Saturday, August 30, 2008

Assistant Assistance

I've mentioned that I took on the first assistants of my career to help me finish WHTTWOT. Here's how that happened:
Coloring comic artwork with Photoshop takes some effort. It has to be done right, especially when destined for four-color print, and I had particular ideas about the palettes and techniques I wanted to use on this book. At least the way I do it, coloring can be a two-stage process in which flat colors are first laid down to define areas--at that point it almost doesn't matter which colors they are--after which their values are refined, details are spotted, effects are added, and so on. It's easier to start with something than nothing.
Mom's Cancer had just 26 color pages, some with only a dab or two of tint. It was still a chore. WHTTWOT has 200 full-color pages. I realized several months ago that I could use some help. I also realized that summer vacation was coming up and I'd soon have all the necessary talent close at hand.
My 20-year-old girls, Laura and Robin, are very good artists. That's not just Dad talking, it's objectively true. They've been friends with Kelly and her younger sister Kristen, also talented artists, since high school. When the four of them get together, they spend most of their time writing stories and drawing pictures. (I know: "Where did my parenting go so wrong?") Best of all, they all know Photoshop better than I do. It's not uncommon for me to walk past one of their computers, look at the screen, and ask, "how did you do that?" Their software is four versions newer than mine. When everyone got home for their respective colleges' breaks, I made them an offer and they accepted.
So throughout the summer I copied black-and-white art files to flash drives, provided the appropriate palettes, drew up quick color guides, and passed out assignments. I tried to leave them some latitude to apply their talents--I wanted more than robots doing paint-by-number. I suspect the work frustrated them because slabbing in rough colors barely drew on their skills at all. They had to hold back. They nevertheless did a great job, completing nearly 100 pages faster than I could supply them and often surprising me with their initiative and creativity. It wasn't unusual for me to open up their files and think, "Huh. I wouldn't have done it like that, but I really like it!" Even when their choices didn't work for me, just giving me something to react to was more valuable than I expected.
So my first experience hiring assistants went very well. One nice dividend is that Kelly and Kristen plan to attend art college next year to become computer animators, and I like the idea that I was able to give them their first professional credit. It's not much, but I know from my own freelance writing that small jobs accumulate into bigger and better ones and, if you're not careful, can actually grow into a career.
Another nice dividend was that when my story called for four girls sitting in a soda shop in 1965, I knew where to find my models:

Top to bottom, Kelly, Laura, Robin,
and Kristen. Keep in mind, this is how
I humiliate people I like. You don't
want to get on my bad side.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Wednesday's Agenda

Today's Wednesday, right? I've lost track...

I colored the final four pages by midday, and plan to spend the next day and a half drawing repairs to be pasted over art I'm not happy with, rewriting bits, plugging holes, putting out fires, whacking down moles, etc. Friday I'm trying to reserve entirely for checking and formatting files, preparing notes for my editor and designer, giving one last proof-read, and getting everything ready to send. I hope to upload the final-draft files to Abrams on Saturday, if not sooner. That'll take a while. They're big, high-resolution images and I have 200 of the suckers.

In the weeks to come, I'm sure Abrams and I will do a lot of work on them, both editorially and technically. I am far from done, but I can finally foresee a day when I will be. That will be a good day.

I had a micro-revelation this afternoon. Now that I've got the pages looking pretty good and can lay them all out together, I realized that for the first time it's starting to look like the book I always imagined in my head. In many cases, better and cooler. It also occurred to me that no one else--including my editor and family--could ever see what was in my head and pretty much had to take it on faith that the rough outlines and random artwork I showed them justified the time and risk I was asking them to take. That was quite a leap.

I really love this story. We'll find out if anyone else does, and if it was worth the time and risk, next spring. The lag time leading up to release is one of excitement and anticipation, sifting through tea leaves for subtle clues: How many copies did the chain stores order? What did the trade press people say? What's the buzz? Oh please let there be a buzz.

I've written before about how Mom's Cancer took on a life completely independent of me, occasionally sending home notes from Germany, Italy, or Australia to let me know how it was doing. This time coming up is when that life begins for WHTTWOT. Once it's out of your hands, all you can do is hope it has a good one.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tuesday's Agenda

A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
--W.H. Auden

As soon as I'm done typing this, I'll begin coloring the final 16 pages of WHTTWOT. About half those pages already have rough colors laid down, which is a big help. If I can average one per hour I'll be done around midnight, but since they're some of the most detailed pages in the book I doubt I'll maintain that pace.

