Making Comics

What’s Spencer currently thinking about?

The Art of Comics

I was never a comic book kid. When I was growing up, I read the funnies in the newspaper, and for a short time, a little of Ranma ½. I would pore over anthologies of newspaper funnies, but without too much refinement of taste; at the time, I loved the beautiful Calvin and Hobbes just as much as I loved stale old Garfield. That was the extent of my exposure to comics, though. I never peeled open a Batman or a Superman story, and didn’t really give professional comics much thought.

Cover of "The 'L' Gang"
The “L” Gang

That said, however, I was a kid who liked to draw. For one of my birthdays in elementary school, I was given a Flying Rhinoceros “How to Draw Cartoons” kit, containing basic art supplies and two entertaining, wild “how to draw” books, presented in the form of comic books. This gift had, without a doubt, a stronger influence on my art than anything before or since. It simultaneously gave me direction– I went from a “drawer” to a cartoonist in my mind– and set me free, introducing me to a world of zany, enjoyable drawing that was unconstrained by the formalities of “realistic” drawing that I had never liked. Shortly after receiving this gift, and as a result of my new identification as a cartoonist, I decided to try my own hand at making a comic. It was ill-conceived, illogical, and I stretched for laughs, to say nothing of the inadequacies of the drawing style, but at nine years old, I wrote up and drew a comic called The “L” Gang, which I have reviewed (perhaps a bit mercilessly) here. It was my first exploration of the comic form, and while it was absolutely unimpressive in every way, it excited me enough that I would later revisit long-form comics[ref]I’m borrowing a bit of terminology here from competitive improvisational theatre. “Long-form comics,” as I’m using it here, would refer to comics that take place in a veritable world, with rich plots and objective-driven characters. Comic books would fall into this category, as would webcomics like Questionable Content or, despite the occasional out-of-continuity gag, Ctrl+Alt+Del. In contrast, then, would be short-form comics, such as many newspaper funnies and xkcd, which may (or may not) have defined characters in a defined world, but rarely exhibit plot arcs that run longer than a week. I just came up with this definition now, so I haven’t given it too much thought.[/ref].

Page of my Eighths vs. Sevvies comic
Eighths vs. Sevvies

In 2004, after finishing seventh grade, I began work on a comic based on the inexplicable middle-school tension between the “eighths” and the “sevvies.” The cast consisted of my own friends, featuring my caricatured self as the central protagonist, and I actually spent a fair bit of time– at least by eighth-grade standards– working on this comic, developing its plot and characters, and cranking out the art. I only drew five Eighths vs. Sevvies strips before I was no longer an eighth grader (rendering the relevancy moot), but I found that I really enjoyed the process. I liked creating characters, building a world for them to live in, and setting things in motion in their world. I liked using the one-two punch of words and images to bring a story to life.

Although it suffered from its own deficiencies, I can confidently say that Eighths vs. Sevvies was a huge step up from The “L” Gang. It demonstrated better writing, vastly improved drawing, and a much more coherent plot (okay, plot-in-progress). Compare a page of The “L” Gang with a page of Eighths vs. Sevvies, and it’s clear that, without really being aware of it, I was beginning to explore the possibilities of long-form comics. I was playing with world-building, as well as experimenting with the basics of how to draw a comic: framing, panel size and shape, and so on. For instance, whereas the pages of The “L” Gang showed very little spacial awareness, with rows of panels that varied wildly in shape and exhibited very little conscious thought or planning (understandably, ’cause I was nine), in Eighths vs. Sevvies , I started to show evidence of planning the panels– placing them on the page to either accentuate punchlines or reinforce visual design. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t masterpieces, but they were a big step forward. (I may showcase the Eighths vs. Sevvies comics here some other time, perhaps with less vitriol than I used for The “L” Gang.)

So… why this big dissertation on my history with comics? Well, first, because it’s my blog, and the topic interested me. I kinda have that right to talk about the odd things that pop into my head. But also because lately, I’ve been thinking again about drawing long-form comics. Apparently, the topic is one of those mindworms that just won’t go away.

In high school, I started dipping my toe into the comics pond. I read through Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Watchmen, and was floored. These graphic novels were compelling, not only because of their exceptional art and their exceptional writing, but the powerful combination of the two. The words and the pictures weren’t merely exceptional in their own spheres, they played with each other and worked together to produce a whole that was far more than the sum of its parts. I saw how the form could be used to evoke emotions and psychological concepts in a way that no other art form could. In addition, I began reading the webcomic Questionable Content, by Jeph Jacques, and was again turned on to the idea of creating a world and allowing characters’ lives to play out in it. These ideas began churning slowly in the back of my mind.

