Over the holidays, Rich Johnston of Bleeding Cool was kind enough to devote his site to giving indie comics folk a space promote their projects, so we got in touch and he asked us to write a thing about The Ghost Engine, explaining who we are and how we got here. I made sure to not make it too weird or off-putting (there’s only one intentional Outkast reference).
Read the article at Bleeding Cool. Looks like it got us a lot of attention hit-wise, and I hope y’all stick around if you’re one of those people that came in from the Cool.
So thanks Rich, and thanks errrbody for reading. Hope you enjoy the final chapter.
Mat from the webcomic Evan Yeti interviewed us as part of his blog’s weekly Web Artists Wednesday feature.
I dunno about Eric, but this is actually my first interview as “guy who makes comics” so I’m pretty stoked to have somebody vaguely interested in what I have to say about things.
Go read the interview here and get some extra insight into what our brains are like, who we’d cast in a purely hypothetical Ghost Engine movie and our advice for aspiring creators. Also, jokes. Always jokes.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a process blog post. Me and Danny have been very busy trying to keep the comic up to date (haven’t missed a page deadline yet!) as well as working on various other projects.
I don’t have much to show today. I’ve just basically got an example of all the work I put into a page that you guys don’t get to see due to the ghost overlay and dialogue balloons. This is part of page 1 of Chapter 3 before all that important stuff goes in.
Basically, I do too much extra work that goes unseen!
Jesus, that’s a lot of yakking on Page 22. How the hell does Brian Bendis do it? I wonder if he uses a metronome like David Mamet does. But I don’t want to talk about Bendis or Mamet. I wanna talk about me and how I write dialogue.
I’m a pretty dialogue-oriented guy in general. I’m pretty quiet in person, but I put a lot of emphasis on conversation. I crave having a good conversation like some people crave drugs or fried food. I crave it like I crave coffee. The meaningful exchange of ideas and possibly jokes? That’s my shit, y’all.
As such, the stuff I write always tends to have a lot of talking, which some might tell you is the antithesis of visual storytelling. Obviously, the stuff people do in conversation tells a certain kind of story (like I said in a previous blog post), but oftentimes it seems like talky = bad in many readers’ eyes. That’s probably not the case, though. More likely it’s that talkiness without sufficient payoff is bad, whether that’s dramatic tension or conflict or what.
As a kid, I hated Peter David’s X-Factor because it didn’t have all the punching of the other X-Books of the early ’90s. As I grew up a little, I came to love that issue where Doc Samson gives every member of the team a psychiatric evaluation. Issues like that are great because you spend some time with the characters outside of fighting and hopefully learn something about them — if the writer has done his or her job.
My approach to writing dialogue is this: don’t be boring. Make sure it feels natural enough (or not, depending on what you’re going for), and pepper in some jokes and specificity to let the reader know that these aren’t just ciphers who exist to move the story along, but attempts at creating people that feel alive.
Let’s look at Page 22:
The layout we came up for this one isn’t all that dynamic or anything. Two tiers of repeating panels that mimic static camera takes — something you might find in a Matt Fraction comic like The Order or Invincible Iron Man. Basically, I wanted the interrogation scenes to have a different flavor from the other parts. More rigid repetition, focus on what they’re saying and how they say it, considering they’re just sitting in chairs and blabbing in a grimy green room.
Scripting dialogue-centric pages is relatively easy — technically, at least. Start out by write out all the dialogue, the back and forth. Don’t concern yourself with the panels just yet. If the dialogue is the point of the scene, then you have to let that drive your scripting of the page. Let yourself get carried away if you must. Write to your heart’s content. Go nuts. Then, you edit. Cut out the fat, figure out how many pages this will take, divide it up into panels in a way that makes sense. Kill your darlings, cut out lines that don’t need to be there if you’re pressed for page space.
Then, you keep editing. Your dialogue scene’s three pages? That’s too much? Figure out how to compress it into two. Or better yet, one.
It’s different if the scene is more complex than just two people talking. In that case it’s a matter of scripting out the action of the page (whatever that means to you — punching, walking across the room, tying somebody up) and then writing in the dialogue.
Extreme example, but peep Page 21:
On this page, action (Becky sneaking into the museum) comes first, with dialogue acting as a secondary element of the scene. She sneaks in, fights some robots, flips past some laser tripwire and gets caught. The dialogue jazzes up the scene by further establishing the relationship between Becky and Bark and offering a bit of both characters’ backstories through off-handed jokes and comments. It’s totally secondary and the page could ULTIMATELY do without it (up until the bottom tier) but I think it offers a degree of pacing to the page where a completely silent page encourages most readers to rush through.
Pacing. That’s a subject for another blog, isn’t it?
Like any art, making comics is all about honing your craft. If your comic is composed of pages and pages of evenly sized, full-tier widescreen panels, you’re either doing it wrong or you originally wanted to pitch a movie but settled for comics. To which I say, GTFO, we don’t need you stinking up our medium with your glorified storyboards.
