Sunday, May 14, 2006

Comic book autopsy, or How to Draw Comics the Los Comex Way!

Lotsa people, including me, like to see behind-the-scenes of the creative process. So, I though I'd share with you how I construct my comic book pages. This is a sequence from my new El Muerto comic book, DEAD & CONFUSED, which will be released at San Diego Comic Con this July. At this past April's APE in San Francisco, I published a 20 page Preview book, from which these pages are included.

The first pics we have here are the actually completed four pages I'll be using for demonstration. They're pages 8-11, which actually concludes Chapter 1 in the book. If you wanna read what they're saying, you can click on this link for availability on possibly ordering one of the copies.
  • DEAD & CONFUSED Preview comic

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    So, those are the final pages, with the lettering and word balloons created in Adobe Illustrator. To show you how I arrived at that final stage, let me walk you through my working method.

    Here are the rough drafts for pages 8-11:
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    Just so you know, I don't work from a script, or even an outline! I just have the story beats stored in my head, kinda like a reel of film I've played over and over in my mind. I basically just sit down and on page one start drawing out the story. Mostly I'm concentrating on making sure the story reads visually, moving the characters from one scene through another, composing each panel to tell the story as best I can. I'll usually be running the dialogue in my head as I draw each panel. Of course I never end up writing the exact words when I start typesetting the copy, but as I look over the finished art I can make the best decision on what to write.

    Basically what the four pages here had to show was this (and this is what I told myself as I had the blank pages in front of me): Diego is taken to his trailer at the circus, exchanging some words with his benefactor, Mr. Lopez. Diego then washes and reveals his true face, pondering in his head what has happened to him. He climbs in bed, talking to God and simaltaneously reciting his rosary. Lots of talk throughout the night about questioning the probability of God and aztec gods co-existing together. In the morning a knock at the door announces a young girl, Carolina, inviting him for breakfast. Diego applies his cover-up make up to meet the circus folk, and discovers what the young girl looks like.

    The rough drafts are drawn on plain 8.5" x 11" typing paper, using a 2HB Dixon Ticondera pencil, nothing fancy at all. Then I redraw the pages on the full-sized (11" x 17") Bristol board. I'll use a Sanford Non-Photo Blue pencil to lightly lay out out each panel, then go back in with the 2HB pencil with to tighten up the drawings. I've been using the Blue Line Pro boards, as they already have the pre-printed border margins. I don't know what the long-term archival quality of these products ultimately is, but it saves me some time by not having to trim down Bristol board as well as drawing in my own margins. I know some comic artists will do pretty tight layouts, then use a lightbox to trace them onto the Bristol board. I prefer to just redraw directly on the board, and hopefully create a more dynamic page the second time out.

    Here are the pencilled layouts on the Bristol board:
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    There are several panels that have some initial inking on page 8, but for the most part these are what my peniclled pages look like. If you compare these pages to the rough drafts, you'll see some minor changes that were made in transition. For example, in the rough draft, take a look at the last panel on page 9 and the first panel on page 10. Compare it to the same panels in the pencilled version. I decided to have Diego sitting on the bed (1st panel, pg. 10) in order to show that some time had elapsed from when he started the rosary. Before, those two panels could have appeared to have happened in immediate sequence, cutting down the amount of time that occured between the gutter (the space between one panel and another). I changed his pose to show that he would have moved from that laying position. This was done to show more time between the panels, creating the impression that this scene may have went on all night, as a zombie wouldn't really need to sleep. Also, on page 8, panel 8, I originally was going to show a worm's eye view of the bed he was laying on. But in the final pencilled version I chose to do an extreme close-up of his right eye, as I thought that would be a more emphatic shot. You could go through and see how many of the panels in the pencilled stage have slight differences in the angles I ended up using. Or sometimes the perspective can be distorted to create a mood. Those are all the little things one has to consider in composing the panels. What works better dramatically for each panel? How can I design a compostion to convey a particular emotional response?

    The third stage, the inking, of course provides the chance to really bring each panel to the life.
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    Here of course is when I provide all the definition and clarity to the artwork. In the 'old days', this was necessary because the cameras would have dificulty in capturing all the pencil linework. Nowadays it is entirely possible to scan and output directly from the pencils. Or even 'ink' the pencil with a paint program. I just love the craftmanship and art of inking with a brush. I certainly want to develop my computer skills to learn how to ink on the computer, but creating the inked finals by hand provides me with lots of artistic challenges and I also find it relaxing in a way. For this book I have been inking primarily with a #000 Cornell brush. I'll ink all the figures on the page first, then go back in various stages and fill in the blacks and ink the backgrounds. I don't use a ruler for the straight edges when inking. When pencilling I'll use a ruler, but I'll freehand it with the brush and ink. The majority of the pages were inked with Higgins Waterproof. But a friend of mine gave me a bottle of Dr. Martin's Black Star for my birthday so I tried that on his recommendation. The ink certainly laid down nicely.

