How Do Graphic Novels Get Made? The Making of “Northwest Resistance”

Northwest Resistance is the third volume in the graphic novel series A Girl Called Echo.

Written by Katherena Vermette, with illustrations by Scott B. Henderson and colours by Donovan Yaciuk, Northwest Resistance follows thirteen-year-old Echo Desjardins, a Métis teen who finds herself slipping back and forth through time. As Echo drifts between the modern day and the year 1885, the reader is drawn into the period’s conflicts alongside her.

Graphic novels are powerful tools for storytelling. Using a combination of illustration and text, graphic novels can highlight details like facial expressions, intensity of reactions, and pauses in conversation to create an immersive experience for the reader.

There’s no “right” way to make a graphic novel, since different publishers do things differently depending on their contributors and audience. HighWater Press has developed our process based on the needs of our readers and to address cultural, personal, and historical sensitivities.

Keep reading to find out how a graphic novel like Northwest Resistance is made!

What’s the difference between comic books and graphic novels?

Many people assume that graphic novels and comic books are worlds apart… but they share more similarities than you may think!

For instance, many graphic novels and comic books share similar art styles, and both vary widely in the topics and genres they cover. As a result, whether a title is a “graphic novel” or a “comic book” often comes down to author and publisher preference. 

The main difference is that graphic novels are typically published by traditional publishers, like HighWater Press, and they tend to contain a complete story arc. Comic books are typically published by companies that only publish comic books, and are often episodic.

Stage One: Concept and Plot Development

This stage is often the longest. On average, there are at least seven people involved with producing one of our graphic novels from beginning to end, which can mean a lot of back-and-forth and collaboration to finalize the concept and develop the plot.

It’s not uncommon for HighWater Press authors to be new to the format, which means close collaboration between the author and editor is often needed to develop the story into panels and to make sure the illustrations will accurately reflect the author’s vision.

At HighWater Press, we also have to consider historical details, personal anecdotes, and cultural sensitivities when we are developing graphic novels. Constant communication between authors, artists, and reviewers is vital to ensure the illustrations capture the author’s vision while being culturally sensitive and accurate.

Stage Two: Script Development

One of the biggest challenges with developing a graphic novel is helping our authors—who might be new to the format— write to the textual constraints of the style. Some aspects writers and editors need to consider when developing a script include:

  • Actions per panel: Illustrations are static, and therefore, only one action per panel is possible. Some movements are very difficult to show in static art, or might take too many panels, so an alternative must be found. 
  • Panels per page. Our books usually have about nine panels per page, but it’s important to mix it up to keep the reader engaged (and to keep the illustrator from having to draw the same thing over and over). 
  • Word count. To keep the text clear, we aim for fewer than 25 words per balloon or caption, averaging out to fewer than 50 words per panel. The art is just as important as the words; if there are too many words, then the illustrations might need to be revised to do that work instead. 
  • Speech balloons per panel. We try to limit each panel to three speech balloons or less, to avoid losing art behind balloons. We might also split up a larger chunk of dialogue into smaller sections, to better fit around the artwork.

We can see examples of how larger pieces of dialogue can be broken down into smaller, connected speech bubbles in this image of Louis Riel speaking in Northwest Resistance:

Stage Three: Character Designs, Cover Concepts, and Storyboard

At this stage, authors and illustrators discuss the story and get on the same page (pun intended) about character designs, layout, and cover concepts. 

To start, the artist will work with the author to create multiple concepts for character designs and covers and submit them to the author and editor, who choose the versions that are the best fit for the target readers. The author may have a specific idea for what a character will look like, or they may leave it up to the artist.

Echo sketch The level of detail in character designs at this stage varies depending on the artist; sometimes they’re fully inked and coloured, and sometimes they’re just sketches.

Below are examples of character designs for Echo, and early versions of inked and coloured character designs from Surviving the City, written by Tasha Spillett-Sumner and illustrated by Natasha Donovan.


We can see another example of how concept art can differ from the final versions by comparing these two covers from Pemmican Wars. On the left is the initial cover concept, and on the right is the final cover:



The artist will then create a storyboard, which consists of quick sketches of each page and panel. Creating these elements at this stage saves time on revisions later because they’re much easier to edit than when a panel has been drawn in detail. Often, the author will provide reference photos for the artist, particularly for details that are key to the story.

Stage Four: Pencils

When the storyboards and character designs are approved, the artist begins working on the “pencils.”

Pencils are the detailed sketches of the panels and pages developed during the storyboarding process. The author and editor review the pencils to identify any inconsistencies, like missing earrings or patches on clothing, to be corrected before the inking stage. 

For HighWater Press, because we’re working with Indigenous and historical content, the pencils and script may be reviewed by Indigenous community members, academics, and/or other subject matter experts.

This stage can take several weeks to complete, since revisions are part of the process. We review the pencils very carefully because revisions become much more difficult in the following stages.

Stage Five: Inks

The inking stage comes after the pencils have been approved by the author, the editor, and the reviewers.

In some cases, a different artist may be contracted to do inks for a graphic novel, but here at Highwater Press, our artists typically handle this process themselves.

Graphic novels often dig deep into a topic or theme, and that attention to detail is reflected in the illustrations. 

Since inks are difficult to change, mistakes or other revisions must be corrected before we move on to colouring.

Stage Six: Colouring

Next up is colouring the finalized inks. 

At this stage, we often work with artists who specialize in colouring. For example, the illustrations and inking for Northwest Resistance were done by Scott B. Henderson, while the colours were completed by Donovan Yaciuk.

Artists who specialize in colouring can use colour to draw the reader’s eye to a particular element. Colours play an important role in how the story is told and can create a mood or feeling that might otherwise be lost. 

We review the coloured panels carefully to ensure characters’ hair colour, eye colour, and other details are consistent from panel to panel. We also keep an eye out for details related to logic. For example, you don’t want sunlight streaming through a window if a scene is taking place at night.

We also pay special attention to the historical and cultural accuracy of colours, based on reference photographs and feedback from our reviewers. 

Stage Seven: Lettering

Lettering may seem simple, but don’t be fooled! This unassuming step matters more than you may realize. This is the stage when speech, thoughts, sound effects, and captions are added to the panels.

Balloon placement and lettering not only set the tone and pace of the text on each page, but must be included in such a way that they don’t obscure the illustrations.

Different balloon styles are used to emphasize differences in speech, like whispering or yelling. For example, we can see in the scene below that several villagers are yelling “no!” with varying volumes and intensities based on the colour and boldness of the text:

Stage Eight: Design

The design stage is the final stage before a graphic novel is approved for print. At this stage, all the pages are collected into one file and page numbers are added. The cover is finalized and then everything is sent off to the printers. The printers will send a printer’s proof to us. We use this proof to check that the colours and pages are correct. Once this proof is approved, printing begins, and there is no turning back. 

Pre-order your copy of Northwest Resistance today.

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