Return of the Independent Comic Book

Return of the Independent Comic Book

First, I want to apologize. This is a brain dump post. I’m going to move all over the place. But I’m buzzing with the sound of comics in my head and I need to get it out there. I want to talk about the independent comic book.

This weekend I read through the first volume of The Complete Eightball collection. I noticed something that struck me. I think we are in the middle of a rejuvination of the individual anthology comic book that was popular in the 90s. Those books, like Eightball and Schizo, were themselves throwbacks to the 60s underground comix. But upon re-reading, I can’t think of a book that represented the 90s to me as much as Dan Clowes’ Eightball. I hunted as many issues as I could find when I discovered it in 1993. I was 16 and stuck in the midwest, surrounded by superheroes. Eightball blew my mind.

Now here I am at 38, still in the midwest, still surrounded by superheroes. But I’m reading all these great new comics also. Like Dark Corridor by Rich Tommaso. That first issue was a revelation and made me nostalgic for the 90s at the same time. Then I started thinking about Revenger by Charles Foresman. Lose by Michael DeForge. Pope Hats by Ethan Rilly. Crickets by Sammy Harkham. Phase 7 by good ol’ Alec Longstreth. There are a ton of similar books. Comics that are created by a single creator on a periodic schedule. Not graphic novels, but comic books. Independent cartoonists have been stuck on the graphic novel since 2000. That is long enough so that this all feels new again. Much like how I felt when Eightball would come out twice a year.

Revenger 4

I love the self-cover on this.

The similarities continue when I was reading about Clowes’ obsession over the production of the book. He had his hand in every aspect of how Eightball was printed. It was a quality book. It felt good to touch and was a joy to physically read. I read about Charles Foresman’s printing decisions for Revenger. I’m nodding along while I’m reading. Pope Hats feels superb in your hands, what you’d expect from AdHouse publishing it. Lose has the usual high standards we have come to expect from Annie Koyama.

All this is to say that I have a lot to say. I have so many comics in my head wanting to get out. So I’m reading Eightball this morning and I stop and head to the computer and start looking up printers and figuring estimates and oh my god wouldn’t it be so cool to do a high quality 30-page anthology comic book once or twice a year?!

Back to the 90s for a second. I found a small group of graphic design friends in high school that all wanted to draw comics forever. I’m the only one who kept at it. But we all thought about pooling our money together for self-publishing our work. Remember, it was at the tail end of the black and white boom. Printing was cheap. You could still get your book into Diamond with relative ease for distribution. I thought it would be so cool to do a monthly book. To have a letters column. Fake house ads.

Now I see all these other cartoonists doing it. I want in. Doing my own anthology would let me draw in all my styles and experiment. I would have my own letters column. That maybe excites me more than it should. I could pay for a once or twice a year print run out of pocket now (because I’m good at being an adult).

This original dream of mine died when Diamond raised their minimum orders. I’m sure it did for a lot of other cartoonists. We all flocked to graphic novels and webcomics. But here we are in 2015 and here are all these books being distributed direct to readers and it’s like, why not?

Why not?

Mobile Creation On The Go

Mobile Creation On The Go

I worked at a small design firm early in my career. One of the owners possessed the object of my desire: a titanium PowerBook G4. He would bring it to the office on his motorcycle. Worked on it all day in his corner office, doing everything from programming to design work. And at the end of the day, he’d pack it up so he could work from home. I wanted that freedom. Mobility. I wanted mobile creation.

Titanium PowerBook G4

This thing is a beast.

Fifteen years later, and mobility is not a problem. Now it’s choosing what devices you use. How mobile do you want to be?

It’s akin to how joyful listening to music must have been a century ago. Think about it. If you wanted to listen to music, you had to go someplace to where a band was playing. Or you made your own music. Or you went to church. Now we listen to music while we do three things at once. Every song ever made is available to us through a myriad of devices and delivery systems. It’s almost an afterthought.

The same is true with mobile devices.

Over the years, I have tried a variety of devices to achieve the mobility I desired. I experimented with writing on a Palm Pilot. I looked at the old Treo’s. Something light and small enough that I could do simple mobile computing. Nothing beat the laptop. I’ve owned three MacBook Pro’s over the last 8 years. It’s heavy. They have become lighter over time, but my latest, a 2011 model, is still 5 pounds.

Then the iPad was released in 2010.

Mobile Creation Bag

My Mobile Creation Bag

There is a lot of speculation on the current state of the iPad. For me, it’s the perfect machine on the go. I bring mine with me to work everyday. I can comfortably read documents on it without wasting paper. The Office365 apps are a dream. But where it shines for me is for writing. I use a Logitech K810 Bluetooth Keyboard (Amazon Affiliate Link) that syncs with both my laptop at home and my iPad Air (Amazon Affiliate Link). I toss it in my bag everyday in case I want to write. I’ll use it instead of my iMac. The iPad offers a focused writing experience for me. The first draft to every blog post or comic script gets it’s start on my iPad. When I get into doing revisions and publishing, I’ll switch back to my laptop. After I’m done working though, it’s back to the iPad. I use it on my couch for casual computing.

