some comics reviews and some comics making

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.


These cost more than I care to admit.

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.


I opened it to a random page and took this photo. About half of the book is stuff like this.

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.

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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.

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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.

Drowning City: first step.

Drowning City - first panel

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.

at long last, a beginning

This morning, I opened up Illustrator.

And I opened up the template I’d made at my table at APE. And I opened up a script. And the experimental drawings.

And I roughed out the first page of Drowning City.

It’s a real thing, now. At some point in the next few days I’ll start painting that page. Or I might rough out most of the rest of the chapter first. I’m not sure.

Can I make it live up to what I want it to be? I think so. I’ve learnt a lot since initially coming up with it back in 1995. I feel like my outline is solid, and I’m confident I can fill in the gaps now.

Right now, though, I should go get something to eat. I didn’t bother with breakfast and I have a bit of a headache.

(Other things I should do: get at least a basic skeleton of the website for Drowning City together, brainstorm some sample story outlines for Parallax. But not right now.)

A brief worry about race and character design.

This article about how Schulz added a black character to Peanuts has me thinking. I can sympathize with his fear of Doing It Horribly Wrong; I’m slowly dealing with a little of that myself as I work on finalizing designs for Drowning City.

See, while it started out being set in a generic city vaguely inspired by New Orleans, over the years it has firmly become a story set in New Orleans. And one thing about New Orleans is that its population is slightly less than 2/3 black.

As a white cartoonist, this is dangerous fucking territory. There is this fear that the slightest misstep will end up being racist, and that I’ll look like Hank Ketcham doing his first attempt to stick a black kid into Dennis the Menace (see the Schulz article). Or like Alan Moore defending his use of a “gollywog” in later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stories. It’s way too tempting to just say “fuck it” and whitewash the whole cast… except then it sure as hell isn’t set in the city I come from.

As I think about that fear, it is painfully obvious that the right way to handle this is to pass my designs past some actual people of African ancestry. So. Who’s following me that’s in that category? And is willing to check out some of my designs as they come together for various roles and tell me if I come off looking like some fucked-up racist cracker or not? Especially with the protagonist being a white girl, and some of her adversaries being black. Shaky fucking ground, that. And I know it.

And of course part of this is also to do my damn research and draw off of some photos instead of just doodling out stuff from my head like I’ve been doing so far. I think that’s pretty much at the top of the agenda for the next time I work on Drowning City stuff.

Anyway. Time to go find some food for my food-hole.

process: drowning city cover sketches

Today I started seriously fooling around with the site style for The Drowning City. After some work on the computer, I decided I needed to work out the image for the landing page – essentially, the cover of the book. So I grabbed a sketchbook and a pen, and sat down…

Evernote-Camera-Roll-20150206-153437 5“Hey maybe we should establish that it’s set in New Orleans.” Yeah that’s a good idea. Except I think I want the logo in front of the skyline, not below it.

Evernote-Camera-Roll-20150206-153437 6That’s going somewhere I guess. But what do I put in front of it?

Maybe a rear view of Alecto sitting in a window, looking out at the city? Man I dunno that’s kinda boring.

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Inspiration flagging, I picked up the book I got yesterday. This is a couple pages from Sergio Toppi’s “The Collector”.  Last year I’d gotten “Sharaz-De”, his version of the Arabian Nights, which was full of wild pages along these collage-y lines, and was curious to see how he’d handle a story that wasn’t an adaptation. He uses a lot more panels in this than he did in the very storybook-y “Sharaz-De”, but it’s still definitely very inspiring in terms of full-page design.

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Yeah, that’s a lot better. We’ve got the main character, we’ve got the sword that’s important to the plot, we’ve got, um, I dunno, some of the other characters plopped around there. Time to explore further.

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Zoom in to give myself more detail. Definitely starting to get somewhere here; I like the sketch of the woman with the gun in the upper right, but I’m not pleased with the overall shape, or the mood of Alecto.

Flip the page over, quickly trace the sword and that one figure I liked. Oh yeah that new Alecto works, too. I wasn’t feeling the rest, though. Needed to fool around some more.

Evernote-Camera-Roll-20150206-153437 2And after a lot of furious scribbling, I think I’ve got it. I really like the impulsive idea of showing Alecto reflected in Edge (the sword) instead of having her beside it; this sets up one of the story’s themes, that she’s just another damn tool to the Sidhe, right there as the first thing you see. We’ve got New Orleans, we’ve got most of the other major characters, we’ve got a swirl of miscellaneous fairies to say “hey this is a fantasy”.

