Tag Archive: Philosophies


Got these bound copies of The Happy Samurais #1 dummy comic last week. It’s the full 80+ page comic with rough lettering—some pages just layouts, some penciled—but the whole thing as a readable comic.

A number of months ago, I wrote about my new layout theory—“Make it a comic as fast as you can”, which helps you follow up on Andrew Stanton’s advice to “Be wrong as fast as you can.” That dummy is the result of trying to apply those principles.

Make it a comic.

Then read it and see if it’s any good.

If you’re going to “make it a comic”, then you need to recreate the experience someone will have reading the comic. And that means a couple things:

One, you’ve got to be able to actually READ it. You need to letter your pages—even if it’s just rough lettering to get the basic dialogue across. Dialogue changes the pacing, rhythm and beats of a scene. There’s no way to know if your story “works” without it in there. Don’t just give them pantomime pages and figure that’s “close enough” to how someone will read/experience it. Your story is words and pictures TOGETHER. Stop thinking like a writer or an artist and start thinking like a storyteller.

Two, you’ve got to setup your dummy comic as spreads (two facing pages) to simulate the reading experience. When someone reads a comic, they’re not seeing one page at a time (well, unless it’s digital, and that’s another topic…). Readers see both facing pages of a spread at the same time. And sometimes they can’t help but kinda skim ahead to what’s on a right-hand page a bit before they start reading the left-hand page. For good or ill, that’s part of the printed comic book experience and you need to consider. Whether something is a left or right hand page is something I take into account at every stage—from script, to layouts, to finished page. When and how you setup and reveal information on pages and page turns is absolutely crucial to telling a compelling, page-turner of a story. Plus, seeing your comic in spreads can also help you avoid any awkward tangents that make you read two separate pages as one continuous spread, or vice versa, a page that is supposed to be a spread with panels, but reads as separate pages, both leading to a confused reader.

This process couldn’t have worked any better for me. I sent my dummy off to my inner circle of creative confidants. They read it and told me what they liked and what could use some work. That feedback helped me shore up the story and figure out why the ending didn’t have the emotional impact I was trying to convey. I made a second dummy book with a reworked ending that is easily five times better than the original version.

No matter how smart you think you are, or how well you think you know your story, you’re ALWAYS going to be too close to see it objectively and that’s why getting objective, honest feedback is so crucial. When do you want to find out your comic doesn’t work? When you did 80 pages of layouts, or 80 pages of pencils and inks?

Now, truth be told, I didn’t EXACTLY follow this process. I didn’t layout the entire comic before I started drawing pages. As I mentioned in that previous post, I didn’t think I needed to. I actually penciled the first 20+ pages of the story based on my script (which I had worked to death), doing layouts scene by scene. Those first 20 pages were all setup, hooks and teases and I just knew how they should be laid out. As I worked on the second act of the comic, I found myself asking questions like: Should this be a splash, a double-page spread or a paneled page? Can you really do this scene in two pages, or should it expand to four? If the establishing shot is done this way will it slow the pacing down too much at the wrong moment?

That’s when I realized I needed to layout the rest of the comic. That there’s no way to know the answer to those questions except by reading it in comic form. To quote Andrew Stanton again (yes, I’m trying to set a record doing that), “I don’t believe in a scene until I see it on the reels.” Not “in my head”, or “in the script”, or “on the set.” But when the scene is in the form it’s gong to be consumed by the audience in.

So, who knows? I’m still making this shit up as I go along. Maybe you don’t need to layout the entire comic from the beginning. But I think at a certain point it’s necessary to help you bring your story home in a more satisfying and complete way. I know my comic benefitted from it.

Oh, and since a few of you have asked, the cover is just something I mocked up for the dummy book, not necessarily the actual cover for the first volume.

 

You come up with a ridiculous idea that you think MIGHT be brilliant. You IMMEDIATELY want to call a friend so they can pass judgement on the idea and confirm (or deny) its quality. It’s AGONIZING wondering if an idea is genius or utter shit — and that line is much finer than you’d imagine.

