Monday, October 17, 2011

24-Hour Comic: The End

Follow this link or scroll down to read my comic from this year's 24-Hour Comic Day. Warning: it contains male nudity, graphic violence, and adult themes. I have lots of commentary but read the book first to avoid spoilers.

All done? Let me start by confessing that I cheated. I spent the week leading up to our marathon writing, drawing roughs, and printing them in blue on letter-sized paper to pencil on the big day. I never expected to get more than halfway through but I pulled it off with a bit of rushing and the next day I spent about 8 hours doing minor touch-ups and adding dialogue and sound effects on the computer so I could post the final result here. The blues were left in so you could see them, but if I go through with my urge to color it, I'll post a nicer version later.

Why Cheat?
My previous 24-hour comic was completed under the official rules, which require that you go in empty-handed -- without a story -- and exit with a finished comic. I'm really proud to have accomplished this in the past, but last year I aspired to something more than I could do within the time frame, and hated the taste of failure. Now my attitude towards 24-Hour Comic Day has changed -- because a 24-hour marathon takes so much out of me, I want to stack the deck to make sure it ends with something to be proud of. Since I participate primarily to actually produce a full-blown comic then I have no qualms with cheating if it helps me do so. In this particular case, cheating made me really happy.

The idea used for comic was the same one I failed to execute on at the previous year's 24-Hour Comic Day. It's basically my take on the "reach enlightenment to become the ultimate combatant" from stories like Matrix, Star Wars, and Karate Kid, drawing inspiration from a moment in the Avatar: the Last Airbender cartoon series, where Ang was being trained and was told to abandon his desire for someone he loved to reach the final level of power. This thread was abandoned during the series, but I thought it would be fun to create a hero with the same hindrance, only to have the person he loves overcome his problem for him.

The pit fight seemed like a natural setting for the idea. Roughly, I knew it would be about a pit fighter sentenced to death via combat, and a girlfriend who was in the audience, and who eventually killing herself to help him overcome his desire for her so he could save himself and wipe out everyone responsible. I worried that it would be too hard to sell everyone on the protagonist's rapid ability to fight through his own grief in a matter of panels, but I felt the idea was interesting enough to shoot for it.

Writing (~24 hrs.)
Writing was the time consuming part of the process. I used Excel to map out all of the plot structure beats I wanted to hit, and then paired each one with page descriptions and dialogue that matched, fleshing out the in-betweens as needed. I tried to picture the dialogue and events of each page as best I could, but had sections of broad strokes for things like the Rat Pack fight. If you want me to post the Excel file, lemme know.

In the beginning, I assumed I would have to do flash-backs of the protagonist's love, training moments with the master, as well as some story of what brought them to the arena, but all of this was ditched because it seemed unnecessary to say what needed to be said. Having things as trim as possible was an objective not just for a honed message, but because I wanted plenty of room for combat -- I love when action has lots of panels to breath with little time passage between them, because it seems to flow better, like a movie. I ended up with decent space, though not as much as I wanted. For this same reason, I made a point to run the story past as many people as I could, and listening to their feedback really helped (thanks guys).

Layouts (~20 hrs.)
Layouts took about 16 hours, plus an additional 4 hours or so on 24-Hour Comic Day. Working in Ryan Ottley's office lets me mimic his layout method and use his tools to do it. Each page started as a thumbnail that became the basis for layouts done on the computer using the Cintiq -- basically a sloppy stab at each page. The advantage to this approach is letting you move, zoom, rotate, or paste in reference content until everything feels right without having to erase or make a big mess on a physical page. Then everything is converted to blue and printed. I chose letter-sized paper because that's what I usually draw on. Why mess with a good thing?