Now all I have to do is put this sketch (along with some of my character design roughs) into Illustrator and start painting. But really what I should be doing right now is finishing the next page of Rita…

More events in a sequence.

Stuff I did today:

I joined a hashtag going around on Twitter. #fourcomics that were important to you as a creator/fan. I couldn’t keep it down to just four so I posted twice:

Asterix, Little Nemo, Mage, Particle Dreams Amethyst, Krazy Kat, Hellboy, Atari Force

Thrice, actually, if you count me wondering if the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics counted as one. Because man that really shaped my interest in the wild stuff done at the beginning of the 20th century back when people were making up the rules with entire broadsheets to play with.

And then I sprawled on the floor of my studio reading some of these, thinking about how more than a few of them were larger formats than the standard “comic book” size the American industry has settled on. Even the Howarth example I chose was slightly oversized, and had some beautiful examples of full-page designs going on, especially in the “Mad Empress” stories. This lead to pondering page formats for “Drowning City”; I’ve been trying to find the right shape for it, and I think I have arrived at “8×12 book, held sideways, so you see one big page at a time”. I shot off a quote request; if I can get that with lay-flat binding in paperback at a reasonable price, then that’s the shape of what I’ll be spending the next few years working on. (And I am kind of amazed that I’m casually making decisions like that. When did I start taking that long a view of my work?)

Ultimately I keep coming back to the thought that the climax of the story involves falling, and I want to be able to do some very vertical compositions to work with that. I scribbled down some other ideas of things to do with a One Big Page At A Time aesthetic that I think will contribute to the story; I even have ideas on which parts of the story I want to use these for. I may post some of these (plus some of the various doodles in the current Drowning City sketchbook) soon.

(Part of me wants to do something even bigger but (a) expense and (b) man it’s really hard to READ those full-size Nemos. Part of it is due to the way they were written to be read once a week, part is due to the fact that McCay’s plot and dialogue are really just excuses for him to draw whatever crazy architecture he’s obsessed with at the moment. But part of it is due to “holy shit this hardback book is half my height”.)

Discussion on someone else’s four comics post turned me on to Nicolas de Crécy, who I think I need to check out. Foligatto and Celestial Bibendum were suggested as entry points to his work.


I then went out to the dentist and had a little bit of drilling and filling, and a lot of cleaning, happen. Did you know that if the light’s just right, you can see a wisp of particulate tooth enamel coming out of your mouth when they drill? Did you know that it has a uniquely unpleasant, slightly burnt scent? I did not know this until now.

And then I wandered downtown to have a late lunch and hook up with the exes for a movie. I had an hour to kill so I wandered through Barnes & Noble, and picked up a couple of books on Celtic myth, which I may be mining for weird little bits and bobs for “Drowning City”.

And finally, the movie. “Inherent Vice”, based on the Pynchon novel of the same name. We all enjoyed it; Nick was a bit worried because he’d noticed that it had the fewest stars of anything playing at the theatre, but all the reviews were bad in a way that suggested it was simply Not For those people. We were perfectly prepared for a stoner noir picture that never really laid out the crazy conspiracy running through it; if you go into that movie expecting to actually understand the labyrinthine affairs of the Golden Fang, you will be disappointed. But if you expect a bunch of really kind of insane people wandering around 1970s Los Angeles, you will get that. In spades.

I had a few moments of LA nostalgia. Unsurprising, really. Living in LA was complicated and stressful and kind of horrile in some ways, and I’m nto about to go back down there and try to hop into the animation industry again, but it can be gorgeous.

Anyway. Guess it’s about bedtime.



laurels: not to be rested upon.

I’m looking at the final version of that Drowning City test image I did yesterday and I am delighted: it looks exactly like the way it looked in my head when it started coming together in the winter of 2001. It always needed to be painterly and messy and modelled, in a way that I simply did not have the skills for back then. I could maybe mess it up a tiny bit more; I’ll have to think about ways to do that quickly and efficiently.

I feel like I could make this look happen about as quickly as I do Rita once I get into the groove. Which feels like a big speed-up from the somewhat similar look I was chasing in Absinthe – I really hadn’t learnt to simplify a lot of the process yet, and I was having to constantly think about things like “how opaque do I want this shadow to be, and what blending mode should I use?”. I should revisit my Absinthe templates and codify a bunch of stuff the same way I did for Drowning City, so that I can hit the ground running when I resume dong that, too. (Absinthe was also slow because of all the elaborate backgrounds I was doing, of course! That probably won’t change. Though they might go a little faster with what I’ve learnt in the time doing the Tarot deck and Rita.)

