COMICS VERSES EVERYBODY
I work in a lot of different media. Comics is one I’ve been working in the longest. Comics gives me something specific and vital that I can’t get from other media. I’m going to tell you about the things I’ve made in my life, and then I’m going to expand on why making comics is something that’s stuck with me through all of it.
My earliest illustrated opuses were a book chronicling the somewhat dull adventures of my mysteriously formless, genderless, speciesless stuffed toy Fuzzy. Later, the book my mother likes to refer to as The Princess and The Dragon and The Princess’ Wardrobe (she painstakingly helped me with all the spelling, letter by letter.)
In high school I did another comic called Brutally Murdering Vera’s Conscience, in which a devil girl would be given advice to do the right thing by an irritating floating orb, which she would then massacre in increasingly violent and gorey ways so she could do whatever she wanted without judgement.
Since Vera, I’ve made a lot of comics, but I’ve also branched out a lot. In highschool I also got into mix-media illustration, jamming a lot of different paints, paper cutouts and pieces of garbage on the pictures of characters singing my favourite song lyrics. I learned Photoshop so I could composite wings onto publicity stills of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters for the websites I made to host the fanfiction I wrote. I made little interactive illustrations in Flash for the website hosting my artwork. I performed in some musicals, directed some Shakespeare and wrote a few plays that never went anywhere.
I originally went to university to learn 2D animation. When the school told me my drawing style was too illustrative to continue in their animation program, I switched to an illustration program at a different university. After graduation I spent a hot second getting a minor in animation, focusing in stop-motion, before leaving to work at a VFX firm – my dream was to get into making the opening titles for movies and TV shows, so I could always be experimenting with new animation styles and typography.
After that I switched to doing production design in the film industry. I got to use power tools, build sets, craft props, design wardrobes, compose shots, and one time I had an actor pull a bloody pig heart out of a fake torso I made. I wrote some short films I didn’t make. I have a little IMDB page for my trouble.
I worked as an illustrator, specializing in animated infographics. I got into making video and tabletop games, which is what my day job is now. It’s an awesome intersection of the compositional design and typography of comics and illustration, the set design of film and theatre, the programming and interactivity of web design, and the animation and writing of… animation and writing. Hopefully I’ll someday get to work on a stop motion game and get to make physical props and sets again, and the circle will be complete.
Right now I’m trying to get back into writing prose again. I have some half finished short stories and an outline for a novel. They’re terrible, so far. Maybe the reason I’ve been able to pursue so many different things is because I’m not afraid to be bad at them. Or that I manage to be afraid of being bad, but I just go ahead and do it anyway, and sometimes manage to convince people I’m good enough to do it for money. I even have managed to convince people I’m good enough to teach other people how to do it.
All of the work I’ve done, I’ve absolutely loved the creative side of the work, and hope to work in every single one of these media again. But many of the industries have totally burnt me out, the work hours and sacrifices are outside of my abilities, frequently resulting in actual physical (not to mention psychic) injury. I can only seem to handle participating in capitalism if it’s feeding my artistic hyperfixation, which has led to a lot of starting over once I burn out of one industry and leap into another. Comics isn’t really any different – I’ve never experienced the break-neck publishing deadlines that a lot of my friends have, but I suffered a very serious injury just pushing myself too hard, and neglecting getting treatment for it until I literally couldn’t use my hands anymore.
This giant list is to give some context of what I mean when I talk about why I make comics: for me it’s not the default, it’s not the only option for me personally to tell stories. And it’s no longer very responsible of me — because of my disability, drawing is actually a little dangerous, and I have to be hyper conscious of my posture and only work a couple hours at a time. For a year or two I was devastated, there was a real possibility I’d never be able to draw again, period. But I can draw again, and if I can help it, I am never going to stop, because I need to.
