Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Brush with Comics

This a big post about a journey I went on back in 2004. I had just quit my job at Saffire after working for 10 years in the video game industry, and was trying to decide whether I wanted to continue in games or explore a childhood dream of working in comics. I knew that Comic Con was coming up in about 2 months so on the day of quitting I called up my childhood pal, Joe Abraham. Joe was living in Jersey City penciling Hero Squared for Boom Studios. I wanted to hang with my childhood art peer and work on a comic portfolio for Comic Con. Joe agreed to it and I booked a flight to leave the very next day.

The Portfolio
You can see my comic portfolio here. The format is something Joe told me about, invented by Joe Quesada. It's a 12 page portfolio featuring three stories: one team superhero story, one solo superhero story, and one about pedestrian story, with covers for each story included at the end. The point of the approach is demonstrating an aptitude for any kind of topic a writer might throw at you.

The Approach
With the 12-page format in mind, I had a basic plan to spend most of my time brushing the dust off of my drawing skills. Since my drawing had been limited to once a week at draw nights, drawing every day would help me get into a groove and sharpen what I could do, and give me confidence to commit something to the page. I also wanted to do 12 pages in 12 days, waiting two weeks before the Con to begin. If someone liked what they saw, I wanted to feel confident promising them similar work in a similar time frame.False advertising is not my bag.

The Doodles
Every doodle page over that two month period follows -- 43 in total (excluding the portfolio) -- never before posted, along with my usual blather.

After arriving in Jersey City, I split my time between doodling and pressing the flesh in video games. Joe was working on cover layouts for an issue of Hero Squared, and I was excited to help. In the upper-left of this drawing is a cover-rough for the armored villain of the series, holding its hand over the crumpled protagonist, who has Kirby-energy coming out of his eyes. It's probably hard decipher but layout doodles are often done just to get an idea across, with explaining to go along with it.

This next page should seem familiar to a regular visitor -- lots of random figures to get in the swing of things. I often complain that my superheroes look very awkward, and until I start envisioning them not as a person wearing a costume but rather a person-costume hybrid that embodies the point of the hero, it look like ass. I knew this was something to work on, so you see a couple efforts to get superheroes on the page here -- Superman, and someone that looks vaguely like my memory of Black Widow.

It crossed my mind to work on an old comic idea set in a future city surrounded by a vast desert filled with nasty robots (called "viruses," constructed by kids for lulz). The twist to the world is that everyone trains towards a particular destiny in their dreams. The protagonist has dreams of being an unmatched swordsman but nothing about it matches his meek personality. The story revolves around how he comes to grips with this incongruity.

I liked the setting because I could keep drawing shirtless dudes with swords -- a common theme in my work prior -- but there was a hitch in my struggle to doodle interesting robots. I explored that inability here. Two ideas that interested me were, (a) using "non-specific bunches of metal" as seen in the upper-right (with the dark robot head) and (b) limbs made of some kind of accordion-ing bands that didn't require me to figure out robot hinges.

The metal bunches and accordion bands were explored further on this page. I tried to expand on the dark head seen in the previous page with a full side-body shot, and even showed what expanding arms might look like in action (upper-right). In the end, it might have simply felt wrong because I kept struggling to solve the joint problem.

The focus on this older story culminated in this drawing, of my hero reacting purely on instinctual training from his dreams to avoid an attack by a "virus." I wanted to capture the fear and incredulity someone might feel using abilities they don't believe in to save their life from an impossible obstacle. The robot I settled on is kind of a tin can -- at this point, I think I decided that avoiding the logic of mechanics might be forgivable if the picture was fun.

After the robot fun I went back to everyday figures. A lot of days were just me getting comfortable by fiddling on the page.

Two things stand out to me on this page: first is the perspective punch in the upper-right because I remember thinking to myself that I need to get some practice at swinging, dynamic figures, and the second is noting another shot at the hero from Hero Squared positioned at mid-left. I see myself trying to get into the "hero-costume" hybrid by drawing a naked guy and adding the barest of lines to suggest a collar poking out. All the fire on the page is a mystery. Maybe Joe made a comment about how I draw fire, and it led to some doodles.