Cover of Making Comics, by Scott McCloud
Making Comics, by Scott McCloud

A year or so ago, while researching a project for a film class, I stumbled upon a book called Making Comics by Scott McCloud. As I thumbed through it– like the Flying Rhino “how to draw” books that shaped my style, it was also written in comic form– I was amazed by McCloud’s insight and clarity of presentation. What he presented was emphatically not a book on how to draw. Instead of pages of things like “how to draw an Amazon princess” or “how to draw a background,” he talked about how to build characters that audiences can relate to, and how to use establishing shots and panel transitions to establish a firm sense of place. In perhaps my favorite section of the book, he talked about the theory (first presented by Darwin) of emotional primaries, stating that all emotions humans express are the products of six different primary emotions at varying intensities, similar to how the colors we see can be broken down into their respective primaries. Instead of saying, “These are angry eyes,” he actually reproduced a diagram of the muscles of the face, and examined how they responded to the six emotional primaries. McCloud laid out the mechanics of not only making comics, but making engaging, quality long-form comics.

I was enticed.

Cover of Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud
Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud

Soon, I picked up a copy of McCloud’s first examination of the genre, Understanding Comics. In this book, he took a microscope to what constituted the type of art we call “comics,” coming up with a number of great thoughts. He made the point, which I had considered when reading Alan Moore’s work, that comics were more than the sum of visual art and writing– that they drew their power, in fact, from both working in tandem. When I finished the book, I had a newfound appreciation for the art of the comic. Combined with the hankering I’d felt to tell a story, I was rarin’ to start a long-form comic.

That’s where I am right now: tantalizingly close to starting this. I’ve actually spent years thinking about this comic– playing with plots, sketching characters and places, and dreaming of getting this puppy off the ground. I want it to be a webcomic, since that makes the most sense to me, a financially-strapped, independent[ref]as in “indie publisher”[/ref] college student. I don’t anticipate dedicating my life to it, but it would be a very enjoyable project to work on, especially since it feels like I’ve been building toward this for most of my life as an artist. And I realize that my artistic abilities are not the most impressive, but I have the hunch that regular drawing would help them improve[ref]As will, of course, art classes like the one I’m taking this semester.[/ref].

Unfortunately, I’m facing a bit of a delay due to technical deficiencies. For years, I’ve worked in a specific way: I draw my linework by hand, using traditional mediums, then scan it into the computer, where I color it using my drawing tablet and Photoshop. While this works, it has some notable drawbacks. First, it’s inefficient. I like to sketch my work in pencil before I ink it, but since I scan my linework into the computer, I have to be sure to clean the image up after inking. The workflow is something like:

  1. Sketch in pencil
  2. Ink in black
  3. Erase pencil
  4. Scan
  5. Lay down flat colors
  6. Shade

If I didn’t have to scan my work into the computer, I could eliminate at least two steps from that process, allowing me to produce artwork faster and with less paper waste. It would also allow me to draw and color wherever I could take my computer and tablet, since I would be free of the need for a scanner.

Another drawback, more specific to comics, has to do with layout and lettering. As it stands, if I wanted to draw a comic page, I’d have to do it the same way I draw anything else, by drawing it by hand and scanning it in. I tried that before, in the Eighths vs. Sevvies series. I freehanded the panels in those comics, which looked sloppy and often led to wasted space. Drawing panels with the aid of a ruler might help with that, except, inevitably, I would fail to make lines exactly parallel, leading to similarly sloppy-looking mixed-width gutters. Also, that would fail to alleviate the efficiency problem, leaving me again with two extra steps in my workflow as I transitioned from tangible media to digital. The obvious answer, at least to me, is laying pages out digitally.

I do have a tablet, which in theory would be helpful for both of these complaints. Unfortunately, my tablet doesn’t help with either. My tablet is a marvelous tool for coloring, as it allows me to quickly lay down color while maintaining control over elements such as brush size, opacity, and so on. However, as I found out in the first week of owning it, my tablet is lousy for linework. It’s prone to jittering unless I keep it moving. This usually isn’t a problem when I’m coloring, since that’s usually a set of scribbly back-and-forth motions. If I wanted to draw a line, however, this makes it almost impossible. I’ve looked at settings to try to fix this, but I’ve found nothing. It seems that my tablet is simply inappropriate for linework.

Additionally, when it comes to layout, I don’t quite have the right tools either. Photoshop CS3, which I use, is a powerful tool, isn’t quite right for layouts (at least as far as I know). Digital layouts should include flexible, easily-editable shapes and text– the best layout tool would be a vector graphics editor. I currently use Inkscape, an open-source vector editor, which, while a decent tool, is not as powerful as the industry standard, Adobe Illustrator. To its credit, Illustrator also interacts well with native Photoshop files, which, as a Photoshop user, I develop a lot of, while Inkscape cannot. I’m not entirely sure I need Illustrator for my comics project, but it certainly would not hurt.

I’m really excited; I have a friend who’s written a screenplay and a friend who’s written novels, and I’ve always been awed by their dedication and talent. I feel like this comic project would help me grow as a writer and an artist, and that it’d be (of course) one heck of a lot of fun.

At any rate, that’s one of the things on my mind right now.

One thought on “On My Mind: Comics

  1. It probably isn’t a good long-term solution, but could you not digitally create boxes as panels (I know you can in Inkscape, though it’s limited in that I mostly use it for Order of the Stick-style figures and they shouldn’t tax it, but even then it crashes all the time)? I realize this is only part of the issue at hand, but in terms of creating even lines . . . .

    [/stalk via facebook :P]

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