Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Tale of Two Pages

I was working on my webcomic, The Last Mechanical Monster, and found some forgotten files that I thought might make a good, quick, process post. Some folks enjoy my occasional looks at how I make comics (always with the caveat that my way isn't the only way or right way, it's just mine). Here's some behind-the-scenes on two pages of my webcomic, Pages 82 and 83.

Page 82. For some reason, I kept a scan of my blue-line artwork for this page, which I don't normally save. I'll explain. Comics are traditionally drawn on paper with pencil, then gone over with black India ink to make the lines sharp and clear for reproduction.

(This all assumes that the modern cartoonist isn't working totally digitally, which many are. I'm a dinosaur.)

Conventional graphite pencils--such as the good ol' No. 2--are fine for penciling and many cartoonists use them. However, after being inked, those pencil lines need to be erased.

I don't like to erase; it takes time, dulls the black lines, and risks smudging the art or damaging the paper.

Instead, I use blue pencil. It's a habit I picked up in the days, decades past, when light blue was used in printing and publishing because it didn't show up in photostats and photocopies. The pencil lines essentially turned invisible, leaving only the black inked lines. It still kinda works like that, except now I delete the blue lines in Photoshop.

So here's my blue-line pencils for Page 82, with the borders already ruled in black. In this scan I've increased contrast to make the blue lines dark enough to see. In real life, they're very light.

As I've gained experience and confidence, my penciled art has gotten more spontaneous and loose. I try not to overthink it. It's "swoopy." If I were penciling for someone else to ink later (as is common in comic book production), I'd add more detail and work "tighter." But since I'm a one-man show, I trust myself to remember what I intended and choose the best line to ink among the three or four penciled lines I might draw.

I also mention something every time I describe my process because it's very important: the words go first. In the old days that was literally true: the text was lettered onto the board before anything else was inked. These days I letter digitally, so it happens last. But when I'm sketching the page I still place the words first, and leave plenty of space for where I know they'll go. On this particular page, the words are all captions narrating a flashback, so placement was easy. It's more important with dialog in word balloons, which have to be carefully placed to guide and pull the reader through the page.

Also notice the center panel, which has a note that reads, "House of Jewels. Copy Fleischer?" I hadn't yet decided how to draw that panel, and ended up digitally manipulating a screen capture from the 1941 Fleischer "Superman" film that my webcomic used as a launching point.

Unfortunately, I didn't save any interim steps, but here's the final Page 82 as it appeared in the webcomic:

A word about lettering: I do it digitally now. I didn't used to; Mom's Cancer is all hand-lettered right on the original artwork, just as it appears in the book. In fact, it's that experience that converted me to digital. Hand lettering is very hard to edit--you have to rewrite it and try to take up the same amount of space. It's hard to lengthen or shorten. When it comes time to translate a comic into foreign languages, you have to go through and delete the text from each individual word balloon and caption so it can be replaced. Far easier--far, far easier--to edit at the speed of typing, lengthen or shorten at will, and delete at the touch of a keystroke. The lettering is still mine. I sampled letters from Mom's Cancer to create my own font/typeface. I wrote a much more detailed blog post about that process a few years ago.

Page 83. I don't have any early drafts of Page 83 to share, but there's still some stuff I can talk about. First, here's the page:

Our point of view is very near ground level, which is a dramatic perspective that has to be handled carefully. The bottom or base of every object in the drawing is in a narrow band near the bottom of the page. A little girl, a giant robot, an adult woman, two cars, a couple of skyscrapers: if you're off by even a hair, the girl could look like a giant or the skyscrapers look like dollhouses.

Perspective helps define the space. The diagram below shows a Horizon Line (pink), which is the key to perspective. I deliberately placed the Horizon Line to be at the little girl's eye level (even though we can't see her eyes) to strengthen the idea that we see what she sees. This drawing has three Vanishing Points, which is atypical for me--usually two Vanishing Points are adequate, but this dramatic angle demanded the third. Two of the Vanishing Points are on the Horizon Line, and the angles of the skyscrapers point to them (blue and green lines). The third Vanishing Point is in mid-air above the Robot's head (orange lines) because we're on the ground looking up at it.

[This particular drawing is complicated by the fact that the two buildings sit at an angle to each other, rather than parallel or perpendicular, so each building actually has two Vanishing Points on the Horizon Line, for a total of five in this drawing. But that's over the top. Never mind.]

When I'm drawing, I define the Horizon Line and Vanishing Points by drawing a sort of grid. I don't have an example of how I did it for Page 83, but here's a page I did for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow showing all the perspective grid lines:

Also three-point perspective, this time looking down. All these lines were originally light blue.

I've learned that whenever I'm having trouble with a drawing--it's just not working or I can't figure out how to make it look right--that about half the time, I haven't defined my Horizon Line and Vanishing Points. Get them right and everything else falls into place.

Page 83 also showcases a weakness of mine that I might as well be honest about: cars. I already came clean about how poorly I draw automobiles in a blog post a few years ago when I was making WHTTWOT. Every high school art class has one student, usually a boy, who excels at drawing squealing hot rods belching fire from their shiny chrome pipes. I was not that boy. Cars are hard because they have a lot of complex curves and everyone is very familiar with them, so if the proportions aren't right they instantly perceive it. So I cheat.

In this case, I took snapshots of a model 1939 Chevy from an appropriate low angle. This is one of the same models I used in the chapter of WHTTWOT set in 1945.

I then used Photoshop to convert those snapshots to a light blue "duotone" (50% cyan) and print them onto a piece of heavy paper.

Next step: trace the photos. There's more thought and skill involved in this step than you might think. I used the same brush I use on everything else, keeping in mind that I'd be shrinking the cars to a very small size in the final art. Consequently, I drew with a thicker line than I otherwise would've, and left out a lot of detail. It didn't matter if the line was a little shaky: it wouldn't show when reduced, and to the extent it did show, it'd just make them look as if they were drawn by hand rather than a machine.

Then I scanned the drawings into Photoshop and made the blue disappear . . .

. . . and inserted the cars into the final drawing. Notice that I flopped one of them so it's headed into the composition rather than out of it.

I think that process probably sounds more complicated and time consuming than it is. I'm not proud that I need to resort to it, but it's the fastest way for me to get the results I want. I can live with it.

That didn't turn out to be as quick a post as I thought.


Tim said...

Brian, thanks once again for the glimpse into your work.

In regards to your two buildings with two vanishing points each, I didn't notice it at the time, but with your lines drawn, it's quite obvious that the buildings, as you say, are at an angle to each other. This seems odd in a city setting, which usually has perpendicular streets and buildings facing each other. Just curious why you made this decision?

Brian Fies said...

It seemed like a good idea at the time...?

I don't know. It wasn't really any extra work, and I think I was going for a large plaza feel. A lot of big cities have streets that don't meet at right angles (Broadway in NYC, Market in SF) and that might've been on my mind.

Really, when I'm doing one of these perspectivey panels, I rough in the shapes first, then figure out where the vanishing points need to be to give me those shapes. In this case, they had to be spattered all over my desk.