Researching for Webcomics
When you draw a webcomic, sooner or later you’ll have to do some research. For example, if your characters wield swords, you should know what different kinds of real-world weapons look like and how people fight with them. If you’re writing a science fiction story, learn what modern spaceships look like and why. If you’re planning to subvert expectations, you need to know those expectations and why they might matter.
I write a historical webcomic set in medieval Japan. While there’s existing writing and art from that period, the language has evolved so much that the average modern Japanese reader would struggle to understand it. I understand almost no Japanese, and I can’t read kanji. Clearly, research was a challenge.
Here’s some tips that I’ve picked up.
Do lots of research, but don’t get overwhelmed
It might make little difference to the average farmer what king is on the throne, but someone is probably going to mention it at some point, even if it’s a throwaway comment in the pub. Research is the pool that that your story will swim in.
It’s likely you already know something about your chosen setting, so write the outline of the story first. Now you know roughly what your characters are doing, and where to focus your research. Inevitably this will uncover some problems with your outline. Go back and make some changes to the plot based on what you’ve learned.
Know Your Sources
Look at artwork and writing from the period you’re setting your story in. These are your primary sources. If you don’t speak the original language, try to get hold of more than one translation of any really important books.
Now look at secondary sources. These are discussions or interpretations of your primary sources. For example, a textbook about the Romans, of the TV series “Rome” compared to writing on a Roman gravestone. Books on really obscure subjects might not be available- or affordable. If this applies to you, Google Books and Project Gutenberg are your friends.
Don’t rely too much on sites like Pinterest that have a lot of pretty images with no information on context. Try museum websites instead, the exhibits will have likely been checked by someone with a lot more experience than you.
Visit locations for your comic if you can. This can be expensive and isn’t always possible. If you can’t, watch Youtube videos posted by tourists visiting historical sites. The 360 degree views on Google Maps can be useful for getting a sense of place.
These can be a good way of getting a feel for the world your characters are going to inhabit, but bear in mind movies make mistakes too. (Roads with modern tyre marks in medieval fantasy for instance) You’re likely to have to choose between historical realism and modern aesthetics at some point. Film directors make this decision too.
Mistakes are inevitable
Accept that you’ll make mistakes. Change what you can and accept what you can’t.
Now go out there and get your inner historian on!
Caroline Parkinson is the author and artist of Beneath The Clouds.