Which isn’t to say that it’s wrong to come up with a page of widescreen panels — sequential storytelling is about what you show, what you don’t show, and how you show it. Big rectangles, small rectangles, jagged broken-glass-style layouts — paneling is something that’s easy to take for granted, especially if you’re scripting.
Here at Ghost Engine Industries, we take our comics making very seriously. Go ahead and check out our archive and see the variety happening in those page layouts. There are some widescreen panels, some repeating angles, but I try to write them when the storytelling calls for it.
When I write comics, I generally sketch thumbnails of my pages so I know they work. When you’re doing full-scripts (as opposed to “Marvel style” where the artist completely controls how the story appears on the page) you gotta visualize what the comic is going to look like when it’s all drawn up. Now, I fancy myself an “artist” and draw my own comics sometimes, but all it takes is drawing squares and relatively straight lines to verify if your idea for a page is as sound as it seems in your head.
(Sure, you can just rely on the artist to tell you when a page isn’t working, but why waste everybody’s time when you could catch mistakes on your own?)
Way back in the now-classic Process Blog #8, Eric showed off a page he discarded — a really good page on its own, but one that ultimately didn’t work for the story. The original page was pretty much how I scripted it, and he knocked it out of the park. I love that sequence happening in the last three panels. The angle is static, but the movement isn’t. That’s effort, my friends.
Eric’s a killer artist, and I’m not just saying that because we work together. Just look at Page 18, which is all about that gag of repeating angles. We know Eric works digitally, so repeating the backgrounds is a cinch. What distinguishes him from other artists is that he doesn’t cut corners with the characters within those panels — in every single panel there’s a clearly different iteration of Julia, drawn specifically for that panel. That’s storytelling, my friends.
On the flip side, I’ve seen major mainstream comics (the kind sold in stores!) where the artist has clearly just copied and pasted the same panel all the way down the page and changed maybe one gesture on a character. There’s certainly some benefit to straight-up repeating a panel or two as opposed to redrawing it, but when you have a sequence on the page (especially if it’s a conversation) and characters maintain the same exact frozen expressions, it’s hard not to view that as an artistic failure. People gesture, roll their eyes, shift in their seats, lean forward, and all that other stuff. Even while typing this I haven’t been sitting still and typing into my laptop — I’ve been swiveling my chair, leaning side to side, taking a moment to stretch. Outside of what I’m doing, all of that further tells a story — maybe I’m stretching because I didn’t get enough sleep last night (a good bet), and maybe I’m swiveling because I really have to pee but I want to get this blog post done because I forgot about it until this morning (yup).
Here’s a real anecdote: When I was a kid, my parents used to watch videotapes of relatives’ weddings that contained the ceremony and portions of the reception like speeches and some of the dancing. These speeches would be guys (no, seriously, they’re always men — lousy Old Country gender roles) standing on a stage and speaking in a language I still don’t know how to speak. Sometimes my parents would fast forward through the speeches and I realized that people don’t really stand still even if they seem to be. They actually move back and forth, side to side — something neither I nor the speaker would have noticed in real time.
All that to say that characters aren’t chess pieces — if you want to treat them like people, know how people actually move and function in reality, and use that knowledge to add to the storytelling.
Color flatting is the process of creating base colors for a comic book page before doing final renders. It’s the most boring, uncreative and technical stage of creating a finished page and takes a couple of hours on average to do (depending on the detail of the page). Because it’s a time suck and doesn’t require much creativity, most professional colorists in the industry outsource the job. From my understanding, the average going rate is about $10 a page.
I use Photoshop for everything I do on this comic. I don’t have much training in the program, so this blog is likely going to sound like a layman explaining how to use it. For flatting, you can either use the lasso tool by slowly filling in every section or you can speed up the process by using the bpelt plug-in.
This is my process using the plug-in. The example I’m using is for a cover image for The Ghost Engine.
This is the line art for the cover. I created this in Photoshop CS5 with a Wacom Cintiq 21UX. What’s helpful here is that the page is already a digital file and the line-work is already separated into individual layers from the white areas. In some cases, you’ll be dealing with a scanned image and you’ll need to find a way to get rid of the white areas. (I would just use Select > Color Range)
Because I’ve done this enough, I prepare for the flatting during the drawing process by putting things that will get in the way later on in separate layers. At this point I turn those layers off. They include Becky’s hair strands and fishnets and Price’s stubble. I also turn off the energy effect layer because I plan to do it separately so I can affect it’s transparency. I copy this flattened image into a new file. I’ll eventually come back to the original file, but this new one will eventually become a page of blocked out color areas that I’ll bring back into the original file as a new layer.