Every medium has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. I am specifically inspired to make stories that can only be told in the specific medium I plan to tell them in. It bugs me when I tell someone about a comic or a short story I’m working on would make a great movie – if I want to write a movie, I’d write a movie!
Usually when I think of stories, the story and the media come to me inextricably linked together. It’s not like I have a story first and go shopping around for a medium. Sometimes my head has been marinating in comics for a while, so everything I look at looks like it could be a comic. Other times, maybe I’ve been in game mode, but I have a deadline for a comic coming up and I need a project – sometimes I end up bringing a little bit of game design brain with me back into comics.
Here are the “tools” I feel like I have available to me when I make comics:
The Printing Process
- I work primarily in print. Part of this is that I’m scared of the internet and I don’t like people telling me what they think of my work while I’m still working on it, especially since the internet is mean. I’d rather make a book that people can take home with them and love or hate in private.
- Print means when you’ve finished a comic, it expands into something bigger – you work on one book, but the end product is a pile of books. The work exists as a general concept, as a collection of files on the computer, an awkward file folder of sketches and print tests in a dusty portfolio, and best of all: as a stack of neatly printed books, each of which will go off and live a life beyond me, on other people’s shelves.
- When a comic is printed, it’s /done/. You can’t keep picking at it and reuploading it. Once you sell or give someone a book, you can’t take it back, either the individual copy or the concept of the book as a project. You can take the book off your CV and your website, but it might still be out there somewhere, influencing someone. You don’t know how long it lives, if it will get thrown out or traded or end up a bookmark in another, bigger book. You don’t know if someone hoards it with affection or gets annoyed it’s taking up space on their shelf but are too polite to recycle. You’ll never know when every single copy has been snuffed out, so to you it’s effectively immortal, no matter how much it might embarrass you.
- Once a book is printed, you no longer have to emotionally interface with the contents unless you choose to pick up a copy and flip through it. It turns into a cover, a title, and a price tag. This allows me to be very vulnerable in my comics, because I can separate ego from the contents when I’m handing them out. I work on them in private, so it’s like I’m just talking to myself and a few loved people I trust to check it over, and I can say anything I want. But then once the cover is stamped on it I can forget how private those things are, and pretend it’s not totally embarrassing.
- The technology never depreciates. The book is still going to work a decade from now. I’m always going to have access to software to reopen the project. I don’t have to teach anyone how to use it.
- I find the idea that I charge people money for little bits of paper filled with my own dumb feelings the most hilarious, cosmic joke. Like I’m playing a trick on them and making an esoteric statement about the ridiculousness of capitalism. Somehow it feels like a more articulate performance art piece than anything I could actually write in a comic. It’s even funnier that this great melodrama of vulnerability and risk to my personal health costs someone like $5.
Filling in the blanks
- When I work in different media, I am always thinking about what I show verses what the audience fills in in their own brain. Usually the gaps are more important than the parts I make. My theoretical audience is better at imagining something that they personally believe and relate to then I have the skill to render it.
- One gap in comics is time. In a really practical sense, this lets me communicate movement more easily than I could with an animation, where my skill level might mess it up. The audience can imagine the movement between keyframes. I also love that I can speed up time by rendering less panels, and slow it down by adding more.
- Another gap in comics, and all illustration, is rendering. I can imply very abstract figures, backgrounds. I can stylize the hell out of something to make it possible and efficient to draw it dozens of times, and that simplification is a feature, not a bug. When things get very abstract, the audience fills in those gaps to their tastes, making the work more personal to them.
- You can just stop a moment and jump to any point in the future. This is a problem I’m really having with my prose attempts. In a comic or a movie, it’s really easier to just be somewhere else – the visuals indicate that time has passed and the environment has changed. All the segway happens in two pretty clear moments – this makes it easier to write, in my opinion.
- Unlike something “live-action” like film or theatre, everything is completely within my control so long as it’s within my rendering ability. I don’t have to make my red teapot a blue teapot when a blue teapot was all we could find in time. (This kind of inflexibility is also something I love about film, though, it forces you to be flexible and creative.)
