On the plus side while roaming Nier: Automata’s drab, sepia deserts, I figured out that my perfect AAA game would basically be “a huge, slightly-ruined castle in the middle of the desert with monsters roaming about it and bright blue skies and beautiful intense sunsets and maybe some jet skates or a grappling hook or something, and a nice character generator” and I hope someone out there is working on it because I would play the fuck out of that and now I think I wanna boot up Kingdoms of Amalur on the 360 and fuck around in its beautiful desert zones again as a poor substitute.
A friend asked for comics-making advice on Twitter. I had some. Oh, did I have some. Maybe some other people following me would like advice on making comics from me, so I’ll cut and paste them into a blog post (and expand on them a little)…
Don’t. They’re a ton of work and a major pain in the ass and there’s a zillion other people making comics and getting people to look at anything longer than ten panels these days is an uphill battle.
But if you must…
Find your own level of reuse. Backgrounds. Character elements. How much are you comfortable with? You probably don’t want to assemble 90% of your panels out of art you drew once and copy/paste forever, but you also probably don’t want to draw every tiny screw on your main character’s prosthetic arm every damn time. Consider how you can limit how complex you can get on a page – are you allowed gradients/hatching/etc? Are you going to limit your palette? (I like doing that a lot.)
If you’re full color, how can you make this fast and easy to repeat? Can you make brushes for complex parts of character? For instance if a character has a tattoo or a complex logo: make a brush, deposit tons of detail with one quick stroke. Pull out the brush specifically marked as being for character X’s hair. Maybe end up with close/mid/long shot versions of these things, because you need less detail for longer shots, your choice.
(Organizing brushes/color palettes/graphic styles/etc by character can be super helpful. The more you can pack into one click, the better; lately I’ve been starting to make lists of Graphic Styles in Illustrator, labeled with something like “Olivia prosthetic arm”, “Union logo”, or “Lexy hair cu”; these might just be a simple flat fill, or they might be a complex assemblage of settings and brushes. It’s a lot faster to go from a rough to a finished drawing this way than it is to manually pick a color and a brush and go at it. I dunno if other art programs can do this but it’s super useful if you’re an Illustrator person like me.)
Decide how many pages/week you want and how much time you wanna spend, enforce this rigorously (until you don’t). I mean I went from two pages a week on Rita to a climax that took six months to draw and it was… pretty hard. Worth it but hard. I’d usually spend 2-4 hours drawing Rita on most weekdays because I am a big slacker compared to most comics people. Or most comics people are workaholics and I am not; decide what fits into your life and your finances.
And: abandon “perfect” for “good enough”. If you still think it needs to be better when you put together the collection, then you can spend a little time fixing it. You’ve aimed yourself at a schedule of X pages every Y days, with Z hours available to work on it; you can’t lavish three days on finessing every panel.
(Personally the schedule that works best for me is “aim for two pages a week, don’t sweat it if life gets in the way”. That way I never feel the temptation to waste time drawing a “SORRY NO PAGE TODAY” image. If all you have to work on the comic this week is two hours, you’re a ton better off putting those two hours into working on the next page, or that crazy scene-setting spread coming up in ten pages, or plotting, or anything. Yes, I know a lot of the webcomics pioneers will tell you you need new content on a constant, never-broken schedule. This was true back in the days before Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook or a zillion other ways for someone to subscribe to your regular feed of updates; now I think it’s not so crucial. You still wanna aim for regular updates, because that will keep you constantly working on the comic. But use your limited drawing time wisely.)
If you can’t write worth a damn then you need to find someone to work with who can. Ideally come up with something together that you both love playing with. And: Make sure your main character is FUN TO DRAW as you will be drawing them a LOT. What that means, exactly, is up to you. You know what you love to draw. You know what you can just about draw with your eyes closed. Use this knowledge.
(Writing is its whole other domain. There is a ton of writing advice out there. Here’s some of mine.)
Don’t make all your characters just like you. Flip a coin for every character’s gender, unless there is a compelling reason for them to have a particular one. Or roll a die if you want to include genderqueer/enby/etc types. Same for skin tone and whatnot. And consider cultural/racial associations even if you’re drawing cartoon animals! It’s really really easy to default to making every single character a straight white dude, because we have so much history in the US of comics being by and for straight white dudes.
