“Always Allow For the Happy Brainfart”: Attempt at Advice to a Younger Cartoonist
Last week, a young cartoonist named Stephanie wrote me and, in a perhaps mistaken assumption I know what I’m doing, asked some questions about cartooning, which I tried to answer as best I could from my own perspective and experience. Which I’m not sure was so great, but she seemed to find a lot of it useful, so I thought perhaps others might. So, with her permission, edited(in the case of my own words) slightly for brevity, and with some bits revised because of other things that occurred to me later, here are some of her questions alternating with some of my answers. I emphasize this is only the view from here and do not claim this advice to be universally applicable, but there may be some interesting ideas in here somewhere with which to play. (I should also mention that some of these links to my own examples I’m referring to will be to some of my 2003-07 work, much of which is NSFW)
Well, this is pretty involved, so bear with me.
Obviously, I want to work on a graphic novel or at least an ongoing comic strip, and while I doubt it will ever make money or get published, I still want to make something better than adequate.
I’m a fairly good artist, but I’m trained in a very classical, realism and observation based way, and am finding it nearly impossible to draw purely from imagination, much less tell a story with it. The only people I have to talk about this with are other fine artists or non-artists, so the only advice I get is "go to school for animation" or "that looks great!" and neither is helpful. I’ve even been copying graphic novels I like, and old silent films into comic page format, to try to figure out layout, composition, and visual storytelling, by trial and error. Short of getting an animation degree just to learn to make a decent comic, I don't want to reinvent the wheel if I don't have to.
First off: Silent films are an excellent training class for cartoonists, particularly German and Russian ones. More on why further down. And realism & observation are the best foundation.
On art school--You don't have to, and though those schools--I worked for one in San Francisco, the Academy of Art College--are great if your intent is to work for Disney or Pixar or like that, who draw a lot of their folks directly from those schools, if you're after something more individual they may not be of as much use. But just the same, I never knock education, and with art schools that still believe in figurative art, technique can be learned there which is vital and may save you years of “reinventing the wheel.” Had I one of those degrees, too, getting my work published might be less of a slog, if only for the connections. It’s probably better to get your degree than not. I will mention: there’s lots more money in animation, so unless you really, really love comics, go for it. Comics is hard work, and will break your heart, more likely than not.
So, here's what I'd like to know.
Do you draw from imagination? Do you use photo reference or models, and how much? Every panel, just for objects or angles you're not familiar with?
Imagination mostly, which may show in some of my worse anatomy moments. I sometimes use reference if I'm stuck or if I want to jog my thinking away from shticks I use. But the final pages are usually completely from my head; ref usually only comes in the character design process, like I talk about here with Lulu.
Another example: after designing Lulu I started using an Italian actress, Stefania Casini, as a general model, though more for feel than direct copying or anything(I like her expressions especially). Reference should be a guide but not a law, and you should take what you need to make that thing in your head real, not use it as a crutch, an affliction I think infects some mainstream comics—when they’re not simply using Photoshop to turn photos into “art” with very little modification. (though those are very useful when it comes to textures, but only as a start point)
Did you start with a distinctive illustration style in mind, or did it develop naturally? Have you played around with other styles?
It's been a gradual attempt to improve. I have played around with other styles. When I was doing stories for Eros/Fantagraphics, given the stories were intentionally meant as just fun, I took advantage of the chance to try new things, and developed an all-pencil(thank god for scanners) style which I have since integrated into the ink stuff. (you can see that in some of my Vladrushka stories) Photoshop is great that way. It allows me to layer the stuff in a way I never could otherwise and create vaster levels of greys.
This brings me to the next question:
How do you make each page - do you draw it directly into photoshop (like a lot of webcomic artists), do you draw it with pencil then ink and shade it digitally, or do you draw it out completely then scan it?
I've done it a few different ways. Most of my work till the Eros material was done with a crowquill, india ink, and a drawing board, on 2-ply bristol or thick, smooth illustration board—Bainbridge or Crescent. I still do all pencils, at the least, that same way—I believe it all should be based on problem-solving you have done on paper, by hand. It’s invaluable to begin that way, even if after the scanner it’s all digital. It’s not the same thinking as one does on the tablet.
