Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Now With 100% Less Whining

Page 4 first-pass color complete. Click to enlarge. More below.

Here's why I love the internet: a month ago, I didn't know the word "flatting." Three weeks ago, I didn't know there were flatting plugins. Two weeks ago, it took me fifteen hours to flat a page using those plugins. This week, it took three hours. All because of comments on this blog. Holy shnikeys.

I ended up trying Eagle's method -- that is, removing extraneous lines from the line art layer before running the plugins. Below are examples of the line art for this page in pre- and post-culled states. Note that in many cases all I had to do was make a "leak" in between two areas so that they filled with the same color.

And here's what the plugins spat out. The second image is cleaner and more tractable. All it needs is a few dinks with the magic wand, and I'm on my way.

By the way, I still used the high-noise version at left to add some nice random variation to large single-color areas. And below is the flatted image before coloring began.

Thanks, Eagle! And thanks to everybody else who tossed out suggestions. You guys are teaching me how to fish!

I have received a few e-mails of commiseration, telling me not to get too depressed about the comic-making process. Perhaps I have wallowed a little too much in the whiny pit. Please let the record show that when I manage to make something work, I experience a boundless euphoria (really). Why, when I finished the first panel yesterday, I was so jazzed that I took Jiyoung out and splurged on fine Kentuckian cuisine. Poultry prepared using traditional old-world crispiness techniques.

Also, thank you to everyone who has joined the mailing list over the last few days. It's very heartening to see that there are interested people out there!

On that note, I've begun to think about marketing. The meager research I've done has only highlighted how little I know about, well, everything. I assume the market for this sort of work is relatively small, so I need to gain as much exposure as possible within that narrow demographic. The internet is clearly my friend. Outside of Google ads, does anybody have any idea how to get the word out?

There's also a wild-card issue: I wonder how many people who are currently interested will be put out by the unusual turn the story's about to take. Anyone who was on board for straight-ahead sword and sorcery is about to get a nosebleed.

Oh! And has anybody used Comixpress? I'm intrigued by their online store. No piles of inventory = major selling point.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Problem Solving

Page 7 line art done. Click to enlarge. More chit-chat below the image.

Aintitcool recently posted a great conversation with Steve Lieber, the artist who drew "Whiteout." He shared a heap of good information about craft and process, but I was especially interested in the description of his emotional travails:

"I was ... less-than-pleasant to my wife at times, because I was just inside the pages and couldn't see past the battle I was fighting with each one. I think I let being concerned about how the book was going to turn out turn me into someone who was less concerned about how everything else in my life was going to turn out ... I was a damned troll under a bridge. [laughs] I was just really unpleasant. I was solving new problems, and rather than feeling satisfied that I was solving new problems, I was getting angry because everything wasn't coming out perfect the first time I put a line down."
I haven't quite gone to Troll Town, but I do see something similar going on with Project Waldo. Too often, my wife will sit through a silent dinner with me, only to discover that my muteness has been attributable to an all-consuming internal struggle over the correct placement of a left arm. When I start working on a page, my tension level gets cranked up to eleven and stays there until the last line is drawn. Partly, this reflects the initial ugliness of the page. I imagine getting hit by a bus while I'm half-way through and everybody at the funeral looking at that last unfinished drawing and shaking their heads, taking back all the nice things they'd said about me. "How could the guy have been any good if he drew the human figure that horribly?" Every page is a huge embarrassment right up to the last moment. That's how I know when I've finished -- I stop being embarrassed.

Of course that's not the only force driving the process. There's also the sense of having left a problem unsolved. The late, great Seth Fisher (a math major) described creation this way:

“Art is really just problem solving in action. You start with a few lines, then you try to balance those lines with other lines compositionally, then you balance that with trying to explain a certain space or emotion... Perspective, composition, timing, and color theory are technical skills. You have a problem, and you have this toolbox full of techniques that you use to paint a totally unique bridge from an assumption to its implications.”
That sounds very familiar. The initial rough sketch frames a challenge -- it says "okay, you've gotta have these masses, in this order, with this sort of movement -- now let's see if you can make recognizable real-world objects conform to this pattern in a natural, free-flowing way." Although I sort of pooh-poohed abstract art in school, I'm starting to get that it's the only kind of art. The only difference here is that I've got to make abstract art out of people and bushes and big lizard creatures.