After the coloring is done I still have tons of redrawing, correcting, and general fixing ahead. My "To Do" list is still growing instead of shrinking. My deadline is the end of the week; that's when I contractually owe my publisher a "final" draft. "Final" is in quotes because we all know it won't be final final--we'll still do a lot of fiddling before the files get to the printer. However, when September rolls around, I should be able to take a breath, stumble out of my cave, and spend more time blogging. And sleeping.

Today will be a great day if I can finish coloring all 16. I expect to complete about 12, and will be disappointed if I only get to 8 or 9. I'll report my progress at the end of the day.

UPDATE: Just past 1 a.m., and the count is 12. I admit I cheated a bit by grabbing an easy one at the end, but on the other hand I had some very productive digressions and distractions throughout the day. All in all, a fair day's labor.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Recommended Reading

Bob Thompson of The Washington Post has written probably the most comprehensive and best-sourced article I've ever read about the rise of graphic novels, what they are, and "what it all means." He interviewed anyone who's anyone in the business (though it's curious that he wrote about preparing to interview Pantheon's Chip Kidd--who was responsible for one of the most delightful evenings of my life--but I don't think mentioned or quoted him subsequently).

Thompson comes at it from an interesting perspective, that of a self-described Prose Guy earnestly trying to figure out what the fuss is all about. He avoids most of the easy journalistic cliches such as "Gee, comics aren't just for kids anymore!"--Thompson already knew that--and comes to appreciate the skill and talent involved in the best graphic novels while still feeling that they maybe aren't quite his cup of tea. I thought it was a unique and honest approach.

The long article starts here; you may have to register (free) on the Washington Post website to enter, although I was able to access it directly. And don't miss the best part, a three-page comic written by Thompson and drawn by Jonathan Bennett illustrating the article's highlights. Here's a sample panel:

Once in a while I do a convention panel or am asked a question about The Rise of the Graphic Novel. The problem is, my perspective is so narrow and the field so large that it's hard to grasp it and really come up with something insightful to say. I think that's true for most writers and artists: they know their little corner of the universe but don't or can't focus on the big picture. As one Prose Guy's attempt to figure it out, I think this article is a very interesting, informative, and worthwhile read..

Thursday, August 21, 2008

CMYK and Trapping

I'm rerunning a post below on the topic of "trapping" that I originally wrote in August 2005, when it came up while we were readying Mom's Cancer for press. It's an apt time for this particular rerun because it's trapping time again with Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? But first some foundation....

Most books with color art are printed in CMYK, whose letters stand for cyan, magenta, yellow and black (I believe the "K" actually stands for "key color"--which is always black). When printed in various intensities, those four inks can make most (but not all) other colors. For example, equal amounts of yellow and magenta make red. Cyan plus yellow is green, magenta plus cyan is purple, etc.

The next voice you hear will be me from three years ago. Ah, I was so young and innocent then....

"Trapping" is an obscure but interesting part of the pre-press process. In CMYK printing each color of ink is printed separately, one after the other, so that a page actually goes through the press four times. If the paper lines up perfectly with each pass, all the colors align and you get perfect registration. Very often, though, if you look at four-color printing closely enough, you can see that the inks are just a bit off. You'll see a colored halo on one side, or colors slopping out of their black boundaries, or a gap where colors don't meet up.

Good registration (left) and bad (right)

Trapping helps minimize registration problems by spreading out the non-black colors a few pixels wherever they meet a black line. That way, even if registration is a little bit off, they still have some "wiggle room" to overlap as intended. With Photoshop, trapping is as easy as pushing a button (I can't imagine how anyone did it pre-digitally, or whether they bothered at all). Coincidentally, a private cartoonists' board I frequent just had a long discussion about trapping.

That discussion came in handy when I got word late last week that the printer wasn't happy with my color registration. It wasn't coming out right. Not lining up. Within half a second I realized the problem: no trapping. When I submitted my final image files to Abrams they were trapless. Trap-free. Bereft of trap. My trapping had shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible. The subject never came up and I never thought to ask. My bad.

So I spent a few hours this morning speedily trapping the 26 color pages scattered throughout Mom's Cancer. I envisioned the overseas printer tapping his toe, glancing nervously at his watch, paying overtime while the presses waited in idle silence for my upload.

Assuming my trapping worked, I should have first proofs to review in a few days. Next book, I'm hiring a high school kid to take care of this.