In order for the plugin to work, the file needs it’s color mode to be RGB (or CMYK). There also needs to only be black and white (no greys) in the file. To get rid of all but the black and white, you need to turn it into a bitmap file. You then need to turn it back in to an RGB file so that the plug-in can work. Unfortunately when it comes to changing color modes in photoshop, you have to do things in order. You can’t go from color to bitmap directly. You first need to convert color to greyscale to be able to then turn it into a bitmap. so basically when you start with this file you need to convert it from RGB to greyscale, from greyscale to bitmap, from bitmap to greyscale and then from greyscale back to RGB.
This is what my file looked like in the beginning before I turned it into a bitmap. Every line has a soft edge to it, which are blacks transitioning to the white.
This is what the file looks like after I’ve turned it into a bitmap file. There’s only two color types here: black and white. All the greys have been destroyed. This ruins your linework, but it doesn’t matter because when we’re done with this file, there will be nothing but sections of color.
Make sure you’ve installed the Bpelt plug-in, which includes ‘Flatten’ and ‘MultiFill’. Go to filter > bpelt > multifill and then press okay on the window that pops up. How the plugin works is that it fills different colors into all the white spaces in between the blacks.
This is the file that you’ll end up with.
From here you can test out how filter > bpelt > flatten works. The flatten plugin basically gets rid of all the black. If you just stop here and use this file, though, you’ll end up with a file that isn’t quite as easy to work with as you want. Becky’s hair is about 20 different colors, when I want it to be just one.
Undo the flatten plugin to bring the black lines back and you can see that Becky’s skin is a couple of different colors. Also, under her eye, her eyelashes are holding a couple of colors as well.
Undo the Multifill to go back to the black and white image and start breaking up the lines so that paths can be created for the colors to leak into areas that you want them to be in. I took the pencil brush (remember that we don’t want to use any brush that will create greys) and cut the line for the nose bridge with a white brush. I also broke up the eyelash lines under the eye.
From here, I use the Multifill plugin again and now most of her skin is the same blocked out color area. Now I just need to do this for the entire page. Use Ctrl+F (CMD+F for Mac users) and undo to go back and forth constantly to see what you’ve missed.
As you can see here, I’ve circled some problems that occur all through a page. Because the pixels are so close together, new colors are created for these small spaces. You need to train your eye to look out for these. You’re always going to miss sections, though. (hell, I now notice that I missed circling a spot between her cheek and hair)
Here I took a brush to open up those spaces a bit.
And now when I re-do the Multifill (Ctrl+F), those spaces are fixed. (except for the one I missed)
This is what your final file will look like after you’ve gone over everything. I’ve broken up lines in Price’s hair and throughout his face and mouth.
And this is what it looks like when I use the Multifill plugin. Compared to when I first used the Multifill before I started breaking up lines, this is a lot better and saves a lot more time later on.
From there I use the flatten plugin to get rid of the black lines and I notice that it wasn’t as clean as I’d hoped.
Here I’ve circled all the bits of color that I need to get rid of. Just use the selection tool (with anti-alias off) to grab those areas and make them the color they should be.
And this is what it looks like cleaned up.
Here’s what the final file looks like when I’m done with it.
From there I copy and paste that color image into my original file from the very beginning of this exercise. I place it under the line art.
I then use the selection tool to make all the colors exactly what I want them to be.
And this is what it looks like with the line art on.
And here’s the final image. This is the most streamlined process for flatting that I’ve come up with. If anyone knows of any steps to make my process better or faster, please let me know!
This week I’m going to go over how I put together some FX. Part of this blog is a preview of Friday’s page. Everything I do is with Photoshop CS5.
Danny’s script for this page involved a conversation between Becky and our friendly apparation, William Bark, as they walked through the Maestro lab. Because of the specific style I went with when portraying ghosts, I have to draw the full backgrounds behind them.
I then turn that layer off and draw Bark on a separate layer. In the layers I have a ‘Ghost’ group that contains the line-work, the color fill and the color rendering.
I add a Layer Style glow to the fill layers. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to mask off where the glow leaks into other panels. Does anybody have a solution for this?
Because I can’t figure out how to mask off where the glow leaks into other panels, I rasterize the fill layers and just chop off the excess glow.
I then use a couple of grey multiply layers and a 20% opacity white layer to do some color rendering. I use color fill layers a lot because it allows me to easily change work I’ve done and I don’t have constantly check a color palette because the palette is engraved in the layer.
Here I’ve brought back the rest of the panel.
And here I’ve reduced the opacity of the entire Ghost layer group to 85%.
I’m just gonna go ahead and blow my wad here:
STEP ONE: HAVE A STORY IDEA
Cool thought! Let’s get to work.
STEP TWO: THE IDEA DUMP
Before actual writing occurs (in other words, stuff that I intend to show other human beings), first I vomit through my fingers every idea I have for a particular project into a text file — this big messy thing that only makes sense to me and has probably like three plot outlines started and then promptly unfinished.
It usually ends up looking something like this:
MARK – Our hero. Will probably become a woman by the time I get around to plotting the thing.
GINA-GINA – Sentient rocket. Maybe chair shaped?