Page 01 was going to be a splash of Ben with the camera looking up at the crowds around him, but it didn't offer me the scale I wanted so I was going to go with a straight arena shot (as seen in the right panel). Though an establishing shot seemed fine before zooming in to the protagonist, I like it when heavier movies begin with extreme content so you know what you're getting into, and I wanted to introduce the protagonist, so I decided to put the male nudity and violence front and center, preferably with a top-down shot that suggested someone other than Ben was in control of his fate. The decision to go with a nude protagonist was a simple matter of doodle habits. I first drew Ben nude and kinda liked the idea of using it to enhance his sense of vulnerability, but then worried it would be too much for the reader and gave him some jeans. When I told Ryan about my waffling, he was confused why I wouldn't go with my initial instincts, so I just went for it. I can't say that I feel that strongly either way about the end result, but an angle I hadn't considered was that some readers would find flailing privates distracting enough to actually detract from the story, and that kind of thing can be hard for me to predict.

Page 02 is where I introduce the antagonist and Maria. I never named him because it never seemed important. For his design, I wanted someone visually irritating so even on first viewing you wanted to see something bad befall him. At first I tried making him "fluffy," with garish robes with feathers and other fanciness, but it started to "make a scene," so instead I went to a big hat and elegant curls, and hoped that a juxtaposition of (a) responsibility for horrible events (Maria's tears, the torn bodies, Ben worried about dying and his master dead) with (b) boredom or disinterest in current events would do the trick. He was probably, personally my least favorite design but I didn't see the point in noodling him. At least one friend commented on how they liked him, so that's good.

Page 03 was mostly stat (repeated) panels, so it took more time in post than in penciling. But this page is seemed to be one of the more confusing ones, with people asking whether the corpse was either (a) Ben's master, (b) someone that reminded Ben of his master, (c) someone Ben killed, or (d) Ben's master killed by Ben. I probably could have done a better job to reduce the confusion but it never disrupted the story enough so I let the error sit. It felt kinda like a "B" bug in video game development, where the bug can be nasty but not a show-stopper, and the game has to be shipped, so oh well.

Page 04 sets up Ben's first challenge, and introduces dialogue from the Master to deliver the story premise -- that Ben needs to remove all desire to win. As I mentioned earlier, my original thought was to show training flashbacks with the master to illustrate this concept, but this narration approach let me stay in the present action so I preferred it. The design for the enemies was a riff on the design of the larger, following gladiator, who was nicknamed Shark. An animal theme seemed okay, so I went with a "Rat Pack," probably inspired by a previous draw night where I was toying around with the idea of using mice / rats in the game I'm working on in place of humans.

Page 05 leaps into the action, and though the first panel got quite a few compliments from friends, it's an example of something I dislike in comic action -- unclear motion from one panel to a next. Comics, especially American comics, often feel like martial arts in movies where the director cuts the action too much and hurts the choreography of the fight, but either for time, panel economy or laziness, I ended up jumping from the introduction of the pack to one of them getting knocked out of the scene. The transition from panel one to panel two is closer to my preference, where the action from one to the next is pretty easy to follow. I also enjoy little details, like the middle rat spitting out his toothpick before his attack.

Page 06 initiates the transition from falling to rising action. On paper, my entire story tries to follow a three-act structure in very compressed form. Act I was introducing the main characters and conflict (Ben, antagonist, and Maria; Ben must survive the arena) and Act II would be rising and falling action leading to a big disaster (ups and downs of fighting, with Shark defeating Ben). Everything is compressed out of necessity but I liked starting Act II with falling action (the Pack hurting Ben) because it set up the lethal nature of the fight and let me show Ben tapping into the source of his power ("desire nothing...")  for rising action. I wanted to make sure to have Ben seem a bit super-powered when he taps into this reserve so his final abilities (i.e., running up walls, etc.) didn't appear too much like "mumbo jumbo" (left-field moments that are hard to swallow, like vampires appearing in the middle of your zombie movie). Ideally, everything you want the audience to swallow is front-loaded in Act I as part of the story premise, but his actions are close enough to the beginning that I hoped no one would be bothered by it. This page has another uncomfortable leap in action, from panel 4 to panel 5.

