Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today's artist is Lucy Bellwood, whom I interviewed about most of her comics works and her process. Enjoy!
I met Lucy Bellwood at the 2013 Emerald City Comic Convention, bought her work, and became a big fan. I saw her again in Portland in September, and I asked her if she'd be willing to do a Skype interview with me about her process and her various comics, because as you might recall, I've been writing about artists this year. I've also not had a lot of contact with artists - Norm Breyfogle and Greg Ruth are the exceptions - and that's mostly because I haven't approached them because I just assume they don't have time, and when I have approached them, it turns out ... that they don't have time. But when you're on Skype, you don't need to answer questions by typing things into an email, you can just chat, so Lucy was nice enough to sit down with me and talk for over an hour about her comics. I edited some of it, because I tend to go off on tangents and she was polite enough to wander off with me, but I hope this gives you an idea about the artistic process and some of the choices artists make. You can find Lucy at her web site, her tumblr, on Twitter, and on Patreon, if you're interested in her work. I'm talking about four of her comics - Baggywrinkles, which she began in 2010 and continues to this day; True Believer, which came out in 2012; Grand Adventure, which is about her voyage down the Grand Canyon and came out in 2013; and Down to the Seas Again, which came out this year. So let's go!
Greg: I haven't had a chance to talk to many artists about their process - I talked a little bit to a few about some things, some of the tools they use or something like that, but I don't know if you mind talking a little bit about ... are you all digital, or are you not digital at all?
Lucy: I am hybrid digital as of now. I got a Cintiq ... last year? I bought it off a friend of mine and it definitely changed large swaths of my work process - there's a couple of stories that I've done all digital since then, but by and large, the method that I've settled on that I think works best for me is - I'll use the Cintiq, working in Manga Studio, which I love to bits, to do my thumbnails and rough pencils so that way - digital is great for layout stuff - you can go in and transform things and flip them and scale them, whereas with a thumbnail you may have to scrap it and start over, with digital you can say, Oh, erase that, put this on a different layer, I'll draw the background on this layer and put characters on that layer, and you can kind of shift things around at the stage where they're the most fluid.
So that's the first part of it and then, generally what I'll do is print out those layouts in blue line and then I'll start penciling a little bit tighter over those ... and I'll also do that for lettering, too, so I'll do type layout with a font in Manga Studio but then print it out and letter over the font ... which is possibly labor-intensive, but I'm a stickler for this stuff - I really like the way hand-lettering looks, but I don't necessarily have time to rule out all of my word balloons individually and using the type tool is great, because you can shift things around and make them the way that they need to be without too much laborious re-writing.
Once I've printed out my blue line, then I go back in and tighten up the pencils, also with blue, and then I get to work inking! And recently, I've really been loving the felt-tipped brush pens that Kuretake and Zebra make, which I find hold their points really nicely, and then for fixed-width stuff, I'll work with just Faber-Castell PITT pens a lot of the time ... and like all the stuff in Grand Adventure and Down to the Seas Again were both drawn entirely fixed-width, which is kind of a new direction for me, which was fun - it was kind of a departure from that super-lush brushy stuff. And ... Down to the Seas Again was drawn entirely with a size small Faber-Castell PITT pen ... Grand Adventure, though, was drawn with a - this pen has such a mouthful of a name - a Platinum Carbon Desk Fountain pen ... it's made by Pilot? It's essentially a cartridge fountain pen with a nice thin line - it's good and waterproof ... I just didn't think to bring extra ink cartridges to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, so I ran out of ink and had to switch to some other generic skinny fixed-width thing. So yeah, I tend to switch between those.
I've been trying to work a little bit bigger recently so my original pages for the most recent Baggywrinkles story were 11 by 17, but Down to the Seas Again and Grand Adventure were basically drawn at size - those originals are all 6 by 9, they're tiny ... which, I actually know a lot of people who are like, "How can you draw so small?" but I think it stops me from getting too obsessive about detail - you know, like if the page is small ... I mean, yes, the flip side is that when you draw really big and you shrink down, a lot of stuff can be forgiven, so even if you're playing fast and loose with your lines, once you shrink it down, it tightens up a lot, but I actually really like having things that are small and portable. I also love being able to take a sketchbook-sized thing with me and work on my comics wherever I have to be ... I'm a bike commuter, and 11 by 17 pages do not play nicely with my waterproof saddlebags.
