Monday, October 19, 2009

24-Hour Comic: The Zombie Bean

So I did a crazy thing. After spending last week vacationing, I drew a 24-page comic in 24 hours. It was painful (physically, even) but produced my very first finished comic, ever. Below is a detailed account of what the experience was like.

Before I start, I first want Derek and Rachel to know how much I appreciate them for opening up their home for this experiment. The environment was awesome and I'm not sure I could have produced this in a less comfortable one. So hats off.

Second, you probably want to read the comic. I think reading all of my thoughts will ruin things a bit, so come back when you're done.

All done reading? Okay, let's talk about the process. When I arrived, I didn't fully understand what I was getting into. A few years ago I dropped in late on a 24-Hour Comic Day to visit Derek and Ryan. somewhere between 10 P.M. and midnight and was able to pencil about 7 pages in 6 hours or so. Not bad, but I remember it being a grueling experience. Those wee morning hours are rough -- I'm not the spring chicken I once was -- and I just didn't have the stamina to keep going without the investment of earlier pages. But the experience was good because it gave me an idea of how crappy those hours and that pace can be, and how hard the entire thing is.

So I went in with a few rules born from experience. One, I would come with lots of coffee and food. No time for breaks. This is rough stuff and I needed as much time as possible. Two, I wouldn't draw any humans (I clearly broke this rule, but just a little). I wanted something easy to draw, like the beans I always do, or the bot I made for the indie game studio I'm getting off the ground. Third, I would spend time plotting everything out. As much as I enjoyed random plot from one page to the next, I felt like the effort petered out and became increasingly incoherent with exhaustion. I knew I would spend some time developing characters and plot, and then catch up when penciling pages. Fourth, I would follow a traditional three-act structure for the story. I actually had the Hero's Journey in my head when I did the random comic, and I felt like following the structure roughly helped me when I was stuck. Armed with these few rules, I went for it.

The first page is some scribbles demonstrating these rules. Ignore the checklist, that's just some scratch from the paper I'm using. I started my night doodling the beans I thought I might go with. I already had the bean with the cape in my head, and I knew I wanted to play with some characters based on stereotypes because you don't have to spend as much time describing their character to the audience because you already "get" them. After a minute, I had a rough idea of a bigger bean and a little bean in the Looney Tune's relationship with the "tough dog" that acts like boss, but is really afraid, and a "little dog" that is tougher but doesn't realize it yet. Since I knew "acting tough" would be the big bean's weakness, I figured some bad situation and pressure from the little bean would have to give him the impetus to overcome his fear and save the day. At first the beans were going to be nude, but once I drew them, I saw that I would have trouble telling them apart, so I went with the cape on the big bean since I was already familiar with that accoutrement (see profile image), and my profile picture featured a grumpy bean. I wasn't sure what to do with the small bean. At first I gave him a Ninja Turtle cowl (whatever those are called) and some nun chucks, but I didn't like the cowl on such an "ordinary kid" personality, since it seemed too much like a traditional comic hero on paper. Just then, I had the thought that he could have a hairdo that was like a bean sprouting; you could see the leaves coming off the top of my head, and some readers might "get" that, so I went with it. Finally, I knew I wanted LittleBot in the comic since I had recently worked out how to draw him. Upon doodling him, though, I saw that he looked too much like the beans, so I used some of the ideas during my LittleBot brainstorming to make him seem less bean-like and more mechanical, including lines for his arms and legs, wide-set eyes, and a split head (like a South Park Canadian). Up top are my quick notes on what big bean's arc would be, and you can see some Hero's Journey ideas (the laser pointer "gift," although it being found ended up being the "inciting incident." The numbered chart on the left was so I could keep track of progress and time. each number is an hour, and when it hit, I knew that piece of time was lost forever. This chart freaked me out frequently, and was a boon throughout the night. The last drawing was the cat, which popped in my head, when I tried to think of characters that could threaten the beans.