_____ – Villain. I want him to be a count of some sort, but not a vampire. Does that make sense? I’ll get to this later.
Open in a burning building. Marquess is a fire fighter, but not like any fire fighter. She goes in alone and negotiates with the fire first. Through narration she explains how it works. I’ll have to figure out HOW that works first.
[OPENING] – Introduce world, characters, killer conflict.
“The World Burns” – Shit gets real.
“Ashes” – Final issue. Assuming we get that far. Marquess’ funeral (SPOILERRRR)
STUFF TO LOOK UP
Stockholm syndrome — I kinda want this to be the major theme of the series. Becoming accustomed/sympathetic to your surroundings, no matter how shitty. She’s starting to identify more with the fire than the people put at risk by them. Maybe look up some good examples through history.
Maybe watch BACKDRAFT?
STUFF THAT SHOULD HAPPEN
Third degree burns
Love interest? But not a healthy one.
Marquess being worshipped as a fire goddess by a cult.
ORIGINAL DUMPED OUTLINE
ISSUE ONE: Marked for Death — BY FIRE!!!
We’re inside a towering inferno. Mark bursts into the burning building, and it’s immediately apparent he’s a firefighter. But, instead of saving or extinguishing anything… he starts talking. Cut to outside, as the fire slowly recedes and disappears. 12-panel sequence of flames shrinking on a burning building. Yeah, no artist will ever get mad at me.
STEP THREE: HAVE LOTS OF LONG THINKS IN THE SHOWER
“What was I thinking about? Oh, right… how do I make that story not suck anymore?”
STEP FOUR: MAYBE FLESH OUT THOSE CHARACTERS SOME MORE
Once I’ve got enough gibberish written down in my idea dump, I’ll go back to my characters and flesh them out as much as possible, listing their likes and dislikes and even what they think of the other characters in the story.
The more you know about a character, the easier it will be to figure out what they’d do in a scene — and they might even surprise you as you’re writing them. So, develop them like crazy. Really get into their heads, especially if they’re protagonists.
I could probably write more about this in a future post.
STEP FIVE: THE REAL OUTLINE
This part is “easy” — just plot out the comic — what happens, how somebody reacts, maybe even ideas for scripting if they happen to pop up while you’re writing. This part will be really helpful once you get to the next step.
When you’re doing serialized comics, it’s best to divide them up by issue, so you can come up with “arcs” for each installment.
STEP SIX: WRITE THE DAMN THING
Scripting is the hardest (?) part, because that’s where all your cool ideas take shape and you gotta stick the landing or you’ll just embarrass yourself in front of everyone.
By which I mean this: Even if you have a really great, tightly-plotted outline, you still have to capture those ideas in a compelling way in your script. There’s a degree of improv happening at this stage, where your plot outline becomes this prompt giving you a guideline for what to write. But as you write your characters and your story, you may find out that you have better ideas or that something you plotted out doesn’t work in the execution. So, you should probably fix that.
If anybody reading this has any questions, I’ll probably use it as fodder for a future post. Or I just might answer in the comments.
I’ve always found drawing backgrounds in comics to be fun, which I learned as a teenage was an odd thing when I constantly heard professionals talk about how boring and tiresome they are to do. It’s not always a walk in the park, though. They tend to be time consuming, which isn’t good for deadlines and it’s sometimes pretty monotonous drawing the same object at a different angles over the course of several panels. Nevertheless I’ve always been very neurotic about putting detailed backgrounds on every page. When I was a teenager, I was part of an online collective of artists and I was always referred to as “the background guy”simply because I actually drew backgrounds. (of course, maybe it was their nice way of saying “your figures and anatomy suck, so we’re only going to talk about the one thing that you are decent at.”)
It’s well-known that one of the most common complaints an editor has towards wannabe professional comic artists in a portfolio review is that there aren’t any backgrounds drawn. A couple of years ago I actually had an editor at a portfolio review comment that I really don’t need to put backgrounds on every panel. He was right, but this was a criticism that I felt like I should almost brag about.
Here’s my initial sketch for the Ghost Engine set, which is the most important set in the series. Danny’s script said that this was supposed to be in the Paris Catacombs, which I unfortunately didn’t make obvious at all. Before I drew this, I scoured the internet for reference material of underground tunnels and sewers as well as steampunk designs.
I designed it so that there was a tunnelled zone for the gateway (where the people whose lives are used as fuel would be scattered about) and a section above it that remains unaffected when the engine was turned on.
One of the biggest problems with artists and backgrounds is likely the technical practice of perspective. I find that it’s a very difficult thing for people to learn. When I was a teenager I learned how to draw proper perspective from Batman and Spawn artist, Greg Capullo. Don’t get me wrong, though. I’ve never actually met or talked to Greg Capullo, but he used to have a regular drawing tutorial column in Wizard magazine when I was picking it up in the mid ’90s. Over the course of three issues of the magazine, he did a series on the basics of drawing perspective. I consulted that tutorial a lot as a kid dedicated to getting good at drawing. Eventually, I found some library books and learned a little more advanced techniques on the subject. With this knowledge in hand, I drew several comics for almost a decade using grids and a ruler to calculate the perspective of my backgrounds.