The only thing I don’t use my iPad Air for is drawing and sketching. I have a Wacom stylus. I just find using it and the available software for it to be cumbersome. So I have a simple spiral sketchbook that goes with me everywhere. I also carry a mechanical pencil, a click eraser, a Pentel Touch pen and a Pentel brush pen for drawing on the go. I hope in the future the iPad offers a better drawing experience. Maybe the rumored upcoming “iPad Pro?”

There are other solutions for mobile/digital drawing. I’ve narrowed down possible choices to the Microsoft Surface and the Wacom Cintiq Companion. The Surface is a little too close to owning another laptop though. The one Cintiq Companion I’ve played with weighed more than my Macbook Pro. For now, traditional tools work better for me. Especially when I can take a photo of a sketch with my iPad or iPhone and send it to my laptop to work on later. You should read about illustrator Ray Frenden’s experiences with both the Surface and the Companion if they are of any interest to you. His reviews are informative.

I carry these items in a lightweight bag everyday. If I’m traveling on vacation or I’m headed to the office, it’s the same bag. I don’t need much else. I still want to keep my laptop though. If I’m traveling and I know I need to work, it comes with me. Design work in particular needs a tradional desktop experience. I can do some simple programming on the iPad, but I feel a lot more comfortable with my laptop.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next five years. I’d love to have a 15 inch MacBook Pro with the same power, but have it weigh as much as the new MacBook. If it had an Apple designed stylus, then it may be a perfect fit.

One last thing…

In order for my whole set up to work, everything I work on needs to be able to sync. This is easy now. My favorite apps all sync to the cloud between my iOS devices and my MacBook Pro. Day OneEvernote, and iA Writer Pro are my main writing tools. They offer the best digital experience for me.

Recently though, I read this article from the New Yorker: Why Startups Love Moleskines. If you are anything like me, you bought a crapload of Moleskine notebooks in the mid 2000s. And if you were me, you thought, these are kind of expensive and they won’t lay flat on my scanner. I switched back to simple and cheaper spiralbound sketchbooks. But these new Evernote Business Notebooks by Moleskine interest me. I may pull the trigger on one and try it out. It appears too good to be true: a perfect mix of analog and digital tools. I’m not holding my breath. But I’d like to at least try it out. I’ve talked about my love for Evernote before. It might be worth a shot adding one of these notebooks to my bag.

Transitioning from Traditional to Digital Process

Transitioning from Traditional to Digital Process

Christian Ward is the artist and co-creator of ODY-C with Matt Fraction at Image Comics. He recently wrote about how he is transitioning from traditional materials to an all digital workflow for creating his pages:

Insecurity in art isn’t a bad thing, though. Far from it; it’s what pushes me to be better. To take my work to the next level. To keep improving. It’s what led me to make a jump to working all digital.

We can, it has to be said, partially blame Duncan Fegredo and Jamie McKelvie for this transition. Both are keen proponents of the all digital movement and I’ve had multiple conversations with both about the merits of working digitally. On meeting the former at comic store event earlier this year, Duncan could barely see any reason why I wouldn’t make the move. Sure I’d lose the money made from my original art sales but the time I’d save would be fantastic. Since so much of my work is about the colour – which I already do digitally – why not do it all the way.

This is a great read. I’m sure by now it is obvious that I am a process junkie. Ward’s process is complicated but he produces some amazing artwork. The hard work pays off for his fans. I find it interesting because I was completely digital and have now moved towards something similar to his original process. It is a hybrid of traditional and digital. But I picked up a few ideas from his piece that I’d like to try. That’s the point of sharing these process pieces. There’s not one right answer. Ward himself admits that in his conclusion. Your process is always changing, and there is not one right path.

Writing Comics with “The Walk”

Writing Comics with “The Walk”

My writing process is always in flux. But I have hit on a method that works for me. I’ve been writing this way for several projects. Most of the bugs have been worked out. This is how I work. I hope someone can find something useful for their own work. This is the second post in my series about my new graphic novel, The WalkYou can read about the origins of the project here.

Pound the keys

Dark Horse Comics Sample Script

Dark Horse Comics Sample Script for artists.

My original process for writing comics and graphic novels was based on other writers. A typical writer uses Microsoft Word to construct their scripts. The script format varies from writer to writer, but many of them use a screenplay format. When I have collaborated with writers as their artist, this is the format I would receive.

When I started creating my own work, this is how I thought you should write comics. I would spend a long time pounding the keys and writing a script. I’d print out the script for edits, and I would start the process of drawing it. This is crazy.

Don’t get me wrong. It is perfect when you are working with an artist. In my case though, I am the artist. It felt like I was adding an unnecessary step.

Evernote everywhere

Ideas come unexpectedly. If I’m on the move, I want to be able to capture the idea before I forget it. Evernote is my best tool. I can jot down a note from my phone and tag it for later reference. It’s free to use and everything syncs to the cloud. It has excellent mobile, tablet, and desktop applications.

