Comic Strip Process: Interview with Stan Yan (Part 1 of 3)

After looking at the structural frameworks of comic strips, I became curious to hear from cartoonists who make them. This is part 1 of our 3-part series of interviews with comic strip creators! In each interview, I ask the same 5 questions.

Let’s dive in. Today we start with Stan Yan!

Stan is an award-winning, first generation American-born-Chinese, Denver-based writer, illustrator, caricature artist and instructor. He currently teaches illustration at the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design and via the Cuddlefish Academy, and is the co-Regional Advisor for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the  Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (RMC-SCBWI)

What inspired you to make comic strips and why do you make them?

I’ve always liked comic strips as a whole because of the immediate gratification of getting a punchline every 3-4 panels (or every 1 panel if it’s a single-panel gag). 

Now why am I doing the strips that I am?

Well, I started doing Peter Cadaver for the SundayHaHa.com as a backhanded way of trying to promote a graphic novel project that I was trying to promote to publishers, since it shared characters with that story (although Peter’s sister is the protagonist in the graphic novel).

The other weekly comic I just started doing, EUpoLOGIES, I look at as a service to humanity. I finally got tired of seeing how much energy people spent being divisive — I wanted to hold a mirror up for people to look at themselves by framing their behavior in terms of a legacy they will leave on this world.

I didn’t want this comic to put additional physical burden on my drawing hand so I approached it more like Dinosaur Comics or The Angriest Dog in the World, where I’d just recycle the same image and replace the text.

Could you tell us how you approach creating a four-panel comic strip?

According to Christopher Hart’s Drawing on the Funny Side of the Brain there are two time-tested formulas: A hard punchline formula and a soft punchline formula.

 In each, the first panel is what I call a “premise” panel: you introduce the protagonist and most of the time the setting. This panel is meant to give us a hint of what might motivate your character(s). 

The second panel is what he calls a “set up”. This is where you introduce conflict if you haven’t already in the first panel. 

In the hard punchline the third panel is another “set up” panel. Basically, you’re trying to get your reader to think they know what’s going to happen in the last panel.

In the last panel, you have your punchline, or the unexpected surprise.

In the soft punchline formula, the first two panels are the same as in the hard punchline. The third panel is the punchline, although historically, this lends itself best to a physical gag or a pun. The last panel is reserved for a reaction, like a character falling backwards in disbelief, which gives the reader permission to laugh at what would otherwise be a groaner in many cases, but Bill Watterson was a magician with the soft punchline, and none of his strips to my recollection were groaners at all.

What was the journey from making comic strips to a full graphic novel like? Moving from your Peter Cadaver comic strips to the Salem Charter Academy graphic novel is a great example of this. How did one help build the other or vice versa?

I actually wrote the script for the graphic novel first. My critique group was so enamored by our protagonist’s little brother that when I decided to do this comic strip, I decided to make him the star.

It really hasn’t been too hard, since I’m sourcing my characters from a world I already created. The tricky thing has been not giving up any secrets I’m holding back for my graphic novel.

What have you learned from creating comic strips and what advice would you give to other creatives making them?

For me, creating comic strips has given me good opportunities for fine tuning my character designs and visual world building before I have to draw them for a publisher.

As far as advice is concerned, I’d say: 

1) Place your text first so there’s enough room

2) Don’t use the panel border as the ground for your characters to stand and walk upon, draw a line above the panel border to give us visual context

3) Don’t be afraid to use a borderless panel for one panel and/or omit a background to give readers visual variety. Trust me: readers know Garfield didn’t just teleport to an empty void in panel 3.

Last one! Where can we find you and what you are working on?

You can find Peter Cadaver at salemcharteracademy.com and sundayhaha.com

You can find EUpoLOGIES at eupologies.com

You can find me at stanyan.me and you can learn from my decades of comic creating experience at CuddlefishAcademy.com

About Jade Vaughan

I am a non-binary storyteller who dreams of one day owning a mango tree. I grew up as a military kid traveling the U.S. and Europe. We never stayed at one place more than three years but between all those moves Studio Ghibli films and magical girl anime were my constants. I love fantasy, magical realism, & slice of life with queer and whimsical characters. I want to work on projects that balance humor, hardships, and heart!

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