But the tablet is useful and I am no Luddite. And I can assure you it's still very much drawing, but the further possibilities it offers often makes me take twice as long as I used to. So it's actually more drawing, rather than a work-saver.
Lulu is being drawn physically in pencil, and then everything after that is on a tablet in Photoshop. (However, some of the pencil is later cut and used in the greys) First piece I've done like that.Martha was all physically inked in the usual way, except four pages in the middle which are digitally so. (see if you can tell which ones) After that all shading was in Photoshop. All my lettering is now in Photoshop. I haven't done it the other way since 2003. But I also use a font I made of my own style from bitmapped letters, with Fontcreator, which, if you prefer to do it that way, rather than directly on the page, you can find at download.com. (You can only use it for 30 days without paying, but that was more time than I needed to do it.) I recommend using your own style for that, because it'll look right with your drawing. Do not use those generic comics fonts out there, they suck. Use something neat that looks like your own.
The all-pencil ones were done in a way more like how movies are made. For instance, the Vladrushka story Gulag Gangbang was done from 52 separate pencil/chalk/charcoal drawings on regular sketch paper(SOFT CEILING the same--except that all the pages are in fact in a sketchbook) out of order--I did the most interesting scenes first and then worked my way down, then edited them into comics pages in Photoshop. Then did the dialogue last, quasi-Marvel-style. I also did a lot of adjustments to the pencil to make it smoother and more painty, but mostly that was just evening out some tones, nothing major. I found out that grey on a layer underneath a "multiply" layer of pencil can provide some nice, almost marbly effects.
How do you keep a consistent style through a graphic story? How do you keep characters recognizable and looking the same through a whole story?
A lot of work, and being very careful. I'm afraid I have no better answer to how to keep them on-model—for years my characters were often accused of being wildly off-model from page to page, and they were. You just have to keep watching what you're doing, but also avoid letting that make the characters look stiff; too much of that and you might end up with something that looks like animation stills. Small variation in design from panel to panel is more fluid than forcing consistency. I’m really happy that you seem to have some more adult stories, how do you include sex or sexual themes in a story without it getting porny?
Well, ahem. That's a hard question to answer, but an interesting one, as some would say some of my stories are "porny," though I prefer the term "smut." But people seem to be able to read them and not only enjoy that aspect but look past it to the satire actually going on.
The brilliant Colleen Coover once said about her own stuff that the key is making everyone look like they're enjoying themselves, smiling. That tends to keep the squick off it. That’s what I followed in Martha, which was autobiographical and explicit; I thought of it as a romance that happened to be NC-17 rated. That did not mean softening the sex, though—I tried to present it just as it was, honestly, and with the humor already there.
I also did not pay any attention to anything recent when trying to figure out the genre, as well, as I am not a consumer of that kind of stuff, barring Coover, Molly Kiely, Gilbert Hernandez, Georges Pichard, Ignacio Noe, or Guido Crepax. Well, that is a bit. But anyway, those would be examples of those I think do the genre well without seeming awful, which is oddly easier--probably thanks to Crumb--to get away with in comics than in anything else but literature.
The initial motive was that I was getting paid, but as I read more--mostly European--I found some fun stuff to do in that genre and so explored it. I was really just trying to make stuff that amused me, and use that genre to do really bizarre stuff that I otherwise would not have tried, and that's the best rule to follow: pursue your obsessions and go as far as you wish. At worst you'll learn something. (or as Dave Sim once put it, you have to get those first thousand crappy pages out of your system)
I tend to go by the Crumb rule: I cannot possibly go further than he, and his stuff was four decades ago, so, y’know.
Do you write a script beforehand? If so, is it just notes or do you do a full script of actions and scenery for each page/panel?
It depends: some are just done visuals-first, as in the quasi-Marvel style I've sometimes used--increasingly in the past six years--that I discuss above. The interesting thing about doing that is that the images end up being richer in narrative and this is an automatic limiter of words, so that the words only do what they need to do.