ANYWAY. I stuck a new little button at left that lets you add your email address to the Project Waldo mailing list (actually, it's a Google Group -- the easiest and cheapest way I could find to compile a mailing list). Please don't be shy -- I'll only use this list to notify you when the first issue is out and where it can be found/ordered. I'm trying to get a sense of how many people might actually buy the comic, and this number will determine how I end up printing and distributing the book.

Based on the current list membership, exactly three people will be buying the first issue, and one of them is me. So please join up. I swear I won't spam you with ads for penis enlargement pills. Unless a male enhancement company would like to sponsor Project Waldo. Wait, what would that say about me? This is a bad idea. But yeah. Call me. Maybe we can work out some sort of trade.

And speaking of printing, does anybody have any thoughts or anecdotes about working with Ka-Blam? A few people have recommended their on-demand printing service, but I'm still open to alternatives. Moritat tells me I'll need a garage with very high rafters to store all that inventory -- a mental image that is both vivid and daunting. I'm still looking forward to the invention of a large-format, full-color, 300 dpi Kindle-type device.

On that day it'll be good-bye print, hello iTunes!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Flattened Earth Society

First pass on page 3 color. Click to enlarge. Below, I will try to keep things brief and I will fail.

I finally downloaded the Flatten and Multifill Photoshop plugins. Survey says... not a magic bullet, but they probably sped things up a little bit and definitely produced cleaner, more line-conformant results. In case you're curious, here's how they work:

The plugins are easy to install -- just drag the files into Photoshop's plugins directory and they'll show up under "Filters." There's only one tricky step - the black and white line art (not black on transparent, mind you) must be completely de-anti-aliased (re-aliased?) before the plugin will work. It turns out that this is done by selecting Image->Adjustments->Threshold. Bump the slider a bit to the right until all your lines connect, and then run Multifill. Multifill automatically fills every closed area in the drawing with a unique color.

Next comes Flatten, which removes all the black lines from the drawing and smooshes all your color patches against one another so their jaggy borders meet up underneath your lines. You end up with this:

I stared at this way too long when it was first generated. It's like Mister Toad's Wild Ride for your eyeballs. I soon discovered that there were some areas where color had leaked (see the bottom-middle panel), so I had to go back a couple of times to tighten up the drawing (in the future, I will be much more conscientious about closing my outlines). Then began the arduous process of "flatting" -- that is, turning this patchwork of gobbledygook into areas of like color. After fifteen hours of hunting down leaf edges and little dangly bits, I ended up with this:

I didn't think too hard about my color choices at this early stage -- the idea is to set things up so that you can easily select objects in the scene and adjust their color later. To start, I just went with green for trees, blue for skies, and purple for people (of course). But back to that fifteen hours: does anybody know if there's a way to click-and-drag with the magic wand? If there is, I couldn't find it. The closest I could find was the Quick Selection Tool, which creates anti-aliased edges (very bad). Man, if I could have clicked-and-dragged those leaves, this would have taken two hours instead of fifteen. This whole process definitely convinced me of the need to outsource my flatting.

The flatting plugins produce one unexpected bonus: if you paste the multifill patchwork into your top layer, knock down the opacity to 9 percent, and set the blend mode to Soft Light, you get automatic variation in areas of repeated detail. I may someday look back on this trick with disdain (can you say "lens flare?"), but for now it seems like a really nice way to get big masses of leaves, rocks, or planks to look variegated. Not too shabby!

A couple of people have asked me what kinds of brushes I use in Photoshop. I use the default Brush Tool settings: normal mode, 100% opacity, 100% flow, 100% hardness. At my current image size, the 4-pixel width works best for intricate linework, while thick outlines get the 7-pixel treatment. Should I be using something more high-falutin'?