At the top of this page is a loose shot of the desert city in my mind's eye. I thought it would be a stacked ghetto with a perimeter of devices that prevented the viruses from wreaking havoc in the city proper. I'm not sure why everything is surrounded by smoke / sandstorms / fog; either it had some important role in the narrative or I didn't feel like drawing more. The other figures have more visual variety than I usually doodle, so I think I was getting in the mood for comics, which are filled to the brim with freaks.

One of the things I remember wondering about was curvilinear perspective. I don't remember if I knew an approach to drawing it or if I was trying figure it out on the page, but it explains the center-left doodle. The awkward joy of this page was my attempt to draw someone with Down's syndrome sans reference (bottom-right). I remember it took a lot of light sketching and erasing but eventually I was happy with the result. It might not be accurate, but I was fooled. 

This page is more Hero Squared cover roughs. I hope I wasn't pestering Joe with them, but I remember them being fun regardless. I also feel like noting how much I like the top-down view of the character on at center-right. Something about him tickles my fancy.

Though most of my time in Jersey City was spent doodling, an itty-bit of time was spent socializing. I remember one night going into historic downtown for a party and I doodled the scenario from memory as a "pedestrian" exercise. I'm the guy schlepping it up at the table with video game shirt while everyone else parties. What a nerdy Nerdly McNerdlington.

This page is where actual portfolio page roughs appear, about three days before portfolio work actually began. The roughs are for the skinny dip story which -- the last of my three stories. Perhaps it was cheating not doing the roughs on day-and-date of the actual pages! I think they match the final product fairly well, but the look of the girlfriend changed.

This random head doodle was my only output two days before I began my portfolio work.

My first portfolio story was going to be the X-Men so I needed to get familiar with the current team. Joe took us to New York to get some comic reference from the comic shop, and the day before my portfolio work began, I did research and exercises to help me learn how the characters. Characters like Nightcrawler and Marvel Girl were nice and straightforward, but I knew that Juggernaut and the enemy robot (my invention) would be a problem. Why I keep drawing robots when I have difficulty drawing them I'll never know, but I discovered an interesting thing about drawing robots -- that I was much better at it in the beginning of the day than I was the end. Perhaps it had something to do with my patience level and attention to detail in the morning. Regardless, I made a mental note to try to do robots in the morning whenever possible.

X-Men's Beast was the strangest to revisit. I grew up with the blue, furry, and ape-like Beast but in 2004 he was ion-esque. The reference I had did a bad job of capturing this quality, so I wanted to punch it in my version of the character. Even without reference, I found an approach that gave me a consistent look to use in the portfolio X-Men pages. Rough layouts for the X-Men story are also visible on the page.

One of the moments in my X-Men story was of Juggernaut doing the "fastball special" with Wolverine as an unsuspecting participant. Since I was afraid of Juggernaut, I wanted to do some tests to make sure this idea would come across correctly.

Storm and Nightcrawler were came out for fun on this page, along with some explosion tests and Marvel Girl freaking out.

Wolverine was the last cast member to attempt, with more Storm and a lot of random figures.

Robin was also on my mind as my choice for the solo hero story. In 2004, the Robin was a female. It was an enjoyable twist, and I was looking forward to the story I had planned of Robin infiltrating and beating down a bunch of thieves in their den.

The roughs on this page were too crammed for the final portfolio page so I eventually went with a different take. Also on this page is a test for Marvel Girl detecting the robot before he falls into the scene, ready to fight the X-Men.

This was the day I finally went to work on my portfolio pages. Most of it went directly on the page, but there were moments where I drew panels on the side and transferred them to the final page with a light table Joe had handy. (The light table was invaluable!) Also notice the space made for speech bubbles. I knew that newbies sometimes forgot about it, and I wanted to make sure I left room for them.

Eventually I found a backside Beast that tickled my fancy, and I transposed it using the light table to the final portfolio page. I also did tests to see where the "X" on the X-Men costumes would connect on a side view.

The tests on this page were ultimately abandoned.

Still on the first day of portfolio pages, I was worried about my rendition of Juggernaut, and I did some crunching to get his costume to behave a little more logically to my mind.

I needed to break down what Juggernaut looked like beneath the costume before I it started to make sense to me. My eureka moment became the basis for the rest of my drawings of him.