Me back in the present again (old and cynical). I learned a lot from my mistakes on Mom's Cancer, which might have made me a little cocky going into WHTTWOT. What I've realized, of course, is that now I have whole new opportunities to make entirely different mistakes. Despite my threat above, I did not hire any high school kids to do my trapping this time. However, I did hire some college kids to--but that's a subject for a future post.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Big, Satisfying Milestone

Fifteen minutes ago I drew the final inky jot on the final page of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? That doesn't mean my work is finished. I still have hours and days and weeks of coloring, correcting, cutting, pasting, editing, rewriting, and Photoshoppin' to do. I still don't expect to get a lot of sleep or surface for air for a while. Still, completing the ink-and-paper drawing is a goal I've been working toward a long time and reaching it feels like a real accomplishment.

My final page is not the last page of the book, by the way. I didn't do them in order. The page I just finished and still have lying face down in my scanner is Page 162. Remember that and check it out in five or six months. It's a good one!

Each page of a 200-page book represents 0.5% of the total. I kept a running tally in my mind. I remember how daunting it was to be at 1%, 2%, 5%. I remember being 20%, 50%, 80% done. The day before yesterday I was at 99%. Today: 100%.

Wahooo! Now, back to work.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Olympics

I like the Olympics. I'm still idealistic enough to think they're a little more than just another athletic event, which I wouldn't usually care a whit about. I'm a sucker for the parade of nations. And the theme music can still give me goosebumps. I am a sap.

The first one I have any memory of is 1968 (Bob Beamon!), and by 1972 I watched them avidly (Dave Wottle! Mark Spitz!). My sister Brenda and I still tell the story of our parents taking us on vacation during the '72 Games--which would've been swell, except their idea of vacation was renting a house on the northern California coast with no television. Which still would've been swell except, you know, the Olympics were on! So while our parents were downstairs enjoying their silent coastal solitude, Brenda and I were crouched in a loft with a pair of binoculars, taking turns watching the Games on TV through the window of another house fifty yards away.

I've been enjoying this year's Olympics well enough, though NBC's programming choices puzzle and annoy me. How many hours of beach volleyball quarterfinal eliminations do they think we want to see? I'm not yet convinced it's even a sport. I keep expecting to see a bonfire and beer keg at courtside. The coverage is also awfully heavy on gymnastics and swimming. Michael Phelps is an amazing athlete, but as he stocks his pantry with gold medals I keep thinking about the poor schlub from Ukraine swimming three lanes away whose single bronze medal will be the highlight of his life and who deserves to go home justifiably proud of being one of the best in the world, but you know all anyone will ever ask is what it's like to lose to the great Phelps. I guess this just wasn't his decade to try a swimming career.

My main disappointment in the TV coverage has been not seeing the less popular events that only percolate up to public attention every four years. Would it kill the network to show us 20 minutes of badminton, judo, or trampoline (yes! It's an event!)? Fortunately, we have the Internet, and in contrast to NBC's television coverage, its online coverage is comprehensive and excellent. Although I ought to be working, I just watched 15 minutes of archery eliminations online, with no commercials or commentary--just two guys taking turns shooting arrows at their targets. It was terrific.

My girls and I like archery. They got interested in it as counselors at Girl Scout camp, where they had to be trained and certified to run the archery range. They've got their own bows and it looked like so much fun I got one as well (in my August 11 post, you can see it lying on top of my desk). We're not good or fancy--we don't belong to a club or have all the counterweights and doo-dads dangling off our modest equipment--but it's a nice thing to do together once in a while. Sometimes when I'm home working in the middle of the day, I'll go out back and shoot a couple of flights just to breathe fresh air and blow off some steam. I find it very meditative. And it's fun to see how the real Olympic archers do it.

Now back to work, for as long I can resist the online allure of obscure athletic competition.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Continuing Coverage

I inaugurated my new blog by showing what I teasingly described as part of the new book's cover:

All right. So picture that in hardcover ... then wrap it in a paper dust jacket that looks like this:

And you get something that looks a little bit like:

This is only approximate. We've already made a few changes since putting this version together, but this is the concept. Pretty cool, huh? This is how book editors and designers earn their pay.

In contrast to my experience designing a cover for Mom's Cancer, we arrived at this pretty quickly and easily. We had this basic idea and one other very different one, but didn't spend a lot of time brainstorming other options. Everyone liked both contenders from the start and we ended up going with my favorite, so I'm very happy.