Then, once all that's done, for more recent comics I'll do watercolors by hand, working totally traditionally or, if I'm doing stuff with digital color, I'll scan those inks back in, drop out the blue lines in Photoshop, and then get to work coloring in Photoshop or Manga Studio ... and then it's done!
Greg: I do love the coloring on Grand Adventure - it's just amazing - it seems like it's different from Down to the Seas Again - it looks different. Okay, well, that's interesting, because I'm always curious about how much digital stuff people are doing these days, if they're not doing it at all, if they're doing it completely in digital ... One thing I'm finding is very difficult to do this year is figuring out where the penciling stops and the inking begins and I hate it when there's a different penciler and inker because I'm dying to see the original penciled art and see how much influence the inker has on it. I mean, some inkers you can tell - I did John Romita Jr., and he got inked by Al Williamson, who's phenomenal, and you can tell what Williamson was doing, but a lot of inkers you can't - I did Jim Lee, and he's always been inked by Scott Williams ... I know some of his raw pencils are very excessively hatched, but I don't know how much Scott Williams added to that, and so it's frustrating, because I'm like, is this the inking or is it just the penciling? I don't want to give the penciler too much credit --
Lucy: I think the thing that really blows my mind about mainstream comics or, I mean, team-based comics, with different pencilers and inkers - artists and colorists I can get behind - you can see what the colorist brings to the table, and you can see what the artist brings to the table, like penciling and inking is so ... it's crazy to me, because I've never worked that way.
[We talked a bit about other stuff, then got back on point.]
Lucy: I was just reading - do you know Dan Berry, he's a British cartoonist? He does really beautiful work and wrote a nice little how-to write-up on his participation in 24-Hour Comic Day ... and he made a point in there about not wanting to get too tight or too precious - especially when you're working on that time constraint - to not get super detailed-oriented with your thumbnails or your pencils ... but he said, Every time I complete another step of the process, I always want it to look like I'm drawing the art for the first time. And that really resonated with me because something that I've noticed recently with my own work - and it's both great and awful that we're doing this interview right now, because I'm definitely in one of those work slumps where I'm just frustrated with my artistic development and super-eager to start pushing through to the next plateau level - so anything you ask me about how my art looks right now, I'm going to say, this is how it could be better! But something I've been noticing is that my tendency is to get so concerned about things being just so in the pencils that when I go back in to ink, I am tracing a lot of the time, I'm not bringing a lot of liveliness to the line ... and especially with Inktober happening this month - I'm seeing these quick spontaneous drawings from all of these creators whose work I really, really enjoy and especially folks like Chris Schweizer are just knocking it out of the park, and Chris doesn't even need Inktober - he draws so much stuff on a regular basis, it's just falling out of him, and his characters always have that feeling - I have a collected book of his sketchbooks right now that I've been plowing through, and they're just all super-kinetic and fresh ... and I have a bunch of studio mates who really embody that in their work, too - Natalie Nourigat's stuff is like that - that she's been producing for the last year since she's been in France is super-awesome ... people out there - I just read Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang's In Real Life, which is also gorgeous - Jen's always been one of my favorite artists precisely for that reason - where the work is not scribbly, it's just clean and fluid and dynamic and I think that's the danger of drawing your own stuff, where you get too attached to it early on - it can just get more and more wooden the closer you get to the finish line, and that's what I think is great about stuff like Grand Adventure - I put a time constraint on myself, and every one of those pages was drawn and inked the day it happened, so there wasn't room for me to get flibbily about it.
I know a lot of artist friends who actually who started working on skipping the penciling stage altogether which sounds daring and revolutionary, I know, but basically working in such a way that their thumbnails are tight enough that they kind of know where everything is supposed to go and then just trying to go straight in with the inks ... and I find that very inspirational and it's not something that I'm necessarily ready to do in my own work just yet but it's definitely something to aspire to and I do find, especially being able to work digitally - time was where I would go through - because you're all doing it on layers, it's not like you have to transfer your thumbnails to a different sheet of paper, you can just go in and have your thumbnails on one layer and then do another layer and start tightening them up and then another layer you do a tighter pass and then another layer, you start inking ... I think cutting out as many of those steps as possible - this is the blessing and the curse of digital media - you can noodle infinitely - you have all the flexibility and you can move things around and scale them and swap them and it's so much more efficient and that's great ... but how many times more do we hit the "undo" key when we're drawing on a Cintiq than when we're drawing on paper and we have to physically go back and erase every time. So it's a trade-off - I think it's really important for people to still use physical media because it reminds us of how to be decisive with our mark-making and that's probably a cartoonist's greatest asset.