Page 07 has been picking off the second member of the Rat Pack, and I thought the action here was a rushed but easy enough to follow. Originally, I had the "charging rat" reappear on Page 06 to tackle Ben, who then concentrated while avoiding being bitten while pinned. Ben then grabbed the upper and lower jaw of the rat and rips his head in half. You can see this sequence in the thumbnail sketches, but it required too many panels to set up the action in a way that was readable, so I went with a quick-intro-then-easy-kill (x3) approach to conserve panels. The Rat Pack fight was actually the last thing that I did the layouts for because it was the least important part of the story. As long as I had a fight with the narrated words in x pages, I thought things would be okay, so I finished the suicide and intro pages long before getting to the rat fight.

Page 08 offers a brief reprieve before the introduction of Shark. Sound effects are something I don't have enough opportunities to play with, and they were fun to add after the fact (in Painter, bleh). I like having sound on the page, and it's fun to struggle with the exact letters to use. There are a lot of four-letter, "BOOM"-like onomatopoeia's around but my favorite sounds are the three-letter ones because they remind me of Orc Stain, an amazing comic that Ottley introduced me to. I love the way sound effects are handled in that book, and the pages where I keep repeating three-letter sounds are inspired by it.

Page 09 intros Shark, who was the third character I designed (after Ben and Maria). He was a pretty straight-forward brute but I liked how he turned out. All the pink scars on him were there not just to suggest being in tons of battles, but to approximate gills down his neck so it made him just a tad more shark like. In my original design I had him holding a big cement block by a handle but it was awkward to illustrate that idea, so I just gave him a kind of prosthetic arm with a cement block at the end, which seemed to read okay...

Page 10 is the end of Act II, where everything goes wrong for the protagonist. When I showed Ryan the page (prior text), he asked if it would be better to start with Shark's attack before Maria's reaction, but I explained that I wanted it because her face follows the "but there is someone... that I desire..." narration. This was also an example of me trying to limit text as much as possible. The amount of dialogue I used in the end was greatly reduced from the first draft of the story. Though the action here is okay to follow, it feels really compressed, and I wished I had more panel space for the beatdown. In the end, this was all the room I felt like I could (conveniently) afford.

Page 11 was given space to highlight and emphasize Ben's failure. Designing non-fight pages first probably squeezed fight scenes, and it makes me wonder what the book would look like if I had designed them in reverse order. Hopefully it was the right expenditure. Describing this reminds me of a story technique I heard Pixar uses, where they allot 100 popsicles sticks to a story and place them throughout story beats in order of importance, stacking multiple in one scene if it was more important. This way, they have a kind of "story payoff" chart they can use to know whether they are expending too many company resources on a scene that has too little value, or vice versa. Ryan mentioned that he liked some of my economical shortcuts as I did very little with backgrounds. For the most part, I felt like once I had established the arena, very little needed to be drawn since the audience would know where it all takes place, but there were moments I wanted in my head, like the cheering audience. In panel 4, I knew drawing a bunch of detailed little figures would be too time consuming, and I hoped a bunch of head circles and action lines flying into the air would suggest the cheering crowd.

Page 12 has some crowd, though, since it was close enough that only a few simplified, faceless figures could probably get the point across. The gore on Ben is something that seemed fun and appropriate, but it haunted me for continuity because it disappears as Ben becomes more powerful. I was aware of the problem as I was drawing, but I ultimately decided to skip over the problem and hoped no one would really notice or be bothered by it, because I felt leaving it there would detract from him "powered up" moments. I reasoned that blood cleanup happened as Ben spun around rapidly, but "older" blood (e.g., cuts from the Rat Pack) was dried up by then. A cop out, perhaps...