I like a lot of comics that are "wordy," but you should always strive first to say as much as you can through layout and images and sequence, just as good filmmakers do; also consider how much a Tom & Jerry or Road Runner cartoon gets across, the sheer number of distinct sequences, without any words at all. Or the better silent films, especially the German ones. Squeeze as much as you can out of the visuals, and the words will often take care of themselves, or will meet you at least 2/3 of the way.
In fact, they'll often seem obvious. I noticed when I was doing dialogue last, and more or less writing it as I was lettering it, with all the rest of the page completely composed, that it was almost like I was commenting on the visuals, but also filling in gaps or giving them a different spin. That's the best I can describe the effect. You remember how old Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Marvel comics have dialogue that has a major wisecracky feel to it--a large part of its charm? Well, the reason for that is that Ditko was really the one composing the story. Lee would give him a plot, sometimes no more than, "Aunt May has a heart attack and Peter is fretful, and can you throw in Electro?" and Ditko would go off and draw 22 pages which Lee would, after the fact, add the dialogue to. And in some ways he's making gentle fun of the visuals.
The effect, I noticed, happened in my own work, and reminded me of something else many can relate to. You know how, when you're a kid playing with dolls or action figures, or even hand puppets, the dialogue just comes of its own accord? I find that happens when observing my two cats going at each other as well. When you have the page with the figures doing whatever they're doing, it's kind of hard not to hear them talk. Try it. Do two pages that you will add dialogue to later, but avoiding thinking out the dialogue or writing any down till the pages are otherwise finished. Make the characters very definite, their expressions and interactions, everything, just avoid thinking about what they're saying and go for communicating the emotions through the visuals. Then improv the dialogue and see what happens. I guarantee it's at least fun, and the nice thing about comics is that if you're having fun, it transmits itself to the reader.
Now, I have done work from full scripts, like VITRIOL done, in fact, from what had been intended as a play script, and Janet Harvey’s GLASS HOUSE, which, I think, is the only panel-by-panel DC-style full script from which I’ve ever worked. Charles Alverson meant STORY OF OH! as a short film when he wrote it, RAPUNZEL too. But I've worked with very little too--COMIC SHOP EXPERIENCE was nothing more than a brief anecdote and all it was, was the dialogue and captions you see in the three pages I made of it, and that's it. Even when I do use a full script, of my own, I tend to throw out the boring parts as I go. With others--my collaborators and I have an unusual relationship--they usually let me do more editing than one would think. But that’s probably because I would never do so without asking first--when working with someone else my intent is to try to bring out the best of what they made. By doing so I'll only look better anyway, so it’s simply practical to respect your writer.
I find increasingly, though, that for my solo work, full scripts, unless you're working with someone else, or need to show one to a publisher, are more a time-waster than not, except when it comes to dialogue. I'll sometimes write a script of only dialogue and stuff akin to stage directions. But I cannot stand having to break it down in words by panel--that always changes. Best to just think about your page limits and make it work within that.(Problem-solving and space budgeting is a big part of making comics)
How do you break the action down for telling a story? Do you start with an establishing shot, then move into character closeups for dialogue? Do you do this on every page, or just at important points in the story?
I know a lot think in those terms, but I tend to be intuitive about it; I just start sketching a stick-figure layout and going with the first interesting image I can think of. Which for a while was whistling, but I've curbed that. I tend to approach it organically, for want of a better term--"make it up as you go" would be a better way to put it--I rarely lay out a story longer ahead than a page at a time, preferring to let the following page flow with what I last did, rather than the trap of hammering it into a preconceived structure; sometimes in the middle of drawing a page I will think of it totally differently and put something different at the end than I'd meant. I like those accidents. It's one of the reasons cartooning should be thought of as a form or writing(with a visual dimension) than art. Because the same thing happens when you're writing prose. You should always allow for the happy brainfart.