Put your first draft dialogue in the page, if you’re working digitally then keep refining it as you work on the art. Always make sure there is room for the balloons, and that the reading order flows from one to the next, before you invest a ton of love into some background detail that ends up being the only place to cram a word balloon. For more on this, go check out this essay by Eddie Campbell; I do not claim his guidelines are the One And Only Way, but my stuff got a lot more readable once I started thinking about the word balloon placement this way.
Don’t get lost in studies and pre-planning. It’s easy to do this. Very easy. Ultimately what matters is “did you get the next page done?”. That said, usually if I find myself blocked on a page it’s because it’s time to sit down and nail down the plot of the next few pages, maybe do some super-rough layouts. (I don’t write a formal script in advance, just an outline.)
Make page templates. Use them. Traditional? Draw your margins on a piece of paper, add in markings for common page divisions, put that on the lightbox and put a blank page on top of it and rule out the panel borders you figured out in your thumbnails. Digital? New page from template, oh look now I have a file for this page already set up with the standard palettes/brushes/styles, several layers of grids I can turn on and off (maybe to use straight, maybe to just use as a skeleton to build something crazy and fluid off of), the beginnings of my standard layer setup, some word balloons to copy-drag, and everything else I need to just dump my notes in and start drawing.
Using references is not cheating; never underestimate the power of a reference selfie for that hard pose. Or a reference photo of a family member, lover, or studio-mate. Or something from a Google Images search. Or a maquette. Use it long enough to get what you need out of it, then put it away and do the rest of the drawing yourself. But speed up those hard poses.
Anyway. “Don’t draw comics, kid, they’ll break your heart,” as Jack Kirby once said. It’s a lot of effort for a tiny, tiny chance at enough people reading it to support you in the time they take, never mind the dreams of it turning into a transmedia franchise that makes you and a lot of other people a lot of money.
A friend was trying to do some comics and having some trouble with getting the lettering to work, so I did a couple quick pages of Things I Think About When Lettering My Stuff.
I do not claim that any of these tips are The One True Way To Letter. Just that they are things that tend to make my own comics more legible. (I say this because I see a lot of lettering tips about How To Superhero Letters that take a super dogmatic tone.)
There’s a lot of stuff I left out: I did not go into using differently colored balloons, the use of different types of edges for thought balloons or for shouting/electronically transmitted stuff (or for hints about tone of voice), or why I sometimes choose centered text, sometimes left or right justified, and sometimes do paragraphs with indents. I also didn’t go into translucent word balloons – I feel that solid white balloons look super clashy over modern softly-colored art. I also left out the rant about how I feel the ALL CAPS SUPERHERO LETTERING is something best left in the past, where it was a good idea due to the terrible reproduction those things got then. Which also means I left out the digression about the weird little rule that you should never write a superhero comic about someone named Clint Flicker because of how it looks if you type it in all caps and aren’t super careful with the kerning or start having the ink bleed…
Anyway. Hope this helps someone a bit.
Yesterday, I went out to a cafe with the intent of getting some work done on Drowning City. Instead I just sat there doing a couple of smaller things that needed doing and staring glumly at the last few pages of chapter 1 that don’t have a rough yet; I just had no energy. So I went over to Phoenix Comics and looked for some inspiration.
The first thing I read was Frankenstein Underground (script: Mike Mignola, art: Ben Stenbeck, color: Dave Stewart). It is a story in which Mignola’s version of Frankenstein’s monster wanders around an underground world, punches a lot of monsters, deals with weird old mystics, and worries about Being A Monster – basically, it’s a Hellboy story without Hellboy, and all the overarching end-of-the-world doom Hellboy carries on his back.
Stenbeck does a really nice job of capturing the spirit of Mignola’s distinctive style without being a slavish copy; the whole book is full of shadows. He adds in more detail than Mike usually does, without getting lost in it like I find some of Mignola’s followers do – there’s a nice sense of life to most of the drawings in this book. And Stewart’s colors continue to add a delicately nuanced flavor to these tales of thud and blunder; he colors pretty much anything Mike’s involved in since like the second Hellboy collection. There’s nothing special or world-changing here; it kinda feels like a return to the core values that Hellboy was built on top of. There’s sunken-faced Victorian revenants, there’s ancient dark tentacle gods, there’s a rich dude with vampire minions and a collection of curiosities, and of course there’s a big, sad-shouldered monster running around punching the snot out of bigger monsters in an assortment of tenebrous spaces. It’s exactly the kind of supernatural pulpy nonsense Mignola’s built his brand on. And it’s a really solidly made piece of that supernatural pulpy nonsense. But it’s not doing anything mindblowing or new.