These days I use digital modelling software as an aid to help me draw backgrounds. Several years ago, I had some training using Autodesk Maya, which is a 3D modelling and animation program. Shortly after learning how to use the software, I started drawing a comic page set in a classroom and realized that I could save a lot time drawing the rows of desks if I designed the room in Maya first and used a screenshot as a blueprint. What I liked about it was that I could make certain desks slightly rotated and more awkwardly placed without worrying about calculating new vanishing points along the horizon line. In the end, I think I ended up with a better product than if I had drawn it the traditional way.
Maya is pretty expensive software. Fortunately for me, I don’t use it for its conventional purpose. Anyone can purchase The $25 Student Licence, which exists so that students can cheaply learn animation and modelling on the program. What ends up inhibiting those students is a watermark that appears on anything, like animation or model designs that they render. Because I don’t need to render anything (I just use the ‘print screen’ button) I can purchase the program cheap and not have any problems.
I knew the Ghost Engine set was an important one, so my next step after the sketches was to start modelling it in Maya. I went a little more detailed then what I usually do when I’m creating backgrounds for the purpose of drawing over them. I usually just create simple boxes in places to draw over later.
The danger in always relying on digitally created backgrounds is that you’ll get so reliant on them that they’re no longer an aid. they’re a crutch. Because I have the foundation of knowledge about perspective, I think I’m safe. I’ve seen several comics where the backgrounds were created digitally and the artist wasn’t noticing some obvious problems because they clearly didn’t have the necessary foundation knowledge of perspective.
The software is a great help for figuring out complicated shots. Sometimes it’s just helpful to move the camera around the set and discover angles that you never thought about. I recall listening to Joss Whedon’s DVD audio commentary for the last episode of Firefly where he just found it helpful to write the script by walking through the physical set that his character was suppose to wander through. This isn’t too dissimilar a practice.
Nowadays, quite a bit of artists in all industries involving illustration use 3D modeling software to help illustrate backgrounds. While reading the The Art of Beowulf, I came across a page where one of the concept artists discovered that modelling the sets in 3D software before he started drawing it was helpful for many reasons.
Google Sketchup is the most popular 3D modelling software amongst comic artists because it’s easy to use, it’s free and there’s a large database of pre-designed files out there. I tried using sketchup once, but found myself completely confused because I’m so used to the complexity of Maya. I understand that Marvel provides every artist they hire with a database of sketchup models of major Marvel sets that they had professionally done. I design everything I use from scratch by myself, which can be a little time consuming, but for the most part I’m just designing boxes as place holders for the objects that I intend to draw over. For more overly complex sets that I know I’m going to use a lot, though, I can get pretty detailed.
From what I understand, it’s becoming more and more common for 3D models to be used by comic artists. Many are too afraid to admit it, though, because of the stigma attached to anything that makes your art seem less ‘”legitimate.” The very talented Sean Gordon Murphy recently wrote a column about what he calls the “Bullshit Meter,” a list of a series of issues readers and fellow artists will have with your art because it makes your work seem either lazy or less legitimate. There’s unfortunately a lot of truth to it and there’s likely similar lists that exist in every creative industry. Of late, the comic industry has had a big problem with lynch mobs being formed because of these weird hangups that people have. Stuart Immonen wrote a great article on the subject several years ago, which I highly recommend reading.
For some reason I always used to think that some of my artistic heroes would look at my work and think it wasn’t legitimate enough for one reason or another. Actually, I still feel that way, which is pretty ridiculous. In the end none of that should matter as long as you’re having fun and constantly challenging yourself while drawing.
Below is an example of the process I go through when drawing backgrounds for The Ghost Engine.
Gotta be honest: I’m feeling a little outclassed here. Eric’s got all sorts of cool process stuff to show off with screencaps and Photoshop layers, giving you an in-depth look at how makes his art look as good as it does.
(And it does look good. Did you see page 10 of Chapter 1? Holy shit.)
And here I am with self-serving TL;DRs and music references.
There’s a reason for that: the process of creating art is easier to show off. Sure, like all disciplines it needs a degree of skill, but there’s also a tangible, technical aspect. By which I mean that there are processes and actions that you can teach. Create a new layer at X% opacity and blah blah blah. Anytime I’m doing art stuff I always end up googling to find methods for scanning or inking or coloring or whatever I need to do at the moment, and the answer is always a few clicks away.
And it’s easy to show your work. Even on my very own Tumblr, you’ll see a lot of images of what I’m drawing, have drawn or am about to draw. Only one of the posts is writing-related, and it’s just a weird looking photo of my computer screen.
