COMMENTARY TRACK: PopGun's "Out of Focus"

Welcome back to THE COMMENTARY TRACK, the regular feature at CBR in which we invite creators to stop by and talk about their most recent releases, often in spoiler-filled detail. Go behind the scenes and into the minds of your favorite creators and flip through their comics with them. It'll be just like a DVD commentary, but without all the awkward pauses.

We have a special COMMENTARY TRACK for you this week, with new talent and art school graduate Connor Willumsen joining us to talk about his contribution to the upcoming Image Comics anthology, "PopGun Volume Two." For the book, Willumsen's created a ten-page story called "Out of Focus," a period piece crime drama inspired by a book of photographs of old New York.

How are you supposed to read along at home if "PopGun Volume 2" hasn't yet been released? That's what makes this week's TRACK so special! Courtesy of Image Comics, CBR brings you Connor Willumsen's entire "Out of Focus" story for you to read right here before moving on to the author's commentary.

Out of Focus by Connor Willumsen

In this exclusive commentary, Connor Willumsen lays out for you his working process, from story construction to sketches, layout, pencils, inks, and final colors. Additionally, Willumsen shares his thoughts on photo-referencing and the importance of making the content authentic to the period. He's doing it all (minus the lettering) for the story, so he's in a great position to bring you a point of view we haven't yet explored in THE COMMENTARY TRACK. For those of you who want to make your own comics, this one is for you!


Commentary by Connor Willumsen

Putting credit where it belongs, I should say that the story was inspired almost entirely from a photo book I picked up over a year ago called "New York Noir: Crime Photos from the Daily News Archive." It has heaps of old New York tabloid photos published in the first half of the last century. Ghostly black and white images of dirty, swollen faces, flimsy felt hats, over-ambitious hustlers, all the while the tiles and cobblestone of the city are caked in Hitchcock's black, chocolate-sauce blood. It's amazing it isn't fiction, every face has this weathered quality to them that reminds me of an Alex Toth doodle. They were all asking to be fictionalized.

Three photos from the album struck me especially, and directly inspired this story. The first was of a suave Italian plainclothes detective proudly addressing a group of officers and reporters after he found himself in a duel with a maniacal gunman while off duty. His lavish tweed coat, the nicest one I have ever seen, has a crisp bullet hole.


The second photo was of a boy, no older than twelve, being walked into a police station by a cop holding his confiscated pistol. The kid has an immaculate flat top, a swollen eye, and a cigarette dangling from his lip.

The last photo, and certainly the most disturbing, was of an entire family gunned down in the living room. The grandparents, the baby, all of them. They are sprawled around like refuse, the police mulling around stoically.

These images provided the visual catalyst for the story, and from the book's essay I procured a bit of trivia from which I developed plot. From an interesting bit in the essay, I learned there would often be a tabloid photographer at the scene of the crime long before any officers made an appearance. This is especially true for the seminal photographer Weegee, who was frequently noted for having an uncanny ability to suss out crime and drama on the street as it was happening. From this I conceived of a quick plot that is admittedly very simple. Honestly, it was designed as a vehicle through which I could have fun with dialogue and draw tweed jackets and old-fashioned police uniforms.

This comic was the first one that I both wrote and illustrated for publication, so I timidly put together (after a loose synopsis) an excessively tight script that indicated the number of panels per page, and very specifically what was in each of them. I soon found this to be an incredibly restrictive way of doing things. When I'm writing, the images produced in my imagination seem to have no consideration for the comic book page format. These images tend to float around in an arbitrary haze with no panel borders. I think it's vital to leave the important job of page layout, pacing, and composition until it's actually time to start drawing, especially if the person writing doesn't have any experience as a visual artist.

Most of the best decisions made in that stage are on the fly, created on an unconscious level by the artist who uses their unique perception and skill to crave some sort of rhythm out of the written material to the effect of more natural storytelling. I revised, and then my script was a stew of dialogue and brief descriptions loosely organized by the page, not yet any consideration for the "cinematic." One of the great things about writing and drawing your own story is that you can draw and write at the same time during the creation process, the different disciplines tend to inform each other in interesting ways.

I knew I was going to be coloring this story myself, so it was important that I came up with a sort of style sheet that I can reference back to throughout the process. This ensured that the drawings and placement of black was all appropriate before the coloring step.

I intentionally strayed away from being too blatantly representational. I didn't want to bore the reader with grid-like bricks and an obnoxious color palette. Instead I limited the palette, referencing the look of printing press from that point in time. Back in the time this story takes place, there would often be only two ink colors available. In many instances, it was red and black, which you will recall if you think back to '40s print ads and the covers for the Saturday Evening Post. This, coupled with the use of a very subtle halftone, went a long way in generating a naive, yet still valid feeling of nostalgia. I say "naive" nostalgia because most of us were not actually alive back then, and don't have a clue about what it was like.

You'll notice that I rendered the face in a way more approaching realism, an attempt to reign the nostalgia back in a little from being too dated or gimmicky. Though it's good for the story to provoke a feeling of nostalgia, I think it's kind of sticky for the execution to be overly nostalgic and too referential of the past.

The next step, and one of the most important, was collecting research. This is a touchy subject with comic book illustrators these days. There are indeed many professional artists in the field today who will quite literally trace over photos they took (or maybe stole) to produce a certain amount of "naturalism." Whether or not this is morally reprehensible is a topic I want nothing to do with, but I will say that no matter how good the final product, a traced drawing will never possess anywhere near the same amount of charm and humanity that is given to a free-hand drawing guided by the natural movements of the hand in unison with the naked eye. I think it is absolutely essential to have your reference work for you, not the other way around. It should be used to inspire ideas, not dictate them.

When I researched for this story, I was not trying to find the accurate police uniform from 1930s New York but rather any interesting or exciting items. This can be anything, including photos, music, film, illustrations, essays, anything. A trip to the library is usually more fruitful than a trip to Google. The police uniform I ended up with does not actually exist (to the best of my knowledge). It is an amalgamation of elements I liked from various uniforms spanning over five decades. For me, nailing the right vibe for the story was a higher priority than being historically accurate. No offense to history buffs: you people rock.

Based on this reference, I began solidifying the ideas generated. Here is a look at my process for developing character. It's simply a matter of drawing, drawing, and more drawing, until it simply feels right and represents your idea of the character. When you've got it, you'll know it, because the drawing will sing to you.

Here I will reveal what I produce for each page. I try to keep it pretty loose in general, as you can see in the thumbnail.

After that, I start to loosely work out the various drawings on the page. I treat this step as if I'm just having fun in my sketchbook. It's important that the drawings stay fresh, and I will look back to these later. I won't follow my sketches too closely though, lighting will not strike that spot twice no matter how hard you try. I try to let the drawing of each new phase exist on it's own merit.

Here are the pencils. These are roughly six inches tall, and in my opinion a little more refined than necessary. Lately I keep this stage just as loose as the thumbnails, making sure to nail the proportion while leaving details until the end.

This is the final inked page. I change my working size from project to project. I'll go big if I want to get crazy with the ink, and I'll go smaller if I want to keep things clean with a pen. In this instance, I stayed in the approximate range of the 10" x 15" comic book standard. To ink, I used only brushes, and used no rulers to keep it consistent. For this, I was working with a plain, cheap Sable no. 3. I wouldn't recommend cheap brushes if you're going for precision. You can see that some of the lines are a little bit choppy and hesitant. Find yourself a nice, fluid (probably expensive) brush to ink with, and your confidence will go through the roof. Experiment with all the different brands you can get your hands on. Suddenly, you will find the inking process playful and incredibly relaxing.

And here it is, the final page in all of its reddish glory. For coloring a page like this, I tediously make myself a map of selections beforehand out of the lasso and fill tool. Making those tiny selections with the lasso tool is the worst type of hell, but worth it. It makes you very nimble with the stylus later on. For rendering the faces I used a normal hard-edged, round Photoshop brush with high opacity, and very low flow. I lay down all the colors I'm going to need in the skin very garishly, and then pull everything together by painting fast and using the eyedropper tool.

That's pretty much it. I had a lot of fun doing this and can't wait to make some more comics for all you people. The last trick I will divulge is something I learned very early in this process. Sound effects will work very hard to maintain the relationship of the story and the reader's imagination.

Thanks for looking, see you in "PopGun 3."

Thanks to Connor Willumsen for sharing all his artwork and thoughts on the creation of "Out of Focus," his contribution to Image's "PopGun Volume 2,"due in stores next week. You can find more from Willumsen at his website, ConnorWillumsen.com. For more on "PopGun Volume 2," check out this ComicSpace gallery, as well.

As always, if you have any titles or creators you'd like to see in THE COMMENTARY TRACK, or you're a creator with a book coming out that you'd like to talk about in detail, drop us a line. We're especially looking for artists/colorists/letterers who are looking to talk about their craft, as we've had a shortage of those so far. We're busy behind the scenes lining up books for the weeks ahead, but there's always room for more!

Now discuss this story in CBR's Image Comics forum.


Bloodborne #15

More in Comics