Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Anatomy of My Comics

Page in progress at my desk
The way I create comics can differ from the more conventional means, especially compared to mainstream comics.  Usually there is a separate writer, penciler, inker, letterer, and colorist.   I have in the past, worked like that, usually as an artist, or an inker.  But for the most part, I work on my own comics as a one-man-army, and complete all these steps myself.  It allows me to work dynamically and freely between, the writing and drawing process.  

I wanted to show everyone, my personal method for bringing a comic book from initial concept to the finished page.  I get questions about it at comic conventions sometimes so I thought I would go into detail about how I get the work done in a manner that makes the most sense to me. 

When I come up with an idea for a comic, it is usually a pretty broad stroke of an idea.  It can start by listening to a song, or even from one line of cool dialogue that a character might say, but in the end, it is pretty general.  When I was in community college, I took painting classes with Mary Hardy.  One of the first lessons we learned about was the underpainting.  An underpainting is the first layer of a painting that sets the color palette, tone, and/or mood for your painting.  It can be representational, or abstract.  It doesn’t really matter, as it is going to be painted on top of anyway.  However, the details in the painting, don't exist in the underpainting.  What is there is the broadest stroke of the piece.  When the painting is finished, you don't necessarily see the underpainting, but the viewer can feel it's presence.  

I work on my stories the same way.  I start with the most general of concept first.  Then I fill in the rest of the details afterward.

For this article about my process, I will be using The War for Kaleb Part 3, page 3 as my example for the most part.  There is nothing spoilery in it so it won't give anything away.  I’ll also start by giving a general breakdown of the process, and then go into detail about each one:
  •  Initial Concept, and Idea
  •  Break Down of Scenes
  • Thumbnails of all Pages
  • Roughing and Writing Pages
  • Penciling
  • Lettering
  • Inking
  • Cleanups
Sketch page of dialogue ideas
First, I need a concept, and idea.  Most of my ideas come to me easier if I’m doing something that doesn’t use much brain power, such as walking, working out, or even driving.  The more automatic the activity, the easier it is for my mind to go wild.  Using this method can make the images, and sometimes entire scenes play out in my head like a movie.  I like to visualize the ideas in this manner because they conceptualize in a more complete way.  It allows me to pick and choose the moments in the form of a comic book easier.  Also throughout the entire process, I’m not married to any ideas, or structures.  I can change anything, and any given moment.  If I want, I will Special Edition the shit out of my stories!

Before the work of the final pages begins, I like to break down the scenes in a book, in its entirety.  I’m not much for the serialization of a story.  I like to know exactly where I’m going with a story before I start it.  The biggest rules are, it needs an absolute beginning, and an absolute end.  Once I have those, I just need to figure out what transpires in between.  Basically, I will figure out, how many books the story will be, and how many pages in each book.  When I have that I evaluate the book by scenes.  The scenes are then broken down in groups of pages, to equal the total page count of the given book.  I basically just guess how many pages would be sufficient to tell the story of the given scenes.  

Scene Breakdown from TWFK #2
Keep in mind, at this point I have not done any writing yet.  I may have jotted down some scenes, and even some catchy dialogue, but nothing fully fleshed out.  I want to keep this portion of the creative process as basic as possible.  Remember, broad strokes at this point.  This is the underpainting.  Right now I want to create the moments of my book.  By doing this, I’m cutting the fat of a story, and what is left, are the interesting parts.  What I mean exactly by this, is I want to break down the story in total of pages for a book, and then the pages broken down into the important scenes that need to happen.  George Lucas always thought of his stories as a series of memorable moments.  When you do this, the audience is left with nothing but a retrospective of iconic moments, which are not easily forgotten. 

Working like this also gives me a definitive space to work in so my story does not go off the rails, or lose focus.  I like there to be a purpose to a story.  If you think of the way people talk to each other, particularly telling someone a story, they will usually keep to the point and focus on the point in their story that matter (unless it one of those friends that likes to ramble).  When this is done, the listener is engaged, and wanting to know what happens in their friend’s story.  When my stories have a set amount of pages, and/ or parts, then I can make a much more purposeful, and focused story.  Some may think this denies them of freedom, which is fair, but personally I like there to be a destination.  When disregarding a destination, a story can then fall victim to becoming convoluted and its meat being nothing but filler.