Covers are important. They need to convey something about the book's content, but their essential purpose is advertising. "Pick me up, check me out, carry me to the register!" From my perspective, writing the rest of the book doesn't involve anyone except me and Editor Charlie, a relationship that can feel fairly private and intimate. However, the cover is a whole big fat hairy deal that involves a separate Cover Committee and everyone else with an opinion all the way to the top of the food chain. I think it's not unusual for authors to have very little say in how their covers turn out, sometimes to their great chagrin. One of the nicer aspects of working with Charlie and Abrams has been their willingness--even eagerness--for my input on decisions like this.

We're still working on the back. And I haven't even mentioned the silver ink yet.


Monday, August 11, 2008

I Keep the Oompa Loompas in the Closet

This is where the MAGIC! happens: the spare bedroom of a regular ol' house that has served as my office for about ten years now. That explains the mess. I took these pictures just now without cleaning up or staging anything. My wife Karen will be overjoyed.

The first photo is of my rolltop desk, where I draw. Amber the Simple Cat is pre-warming one of the room's two chairs; when I need one of them, she hops over to the other. I wrote about this desk and provided a key to the drawers' contents a while ago, and not much has changed since. The comic strip on top of the desk at upper left is the "Pogo" daily I got at Comic-Con International last month. It'll soon be framed and on my wall. The U.S. flag behind it covered my grandfather's casket. Atop the desk at the right is the bronze "Momo" statue I received when Mom's Cancer won the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, and the sharp-eyed may spot various car models and reference materials I'm using for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? scattered about.

The red box behind the chair is piled high with original pages from WHTTWOT waiting to be filed, while on the left side of the desk under the roll of white tape is a stack of blank Bristol board pages waiting to be drawn on. Sometimes I feel like one of those New Math "function machines" that receives an input from the left, turns the f(x) crank a while, and deposits an output on the right. The green box on the floor holds the originals from Mom's Cancer. Leaning against the desk beside the chair is my drawing board.

This space really ought to have better lighting--probably one of those big fluorescent architect's lamps perched right on top of the desk shining down onto my drawing board. I really should have a better chair, too. In fact, the ergonomics of this entire set-up are terrible, what with me all hunched over and squinting like Bob Cratchit after one of Scrooge's rants about the high cost of lamp oil and coal. But I did Mom's Cancer here and am almost done drawing WHTTWOT without noticeable harm. Maybe I'll fix it up properly for my next book (heh!).

The other half of the magic(!) happens here, three feet away, on the computer. The binder is open to the spreadsheet I described in my last post and contains my working draft of WHTTWOT. Barely visible at left is a Mustek scanner that can handle pages up to about 12 x 17 inches, thus saving me hours I once spent stitching several small scans into fewer big ones. I rarely recommend or endorse anything, but I don't mind mentioning the Mustek because it's the only affordable large-format scanner I ever found and has performed flawlessly for me. I've got a respectably large flat-screen monitor (thanks Karen!) and a smallish Wacom tablet. The keyboard is on a sliding tray I built into this simple student desk we've had for 25 years (since we were, well, students). The springy Santa hat behind the monitor sits on the end of my little Newtonian telescope.

It occurs to me that this looks like a lot of stuff. However, it's also been accumulating a long time. Very occasionally, someone asks me about the materials needed to be a cartoonist and it really is this simple: paper and something that leaves a mark on it. Or, these days, a computer and whatever tools and programs allow you to draw pictures with it (I've seen webcomics done using a mouse and Microsoft Paint).

It truly is one of the most economical and egalitarian fields a person could go into. It doesn't matter what you look like, how old or young you are, how much education you have, or where you live. I could set you up with everything you need to be a professional cartoonist for less than $30. After that, all that matters is your skill, your effort, and the quality of your ideas.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Journey of a Thousand Miles


I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my work on WHTTWOT (which my friend Otis Frampton pointed out is a pretty cool acronym). The image above captures about half of it. I find this absolutely essential, particularly since I don't necessarily write or draw the pages in order.
Each row represents a page, with columns indicating where it is in the process: scripted, penciled, inked, colored, etc. When I finish a step, I put an "X" in that cell. I also print out hard copies of the pages and snap them into a binder, each scrawled with notes and sketches reminding me what to revise, repair, or do next. In addition, I've got three other binders with several hundred pages of research and reference that are always open and scattered across my office floor. It's quite a logistical undertaking.
What provoked the "yikes" was the realization that, with 208 pages and several columns, just keeping track of it all will probably involve a couple thousand data points representing an equal number of individual steps by the time I'm done.
I have a lot of respect for anyone who tackles a project like this. Even if the result is the worst book ever written and drawn (and the verdict won't be in on mine until next spring), its creator still sat down in front of a blank sheet of paper one day and laid down the first line on the first page, fully knowing he or she had a long way to go. It's quite a commitment, even an act of faith. I feel a real affinity for that person, which makes it hard for me to criticize even the most heinous, useless, talentless work. So I don't.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Digital Art, with Blood

Thanks for all the public and private response to my announcement of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, and especially to my buddy Mike Lynch, who mentioned this new blog on his more popular blog. Mike's a good man and, even rarer, someone who actually makes a living as a cartoonist. Those two qualities make him my hero.