I had a weird moment of artistic déjà vu when I was drawing Down to the Seas Again where there was a panel where I was giving a reading at a bookstore in Boston, and it's artistically verbatim, the same panel that I drew in Baggywrinkles #2 when I'm pointing at a chalkboard and talking about nautical tattoos. And it's funny how that particular gesture has been stored in my brain all these years and when it came time to draw that panel, my brain was like, oh, I've drawn this before, I know how to draw this again ... which I think is great, because artists develop a shorthand language, but it's also super ... bad, in some ways, because we start to fall back on shortcuts rather than really understanding the foundational drawing in every single panel.
[We talked about some of her old high-school art, and then I actually asked her about the comics!]
Greg: In Baggywrinkles #1 - On the second [really, fourth] page you have the big drawing of the boat ... of the ship. Now, did you just sit there and sketch it? Or did you take a picture of it?
Lucy: No, this was actually - so the entirety of Baggywrinkles #1 was produced in five days, at the Center for Cartooning Studies when I was there for this summer program in 2010. So I challenged myself to draw my first whole mini-comic while I was there - I did not sleep very much, but it was great - I was terrible at pulling all-nighters for school, like high school, I had tests and all my friends were staying up, I was rubbish at it, but I got to CCS, I thought, I can stay up all night for this, are you kidding? This is awesome!
The great thing about that workshop was that it was the first time I had been in a room with so many other people who were passionate about making comics and were moderately competent - you know, you live in a small town and people look at your drawings and say, Oh, it's so good, it's so good, you're so talented! and you don't have other people who are collaborating with you or pushing you who are your peers ... and I got to CCS and it was like, Oh, my God, there's a bunch of these people and they're good ... but they're all good in different ways and there wasn't a sense of fear or competition or threat ... it was just, Hey, we all like making comics, let's help each other make better comics. So that environment was really electric and super-helpful and of course the faculty there were really great and inspirational ...
Anyway, that drawing was just taken from a reference photo that I found on the Internet and I remember so many people - students and teachers - coming by and being like, Man, you're crazy for doing that - you are a crazy person ... which is a refrain that does not let up, actually, in the four years since then as I have continued to draw super-intricate rigging on tall ships ... I'm proud of that drawing, it holds up okay ... it was my first time using a brush pen ... a brush to ink stuff, so when I look back at that I definitely see that as probably my biggest area of improvement - it's just learning how to control the brush so it's not fantailing out all over the place and leaving sloppy stuff --
Greg: Yeah, it's nice, the hatching is nice, it's not crazy - it's nice and under control --
Lucy: I will say I did something that lots of people at Periscope comment on with relief now - they're like, You stopped doing all that silly hatching stuff, when they look at my new work - I didn't realize it at the time, but the first comics I brought in and showed them, they were like, The hatching has to go.
Greg: I think it seems like younger artists - it doesn't matter who you are - younger artists tend to overhatch --
Lucy: It's really easy to make it look bad, too - there are artists whose work I really admire who do amazing work with hatching - Kevin Cannon, oh my God - he's a master - but it's definitely something that you need the chops to pull off and if you don't have them, it can look like garbage - and it also stops you from trying to make really bold ... again, that confidence of line is really important and I think --
Greg: It tends to obscure that.
Lucy: Yeah, it obscures that - it's either it obscures that or it stops you from being decisive about spotting your blacks, which is something that I still struggle with ... and I got on my web site to look at these while we're talking about them and I can see that I got a little more aggressive about it in issue #2, and then issue #3 was kind of a mixture - a little bit all over the place - and then issue #4 was pretty clean line and this new issue is definitely all clean lines or spot blacks.
Greg: You can definitely tell in issue #3 that you're much cleaner --
Lucy: Yeah, there was a big jump up, and I think that was probably the larger time jump between the two of those - I did True Believer in between issues #2 and 3, which probably explains a lot.
Greg: I'm looking at issue #2, the two sort-of pseudo-splash pages - you can tell, there's a lot of spot blacks there and even the waves on the second page, it looks like thicker brush strokes - you can tell it's not hatched too much, but what you do is much thicker, so it looks almost like a spot black ... you can tell, immediately, that you're getting more confident with the bold chunks of black rather than excessive lines.