Thumbnails for The War for Kaleb #2
The next step in the process is the thumbnails.  I will do the thumbnails on an 8 ½” x 11” piece of typing paper.  Then I layout the paper to fit as many tiny boxes that represent the pages as possible, without getting to small.  The importance of the thumbnails, is due to their size.  My thumbnails are pretty small.  It allows me to work on the layouts without inhibiting me from the overwhelming task of laying out the pages.  From here, I can now draw what the pages are going to look like scene by scene.  You can see in the example (from The War for Kaleb Part 2), that it is kind of hard for someone to make out what is happening there.  As long as I can understand what is happening on those thumbnails, alls good in the hood.

Once all of the thumbnails are down, I begin work on the roughs, along with the writing.  Here is where my methods can be a bit different.  Usually, a comic is written in the same fashion as that of a movie script.  The scenes are set up, characters have their respected dialogue, and the shots or panels are described for the artist’s interpretation.  I write alongside of the drawing of the roughs.  When I bring dialogue into the mix, I want it to be as free formed as possible, almost as if it is happening in real time.  By doing this, I can have the actions of the characters play off the writing, or vice versa.  I feel it creates this dynamic interaction between the characters, and the worlds they inhabit, as if the writing is unfolding before me. 

Roughs for The War fo Kaleb #3, pg. 3
The roughs, are done on the 8 ½” x 11” typing paper just the same as the thumbnails.  They take up the entire page, just like the original artwork on the final pages will.  The drawings are generally very loose, as I personally don’t like spending too much time on things that I don’t need to.  I like to get the general idea and energy, and move on.  Any changes can be made here, or in the final pages.  Sometimes, going with the gut, works really well, while fine tuning it along the way.  Now with all of the leg work out of the way, I can get down to the fun part:

The Final Pages!

Penciling the pages can be the most challenging portion of the process for me.  During this stage, I have to turn a blank piece of paper into something engaging, and meaningful using the vast knowledge, and tools at my disposal, from the years, of practice, training, and education of my craft.  No pressure.  It’s okay, though, as I have a philosophy behind this that I will explain later.

For now, it’s time to work! 

A common misconception about the original artwork of comics is that it is done on the same size paper the comic is actually printed on, while in reality it is significantly larger.  The paper traditionally used is an 11” x 17” Bristol Board.  I use a classic 10”x15” image area for my panels.  This is what was used in the old days, like with Wally Wood, and Jack Kirby.  You can use whatever you like for your image area, as long as you stay within what are known as “Safe Zones” which is usually designated by non-photo blue lines on the paper.  I’m not really going to go into the non-photo blue lines with bleeds, and word balloons in this article.  Basically there are non-photo blue lines, and their authority demands respect!  (I personally use the reverse side of the paper, because I think the blue lines detract from the original art, and I’m a rebel!)

The first thing I do, is lay out the panels of the respected page in pencil.  Once done, I begin to layout and draw the main characters that are talking in the scenes.  I do this with the thought in mind that I will still need to put down my lettering, which I also do by hand.

Penciled page, TWFK #3, pg. 3
To step back for a second, one thing to keep in mind is that everything I do for the most part is done by hand, meaning, minimal computer work.  The only computer work involved is pretty much dedicated to cleanups, lettering corrections, color work, and formatting for printing.  I’ve always liked the philosophy that the artwork the reader sees in the book should represent the original art as much as possible, and for me, this includes the lettering.  To me, a piece of comic art doesn’t look right without the word balloons, and captions in it.  Again, this is only my personal feelings on the matter. 

As for my tools, I use a pretty hard lead for my pencil work, which is a 2H.  I like the harder leads because it keeps the smearing down, and pencils less messy.  The drawbacks of this are the fact that if you’re not careful, you can end up creating groves in the paper if you draw to hard.  Also hard leads usually mean lighter tones in the drawing.  For me, that isn’t a big deal since I will be inking my own drawings and I have enough confidence in my inking to know what I was going for in the first place.  But if someone else is inking, it could lead to confusion on what the penciler’s intentions were.  Just something to keep in mind.

Earlier I spoke about how I'm not married to anything that I do.  If you look at the roughs, and then the penciled versions of the example page, you will notice that the first panel is different in each.  I basically decided that instead of having the characters meet, and walk into the coffee shop, I would have an establishing shot of the coffee shop with the characters inside already.  I felt it worked better for the pacing.

When I get the main drawing down on the page, I can start working on the lettering.  The drawing thus far is really just light drawing and nothing too terribly detailed yet.  If I put down too much it is going to make the lettering portion of the work get a bit messy, and hard to deal with. 