At this point I glanced over at Derek and saw that he had a ton of information about what his comic would be about, and I freaked out. He had a bunch of plot points in order that he would go through, and I thought it would be a good idea to go through mine. A rough structure was coming to mind, and it was really useful to make notes about certain beats that needed to be hit as the story moved forward. Knowing that showing big bean's fears early, or having the robot endear himself to big bean so he would feel bad later were important notes to have. Looking over the list, it seems like almost all of it was used, which is cool.

With that worked out, I thought it would be a good idea to do some thumbnail breakdowns of the pages. I started with the 2nd page, but soon realized that I would need an establishing shot, and so added it later. But I only made it to page 5 or 6 before I worried that too much investment in thumbnails may not work out when actually applied to paper. So with my story notes and first 5-6 pages, I decided it was time to give things a whirl. I only returned to thumbnails later (around page 15, apparently) when I was worried time was running out, and that I would have too few pages to resolve the ideas in my head. More on that later.

I decided to post this page since it was in the scanning pile. Shortly after setting out to draw the comic, I realized I had no idea what dimensions a comic was. Asking around, I got 2x3, so I copied someone else and measured 6" x 9" on my printer paper. Once I had that, I just connected the points with the brush pen Ryan gave me for my birthday so I could see the borders through any page I put over it. I used this to roughly denote where to draw and separate panels, and didn't care about straightness, since 24 hours is too short for being anal. I didn't add the "third" lines until about halfway through my comic, when I got tired of eyeballing it. Everything was in place for the first page.

The establishing shot worried me right away because it seemed a bit more detailed and I wasn't sure if I could pull out a house from memory. But I just went for it, and it worked out okay. I knew the house would be raised a bit because from the rough plot in my head and notes, I knew I wanted to exploring under it with a laser pointer. The houses where I grew up in Hawaii were always raised from the ground, unlike Utah (here) where everyone has a basement. After finishing the pencils for the page, I grabbed my pen and inked it. In hindsight, I'm surprised I did that. I think I was just excited to use Ottley's pen, but I don't remember thinking inking was important, and it adds a lot of time to the work you have to get done. But I'm really glad I just went with it. In addition to this being the first complete comic I've ever penciled, it's also the first complete comic I've ever inked. Those of you that visit the site often know I'm not very experienced with inks, so this was quite the leap. There were many times when I was filling in blacks when I became terrified of what I was doing. The guys kept saying I could add it later, but it didn't seem in the spirit of 24-Hour Comic Day to me, so I just went for it. It's probably worth mentioning, too, that I was stressed out of my mind from pretty much start to finish on the event. I perpetually felt behind, even when Derek was encouraging. I think I was about 3 hours in when I finished the first page, and that scared me. I hoped it was because I was drawing stuff that made me uncomfortable (environments).

In this page. I know that the inks are all over the place, since I used three different pens. I could have tightened up the images for release, but I thought it would be cooler to capture the look you get when you just stare at the paper, like I try to do with all of my sketches and inks. The main pen I used was the one Ottley gave to me for my birthday. The second were two more he let me borrow. I used one to create fade-off brush effects, and the other to fill in space (towards the end, since I didn't check it out until the 20th hour or so). I also left in pencil, since I was too afraid to erase it, and didn't care that it was there.

On this page, I just wanted to show the characters' default relationship with each other, and introduce the cool device. The laser pointer design was actually based on a laser pointer my roommate used to have, and tortured his cat with. Later, Elias came up, looked at a page, and said, "is that supposed to be a penis?" I had no idea he was referring to the laser pointer at first, and initially got super frustrated at the idea that my beans looked like penises. What was I going to do about that? But it turned out he was talking about the pointer, which is true. It does look kind of like a penis (especially later, since the division line in the drawing kept moving upward and making the "head" to "shaft" ratio more penis-like). But it was based on a real pointer (from memory), so I decided it didn't matter. Besides, each page up to this point was inked as soon as I finished penciling it.

