Last week, I posted two pages, side by side. One had been done in 2013, and the other was done at the time of the post. They were two different versions of the same page. They were also two different points in time in my life. What I didn’t share was the original version of the page. I’ve drawn the same page three times in a row. I think this is an opportunity to share my comic creation process as I start this “new” graphic novel. This will be a multi-part series that will share the entire process.
In the beginning…
In late 2011, I was in my first semester at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Our final project was to be an anthology. We split into small teams and needed to come up with a theme. My group decided to create a science fiction anthology, and each story tied to one of the five senses. SCIENSE was born. I chose to do a story based on “touch.”
I created a story about the last astronaut on a space station. The program he had been a part of was being abandoned by the government, and he was awaiting transport home. Have you been alone for a significant period? It can do some amazing things to you, both positive and negative. I drew on my own experience. In the months before I moved to Vermont, I was by myself in my house, waiting for it to sell. I was avoiding dating. I wasn’t happy at work, which made me withdrawn. I swear there were days I didn’t talk to anyone but my dog. It made me focused; I was drawing comics like mad at night. It also made me introverted, beyond what I was. I was pouring over old emails and text messages from prior relationships. Where things changed. Why they ended. Positive and negative, like I said. A certain amount of self-reflection is good, but this was going to an obsessive level.
The other thing I noticed is how powerful it is when another human being touches you. The hairs on your arm stand at attention and your heart rate explodes after isolation. We are social animals. We need to be touched, to be cared for, and to be around each other. What happens if you were by yourself in space for an extended period of time with no way to get home?
What if it was your plan the whole time?
That was the premise to my story. The rest of what happened was predictable. I think I drew the whole thing in a weekend. It was 16 pages.
On team projects, those of us with any sort of print/design background are all-stars to our teams. If it was a gym class, we would have been first round choices. My job was to setup the InDesign files. At that point in our academic career it was a mystery to my classmates (no longer the case, I assure you). Since I was a little pressed for time, I drew the comic in Adobe Illustrator near the deadline.
I don’t want to say that it was a hard critique. I will say that Steve Bissette drew on little post-it notes to show how I should draw things. Basic shit, like a hand, for instance. It was a humbling wake-up call for me. I started to drift away from digital tools because of this crit. But, everyone liked the story! My execution was a little flawed, but there was something to explore.
At the beginning of the next semester, I sat down with Jason Lutes to talk through the flaws in my storytelling. He agreed that with some revisions, it could become great. I wanted to make the story part of a trilogy based on EC Comics. Short genre stories that had a punch. I took a lot of notes and set it aside until I graduated. I had signed a contract with a publisher, and I was ready to go when I moved home to Omaha.
Little did I know I was slowly dying. I began to feel the effects of heart failure in mid–2013. I had created a cover and two pages for The Walk by the time I started as the Creative Director at B² Interactive. You know how you start a new job and you are kind of worn out the first few weeks? I chalked up my fatigue to that. In September 2014, I contracted strep. The doctor noticed my heart murmur for the first time. After some immediate trips to the hospital for tests, I knew why I felt awful.
Also, I’m an idiot.
I can’t blame this lack of progress completely on my heart. I was in my damn head. Remember how I said I wanted to make this story part of a trilogy in the style of EC Comics? If this was my sci-fi story, why not draw like Wally Wood? Draw with rendered, lush brush lines. Draw my ass off. Why not?
There were some problems with this line of thought. I wanted to draw in that style. But aping that is ridiculous. Why make a shitty version of an EC comic? I can produce superior lettering and coloring. Know how I am not superior? I cannot draw like Wally Wood. Why on earth would I try? It is beyond antithetical to my beliefs as a cartoonist that I cannot believe I entertained the notion for two years. I crippled myself out of the gate.
Back to basics
After open heart surgery, I had more energy and focus than I had in a few years. I was reading a lot of books during my recovery. One I consumed was Ivan Brunetti’s Aesthetics: A Memoir. I’ve always appreciated his minimal line work. But I had no idea that it’s partially the result of his failing eyesight. And then that a light turned on in my head.
I’m never going to be on top of my drawing game again. I mean, my surgery was successful, and I feel great. But I was gutted like a fish and another human touched my heart. It has changed me and my habits in immeasurable ways. I cannot sit at the board for hours at a time. I tried and paid the price while I was working on a Spongebob assignment. In my youth, I think I’d try to muscle through it. I’m a bit wiser. It is time to change how I draw from the ground up. Minimalism, something I have appreciated in an artist, is going to become my best friend.
Tone and style
In the past when I’ve stripped my style down or used a “fun” line, it’s been in the service of comedy. It is a hell of a lot more fun for me. When I put in a lot of effort in the art, it looks like I’m not having fun. Because it’s true. But this story isn’t a comedy by any stretch. Weirdly enough, I looked at the work that Harvey Kurtzman did for EC Comics. His war work in particular is stunning. Instead of being overtly rendered, everything is graphic. Every line has a purpose. There’s precedence. I also reviewed the works of Sammy Harkham and David Mazzucchelli for inspiration.
Last week, I sat down at the board and started fresh on page 1. I hate to tell you that I redrew the figure five times. I kept trying to over-render it. There is something in my head that tells me that I’m not working hard if I’m enjoying myself. And I didn’t do anything as dramatic as run my hand down the giant scar on my chest, but I did take a break to refocus. I am happy with where this page ended up. I texted several friends to get their opinion, and they agreed.
Now I’m drawing again. In the coming weeks, I’m going to go through every step in my process. I hope it helps some cartoonist out in the ether of the Internet. Or at least shows the labor involved to produce a comic. My next post will be about how I wrote The Walk.
The takeaways from this post?
- Get out of your damn head.
- Know your limitations.
- Embrace your limitations.