The Walk in Evernote

Outline for “The Walk” in Evernote

I’ll review my ideas and see if there is anything worth exploring. If I find one, I’ll launch Evernote from my iPad. I add more thoughts, pictures, and links to research. When I’m ready to get serious, I fire up Evernote from my laptop and start setting up an outline. I’ll determine the length of the story and I’ll divide it into fourths.

The Walk is one part of a collection of stories that will be released as standalone material. I’m a big fan of 48 page stories. It keeps me from decompressing. I can craft a tight story within that page count. If I divide the page count into fourths, I know that my first plot point is around page 12. That’s the end of the first act. My second plot point is page 38, which starts the third act. I have the bones of the story.

After I’ve determined the plot point markers, I will set up a blank outline:

Page 1: 

Page 2:
Page 3:

Page 4:
Page 5:

I group the pages like that so I can determine spreads and page turns. Each page has a sentence about what happens on the page. I keep it loose and general. This part takes the longest time. I’ll sweat over what I see in my mind over what appears in the outline. I listen to movie soundtracks during this part of the process. Something that fits the mood of what I’m writing. If it’s an adventure story, I’ll listen to an action movie soundtrack, for example. Anything that doesn’t have lyrics will work. My current favorites to write to are:

Time to grab my pencil.

Thumbnail Draft of The Walk

Thumbnail Draft of “The Walk”

Step away from the computer

I have a thumbnail template set up as a PDF. It is letter sized, and it has two “pages” on them with hash marks for a nine column grid. Jason Lutes gave us this template at the Center for Cartoon Studies and I’ve used it since.

I’ll print off enough copies of the template for the story. This is where I’ll begin to write. I create a thumbnail draft for the story. I’m not concerned with how everything looks. The templates are too small to get concerned with details. I’m looking to combine words and pictures and see what happens as quickly as I can.

When I get a draft done, I throw it in a drawer. I don’t look at it for a week. After a week has passed, I scan the draft with my ScanSnap (Amazon Affiliate Link). It compiles it all into a PDF up to 50 pages at a time. I’ll send it to a few of my peers and ask them to take a look at it when they have time. I will also read it myself.


ScanSnap. They are awesome.

I make my notes on the initial draft, including the criticisms from my peer group. Time for another draft. Sometimes I get it done in three drafts. For The Crippler’s Son, I ended up with 9 or 10 drafts. The Walk was a bit different since I had drawn the story before. I had two thumbnail drafts.

What I look for on a second draft is to tighten up the visual flow and to look for themes that I can carry through the story. If I draft quickly, I can start to see patterns. They are unconscious. I’ll repeat this process for as long as it takes. A thumbnail draft takes me a week to produce. It’s exhausting. I get into a zone. It is all I can think about during that week. What happens if I do this? What happens if I do that? Should I change the gender of the character? The race? The sexuality? What does that add to the story? What does it subtract from it? Is it funny? Is it sad? How does this build on comics before it? What am I really trying to say? I pace. I walk all over my home muttering to myself. The dog follows me everywhere. It’s exhausting for her also.

When I think I’m done, I do a final gut check with my peer group. Now the hard part starts. I got to draw this damn thing.

If you are writing the script for another artist, I highly recommend trying this out. The language of comics is through the art. You can see inconsistencies with your writing by drawing it, even if they are stick figures. Your artist will love you. Beginning writers will often have four actions going on in one panel, for example.

Panel 1: Man stares out of the window. The phone rings.
He walks over to answer it. He answers the phone.

That’s four panels, not one. If you already have 9 panels on the page, that gets complicated for the artist to figure out. If you want to write a novel, write a novel. Seriously, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. To me, it shows that you aren’t really serious about writing comics. I work hard at this. If you want to do this, you should to. I’m not saying you have to thumbnail it all out, but study how other writers do it. Reverse engineer a comic script from an existing comic that you like. Collaboration is a two-way street, and it can be wonderful. I’ve had a lot of fun and success working with Kevin Church. I don’t know if he’s thumbnailed a comic before. But he’s serious about comics and his scripts work.

Taking it to script

If I’m writing for another artist, I will go through the exact process for writing comics. Nothing changes. My next steps though are to take the final thumbnail draft and do another scan through the ScanSnap. I transcribe my thumbnail draft into a script. I write in Pages and export a Word document. The only reason I use Pages is that it comes with OS X. I have Word, and the new version of Office is amazing. Microsoft has outdone itself with Office365. But I use Word for work, and Pages for personal. They are both great word processors and both sync to the cloud. But I like siloing projects with apps.

If I had my druthers, I would write in text editors. That is a post for another day.

After I have the script in Word format, I’ll send the artist (or editor) the script and the thumbnail draft.

Drawing the pages

My next post in this series will be about my drawing methods for The Walk. I suspect it will take some time between posts since I’m in the middle of that process. As I mentioned in my first post, I’m recovering from open heart surgery. I have great days, and I’ll have four bad days in a row. No energy. Crippling depression. Those closest to me might be surprised to read that, but I hide it. I’m aware of it and know that it is temporary. They watch for that level of depression with heart patients. We all have that in common. It’s hard to know that you should be dead. Hell, 40 years ago, I would be. Natural selection would have weeded me out. But I’m alive. And every day I try to make the most of it.

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