This was the panel I had to start coming up with names. My girlfriend, Jenny, has a sister that was thinking up names for their incoming baby recently, and while out to dinner brainstorming (i.e., conjuring joke names) with them, the name "Mars" popped in my head as a really great, unusual name for a boy. So I decided it was a good name for the small bean. Another note is in the dialog. I never use the word "sick," but I notice kids using it all the time. (I sound so old. Anyway...) It seemed like a good way to differentiate between the two characters in style. I also show in this page that the big bean is basically a scaredy-cat, which I repeat again when they go under the house. Finally, I thought it was interesting trying to figure out how to represent the laser pointer, and that evolved over the comic. But one of the things I liked was little particles of dust being represented around the light. It may not read that way, but that's the mental imagery that conjured the "effect." Ryan asked me later why their was a panel division here. I'm not sure. I think I felt like suggesting some passage of time was helpful in getting across that slowed-down moment when big bean thinks he's being impaled by something.

The beans' familiarity with technology is something that wobbled quickly. The last page suggests that the big bean had never seen a device like this before, but in this page, the small bean is quick to pick up on its laser pointer status. But making the beans somewhat familiar with technology was important, because I knew they'd be dialing a phone later. This is also really the first point where the stereotype of big bean becomes really clear, since he's being kind of a cocky ass here. When small bean talks about things they could do with the laser pointer, the last thing he said was something about exploring in the dark, but it kinda ruined the next page's setup, so I struggled to think of things you could do with a pointer, and remembered that making your fingers glow is fun.

This page was a little interesting just because of the perspective flip on the beans. Over the years, I've learned about how people perceive characters in a line on a 2D plane, and that flipping the perspective around can be really disorienting without the right setup. To offset the effect, I had the speech bubbles connect and look like they're twisting between panels, I had the characters make contact with each other, had an interaction playing out (the choking), and used light and dark to help flip it. When I finished inking the darkness in the last panel, I thought it was a little empty, so I grabbed my birthday pen and added some creepy squiggles that could be dirt and rocks. Kinda rushed, but I liked the effect on the page.

So this is another "weakness" moment for big bean. Part of the idea was to emphasize it with some shock from small bean about his hesitance, and making that pressure big bean into getting into a scarier (i.e., more pressured) situation that could force more extreme emotions from him. Looking back, I think these earlier pages had more interesting expressions (e.g., tongue out, adjusting cape) because my brain was still fresh. It's amazing how much your mental capacity deteriorates over the course of the night. I was really nervous about drawing the laser pointer in the dark. I had no idea how I would approach that in inking, and was conscious of where I was inconsistent with darkness lines (e.g., no darkness on the beans' bodies / faces) for fear that I would fuck up the inks.

Some of the dialog here is interesting I think. When writing big bean, I would just think of myself in a casual conversation with a "little brother" type. So stuff like "nerd" came out. I figured if that wasn't in-style right now, it would just reflect big bean's age. I'm not horribly out of style but not that in, either. I hate funky handshakes as much as I ever did. Exploring under the house was interesting because I used to dig around under my house when I was a kid. I still have this powerful imagery of bird feathers and bones that I think our cats made a mess of, perhaps after pressuring birds under the house to pounce on them (I don't know). Since there was a cat in the story, I got to include it to make big bean a bit more scared. I think I conquered the pointer-in-the-darkness inking okay, despite my raging terror. The one frame in light might be a little weird, but I felt like I got away with it okay. That's the target in 24-Hour Comic Day -- getting away with it.

Around this point I remember getting pretty scared of breakdowns. In my head, at the time, I thought of the robot as the inciting incident, and near the end of Act I, when really the laser pointer was it. But the bottom line is I felt over a third of the way through the story and still not to Act I. Not only that, but I wasn't sure how to make the robot appear in the story. The idea came to me by accident. I imagined myself in big bean's situation and I know I would feel like I was attracting danger to me if I had a laser pointer on, so I felt like he would want to turn it off. That also made for a fun moment with small bean, because I could have big bean over-explain himself by asking small bean not to freak while small bean is innocently cool with it the entire time.