Lucy: Yeah, that's still something that even now, I definitely don't use - what's the word for this? - environmentally, scenically, I don't think I'm very comfortable - you'll see that I really rarely do it on characters, it's obvious stuff like, Oh, there should be a shadow under where this person is standing or these people are in a dark room, so the background should be black or this person's wearing a black shirt - but I'm not as good - and this is something that [Chris] Samnee does that I just --
Greg: He does it well --
Lucy: He does it super-well, right, being able to drop shadows onto people's faces - it's something that I try to practice over time, but I'm still pretty hesitant about introducing it into my own work and I think the super-clean line stuff I was doing in Grand Adventure and Down to the Seas Again was a response to that - I was just trying to take it out of the equation rather than getting hung up on whether I was doing it right, and that's not to say that I'm not going to learn, because I need to learn how to do it, it's important, but it's nice to know that you can make perfectly effective comics - it's not necessary, but it's something I would like to have.
Greg: And for certain projects it looks really cool - it doesn't work every time, but for a certain tone you want or something like that, it really works well.
Okay, since you did True Believer after that, let me ask you - how did you get this look for True Believer? What were you using - it's lusher than anything you've done.
Lucy: I was using - True Believer was drawn a lot bigger - it was bigger than I'd ever worked before, I think - I decided to work a little larger - it was the longest, actually, it's still the longest comic I've ever done - it's 36 pages ... and it was senior thesis project at Reed College --
Greg: Good old Reed - where you spent all your time playing Ultimate Frisbee --
Lucy: No, I wasn't that athletic - the Ultimate Frisbee team was the closest thing we had to a frat at Reed ... no, I spent all my time reading comic books in "The MLLL," which confusingly stands for Comic Book Lending Library - it used to be the Media Lending and Listening Library, it used to be a record and science fiction/fantasy paperback collection, and then eventually over time it started becoming a comic collection, and now I believe it holds some title as the largest publicly-owned comics collection in the nation or something like that - it's owned by the student body, basically, which makes it unique.
So it's not a library thing, but there's a student who takes on the responsibility of ordering titles and keeping the space organized and members just get the key and let themselves in and read comics - it was a great resource for me because, you know, buying comics is expensive and getting into longer-running, single-issue based series, for me, was never an interest because I didn't have the budget and I didn't know where to start ... but the MLLL subscribes to all those comics to get the single issues and then has them bound into encyclopedia-style volumes so you can just go to The Walking Dead section and read ... and keep reading, and keep reading ... I spent six hours in there one day just reading The Walking Dead and then I was like, Okay, I think I've had enough, I'm done. The MLLL is not apparent to the naked eye, but it's an amazing resource.
So it was - the thesis I was doing, in the art department they make you do a year-long creative project and then also write a document that's like an analytic, typical Reed thesis ... and the analytic document was all about creativity in the modern world and how we have this weird paradoxical conception of it that it is simultaneously priceless and worthless because people always talk about talent and creativity as these ethereal things that you're either born with or not born with ... which makes them priceless because you're a creative - nobody can teach you how to be creative, you're just born creative, you're so talented, you just sprung fully formed from the head of your father and here you are, making comics like it's no big deal ... so that means it's priceless.
But on the other hand, this is America, and people in America get where they are because they work hard, and so, if you're a creative, and you haven't had to work hard to get good at being creative, then your work isn't actually worth anything, which leads to the dreadful, Oh, since you're just doing this for fun, can you design my wedding invites while you're at it? So I got into that and talked about a bunch of different stuff like cultural attitudes to failure and creative process and some other stuff ... I haven't re-read it in a while, although, bless her heart, Erika Moen just borrowed my print copy of it, because this conversation came up and she was like, Wow, I want to read that! and I did a double-take and said, You do? Nobody wants to read your thesis, that's not what going to Reed is all about! There was a joke going at the time that because I did this Kickstarter campaign to publish the creative portion of my thesis, which was True Believer, that a lot of people just said, Oh, yeah, True Believer's your thesis, and that makes it the most widely-read Reed thesis in the history of Reed theses, because it's a comic book, and of course people are going to read a comic book!
So, process: [Here my audio got a bit jacked up with static. It happened occasionally, but this was the only really crucial part of the interview that I couldn't hear. So I emailed Lucy, and this is how she answered:] I thumbnailed roughly in my sketchbook; penciled straight in blue on 14 x 19 Bristol; inked with a Winsor & Newton Series 7 Sable brush (Size 02); scanned those inks and printed them lightly onto watercolor paper; painted in ink wash with slate blue watercolor; scanned watercolored pages and merged them digitally with the line art to create the final images!