It’s hard to teach writing in that same way. Even my college creative writing workshops, taught by MFA goslings and seasoned, published authors alike, mostly dealt with the act of “Write us a story and we’ll tell you what’s didn’t work for us.” It’s a lot like trying to feel your way through a dark room, while other people tell you what you’ve stepped on and knocked over after you’ve done it.
That’s because writing (for things that aren’t straight prose) is almost completely intangible until somebody draws, shoots or otherwise produces it into its intended form. A publisher you’re pitching to doesn’t want to read a script — nobody’s impressed by a description that’s actually meant to be something else. In 12th grade I did a project for English class where I adapted into comic script form the infamous “cat scene” from Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. It was crazy shit, with some weird hallucinatory imagery and I got a decent grade, but when I got my script back the teacher had written one note: “Where are the pictures?”
People want to read a comic book script about as much as they want to fuck a skeleton.
So, only “aspiring” creators and process geeks care about what the words that make up the final product look like. In screenwriting, it’s easy to look at a script because they contain an incredibly strict structure so that readers (actors/producers/scads of studio execs and script readers) can immediately see the movie in their heads because all those people may need to read dozens of scripts in a day.
In comics, it’s total anarchy.
Comic scripts are meant for a handful of people — mainly the artist, but also colorists, letterers and maybe even editors if those happen to be around. What’s even crazier is that there’s no set method to writing a script. Everyone’s comic book script looks different — not just in terms of what gets described, but also formatting, from dialogue tags to panel delineation, if those are even in there at all.
There’s not a whole lot of technical know-how that goes into the actual act of writing a comic. You pretty much just type and type until you’re satisfied/pass out. Sure, there are all sorts of methods/widsom you can learn, but it’s pretty much ALL ABOUT what works for you and what you’re comfortable doing. What’s really important is that you do it.
That’s right — you don’t need special programs like Final Draft or anything else that claims to help you write a novel/screenplay/whatever. Those are great tools if you need help with organization or format, but ultimately if you’re really serious about being a writer you just gotta grab paper and pencil or open up Microsoft Word and get crackin’.
I’ve prattled on enough for one blog post. In future posts I’ll cover my own process as best as I can, though I’m sure it’ll be as un-technical as possible.
Okay I’ll talk about music a little: I just bought the new Allo Darlin’ album on vinyl (they’re playing the Casbah this Sunday, so stoked) and am obsessed with their song “Capricornia.” So, um, go listen to that.
I was originally going to write my thoughts on collaboration as a follow up to Danny’s post from last week, but I figure it’s best to throw some art at this blog cosidering it’s about the process of making comics. This blog post outlines step by step how I put a page together. In the future I’m going to go more in depth by doing a blog post on each of these individual stages of development, but for now I’ll present an overview.
The example I’m using is last Friday’s page. I drew this well over a year ago, so it’s probably not the best example of my current process. I wish I could show a more recently drawn page, but it’s still early in the life of this website so I don’t have that luxury.
The only program I use throughout my process is Adobe Photoshop CS5. When I first started drawing on the Cintiq, I used Manga Studio a little, but I’ve since dropped it because I think using just one program streamlines things.
I’ve included a screen capture of what my layers look like. I have a template file that I start every page with. (I may post it on this blog eventually) As you can see, I start with a beige canvas. I’m not sure why I chose that color, but I find it’s better on the eyes then pure white.
This is what would traditionally be the ‘penciling’ stage, but I’m working digitally so it’s really just me getting more detailed. I used to use the Nagel Series pencil brush at this stage, but I found it was just a novelty and wasn’t necessary. In Panel 1, I used an alternate color to differentiate between the FX and the figures.
The first step in the color process is something called ‘flatting.’ I use the BPelt plugin to help me through this process. I have a routine for using this plugin that I’ll eventually write about here. But basically I need flat color blocks on a separate layer in order to provide base colors and have sections to isolate for the final coloring process later on.
After I create the flat color layer, I place it behind the Ink layer group and clean it up as best I can. (the BPelt plugin doesn’t always create perfect results).
I use a couple of multiply grey layers to do shadows and then add some light reflections. I also added some violet light projecting on the figures from the ghost effect in panel 1.
GRADIENTS AND TEXTURES
To help the mood of the scene I use various grunge brushes I found online to paint in some effects behind the figures. I also occasionally use photo textures. Cgtextures.com is a good site for this. I also add some gradients to various parts of the background. These days I try to keep the gradients as subtle as possible because it’s easy to go overboard with them.
Here’s where I add shading to ghosts and reduce the opacity to give the proper ghostly effect and show some of the illustrations under them. I also added some lighting to the Ghost movement in Panel 1.
From here I turn the lettering back on and I’m done. I usually come back to a page later on down the line and alter various things that bug me. It’s good to come back to a page with fresh eyes.
And that’s my process. On average I put about 12-15 hours into each page and I tend to work on several pages at a time at various stages of development. I didn’t talk about how I do backgrounds because I’ll be dedicating a post specifically to that several weeks from now.