How do [you]pace actions - for example, say a character is answering the phone. You're not going to have a whole page of them walking to a phone, then panels showing them picking up the phone, hitting a button and talking into it, and every little motion they take. How do you represent that in the flow of the story and the page?
Panels - seriously, wtf. what are some good ways to break up a page to tell a story? I've heard the rule of thirds, but almost no graphic novel illustrator I’ve seen really uses it.
Think of rules like that more like guardrails. To keep your balance. Layouts--really hard to say because every story has its own problems to solve. Unless you’re like Dave Gibbons and want to use the structure as an overall motif for the story, it’s best to use your layouts as a way of playing with the dynamics of a story. I tend to also like to have at least one self-contained action begin and end on each page, which to me ties the layout together and makes the rest more solid. The simple act of trying to make things fit gracefully, you’ll find, tends to make the layout happen. Think in terms of the action and what moments you want to emphasize and what you want to downplay, as if you were doing music.
To go to your specific example of a small and ordinary action and how to use it, it would be easier to show a poor example than describe one. So.
Notice, I'm trying to concentrate on what the call means to him, but also the awkwardness of his reaction (it was important the phone have a cord for that reason). In this case a phone message, though. First, befuddled suspicion. Then surprise. Then desperation not to miss the message and much cheap slapsticky grabbing for pens. Then, disbelief that a 555 number is real, but eh. All out of checking a message, and hopefully both moving the story forward, and showing what the character that left the message means to him.
The point is that you can squeeze a lot out of the smallest actions, if you think not about how they look from outside, but how they seem to be paced from the inside. Think of the fact that in your mind ("time flies when you're having fun") time is elastic. You're best served in comics when you treat time and pacing subjectively, to get across what the characters perceive, because you'll never pace it "realistically"--it's not a film. The best you can manage is "convincingly." It will never be an illusion of reality, except in the way other kinds of books are. It's more like literature than it is film, though you can certainly learn much from film.
Ask yourself: what parts bore me, and why, and can I do without them? That's the best guide.
Also, of course, we always return to Will Eisner. Eisner says some very interesting things about making your characters "act." This came partly from his background in theatre. It might just be that my training was in theatre, in Chicago, that this appeals to me. And that's probably why I tend to compose in long takes, sometimes one scene taking up a whole episode. But I find thinking of your characters as actors helps the pacing take care of itself. They have their own logic and their actions start to just occur to you, at least more than if they’re indefinite.
Don't overthink. Try to be spontaneous when you can. The truth is you're really thinking the whole time, even if you can't distill it to words. Don't force and fret. The worst that can happen is you have to redo a page.
Here are some sequences to study for pacing, mood and page design, as well as suspense, two by Steve Bissette & John Totleben that were very influential on me, and one from Brent Anderson of which I can say the same.
Also, Dave Sim, whose High Society, Church & State, and Jaka's Story should be studied intently as masterpieces of how to make talking heads work in comics. His lettering alone is an example I've tried, not well, to follow, in its unique ability to create a character's voice in your head. When it comes to cartooning there are few who've gone deeper inside it.
He wrote an excellent series of articles--"meditations" he called them--about ways of thinking about cartooning, and also self-publishing, but it's the former that (given that too was all pre-digital; some of the specific self-publishing advice in some ways is slightly dated now) I found incredibly useful when I began drawing comics. He's a hell of a coach and teaches you to be productive. The book itself is out of print and will cost you 100 bucks on Amazon. So lucky for you, it's also here for nothing. Scroll down to the essays starting with issue 168.
And for the art of setting mood—and how to stylize even ordinary moments and make use of them (check out Murnau’s the Last Laugh or Sunrise as excellent examples of what to do with the mundane)-- another film book: The Haunted Screen by Lotte Eisner, the Bible on German silent film expressionism.
Hmm, that's all I can think of right now.
Thanks so much!!
Same here. I hope this is of some help to someone.
"Eternity in the company of Beelzebub, and all of his hellish instruments of death, will be a picnic compared to five minutes with me & this pencil." --E. Blackadder, 1789 Questionable
words & pictures from John Linton Roberson