 

“If an idea is any good, it’s on the verge of being stupid.” — Michel Gondry

 

That’s probably my favorite quote on creativity, ever. Seriously. That’s basically my litmus test for an idea. When I think back on their conception, all my best ideas made me laugh out loud. Because they were ridiculous and they were awesome. And that’s how I’d hope that people would describe my work. Ridiculously awesome. Which in my mind, ridiculously awesome = fun.

Truth is, you’ve got to let your “brilliant” idea rattle around in your head (and subconscious) for a few days. I like to print a cliffs-note version of my idea out on a piece of a paper and leave it around everywhere (in the studio, bedroom, copy in the car) so it’s constantly confronting me (not even making that up). Be patient and sleep on the idea for a couple days. Come to your own conclusions, THEN call your consigliere (in my case, Ben Dale) and bounce the idea off them.

Opinions of your inner-circle are invaluable, but if you call on them too soon, the idea (and your ego) are too fragile to get true assessment of the idea’s worth.

So, Ben, expect a call in couple days, cause this one just might be brilliant.

 

From Axel’s recent interview with CBR:

“What do readers want from an event? Huge stakes, a satisfying climax that brings about some sort of lasting change to the status quo and a few loose threads to keep them guessing where the ongoing story is headed. And let’s face it, usually those threads come in the form of something bad looming on the horizon. If there’s one certainty in comics, it’s that victory always comes at a price. It’s our job to find ways to keep the inertia going 24-7, to keep the pressure on our heroes.”

I couldn’t agree with Axel more. The comics I find really entertaining are ones that change up the status quo, explore that new situation to the fullest, then change it up again. The catalyst for the changing of the status quo doesn’t necessarily have to come from an event or crossover though. It can just be a regular arc of the book. Either way, Marvel is on the right path with their event comics. It’s about what stories they can tell. Not what gimmick people will buy. That’s a lesson DC has still failed to grasp.

 

An artist friend of mine is working on writing his own comic and asked my advice on the following:

“There is a sequence I want to put in my comic, but it’s not essential to the main plot. It’s a scene that gives insight into the main character, his motivations and the world the story takes place in, but it’s not vital to the story. Do I keep it or cut it?”


Good question. And this will sound kinda like a cop-out, but that’s really part of your voice as a storyteller. What do you choose to keep in and take out?

How self-indulgent do you get? Do you go Mignola’s route and show lots of aspect-to-aspect panels — they help set the mood and establish location but don’t advance the plot at all. Do you go Tarantino’s route and show a scene of two characters talking just because they play off each other well and not because they advance the story? How cutthroat are you with your story and pacing?

My general approach is to see if I can’t take the idea you’re talking about (something that shows characterization and world) and add that into another “important” scene that DOES move the story along. I forget who called it this, but someone used the word “telescopic” storytelling. Like adding multiple storytelling functions, one on top of the other, so that a scene is doing like ten things at once. And that is really fucking hard to do as a creator, but I also feel it works great for reader participation and immersion.

Off the top of my head, I’m pretty sure that every single scene in The Happy Samurais #1 “turns”. There’s a point to every scene.  Some value in the scene (trust, loyalty, love, hope) goes from positive to negative, or negative to positive. And once the scene turns (and I’ve made my point), I get the hell out of there (start the scene as late as possible, and end it as soon as possible).

If a scene DOESN’T turn, it better be really fucking interesting on SOME level. There is a super-popular series out there that used to piss me off with this constantly. I’d get done reading a scene and be like, “WTF?!  Why did you even show me that? That scene had no point (except to piss me off) and had no bearing on the outcome of things.” If a scene is entertaining and you’ve got space for it, then fuck it and put it in there.  Most monthly books don’t have the pages to spare on scenes non-essential to the plot.

When in doubt on what storytelling decision to make, I generally go back to Walt Simonson’s advice: “For every decision ask, ‘does it make the story better?”.