Page 13 features a flower in Ben's hand and believe it or not, I made a point to try to make sure Ben's right hand was clenched into a fist throughout the comic up until that point. I'm not sure how the flower managed to get through the fight so nice-looking. I can't draw guns from my head but did the gun here sans reference because I had done the layouts for page 14 earlier, so it was fresh in my mind. One of the neat things about doing layouts in the computer is that you can scan in items like guns and play with the contrast until it looks a bit like a line drawing, then just print it out to draw on later with your pencils. I love that.

Page 14 was meant to be manipulated a lot in post, on the computer. The starting idea for this page was a splash page of Maria blowing her brains out, with the panels appearing to break apart like glass so it felt like reality itself was shattering for poor Ben at this moment. The lead-in panel was added later when Ottley mentioned that seeing Maria in the page prior with the gun in her mouth would spoil the surprise on page turn (Page 14 was an even page so turning it in a book would leave the surprise). In the end both panels happen on one page, and it worked out just fine. I struggled to get the breaking glass looking okay quickly -- most of my time in post-processing was on this page -- but in the end I was reasonably happy with it.

Page 15 was the the biggest source of worry in the entire book because it was here that I would either keep my audience because they got why Maria killed herself or lose them because they didn't, at which point they are reading just to finish. I wanted the audience to figure things out alongside the protagonist, so I was overly vague in almost every version of the story, but in the end too many were still struggling with the concept, so I chose narration that spells out that Maria was removing his desire by killing herself. Hopefully if the other connection was strong enough -- that "no desire" meant "super-fighting" for Ben -- then the story concept would click. The visual idea may or may not come across correctly, but the gist is that the glass would still be shattered and messy where Ben was panicking, but appear to be mending and turning white where Ben was beginning to understand Maria's gift.

Page 16 is the last turning point in the story. In Act III the protagonist is wanders (defeated and held up by Shark) without a hope before discovering a new path which is pursued rapidly towards a fulcrum of conflict. For better or worse, I skipped the "discover a new path" part and went right to the point of climax, where the antagonist appears to have won and the climax is peppered with some enhancing tricks I learned about from working with story people. Trick One is the protagonist taking a left-field action (think Luke turning off his targeting computer, Neo standing up to Agent Smith or Daniel-San standing in the crane pose). Ben holding up the flower doesn't have the same impact because it has no skepticism-inducing shot of helping him win but it was my best shot on short notice. Trick Two is a secondary character taking a left-field action that enables the protagonist to succeed (think Han Solo appearing to blast Darth off course, Trinity kissing Neo or Mr. Miyagi using healing powers on Daniel's leg). Maria committing suicide does a fine job, I think. After these events (in any order), the defeat of the antagonist is best done in as little time as possible (in my pages it feels drawn out because Ben takes time to kill Shark before defeating the antagonist) but it was fun to attempt hitting all the beats and think about how it could have been stronger, time permitting.

Page 17 was originally drawn with Ben having normal eyes, as do the pages following, but while on the computer, I liked the idea that Ben goes through some physical transformation to reflect his internal growth (think Gandalf the White). If I get to coloring these pages, it would be fun to add a nice eye-glow until Ben kills No Name at the end. As edited, I worried Ben ended up looking somewhat like a zombie. Hopefully no one reads it as Ben returning from the dead to avenge Maria (but I wouldn't fault anyone for thinking so).

Page 18 is where the action gets a bit confusing. I get overly excited with speed and action lines -- anime-influences from childhood. That's not to say that anime or is confusing, just that my art can be confusing when trying to emulate it. I so badly want to see Ben as a blur cutting his enemy in half like a spinning buzzsaw that whether or not it's actually readable falls a bit by the wayside. I know some people had to pause to understand what was happening to Shark but everyone eventually seemed to get it. Even the last panel confused some because the silhouette-shot wasn't all blacked in, but I think if it were all black it wouldn't be hard to figure out.