Sorry about that title — had new Shins record on repeat all day. I love how each Shins album has a distinct feel from the other ones — regardless of whether James Mercer has kicked someone out of the band.
But that has nothing to do with the process and the challenges of creating The Ghost Engine!
Terrible segue aside, right now we’re on Page 6, which is where the comic finally starts to get ghosty and supernatural. We originally intended this comic for print (shocked emoticon), but that cliffhanger at the bottom of the page works so well in webcomic form, huh? You gotta wait a few days to see what happens when Bouvie opens the triptych. I already know, but — to quote Mr. Bates — I cannot say.
Anyway, Eric’s got some killer reaction shots from Becky on this page, especially that “D’oh!” reaction in panel five. That definitely made me laugh the first time I saw it.
Should I carry on the process narrative from my last post? Prolly.
Basically, Eric came to me with a general plot idea and some character designs that would become the foundation of The Ghost Engine. Without giving much away, he wanted a story about two people on opposite sides of the law, with forces of good and evil each backing the “wrong” hors. And he wanted me to flesh out the details, all of which quickly fell into place — the eponymous Ghost Engine, the triptych thing (though I can’t, for the life of me, remember where the hell that came from — maybe a brief fascination with Hieronymous Bosch?) and a bunch of other details that I can’t talk about yet.
I’m actually pretty fond of that method. Not only does it ensure that both writer and artist have a horse in this race, but it gives the writer the challenge of making a “foreign” concept work for him or her. Eric and I are already (slowly) cooking our next project, and it came about in a similar way — Eric’s initial idea, followed by added fleshiness.
In fact, most of my comics that have actually made it to completion were conceived that way. Funny how that works out. Also, I think I need to send a few angry emails to some errant artists when I get done with this post.
Last year I realized that all of my successful projects were created in that way, which is a weird thing to notice, that the stuff that’s getting made didn’t totally spring from your head. It’s hard not to feel like a “lesser” writer who needs to be pushed on their bike to learn how to pedal it. Or something. Either way, it’s a very stupid, insular notion that surely seems dickish from an outsider perspective. So let me put it this way — the ability to independently come up with a story without an initial prompt or suggestion is a good muscle to have (especially if you hope that someone pays you to do so later), and something I need to develop a little more, for the sake of my own work.
I hope that didn’t read like a complaint, because I enjoy collaborating, and I wouldn’t have come up with some stuff that I have without someone there to work with. And I think it’s especially important that an artist cares about what he’s drawing, especially if nobody’s getting paid for it.
There’s a saying in comics — writers date, artists marry. Writers can script an issue (or more) a week, while artists generally draw an issue a month — assuming it’s their full-time job. I’ve interviewed a few creative teams and heard a similar story: the writer has a few side-projects in the works while the artist pretty much devotes his time to the book in question.
Now, imagine being an up-and-comer who has to contend with drawing in his or her spare time after work and on the weekends. That’s time that could be spent with booze or video games or loved ones or other vices, but instead they contend with drawing out your stupid script — your ridiculous preoccupations and secret kinks turned into narrative — for free.
Consider that and you’ll get why an artist needs to care about what he’s drawing.
As Danny pointed out last week, he and I will be trading off Wednesdays working on this process blog. I think he did a great job setting the tone. Something I expect you guys will find as more pages come out is that one of Danny’s best qualities as a writer is that he’s always entertaining. I’m not the best writer around, so I just hope I can keep up!
So who am I? I’m Eric Z. Or Eric Zawadzki. I’ve lived my entire life with people spelling and pronouncing my name wrong, so I’m happy to just settle with Eric Z. (Come to think of it, I believe Danny has the same last name problem.) I’ve been drawing since I was a kid and over the years I learned perspective and anatomy from studying books and doing a lot of lifedrawing. I’ve done a handful of comics over the years, many of which will likely never see the light of day (for good reason). Most notably, I did a 100-page graphic novel, The Killers, in 2005. It was a big accomplishment for me even if I’m not too proud of the work. Over the years, I also worked on a couple of projects with my brother and Tim Simmons of Spy6Teen fame. All of these comics were done the traditional way with pencil, ink and paper.
A couple of years ago, I bought a Wacom Cintiq 21ux and made the switch to fully digital art. I originally posted my digital comic drawing process in a series of blog posts on my personal site around that time. That blog outlines a routine I came up with during my first month working with the Cintiq, so naturally it needs a bit of an update. My first project using the Cintiq 21ux was a short story I did for the 2010 Cloudscape anthology. (Speaking of which, those guys are currently trying to raise money for this year’s anthology over at IndyGoGo. They’re a fun and talented crew so please help them out!)
Shortly after that, I started drawing The Ghost Engine (which was about a year after Danny delivered the script to me, for those keeping track of dates). This was my first longform comic done completely digitally, so I went through a lot adjustments in how I create a page. Over the past year-and-a-half while working on this project, I did a lot of reworking and learning through trial and error. On more then one occasion, I had to go back to every page to fix big mistakes like page size or lettering faux pas. Fortunately I was already fairly familiar with Photoshop, though I’m no expert. I had been playing around with the program since my teen years when my parents bought one of the early versions in the mid ’90s and I had actually colored a couple of my pencil and ink comics before getting the Cintiq.