“The struggle is glorious.  It is long.  And it is punishing.” — Brian Michael Bendis
“There ain’t no way but the hard way.  So get used to it.” — Airbourne

 

I was listening to an episode of the “Bendis Tapes” recently — the long Q&A interviews Brian Michael Bendis does for John Siuntres’ Word Balloon podcast (my highest recommendation) — and Bendis spoke about how tough it is for ANYONE to break into the field they really want to be in (comics or otherwise).  As Bendis was trying to break into comics, his “day job” was doing caricatures (at parties & bar mitzvahs) and a one page comic strip for The Cleveland Plain Dealer.  He kept doing both of those freelance gigs for YEARS even after he’d started getting some mainstream work.

He’d already done Jinx & Torso at Image. He’d done Sam & Twitch and Hellspawn for Todd McFarlane.  He’d done Fortune and Glory at Oni Press and launched Powers at Image.  He’d sold two film options.  And he’d started on Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-Man at Marvel.  In fact, it wasn’t until Ultimate Spider-Man #5 that he finally took the plunge and quit his day job.

No one gets to where they want to be easily.  It’s a relentlessly brutal grind.  You prepare yourself for the possibility that the struggle might take years and years.  But really, it takes years and years LONGER than the years and years you think it’ll take.

And doubt will inevitably start to creep in.  Can I REALLY do this?  Am I deluding myself??  Why will I succeed when so many talented others have failed???  Was it really THIS HARD for everyone else????

It’s difficult to answer those questions.  Well, all of those questions except for the last.  Yes.  Yes, it was THAT difficult for everyone else.  And somehow knowing that your struggle isn’t any more difficult than others who’ve succeeded gives you strength to keep fighting (maybe a little of “if they can do it, so can I”).

Bendis was 33 when he wrote his first comic for Marvel.  Joathan Hickman was 37 when he wrote his first for Marvel.  JJ Abrams was 40 when he directed his first feature film.  Brad Bird was 42 when he directed his.

You have to grind it out.  You pay your dues and prove that you’re an unstoppable force on a quest.  And if you grind it out long enough, you’ll get A shot.  It won’t be THE shot, where they hand you a set of keys to the kingdom and say, “welcome to paradise!”  It’ll most likely be the tiniest sliver of a shot.  But that’s all you need.

It takes a long time to get your shot.  But the Bendises, Hickmans, Abramses and Birds weren’t sitting around WAITING for it to fall in their lap.  They were out there busting their ass, fighting, grinding, working, improving.  They’d battled every day up until their shot, to capitalize on it when it finally presented itself.  And then when they got their shot, they fucking killed it.

You never fail if you never give up.

Brian Michael Bendis
– born August 18, 1967
– 26 when did Fire
– 27 when did Goldfish
– 29 when did Jinx
– 31 when did Torso
– 32 when did Sam & Twitch
– 33 when did Powers (April 2000)
– 33 when did Hellspawn (August 2000)
– 33 when did Ultimate Spider-Man (October 2000)
– 34 when did Daredevil
– finally became full-time comic creator!
– 38 when did New Avengers
– 38 when did House of M
– 41 when did Secret Invasion
– 43 when did The Siege

Jonathan Hickman
– born September 3, 1972
– 34 when wrote/drew did Nightly News
– 36 when wrote/drew Pax Romana
– 36 when wrote Transhuman
– 36 when wrote Red Mass for Mars
– 37 when wrote Secret Warriors
– 37 when wrote Fantastic Four
– 38 when wrote S.H.I.E.L.D.
– 39 when wrote FF (Future Foundation)

JJ Abrams
– born June 27, 1966
– 25 when wrote Regarding Henry
– 32 when wrote Armageddon
– 32 when created Felicity
– 35 when created Alias
– 38 when co-created Lost
– 40 when directed/c0-wrote Mission Impossible III
– 43 when directed Star Trek
– 45 when directed/wrote Super 8

Brad Bird
– born September 15, 1957
– 24 when worked as animator on The Fox and the Hound
– 30 when created/wrote/directed Family Dog
– 33 when directed episodes of The Simpsons
– 40 when consultant/advisor on King of the Hill
– 42 when directed/wrote The Iron Giant
– 47 when directed/wrote The Incredibles
– 50 when directed/wrote Ratatouille
– 53 when directed Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Actually, as I publish this, it’s the 50th anniversary of Fantastic Four #1 being published by Marvel Comics.  That was the first of the silver-age superhero comics Marvel published, with X-Men, Spider-Man, Hulk etc. to follow.  When they co-created the Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby was 44 and Stan Lee was 38.  That was Stan’s first big hit, though Jack already had one under his belt as he’d co-created Captain America when he was 24.