Page 19 continues the suerhero spree. It's worth noting too that at 19 hours in -- at 5 A.M. or later in the morning -- things can get pretty sloppy. I mentioned earlier that I spent some time doing touch-ups after the fact, but it was more fixing continuity (missing gashes or scars) than it was touching up bad art. Though I did do touch-ups where it was particularly cringe-inducing I tried to keep the spirit of the 24-hour endeavor, despite my cheating ways.

Page 20 is both my favorite page and the most confusing to anyone who read the book. The effect I wanted was Ben pushing all of his super-power-y-ness into the antagonist, causing his flesh to expand and eventually explode like Thunder in Big Trouble In Little China or Tetsuo in Akira. I always wanted to draw it and just went for it without enough explanation. At first I considered adding a halo or fire around Ben that shoots into the antagonist to help make it clearer, but it seemed to complicated to add effectively at 6 A.M. in the morning after a drawing marathon, so I just let it go. If I color things, I might make the glow from Ben's eyes mentioned earlier surround Ben during the swirl and flow down his body in the punch, shooting out of the antagonist's eye sockets and lighting up his interior as he expands.

Page 21 is also confusing, but the sound effects from the previous panel and the big "BOOOOM" here were helpful to friends struggling to understand what was happening. Prior to the sound effects, people struggled to understand what they were looking at after the sound effects, people at least knew there was an explosion even if they didn't understand why. It seemed that the more a friend was exposed to the same crap I was as a kid (i.e., Big Trouble..., Akira), the less confusion the whole expand-explode thing caused. No excuse, but an interesting side not.

Page 22 was tricky. When I first wrote the resolution, Ben was really broken up about the death of Maria and talked about how he would trade everything just to see her smile again. But friends felt robbed, as though Ben had regressed from his "enlightened" state and made Maria's sacrifice feel like a waste. I thought it was a great comment so I removed words and went with a more respectful approach, where Ben acknowledges her sacrifice and puts her to rest without revealing the innermost feelings at that moment. It seemed to do a better job of showing love and acknowledgement of her sacrifice while preventing the perception of a regression.

Page 23 needed touch up more than any other on the day following, and even the touch-up was iffy. Maria's head was really warped at the angle I chose so I spent some time trying to fix it without damaging the feel of things. It still feels screwy but it's better than I left it around 8 or 9 A.M. Maria's right arm was also altered. At first it disappeared under her dress but that made a bad silhouette, so I laid it out instead, just beneath her gun.

Page 24 is the end. The entire experience was really amazing, and Ryan deserves thanks for putting on an awesome event. I was driven and after I finished -- an unexpected result -- I was on a real high that's lasted for awhile now. I even started painting the book and hope the momentum lasts. I don't know what I'll do with all this work but it was a fun ride that I wanted to share with you, and if you've read this far you have my respect and admiration. Seriously -- thanks.


Steven Preston said...

This was pretty awesome. I also loved reading your process on the comic.

Alan Tew said...

Nice! Thanks! And again for leaving a comment.

Billy said...

I love following your sketchbook and reading the insightful commentary but this, this is amazing. Nothing beats page by page and panel by panel breakdowns. I love insight into how individual artists deals with the storytelling process. And Panel 3 on page 18? That dotted line man, soo good.
Again, thanks a lot for sharing this and please do color it.

nullunit said...

I like how objective you try to be regarding your own work. Not sure how I found your blog but I have been super stoked for it ever since because of cool posts like this keep it coming.

Alan Tew said...

@billy thanks so much. I love thinking about and sharing what led to each decision; it's kind of a relief when someone enjoys reading it. And glad you liked the dotted line; those little things are a good time. I've been working on colors now, and I'm 5 pages in... it's slow going (~5 hrs / page), but will hopefully be worth the effort.

@nullunit hi and thanks! There's always room to torment myself over the things I wish I was better at. I hope there are more cool posts like this to share. I guess stay tuned for the color stuff. said...

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