Rating: ★★★☆☆. A solid piece of Mignola methadone to tide me over until the collected Hellboy in Hell comes out. The finest quality ANSI-standard monster punching money can buy.
Then I decided to check out The Wicked + The Divine (script: Kieron Gillen, art: Jamie McKelvie, colors: Matthew Wilson). I’ve been hearing good things about it but hadn’t read it yet; as I opened it I tweeted “Things I know about Wicked + Divine right now: 1. There was a cute Asian boy at Geek Girl Con who dressed as Pearl from SU one day, and one of the characters from this the next, and had the good taste to buy both volumes of Rita. 2. Also it is about a bunch of gods being reborn in the modern day as various aspects of David Bowie. Which reminds me to go buy his new album.” So I pre-ordered that (it comes out today, still haven’t quite listened to it), put on my current favorite Bowie album (Outside), opened a bottle of beer I had hanging around (because this felt like a book to read with a beer somehow) and got to reading.
Five pages in, after a the prologue about a few nattily-dressed people sitting around a big table being oblique, I was looking at this:
A few pages later, I was looking at this.
Someone sweat blood (probably Gillen, judging from the process notes at the end of the second collection) thinking about the structure of these spreads, making sure it reads sensibly if you read the left page followed by the right page, and if you read four panels in a row straight across the whole spread. When I got to this spread I basically sat up and started really paying attention; the original notes for Decrypting Rita had me planning to have all four stories running in parallel across “standard” comics pages. This is a trick I narrowly avoided having to do for about two hundred pages in a row; my brain aches just thinking about that. There’s a nice awareness of full-page and full-spread design in the comic in general; this trick repeats every now and then (sometimes with the 1-2-3-4 motif in the first spread I excerpted, sometimes without – it’s also a recurring bit of dialogue), as do some really lovely super-symmetrical layouts when the Gods are being all Godly. I suspect there will be some Very Important Pages at the end of the whole story that, if read one way, just conclude the story, and if read another will deliver an Important Message About The Thematic Point Of The Whole Story.
Anyway. There are a dozen of people running around who are earthly incarnations of various deities, who are also all rock stars. They are all going to die after two years of this, and they are all connections to The Source Of Creativity for all of mankind. There is infighting between them, there are rock festivals, there’s one lonely ancient immortal who finds and trains these gods, and there is a hunt for a few deities who have not manifested their earthly avatars at the outset of the story. There’s a nice double bait-and-switch about one plot element in the second volume, that ends on what is probably a huge downer if you’re not possessed of a casual acquaintance with some of the major stories of Greek myth.
There’s some nice color tricks going on too – most things have a fairly representational palette, but whenever the David Bowies do something Divinely Magical, the colors go all pure process and start getting a huge halftone thing going on, as they wield the power of Pure Holy Pop Art.
This is a story that is intensely aware of the fact that it is A Comic Book, in a very good way. I’m now eagerly awaiting the third trade, which should be coming out pretty soon. I should probably ask Phoenix Comics to hang onto a copy for me and bug me when it’s out.
I want to compare this to The Invisibles (writer: Grant Morrison, art: like a dozen different people over the course of the run) a lot. It’s got the same awareness of Being A Comic at it’s core, and it’s rooted deep in a distinctly UK pop-culture sensibility.
Rating: ★★★★★. I have a Doug Winger-sized comics-formalist boner for this thing. It’s also a sharply-written, fast-moving story with a lot of well-defined characters. Recommended.
After reading that, I still had more to read – the interesting-looking Private Eye, which I know nothing about except that Em at Phoenix recommended it (and that it was a full third of the cost of my purchases thanks to being an oversized hardcover), and all five issues of the Brandon Graham-edited anthology Island – but the massive comics-formalist boner I had from reading The Wicked + The Divine meant that I was fired up to go work on The Drowning City.