- I love and hate how lonely it is. I love that for most of my projects I have complete creative control. I do collaborate, and I do work with publishers – but for the most part, I can just do what I want, whenever I have time. I’d like to get grants to work on bigger projects – but for my small projects, I don’t have to convince anyone it’s good or wait months for approval. I can just go for it, and no one can tell me I did a bad job and I have to go back and change things except me. I can tell myself it’s not a totally irresponsible way to spend time, because maybe I’ll make my investment back selling it once it goes to print.
- I can do it myself without a huge upfront investment. It’s really just writing and drawing and layout, on a technical level, and I can do those. I can do a few things to make a film, but I can’t light a scene or focus a camera to save my life, and I definitely can’t act out all the parts. I’m a pretty well-rounded game maker, but I can’t do sound, and the sheer time-consuming mess it would be to make anything bigger than a sneeze all by myself means that most of my games are sitting in a word document waiting for funding so I can pay other people to help. With comics, you just need paper and a pen and you’re set.
- I like to play with the structure of books in my work. I like books that may be experienced differently by different people depending on the order they choose to engage with it. I made one story where the story would be revealed in a different order depending on which book was read first. I made another where the story could be followed by reading a single panel on each page at a time, or each spread absorbed all at once.
- Comics is one of the only media I can think of where the audience experiences more than a single second at once – when a new spread is revealed, the reader doesn’t just see the next split second, they absorb all at once a sketch of what is coming over as many beats as the author chooses. This can be used to build up tension – the reader knows something explosive-looking is happening at the end of the spread, but they need to read through to get to those details – or they might cheat and skip ahead to the exciting part, and then go back and fill in the details. It kind of reminds me of how music swelling or dropping in a film can elude to what’s coming – but in a comic you can see the shape of it, lurking in your future.
- To that end, you can control how the readers focal point travels through the page, using scale and contrast. I want to experiment more with this to force people to read non-linearly, to make it harder to default to right-left reading.
- In no other medium have I a found a way to communicate to the reader that this is a tall, skinny moment, and this is a squat fat one, and this is a moment that’s so big and quiet it takes two pages to show you. You can get something a little similar with camera angles in film, but the rectangular format of the screen is still always there – in comics there is the shape of the moment itself, and how that shape interacts with the other moments around it.
- I like that you can break the fourth wall in a comic just like you can in a movie or a game by unexpectedly turning to the audience – but you can also break the four walls, busting out of the panel and bleeding out of the moment.
- No one is constrained by physics. Depending on how you draw, a character floating in a void could literally be a character floating in a literal void, or it could be a character thinking to themselves in their own mental landscape. Depending on the style you draw in, it may feel totally seamless to move between a representative, physics-constrained environment and a more abstract one.
- No heavy special effects budget needed for the fantastical. Flying around in the clouds shooting fireballs is easier to render than having a character riding a bicycle in a crowd.
- Sound is represented visually. This makes sound behave as a physical object, made of the same matter as everything else. It needs to be given space. It can’t be muted or separated from the rest of the story. Maybe this is just me and other users of little wiggly speech bubbles, but it’s aware of the world around it and interacts with it. Loud sounds literally crowd out understanding of every other sense, just like it does in real life.
- I’m a wordy person (as you can tell from this article) – comics force me to be succinct. The words need to fit into a certain space – it’s important for both the aesthetic layout – no one wants to read a page that’s half text. Action is hard to follow if it’s too cramped. But also conversations and narration are measured in story importance by how much physical space they take up. This makes you as an author need to pace in a unique way, and I enjoy that constraint. I think it makes me a better writer in all media.
- I love typographic design. I love not just speech bubbles, but using the scale and font of the text to indicate how a line should be imagined as being delivered. It feels like visual acting.
These are the things that I think about when I think about making comics, and why I make them the way I do.