The darkness gave me the happy accident of giving me a way to make LittleBot appear. And it also let me get a page done faster without me intentionally trying to "cheat." This made me very happy. I really enjoyed drawing Pete, the big bean, in the last panel. I remember nudging Derek and asking him if he looked properly terrified. It's fun to draw a character and just feel what they're feeling, and imagine the expression I'm forcing through my face at that moment, and trying to capture that feeling. I wish that process didn't fade as the night goes on, because it makes the character moments seem that much more fun to draw.

If you look back at the first sketches of the characters pre-comic, you'll see that I used the same pose of LittleBot and Mars, the small bean here. This also happened by accident. When I showed Derek the early sketches of characters, I pitched the idea that it was an image of Mars' reaction to finding a robot. It seemed funny, so I kept that in mind for the actual moment and used it. I thought Pete, the big bean's dialog was a little odd in the last panel since finding a robot might be cool (even if scary) at first, but in my head, the entire comic had already unfolded and it seemed like they had known each other for awhile. Problems in story presentation as a result of being the story creator, like this, was a new thing for me, and it was really intriguing. This is one of a few pages that I finished doing "block" inks for, later. I felt like things worked without the blocked-in shadow, but set it aside to add later, since I thought showing light leave Pete as he sat there alone would add a little subconscious tension to his situation.

If you go back to the earlier thumbnail sketches, you'll notice a lot of pages missing, including this one. For pages 7ish-15, I just sketched in my breakdowns directly on the page and tightened them up on the fly before inking them. At this page, I was really worried because I had no idea how to get the characters into the house. From what I remember, there was no "cement" area for parts of the house (i.e., I could crawl from one end of "under-the-house" to the other (I think)), but I didn't think this would bother the reader, so I just went with it. I was worried, too, that the hole wasn't apparent, so Mars points it out. I dislike it when I use text to overcome problems in story, since I've heard the best stories can be followed without dialog, but I did this in a few pages. Not that this is a serious transgression. There is a hole kinda drawn there, and both characters are looking and pointing at it. But I digress... This page was also set aside to block in inks later. The top panel, even all white, seemed pretty alone and desolate, even without the black.

I wasn't sure how robot would make it out, but the arms-thing worked well. Later, I noticed that you never actually see him leaving, and I hope this comes across okay. I also wasn't sure how the standing-on-the-laser-pointer idea would read, but I think that turned out okay, too. This page was actually really important for Pete, the big bean. If he only hated the robot, then he wouldn't have a reason to overcome his fears, so I knew I needed a moment like this, where LittleBot was doing him a few solids, and buying him some points with Mars (hence the Mars encouragement). Good ol' LittleBot. What a pal. At this point, it was rather late in the evening, and I still had a lot of work ahead of me (12 pages!), so I started to freak out, and decided not to ink the last two panels or anything after them until I had the rest of the comic penciled, for two reasons. One, I'd rather have a complete comic in pencil than an incomplete one in ink, since I could always ink it later if desired. Two, I knew my art would keep deteriorating as the night went on and I tried to make up for lost time, so I had to put energy into "creating" since I could always "trace" later.

This is where I start to break the no-humans rule, but not egregiously. I actually spent awhile trying to figure out where the characters would appear in the house. At first I thought it should be a scientist's workroom to explain where LittleBot might have come from, but I was too worried about drawing it, and wasn't sure how to get across the scientist's demise. I still wasn't sure if I could (or ever did) get the latter across, but I felt more confident drawing a bedroom than a workroom, and just ran with it.

Due to my uncertainty, I decided it was time to revisit the thumbnails. I roughed in the rest of the comic in thumbnail form and you can see how I followed it closely, except for this page. In the thumbnails, this is actually pages 15 and 16 kludged together because I was so worried about not having enough space to end the story properly. Sadly, I did free up a page nicely here, but didn't work out the final page the way I had hoped (see below). Coming back for inks, all my aches and pains.

