Monday, September 26, 2011

Oops

On the morning of Wednesday, September 14th, I crashed my bicycle. I was standing on the pedals, accelerating downhill from the intersection of Pine and Boren, when the chain popped free of the chain ring and the pedal jerked itself free from my cleat. I don't remember the crash. There was a "ping" as the chain came free, and then I was on my back, trying very hard to breathe. Some other bike commuters dragged me out of traffic and stayed with me until paramedics arrived, at which point my shirt was cut from my body and I was loaded into an ambulance. My shoulder hurt something fierce, and I had some pretty nasty road rash.

So what did I break? Well, I'll start with what I didn't break, which was my head. My helmet was completely cracked open above my right temple, so if I hadn't been wearing a lid, I would now be either dead or waiting in line at the brain store, receipt in hand. Let this be a lesson to you fellow velocipede cartoonists: the quality of your comics is likely to suffer if you damage your noggin. Please wear a helmet.

As to the final toll: I'll let this x-ray do the talking.


That thing that's in three pieces -- that used to be a collarbone. One surgery later, it looks like this:


I also broke my scapula, which means that when I went over the handlebars, my right shoulder took a very hard hit. Every bone connecting my right arm to my torso was broken.

In accordance with Murphy's Law, I'm right-handed. So Nonplayer #2 will be on hold until my arm comes out of the sling. I've heard a few theories about how long it'll be before I can hold a stylus again, ranging from one to three weeks. I've tried to write my name with my arm in the sling, and I can say pretty confidently that I'm not ready yet. Because ouch.

So what to do in the meantime? Besides watching MST3K reruns, of course.

I'm trying to use this time to review how things were going with the book before the crash, so that when I jump back into the work I can apply all that stored hiatus energy in a useful way.

If I'm grading the last six months of work honestly, I think I've earned a solid D+. I've done a few things right, and a bunch of things wrong.

Here's what I did right: I put in the hours. Though some have assumed that I've been goofing off for the last several months, I have never stopped working on the book. In fact, I probably put more hours per day into the second issue than I did into the first one, at least partly because of the increased pressure associated with having a first issue out in the wild. In fact, go ahead and replace that word "pressure" with "abject terror," because as soon as retailers started telling me I'd committed career suicide by not releasing an issue a month, I went into full-on panic mode.

And that panic was the source of almost every mistake I made. I've written here in the past about going slow to go fast, and while I believe strongly in the theory, it takes real guts to put it into practice. From the day issue 1 hit the stands, I've been hearing the rumble of that big boulder of failure coming down the tunnel after me, and I hit the ground running as fast as I could with issue 2. I roughed 25 pages in a couple of days, and then jumped right into final linework.

After six pages were complete, it dawned on me that they were boring. I'd begun the story with several pages of exposition-heavy dialogue between two people sitting in chairs. As with many prior impasses, this problem was resolved by talking the scene over with my wife. The solution turned out to be a fairly neat application of the adage "show, don't tell." But the prospect of implementing the fix forced a showdown between two equally horrified parts of my brain: one side was scared to release the book late, but an equally-frightened mental faction was mortified by the prospect of releasing a bad comic book. In the end, quality won out. The first six pages were re-drawn from scratch.

That's several weeks of work lost, but the drama doesn't end there. Soon after I fixed the intro, I began to sense that the book's pacing was wrong. There were several pages in the 12-panel range (which is high), and there wasn't a single one-panel page. Too much story was getting shoved into too few pages. Again, in my hurry to get the job done quickly, I'd made some questionable editorial decisions in the early going. My initial mantra had been "25 pages, no matter what." But after living for several months with a clunkily-told story, I began to despair.

Once again, after talking it over with my wife, I decided to make some changes. In this case, it was determined that since I technically had 30 pages to play with (a standard comic book is 32 pages, including the front and back covers), that I might as well use all of them. The idea of pin-ups was shelved, and the story was allowed to expand to fill the available volume. Suddenly, everything felt right. But there was some bad news. Yes, some radical surgery had to be performed yet again on the first six pages.

By now you're probably thinking that I'm an idiot. I won't argue with you. At the very least, this last half-year has been an expensive lesson in panic-mitigation. None of these problems would have occurred had I spent a couple of calm weeks roughing out the entire issue without letting circumstances frighten me into jumping the gun.

For issue 3, I think I may end up setting aside some large chunk of time (say, two or three weeks), and not letting myself do anything but thumbnails for the duration. If I finish them in three days, that'll leave two and a half weeks for revisions. And I'll be subjecting the results of this planning process to multiple third-party reviews. Lesson learned.

My trepidation contributed to one other unforced error. In my eagerness to finish the comic as quickly as possible, I decided that I'd need to work day and night. While I'd happily worked in a shared studio space for the last year, I didn't want to spend every waking hour away from home. So I packed up my Cintiq and moved my operation back home so that at least my nighttime work hours would take place in the general vicinity of my wife.

Now that I've worked at home, then at a studio, and then at home again, I can say one thing with certainty: working at home is a bad idea. There needs to be a clear distinction between the place where you work and the place where you relax. What gains I may have made by working at night were more than offset by all the extra recess minutes I snuck by sleeping in and taking long lunches. When my arm works again, I'll be giving some serious thought to moving back into a studio. If homework is still something I need to do, I'll go ahead and buy a second Cintiq (who needs to buy food anyway, right?) and set it up at home.

So where do things stand now?

Band-Aid removal in three, two, one: I was working on page 13 when I took my spill.

As bad as that sounds, I'm very happy with where things stand. Some really cool stuff happens in the second issue, and what's been drawn so far looks pretty good. In addition, the rest of the issue has been roughed out to the point where everything works well. The trick from here on out is to work quickly and efficiently without letting panic set in again.

What does that mean in terms of a delivery date? In the afterword to issue 1, I said it would likely take less than a year. In an effort to satisfy the letter, if not the spirit, of that promise, I think I'm going to shoot for March. This decision's a bit of a nail-biter, because I'll need to commit to that date before completing the comic. Which means that if page 29 suddenly turns out to be a trench-warfare drawing, things could get pretty ugly. But again, if I'm making sober decisions, uninfluenced by fear, everything should be fine.

So that's what I've been doing. How about you?