[Then she continued:] This is actually a process that I ended up doing for parts of Down to the Seas Again, for the first six pages, I think, because I was an idiot and didn't start penciling and inking on watercolor paper, so the first six pages I drew them on shitty Bristol board that doesn't take color very well and I had to go back and do the inks on a separate thing and do watercolors and stitch them together and that's why, to my eyes, the coloring on the first six pages of the comic looks a little more garish and little less finessed than it does in the rest of the story, but ... I could be wrong.
Greg: I'm looking at it, and it looks pretty good --
Lucy: It looks fine, yeah --
Greg: The only thing I notice that's a little different is that it looks less ... I guess, watercolor-y? On the later pages, on shirts, clothing, that sort of thing, it looks a little bit more ... painted? On the first six pages, the water looks like you painted it, but some of the shirts and clothing looks little bit more ... solid, I suppose, and later on it looks more nuanced ... but other than that, it looks fine to me!
Also, I noticed in True Believer - some of the, so you're using yourself, you're using a cartoon version of yourself - it's interesting because the one page where you find out that Dylan has died is very realistic - did you deliberately do that because of the gravity of the page, or ...
Lucy: It's a mixed bag, that page - I remember taking countless reference photos of myself to try and figure out how to get the angle right and the holding of the phone and so partially I think it was inexperience at not quite being able to take a realistic reference photo and then abstract a cartoony drawing from that ... but, I think it was also partially a conscious choice, because there's some goofy, slapstick stuff at the beginning with Nate that is definitely very cartoony ... so I think it was partially intentional, but I also wonder if I would have been able to truly render it in the cartoony style ...
Greg: Yeah, that's interesting, because I noticed it when I was reading it -
Lucy: And it's funny, I re-read True Believer every so often because I kind of forget that I did it and then somebody will send me an email out of the blue saying something very sweet and it'll bring me up short and I'll read it again and I'll be like, Wow, am I crazy? Is it actually good? When I go back and re-read it, I realize there was a lot of - I think the thing that strikes me the most is that I took a lot of crazy ... I wouldn't even say risks, but just experiments with page layouts and pacing --
Greg: Yeah, the layouts are amazing, I love the layouts.
Lucy: I'm really glad - it's funny, that page where I come home and I'm dropping keys into dishes and pushing things around ... I was just reading a book that Natalie had brought back from France by Penelope Bagieu - First Second is putting out one of her books in the spring, which I'm really excited about ... but there was a sequence in there where the protagonist gets home from being out and about and having a stressful day and it's the same thing - she feeds her cat, she puts a kettle on, she drops her keys in the bowl - it's silent, with just the sound effects, and I'm like, Holy shit, this is amazing, we have done the same thing on different continents at different times - I'm not saying I'm anywhere near as good a cartoonist as she is, but it was this moment of, Hey! All right, we have some similarities here!
It's funny, because when I'm listening to the people at Periscope give advice to artists who are just starting out or giving it myself, a lot of the time we say don't go crazy with layouts ... people are like, Well, I want to do breakouts and splash pages and I really want to challenge the structure of the panel and it's like, you know, just learn to tell a good story without relying on that and then work your way up from there, which I think is still really solid advice ... but --
Greg: But you ignored it!
Lucy: I guess I did - I just didn't know any better, right? And I've still done stuff like that in Baggywrinkles, I think there's still similar ... non-conventional approaches to layouts on the page, but with True Believer, I felt like it came together in a bigger way and I realize that I haven't really done a lot of that since then with my storytelling - it's gotten a little bit more conventional, layouts-wise.
Greg: I did notice that. I was wondering - Is that because of - I know your last two projects were, I guess, speed-based, well, not speed-based, but --
Greg: Yeah, so you don't have time to go nuts with it, you just got to tell the story, and I think that's not a bad thing to put restraints on yourself so that you do or are forced to tell the story because then your storytelling ability will get better and better and then you can start being crazy with other stuff ... but I love the end of True Believer, because you're riding across, what, the Morrison Bridge?
Lucy: It's the Sellwood Bridge, actually.