In other news, Brandon Graham has a new King City book on the stands. It's great.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Page six. Click to enlarge. More rambling below the image.

As you're drawing the eight thousandth leaf in a drawing like this, you start to ask yourself what exactly it is that all this detail really gets you. The costs are obvious - the drawing goes more slowly, your wrist hurts, the legibility of the image can even suffer. So why do it?

For one, meaningful detail helps to model form. If you've decided on a "clean" look (and I'm not sure why I decided that, but whatever), you can't fall back on crosshatching or shading to indicate surface contours. Adding detail is a way of showing the lie of a surface. For example, I drew all the seams on the girl's costume. It's not because I have a fondness for seams. It's that, drawn correctly, the seams turn your figure into a wire frame model. The same goes for belts, straps, buckles, shoelaces, and buttons. There are pitfalls -- if you go too dense, you can lose the silhouette. If you draw even the tiniest button at the wrong angle, it will blow everything and make your image look flatter.

It doesn't just work for figures. Panel lines, rivets, and insignia perform the same function on a drawing of a spaceship. All those rocks in the background help to indicate the shape and orientation of the hillside. The place where I suck the most is in the trees. It is very easy to go into automatic mode when you're drawing a giant mass of leaves, and that can lead to disaster -- the orientation of every leaf is important. My plants always go flat. I suspect the solution is to find a shorthand that doesn't require me to draw every leaf. When I finally learn this shorthand, I will punch my past self in the nutsack.

Digital tools can also lure you into absurd situations. Until about twenty years ago, the only way an artist could increase the density of detail was to work larger. Of course, even if you're drawing on a sheet the size of a tablecloth, you always have an intuitive sense of the relationship between the panel and the whole. Not so with zooming. In the bottom-left panel of the page above, I forgot how zoomed-in I was. I actually sweated the orientations of the arrows in the quivers of the army men (those are the little specks marching behind the big hairy speck with a house on its back). When I finally zoomed back out, the panel was just a grey mass, completely unreadable. I had to erase two hours' worth of leaves and redraw them at a larger size. It was heartbreaking. The zoom tool now allows you to draw more detail than is perceptible by anyone who isn't a raptorial bird. This is silliness, and I will try not to make that painful mistake again.

It's not all bad, though. Detail can also have a legitimizing effect on things. You're kind of dressing your drawing up in a tuxedo. Weirdly, I've noticed that as I add detail, the dialogue tends to change. I'm forcing myself to look at the scene as a real place, with real people in it. I gradually fool myself into taking the scene seriously, and hopefully it has the same effect on the reader. Detailing also makes you spend more time with the drawing, which gives you more opportunities to discover and correct flaws.

Geof Darrow once said something about detail being a crutch -- that he used it to mask weaknesses in his drawing. This is typical self-effacing Darrow, and it's not true. That man draws really, really well. But I feel his point. Adding stupid-dense detail might be the easiest way to get applause. People like to see an obvious accumulation of man-hours. This arrangement sometimes makes me feel like some kind of con-man. All I can say is that the drawing doesn't tell me it's done until I've drawn what I've drawn. Maybe I have a bad case of horror vacui.

That said, after spending more than a week on a page, nothing feels nicer than sitting down with a John Porcellino book and taking some deep breaths. A nice, open, white space can be the best thing ever. As I gain confidence, I hope to learn how to do this, as well.

Changing topics. I'm starting to think about how to get this printed. I've talked to a couple of publishers, and they poop their pants (you can hear a little "blert" noise over the phone) when I tell them how slow I'm going. So I guess I have two questions: First, is it at all conceivable that a publisher could be okay with a three- or four-month turnaround between issues? Would readers even wait that long? Second, does anybody have experience with self-publishing? Can I expect a decent level of quality? Is it insane to try to market your own work? Would I spend all my time addressing envelopes? And how much do you think someone might pay for a full-color, 24-page issue?

To sum up, is there some business model that turns all this labor into food on my table?

And please don't say "go faster." That's my wife's job.