    To be honest, I haven't given too much thought to the tools I've used on my comics. Yeah, I'll pick stuff that works, but for each book I've done I have used different brands of tools. One of the things that stuck with me from Robert Rodriguez's book REBEL WITHOUT A CREW, was a line he said in regards to attending film school and having to learn all the techniques and equipment choices: "The audience doesn't give a #%&* what type of F-stop you used on your camera". My chief concern up to this point has been to create a finished story in print. How I got there, in terms of tools and such, has been a secondary consideration. Also, a friend of mine told me that he feels that the final, published product is the 'real' work. Not a page that may be hung in a gallery or sold to a collector. I always thought that there was some truth to that statement.

    In the inking stage I have to compose my scenes using only black and white, creating shadows, patterns and textures to build the world the characters exist in. I love coloring my own work. But to work with no tones whatsover, either gray washes or Zip-a-tone or even the computer, is challenging and so rewarding. I look at cartoonists like Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, or Steve Ditko's b&w work, and see the limitless and imaginative ways one can create complete and powerful imagery using only the placement of black ink on white paper.

    You can see in the pages I inked that further details were added, like props in the backgrounds and textures for the various surfaces. Also, I added details such as posters, signage and other things that either help define a scene or add some history and detail to a particular room or location. Sometimes I'll decide on 'product placement', such as a CD or brand of clothes that I like or just created on the spot. It's a serious and critical job inking the pencils, but also it can be fun seeing the character's world come alive.

    The last stage would be taking it to the computer and actually writing the script, which for me is also when I'm doing the actual lettering.
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    Because my scanner's image area is about 8.5" x 11", I'll have to scan each page in two sections. I'll digitally reattach them in Photoshop. My scan size is 300 dpi, and I'll save each file as a tiff, which I'll then import into Illustrator. Luckily for me, I've been working as a production artist in screenprinting for about 15 years, so I've got plenty of experience in working on layouts and such, as well as preparing a file for the printing press.

    Like I mentioned, I don't have a script for each story I do. It's after I scan each page and bring it into Illustrator that I have to 'write' the story. I'll literally zoom into a panel and start typesetting the dialouge. I'll first type the copy, then create the word balloons, often altering where the lines are broken up to fit into the space. It's interesting how I edit what I write. Sometimes I'll have to shorten what's been written for space limitations. But I feel that 99% of the time it actually helps. Less is more, when possible. Sometimes I'll drop a word balloon altogether, if I find that the scene doesn't really need the expostion. In comics, we have the ol' thought balloon to help convey the character's internal monologue. I think that's a great tool. But I also believe that the character's 'body language' can often sell the scene. That's the beauty and magic of comics, the complete balance of words and pictures.

    As shown with this page, there was a concious effort to create a symetrical 9-panel grid. I know I've been discussing individual panels so far, but each panel is part of a whole page. (In turn, each page is part of a whole comic.) I knew there wasn't going to be much dialogue on this page, so I really wanted to convey a sense of sequential actions, evenly represented by panels the same size and shape. There's a Jim Steranko Nick Fury comic I read as a kid that had a couple of pages of symetrically designed panels with no dialogue, just one continuous action. I'll often play with that type of compsition, as it creates an interesting looking page.

    Storytelling in comics, I believe, is intuitive. I could write down a description of a two page sequence, and come up with 5 different ways to draw that page. Or have 5 other artists create 50 different versions of those two pages. In the end it comes down to how you told the story, given the techniques you used, and how people respond to the finished product. I'm totally open to try various methods of creating my comics, but I think that the way I'm working now is the best way for me. I've worked on stories where I wrote a story for another artist, as well as create the art based on someone else's script. There was another time when I did really rough layouts, and then a friend of mine did the finished art and inking, after which I wrote the script. I would be curious to ink over someone else's pencilled pages, just to try it.

    I remember as a kid reading about how Stan Lee would just give his artists a one-page outline (or sometimes just a verbal plot) and wait to get the pages back, filling in the dialogue as he went along. Of course that would create some issues with what the artists was intending, but overall I thought that was such an interesting way to write. Kind of like filling in a crossword puzzle. So, that's basically the way I'm creating the El Muerto comics. I'm giving myself a verbal outline, then I draw the whole story, with the dialogue to be filled in as the art dictates.

    1 comment:

    Jason Martin said...

    Jav Lee!
    That's what we'll call ya...

    "An then Muerto reached for the bug and... KAPOW... it sprung back to life ture believers!!!"

    Great step by step my man.
    Insights, tools, details, thoughts, influences... wow, comprehensive!
    It's always interesting to see all the care for the craft that goes into a simple funny book!

    BTW, do you really use 11x15 art boards? Or 11x17 with what, 10x15 live area?
    Seems like that's an odd size, but it's been so long since I've worked full size, I forget...