There's not much to say about this page, except that I was worried about the beans' location, and the drawer being clear without dialog. This was another of those spots where I was mildly frustrated to have to "explain" the situation rather than show it, but others thought it wasn't hard to tell what was going on. Earlier, I mentioned putting off inks until the pencils were done. At this point, I was speeding through the pencils the fastest I could to make up for lost time. I don't say this in defense of quality because I'm happy with how things turned out; it's just that the stress at this point was memorable.

For some reason I had a really fun time writing out what LittleBot was saying. It was easy to imagine noises as he walked around doing things, and I thought it made him cute. I struggled a bit with the beans' expressions over what they were looking at, but had a fun time drawing Pete, the big bean's drooped-down mouth in the last panel, even if it looks kinda weird. I think my favorite panels in drawing comics have been the ones where you can follow the action like frames in a movie, and the transitional "BOINK!" jump from LittleBot from panel two to three gives me that feeling. I always thought Katsuhiro Otomo's books were amazing this way -- they always had a cinematic feeling reading them. They also underlined how sad the plight of the comic artist is, where they spend tons and tons of time producing art that readers would speed through in seconds. Otomo's books were also fast (but fun) reads.

I actually finished the comic about a little over an hour ahead of time, and got home before time was up, so I added red to this page where there was none to begin with. It was really hard for me to convey what was in my head here. The comic was pretty cute, and I just love juxtaposing some morbidity with it, kind of like a dead body in Stand By Me, because it makes the characters seem like they're in that much more of a real situation. In my favorite family entertainment, it's not "family" because it's got tame content, so much as it's real content spoken through a more innocent lens. Not that this is family entertainment, as the language here indicates. But anyway, I had this thought in my head of LittleBot trying to help out his dead creator by giving him batteries. I thought the image of a dead guy with a cat purring next to him, with LittleBot trying to help, would be a way to make the whole thing freaky and cute at the same time. But alas, what was in the creator's head and what landed on the page didn't quite work out, I think. I used a red sharpie on the pool when I got home because it was hard to read what was happening in black and white.

And so here's LittleBot trying to give his dead creator batteries to get him active again. It's also another moment where the characters are saying things that I wish were better illustrated in action. I worried about how it was all coming across, but this wasn't the point to stop and think about it. I was still really stressing for time. It was also around inking this page (after finishing pencils and circling around to ink in bulk) that I noticed how much physical pain I was experiencing. My neck was killing me (and still hurts 2 days later) from craning it over the table for 24 hours straight, the tip of my thumb felt like I had been bashing it on wood like a martial artist strengthening their bones by slamming them against something over and over (and it still feels smooth, like the fingerprints were mushed off), and my drawing callus (on my middle finger) felt like I had a very-sharp burning / stinging sensation that made me grit my teeth every time I squeezed a pen into my fingers. But I ignored the pain completely; I just had to finish 24 Hour Comic Day once in my life. I wanted to draw a comic!

This is the setup for the clash of characters, and where Pete is put to the test -- my comic's baby version of where everything has gone wrong for the protagonist and he will need to change his ways to get through some impassable situation. I kept trying to press the sadness of LittleBot trying to start his owner with a battery but I'm not sure it ever registers in the confusion of things. That's probably where I should have used some "tell" in lieu of failed "show," but again, things really break down at this time in the night. I think most people would tell you that everything is cool up until about 3-4 A.M., where things really start getting loopy. Everything is funny, and there were plenty of laughing fits going on throughout the night over the dumbest things. Speaking of dumb things (that might secretly be not-so-dumb) Jason Alderman introduced to a song that I became obsessed with  about a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell that needs some listening. I think we listened to it about 6 times that night. Apparently, I have Scott McCloud to thank for this pass-along.