It’s going to be really exciting to actually get to use things like “blurs” and “textures” and “smooth color transitions” again. Though I’m sure I’ll be aching to return to the simple flat colors of Rita by the time I finish Drowning City. Or maybe not; maybe I’ll want to start doing something even more visually ambitious. Who knows?

Anyway. The immediate future of my drawing hand mostly involves more Rita. And more pre-production work on Drowning City – more character portraits, website design, and research. There is mythology I need to read!

Drowning City: toolbox

Drowning City style test

I’d made a couple of little test fragments, but I felt it was time to do a real test image for The Drowning City.

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As I did this, I tried to codify what I was doing into a handful of styles. For Rita, I’d just do flat colors and the occasional brush, but this has a lot of settings going on – pretty much everything listed in this palette does the equivalent of poking at three or four other palettes to choose a color, maybe a gradient, maybe an art brush, and add some effects to it. Much easier to just do it once and save it.

As I work on the comic, this will probably expand – I’ll have a few styles for various bits of each character, maybe stick some details into art brushes like I did on Rita, and in general use a lot of Illustrator tricks to let me do complex imagery without much work.

(Come to think of it, doing a couple more drawings of some of the other main characters might be a good way to refine this toolkit, and add more bits I may need.)


Edit. Worked on the styles for a little longer; took out a lot of use of ‘roughen’, gave the shading styles a bit of an extra halo, and refined the art brushes. It is still messy and organic but it was a little too messy before.

tentative specifications

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I sure looked at a lot of fonts today.

This morning’s ‘playing with techniques for Drowning City’ turned into ‘picking fonts for Drowning City’.

Walt Kelly’s work taught me the power of careful font choice in comics; a generation of web cartoonists picking fonts from the wide assortment of Internet Novelty Fonts available for free taught me to put some thought into those choices. So once I arrived at the idea that the elves would speak in a ‘prettier’ font than the humans, I spent most of the day looking at calligraphic fonts to find just the right one.

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I ended up spending a hundred bucks on a couple of good prospects. Nothing makes me feel more like a grown-up than spending money on The Right Font.

I am aware the calligraphic swashes make the elven dialogue a little harder to read. I kinda don’t care; I just really love the idea that their speech gets more precise when they want to emphasize a word. That really fits with how I envision these folks – concerned with appearances, to a fault. And seriously, someone who can pronounce ‘and’ in such a way that it’s rendered on the page as an ampersand? That is someone who is pretty persnickity about their words.

I am sort of hoping to keep on doing little style experiments and guides like this every now and then, so that when I finish Rita I’ll be able to jump into drawing pages of Drowning City with a nicely-curated set of the myriad tools Illustrator offers.

building a toolkit



Fucking around with some brushes. The two sets of strokes on the right are the exact same bristle brush, except with some Appearance panel trickery applied to the right-hand copy.

Most of the solid shapes are just pencil-tool drawn shapes with a fill and no stroke, and with Roughen applied in the Appearance panel. I think I probably need to put some kind of art brush on these things for the look I really want for ‘Drowning City’.


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And if you want to try this yourself, here are the settings for the bristle brush and appearance stack I’m using. The top ‘roughen’ is 12pt absolute, 10/in, smooth points; the bottom one is 2 pt absolute, 46/in, smooth points.

Also I feel like this Alecto is really off-model; her design has varied over the years so it’s hard to know which one is exactly Right offhand without digging in my favorite sketches of her.

Ultimately, my goal is for Drowning City to be done with a ton of brushes and effects that take a lot of the work out of it for me; I’d like to be able to knock out a panel without spending much more time than I do on Rita, but have it look all painterly. I will have to work out some processes that make this easy. Obviously I’ll have to put SOME more effort in, as I want everything to tend to have some shading; Rita has strong shading sometimes, but a lot of panels are completely lacking in any sense of light or shade. But I think I can come up with some rules for how to shade everything that will make it fast.

(This drawing uses various tints of one color, and simply shades things by using a dark color at 20%; some experimentation suggests that a couple of messy thick brush strokes of that dark color at 20% works pretty well for a ‘painterly’ shading look! But also reveals that reverting from 18.1.1 to 18.0 leaves it super unstable when dealing with any kind of interesting appearance tricks, sigh.)

(Also of course doing the ‘noisy paper’ technique I did in Absinthe will add a lot to that “painterly” look.)