Organisation System for Research-Based Comics

I was talking to a friend in our Group Chat the other day, and he asked if any of us had any recommendations for a system that’d help him organise the research for his food culture graphic novel. It reminded me that the system I used has changed in the past year, and besides, it’s time to make an addendum on the How I Do Research for Graphic Novels post. So here it is. An update of sorts.

In the Research for Graphic Novels post, I mentioned using Zotero (a browser-based citation bookmark); Airtable (a flexible rich media database/spreadsheet software) and Firefox bookmarks.

My Organisation System has changed since that post as I improved my research skills and found better tools. I’ll show you what I use now.

Airtable (link)

Me bringing out the receipts

This hasn’t changed. I found Airtable robust enough to handle the extensive, mostly online multimedia research required for the kind of graphic novel that I do (historical fiction).

Airtable allows me to do two things simultaneously: catalogue PDFs, websites, images… and attach annotations, comments, story ideas to each item, with sources. It also has a tagging feature which is useful for locating and filtering specific items when needed. The era when all of these things were independent files nested in separate folders in my hard drive is now over.

So many articles…

There are now 6 tabs in the database for my Alexander the Great comic:

  1. Academic, for journals and critical analysis from scholars of my topic, for literary, cultural or historical background. There is a column for abstract, tags, a cross-reference to the relevant story point, as well as my own summary of the articles.
  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 have columns for 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).
  4. Visual receipts, for visual details that I want to point back to a reference or source. It’s similar to Receipts, except the attachments are source images and URLs.
  5. Craft, to list movies, books and essays (video or written) that influenced my approach to the graphic novel.
  6. Resources. More for my readers than myself. A list of websites, libraries, museums and presses where I found my research materials.

The Airtable system I use is a more elaborate and efficient form of the Spreadsheet Style for Organising Literature, a common method used by researchers to collect their materials for scholarship.

Scrivener (link) (not free)

The third version of the first draft of the script.

A writing program I switched to, after some frustration with Google Docs. Scrivener is more flexible and tailored to book writing than Google Docs or most writing software like Word or LibreOffice. To put it another way, it’s the Clip Studio Paint of writing software.

Each project is given its own file type/major folder. Inside this file are subfolders for drafts, documents for each chapter/scene, subfolders for my ramblings and outlines and character profiles and snippets of dialogue. Author notes are attached to each document or subfolder. Each little thing can be shifted around easily, if you think a scene is better as an earlier or later one.

Scrivener also does split-screen view, useful if you want to refer to a scene while writing a different one, or compare notes.

So far I’ve written several drafts of my upcoming middle grade GN, My Aunt is a Monster in Scrivener. And will be using it to write Alexander.

If you are considering purchasing a license, please use this referral link (for Mac) (for Windows) so I can get a 20% commission to support my freelance artist life (weeps).

Notion.so (link)

This is a relatively recent addition to the system. I use Notion mostly as a to-do list, productivity tracker and a hub to keep relevant links (where the comic is hosted, press kit, reviews, etc). However Notion is flexible enough to replace Airtable and Scrivener, if you want to stick to a single software rather than delegate different aspects to different software.

It allows you to build different types of databases (similar to Airtable), but each row is given its own page. In the screenshot you can see the to-do item ‘My Aunt is a Monster’ contains a preview of its own page, where I have chosen to break down the task further into sub tasks. It doesn’t just have to be tasks; you can write notes and attach other material.

The one thing that sets this apart from Scrivener is it allows comments and a collaborative workflow similar to Google Drive. Good if you’ve got a script and you prefer your editor to highlight/comment on parts of it. No split screen view.

But the value I most derive from Notion is that it’s like a private website builder in a way? One is free to add pages (the basic unit of Notion) and drop in widgets, templates, databases, links, toggles, headers, apps, images etc into the page. This is great if you want to build a personal wiki for your graphic novel project.

The reason why I didn’t move everything into Notion is because 1) I recently integrated it into my System 2) Airtable is the only database software powerful and dedicated enough to handle the complexity of Alexander Comic. 3) I was already using Scrivener and it’d be too much work to move everything.

For a less intense graphic novel, Notion could be all you need really.

Check out this Twitter hashtag notiontwt to see how other people laid out their Notion pages.

Goodnotes (link) (not free)

I use this to scribble and highlight PDF articles on my iPad, since it’s impossible for me to print these PDFs and do the same in physical form. (impossible because my tiny apartment has already too many books and dust, and printer ink is expensive). The other thing it can do is copy and paste sections of the PDFs into a new document — so if you are drafting an assignment essay or thesis where you need an easy access to exact quotes, or a neater method to connect citations together, this is your boon. All these PDFs go into their own folder.

An example of me copy pasting highlighted snippets of different PDFs into a single canvas. This is for an Epic of Gilgamesh essay from my University Days.

This app was a lifesaver during my undergraduate years and I’d rely on it again for my Masters (if it ever happens).

Additionally, a friend of mine uses Goodnotes to make thumbnails for her graphic novel that she then sends off to her editor.

It’s for Apple users only unfortunately.


But yeah, this is my personal Organisation System. Hopefully it helps yall in comics and visual arts to build a more organised system for keeping your references and art inspos and managing your creative life.

And this doesn’t need to be said… but feel free to add or remove apps and tailor the system for your own way of thinking. This isn’t set in stone, and I feel like my system will change as I move between projects and discover better tools. View this as a guide, not a rule.

If you have any reccs for softwares not mentioned here, or a System that works for you, share them in the comments for other folks!

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

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