Here is where Mars unloads on poor fraidy-Pete, and gives him the resolve to do something about the situation. It may have been around here that Derek broke for a much needed nap. At the end of the night, he mentioned that using a brush-pen might have slowed him down since it requires a lot more focus, saying that using two set-thickness pens would have made the process much faster, and at that moment I thought back to the pain I was feeling in my hands from gripping my brush pen so tightly as I visibly winced inking my final pages, and wondered at how useful that information would have been earlier. I don't have regrets because I like the results, but I'm not sure I would have done it the way I did, knowing what I did post-24.

This is the cat page. I worried a lot about this because in the thumbnails I had very little space for Pete to get the cat to dial 911. I think it ended up okay, but this is totally a "tell" moment instead of a "show" moment. Still, time. I had to keep going, and even if it doesn't come across, the cat montage panel was kind of fun to draw, clearly without reference. Also, as another example of stupid things being funny / acceptable at such a late hour, I totally didn't mind having a bad-pun one-liner from Pete in the last panel.

The last "tell vs. show" moment is in this page. C'est la vie. At this point in sketching, I was still freaking out over how much inks I had left to do, but relieved that I had hit the "pages are penciled"-stage of the evening. Ray had beat me to the punch, and maybe Geoff did, too. He had a smaller (13 page?) but completed comic that was fun to read. At this point in inking (later), I was really anxious to read what everyone had made. Derek had some hilarious stuff going on next to me, and I heard rumors of some really creative word balloon-stuff going on from Jason (that I later loved), and I hadn't even glanced at Ray, Ottley, or Elias' stuff because I felt so much pressure to hit the deadline. It was incredibly intense.

And if I have one regret, it's that I was too wasted to eek out a proper resolution to the story, since it cuts out after the climax. At the time, I instead thought it would be funny / meaningful to juxtapose the "robot is okay" message with a big "R.I.P." image on page-turn. The "meaningful" part comes as a thank you to 24-Hour Comic Day, since the epitaph reads as these characters being alive for that space in time only. If I had my wits about me, I would have showed how Pete & Mars left the laser pointer to divert the cat, escaped from under the house, and walked away happy as the police / ambulance arrived. And the R.I.P. would have taken up a ninth of the page, instead. But I'm still happy I finished.

After the last page, Ryan reported that I had an hour and fifteen minutes left and jokingly said I could make a cover. I spent 15 minutes on it. (In hindsight, I should have re-done page 24.) After finishing, I had the most amazing sense of accomplishment and relief wash over me. It was a real high. I concentrated so hard throughout the night that I think there was perhaps 5 occasions Derek asked me to comment on some discussion the group had had for several minutes and I had to look up and admit that I had no idea what everyone had been talking about. An I-N-T-E-N-S-E time. If they haven't already, hopefully others have their 24-hour comics posted. It was amazing seeing what everyone did. Geoff  and Jason's were deep, Rachel's was titillating, and Derek and Ryan's were comedy gold. My thanks for an amazing, exhausting experience. I hope you enjoyed the show!


Jacob, aka IAmWickedStupid said...

LOL That is pretty ridonkulously awesome...

Anonymous said...

This is beautiful. You are beautiful.

Alan Tew said...

Thanks guys!

Lori said...

I was totally entertained! I'm amazed that you can do all that in 24 hours...

elias said...

Did they put theirs online? Links?

.M. said...

As much as I agree with your opinion of the final page, the show was very much enjoyed. Well done.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine doing a 24 hour comic! I can barely pull all nighter's for work anymore. There was a day when I the idea would have been enticing to me. Not anymore. Hehe.
You did a great job with your story. The beans are so cute... I could see them working really well in some short comic strips. A la Calvin and Hobs. Thanks for sharing your process in so much depth.
All the best.


Paul Milligan said...

Wow, that is awesome man. I've done the 24-hour comic thing four times now, finished three but I don't know if I've ever come close to something that cool. Good stuff!

Richtoon said...

Crazy cool!


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