“Too many people spend their lives climbing the ladder only to realize when they reach the top

that they climbed the wrong ladder.”      – Simon Sinek

 

After a lot of soul searching and deliberation, I’ve decided to make some big changes in my life.  I’ve reached the point where I feel I must make the choice between being a teacher/administrator, or a an artist/creator.

And when put in those terms, it’s really no choice at all.

So I’ve decided to leave the Kubert School to focus full-time on being a creator.

Don’t get me wrong. I can’t begin to tell you what an incredibly difficult decision this was to make.  As those that know me will attest, I have an absolute PASSION for teaching.  It’s part of my DNA.  I can’t NOT do it.

But I don’t want to be the world’s best administrator.  I want to be the world’s best cartoonist.

I’ve spent 13 years attending or working for The Kubert School.  It’s a huge chapter of my life.  And it will continue to be.  I’ll still be involved with the school here and there, consulting and helping out.  Definitely gonna miss everyone at the school, they’ve become my family away from home. Great people, one and all.  And my sincere apologies to all the students coming back in the fall that were looking forward to my class.  I really do feel guilty that I won’t be there for you next year, but I’m always available if you need help.

Part of focusing on creating involves me leaving New Jersey to move back home to Illinois (someplace more affordable) so the last couple weeks have been pretty hectic.  Once I’m settled in, I’ll start posting a lot more art and progress on how The Happy Samurais is coming along.

So the bad news is I won’t be teaching or helping develop the Kubert School’s program anymore.

But the good news is, you’ll get to see a lot more comics from me!

Picking up where we left off last time then, my goals when planning out The Happy Samurais #1 were to try and do what the first issue of a good manga does:  introduce the world and characters, setup the status quo, introduce some story problems/conflitcts AND get across the series premise/hook.  On an even higher level, I wanted to craft a story so strong, that if someone picks up this new series from an unknown creator, they’d not only enjoy the first issue, but be compelled into picking up the ENTIRE series.

Now, that’s a damn tall order in your typical 22 page comic.

That’s why my plan was to do what I mentioned previously and go with a double-sized first issue.  Somewhere during the writing process though, that double-sized issue became a triple-sized issue and the final page count is pushing 60 pages. (Now whether a 60 page first issue is an idiotic idea or not is a discussion for another day, but I will say the whole point of making this comic is to make it exactly the way I want and fuck everything else.)

So The Happy Samurais #1 has ended up feeling somewhere in between a single issue and a trade paperback (most TPBs collect 5-6 issues, which would be 120-130 pages).  I’m used to working on 22 comics.  It’s familiar.  The finish line is always in sight and that’s a VERY comforting thing.

Doing a long form comic though presents it’s own unique set of challenges.  And I will admit that 60 pages BARELY qualify as long form –especially if compared to say, Craig Thompson’s 600+ page Habibi (which I had the privilege to read last fall).  But 60 pages is still half of a standard trade paperback and it feels radically different from a 22-pager to me.

And that brings me to the point of this post.

As I draw The Happy Samurais #1, I kinda feel like I’m only making progress on the project when I see the finished page count tally rise.  For whatever reason THAT and ONLY THAT seems to be how progress is measured (maybe because it’s the simplest quantifiable way?).  I might do six character designs, three location designs and five pages of layouts over a couple weeks, but because I didn’t add any pages to the tally, I feel like I didn’t accomplish a damn thing.

And feeling like you’re spinning you’re wheels (even though you know that’s not true) can depress the hell out of you.

One of the biggest factors in seeing things through to completion is handling the inevitable ups and downs that accompany a project that requires such a long period of work.  Day to day and hour to hour, you’ll go from believing you can slay dragons, to convinced you’re so awful that you need to find a new line of work.  For me, the surest way to feel good about myself again is to draw pages and add to that tally.

But making comics isn’t JUST drawing pages.  Well, at least for ME it’s not.  Even though finishing pages is the only way you feel like you’re getting closer to your goal, you can’t jump the gun and rush to start them.