So I put together a playlist full of music I’d always thought was the soundtrack (the Numan), stuff I was listening to when I was the self-hating guy I was in the nineties and early 00’s and coming up with the basic outline of this story (the Puppy and NIN), and some other gothy moody stuff I felt would evoke the right general attitude (the Crüxshadows, Aphex Twin, and Bowie). I’m surprised I hadn’t done this yet, to be honest. And I sat in front of the computer, pulled up one of the remaining pages without a rough, and started drawing.
This is the top half of page 8 of the first chapter of Drowning City. Yesterday evening it was just script. So that’s good. These are super messy roughs that are going to require a lot more work before they’re finished panels, but they’re enough to start with. There’s a lot of me scribbling and feeling around here; lots of drawing stuff at whatever size it came out of my hand, then resizing it down to fit into a section of the page without being incoherent. Well. Right now some of these panels are pretty incoherent if you don’t have the script next to them. But they’re scribbles I know I can turn into images that fairly unambiguously read as “1. The leader gallops up to Alecto as she darts to the hopeful freedom of a parking lot. 2. Horse rearing, he glares down at Alecto, blocking her with the flat of his spear.” – and so on, and so forth.
So that’s what I did last night. When I got up and turned on some music, iTunes was still in the Downing City playlist, so I decided to take this from an assortment of tweets about me reading these things and write up something less ephemeral. It’s essential to take inspiration from outside of comics, but I need to remember that sometimes it’s good to just go read some good comics and get fired up to make more of them.
Anyway. As I was writing this, iTunes finished the Crüxshadows album it was in the middle of when I got up, and played the first track of the new Bowie album. I’m gonna go get some breakfast and listen to that, then get to some comics – probably Drowning City, as that’s what I’ve been doing for most of this week.
These are the first two finished panels of The Drowning City. They look pretty much exactly like I envisioned the comic looking fourteen years ago when it started to really take shape.
They took a bit more than an hour to draw, not counting the half hour or so I spent drawing the sword and making it into a brush so I pretty much never have to draw it from scratch again. Some of that time was spent swearing at Illustrator and trying to nail down a weird bug where the Graphic Styles panel stops working properly; ultimately I ended up just working out of the panel where I had the library of styles I’m keeping in another file. I really need to spend some time trying to nail down exactly what makes the Graphic Styles panel start glitching out and submit a bug report.
There will be many more panels to draw before this comic is done. But having the first ones done makes it feel much more like a thing that’s really going to happen.
I am sitting in a hotel room in San Jose, contemplating the con I came down here for after awakening from a dream of Cthulhoid entities draining many of the better characteristics from my friends in the furry scene.
APE was too big. I want to give it a little slack for just having moved from San Francisco to San Jose and needing to attract a local audience. But to be honest, it was too big last year. The number of people I saw passing by my booth never really approached feeling like a bustling con.
I want to contrast it to SPX, since that’s fresh in my memory and I did much better than I normally do – I sold out of my usual pile of Rita 1 on the first day, while not even selling a dozen copies of it over APE.
In terms of vendors, one thing I realized was super unusual about SPX was its tight focus. There was nobody with a wall of unlicensed prints of Marvel and DC characters. Nobody with a bunch of still images. Every single table had comics on it. In most comics shows I go to these days, there’s a dilution from “people selling comics” to “people selling art”. (And to “corporations promoting their movies” but we’ll stay away from that issue.) I was across from a couple of people selling prints of super flat, cute art. I saw one person at APE whose booth was filled entirely with drawings of corporate superheros crying, all drawn in the style of a FunkoPop figure, all in pretty much the same pose.
That person also had several people in front of their booth when I passed by, so I guess that shit sells, but geez. That is like the Platonic ideal of an SDCC artist alley booth. What’s that doing at the “Alternative Press Expo”? It’s spreading the money thinner, and increasing the cultural footprint of stuff owned by Warners and Disney. I’d say maybe a quarter to two fifths of the booths at APE were selling prints, rather than comics, with a lot of them having no small amount of corporate stuff.
If APE was stripped down to about, oh, two-thirds of its size, by removing everyone not selling comics, with the same attendance, I think it’d be a much healthier show. Of course all the people who were disinvited by doing this would bitch a blue streak! But really I think it needs to be stripped down to about two-thirds of its size anyway to better distribute the amount of money its attendees are willing to spend.