Greg: Oh, yeah, I'm sorry - I meant to say the Sellwood Bridge --
Lucy: I'm riding across the Sellwood Bridge ... in the wrong direction - Portland trivia, because practically speaking, I would be riding from the West Side to the East Side if I were going home because the cemetery is at the top of the hill, but as we all know, everybody in comics always moves from left to right, so I just fudged the truth - with the layout of my house, there was a sequence at the beginning where I burst out and said hi to Nate, and one of my friends was like, Your bedroom's not there - you're coming out of the kitchen, why are you coming out of the kitchen? I'm like, Look, man, nobody is going to know except for you and the people who have been in my house --
Greg: And you have to move your eyes from left to right, that's the way it is. But I love that page, and then the next page where you shove everything on the floor and kind of start over, and then you get the single page with the stub pencil - I love that sequence, it's just so dramatic and powerful - it just kind of sums up your feelings at that moment.
And then you went back to Baggywrinkles, and there was something I was going to ask you about - well, I love the page where you're doing the ropes, that's hilarious --
Lucy: The hauling page - I had a lot of fun taking those reference photos, too. I think I was at home while I was penciling that, and I spent a long afternoon trying to get my mom to photograph me collapsing forward onto the bed for the sequence where I pass out after the fact - I kept falling face forward onto the mattress and trying to get her to catch me mid-collapse and it was a difficult and delicate business.
Greg: The final page, where you're looking at the ship, did you just paint that? I mean, did you use pencils at all, or did you just paint it?
Lucy: Oh, yeah, I totally used pencils and inks, and then I think I started doing ink wash - I was like, Oh, yeah, I should do all this ink wash! - and then I ran into a problem with trying to figure out how to clean it up, because I bitmapped the rest of my artwork for the issue to make all the pixels either fully black or full white, which is get crisp, clean artwork, and then it was like, Oh, this is grayscale ... hmmmm ... but it turned out okay, it looks fine.
Greg: So then, on Grand Adventure - you were doing it every night? every morning?
Lucy: A combination of the two ... so, I would pencil and ink when we got to camp in the evenings, and then I would color in the morning before we left, generally.
Greg: Did you use any photographs or anything?
Lucy: No ... okay, let's see - there were only a couple of times where there were things that I couldn't quite remember enough - I didn't, I barely took any photos on the trip, because I was so consumed with doing this project ... I'm scrolling through it to see - the only thing I remember definitively using photo reference for was the butterfly - there's a swallowtail butterfly I painted which I really wanted to get right because I knew off the top of my head that I've tried to draw butterflies from memory and it turns out my childhood conception of what a butterfly looks like is very pervasive, so even if my brain is like, No, a butterfly, draw a butterfly! it comes out pink with two little bubbly things on either side which is actually not what butterflies look like at all ...
So one of our fearless trip leaders had a really nice camera and had snapped some beautiful shots and I did trouble him for that to make sure I got all the shapes and colors right - but everything else, I'm pretty sure was either drawn from memory or from me sitting in front of the thing and looking at it.
Greg: I'm sorry - you told me about the coloring, but I don't remember - how did you color it?
Lucy: This was just done with a little water brush pen and a set of Winsor Newton travel watercolors, the same one I take everywhere - and it's funny, when you look at the first few pages, first of all, you can see that I started out being like, Yeah! I'm only going to draw ... the first couple pages, where it's like, Oh, I'm just going to do a half-page per day, and it's monochromatic, and I'm just going to pick a different color every day, and I think on Day 3 or whatever, I tried to do this picture of a rainbow while we're driving through the desert, and I'm sitting there making different shades of green to try and convey a rainbow, I thought, you know, this isn't going to fly, so then I tried to start doing full color, and I'd never actually done a comic in full color before this, so it was a really good learning experience to just dive in and, I mean, looking at the comic, the Grand Canyon maintains a pretty solid palette - it's not as if you're - well, I guess the color of the stone does change dramatically as you move through the landscape, but it's still pretty much all warm browns and reds and yellows -
Greg: When you say that, I thought you did it kind of because you weren't in the canyon yet, like, I didn't know you planned to continue to do that ... I thought you started by saying, I'm going to kind of do this - not ... dully, but like, sort of, outside the big, colorful world of the canyon, like you were contrasting --
Lucy: Yes, let's do that, let's pretend it was a deliberate choice!
Greg: Well, that's what I thought! I thought, Well, okay, she started out like this is just the real world, so to speak, where the, you know, these things happen, and then, Wow! look at this - here's the Grand Canyon, but it's funny that you're like, No, that's not it ... but you like my explanation.
