brent with an evil spirit attached to him. This shows Bishop Lucas has the power to manipulate life and death, a mockery of Christianity that leaves RJ’s faith shattered.
Though I didn’t do an exact page-by-page breakdown, I did manage to give myself a guide on how I want each scene to go and how I want it to end. This is also a good way to work on page turns because you always want the action to happen on odd numbered pages to encourage reader progression. A well-placed page turns acts as a cliffhanger, encouraging the reader to continue. This is one of the staples of comics and an element that makes them so much fun to both create and read.
The process of breaking down the first issue of a comic, whether it's a grand epic, a concise mini-series, or a captivating one-shot, is important to plan these things out and create the best experience for the reader. The balance between the page count and storytelling is something that could be endlessly explored; however, the goal for you as the comic creator is to tell the best story you can by omitting needless scenes and pages. More pages doesn't make your book better. Utilizing tools like breakdowns and beat sheets aids in structuring compelling stories that readers will come to enjoy. Ultimately, successfully navigating the intricacies of page count, pacing, and storytelling lays the foundation for capturing imaginations and keeping readers eagerly turning pages.
MAKE COOL COMICS!