After some final tests, I felt confident in my approach to the Juggernaut.

After finishing the first portfolio page, I did some preparatory doodles for Robin and my final pedestrian story, as well as one more test of the Juggernaut throwing scene. That first page was an enormous amount of work -- the number of hours each page took is jotted down and circled on each page -- but the final product was incredibly gratifying. 

The second X-Men page was where my robot appeared. He blasts Beast and Marvel Girl runs to help, but the robot drops in front of her, rising as Nightcrawler teleports her back into the fold. Too much information! The robot was surprisingly difficult to draw -- it always turned out stiff -- until I tried drawing a human figure in the exact same pose and then doodled the robot over that figure. It was a weird trick but it worked great, and I still use it to this day.

I played around with some few poses to see if any of the angles could be useful, but they were looking pretty awkward.

I needed to loosen up, so I did a page of random doodles to get me in the groove of things. After awhile, I felt like I was reaching my happy place.

To make sure I was feeling things again, I did a few tests with heroes. I've always wondered why creators didn't do more with the fact that Nightcrawler was a master swordsman and he can teleport into other objects, so I decided to explore the possibilities. I was happy that my Juggernaut was still looking okay from the previous day.

Feeling prepared, I started on page two of the X-Men story. I used this page to toy around with roughs for Beast getting zapped and Marvel Girl running to rescue him.

Eventually I settled on a behind-shot of the team looking at Beast getting blasted.

I drew out the details and used the light table to transfer the result to the actual page.

Using the robot-drawn-over-human-pose trick, I used this page for the robot-rising panel. Once it looked right, I transferred the results via the light table.

No doodles exist for the final X-Men page because it went smoothly enough, but I have this page of doodles from that day (probably in the morning to loosen up), featuring some silliness with Wolverine, a ring, and a shitty no-reference car.

Being in a top-floor apartment in Jersey City was fortunate because it gave me a lot of helpful rooftop reference for the Robin pages. I remember eating delivery Pizza with Joe on the roof in the evening studying the details of the nearby roofs. It's staggering how many things you need to know how to draw as a comic artist, and having spent most of my life only doodling figures felt like a weakness. On the first Robin page, I actually avoided doing perspective lines hoping my eyeballs would be good enough, and without a ruler hoping it would make the environment seem less "stiff."

The second Robin page to feature a bunch of enemy clones but when Joe found out, it prompted commentary about how much he disliked generic characters because each is an opportunity to do something more interesting.

As I came up with thug ideas, I was haunted by what Joe said. I was concerned about having to do character design for 5 grunts in addition to the actual choreography of a fight scene and complete the page, but it was sound advice and I went for it.

With no real time for revisions, I settled on final thug designs swiftly. The "lineup" was a fun way of highlighting each character, and it made me more excited for the final product. Psylocke because I felt like it.

The choreography for Robin page two was the next bitch. Self-inflicted, because of my gripe that fighting in comics -- much like fighting in movies -- is too often shorthand that didn't allow the viewer a means to collect details about the choreography taking place. I wanted to show moment-to-moment how Robin might actually dismantle 5 thugs in close combat, but with three pages it had to be quick. With a bit of brainstorming and rough sketches, I thought I had a good approach, and I committed to it.

A couple spots needed help, so I used a blue pencil to basic shapes placed and drew simple lines over to transfer with the light table. This relatively bare approach was a nice way of minimizing the work before the final page, where more detail was applied.

No More Doodles
No more doodle pages were made for the remaining pages. The final Robin page was pretty simple, with very little in the way of background and figures.

The Pedestrian Story
The pedestrian story was a lot of fun, but the first page was brutal. I used reference photos from the block where Joe lived, and did the long street-shot (3rd panel) entirely by eyeball and hand, like the first Robin page. On the second pedestrian page I added an Easter egg -- two of the thugs that I designed for the Robin pages. On the final pedestrian page, the trees and grass ended up stiff, but I enjoyed going cartoony with clothes removal as "the girlfriend" does a cannonball into the water.

The Covers
The three covers leftover went quick, and were finished in a single day.