To letter, I use what is called an Ames Lettering Guide, which is an old school tool used to lay down lines for various types of lettering on a piece of paper.  I set my guide to a “3” which to some might be a bit small, but I’m not sure.  I think the traditional size is a 3.5.  I lay down the lines with the same 2H pencil I use to draw with.  Once the lines are all down on the paper, I go ahead and letter the dialogue and captions on the page.

Ames Lettering Guide
Close up or Ames Guide Setting
Sometimes, I will make last minute changes to the script, if I need to during the lettering phase.  Since the first draft was written back in the roughs, it allows time for the original dialogue to set in my mind and look at it again with fresh eyes.
Panel in Progress with Lettering
After the penciling for the lettering is completed, I will draw the balloons around the dialogue with pencil.  I then ink the lettering.  I like to ink my lettering with a Staedtler Mars Matic 0.5 technical pen.  For bolder words, I will use a 0.7.  During this stage, I stick to just inking the letters, and NOT the word balloons themselves.  This way the drawing can be altered if anything is getting in the way of the balloons, or vice versa. 

Now that the lettering is done and inked, I can focus on the drawing.  Not much going on here, other than barreling through creating the artwork.  Some of the things I like to keep in mind are really just simple fundamentals, such as:
  1. Perspective:  I like to find the perspective before I add characters in the space.  Without this grid, I can end up with characters, floating in space or not being in the same plane. 
  2.  Angles and distance of shots:  I try to get a variety of angles, and distances from the camera.  Nothing too crazy unless the action of the scene demands it.  If it just a couple of people talking, there is no need for crazy angles.
  3.  Paying attention to expressions and gestures:  This one is very important.  I always think to myself “How would I act in the situation, given the subject matter?”  If I have to I will get up off my butt, and literally act a scene out.
  4. Give attention to the backgrounds:  Sometimes we, as humans, get wrapped up in what is going on in our little lives that we forget about the vast world around us.  Just because the story is about my main characters, doesn’t mean the world around them stops.  I always give extra love and care, to my setting, and the people interacting with them.  It helps bring the fictional world to life.  It is a lot of work, but well worth it in the end.
Layouts, penciling, and lettering are done, now it is time to ink.

For the inking, I have used pretty much exclusively a brush.  My favorite brush, and the one I have used for The War for Kaleb, is a Raphael Kolinsky, Red Sable Hair Brush No. 2.  For my brushwork, I ALWAYS go for genuine hair brushes.  They are a bit more expensive, but they last a long time, are of great quality, and get the best results in the drawing.   The brands of ink I have used in the past have been, Speedball Super Black, Windsor and Newton Indian Ink, and most recently Deleter Black No. 4.  I suggest playing around with different inks, but I’m really digging the Deleter.  It works great with a brush or a crow quill, stays solid black, and won’t bleed using alcohol based markers on top.
TWFK #3 pg. 3 Finished Inks
After the inking is done, I have to clean up the page, and erase the pencil lines.  For erasing, I use a Factis Extra Soft Plastic Eraser.  These are real nice, because of how soft they are, they don’t pull up the ink as much, and fade the blacks like a harder plastic eraser.

Once the pencils have been erased, I will go back and make as many corrections as I can with a whiteout called Pro White.  This is a nice opaque white out that can be thinned and applied with a brush.  When it dries, I can also draw back on top of it if I need too.  What’s fun though, is it can be used as a tool as well to draw on top of black, to make cool effects. 

Some of my most used tools
One thing that I get asked a lot as well, especially when someone is looking at the original artwork, is “how long does a page take to draw?”  Without the preliminary work (concept, thumbs, roughs, and writing) it will take me about 9-12 hours, give or take, to complete a page of comics from start to finish.  For a 24 page comic, this is roughly 300+ hours of work.  That being said, it is the most rewarding work I can do for myself.

The last part of my process is something a little more meta.  Drawing comics is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  It tugs at me no matter how many of these pages I complete.  I’m my own worst critic, and that is okay.  When I’m working, I am constantly making mistakes.  I try to not let it get to me, as these drawing aren’t sacred.  That doesn’t mean I brush them off though.  I pay attention to the mistakes, more so than the things I do right.  In the mistakes are the answers to becoming better at what I do.  I acknowledge the mistake, and I move on.  Every single drawing that I do, and will ever do, there will be something that could have been done better.  I find that thing, I put it my pocket, and I keep it in mind for the next time. 

The acknowledgement of the mistakes in our art is more important than the fact those mistakes exist in the first place.

"We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out the better." 
-Walt Stanchfield