I've realized I face two problems blogging about this book. One is punctuation: what to do with the question mark at the end of the title? As in that opening sentence above, typing a question mark followed by a comma makes my writerly eyes burn, but I can't think of a better way to handle it. Ordinarily, when you get to a question mark, a sentence is done. But not around here, my friend! We break all the rules!

Second problem: I'd love to write about what I'm doing but don't want to show too many examples yet. We've got a long time before the book comes out. Still, some readers like information about the cartooning process, so let me take a wordy stab at it today.

In our digital era, I'm a proud analog cartooning dinosaur. If ink and paper were good enough for Winsor McCay and Walt Kelly, they're good enough for me. I find drawing by hand much more satisfying and pleasant than sitting at a computer. However, I'm not a stubborn Luddite about it. When digital techniques make the job faster, easier and, most important, better, I'm happy to adopt them. Also, I think we've reached a point when even the most traditional cartoonist has to be adept with tools such as Photoshop. Editors and publishers don't want you to send them a piece of paper, they want a digital file ready to import into a layout. (I think single-panel magazine cartooning might still be an exception; Lynch would know.)

When I did Mom's Cancer, what got printed on the page was pretty much what I drew. I penciled, inked, and hand-lettered each page. I used Photoshop mostly for clean-up chores that once would have been done with rubber cement and white paint. As I described in a blog post back in March 2007, I did do some computer composing and editing on Mom's Cancer so that, for example, there is not really a single original drawing of the cover artwork, just pieces that were digitally assembled into the cover.

This time around, I've gone a bit more high-tech. Almost everything is still penciled (in light blue pencil), inked with India ink using brushes and nibs, then scanned into the computer. On Mom's Cancer, that might have been the end of it; on World of Tomorrow, it's just the beginning.

This time, I'm lettering with a computer font of my own printing. In fact, I made the font myself (using FontCreator 5.5 as recommended by my best-selling friend Jeff Kinney) by sampling letters from Mom's Cancer. An insane person armed with a magnifying glass could read my first book and find the very letters used in the second. I went digital for a few reasons: I've never been particularly happy with my lettering, considering it adequately workmanlike at best.
(I am also using some professional comic fonts in World of Tomorrow, but for very particular purposes.)

Another reason for using a font is that it makes editing infinitely easier. Moving, resizing, rewording, rewriting, adding or deleting text that's been done directly on the original artwork is a nightmare. When the text is digital and kept on a separate "layer" from the artwork, it's almost as simple as typing. (Explanation for non-Photoshoppers: the program lets you layer different image elements on top of each other without affecting layers underneath, like placing different pictures in a collage; then, if you need to change one piece, you can do so without affecting the other layers.) The challenge when drawing the art, then, is leaving enough space and flexibility to allow for the words plus whatever rejiggering might be needed later.

I'm much more comfortable with Photoshop now than when I did Mom's Cancer, and when it comes to deciding between "having a cool piece of original art when I'm done" versus "getting a better-looking page done as efficiently as possible" I choose the latter. More pages of this book are composed of separate elements that I draw by hand but assemble as electrons. For example, I just talked to the Abrams art director this morning about the World of Tomorrow's cover, and we're going to move something a half inch to the right. If that element had been part of the original background drawing that task would be very difficult, but because it's on its own layer I can do it in two minutes. I'm trying to think ahead and be smart about this stuff.

I was going to write about coloring, which is digital on both Mom's Cancer and World of Tomorrow and which I think I am also handling smarter this go-round, but will save that for another time--when I may also write about hiring my first assistants ever.


In "too much information" news, I nicked the dickens out of my nose while shaving this morning and am still bleeding like the Black Knight. "'Tis but a flesh wound!" I have no idea what the razor was doing on my nose. Evidently I shave like a drunk waving around a broken beer bottle in a bar fight. I am in fact at an age when hair has begun to sprout from ever newer and more exciting places, and some mornings are a Kafkaesque adventure in discovering what new Hobbity creature I've metamorphosized into overnight. But it's not growing from the tip of my nose. Yet.