How I Do Research For a Graphic Novel (tips and advice)

How does a comics creator do their research for a graphic novel? Well, nobody quite knows tbh – unlike thumbnails or scriptwriting, the research process (collecting and turning information into a story) is rarely talked about in comics. Unless you hang around academic circles, or work in a genre like science or historical, you wouldn’t think about research as a concern. While not necessary, learning how to do research well is a powerful and important skill to have. I believe that when creators obtain better research skills, their storytelling benefits. It’s not just about knowing where to find sources… it’s about critical thinking, increased awareness of self and society (and how both impact the stories we value), transparency, and thoughtfulness of intent.

Since I’ve done a couple research-heavy historical comics, and am in the process of documenting my process of making another, I thought it would be good to talk about how I personally do research. Most of this is basic information literacy that anyone can learn in a workshop at their local library, or as part of their university education. I got 100% of my research skills in university, and over the years, have adapted them to comics work. My process is an ongoing WIP, as I learn new methods and take in new technology.

This is the blog post version of the original Twitter thread (click to view the full thread):

TIPS ON RESEARCHING FOR A GRAPHIC NOVEL:

1. I do most of my research online. However, sifting through online sources is a skill by itself. You can’t trust every blog or site. It’s like online shopping: read the reviews, check the reputation of the seller, and buy from trusted shops. The same goes for finding good information.

So how do you find that good, good information?

Usually, sources from museums, libraries, journals, universities and non-profit cultural institutions are solid. Be wary of sources from businesses or for-profit ventures, as they may have an agenda to sell. In general though, be alert of the intent of everything you come across, even if it’s an individual journal from a usually good source.

2. If you’re using Google to look for scholarly literature, use Google Scholar instead: scholar.google.com
This is the version of Google that indexes only academic journals and sources, rather than the normal Google that indexes everything.

3. If you’re using Wikipedia, take the entire article with a grain of salt, and use the citations/references at the bottom instead. Wikipedia is amazing as a jump-off point, but it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of where you get information. Supplement and corroborate it with other sources.

4. Some sites, like attalus.org, don’t look legit, when in fact, they actually are. As you’ll realise, a lot of still active academic sites look like they come from an early 2000s time capsule. So identifying the legitness of a source by their looks isn’t reliable. How you can tell what site is good is if you see it recommended by academics or reputable sources, or if the website points to an educational institution.

5. Blogs and Twitters are fine, especially for topics like historical fashion and costuming, interests that aren’t canonised by ivory towers (such as craft and sexuality), and practices that are still ongoing today. Many educational blogs and twitters are run by professionals with the qualifications to prove it.

6. How academic you want your research to be depends on what you’re researching, your purpose, (and how bonkers you are). Your graphic novel alongside your topic will determine the circumstances. It’s good to learn how to be adaptable and resourceful, and to use your best judgment, as some topics can be obscure, difficult to find, or completely muddied by macro-factors like colonialism.

7. Learn how to use keywords! Keywords are your best friend to hacking Google and making it serve you. Unfortunately I can’t explain how I learnt to do this; it’s a skill that comes with practice. I guess my general tip is to be as specific as possible without using so many words. For example, if I want to find out the cuisine of my bunch of English merchants in the 18th century, I first consult google with: England food 18th century middle class. Then throwing in and replacing new keywords like: Georgian era, recipe books, household conduct manuals, dining culture, eating times, food import/accessibility, cost of meat/vegetables/fruits etc. And you can see how easily I can descend into a rabbit hole of research.

8. Getting paywalled? Publishers often require you to pay a lot of money to access their journals and ebooks, unless you’ve an account with a partnering institution. The bad thing is that most of the time the money doesn’t go to the authors. So what do you do? How do we circumvent capitalism legally? Fortunately for us, there are ways

  • Get hype about the open access education movement. Free, publicably, legally accessible research! Here’s a directory:Β https://doaj.org/
    I personally use Unpaywall (https://unpaywall.org), a browser app that searches for open access options for articles that are paywalled elsewhere.
  • Email the authors of the journal. Seriously. Be nice to them. Most of the time they are happy to share their paper with you, often for free.
  • If you can afford it, support authors by buying their books from traditional book publishers. These books are often written for the public, which is good if you’re not confident with academic jargon. And at least, they receive royalties for their work.
  • Sign up to be a member of your local or state library. That membership grants you access to paywalled sources, digital or physical. Obviously the better funded and visited the library is, the more access you get. Support your library, talk to your librarians, etc.
  • If you’re a university student, or knows someone who is, use that email address. As long as you (or the other person) are still studying, your email address grants you access to paywalled sources, since that’s part of your tuition. If your university isn’t a partner institution of a certain paywall, find a friend who studies in a university that is. (Protip: the more prestigious the university is, the more partnerships they have)
  • Here’s a masterpost of websites where you can download literature legally for free.