Lucy: Yes - we'll stick with that.
[We talked about writing for others, and how her script for True Believer was more of a story and that Grand Adventure and Down to the Seas Again were more "experiential."]
Greg: In True Believer, I think you're being a little bit obvious ... in some of the things, not all of them, but I think you kind of got a hold on it as the book went on, and I think in Grand Adventure you let things happen - the two things that I think are amazing in Grand Adventure - the "complicated dreams" page where it seems like a non sequitur, but it's not, and then the final page, when you leave the canyon, you're understated, and I think that works really well, and I don't know if a year before or two years before you would have left it understated.
Lucy: Definitely in this format, in that diary-comic format, there's a lot of tendency toward the show and tell method of storytelling, which is not encouraged by anybody ever, but it's kind of the nature of the beast is that you're like, Hey! here's what we did and here's a drawing of what we did, and it's not necessarily the best storytelling if you're telling a story ... say I was writing this about somebody else going down the Grand Canyon, like, Suzie went down the rapid and there's a picture of Suzie going down the rapid, but for whatever reason, I went down the rapid and there's a drawing of me going down the rapid ... I don't know, I remember being more aware of that, certainly, and trying to find better ways to highlight the interplay between text and image.
Greg: And I really think you do a pretty good job with it - and that's one of the problems I have with autobiographical comics. That's why I was nervous about your stuff, but I think because you're choosing very specific incidents that you can shape it a little bit and I think you do a good job with that.
Okay, for Down to the Seas Again - did you use just simple watercolors on it?
Lucy: Yeah, colored in exactly the same way as Grand Adventure, except that for Grand Adventure, I was drawing it straight in my sketchbook, and for Down to the Seas Again, I got wise, and did what Lucy Knisley does for her travel comics, which was custom binding a couple of cover boards with holes punched through them and then putting ring clips through them and punching holes in a bunch of sheets of Bristol that had pre-printed guidelines on them, so all of my pages stayed a consistent size and I just took that book with me, so the first six pages were the ones that I actively completed while I was on the trip, and then the rest of the comic I finished once I got back to Portland.
So this was kind of a hybrid of the Grand Adventure method with the more considered method and I really liked having the freedom to move the pages around in order, too, and you can take them out and hang them up on the wall - the sad thing about Grand Adventure is those originals are always going to be in that sketchbook and they're double-sided, too.
Greg: When you're coming up with layouts, like the ones in True Believer, do you do a lot of things before you figure out what works or do you kind of have it in your head, that that's kind of what you want to do?
Lucy: I have the notebook from that year, sitting on the shelf right behind me, so let me pull it out and tell you how many I went through ...
Greg: I'm always curious about layouts, you know, some of the layouts seem obvious, and then some, I'm like, There's many different ways to do this, and I'm wondering - is that the best one, or is it just because of the way it flowed, or just because it was so beautiful or whatever --
Lucy: I'm looking at a couple of these - yeah, there was some stuff that changed quite a bit, actually, now that I look at it. There was some really early ones, and then I started doing some more serious thumbnails for the rest of the story that got a little bit more grounded - so, I would say maybe two or three passes per page to get things sorted out ... and some of them come down just right the first time and other ones took a couple of tries to get right - I was also doing a lot of thinking about how spreads were going to work ... but looking at the page where Dylan's in the hospital bed and everyone's finding out - that is basically exactly the same ... now I'm going down the old sketchbook road ...
I took a ton of reference photos trying to get the gesture for shoving the pages off the table right, and I remember my folks were in town visiting and I was just trying to figure out what the exact gesture is, because in comics, there's definitely a right moment and a wrong moment to grab the gesture and it's often not the moment you would think ... you expect it - the thing that reads most as shoving the papers off the table is maybe not the gesture that feels like shoving the pages off the table.
That was about it for the interview - obviously we didn't end it abruptly, but we meandered a bit before we ended the call. Anyway, I hope this was fun for you guys - maybe it was only interesting to me, but that's why it's my series! I encourage you to check out Bellwood's work - she's quite good, and she's getting better all the time! In case you don't want to scroll all the way back up, check her out online:
Tomorrow I'll be back to the "normal" stuff, with a new artist whose work has definitely changed a bit since the early 1980s. It should be fun! Of course, don't forget to check out the archives!