You have to have something to say in your pages.

You have to build the pages on the foundation of your world and the story you want to tell in that world.

If you’re in too big a rush to draw the pages without laying the proper groundwork, they’ll ring empty and hollow.  You can’t just toss stuff out there.  If you want people to notice, if you want to them to give a shit, you have to world build.  And that means thinking how one character, one object, one prop, one location etc. is going to affect EVERY other thing in that world.

And to do that right takes time.

Don’t get distracted by things you WANT to draw (design that one character, setting or maybe that promo image that you’ve been dreaming about for years) and make sure they’re things you actually HAVE to draw in order to get the next page done.  That’s always a good test for me.  Do I HAVE to draw this model sheet super-tight to make the next page work?  Or can I just do it medium-tight and still have it work?  What’s the “endgame” for this piece?

The pages will come.

You’ll add to your tally.

Just keep plugging away.

Complete each step.  Move on to the next and stop worrying about how close you are to the finish line.

As discussed a few weeks ago, you’ve got to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

 

Note: click here to read a couple of Craig Thompson’s thoughts on long form comics from my time at ACA with him.

Most new manga in Japan launch with double-sized stories (somewhere between 30-40 pages).  The page count is high enough that it leaves room to establish the world, setup the status quo, introduce some story problems and ultimately get across the story premise or hook.  Sure, the series might not really hit it’s stride for a few issues or even volumes — it personally takes me 2-3 volumes before I’m really sold on a series — but you have a pretty decent idea what the story is about and where it’s headed based on that first story.

Contrast that with the first issue of most new American comics.  You’ll read the first issue (generally 20-22 pages) and basically only be introduced to the world and/or the characters. You have NO idea where this story/series is headed.  I’m rarely COMPELLED in any way to pick up the next issue — because there was no series premise/hook or even just an issue-hook to bring me back.  They kind of just say, “here is this character, and here are some of the people he interacts with but that’s all we’ve got time for this issue.  Come back for the next few issues when we’ll explain just what the hell this character wants and what’s standing in the way of him getting it.  Just trust us…it’ll be worth it!”

Usually then, I’ll only pick up the next issue based on the creative team — they’ve got a proven track record of work I like, or the creators are doing something that seems like it has potential and I’m gonna give them a chance.  But it’s not that I’m COMPELLED to come back because the story they setup was SO AMAZING that I just HAVE to see where it goes.  And honestly, I think that’s an essential part of the job for the first issue’s story.  Introduce things, but also HOOK the reader with that issue.  MAKE them came back for #2.  Don’t just HOPE they come back.

Often times, even the best comics fail to do this.  Take Invincible by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley (current artist) and Cory Walker (original series artist).  I picked the series up initially because I love Cory Walker’s work.  I stuck with it and gave it a chance because Walker’s art was so badass — not that Kirkman’s story was bad (it was actually pretty good), but it didn’t MAKE you pick up the next issue.  At least not until the stuff happened with Omni-Man, which was probably issue #10 or #12.  That’s when Kirkman and the team started to hit their stride and they MADE me pick up the the next issue to find out what happened next.  I’m not trashing Invincible.  I think it’s one of the best comics around.  Just talking about it failing to hook me with issue #1.

I’m trying to remember what the last #1 that DID hook me for the whole series was.  Not sure, but probably Jonathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 from Marvel.  After reading that first issue it was just about impossible NOT to buy the subsequent issues.

Maybe just how important it is to hook a reader with the first issue depends on what kind of “name” you have in the industry though.  Someone like Brian Azzarello (random choice) has a strong enough track record with his past work, that he probably doesn’t HAVE to hook you with issue #1.  You’ll probably give him 3-4 issues before you make any decisions on continuing to pick up the book.  But when you’re an unknown creator like myself, I don’t feel I have that luxury.  I think I’ve gotta hook you right off the bat and MAKE you come back for the rest of the series.  If I can pull that off remains to be seen, but that’s the goal of issue #1.