9. Okay, so you got a mountain of sources. How do you sort this mess out? It’s important that you think about organisation as soon as possible: how you tag your information, how you cross-reference, how you know where your ideas come from (“I decided to draw this tree because Source XYZ says that it isΒ  in the archeological data of that region”)

There are ton of research organisational software and apps. Personally I used to use Zotero (zotero.org) which saves your references (URL, papers, etc) directly from your web browser into an automated system. It’s like an advanced bookmarks tool. Zotero’s really good if you’re an academic, or a hyperorganisational creator.

I moved away from the Zotero system because I’m currently adopting a spreadsheet system. (As explained here), using Airtable (airtable.com). Since my research includes a variety of resources in different mediums and different disciplines, from journals to images to literary texts, I needed a system that was flexible and big enough to handle that cornucopia of information. Airtable allows me to upload attachments and tag and cross-reference within a single database, which makes finding things easier. Here’s what my system looks like right now:



I’ve one database dedicated to my current graphic novel. Inside this database are 3 tabs:

  1. Academic, for journals and critical analysis from scholars of my topic, for literary, cultural or historical background.
  2. Core, for literature essential to the plot of the graphic novel.
  3. Receipts, for ideas in my book that I want to account for. As you can see in the first screenshot I’ve the idea, explanation of the idea, specific tags for which chapter that idea is relevant to, cross-references to the academic and core sources, quotations, and the attachments (mostly html copies of websites).

I pair this system with Firefox bookmarks, to save sources until later when I can read them properly and put them in the database proper. I tag my bookmarks and put them into a folder so I don’t lose them.

10. If you don’t want to lose Twitter threads, RT or DM them into a dedicated side account. Liking them is guaranteed to make you lose them, since Twitter has terrible archival (which is why I’m rewriting my thread into a blog, so it doesn’t get lost).

11. If you’re saving things into your computer, sort them into a folder (and sub-folders). Either tag them or give them a new title using a code system (eg: Numerical value, paper title, author). You’ll need it for an easier search.

12. Be smart about research. I mentioned earlier that you need to be alert, even if the source you have is legit. And especially if that source is decades or centuries or thousands of years old. Be aware that bias is a thing and it exists. A lot of mythology can be tinged by modern nationalism and imperialism. A lot of science by money and culture. These external influences don’t necessarily make a source less legit (though sometimes…when it is bad it becomes irredeemable trash), as again, biases are everywhere. And you yourself have them too. Just be critical, be humble, be open to confronting not just the motives of the source but your own. Even from sources that are bad, you can still gain useful information from it, even if that information is “I better watch out for similar issues in the next source.”

13. The same applies to translated texts. Translators can also have their own biases, which will affect their choice of words, which will change the meaning of the original (even a difference of one word can alter the interpretation of a text: the difference between bitch and headstrong). Always go for newer translations, as they will be informed by updated research and methodology. But not everything will get a new translation, so again, be aware, and have scholarly articles on hand to complement your reading. (The alternative is to learn the original language…)

14. Be humble, be aware, be smart.

And that’s about it. I hope this is helpful for creators who may or may not have experience undertaking research. Although it can seem daunting, once you get into it, it’s rather fun! And while research may force you to be more accountable, it should be exciting and freeing to learn and learn and learn. Because in those limitations you are able to see solutions to achieving your goal that are more original (and well-informed) than your starting idea. Or even if you say, ‘nah I ain’t gonna use my research and do it this way even if it’s not accurate’ at least your choice is well-informed, and you’ll be able to justify that choice. This is the transparency and thoughtfulness I was talking about in the beginning.

Anyway, that’s enough from me. Time for me to dig deep into my research (reading the Odyssey)!

If you’re a creator with experience, how do you do research for your graphic novel? Let everyone know in the comments!

Hello, hello

Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.

She creates the webcomics The World in Deeper Inspection, and The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya; the latter of which is the first Malaysian graphic novel to be Eisner-nominated.

Currently writing and drawing a whole bunch of stuff. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.

Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur