Issue #198

CREATING COMICS STEP BY STEP, Part 10: The art of the matter

TRIPPING THE LIGHT FANTASTIC: more reviews, from the sublime to the ridiculous

COURTING DISASTER: The unholy trinity of Sandra Day O'Connor,

NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD: Loose lips and sinking ships

This is a down and dirty series on making comics step by step, from conception to post-publication.

I've been talking about writing for so long most readers assume that's what these articles are about. That's because story is what we're really selling. There's often debate about what's the most important aspect of comics: writing, art, character. It's true that an established character can keep a book afloat over bad stories, and it's true that terrific art can do that as well, but only for a time. In the mid-'90s, Marvel nearly killed the lucrative Spider-Man franchise (and a half dozen books in the process) with a long-winded, pointless, unending storyline that started off hot and ended up driving off readers - and lifelong Spider-Man fans - like the plague. There is no more recognizable and classic a comics character than Batman, yet history has shown even that character can't sustain over time against horrible stories.

Notice I don't say writing. Writing's important in comics, but certainly no more important than art. It's said that you need good art to start people reading a comic, but you need good writing to keep people reading a comic, and that's true enough, "good" being a relative term. (There's no predicting just what combination of elements will strike a chord among readers; it's tempting to issue disgusted proclamations like "only crap sells," but there are enough instances of "quality" - again, a relative term - material selling and of crap sinking like a stone that such shallow, bitter analyses are pointless.)

It's often supposed that art is somehow separate from story, but, in comics, where writing and art intersects is story. And character. And character is story.

A simple example:

A line of dialogue: "I think I have to kill you now."

On the surface, it's a threat of impending violence. Uninflected in a novel, that's likely how it would read. In a comic, the meaning changes with a character's expression.

A scowling or mercilessly bland character might mean it literally.

A smiling character might mean it comically.

But how are they smiling?

With exasperation, rolling their eyes following some embarrassing incident?

With sly glee, in sadistic anticipation of blood and murder?

Joyously, with a friendly gleam in their eyes to connote a warmth and happiness that contradicts their words?

In comics, every motion, every stance, every expression, every line is a signifier that interprets the writing for the reader and carries the story within it.

Art does not illustrate the story. Art is the story, just as writing is the story.

Every few months, James Hudnall, Bill Willingham and I do a little song and dance routine for the library system here, talking at various local libraries about all aspects of comics. We've slowly developed a little show, which starts with Bill outlining the traditional steps of creating a comic book:

The writer writes a neatly typed script or plot

The editor scrawls illegibly all over script or plot

The penciller, who draws in pencil (Bill makes sure everyone's clear on this), draws the story on special stiff, non-bleeding paper that's 1.5 times the size of the printed comic book

The letterer, puts the dialogue and captions on the page, in ink, then inks in the panel borders

The inker, who works with ink, draws over the pencils so that the lines are dark and solid enough for the printing process to replicate them on the printed page

Print-sized Xeroxes of the finished pages are made

The colorist paints with the colors on the Xeroxes, notating each color with an arcane printers code that the printers will use to make separations

The publisher sends the completed book to the printer

The printer produces printing plates from the black and white art and color separations - four transparent acetate sheets that break the coloring in black, red, yellow and blue layers which, when put together, theoretically create the colors the colorist called for

The comic is printed, stapled and shipped.

I then usually step in to discuss how computers have changed everything: more and more pencilers either scan their drawn pages onto computer or draw directly on computer via drawing tablets; lettering is now mostly done over the computerized image of the art using computer fonts, usually with Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, and without ever touching the physical artwork, if there is any; coloring is now largely being done on computer, with notations automatically embedded, again most commonly using Photoshop; "inking" is increasingly being done on computer, using programs like Photoshop to darken specific lines and areas on the page to make the page printable; writing is almost all done on computer now, and often the writer never touches or prints a physical script but e-mails the work directly to the editor; and comics are sent to the printer on DVD-Rom disks with all art and printing information that are simply read by the printer's own computers.

The point isn't simply to clown around, nor to show off how much the business has changed in the last ten years. It leads (eventually, in the presentation) to our next point: no matter how much the business changes, the fundamentals don't change, and one fundamental is this:

The art must tell a story, and not just cumulatively. Every panel tells a small story of its own.

At which point Bill will draw a stick figure of some sort on a large paper pad on a stand, for the audience to see. Say, a man running forward. And he'll ask the audience, "What's the story?"

Of course, there is no story at that point. We don't know anything about him, we don't even know his name. We have no environmental clues about his state of being. He's just a man running. He could be a bank robber on the lam. He could be a jogger out for his morning run.

So Bill adds another figure: another man running behind the first man. And asks: "What's the story?"

With the addition of a second man, we have more information, though not quite a story yet. Are they running a race? Is the second man chasing the first? The audience issues suggestions. Bill draws a circle in front of the first man. Now what's happening? More suggestions fly. The first man doesn't see the hole and the second man is rushing to keep him from falling into it. The second man intends to push the first man into the hole. The second man is chasing the first and neither sees the hole.

At this point, the scene still doesn't tell a whole story, but there's enough of a story to make it interesting. We still aren't quite sure what's going on, but we have two figures fixed in a space (in a real comic book, backgrounds would theoretically be filled in to provide us with an immediate grasp of the setting and environment, with possibly more visual clues about what's going on). We have tension - the two figures juxtaposed in space and related by movement - and we have complication - the hole.

We have a panel that does the minimum of what every comics panel should do: ask a question that the reader must move to the next panel to answer.

That's the immutable basis of visual comics storytelling.

Originally, Bill would stop at that point. But there was one question the audience still needed to answer to get the concept: what happens next? What's in the next panel? Does the second man reach the first man in time to yank him clear of the hole? Does the second man push the first man in? Does the first man dodge the hole and, inadvertently, the second man just in time for the second man to plunge headlong into the hole? Does a monster abruptly loom up out of the hole? We don't know, because Bill never draws the next panel. It exists only in each viewer's imagination, and each version is a little difference.

But whatever you see, that's the next panel. And so on, questions being posed and answered in succession, until all questions are answered and the story is concluded.

That's it. That's all visual storytelling really is. Certainly, it's the most unsophisticated version, and there are dozens if not hundreds of more sophisticated techniques that augment it, but if you, as an artist, grasp those basics, you've got the framework to build on. If you don't, you don't.

A last word about expressions: facial expressions are your most significant basic storytelling tool. Studies have been done of facial expressions in humans wherein it becomes possible for someone with adequate knowledge of facial expressions to "read the mind" of someone else with uncanny accuracy. The emotional states of characters, revealed via expressions, can illuminate a story more than virtually any other element. The stick figures in the example above had no facial expressions, though Bill occasionally adds caricature expressions that change the meaning of the drawings. Man 1 daydreaming with a wistful smile while Man 2 has a look of panic immediately clarifies the action and focuses the story: Man 1 isn't paying attention (why he isn't paying attention signals a possible story direction) while Man 2 is racing to save him. If Man 1 has a terrified expression while Man 2 glowers with angry determination, a chase is the likeliest possibility. Etc.

These, then, are the basic tools an artist needs to master to properly draw comics: spatial relationships, facial expressions, basic visual storytelling.

So much more is needed to draw them well.

DEVIL CHILD Vol. 2 & 3 by Andrew Winter & Natalie Sandells & various, 88 pg b&w graphic albums (Moonface Press;$9.99@)

An English kid has discovered he's the son of Satan, who's in the midst of a political campaign to retain control of hell in an election underwritten by an earthly corporation that has sent a superenhanced human to Heaven to kill God and help a beret-wearing faction of anti-Hell angels take control. Lots of angels in this one: foul-mouthed, irreverent, violent, sex-obsessed angels. This is being openly marketed as horror-humor now, which would be accurate if it were either scary or funny, and while the writing's much improved over the first volume, the art still ranges from pretty decent (Keith Burns) to pretty crappy, and the second "volume" is really an anthology of unrelated short stories, but the real problem with the series is that it feels uninspired, cobbling together a bunch of half-ideas cribbed from HELLBLAZER, LUCIFER and PREACHER liberally sprinkled with that now precious Anglo style of vulgarity. It's not bad; it's just not particularly interesting either.

STEPHEN CRANE'S THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE by Wayne Vansant; ANNA SEWELL'S BLACK BEAUTY by June Brigman & Roy Richardson; MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN by Gary Reed & Frazier Irving, 176 pg b&w graphic novels(Puffin Books;$9.99)

The CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED motif - public domain (i.e. free) novels adapted into comics form - has an apparently unshakeable appeal for publishers, and in format at least this is Puffin's attempt to hit both the manga and the schoolbook market. The series so far is only partly successful. BLACK BEAUTY is a good adaptation of the source material, but that unfortunately also means it captures the original novel's inherent stodginess, and the art stylistically looks as though it were done twenty years ago. Likewise, RED BADGE OF COURAGE is a credible adaptation, but the art is just too sunny for the subject matter; it works against the violence and nausea of Crane's Civil War epic, possibly in an effort to be pleasant enough for children. The truly effective adaptation here is FRANKENSTEIN, expertly pared by Gary Reed and beautifully, unsettlingly drawn by Frazer Irving. It's the one that not only looks like it was drawn today but absolutely does the original material justice, marred only by slightly dark printing. All of these are perfectly adequate substitutions for the novels for kids unwilling to read the originals, but only FRANKENSTEIN is likely to encourage checking out the novels. Overall not a bad job, though.

LIFE'S A BITCH by Roberta Gregory, 272 pg trade paperback (Fantagraphics Books;$16.95)

Roberta is one of comics' unsung heroines, with a style so idiosyncratic and an ear for dialogue so sharp that I'm sort of surprised she's not far more lauded. LIFE'S A BITCH is a DO NOT MISS collection of many of her hilarious "Bitchy Bitch" stories, a truly savage and funny look at modern life. Particularly affecting is Gregory's dealing with her father's death through her character in a new story, but it's all good. At minimum, this should be required reading for any guy who has ever even considered dating a woman. Excellent.

LIFE'S A CAKEWALK by Paulette Poullet, 24 pg b&w mini-comic (Paulette Poullet;$1.50)

Crudely but effectively drawn, Poullet's mini-comic is diary as sketchbook: observational humor carried off very nicely, naturalistically, and unselfconsciously. It's not the best mini-comic I've ever read, but it's good, and dense enough that compared to most mini-comics - hell, most comics - it's a damn epic. Worth checking out. Semi-good playlist, too.

WARRIOR 27 ed. by Dan Fleming & Chris Beckett, 30 pg fanzine (On The Fly Publications; price unknown)

A combination of comic strips, prose fiction and criticism, this is mainly notable for a good profile of cartoonist Scott Morse and an amusing column called "I hate Brian Michael Bendis." The fiction, a medieval Japan based warrior mini-epic called "Noh," is okay, though any story that uses the word "amongst" loses me pretty quickly, and the comics are, to be charitable, amateurish. Then again, these guys are amateurs. It's okay.

DOWN #1 by Dan Fleming, Kevin Sutton & King Mob, 24 pg b&w comic (On The Fly Publications; $2.50)

Badly drawn. Leadenly written. A pilot crash lands and runs into a giant butterfly, a girl and a robot. That's about it. Try again.

MODERN ARF ed by Craig Yoe, 120 pg color trade paperback (Fantagraphics Books;$19.95)<

Craig Yoe's ARF books are strange creatures, more artifact and found object than comic book, but this one achieves a peculiar beauty, an almost hallucinogenic synthesis, starting with a hundred years of artists from Crumb to Picasso cartooning on the subject of artists and their models, from fine art to Tijuana bibles. He digs up a 1958 Jack Kirby story that riffs on cubism, traces the lineage of MAD Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman, covers Salvador Dali's surrealistic comics and the American comics influenced by them (including an early '50s Batman family title!) and half a dozen other subjects focusing on the intersection of fine art and comics. Absolutely fascinating, and strongly recommended for anyone who not only wants a stronger understanding of the medium but also a great looking book.

SCREAM QUEEN by Ho Che Anderson, 56 pg graphic novel (Fantagraphics Books;$14.95)<

A compressed horror thriller about women, longing and vengeance from beyond the grave. The art, oddly, gets more abstract as it goes along, and it's hard to tell whether it's thematic or simply rushed, which makes it a bit hard to tell what's going on at the end. Not bad, but a bit ephemeral.

WHY DO THEY KILL ME? by Tim Kreider, 202 pg trade paperback (Fantagraphics Books;$14.95)<

Hand Puppet-unfriendly political cartoons, from 2002 through this February. I liked them, natch, and Krieder's got a laser site on the administration's lies, manipulations and hypocrisies, not to mention one hell of a sense of humor, but my favorite pieces are the King Kong parody starry Osama bin Laden, and the cartoon about fanboys judging the new Batman movie. Track it down.

LICENSABLE BEAR™ #2 by Nat Gertler & various, 32 pg b&w comic (About Comics;$2.95)

At last, a comics character that admits its whole raison d'etre is to appear on underwear and cereal boxes. This issue he visits a licensing convention. After the first issue, which was fairly funny, came out, I wondered how long Gertler could coast on what's essentially one joke, and this issue pretty much answers the question. The Bear wanders the show, getting into adventures, including a weird bit where Joe Camel wears fake antlers and tries repackaging himself as Marketable Moose but what starts funny descends (apparently intentionally) into creepy bathos and self-pity. The book's intellectually amusing but never quite gets funny, though Rusty Haller does a good Hanna-Barbara inflected art job on the final story, ending it on a high note.

FIRESTORM #14-15 by Stuart Moore, Jamal Igle & Rob Stull, 32 pg color comics (DC Comics;$2.50@)

Firestorm started off as an "homage" to Captain Atom and Spider-Man (you could almost say he's Captain Atom crossed with Spider-Man, but quickly devolved into average superhero hijinks and has been stuck there pretty much ever since). I haven't read the new incarnation before this, with former Firestorm Ronnie Raymond merged with a college-bound black kid. Well, it couldn't hurt. New writer Stuart Moore, who knows a thing or two about the science theoretically underlying the strip, starts off a little slowly, mainly easing hero Jason Rusch into new circumstances, but he and artists Igle and Stull, who do a very attractive job, move the story along at a natural pace as they create a new opposite number villain for him. Moore's good with dialogue, too; his characters at least have the feel of real people, even if one occasionally says something jarring like "He's always giving me shade -" They still have a ways to go to break Firestorm out of the midrange pack and make him really something special - in fact, the book could use something really spectacular, in both characterization and action, but at least Moore & Igle serve up some hope. Take a look.

At issue, of course, are "activist judges," those evil fiends who accept that law and society have changed some in the 200+ years since the Constitution was written and that what the Founding Fathers wrote and meant must be subject to interpretation to fit the times they're being applied to and the many issues and circumstances the FFs never envisioned. The term has become a popular catchphrase among Ideologue Republicans and spread by the "journalists" on their payroll to define those judges who decree in ways that don't fit the Ideologue Republican agenda, though you rarely hear them complaining about judges who, oh, decide the Constitution doesn't really say there's such a thing as free speech or habeus corpus or freedom from self-incrimination. As long as the variances are applied to "the enemy" and them, anyway. (It should be said both that some liberals can be just as myopic and self-serving, and that not all conservatives or Republicans are Ideologue Republicans.) At any rate, it isn't really a contest between activist and non-activist judges, as it's often painted, but of whose activist judges get the final say. Hence the forthcoming "war" between Congressional Republicans and Democrats over whoever's nominated, given that the best Democrats (and, if they have any sense, Republicans) can hope for is a judge similar in temperament to Sandra Day O'Connor.

Which may not be in Karl Rove's best interests at the moment. Backing up the old time clock, there once was an American diplomat named Joseph Wilson who was married to a woman named Valerie Plame who, unknown to almost everyone, was a CIA operative. (She "officially" worked for a "private business" that was a CIA front.) Wilson was sent by the current administration to Niger, pre-war, to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein was trying to illegally buy uranium there for his nuclear program, ostensibly to blow up Tel Aviv and the American East Coast. He discovered that the "attempted purchases" were a hoax, and subsequently went public with his report when the White House continued to insist there was a legitimate foundation to believe the overtures, and used them as one of the rationals for the unilateral invasion of Iraq, the threat of nukes in the hand of a madman being one of the great appeals to the American public for support for a war. Sometime afterward, columnist Robert Novak ran an article to discredit Wilson, during which he revealed Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. He was not the only journalist to do so, and two others have been facing off with a grand jury investigating the revelation, since it breaks The Intelligence Identities Act, a law passed in the '70s to prevent the naming of CIA agents. Violation carries a potential ten year sentence. Novak claimed he believed she was an analyst and not an operative, but the CIA has stated they told him she was a covert operative and that revealing her information constituted a security risk. Particularly at issue, in terms of the law, is the question of where Novak's information, and the information of THE NEW YORK TIMES' Judith Miller, a notorious White House lapdog who is gleefully casual about spreading the Administration line on Iraq and other issues, and TIME's Matthew Cooper, got their information on Plame.

It has been bandied about since the exposure that White House Chief Of Staff, and architect of the current administration's rise to power, Karl Rove provided the data, to punish Wilson for his exposure of the Niger lie. Recently, rumor and speculation coalesced into fact: Miller and Cooper were ordered jailed by a Grand Jury investigating the leak until they revealed their sources, and a cruise through the courts on freedom of the press grounds resulted in their appeal's rejection by the federal appeals court in Washington, ironically an outgrowth of press-clipping legislation pushed through by CIA-protective conservative politicians since the mid-'70s when the CIA was under congressional investigation by the Church Committee, and the Supreme Court refused to get involved. Last week TIME opted to end the situation by surrendering Cooper's notes to investigators, after which MSNBC pundit Lawrence O'Donnell outed Rove on TV as Cooper's source. As a result, Rove, dodging any public comment on the matter himself, has sent his lawyer out to say that if he was the source of the Plame leak, he didn't reveal it knowingly. Obviously, it was just one of those casual slips of the tongue things that only happens with two or three (or a dozen or more) reporters. Rove's quasi-"explanation" is ludicrous but critical to his impending defense, since the law requires the information be "knowingly" revealed, making his lawyer's choice of phrasing pretty interesting. Presumably he also has some way of explaining why he shopped the information about to several reporters who didn't use it. At any rate, Rove's situation adds more strain to the Hand Puppet's already quavering public image as vastly increasing numbers of the public (if you believe polls) now believe the White House intentionally sold them a bill of goods on Iraq, which was not helped by the Hand Puppet's reply to these matters during a speech last week, which basically came down to: shut up and enlist.

Getting back to the Supreme Court, which might ultimately be deciding whether Rove gets a publicly funded extended vacation for a decade or so (one presumes he will simply rule his empire from prison, like Lucky Luciano, in that event), quite a few people asked for my view of the Court's ruling on eminent domain a couple weeks back, which spawned much outrage among liberals and conservatives alike. I'm not all that worked up about it, partly because the decision was drastically misrepresented by the press. Not that it's not an awful situation, but the court didn't, in fact, say that states and municipalities have the godgiven right to take anyone's land (at "market value") so a Wal-Mart can be put up if enough councilmen are properly bribed, but that it isn't within the jurisdiction of the federal government to stop them. I don't get it: isn't this the sort of government non-involvement Republicans and Libertarians have traditionally clamored for and even Democrats have recently been trying to make their own as a "populist" issue. There are many states and municipalities that have local laws banning specifically the behavior the Supreme Court apparently authorizes, but the ruling doesn't, as far as my legal understanding goes (and it's always possible I'm missing some nuance), invalidate any of those laws. It says states and municipalities get to decide, not the Federal government, and there's nothing in the law that give the Feds the right to invalidate it. (O'Connor, amusingly, was the main dissenting voice, so I wouldn't be too thrilled to see her leave if I were you.) So if the Feds are helpless, what then? Simple: organize. I see this as a great galvanizing party-melding viewpoint-bending issue that can unite people across the political spectrum. Don't want a mini-mall where your lemon tree currently stands, or the local Laundromat being forced out for a Gap? They're your mayors and city managers and councilmen, your governors and state senators and state representatives. Pressure them. Get your fellow citizens together to pressure them. Get those laws passed banning the use of eminent domain laws for commercial purposes. If you don't like your government having that kind of potential power over your life, stop moaning and do something about it. The Supreme Court didn't say you couldn't.

That is all.

I also received PLASTIC FARM #10 by Rafer Roberts & Dennis Culver, 32 pg b&w comic (Plastic Farm; 2.95), but it's a title I lost interest in so long ago that I can't even work up the energy to read it anyway. That has never happened to me before.

MTV has managed to serve up the stupidest show of the summer, beating out even the Britney Spears-Kevin Federline self-produced self-obsessed "reality" show: 70s HOUSE (Tues 10:30P). Where contestants have to give up their modern wardrobes and conveniences and learn to live with rotary phones, polyester leisure suits and 8-track tapes. Except... I remember the '70s and nobody in their right mind wore leisure suits (they wore blue jeans) and I don't remember a single person with an 8-track tape player that wasn't in a car, and not many of those. (Cassettes were already conquering the music market.) So the entire series is an idiotic, sadistic joke, probably invented by morons who weren't even alive in the '70s and think the media myth world of the BRADY BUNCH movies is historically accurate. Contestants are trotted out into the modern world in their old fashions basically to be humiliated, and that's pretty much all the show is really about: humiliation. In the running for "creepiest show of the summer" isn't Fox's serial killer/profiler series THE INSIDE (Wed 9P) but MTV's other "reality" show, HOGAN KNOWS BEST, which is basically an advertisement for his 16-year old daughter Brooke's intended pop singing career, but which manages to make his looming stage dad presence in his daughter's career seem marginally less creepy in comparison with his apparently obsessive personal obsession with his daughter. Or maybe the self-proclaimed "real American" is just trying to show he's a truly concerned dad. Whatever. Wrestling fans know there has never been an unscripted situation in Hogan's adult life (except arguably his self-damning testimony at WWE owner Vince McMahon's steroid trial a decade or so back) and there's no reason to believe he has started now (one joke making the wrestling scene rounds is you know it's scripted when the first episode shows wrestler Brian Knobs in the gym) but if it is scripted on the sly (as many "unscripted" series are; just ask Paris Hilton, preferably under oath) he obviously doesn't realize how close to an incestuous pedophile he seems.

For the past few weeks, I've been running old comics covers more or less at whim. Starting this week each week's collection will have a secret thematic connection. The first one to get this week's theme correct will get... well, I'll print your name and pimp whatever you choose (excepting things illegal or pornographic; we keep it clean here) next week. Hint: it's not non-Marvel characters created by Jack Kirby.

San Diego's a week away. I should be there from Thursday through Saturday, at least, and maybe into Sunday. (Still waiting to hear whether the Marriott can provide me with a room Saturday night.) But so far no location where I can specifically be found. Check back next week; maybe something will have changed by then.

At any rate, if you've been thinking about picking up either IMPOLITIC: JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS or TOTALLY OBVIOUS: The Complete Master Of The Obvious, my e-books in .pdf format (the first covers politics in the new terror era; the second comics, creativity, culture and the freelance life), this is the week to pick them up, because I could use the cash infusion for San Diego. It'd be nice, anyway. You can still get them individually or at a special package price, for screen or for print, at Paper Movies. Thanks.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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