The End Feeling
The net result was really gratifying, and represented a lot of hard work. To this day, I have a strong emotional memory of how difficult it was, and maintain the deepest respect for anyone that consistently turn out a page a day or more. It's a staggering amount of work juggling story, design, composition, and wildly divergent subjects, often on a single page. When I finished, I was reminded of pro wrestling. Wrestlers get addicted to the pain their bodies are subjected to day after day and even become dangerously depressed when injuries leave them inactive for too long. I felt similarly addicted to the grind of drawing comics, and wanted to start another page the next day. Even though it was hard work, I knew it would feel amazing to have a finished comic page to show for it.

The Personal Review
I was pleased with the work, which I felt improved visibly with each story. My speed was still slower than I wanted, but I expected that would improve as I did more comic work. I was disappointed by the X-Men pages because of the sloppy tech and confusion from trying to cram too much information in each panel, but I still liked some of the action involving the robot. The last page of the Robin also felt sloppy to me but I liked the first and second pages, and loved the thugs and their action sequence. Similarly, the last page of the pedestrian story seemed off, but I was really proud of the rest of it, and it really seemed to flow, perhaps because I was getting used to sequential storytelling, or because it was the least established in the first place.

The Professional Review
I thought the reception to my portfolio was good. It was the first year Marvel and DC had dropboxes -- no meeting with editors -- so I don't know if anyone saw the work or cared, but I got one on one time with editors from Dark Horse and Devil's Due and was given cards and positive remarks to follow up on. One of the Dark Horse guys even asked if I would send pages so that he could ink them. My impression from the Con was that if I stayed on it, after a few years of hard work I could probably make something happen in comics.

The Result
But may never know if my assessment was true. After interviewing with some game companies I eventually had to choose whether to go with comics or games, and I eventually chose to see how far the 10 years already committed to games could take me. I never did send that page off to be inked...


Jacob, aka IAmWickedStupid said...

Epic post, man! Looking at the sketch you did with Wolverine with a giant hand holding him, when I first saw the thumbnail for it, the hand (fingers) made me think of a grenade belt... like grenades hanging from his chest. Which made me start thinking... What would happen if Wolverine was hit by a grenade blast? Would the shrapnel be deflected by his adamantium-reinforced skeleton? He isn't made entirely of adamantium, so there are gaps and the frags would likely rip through him in spots. Granted, he would very likely recover due to his healing fact or, but I thought it was an interesting what-if.

Alan Tew said...

And that's an epic what if! It must have happened in comics somewhere at some point... right?

Jacob, aka IAmWickedStupid said...

I would assume so. It seems like such an obvious threat for Wolverine to face... one of the many things he couldn't really protect himself from would be frags. Especially adimantium fragments...

Jacob, aka IAmWickedStupid said...

Sorry to spam your comments, but I seem to remember a female mutant character (a baddy) who had needles sticking out all over. I may not be remembering correctly... But I think she could shoot those needles into her enemies. She would be something like a living frag grenade.

Xentak said...

Nice work. Been following your web page turned BlogSpot for some time now.

Definitely understand needing the job and going with what was more secure for you. On the other hand, I would have still sent the panels to be inked just to see ... ya know? Beyond that could you have gotten side work on a comic or something? If you'd gotten it going might have given you a doorway to switch.

Or how about starting your own strip for your blog here. A page or a set of panels that you could serialize, or something?

Anyway. Keep it up. Rock on.

-- Jeffrey

Stephen Green said...

Thank you thank you THANK YOU!

Alan Tew said...

@xentak I ponder that decision with some regret. At the time I think it felt like a dick move to keep swirling my big toe in the comics pool when I had resolved not to swim in that pool, but I don't know that that editor wanted anything more than to play around with inks himself.

@stevomatic thanks back. :)

Erik said...

I've also been watching for, like, a decade or something. Your stuff has always been the most inspiring to me. I second the suggestion for a web comic. I imagined something like Cameron Stewart's Sin Titulo ( ), of course your approach would have to be more silly. Maybe about the bean! I loved the epic post too -- it's super inspiring to get glimpses into your creative process. Thank you!

Erik said...

Also, when I first saw your X-Men comic I had no idea that the lion dude was Beast, so it's good to finally have closure!