(I am, of course, biased. There is a part of me that wants to go to every single person with a wall of prints and say WHERE IS YOUR COMIC WHAT IS ALL THIS OTHER CRAP. Especially when they are someone doing flat art; seriously I am pretty much the only person I have ever seen with a flat, no-lines sign who actually has a comic for sale instead of a lot of standalone drawings. I really want to go shake those people because I want to read more comics that make my eyes happy.)
Anyway. I didn’t make enough money at APE to even pay my hotel, much less my other expenses. I don’t think I’ll be back for a few years until I hear it’s got a much better ratio of attendees to booths.
(There are also rumors that Disney is going to start cracking down on people selling unlicensed Marvel stuff at the big cons, which might have an overall cascade effect on the entire comic convention scene. It’d be nice. But I’m not going to hold my breath.)
But let’s contemplate some numbers and see if they match my intuition: ~200 exhibitors at APE2015; no attendance numbers yet. The only numbers I can find is 6100 in 2013. Although interestingly enough, SPX2015 had about 200 exhibitors as well, and the only attendance numbers I can find are “over 3000” in 2012. I’m pretty sure they had more in 2015, the place was pretty damn full, but I wish I had some actual numbers to compare. Because holy shit SPX sure is doing something right and I would love to see more non-megacons doing the same thing.
(Actually I think it would be pretty interesting to see what happens if a medium-sized comic con made the explicit rule of “no megacorp character stuff”. If your table has that stuff you’ll be asked to take it down. If you’ve got nothing but you’ll be asked to leave, with no refund. Again, I have an obvious bias here, what with having all of two prints of corporate properties in my body of largely original work.)
My verdict on APE: show there if you can drive in and stay at a friend’s place.
So one of my comics idols, Matt Howarth, did this thing where he’d draw these little comic strips about music he was listening to, and stuck them in the back of his comics. He called them “Sonic Curiosity”, and these things got me to try out a lot of music I wouldn’t have ever heard of otherwise. (He’s still doing this now and then online, as a matter of fact.)
This is me sitting down with the latest album by one of those musicians and doing my take on the idea.
Dead Planet is the second side of a double album. The first side is “Human Upgrade”, in which the alien wants you to have an awesome high-energy dance party. The whole package is ten pounds – about sixteen bucks American – on Bandcamp. I liked it enough to draw this while listening to the second half.
A while back – I think something like a year ago, maybe longer – I got pointed to a call for submissions for an academic journal. The “Transgender Studies Quarterly” was doing an issue called “Tranimalities”, themed around, well, honestly, teh furreh. And even teh postfurreh.
So on a whim I submitted a short B&W comic Nick and I had done a while back for the Anthrocon conbook. I gave it a pseudo-academic title. They accepted it.
And I got my contributor copy today.
I briefly flipped through it after opening the package. Holy cow is it full of academia. I will need to sit down with a stiff drink before trying to actually read most of the articles in this thing.
If you want a physical copy of this sucker, you can order one here.
If you’re just interested in my comic, it’s right here on my site.
I got a comic about a catgirl turning into a robot spider into a serious academic journal. I can’t help but feel like this means I am winning at life.
So you want to do a graphic novel. That’s great! And you think you have the writing and drawing chops to do it all by yourself. That’s great too!
But if you want it to be entirely painted, and your only idea of how to write is to throw a few characters into a situation and see what they do, you’ll probably never finish it.
Because comics take a lot of time. And comics don’t pay very well. And shit happens.
Figure out where your story is going, and how to get there in about 200 pages, and find an art process that won’t take too much longer than the pencil and inks of the B&W days. Or you will never finish your story.
(Me? I’m 10-20 pages away from finishing Decrypting Rita. It’ll be 200-210 pages, depending on if I decide to do the epilogue I’ve been debating the need for. But my mother dying kinda took the wind out of my sails for a bit. I’ll probably get back to it soon; I’ve been working on it fairly frequently for four and a half years now, and comics are kind of my day job thanks to Patreon.)
I’m still working on this adaptation of ‘Ozymandias’ as a dry run for ‘Drowning City’. The script font may need to be a little larger to be legible, and I’m not as sold on the sans-serif font for less floridly-delivered dialogue as I was in my initial doodles. That’s why I’m experimenting!
The painterly tricks, however, are definitely holding up. This takes a lot less time to draw than you think it does.