When you’re working on a particularly long project (like a 60+ page comic you’re writing, drawing and coloring), one thing that’s ALWAYS on your mind is the finish line.  You can’t wait to get all the artwork finished.  To tell the story you wanted to tell.  Then to share that story with the world.  You want to complete it so much, the finish line is all you can think about.  And that’s not a bad thing in a way — it keeps you motivated and constantly propels you forward.  The culmination of that entire journey is holding a copy of the finished comic in your hands.  That physical object becomes an avatar for the entire experience of making the project.  And you find yourself fantasizing how it feel to hold the finished product in your hands.

You can see every detail in your mind.

You’re strutting down the sidewalk to your local comic shop with “Stayin’ Alive” playing in the background.  You bust open the front door with a devastating axe-kick.  A heavenly beam of light slices through the dust and debris — bypassing the comics of Mignola, Kirkman, Risso, Moore, Millar, and Pope — and singularly illuminates YOUR comic.  As you approach it, a chorus of angelic voices begin singing and Jimi Hendrix descends from Heaven playing “Axis: Bold as Love (part 2)” — a song he wrote specifically for the release of your comic.  You grab your book off the stands and feel it crackling with energy, the sheer awesomeness coursing through your veins.  Two scantily clad maidens emerge from somewhere (I’m guessing the back-issue bins) and fall to the ground, clinging at your feet.  You raise the book to the heavens as a colossal lighting bolt strikes down on you and your comic.  You feel like a god.  You ARE a god.  And the moment of you holding YOUR comic in your hands is so monumental, so EPIC, that the ghost of Frank Frazetta appears, riding on a crimson panther. He sets up his easels to immortalize the occasion in a painting, as he does whenever an event of this magnitude unfolds in the universe.

That’s EXACTLY what I always imagine holding one of MY comics in my hands will feel like.  The reality is, I’ve never ran into a comic shop to grab my book.  Hell, I don’t think MY comic has ever even been the first comic I grabbed in the store.  I pick it up when I stumble across it in on the rack.  I might flip through a few pages of it — usually saying something like, “ehhhhhhh”.  But that’s about it.  Sure, when I get home, I’ll go over it a little closer — check the color shift, look at how it printed, see how it reads, etc.  It’s not that I don’t care or am uninterested in it.  But you think it’s going to feel AMAZING when you buy it in the shop.

And it doesn’t.

It feels exactly like buying any other comic you’re ever bought in your life

I guess I always assumed there would be this moment of victory.  A feeling of pure joy where I stood triumphant over the project.  And that moment would be when I held the printed comic in my hand.  But I was getting too caught up in the achievement of the finished product.

The printed comic.

The destination.

Then a couple years ago, I was reading The Art of UP (art book for the Pixar film) when I stumbled across this line by production designer, Ricky Nierva: “… I learned to enjoy the process of making a film as it goes.”

And suddenly it all made sense.

You have to enjoy the everyday process of making your comic.

You can’t just live for the finish line.

You have to enjoy the day-to-day process of making your comic.  The ups and downs.  The days you’re having so much fun creating that you literally get up and dance around your studio with a big grin on your face.  The days you’re drawing like a god (or John Buscema, take your pick).  The days when you hide away in your studio for 17 hours, just creating and don’t have to deal with another living soul.  The days when brilliant ideas cause you to leap right out of the chair at your drawing table with excitement.  The days when you wouldn’t change places with anyone in the world.

And the days you can’t draw worth a fuck.  The days you’re in agony over the best direction to take a page.  The days where people won’t leave you along for five fucking minutes so you can get something done.  The days you’re convinced you’re the worst artist in the history of mankind and wonder if it’s too late to just go become a short order cook.

You’ve got to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

And who knows, maybe I WILL feel something special when I hold the final printed version of The Happy Samurais #1 in my hands.  It will be the first comic I’ve ever made that’s really ME.  But I’m not gonna count on that feeling.  I’m gonna continue to enjoy the process of making the comic. Day in, day out.  And at the end, when I hold the printed comic in my hand, if I DO feel electrified, well then, that’s just a bonus.

AND, if I do feel electrified, there’s a pretty good chance I’m about to become BFFs with Hendrix and the Ghost of Frazetta, so there’s that to look forward to.


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