The Ghost Engine is my first longform comic in which I’m responsible for all the art chores, from illustration to colouring and lettering. So my intention for this blog over the next several months is to put my process out there. I’m sure I’ll be changing a lot my approaches in the next couple of years because I’m expecting to get feedback on how crazy some of these routines are.
In the meantime, please enjoy this comic which was done by a couple of rookies who hope to one day make the big leagues.
Hiya. Danny here. I wrote this here webcomic, Eric drew it and every Wednesday we’re going to switch off on a blog post where we talk process and other related things.
First of all, thanks for all the reposts/retweets of the first page. I was already major-excited that The Ghost Engine is a thing that people can read, but now I’m doubly excited because a lot of you responded to it and helped spread the word. Y’ALL THE BEST. Seriously.
It’s past midnight on (technically) Wednesday night — though I still consider it to be a Tuesday. “Jam for Jerry” by Holy Ghost! is bangin’ inside my ear-holes and I’m trying to figure out just what I’d want from this kind of blog post if I were a reader. And, hey, what do YOU want to know from us? Comment and let us know. We’ll totally answer your questions in the blog.
I guess I’ll kick things off by telling you how it all began.
As a lowly college senior in July 2008 I answered one of those rare, highly coveted “artist seeks writer” ads on Digital Webbing’s job posting forums. This particular ad mentioned Joss Whedon as an influence, which is usually a good sign, so I quickly responded with a script that I had written to get over the fact that I ran out of Veronica Mars episodes on DVD.
Eric thankfully didn’t tell me to fuck off and liked my script enough, so we tossed around some ideas based on this comic concept he wanted to get off the ground. It was pretty cool, but our approaches just weren’t gelling, and eventually Eric told me so, and that he was going to try banging out the idea with his twin brother. Which gave me a hilarious anecdote to share with people: “He left me for his twin brother! My life is a soap opera!”
But seriously, Eric was polite yet honest about the whole thing — which I respect more than anything else.I carry grudges against collaborators and girlfriends that have fallen off the face of the Earth and stopped replying to emails/text messages, but anyone who’s said “I got too much on my plate, sorry” or “Hey, you’re cool but your penis doesn’t interest me” gets no shade thrown at, on, or in them. So, Eric’s a good guy. High five, good people.
Which, I suppose is my first PROTIP: Be a good person, and always answer emails.
(I’m still working on the latter half of that tip. And some of the former.)
Then, for a while, not much happened — I moved to San Diego, realized I was unhirable and decided to try being a freelance writer while occasionally scripting comics with no idea how to make them into real things that people read. Some screenwriting and forty-drinking may have occurred. I know I went to Comic-Con and Disneyland. That was fun. But not a whole lot happened with comics.
PROTIP: Finish stuff, figure out how to get said stuff out in the world.
It was in October 2009 that Eric sent me an email out of the blue, telling me that he wanted to work on something different. He had some ideas, I had some ideas, and we eventually put together an outline for what would become The Ghost Engine. So, I guess this comic is technically nearly four years in the making. Which elicits a lot of existential horror, so I’m going to focus on this electropop for a little bit.
Ah. There. As of the middle of this week, we’re only on the first page, which happens to be one of my favorite pages in the series. Which isn’t to say, “IT’S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE, FUCKO!” — not at all. It’s just that I love the interaction between Becky and Geoffrey on this page, which kinda serves as a microcosm for the entire series. While the sleepy, grounded milieu isn’t completely representative of the shit that happens over the course of The Ghost Engine, it’s a digestible little scene that I’m really fond of, and one that I’ve shown off to other people the most.
(And! It wasn’t originally the first page. More on that when Chapter 1 concludes.)
In two days we’ll have a new page, and in one week Eric will write a post where he rightfully trashes me on the net for the things I wrote in this post.
See you Friday.
For everyone who’s been stopping by over the last couple of days, thanks for checking out the site! We’ve worked out almost all the kinks and I have to say that it’s very gratifying to see all our long hours of work on the project finally seeing the light of day.
Our plan for this site is to update two pages and one or two blog entries a week. It’ll break down like this:
- Monday – Comic Page
- Wednesday – Process Blog (with Danny and Eric alternating every week)
- Friday – Comic Page
Expect the blogs to be details about our process or whatever we feel like rambling on about concerning this crazy comics medium that we all love so much. Please feel free to let us know what you think. We love hearing feedback.
The Ghost Engine makes its official debut on April 2, 2012, but until then we’re posting some promotional material and putting the finishing touches on the website.
In the meantime, why don’t you check out all those social media type buttons to your left so you can keep connected and know when a new page goes up? You know you want to.